Online Systems – the Promise and the Peril

Guide to Streamlining Series Refresher Part 3

The time has come to talk about online systems.

The year is 2013.  We are well past the sci-fi fantasies of 1984, 2001, and even 2010.  We all have our private HALs, which we carry back and forth in our workbags and check obsessively.

And yes, the magic of computers has made its way (finally) into the grantmaking process as well, for better and for worse.  In Practices That Matter, Project Streamline’s most recent research, we report that more than 90% of the grantmakers who responded have shifted to using an online system or accepting applications and/or reports by email.  Grantseekers confirmed that their funders had moved to online systems (although about half  said that they still regularly encounter funders who require paper copies).

But a funder’s decision to put application and reporting online does not mean that the process is  streamlined.  While grantmakers should inhabit the 21st century, badly designed and implemented online systems make things even harder for grantseekers. Here’s my dirty dozen of glitches, design flaws, and just plain thoughtlessness.  Do you recognize any from your own online system or experiences with online systems?

  1. Magical Mystery Tour:  keeps you guessing about what’s next, by not allowing you review the full set of questions in advance.
  2. Only You: doesn’t allow multiple users or the ability to revisit responses.
  3. Ice Queen:  suddenly freezes and must be rebooted, without saving your work.
  4. Character Assassin:  has stringent, but secret, character limits.
  5. Lost Days:  requires you to input every detail about your board members into separate boxes, so that nothing… nothing… can be cut and pasted.
  6. The Ugly:  allows no formatting whatsoever.
  7. The Amnesiac:  doesn’t save your work year to year… or between application and reporting.
  8. Both And:  requires you to complete an online application… and print and deliver it too.
  9. Lipstick on a Pig: a perfectly functional online system with a poorly conceived and redundant set of questions.
  10. Wha?:  tells you to do something, but then doesn’t allow you to do it (such as requiring a value to be entered into a field, but then not accepting that value.
  11. Rocket Science:  requires you to watch a tutorial video before they are qualified to use it.
  12. Talk to the Screen:  serves as a gatekeeper and keeps you from reaching a real person.

 “A national organization had an online application for small grants (I believe $1,000 or less) for children’s gardening activities.  They wanted a separate application for each individual school or site, even if you had several in your organization.  To submit an application, I had to create new logins and passwords for each of our sites, and had to use a different email address for each one.  Then when I finally got to the application form itself, it was apparent that it was impossible to attach and save the required documentation…” — Grantseeker

These woes were prevalent when “Drowning in Paperwork” was published and they are still with us.  As a result, the guidelines in the Online Applications and Reporting Streamlining Guide are as relevant as ever.  So, with no further ranting, here’s a review of this resource:

The Guide asserts that online systems should be:

  • Usable:  simple and intuitive for the end-user and your staff.
  • Clear:  define and communicate expectations to grantseekers
  • Comprehensive: allow online submission for each stage, from LOI to final report.

The Guide lays out Essential Features and The Gold Standard.  Essential Features are the minimum level of functionality that all online systems should provide.  There are many, but they include things like storage and retrieval of past data, ability to save work and return to it, ability to cut and paste text from word documents, and easy ability to upload attachments.  Among the Gold Standard features are things like the ability for an applicant to see where their proposal is in the review process.

The Guide also makes it clear that the system’s functionality is only part of the issue (see #9 above).  Grantmakers can do much to make things easier, before and after launching an online system – everything from taking a fresh look at information needs, to including FAQs, to demanding better systems from vendors.  And, most important of all, funders must user-test their systems with actual nonprofit grantseekers before launching them and continue to seek feedback on their functionality.

Our hope is that funders considering an online application and reporting system will use this guide as a checklist for internal conversations and discussions with vendors.  A companion piece: A Review of Vendors , was developed by Idealware in 2010 to map offerings against the Guide’s features.   A report comparing Grants Management Systems was developed in 2011 and has been updated in 2013.

Grantseekers – almost all of them at this point – appreciate being able to submit applications and reports online.  We’re all happy that the days of printing and delivering hard copies of materials are (nearly) behind us.  But online does not equal streamlined unless your system works, and works well, for the grantseeker.

Jessica Bearman

Jessica Bearman works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, and R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. She is also known as Dr. Streamline. Follow her on Twitter @jbearwoman.

  • Thanks, Jessica! You made a rather prosaic (albeit, important) topic a lot of fun. So glad this came to our attention as we develop a new online application process for our fiscal sponsorship program. Definitely don’t want to subject anyone to ‘character assasination’ or the all-too-common “the ugly.”