What’s First?  Five Practices That Matter

Champions Toolkit HeaderAlthough streamlining can take many shapes and forms, Project Streamline’s Practices Matter research helped to clarify the things that matter most to nonprofit grantseekers.   If you’re wondering where to focus first, start here! These recommendations can help you narrow the possibilities.

Download the Practices That Matter one-pager.

1.Online application and reporting systems that work well, gather the right information, and store information from application to reporting, and from year-to-year. 

While grantees are generally pleased that funders have gone online, there are still kinks in many systems that waste applicants’ time and money.

Grantseekers reported that the overwhelming prevalence of online systems can, at times, prevent them from reaching a real person for a real conversation, a consequence that may be unintended.  A few also suggested that some funders have taken brevity too far:

 “…online systems are configured in such a way as to SIGNIFICANTLY limit the amount of information we can provide, almost to the extreme.  We then find that it’s difficult to provide or report meaningful information to the grantmaker.” 

But mainly, grantseekers complain that online systems are badly designed and don’t work well for the user.

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2.Budget and financial reporting requirements that allow grantseekers to maintain their own financial categories.

In 2008, Drowning in Paperwork reported that ‘slicing and dicing’ budget and financial reporting information for grantmakers’ unique templates was a significant cost in time and effort for nonprofit organizations and a source of both frustration and error.

Why do grantmakers insist on budget templates?  Some find it hard to read nonprofit budgets and see a template as a way to render all financial information into an easy-to-use format.  Others are attempting to compare “apples to apples” across multiple grantee budgets.  And finally, grantmakers mentioned that they use templates as a way to help low-capacity grantseekers who may not have strong financial skills.  But templates have significant drawbacks for nonprofits, like the one quoted below:

“Any funder that requires the use of a proscribed template for reporting operating expense and revenue numbers tends to make our Finance people nervous.  They spend so much time re-arranging numbers that they have to keep an extra excel spreadsheet as a guide to how they split up our audited financial data in order to fit the proscribed template.”

Unfortunately, templates tend to promote error, mask important capacity issues, and ignore the fact that budgets’ main purpose is a management tool for the nonprofit itself.

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3.Clear and regular communications, including responsiveness to phone and email inquiries.

Clear communications covers a multitude of sins.  Grantseekers commented that they particularly value clear, specific, and revealing guidelines that help them determine whether it is or is not worth their time to apply for a grant.  Other comments focused on their appreciation of (or desire for) up-to-date websites, clear application processes, real guidance about funding priorities, and examples to clear up potentially confusing requirements (such as objectives).

When describing grantmakers whose practices they appreciated, grantseekers nearly always commented on being able to communicate via phone or email with a real person who was willing to discuss a proposal before it was submitted or offer honest feedback.  And many just want tounderstand the rationale behind requirements.

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4. Staged processes with techniques like a brief and simple letter of inquiry (or online inquiry form) prior to inviting a full proposal from groups most likely to receive funding.

Streamlined grantmakers minimize the number of organizations that do a lot of work when they have a small chance of success. They are aware of the proportion of proposals they are declining and work to keep it low.  They 1) use clear funding guidelines and eligibility screens that reduce the number of unfitting requests submitted, 2) talk with applicants prior to submission, and 3) filter with a letter of inquiry that is truly shorter and requires less work than a full proposal.

The letter of inquiry is a terrific streamlining tool, said grantseekers, if it is really brief and allows the grantmaker to filter applicants early in the process.  In contrast, letters of inquiry that are nearly as demanding as the ultimate proposal can be quite burdensome.

5. Simplified application for repeat or renewal grants

A simplified application for repeat or renewal grants – like other types of right sizing – adjusts requirements for the actual information needed, rather than defaulting to a one-size-fits-all strategy. It is a boon for grantseekers, who can continue devoting energy to their work, rather than to pro-forma application requirements.  Multi-year grants are best for this, of course, but funders who might otherwise offer multi-year grants are continuing to hold back until assets rebound.  The simplified application can keep the re-application or renewal process from taking undue time from nonprofit activities.  It also saves time for grantmakers who are familiar with their grantees or can easily review a previous, lengthier application.

For more on this topic, see: