Project Streamline—an initiative of Grants Managers Network—announces the release of Practices That Matter: Taking Stock of Streamlining. Five years after our exploration of the burdens of application and reporting, our new report looks at where the field is with streamlining and where it should go next. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports on the findings of the new research, highlighting the fact that while 77 percent of donors have taken steps to simplify things, fundraisers say they don’t feel much of a change.
According to grantseekers, here’s what matters most:
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.
Going online with application and reporting is both inevitable and positive, but systems have to work! Unfortunately, many still do unforgivable things… including timing out without saving, imposing mysterious character limits, and requiring information to be entered field by field, rather than cut and pasted.
2. Budget and financial reporting requirements that allow grantseekers to maintain their own financial categories.
Grantseekers responding in this round reported that many of their funders still required templates and specific formats for financials. 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. Here’s how one grantseeker described the issue:
“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.”
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. Not surprisingly, applicants also wanted 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.
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 use clear funding guidelines and eligibility screens that reduce the number of unfitting requests. They talk with applicants prior to submission. And they filter with a letter of inquiry that is truly shorter and requires less work than a full proposal.
5. Simplified application for repeat or renewal grants
Our first report talked about the importance of “right sizing” or making sure that the requirements were appropriate to the size and type of grant and the prior relationship with the grantseekers. In this round, grantseekers especially noted the importance of a simplified application for repeat or renewal grants, which allow them to focus more energy on their work, rather than to pro-forma application requirements.
The point of streamlining has never been give out funds without careful stewardship and discerning decision-making. But Project Streamline continues to believe that it’s essential to understand the burdens of grantmaking and that it’s possible to gather information from grantseekers in ways that support, rather than detract from, their success.