Right-Sizing In the Real World

With only a one-page letter, a budget, and a project outline, nonprofits in Rhode Island can apply to the Champlin Foundation for funding on new capital projects. “We want nonprofits who apply to us to concentrate their energies on what they do best and not spend undue time and resources on bureaucratic matters that distract them from their mission,” says Keith Lang, Champlin’s executive director.

One of Project Streamline’s four recommended principles, highlighted in its Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose report, is right-sizing application and reporting requirements to be proportional to the grant amount. But what does right-sizing look like in practice?

About ten years ago, Sue Brown started the small grants program at Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation(SFACF) in order to grow the foundation’s outreach. “As a community foundation, and a fairly new one at the time, we didn’t have enormous amounts of money to give away, so we tried to have real impact with a small amount of money,” she says.

The SFACF designed their applications for grants under $1,000 to address pressing needs whose timing could not fit the typical grant cycle. Instead of their standard five-section grant application, these small grants require a two-page summary of the project, a budget, a roster of the board of the directors, an IRS tax determination letter, and the signatures of the organization’s executive director and board chair. Applications are accepted anytime, and receive an answer within two-weeks. The quick turn around helps SFACF deal with urgent concerns and, in some cases, respond immediately. “A refrigerator might stop working at a food pantry and we can step in at an hour’s notice,” Brown said, noting that an in-depth knowledge of the community they serve helps lessen due-diligence concerns from their board. In fact, the board reviews the grants on a monthly basis, often after they are awarded.

Many foundations that have instituted right-sizing have found that grantees use small grants as seed funding and apply for larger grants later. “It gets ideas off the ground,” says SueEllen Kroll of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. “It takes it from ‘Wouldn’t it be great’ to ‘Let’s work together and get this done.’” According to Kroll, the Council would be less likely to fund these smaller programs through its regular grantmaking since it works on a yearly-cycle. Mini-grants, on the other hand, are due on the first of each month and applicants have an answer by the end. The mini-grants are all $2,000 or less and are either awarded to nonprofits or individual researchers who work in the humanities. “It’s great when social services programs apply for a humanities grant,” says Kroll. “We can fund a public forum for a food bank or support a social justice organization to start a talk with housing scholars.”

Foundations also find it helpful to specify the types of small grants for which it will consider shorter applications. At the Rhode Island Foundation, small grant applications ($1,500 to $7,500) must fall into one of three grant areas:basic human needsorganizational development, or professional development. Their larger strategy grants, however, do not have to fall into these specific areas.

Right-sizing can be applied not only to application requirements, but also to ease the burden of reporting requirements. The Blowitz-Ridgeway Foundation changed its reporting requirements based on grant size: one two-page report for any grant $6,000 or less, two reports for amounts between $6,001 and $14,999, and three reports for $15,000 or over. Their applications are also split into two levels: a simpler one for requests under $15,000 and a more comprehensive one for larger requests.

Several of these right-sizing foundations operate in Rhode Island where many see the small size of the state’s nonprofit community as a benefit to application streamlining. For the Champlin Foundation, a specific mission and limited grant area enables staff to be highly aware of applicant needs. “There’s every good chance that we know about it already and, what we don’t, we can find out without a great deal of difficulty,” says Keith Lang. After they receive the grantseeker’s one page letter, Champlin’s staff will do one of three things: ask for clarification about specific information; schedule a site visit; or refer the proposal to a distribution committee for consideration. At the Rhode Island Council of Humanities, SueEllen Kroll has also found that making staff available to organizations for proposal consultations improves the quality of applications and increases word-of-mouth about the program.

When a foundation makes small grants, it often opens the floodgates to applicants who otherwise do not have capacity to implement larger grants. This past October, Kroll read and reviewed more grant applications than expected. The Council has also launched an online application that has increased the number of requests for all grant programs. “Juggling a new technology with an increased demand was a bit of a bumpy ride,” says Kroll.

That might also describe the experience at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation when it started the Maryland Small Grants Program in December of 2007. Whereas the foundation’s regular grantmaking process requires multiple steps, the Small Grants Program gives up to $50,000 from a five-page application, and applicants have their answer within 50 days. In the first ten months of the program, Weinberg received more than 400 applications. “I don’t think anyone expected that,” says Small Grants director Phyllis Bloom. “The response has been almost indescribable. There’s been tremendous gratitude even from those who have been declined.”

Right-sizing can look a little different for each foundation, but the main impulse behind it is often the same. “If you are really trying to support people in doing good work,” says the Champlin Foundation’s Keith Lang, “it’s in everybody’s best interest to make it as easy as possible.”

Project Streamline