Streamlining for Effectiveness, not just Efficiency

by Hal Williams, Senior Fellow of The Rensselaerville Institute.

“Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose” is indeed a huge problem for foundations and non-profits alike. But the solution may not be as obvious as the issue. Is it enough to just reduce the length of the grant application? That question misses the point that the best way to reduce the length may be to sharpen the point.

What’s the point of an application? The general answer is to use it to decide on grants. Program officers carefully read the narratives submitted, sometimes going back and forth with applicants to perfect the document and a summary for board submission. The grant application comes to have a surprisingly independent life of its own.

We suggest beginning with a more bedrock question: should the foundation receive and grade proposals of any length? Our view is that the great proposal is not a good predictor of the great project. It is far more often correlated with a highly capable grants writer than a necessarily high result project.

Further, most improvements to the proposal have surprisingly little to do with improvements in project design, and the people improving this document have little if anything to do with running projects. They are off writing the next proposal.

A fresh way to look at this is to think of the core questions a foundation focused more on results than on distributing money wants to ask. We like these three:

1. What are we buying? What are the results that will be achieved that we will define as return on investment?

2. What are the chances those results will be achieved?

3. Given the other opportunities before us, is this the best use of our money?

Foundations as investors want answers to these questions and construct their applications to obtain that data. Little room is needed for strong responses to targeted questions. Hunting for the right answers among lines and lines of text, that can as readily obfuscate key points as highlight them, is no longer a problem.

This approach continues with reports, where the most critical question is about the extent to which the results stated were actually achieved. This is far more important to the investor seeking a return than the knowledge whether activities or services were performed, problems were encountered, or the money was spent tidily in the categories projected. The best reports get to the information the foundation needs to both determine return and future investment.

If it is your pension or K-1 which is at stake, are you more interested in whether reports were submitted on time and all activities dutifully undertaken or whether your investment gained or lost value? Is not the human gain from your grants of equal importance?

The second part of results is learning. A project with shortfalls on outcomes for participants but very clear learning is often stronger than one with reasonable achievement without learning. To make this work, the definition of learning for a report shifts from information or insight retained to actual changes in behavior that improve programs. Learning is a verb.

Some foundations as funders are actually more likely to give a non-profit a bad mark for not getting in their report on time than for having low results to report. How sad!

In sum, let’s use the drowning image not just to stay afloat but to swim to a destination. The first resting place is smart investing. The second is a high return in improving human lives and conditions. Let the project shine through the paper, and let the primary representations come from the persons who will run the project, not those who write the document to get the money to fund it.

In future newsletters, Hal Williams will offer divergent thoughts on the virtues of shifting from an evaluation to an outcome framework, uses of data systems to track results, and fresh and more senior roles for fund-raising staff in non-profits as stewards of results. Hal welcomes your thoughts at

Project Streamline