Dear Dr. Streamline,
My organization has had the same old grantmaking process for many years with a hard-copy application and quarterly reports. Our board has just authorized us to begin a process to streamline our grantmaking and we have all sorts of ideas – going online, putting in place a letter of inquiry, rethinking our application questions, reducing our reporting frequency, getting rid of our budget template… you name it! Some of us here are pretty excited, but others are kind of worried that these changes will create more problems. Even though none of us love the old process, we’re pretty comfortable with it and so are our grantees.
Should we be worried about the dark side of streamlining? What can we do to prevent new problems?
Fear of the Unknown
Sounds like your old school process is ready for some rethinking, so congratulations on embarking on a streamlining adventure! You (and your grantees) won’t regret it.
But it sounds like the specter of unintended consequences is casting a bit of a shadow… First of all, here’s a very important truth to keep in mind: The unknowns about what might happen when you try something new can be scary. But your old process has all sorts of unintended consequences as well — you’re simply used to them.
We can do a pretty good job of predicting the possible unintended consequences of streamlining, based on other people’s experiences. And you can head them off by putting in place a few important safeguards.
Here are some common concerns about unintended consequences that might result from changing your grantmaking process:
- It’s going to be hard and take forever! The biggest complaint from funders who have streamlined is that the streamlining process itself was not as easy as they had expected. When we surveyed grantmakers in 2013 about the downsides of streamlining, about half of them told us that changing their process was more difficult than anticipated. This was, by far, the biggest complaint.
- If we “reduce the burden” on grantees, we might increase the burden on our staff. If there are copies to be made, someone will need to make them. But often the shifting burden isn’t quite so obvious. A more subtle example is that shifting to an online system may mean that until everyone gets used to it, staff may need to answer a bunch of questions from confused applicants. And allowing nonprofits to submit budgets in their own formats rather than in a template means that foundation staff need more expertise in interpreting nonprofit budgets (and may need to spend time clarifying confusing budgets and seeking additional information).
On the other hand, if your streamlining effort means that you better screen for ill-fitting proposals with a Letter or Inquiry, you automate things that were previously manual (like entering applications into a grants management system), and you get better responses to your more deliberately written questions, you may find – once the dust settles – that staff have more time for other important work like building relationships and tracking key data. As one funder told us: “The electronic application makes us more efficient on the front end. The time saved on reviewing and inputting data from applications into the database is now spent on extracting the data in report formats that are useful to the review committees!”
- We won’t get enough information to make good decisions. Often funder applications or requests for proposals pick up extra questions over time, like a boat picking up barnacles as it goes through the water. When you strip away some of the “nice to know” or “occasionally needed” information from an application, it can be worrisome – what if you or your board has questions? Streamlined grantmaking doesn’t mean “stripped of all substance” grantmaking. The key is to streamline down to the information you need to make decisions. If you’re not getting enough, then ask for more! It’s important to evaluate whether you’re getting the information you need after you’ve tested your new process.
- We will get more applications than we can handle. If your process is streamlined, will you suddenly be deluged by proposals? Maybe, but probably not if your guidelines about priorities are clear and you have a good eligibility screen. A streamlined process is less work, but it’s still work, and most grantseekers don’t waste their time chasing very slim chances.
- Our grantees/board/staff will be upset because they liked the old system. This is almost certainly going to be true at first. No matter how desperately a change is needed, it is human nature to resist change and long for the good old days.
How to head off unintended consequences:
- Be sure you understand the issues you’re streamlining to solve. A thorough understanding of the drawbacks of your current process is key to making changes that will be welcomed and worth it. Be sure you’ve mapped your process and surveyed staff, board, and grantees to fully uncover what’s not working well, before you start making changes!
- Pilot and assess! Streamlining is iterative: don’t make any changes permanently without testing them first. A “pilot” might entail trying a new process with only some grantees before rolling it out to all, or it might mean testing it with all grantees but with the intent of assessing and improving it after a round or two. And you can’t assess how well a pilot has worked without collecting data from all the stakeholders, including grantees. You may find that your streamlined online application system has bugs that make it more burdensome than paper. You might learn that your video reporting requirement is virtually impossible for small organizations to fulfill. Test, Ask, and Refine!
- Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! The best way to buy patience and goodwill when you’re making changes is to be as clear, transparent, and communicative as you possibly can be. Let grantees and your board know what’s coming. Be sure there’s a good avenue to receive their feedback and address any confusion or complaints.
- Expect that there will be tweaks and shrieks. This might be my biggest piece of advice. Any change is disruptive, no matter how much it’s desired. So be ready for your streamlining process to be a bit messy, bumpy, and resisted. Share your plans again and again. Acknowledge that you are making changes designed to address specific issues and that there are likely to be some growing pains. It’s also important to establish a realistic timeline and process for making changes so that no one expects them to be finished overnight.
Good luck with your streamlining! Check out Project Streamline’s Guide, Making Streamlining Stick, for strategies and stories to help you make progress. Streamliners – what other unintended consequences did you encounter when you changed your application and reporting practices, and how did you address them?