8 Recommendations for Better Grant Reporting

12/20/2019

Do you ever wonder how people out there in the real world are setting up schools, running community gardens, and developing adaptive technology while you remain caught in paper hurricane of grant applications and reports? Rethinking your foundation’s grant reporting requirements might be one way to reconnect with the on-the-ground work your funding supports. Developing relationships with the people working for the organizations you fund is an important first step in pursuing better grant reporting. 

Traditionally, grant reporting has been a tool for ensuring that a funded organization has used money in the way they said they would. Ideally, the grant report would also offer insights that could benefit both your organization and theirs; but in practice, reporting often becomes yet another hoop to jump through. Over time, reporting requirements have reversed the flow of giving; instead of foundations serving organizations, organizations now bear much of the paperwork burden to support the foundation. 

Instead of doing things the old way, consider new reporting requirements that spark dialogue and reflection—requirements that move organizations toward refining and assessing goals. Better grant reporting goes well beyond mere accountability. Above all, ask questions about how your approach will most benefit the organization so they can maximize the time they spend on the ground. The following tips provide some of the key considerations foundations should consider in revising grant reporting requirements: 

1. Forge better partnerships for better grant reporting

The number one goal of all foundations is to support fabulous work by giving money generously to support that work—right? Yes, the money is going where it should. But in many instances, organizations face arduous reporting to demonstrate that they are achieving their goals, staying accountable, and remaining worthy of potential future funding. While this kind of reporting might give your board members the information they want, it also means organizations are being asked to support foundations. This is the opposite of what should be happening. 

And worse, exhaustive reporting creates a power dynamic that stifles collaboration and innovation. You know that boss you once had who micromanaged you? Don’t be like that. Instead, work to get to know the people who work at the organizations you are funding. What keeps them invested in their work? What successes and challenges do they encounter? Phone calls and site visits can go a long way towards establishing the partnerships that facilitate better grant reporting. 

2. Collaborate on determining the purpose of reporting

Sometimes revising the way you’ve always done things can be achieved by asking questions—engaging stakeholders, with even simple questions, will transform a conversation into tangible action. Foundations should consider how better grant reporting benefits their own process and how it benefits the organizations they are serving. Working together to establish a purpose can clarify goals, remove stumbling blocks, and engender creative solutions. 

The following questions, based on PEAK Grantmaking’s recommendations for reviewing grant reporting, are adapted for collaborative discussion between foundations and organizations:  

  • Were grant dollars used as intended?
  • Is there a record of the relationship between the grantee and grantor?
  • What learning opportunities emerge from this grant for the foundation? For the nonprofit?
  • Does this partnership make sense moving forward?
  • What will best help the grantee succeed?
  • Which stories are important to share?
  • What knowledge from other projects can be applied to improve outcomes not just for this nonprofit, but for the projects in this field?
  • How can we get better at what we do? What are the implications of our approach and strategy?
  • How do our relationships fundamentally shift power and model new ways of working together?

3. Structure grant reporting for learning

While it’s important for foundations to collect information about the projects they support and assess how their money is being spent, grant reports are not regularly set up to help the organization do its own learning. Grant reports get touted as a tool for organizational insight and reflection, but it’s rare for all members of an organization to be involved in reporting. Furthermore, lengthy foundation requirements are often focused on the kinds of questions only board members want to know the answers to. Find out what information will most help organizations to learn and develop. Asking the questions that are most important for their own trajectory and goals will help organizations improve.

4. Revisit reporting formats

Written reports feel so official. They have heft. But how many people read grant reports? What information is shared from these weighty documents? Like many foundations, you may discover the grant reports that organizations have spent dozens of hours writing are just gathering dust until the next board meeting. Is this the best way to get the information that will be most useful to you and to the organization you are supporting? 

The Whitman Institute has eliminated narrative reports entirely. Instead, they engage in a minimum of two phone calls or site visits a year to have conversations with organization leaders and staff members. These conversations can help you learn more about the projects and will strengthen relationships and collaborations. Be sure to draft some questions before you call or visit. Some examples of good questions to ask include: 

  • What went well?
  • What challenges did you encounter?
  • How can we better support your work?
  • What did you learn that might be helpful to other nonprofits?

If it’s essential to have a written report, you might save a transcript from your call or visit.  Or consider customizing your reporting requirements and tailoring forms to particular organizations and projects. Customized reports will yield more useful information that generic forms might miss. 

5. Choose better grant reporting deadlines 

Deadlines are stressful under the best of circumstances. But when foundations set reporting deadlines that fall before the completion of a project, this can create unneeded additional stress for everyone. Check in with the organization to see what reporting timeline makes sense to them. Communicate with your board and staff members to see what makes sense for the foundation. 

Better grant reporting requires ensuring deadlines make sense for all stakeholders—this will allow the process to go more smoothly and efficiently and will help eliminate inconveniently timed due dates. If possible, reconfigure your calendar to allow for annual reporting rather than requiring multiple reports a year. Multiple reports a year bog down both organizations and foundations. If a mid-point check-in is needed, be sure you are using the time to continue building relationships and ensuring that the organization has enough support. 

6. Consolidate reporting and returning grantee applicant information

Returning grantees are gold. Building relationships and getting to know an organization’s work gives you a running start when it comes to making decisions about renewing support. Requiring a shorter, customized renewal application can be one way to make the process more efficient. Better yet, consider consolidating reporting and renewal information. Rolling these requirements into one document or conversation will provide you with a comprehensive overview of the organizations projects, successes, and challenges which will offer insight into their future success.  

7. Seek feedback from grantees 

The best way to find out if something is working is to ask. Be sure to regularly check in with grantees about your reporting process. Ask them what is working and what isn’t and ask for their suggestions about how you might improve the process. Oftentimes, a suggestion that will make their life easier will improve yours, too. Most importantly, act on suggestions and work to improve your reporting system based on the feedback you receive. 

8. Share your knowledge generously 

Now that you’ve completely revamped your grant reporting process, don’t forget to share what you’ve learned. The insights that organizations have gleaned, along with your own observations during phone calls and site visits, will be valuable to many stakeholders and groups. Tell your board members, the rest of the foundation staff, colleagues who work for other foundations, and organizations who work on similar projects. Rather than sending around a written report, tell people informally what you’ve seen and learned. If possible, have someone from the organization come in to share or answer questions. Keeping it informal will make the news spread more quickly. Best of all, sharing your successes and the valuable lessons you’ve learned is yet another way to continue to build relationships. 

The bottom line? Better grant reporting comes down to purpose and impact. Learn what you can to improve your process. Reports should add meaning and value for all of the parties involved—and beyond. Using reports as a tool for learning, collaborating, and connecting will make them a valuable part of the grant process. Think outside the box to find new ways to build relationships that fuel innovation. 

Submittable is designed to enable better grant reporting. Features like Form Logic, Funds, Additional Forms, and Advanced Reports streamline reporting for both your foundation and the organizations you fund. Find out more here—and thanks for your time.

Emily Withnall

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor. She also teaches poetry in public schools in the Missoula area as well as at the Missoula County Detention Center. Some of her work is available at emilywithnall.com.