“From a Barrier to a Bridge”: 6 Takeaways for Better Grant Management from Our Conversation with Three Local United Ways

For years, Submittable has been a proud partner to many local United Way organizations that use Submittable’s grantmaking technology to manage their investments in nonprofit organizations in their community via competitive grantmaking.

We recently invited three United Way customers to join Submittable’s VP of Social Impact, Sam Caplan, for a conversation with their peers about what they’ve learned implementing modern and community-centered strategies with Submittable. 

If you’re seeking to create stronger relationships in your community through your granting, this conversation is for you. Here are the top takeaways, in their own words. 

In the conversation: 

  • Jeff Howell, Chief Program Officer at the United Way of the Greater Triangle
  • Craig Shoemaker, Director of Technology & Operations at the United Way of Greenville County
  • Christopher Nicholas, CFO/CTO/COO at the United Way of Greenville County
  • Sabra Williams, Systems Analyst at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey
  • Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact at Submittable

1. Don’t be afraid to change the way you’ve always done it

United Way has been around for over a hundred years. And while this history leaves the organization as a well-established pillar in many communities, it can also lead to a sense of inertia. Any effort to make change comes up against the challenge of “the way we’ve always done it.” 

For Craig Shoemaker, Director of Technology & Operations, and Christopher Nicholas, CIO at the United Way of Greenville County, a really outdated grantmaking process was cumbersome to everyone involved. They were ready to shake it up. 

As Craig explains, they wanted to embrace a new way: bold and simple. Play the clip to hear about it. 

By simplifying both the application itself and the application technology with the switch to Submittable, they were able to achieve their aim.

As Craig describes in the clip, in the past, “The software was clunky. It was hard. We had to do trainings specifically focused on just the application process rather than talk about what content was needed or what we were looking for from applicants. So, [to be] bold and simple, we really wanted a tool to help facilitate and not be a roadblock to hinder funding like it had been in the past.”

2.Treat your application experience as the beginning of your relationship with your grantees 

For Jeff Howell, Chief Program Officer at the United Way of the Greater Triangle, serving the research triangle around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, a grant management platform is more than just a product. It’s a tool to build trust. He explains in the clip.

As Jeff says in the clip, “I think from our perspective, the investment in something like Submittable is us investing in that first experience with United Way of the Greater Triangle.” 

By setting that relationship off on the right foot, Jeff has learned, later on, applicants are “willing to work with you on some more things and kind of lean into that relationship a little bit more.”

Join the conversation

This one hour is packed with advice for making your grantmaking program a conduit for more impact in your community.

3. Center the humanity of your applicants

More advice from Jeff? To build a real relationship with applicants, rather than a transaction, focus on centering their humanity. Submittable offers easy file uploads to support multiple video and audio file types that can help you do this. Hear Jeff respond to Sam Caplan’s question about this in the clip.

As Jeff details, leveraging file uploads allows United Way of the Greater Triangle to: 

  • Get closer to the applicant’s work. As Jeff says, “We’re able to see what this work looks like, feels like, sounds like on an everyday basis.”
  • Set their reviewers up to be powerful advocates. Jeff explains, “Our reviewers are seeing that they’re able to build that personal relationship with the organization where they’re able to become an advocate for their work. I think even beyond our grantmaking process, they feel more connected to that space.”
  • Give nonprofits more space to focus on their work. In Jeff’s words: “We can allow them to do this application as easy as possible and let them get back to what they do really well and what we as a funder in this space need them to be focusing on. That’s a great win for us as a community.”

4. Create a more welcoming reviewer experience for volunteers 

Sabra Williams, Systems Analyst for the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, like many other local United Ways, practices participatory grantmaking. This means  she intentionally welcomes volunteers from her community to actively participate in the review process. With this strategy, a positive—or negative—reviewer experience can have reverberations which impact their reputation in the community. 

Going into her newest grantmaking cycle, Sabra was therefore focused on improving the reviewer experience. She knew it would save her and her reviewers time. But it ended up providing a multitude of other benefits. Sabra explains in the clip. 

As she details in the clip, much of the benefits were rooted in Submittable’s intuitive side-by-side review feature, which led to:

  • Less time invested in training reviews. Sabra says, “In previous years, you know, we had offered multiple training sessions. We printed out all kinds of stuff. We made binders with all the applications. We held panel discussions. Not this time.”
  • A boost in participation. With the help of an easy to use tool, she explains, “Overall, we had very good participation with our volunteers.”
  • A faster, on-time review process. Sabra says “Since the system really is so user friendly and easy to use, the reviewers were able to complete their assignments on time, with very few questions or issues.” 
  • Reduced reviewer frustration. Submittable’s intuitive side-by-side review meant fewer headaches. As Sabra explains, “I think [that] was key really in saving time and reducing frustration. I know that had been a complaint in previous cycles.” 

5.Make reporting as easy as possible 

Submittable doesn’t just drop in for your application process and go away. Rather, it’s a tool that you and your applicant can use throughout the full grant cycle to easily communicate and keep track of the documents, site visits, verbal check-ins—everything that goes into a grant partnership. 

For Sabra, that consistent tool throughout the full grant cycle led to a very satisfying result in reporting participation. Hear it in her words in the clip.


As she explains: 

“We were thrilled that all one hundred agencies submitted their reports. I don’t think that’s ever actually happened for us before. We’ve ever gotten them all in. And in fact, most even came in on time. So that was also a nice surprise as well.”

How did they do it? 

“I think, you know, having a system that is really easy to use, they were already familiar with, really helped us make sure everyone got their reports in,” says Sabra. 

6. Restore your reputation by embracing change

Back to Craig and Christopher over at United Way of Greenville County, their new bold and simple philosophy ended up doing a lot more than just simplifying processes. It bolstered their reputation. Christopher explains in the clip.

You might wonder, how could adapting a new grant management system be so impactful? 

As Christopher says, it came down to taking the grant process itself “from a barrier to a bridge.” He wanted the process to change from feeling like “a hindrance to funding to an easy means to getting access to capital that can be reinvested in our community.”

Submittable also enabled the United Way of Greenville County team to move a lot faster. Which to a nonprofit hoping for funding, can make a big difference. In their case, these changes together ended up enhancing the organization’s reputation. As Christopher explains, 

“For some of our partners, we’re a significant source of their income for a year. And so by simplifying that process, it allowed us to really help them make budgetary decisions, help them make strategic decisions, and they could make those quickly and that that ultimately helped our reputation as a convener, as a facilitator, as a funder, and not as this, well, we’ve got to jump through all these hoops and hopefully they grant us, you know, the money we’re asking for.”

Take the first step toward change

Many grantmakers find themselves in a spot where they know it’s time to embrace change, but they’re not sure how to take the first step. Looking to other orgs who’ve made big transitions can help you develop a strategy that makes sense for your team and community. 

There are a whole lot more pearls of wisdom packed into the hour long conversation. To hear Christopher reveal which tool helped “save [his] marriage” (hint: it’s the same one that Jeff said if we ever get rid of it, we’ll have “an uprising” on our hands) listen to the full conversation. 

If you’re ready to learn more about Submittable, we’d love to talk to you. Contact our team today!

Natalya Taylor

Natalya is the director of product marketing at Submittable and is focused on helping organizations get a ton of value out of the platform. She is a bookworm, adventure enthusiast and card-carrying cat lady as well as a writer and yogi.