Two-Way Street: Grant Reporting Practices that Help Both Grantmakers and Grantees Measure Impact

12/11/2019

Grant reporting is the crossroads where impact meets investigation.

Grant reports are an essential part of the grantmaking process. They are most often structured as written narratives that include detailed financial information regarding how an organization has utilized grant funding. These reports serve important functions in the grantmaking cycle—ideally, each one:

  • Offers data and stories about programmatic impacts
  • Provides an accountability mechanism for grantmakers
  • Documents grant-funded activities
  • Encourages future funding

A well-designed grant reporting process can help grantmakers strengthen relationships with grantees. It can also positively influence the overall strategy that informs funding decisions. While grant reporting is an essential part of every grantmaking process, organizations make a variety of decisions in terms of how often it occurs, the format that it takes, and how they use the outcome.

How reporting is changing, by the numbers

In 2008, a Project Streamline surveyed grantmakers and grantees on reporting. The findings were interesting:

  1. Thorough reporting was lacking: Just 27% of funders said that they shared reporting information with peers in the field and very few of them followed up with grantees. In addition, 20% of grantees shared a desire to receive feedback on their grant reports.
  2. Paper was queen: Most reports were delivered in hard copy format.
  3. Trust was lacking: Grantseekers indicated that certain grant reporting timelines suggested that grantmakers did not trust them to report their progress on specific grant objectives in a timely and efficient fashion.
  4. Requirements varied greatly: From the number of reports and their format to the reporting timelines and overall requirements, grantseekers indicated that funder requests were all over the map.
  5. One size didn’t fit all: Grantseekers stressed that reporting requirements (as well as application processes) should be modified to fit different types of grants and organizations.

In the past decade, grant reporting hasn’t changed much. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.

A more recent survey of grantmakers from 2017 showed a few important shifts in practice. For one, grant reporting is moving online, with 64% of survey respondents reporting that they use an online system to collect and review reports. Still, this figure lags behind the percentage of grantmakers using digital technology to receive applications.

Grantmakers are beginning to look at grant reporting as a strategic tool for decision making— 25% reported using grant reports to influence their overall giving strategy and the other 75% expressed a strong interest in doing so.

While the basic elements of the data collected during grant reporting generally remain the same, technology and a more strategic focus on how grant reports can be leveraged offer opportunities for improving the practice for grantmakers and grantees alike.

Let’s dig into how grantmakers can assess and modernize their grant reporting process.

How to evaluate your grant reporting process

How to evaluate your grant reporting process

How do you know when your grant reporting process needs a tune-up?

There are a few tell-tale signs to watch out for:

Bottlenecks and redundancies

If you’ve got multiple staff members juggling their own unique methods for handling a wide array of documents and spreadsheets, then you’re likely slowing down your grant reporting process. Team members working across different organizational systems can increase the time employees spend on grant reporting and create opportunities for error.

Non-compliance is an issue

Grantees should be able to easily comply with your grant requirements.

Perform an audit of compliance requirements to assess how time-consuming it is for a typical organization to complete all reporting documentation.

Arduous reporting can be a big hurdle for smaller organizations, one that prevents them from seeking further funding in some cases. Avoid feeding the cycle of inequity in grantmaking by simplifying and streamlining compliance requirements across your grants.

Poor reporting processes and difficult requirements

Make sure you’ve got a centralized, simple way for grantees to share grant reports with you.

Since their work in communities is already hard, reporting on results should be easy.

Having one system for grant reporting (ideally, the same system you use for your grant applications) can save both grantees and your team lots of time. Not to mention, they’ll save on energy previously spent collecting and entering the same information in different places.

Distributing a quick survey among your grantees and staff is one way to highlight the difficult spots within your grant reporting process.

Solicit their feedback, then act on it.

Inefficient grant management

As the 2017 survey demonstrated, more and more grantmakers are consolidating their grant management into one system.

Don’t ask your staff to juggle multiple funding requests across multiple systems.

Make reporting easy and reduce the risk for errors by pulling your grant management into a modern submission management platform.

Lack of communication and collaboration

Managing communication across a variety of stakeholders can be difficult, especially when big money and significant impact are on the line.

Consolidating grants management within one modern submission platform helps grantmakers organize important communication between program staff, reviewers, grantseekers, and other individuals in the process.

Bring your grant reporting into the new era

Bring your grant reporting into the new era

Similarly, how do you know when you’ve got a strong grant reporting process in place?

At the highest level, it boils down to a few key principles:

  • Focus on clarity: Grantmakers are clear with grantees about why they’ve awarded the grant
  • Define terms: Grantmakers clarify what kind of relationship they hope to have with grantees
  • Set and streamline expectations: Grantmakers discuss what kinds of grant reporting they will ask of grantees (and try to minimize what they require)
  • Foster two-way communication: Grantmakers give feedback on grant reporting and share data-supported observations
  • Share information: Grantmakers disseminate their insights from grant reporting to improve their own grantmaking and improve the field at large

One example of how these principles can perform is automation. Running internal reports that easily link to financial expenditures, programmatic activities, and grant funding allow grantmakers to connect the dots on how grantees are producing results (or missing the mark, which sometimes happens).

That’s hard to do when you’re working across multiple systems.

Grantmakers today can turn grant reporting into a transformative experience in their work with grantees. It all starts with some basic, tactical steps that grantmakers can take to improve the grant reporting experience:

  • When a grant report is received, let grantseekers know it has been received and share the timeline for review
    • Commit to asking only the most necessary information of grantseekers
  •  One great way to accomplish this: Pull and synthesize information from the grant application itself into the reporting process
  • Remember that even the best narrative reports are no substitute for building relationships with grantees
  • Clarify your expectations for reports and be consistent with them
  • Use grant reports as a starting point for developing deeper partnerships with grantees

Streamlining the grant review process may be a departure from business as usual. In some cases, it can mean requiring less reporting from funders, limiting the information you ask for, and even aligning grant schedules to the grantee’s timing rather than the grantmakers.

Maximizing impact requires strong communication about what’s working and what’s not. This should be happening before, during, and after every grant is awarded. Sharing knowledge with the field is a powerful way to increase the impact of grant-funded work.

Improving your grant reporting process may also mean investing in new methods and innovative approaches that enable both grantmakers and grantseekers to do their best work.

Moving to a modern submission platform that allows you to consolidate grants management, centralize communication between stakeholders, and simplify key processes, is a major step towards transforming the grant reporting process for all parties.

Happy grant reporting!

Paul Perry
Paul Perry

Paul Perry is a writer and former educator with significant experience in nonprofit management. He has a soft spot for grant-seekers striving to make the world a better, more just place.