Grantmaking Best Practices: How to Attract & Select the Right Grantees


Think of it as the Law of Attraction—for grantmakers.

Instead of that heartwarming meet-cute, it’s all about that grant application process as your first introduction to grant seekers.

If you’re not attracting the right grant seekers, you may want to audit your process for attracting and selecting them in the first place. Since your grant application process is the first impression many grant seekers will develop of your organization, you’ll want to put your best foot forward.

In short, your grant application process affects the quality and quantity of your applications.

Here are a few things you can do to optimize your process at a high level:

  • Get rid of any unnecessary or repetitive questions in your information requirements
  • Align the application process to the size of the actual grant
  • Set the right expectations for the size of the grant (on both sides)
  • Relieve burdens for the grant seekers wherever you can
  • Have a multi-step process that filters out unfit applicants along the way
  • Ensure that all communications are transparent and effective

The gist here is that the best overall process for grantmakers and grant seekers is one that is streamlined and tailored to both parties’ goals. While there’s no magic solution for bringing in the right grant seekers, your process can help to narrow the field and send signals to those organizations you eventually wish to fund.

The Best Practices for Improving Grantmaking

The best grantmakers borrow. Ideas, that is.

They talk to their peers in the profession and implement the best ideas out there, all in pursuit of improving who and how they fund. Now it’s your turn to learn from the best and apply that to your grantmaking program.

Here are some tried-and-true examples of promising practices that have yielded strong results for grantmakers:

The Best Practices for Improving Grantmaking

1. Establish clear grant guidelines

The organizations you’re supporting have incredible demands on their time.

They don’t need to add sifting through your materials trying to decipher what’s needed to their long list of To-Dos. When crafting your materials, do your best to avoid jargon and just go with clear, direct language.

Make sure you spell out your organization’s philosophy around grantmaking and include a list of recent organizations you’ve funded. Share any specific areas you’re interested in funding this cycle while also clarifying areas that you won’t consider funding. This context will be helpful for grant seekers and will help filter the right people through to the application.

You’ll want to spell out specific guidelines that will drive your unique grant application and review processes. These guidelines will also help your board and staff make final funding decisions. Grant seekers are the primary audience for these guidelines and they also serve to inform the general public and the broader philanthropic community.

Your grant guidelines should spell out:

  • Areas of geographic focus
  • Procedures for applying for grants
  • Program areas (e.g. education, health, etc.)
  • Types of grants offered (e.g. matching funds, direct grants, etc.)
  • Grant reporting requirements
  • Types of support offered (e.g. technical assistance, operating expenses, etc.)
  • Different types of organizations supported
  • Restrictions on grant funding
  • Acceptance of solicited vs. unsolicited proposals

Starting grant seekers off with more information—and making it clear and concise—should be considered a critical part of your grant application process. Besides saving time and resources for your team, it can do much the same for grant seekers, making space for a deeper focus on community impact.

2. Offer a modern grant application platform

Your technology platform should streamline the process and put those well-thought-out grant guidelines into practice.

It’s really that simple.

A strong grant application portal will help you attract and select the right grantees by walking them through your application process and arming your team with the information and tools needed to make the best possible funding decisions.

Having a simple and intuitive platform also allows your grant seekers to focus on the quality of information that they’re providing, rather than the technology that they’re traversing. That means better, more-complete applications, too.

3. Minimize requirements for grantees

Once you’ve built solid grant guidelines and put them into action through your grants management platform, make some necessary tweaks in the process.

These adjustments should come from the data that you’re collecting and redundancies that you identify as you review the applications you receive. In many cases, you’ll find that you over-engineered your line of questioning, asked for the same information in multiple areas, collected repetitive data at different stages of the grant process, or included certain inputs that become irrelevant when you’re comparing the grant applications side by side.

Don’t be afraid to refine your process.

Look for inefficiencies and cut them out—with a vengeance.

  • Make sure you’re not collecting information you already have on grant seekers
  • Narrow your questions to get the precise answers you’ll need to make your funding decisions
  • Keep an eye on how many hours you’re asking grant seekers to put into their applications relative to the size of each grant

Keep in mind that for every minute grant seekers are spending on filling out grant applications, that’s a minute of time that they aren’t devoting to their core mission. If you want these organizations to have an impact, you must consider their time as well as your own. It’s precious.

4. Leverage your data to improve the process

Grantmakers are already out there using data to enhance their grantmaking efforts.

From CentrePoint’s databank that helps them better ascertain the needs of grantees to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s efforts to understand the impact grantees are having and learn from their experiences, many grantmakers are operating at the cutting edge with data tools.

Leverage your data to improve the process

Many funders have learned that better grantmaking in the future is the result of learning from past results. Digging into the data and analyzing the outcomes is the first step in understanding past results to inform future action. There are even whole fields of study, such as improvement science, popping up to address this core challenge in the philanthropic community.

Embrace the data (and what it has to tell you).

5. Incorporate peers and experts in your review process

Sometimes, you just need a pair of fresh eyes.

They help you see things that you may be too close to or too invested in.

New focal points and areas of attention pop up when peers familiar with your work take a look and advise. Even better, bringing in experts in specific fields of practice can offer significant benefits as you can integrate years of expertise into your grantmaking program.

They’ll be able to dig into specific facets of grant applications that may have gone unseen by the untrained eye. Help out your program officers—many of whom can be generalists or specialists —with expert support with program areas they might be less familiar.

6. Manage your assets with grants management software

Grantmaking produces lots of documents.

From grant applications and ongoing correspondence to grant reports and review rubrics, you can save a lot of time if you organize everything efficiently.

As mentioned previously, the most precious resource in all of grantmaking—for both applicants and funders—is time. Grants management software allows foundations and grantmakers to streamline the collection and review process, collate all the necessary materials into a single hub, and make collaborative grant decisions.

With Submittable, organizations are able to amplify their impact with smarter workflows and processes that are built for the future:

When we talk about time, we’re talking about efficiency.

Ultimately time is just as important as the money itself.

No matter how many best practices you follow, you’ll never be able to realize your organization’s potential if you can’t execute on the ambitious goals that you’ve set. Focus on the areas where you can leverage tools to reduce those noise. Then crank up the signal.

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.