Putting Paperwork in the Backseat and Letting Your Philanthropic Mission Drive You

02/10/2020

Peak Grantmaking’s Project Streamline identified a number of ways grant applications and reporting requirements can bog down foundations and nonprofits. With so much paperwork to wade through, mission-driven work can sometimes take the backseat. This isn’t what nonprofits want and it’s not what foundations want, either. The primary challenges Project Streamline identified are outlined here. By identifying how paperwork has become so unwieldy, Project Streamline was able to use this information to provide recommendations to help both grant makers and grant seekers put their philanthropic mission back in the driver’s seat. 

Develop real relationships

When foundation and nonprofit staff only know each other through emails and budget line items, it can be difficult to establish trust and a feeling of shared purpose. Beginning a potential grantor-grantee relationship should ideally begin with a phone call. By having a conversation about the work a nonprofit is seeking to fund and the kinds of projects a foundation is interested in funding, both parties can determine whether the relationship will be a good fit. 

A phone call can also help foundations identify what information they do and don’t need in the grant application. Best of all, a phone call can be a good way to establish the foundation for a relationship. Once a relationship is established, site or project visits are the most effective way for foundations to understand how their money is being used. 

Re-examine process and best practices

Foundation staff members should be asking three key questions before requesting a mountain of information: 

  1. Do we really need this information? 
  2. Is there some other way we can get it? 
  3. Have we clearly communicated why we need it?  

Asking these questions can lead foundation employees towards important conversations about what they want to fund, and why. Communicating these priorities to grant seekers will make the process clearer to both parties and will help foundations eliminate unnecessary or outdated application requirements that get in the way of their philanthropic mission. 

Additionally, these questions can help foundations make decisions about reabsorbing administrative tasks (rather than asking nonprofits to do the bulk of the legwork) and reprioritizing staff duties. Every organization lets processes get dusty so it’s important that these conversations don’t happen just once. Conducting an annual or semi-annual audit of how information is gathered, what information is actually used, and where redundancies exist will ensure that best practices are adapted as needed.

One size doesn’t fit all

Foundations need to establish streamlined processes for the different types of grants they offer. For example, small grants should require significantly fewer application requirements, as opposed to large grants which might require much more information. Storing application information for repeat grant seekers will also help both foundations and nonprofits work through the grant process more quickly and efficiently. Reporting timelines should be tailored to each project so that nonprofits can focus on the project before worrying about providing a report to the foundation. This will also ensure that the foundation receives a complete report. 

Use existing repositories for information gathering 

Where possible, when nonprofits are able to use repositories for updating their annual tax status information, financial data, project goals, and reporting, this information can be used by foundations to streamline the grant application process. Having a wealth of information at their fingertips allows foundations to pare down their grant application requirements and to compare multiple nonprofits’ projects and outcomes. Nonprofits also benefit from using repositories because it allows them to evaluate yearly progress, develop annual reports, and set new goals based on trends and patterns in their sector. 

Outsource reporting

Between grant writing and reporting, nonprofit employees can often find themselves squeezed for time to actually focus on the project they sought funding for. Because reporting requirements can be more extensive and labor-intensive than grant applications, foundations should consider paying for reporting. This solution helps to keep the grant money fully invested in the project, rather than diluted by additional administrative tasks. Third-party reporting can also help nonprofits see the scope and impact of their project’s philanthropic mission from an outside perspective. 

Most importantly, outsourcing reporting ensures that the grantor is serving the grantee—not vice versa. In some instances, it might make sense to have nonprofits do their own reporting, but these administrative tasks, like grant writing, should be accounted for in the funding that the nonprofit receives. Using the NetGrant Calculator can reveal how much additional money will be needed for administrative tasks, on top of what is needed for the project. 

Solicit feedback

In keeping with building real relationships, foundations can benefit from seeking feedback about the grant writing and reporting process. Foundation staff may not know what challenges their applicants are wrestling with and asking is the easiest way to find out. Integrating nonprofits’ feedback about the application and reporting processes will help foundations to continually refine and streamline so that nonprofits can turn their attention squarely on their missions. 

Use an online system for applications 

Not only does using an online system eliminate the need for multiple paper copies of forms and massive stacks of paper—it also makes it possible for multiple users to update information. And if a foundation needs hard copies for board members, an online system will make it possible for foundation staff members to print application materials so that nonprofits do not have to expend valuable time and money on printing, stapling, and mailing. 

Using an online system can also streamline processes like budget adjustments or project extensions. Submission software like Submittable can be a great tool for eliminating paperwork and streamlining grant applications. 

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At the end of the day, both foundations and nonprofits want to focus on the mission-driven work they are excited about. Eliminating paperwork, revisiting best practices, and redistributing administrative tasks can ensure that grant money is being used for on-the-ground projects. And ultimately, clear communication and real-life relationship-building not only reduce paperwork, but they strengthen the work guided by a strong philanthropic mission that nonprofits are doing. 

 

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.