Choosing a Grant Management Software to Support Trust-Based Philanthropy

For many grantmaking organizations, the challenges and upheavals of 2020 catalyzed a different way of funding. An industry that had been characterized by compliance obsession, complexity, and rigidity suddenly opened up to a new, values-driven philosophy. This new focus on equity, relationships, and reducing the burden on grantees ultimately leads to more time spent on the work of social change, better serving the mission of both nonprofits and their funders.

Indeed, some in the sector have been practicing and advocating for this different (and better) way for a long time. The culmination of some of those long-standing efforts is the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a five-year, peer-to-peer funder initiative launched in January of 2020 with the aim of addressing the inherent power imbalance between funders and grantees. 

Trust-based philanthropy calls on foundations to acknowledge and work to redress the systemic inequities of their sector. When considering the history of wealth accumulation, we find a story entrenched with racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. What’s more, these forces are typically also at the root of the social evils which nonprofits and their funders are attempting to eradicate. 

Trust-based philanthropy invites funders to end this cycle at the point of the dissemination of that wealth. To interrupt the cycle of inequity requires a rebalancing of power. Tactically, foundations can work to rebalance power through relationship-building, transparency, and other trust-based practices. 

Technology has a key role to play in this work. In this article, we’ll go through the six principles of trust-based philanthropy as identified by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, and call out the key capabilities to look for when purchasing a grant management software. 

Download our free checklist to help you choose a software that supports your trust-based philanthropy practice.

Give multi-year, unrestricted funding

There’s a reason that giving multi-year, unrestricted funding is the first principle identified by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. Giving grantees the authority and flexibility to determine what to spend grant money on is the ultimate signifier of trust—it’s a tangible embrace of the fact that grantees are in the best position to determine where dollars are most needed in their communities and across their programs. 

Furthermore, giving multi-year, unrestricted grants also allows nonprofits to be more:

  • Flexible. They are empowered to move funds as conditions and priorities change. 
  • Innovative. They can be creative and take risks—as opposed being obliged to stick rigidly to original proposals. 
  • Stable. They don’t need to worry that a grant won’t be renewed or about finding the funding to pay for basic overhead such as salaries, rent, and electricity. 
  • Forward-thinking. They can invest in strategic planning for the future. 

Any tool that allows foundations to deepen relationships with grantees or save applicants time, especially as they are doing incredibly important work, is useful—Submittable allows foundations to do that.

Catherine Eusebio, Program Director, North Star Fund

What to look for

While the decision to make unrestricted, multi-year grants is ultimately a strategic one to be made by your organization, there are various tools that a grant management software system can provide that will make such a funding strategy feasible and easy to implement. 

Additional forms

Just because your awardees won’t need to reapply every year doesn’t mean that you won’t be in touch with them. At various points in your multi-year cycle, you’ll need to check in with nonprofits to gather progress reports and other information. Additional forms are forms that you can send throughout your process. They allow you to ask for what you need, when you need it. Look for additional forms that can be created through an easy, drag-and-drop form builder, and that include all of the question types that you need, such as file uploads and data validation.

Well-organized portal 

An interface that keeps your data regarding each grantee well organized will help tremendously. Look for one that allows you to view in-app communication, reviews, funding information, all related forms, and your team’s notes, while keeping it all clearly organized and accessible to your team members. This means that even across a lengthy relationship, you’ll never lose track of data or waste time digging for information.

Submittable makes all forms, communication, reviews, funding, and other activity easily accessible in a single portal.

Robust reporting 

Every grantmaker knows that robust reporting tools are an essential element of grant management software. But how does it apply to the principle of giving multi-year, unrestricted funds? The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project advises funders to “examine who receives multi-year unrestricted support, who doesn’t, and what blind spots and biases exist in your processes.” Such an analysis will enable you to identify bias in our organization—a crucial first step in making an effort to redress it. Reporting tools that allow you to conduct this research will help you begin. 

[Data in Submittable] allows us to understand better and more quickly who we’re reaching, what they aspire to achieve, and if it aligns with those things that we have to offer, so we can figure out how to work together.

Elizabeth Luther, Detroit Program Director, Capital Impact Partners

Webinar: Redistributing Power in Philanthropy

Join Submittable for an on-demand conversation with Shaady Salehi, Director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.

Do the homework

This principle of trust-based philanthropy is about funders taking on what responsibility and burden that they can across the full grantmaking cycle, leaving grantees with more time for their work. 

Particularly when it comes to due diligence ahead of proposal acceptance and identification of new grantees, this principle is all about rebalancing power. Taking on this work as a grantmaker means taking steps such as: 

  • Reducing proposal requirements 
  • Using publicly available information to learn about potential grantees
  • Actively seeking new organizations that align with your vision 
  • Analyzing funding criteria to ensure it favors those organizations that are best positioned to create meaningful social change (as opposed to those which are more established or better funded)

What to look for 

Beyond the initial phase, doing the homework also means alleviating the burden on grantees by doing what you can yourself—from inputting data, to ensuring you only  ask a given question once, to relying on integrations to eliminate work for applicants. Various tools in your grant management software system will help you to put all of this into practice. 

Internal forms

Internal forms are forms created for internal use that you can design with your grant management software’s drag-and-drop form builder. They make it possible to supplement applications with information that your team gathers itself, such as publicly available background information or historical funding data. 

With an easy way to add information that will be automatically stored in a well-organized portal (see above), internal forms pave the way for your team to take on a good chunk of the work that might otherwise have been left to applicants. Your portal also helps ensure that you will never have to ask the same question twice, since all previously gathered information is easily accessible.

Specifically, look for an internal forms tool that allows you to include diverse file types (see below). This paves the way for adding recorded verbal check-ins or video footage that you gather on site visits. 

In Submittable, you can build forms designed for internal use, and including specifying which file types you’ll accept.

Candid integration

An integration with Candid (formerly Guidestar) allows you to gather all kinds of tax information regarding nonprofit organizations. With a good integration, all the applicant will need to provide is their tax ID number—and the information that your organization needs for compliance purposes will be readily available, in the context of the application. Ideally, you’ll be able to leverage this integration at the eligibility screening phase (see below), to further save grantees time.   

Simplify and streamline paperwork

The principle of simplifying and streamlining paperwork doesn’t need a lot of explaining: the less time grantees spend on tedious administrative work, the more time they can focus on fulfilling their mission. There’s also more time for each of you to dedicate to building a deeper relationship rooted in learning and mutual accountability. 

What to look for 

The right solution can make a huge difference when it comes to saving grantees time. Specifically, look for these features that signify a grant management software that’s optimized for reducing the burden on applicants.

Diverse file types

Accepting diverse file types can help streamline things in myriad ways throughout the process, allowing you to:

  • Accept proposals written for other funders. In many cases, grantees have already put in the work to create a proposal to meet the requirements of another grantmaker. By accepting those proposals yourself, they’ll avoid wasting their time duplicating their work—and odds are strong the other proposal has all of the information you’ll need. Accepting diverse file types ensures that no matter what format the other proposals are in, you’ll be able to work with them in your system. 
  • Accept documents in the format the grantees themselves use. From boards of director bios, to budgets, to impact reporting, nonprofits often create the same information you need for their own purposes. By simply asking for what they already use themselves, they don’t need to waste time recreating anything. Again, accepting diverse file types ensures you won’t have a problem on your end reviewing the content. 
  • Open the door to verbal check-ins. Sometimes, the best way to learn how things are going is to simply hop on the phone or stop by the office for an in-person meeting. A conversational approach empowers grantees to simply tell you how things are going in real time, in their own words, with zero prep or paperwork required. You can upload notes, recordings or transcriptions of these sessions to your internal form (see above) to keep all of your data organized and accessible. 

One final note on diverse file types: it’s important to choose a grant management software that not only allows diverse file types to be submitted, but also displays them to reviewers with no need to download on the backend. This ensures things will be streamlined for your team, as well. 

Eligibility screening

A screening process, such as a short LOI, can help your team determine whether an applicant is qualified or funding is likely. By including an eligibility form ahead of your main application, you can make sure that organizations which do not meet your funding criteria will not waste their time submitting a full proposal.

Ease of use

An easy-to-use platform should be one of your most important considerations when choosing a grant management platform. Otherwise, you risk losing highly qualified applicants who end up frustrated with your system—or worse, are too intimidated by a clunky process to even begin the application. Wondering if a platform that you are considering fits the bill? Ask for a demo of the applicant perspective, or look for product videos that show you. 

We are doing cartwheels because of it. The application was simple enough for applicants to navigate through it and to get it submitted. With the software, they didn’t have to spend two, three weeks trying to figure out how to even submit your application. They’ll give up if it’s too frustrating and too complicated for them.

LaTrena Artist, Scholarship Program Director, Jeanette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund

Mobile-friendly 

In 2020, Submittable found that up to 80% of applications for grants were submitted via mobile devices. A mobile-optimized solution is crucial to maintain a positive user experience for applicants. 

Editable 

By allowing applicants to edit their submissions, you’ll save a ton of headache for them (and you) by avoiding the need to retract and resubmit an application, simply to make a little change or correct a mistake. 

Collaborative

Particularly as so many of us have gone full-time remote, an in-app collaboration experience is essential. Look for a GMS that allows applicants to collaborate in real time, including real-time field presence (such as in Google Docs). 

Auto save

We’ve all been there—and nothing is more frustrating than losing your work because your computer went to sleep or your internet went out. Using a solution that auto-saves your applicants’ work ensures you’ll avoid these mishaps.  

Be transparent and responsive

Honesty and open communication will help you build authentic relationships rooted in trust. Putting this principle into practice goes beyond simply making yourself available. Rather, display power awareness and vulnerability. This will help signal to grantees that you are fully invested in the relationship, and that it’s safe for them to be, too.

What to look for 

Several capabilities in your software can help facilitate transparency and responsiveness in your grantmaking, from various communication tools to a support team ready to respond and help. 

In-app communication 

Honest and ongoing communication is one of the most important ways to build a trust-based relationship over time. In-app communication not only facilitates constant dialogue, it also keeps conversations in the context of your larger relationship—right alongside the original application, follow-up material, and funding information. That goes for your grantees, as well—and it means that neither of you will have to waste time digging through your email inbox.

Be responsive to grantees’ emails and calls, and be particularly mindful of perpetuating trauma for BIPOC leaders, youth, and others who might feel disregarded or overlooked by other funders.

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project

Rich Text Guidelines

Making your funding criteria crystal clear upfront in your guidelines is the best way to be transparent about what and who you do and do not fund. A good guidelines tool will enable you to use rich text, embed photos and videos, as well as use hyperlinks. Look for a platform that allows you to distinguish guidelines for your organization as a whole, as well as granular specifications for each of your programs. 

Rich Text Instructions 

Clear, relevant instructions throughout your form help your grantees know exactly what you need from them. You can use instructions to provide examples or give specific guidance on a given question, such as, “We’re looking for about one to two paragraphs.” Ideally, instructions will allow for rich text, so you can include hyperlinks to your website or FAQs as needed. 

Technical support for applicants

No matter how easy to use your platform is, there are those out there who are simply uncomfortable with technology and will need help. Choosing a grant management software that provides friendly and fast technical support to your applicants—as opposed to just your team—helps ensure that you won’t lose out on any applicants that get frustrated and give up. It also helps you run a more accessible process. 

95% of grant applicants would recommend Submittable to another funder.

Solicit and act on feedback

A trust-based approach compels humility on the part of foundations. The principle of soliciting and acting on feedback stems from the acknowledgement that the expertise of those closest to the community—your grantee partners—is essential to your success as a grantmaking organization.

When it comes to asking for feedback, it’s important to strike a balance. You don’t want to streamline your application process just to bog down your grantees with endless surveys! A good rule of thumb is to seek feedback and information that you will use. The inverse is also true: be sure to use the feedback that you get—and if you choose not to act on it, explain why. Following these guidelines will not only help your organization make progress toward your social change objectives, it will go a long way toward building trust in the long term. 

What to look for

The main tools that you’ll need in your grant management system to solicit and act on feedback are a survey tool that can collect information anonymously and a data aggregator. Here’s what to look for specifically.

Concealed responses 

It (hopefully) goes without saying that you want the feedback you get to be honest. The good news is, by following the principles of trust-based philanthropy, you are laying the groundwork for a healthy relationship where grantees will feel safe providing constructive criticism or negative feedback at times. 

However, given the inherent—and deeply entrenched—power imbalance between foundations and nonprofits, it’s simply not feasible to expect everyone to feel comfortable giving you an unflattering assessment. This could happen under a variety of circumstances. For example: 

  • You could still be building a groundwork of trust.
  • You may have received feedback in the past that you failed to acknowledge or act on.
  • Your grantee partner may have learned to regret critiquing another funder in the past.

It’s also important to consider that some people may simply be uncomfortable giving negative feedback without a veil of anonymity, under any circumstances. 

This is where anonymized submission data becomes invaluable. A tool that conceals responses and personally-identifying information allows you to survey grantees without also asking them to stick their neck out. When using concealed responses, be sure to be transparent about which information will be concealed from whom. 

Impact reporting

A good impact reporting tool will allow you to analyze grantee progress towards objectives on a micro level, or for each individual organization. It will also enable you to identify macro insights—that is, trends across your entire grantmaking organization. 

After surveying your grantees using an initial or additional form (see above), your impact reporting tool will aggregate the data so that you can understand where you are doing well and where you need to improve as a partner in the work. 

Provide support beyond the check 

Support beyond the check means that your commitment to your grantees’ success transcends your relationship with them as a funder. It means showing up with non-monetary support that can help your nonprofit partners build capacity and evolve.

This kind of commitment can include things like:

  • Introducing nonprofits to other funders or helpful connections in your circle
  • Seeking opportunities to support your grantees where they need it, such as with marketing or technology
  • Lifting up their work in your own network, such as online or at events

It’s important to make this support optional. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that every organization you work with wants you more deeply involved. Rather, make your offers of support clear and equitable, and make it easy to say no. 

Unlike the other principles covered here, support beyond the check can’t be enabled by technology. It’s up to you to make the strategic decision to foster this deeper connection, and fully commit all of your available resources to your grantees’ success. 

Learn more about Submittable

Submittable is a social impact platform that thousands of grantmakers use to practice trust-based philanthropy. To learn more about how Submittable can help you run a more streamlined and equitable process, contact our team.

Natalya DeRobertis-Theye

Natalya is a product marketer at Submittable 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.

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