Why Grants Paperwork May Be Threatening Your Organization’s Mission


Nonprofits across the country are in a year-round hustle to raise the money that will support their mission and programming. This means staff are spending long hours researching, writing, and reporting for grants so that they can secure and retain the funding to keep their projects running. While grant writing is an essential component to running a nonprofit, the grant seeking process has become unwieldy and grants paperwork can often keep staff members from their on-the-ground, mission-driven work. 

On the flip side, foundations that offer grant money to nonprofits are finding themselves equally bogged down in paperwork and less engaged in developing relationships with the nonprofits they support. 

Data from Project Streamline

Peak Grantmaking, a professional network of grantmaker organizations, launched Project Streamline to study the common problems that both grant seekers and grant makers encounter during the grant writing process. Project Streamline is a collaboration between a number of nonprofit and foundation associations with the shared goal of discovering how to help nonprofits achieve the maximum impact from their work. By analyzing surveys, conducting focus groups, reviewing literature and data, Project Streamline issued a report that identified key problems in the current system as well as solutions that will help reduce paperwork for everyone. 

Foundations frequently encounter a catch-22 situation when they distribute money to nonprofits. Because they want to maximize impact and allot funds to projects, rather than administration, foundations are usually understaffed and do not have the capacity to review applications, field questions, and report on a nonprofit’s work. 

Additionally, it can be challenging to get the right information from grant seekers, and board members’ priorities often dictate how things are done. Reporting requirements, while usually time-consuming for nonprofits, are often vital to demonstrating impact to foundation board members. Despite these challenges and the related complications they cause for nonprofits, foundations generally do not receive very much feedback about their grant application process. 

For grant seekers, the hoops and hurdles for applying for grants are never-ending. This can be frustrating for nonprofits whose staff members are spending a disproportionate amount of time researching, writing, and reporting on grants rather than executing the project that the grant is supposed to support.

Among the challenges that nonprofits encounter in the grant application process are that:

Nonprofits’ record-keeping and formatting doesn’t align with what foundations ask for 

This can sometimes require hours of reformatting budget line items or rewriting project goals to fit a new grants paperwork format. Additionally, when every foundation uses a different submission system, applications often have to be started from scratch for each grant a nonprofit applies for. 

The size of grants doesn’t correspond with the amount of information required from applicants

Nonprofits find that the majority of foundations don’t adapt their application requirements for small grants or for returning grant seekers. This often means that nonprofits are spending many hours on a lengthy grant application for a small amount of money. Additionally, even when the foundation already has the nonprofit’s essential information, they require all the same forms and documents in full on subsequent applications. 

Foundation don’t have preliminary screening processes 

While some foundations ask for a letter of intent to determine whether a nonprofit is the right fit for their funding, many foundations request the full grant application. Submitting dozens of pages of statements and forms just to find out that a project does not align with a foundation’s mission can be frustrating. 

Grant application guidelines are vague, broad, or defunct 

When nonprofits are left guessing what a particular foundation might fund, or trying to do detective work to determine whether a particular project might align with a foundation’s mission, this can result in applications that are not a match—which wastes time for staff at the nonprofit and at the foundation.

Foundations have hugely varying requirements

Grant seekers find that they are spending significant amount of time applying for grants from foundations that all have different requirements, different funding cycles, and different reporting and paperwork formatting needs. While it stands to reason that no two foundations will operate in the same way, the inordinate amount of time that nonprofit staff spends on meeting each foundation’s very specific requirements takes away from staff’s on-the-ground work.

The time spent applying for a grant outweighs the grant’s value 

Nonprofits are increasingly finding that the work required for grant applications (and grant applications paperwork) is eating into the bulk of the funding they receive. While it is time-consuming to apply for grants, it is also time-consuming to follow up with each foundation to provide them with evaluations and reports to demonstrate impact.

Nonprofits are understaffed

Like foundations, nonprofits must contend with accomplishing a vast amount of work with very few people. This contributes to the challenges of applying for grants and reporting on impact.

Nonprofits report feeling a lack of trust from foundations

Rather than foundation staff building real relationships with nonprofits, many foundations rely on the kinds of extensive reporting their boards require. With all the hoops nonprofits must jump through, nonprofit staff often report that they feel micromanaged or untrusted.

Hard copy grant applications can be costly

Some foundations have moved their application process to online platforms, but many still require nonprofits to mail in multiple paper copies of the grant application. This paperwork is an additional financial burden for nonprofits that must keep up with the costs of paper, toner, and postage in order to apply for grants.  


The challenges nonprofits face when applying for grants can often result in nonprofits serving foundations. This is the reverse of what should be happening. Foundations are as concerned with ensuring that their grants are going toward on-the-ground work as nonprofits are. The challenges faced by both nonprofits and foundations, reported in Peak Grantmaking’s Project Streamline, led to a number of recommendations that will make the grant application process more efficient for everyone. These recommendations will appear in Part Two of this series. 

Looking for more content focused on grants management? Check out Submittable’s blog

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.