Principles in Practice
The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
Working smarter not harder was the goal of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation when it began streamlining its application and reporting processes in 2005. Grants Manager, Danette Peters talks about her organization’s streamlining goals, the changes they made and the lessons learned.
Q: Why did your organization decide to streamline its application and/or reporting processes?
A: In 2004, the Foundation went through a year-long planning process that re-focused our mission and beliefs, developed long-term outcomes and created our Theory of Change. Out of this planning our New Program was developed and implemented.
With our new priorities, there was a need to work smarter not harder. We are a small staff that funds in multiple states, and we needed a seamless process. It seemed like the perfect time to look at all of our grantmaking processes and see where we could streamline. We also knew we needed to begin to track outcomes.
Q: What were your organization’s streamlining goals? Have you achieved those goals? Did you experience any unexpected benefits of streamlining?
A: We knew we needed to better use the resources we already had, like our MicroEdge GIFTS database. We wanted all grant related information entered directly into GIFTS, not only by administrative staff but also by program staff. We have, for the most part, achieved those goals, but it is an ongoing process to continue to improve and streamline practices and procedures as we learn and grow.
Q: Who in your organization led the effort to make these changes?
A: I did, with the full support of my Program Director!
Q: What changes did you make to streamline your processes? Specific examples of any requirements or documents would be appreciated, including before and after copies of your requirements or other application and reporting documents. This will help readers to replicate your streamlining success.
A: We had a multi-year process:
- 2006 – We began accepting online applications. Since then, we have revised the application questions multiple times. We found we were not getting the right answers to questions because we weren’t asking them clearly enough. Full Proposal Application Questions.
- 2006 - Created and implemented outcome tracking system in GIFTS to monitor each grant and track outcomes across all grantees. This also has been modified several times since implementation. Some things we originally thought were important to track turned out to be not so important in the big picture. We also learned there were things we needed to track that we hadn’t thought of when we began this process.
- 2007 – We began training and development for tracking and monitoring outcomes; we identified the need for consistency in how outcomes are written.
- 2008 – Participated in the Center for Effective Philanthropy survey (CEP) – Surveying past and current grantees on what they thought of the Foundation and the processes we use.
- 2008 – The Foundation streamlined our proposal review process using GIFTS – now program staff enters all due diligence Q&A’s and completes initial and final staff write-up directly in the system.
- 2009 – Next we revised our progress report. The old progress report included 11 questions and asked for a full narrative along with reporting on outcomes, but we weren’t using this information for anything except to release the next grant payment. Our new progress report has only two questions and the answers it gives us just enough information to release the next grant payment or let the Network Officer know they need to follow up. Progress Report Guidelines
- 2010 – We found we were not getting the information we needed from final grant reports, again because we were not asking the questions clearly enough.
We also wanted to be transparent with our grantees, so we let them know that the information in their final report would be used as a part of the Foundation’s overall evaluation. In the past, final reports were reviewed signed off on and stuck in a file. We did nothing with them. We relied on external consultants to evaluate our programs AFTER they ended. Now with the capability to track and report on outcomes we were able to adjust mid-course, learning from what did and did not work Mid-course Review.
Once the organizations found out that the information in the reports would be used for something meaningful they were more than happy to get the reports submitted. We were able to collect 22 out of 25 very past due reports! Final Report Guidelines
2011 – Using Microedge IGAM we created an online reporting process that enables us to accept all progress and final reports online. No more lost reports! We also found that grantees are more willing to go online and answer a few questions than asking them to do long written narratives.
Q: How long did it take to implement these changes?
A: We started streamlining in 2005 and accepted up front that it would be an ongoing process—breaking it down into manageable parts made the process less overwhelming. Each year we continue to make improvements in our processes and we do it deliberatively—we make sure each change works for the entire staff before moving on the next streamlining project.
Q: Did you involve grantees and applicants in your streamlining efforts? If so, how? What feedback have you gotten from them on your changes?
A: Yes, we completed the Center for Effective Philanthropy survey in 2008. We included two questions about our application process on the survey, and the results were great. Grantees said that our process helped them think about their outcomes and work-plans in a more meaningful way. It also gave us positive feedback on how our Network Officers were interacting with our grantees. Our grantees say they see us as more of a “partner” type relationship than a funder relationship, which is what we hoped to accomplish.
Q: Did your grantees experience any difficulties with the changes you implemented? If so, what were they and how did you address them?
A: Most of our feedback has been positive, and we attribute this to the incremental approach we took that let staff and grantees acclimate to new processes before moving to the next steps. Our grantees especially like the shortened online progress and final report process.
Q: How about your staff and board? Did they have any trouble adjusting to the changes? If so how did you address this?
A: Staff and board adjusted well. I made sure to get staff “buy-in” and include staff input at every step of the process. The system has to work for the people that actually use it. Our system is stronger because we had feedback and staff feels they had a role in creating the new processes.
Q: After you implemented the streamlined procedures, did you discover any modifications that need to be made to your new application or reporting processes?
A: Yes, we realized we needed to make several changes to our online application and reports. On the application we were not clear about how we wanted the outcomes written, so we went back in and added instructions and examples.
For the reporting, again we were not getting clear answers, so we went back to streamline the questions. Some of the old questions actually had three questions in one, which made it difficult to answer. The new final report has one short question for each required field, making it much clearer to the grantee what we expect them to report on.
Q: Based on your experience, do you have any recommendations or other comments for organizations interested in streamlining their processes?
A: Get staff “buy-in.” Include all staff in the planning. This gives your staff ownership of the system and/or process, and makes them more likely to use it in the end.
Be patient and do not get overwhelmed. It is a huge project, but it can be broken into manageable parts. Take it one step at a time.
Get the full support of a senior management person. They can play a critical role in championing your efforts and also help enforce new standards for are using the system.