Principles in Practice
Streamline Your Processes by Investing in Grants Management
Learning about first-hand experiences from grantmakers who have streamlined helps those who are interested in the benefits of implementing more efficient processes and practices. At GMN’s 2012 Annual Conference in San Antonio, a panel of grantmakers discussed their streamlining efforts, talked frankly about the challenges they encountered, and shared lessons learned from the experience.
Deborah Hessler, Corporate Secretary & Program Officer of the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, a 38-year-old private, independent foundation that grants more than $3 million a year; the Foundation has a staff of five.
“Like you, I have to work very smart.”
Deborah Hessler attended a Project Streamline session in 2009 and was struck by the cost-benefit ratio for grantees applying and reporting to her foundation: “It was costing each grantee $30 for every $100 we were giving them just to complete our application and file reports. So, we looked hard at our systems.”
Knowing where to start is the key, Hessler says. Once a plan is in place, Hessler recommended following three key steps: preparing, getting the project off and running, and securing staff buy-in.
Preparation requires a clear picture of issues in question. For example, Hessler looked at her Foundation’s process of paying grant checks—how many people were involved to get the job done? By reviewing the Foundation's existing practices, she discovered that it took 22 touches to get a grant payment sent out.
Hessler also looked at optimizing data systems, which can involve more efficient and effective use of the software already in place or, in some circumstances, investing in different software that can make the process run more smoothly. “We looked at every field and every code to optimize our software,” Hessler recalls.
The next step for Hessler was to look at the Foundation’s workflow. She decided to break this huge task into small pieces with a unique method of tracking and viewing: “I looked at the entire Foundation because there is so much overlap in what each of us does. I took sticky pads and hung them on the wall. Under the big fields, such as payments, I used smaller sticky notes and noted every touch that a payment goes through in the office. In addition, every person in the office had a different color sticky note. Once it was all on the wall, I brought in the CFO to see if it looked right, then I brought in the secretary, then the president. Everyone looked at the wall and made changes if something wasn’t right.”
In a couple of weeks, the entire wall was filled and the workflow was in view. “Our goal was two-pronged, not only [to map out] the internal processes but [to add the perspective] of our grantees as well.” Hessler knew she needed staff buy-in and called the team together to get their opinions and input and affirm that everyone was included in the process.
Hessler’s investment in the process was the driving force behind two significant changes: the Foundation moved grant applications online, and eliminated application deadlines, opting to accept and process grant requests year-round.
Additionally, Hessler’s Foundation expedited the grant approval process. “We realized that the majority of our grants were $50,000 and under,” she said. Her board of directors wanted to spend more time on governance issues rather than grants, so the board gave the president the authority to approve grants of $50,000 or less, with larger grants going to the board for approval. “We went from approving grants in two-to-three months to approving grants in two-to-three weeks.”
The improvements were a success for both the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation and its grantees. “We eliminated a lot of redundancy and showed that we respect our grantees’ time and resources.”
Loretta Duvall, Senior Operations Manager at The Children’s Trust, which works to improve the lives of all children and families in Miami-Dade County; the Trust has 79 staff members.
About 20 percent of the staff at The Children’s Trust is involved in the grant application process, and information systems in support of funding have intentionally been kept to a minimum. As major program strategies were nearing the end of a three-year funding cycle, the Trust found itself facing growth, with mandated spending, but in an environment of increasingly scarce funding resources. “This led us to expect that we would be receiving an unprecedented number of applications,” Duvall says. At the time, the Trust posted funding opportunities on their website for download and then printed hard copies of audits and applications, creating a vast accumulation of printed pages and files.
The Trust made several changes to their grantmaking processes based on recommendations by Project Streamline. “We wanted to simplify the due diligence,” Duvall notes. For instance, the Trust wanted to help applicants understand their eligibility status from the outset; 25 percent of applicants at that time were not eligible for a variety of reasons. Duvall and her team created a short set of questions to screen applicants before they began the full application process.
“We wanted to join the modern grants and funding era,” Duvall said. They simplified the application process, moving it to an online database that enabled applicants to re-use the same content for future grant requests. The Trust also invested in digitally archiving the massive amount of historical paper documentation, reducing storage costs by $6,000 a year.
Duvall implemented weekly status meetings to increase communication among the team and the organization engaged a third-party survey firm and focus groups to measure impact and overall satisfaction with the changes they implemented. Results indicated that the Trust is now more efficient, incurs fewer manual errors, and has lessened the frustration and time spent processing grants.
Danette Peters, grants manager for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, a family foundation that “help[s] move people and places out of poverty,” in the southeastern United States. The Foundation has $163 million in assets and with nine full-time staff members.
When it comes to investing in grants management, Danette Peters says she can’t stress enough the importance of staff buy-in to the ultimate success of efforts to create organizational change. The Babcock Foundation started its streamlining investment in 2006, when it began accepting online applications. They created an outcomes tracking system in MicroEdge that monitored each grant and tracked outcomes across all grantees, then used MicroEdge to streamline the proposal review process.
The Foundation’s next goal was to invest in its reporting system. They found they were asking too many questions for their program reports and that some of the questions they were asking were not clear to grantees. They cut the reporting questions from nine to two and moved to online reporting. Now, grantees are more likely to complete the reporting process and the documentation that is generated is informative and consistent. Internally, the printed report is only three pages long and is easy to read, which saves staff time.
Investing in grants management is truly a never-ending process. Peters is now working on annual reviews, with her sights set on communicating impact and outcomes. “Make the time to invest in grants management,” she recommends. “The investment is well worth it.”