Tools and Resources
Making Streamlining Stick
From Essentials, the Association of Small Foundations Quarterly Newsletter.
Is your foundation in the midst of streamlining, or are you new to the notion of making your application and reporting requirements less burdensome to your foundation and your grantees?
In either case, keep in mind the four steps that follow. Organizations that walk through them thoughtfully enjoy more success with streamlining—whether their efforts are comprehensive or simply small, manageable bites. We also urge you to take it slow and get it right. Most streamlining— even small changes—requires shifts to ripple throughout a foundation.
Let’s get started.
A logical first step is to take stock of your current situation. How might your foundation and your grantees benefit from a change? Once you understand your current system, its impact on grantseekers, and its effect on your efficiency and effectiveness, you’ll be able to make better decisions.
The following suggestions come from grantmakers who have successfully tackled this first step of streamlining.
Map your process. If you are like most grantmakers, you may have never mapped your full application and reporting process and may have only a general idea of how many steps are involved from start to finish. We recommend creating a diagram of each step in your process. Include steps for your staff as well as grantees, and be sure to accurately reflect every step—even the smallest ones.
Collect input from grantees. Unless your organization regularly seeks feedback from grantees about your grantmaking process, you may not have a clear picture of how it affects them. There are many ways to get input from grantees, from casual conversations to anonymous surveys to third-party research. The power dynamics between funders and nonprofits can make it very difficult to receive candid feedback, though, even when you have strong relationships with your grantees.
Conduct a cost audit. What is the cost of your processes? Some time and expense are necessary, of course, to make good grants. But some funders have found that costs were higher than expected—especially for small grants—and that staff were spending the bulk of their time on paperwork, time that could have instead been devoted to relationship-building.
A rough cost audit can simply involve tracking the number of hours spent by staff on making and monitoring grants and using salary information to translate those hours into dollars. Factor in any costs not related to personnel. For example, you might consider copying, printing, and telephone costs, as well as the costs of travel and convening if your grant process involves meetings.
Learn more about the cost of your process to grantees as well. If you know how long your process takes, you can estimate its cost to grantseeking organizations too.
Assess buy-in and barriers. Take stock of what your organization’s internal stakeholders think about streamlining. Do you have interest and preliminary buy-in from staff? How about your trustees? Without support from the top, as well as support from the staff who interact with grantees, streamlining will be an uphill battle.
As you assess buy-in and barriers, keep in mind that it can be hard to gauge resistance when a change is merely hypothetical. Your colleagues may support streamlining in theory but find it challenging to give up old ways of working. The best way to manage resistance is to communicate regularly and engage as many people as possible in the process.
Create a streamlining team. A streamlining team or work group can be a good way to engage key staff and trustees in the process of change.
An effective team should include:
- Individuals with decision-making power
- Staff or trustees with expertise about the grantmaking process
- People with an interest in the idea of streamlining
- Those with reasonable objections, because naysayers bring alternative perspectives to the table and may help to channel resistance into constructive collaboration
Teams also benefit from having a variety of skill sets. Populate your streamlining team with a combination of idea generators, clarifiers, developers, and implementers.
Make the Case
A next step is to make a case that will resonate with stakeholders whose support you need. There are many ways to build a case for streamlining, but the three that follow are particularly helpful.
Show (don’t just tell) why change is needed. Perhaps you’ve decided to explore streamlining options because your organization received input from nonprofit partners about your process. Or perhaps you noticed that internal inefficiencies make the lives of staff and trustees harder than necessary. Whatever the impetus, think about how you can show the need in a way that appeals to the heart, rather than merely tell to convince the mind.
For example, rather than telling your colleagues that your foundation collects 50% more information from grantees than it uses, come to a board meeting with two stacks of paper: a towering one to show all that is gathered from grantees and a tiny one of only the information actually used to make a grant decision.
The concept of a net grant is also powerful in building a case for streamlining. How much money is left over after an applicant has applied for and reported on use of your funds? For example, a $5,000 grant can be reduced quickly to a net grant of $3,400 when you account for the 16 grantee hours at $100/hour to apply for the grant (8 hours); submit interim and final reports (4 hours); and prepare for and host a site visit (4 hours).
Connect streamlining to mission. In conversations about streamlining, emphasize the potential gains to your organization. Application and reporting practices are not simply nuts and bolts. They have implications for how your foundation is perceived, how it regards its role as a grantmaker, and how it evaluates its impact. Discuss the following questions:
- How do we want our grantees to view our customer service?
- What do our materials say about our foundation?
- How can a more streamlined process advance our foundation’s mission?
Encourage exploration. Your board and staff may not be ready to adopt wholesale changes to your application and reporting practices. We have found that you can build a case for streamlining by encouraging staff to explore small ways to reduce burdens on grantees, using those smaller successes as a springboard to discuss possibilities of larger change.
“Know the readiness of your organization,” says Barbara Bach, director of grant management for the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska. “You don’t need to make a 10% or 20% change right away. If you make a 1% change today and another 1% change in a week or a month, it will accumulate over time.”
The task of streamlining can feel enormous, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Often you can find the low-hanging fruit or easy wins that can help you get under way quickly. Start with the following steps:
Get more stakeholder input. If you haven’t done so already, now is a crucial time to ask your grantees what they would recommend. What kinds of changes would make the biggest difference to them?
It’s also important to ask your staff. What do they see as unnecessary or overly burdensome steps? Sit down with your streamlining team and your application and reporting forms, and ask three questions:
- Do we really need this information? Do we use the information that we collect in our decision-making process for all or most of our applicants, or are we collecting some information “just in case”?
- Can we get it in another way? Is this information available on websites, through public resources, or in other ways that we could access without asking grantees to provide it?
- Have we sufficiently explained to our applicants why we need it? You may really need some information, but your applicants and grantees may not understand why you do or how it is used. You’ll get better cooperation and better information if you communicate clearly about your requirements.
Identify low-hanging fruit. Low-hanging fruit are simple changes that are relatively easy to implement and can have an immediate impact. They might include suggestions to:
- Accept submissions via e-mail.
- Eliminate the requirement that grantees send multiple copies of applications and reports.
- Make application forms available as a Word document so that applicants can type into it directly.
- Eliminate redundant questions in the application form.
- Accept your region’s common application or reporting form, if it is in use.
- Eliminate quarterly or twice-yearly reporting, except for high-risk grantees.
- Replace reports with check-in calls with grantees, which has the added benefit of building stronger grantmaker–grantee relationships.
- Eliminate reports for general operating support grants, because the two main purposes of reports—compliance and evaluation—don’t apply. An organization receiving general operating support is considered in compliance as long as it operated during the grant period with no major changes to its tax status or mission. And, whereas the organization’s programs may have specific outcomes, operating support does not have a direct cause-and-effect connection to outcomes that can be evaluated.
Consider high-impact changes. Solutions that are easy to implement and yield high impact are also obvious choices for quick action.
For example, a health conversion foundation decided to collect due diligence paperwork only after it was fairly certain it would fund a nonprofit. This saved applicants the trouble of gathering board lists, copies of audited financials, and other materials until they were reasonably confident that funding was forthcoming.
Other high-impact changes may include:
- Implementing a multistep process—Grantmakers often receive full application packages up front from every applicant, even when most applicants will not receive funding. This is almost never necessary. A short letter of inquiry or other short application form can be a labor-saving first step for grantees and your foundation.
- Holding onto records—An online repository system can allow applicants to enter information once and then retrieve and revise it year after year. Even short of a fancy system, it may be possible to hold onto certain grantee information so that applicants don’t need to send redundant materials.
Develop a time line and process for making change. Several key questions are useful to answer when planning for change:
- Who is responsible?
- Who will be consulted?
- Who needs to approve/sign off?
- In what sequence will changes be made?
- By when will changes be made?
- How will we know if a change is successful?
- How will we assess unintended consequences?
- How will we communicate about the change within and outside our organization?
Who brings change to an organization? It can be anyone, but streamlining may be best inspired and driven by those in the trenches—grants managers and program officers—who live with applications and reports every day.
“Who better to know what changes need to be made?” asks Dee Slater, grants manager at the Dekko Foundation in Indiana. “If you don’t yet have a seat at the decision-making table, pull up a chair. And the way to pull up a chair is by proposing solutions for how things can be better.”
Implement and Refine
The time has come to put your plan into action. Making a planned change is a feat of choreography—everyone needs to understand and be prepared to execute their role. And after you’ve implemented your changes, you’ll want to know how they fared. Take the following steps:
Communicate planned changes. Before you begin, make sure that your team has communicated clearly internally and externally. Then communicate again. People generally need to receive information multiple times and in multiple ways before it sticks. For example:
- Let grantees know that your processes or requirements have changed. Explain to them that you are working to streamline your processes and eliminate waste and unnecessary burden.
- Ensure that information on your organization’s website and in other communications materials is accurate and up to date.
- Remind staff and board members that the planned changes are about to go into effect and preview how the changes will affect them.
Make the changes and seek feedback. It’s helpful to have a built-in mechanism for collecting feedback from staff and grantees as you implement. You’ll be more likely to catch issues as they arise, and you’ll demonstrate your foundation’s ongoing commitment to learning and improvement. Some easy ways to capture feedback in the moment include:
- Ask applicants to track the amount of time they spend on your new process (but keep in mind that it’s a new process to them, so it might take a little longer the first time).
- Ask applicants to compare your “before” and “after” processes and provide feedback via an anonymous survey.
- Include an assessment question as part of your application. Reassure applicants that you are truly interested in their candid feedback and that being honest will not hurt their chances.
- Offer a help line to answer and track the questions from applicants.
Evaluate impact. Evaluation can sound daunting, but there are many ways to figure out whether something worked as intended. Consider the following options:
- Internal assessment meeting—After a round of changes has been implemented, call staff and/or trustees together for an assessment meeting. Review the changes and invite feedback on what worked and what did not. Be sure to get details about why things didn’t work and suggestions for what would work better.
- Follow-up survey—Send a brief follow-up survey to grantees who experienced your new process, asking for their feedback about each step of the process.
- Third-party interviews—Use a neutral third party such as a consultant to contact grantees for brief interviews about your process and provide you with a report and recommendations.
- Focus groups—Convene a focus group of recently funded grantees to discuss your new process. Asking specific questions about aspects of your application-and-reporting process will help them to give you specific feedback.
Explore unintended consequences. There is a temporary learning curve that accompanies any change, but sometimes a change that was supposed to make things easier actually makes them harder. Check carefully for these unintended consequences; you don’t want your cure to be worse than the disease!
Take stock again. Once you have made a round of changes, you may find that you see other things that need to be modified. Return to earlier steps and take stock again, identify new opportunities, and plan for another round of changes. And repeat! Streamlining is often an iterative process.
As you work to think differently about your relationship to grantees and your role as a grantmaker, keep in mind this quote by Buckminster Fuller: “You can’t change anything by fighting or resisting it. You change something by making it obsolete through superior methods.”