Online Grant Applications

Flaw #9 from the Project Streamline report:

More than 80 percent of the grantmakers who responded to our survey reported that they have taken steps to make their information gathering practices “more efficient and streamlined for nonprofit applicants.”

…Many streamlining strategies have turned out to be useful to foundations and their grantees. Yet others, notably online applications and common grant applications, have produced mixed results, creating new issues for grantmakers and grantseekers alike.

…Common grantmaking forms for application and reporting (here, generically referred to as CGAs), which provide a single set of application and/or reporting questions that a substantial number of funders in a region (or funding area) will accept, have seemed like a logical time and resource saving tool for philanthropy. Yet our research found surprisingly little support for common grantmaking forms as a strategy for effective streamlining. CGAs are accepted (or, much less frequently, required) by 34 percent of foundations that responded to our survey.

Common grant applications is one of those ideas that make so much sense on the surface. But then I think about how any investment manager would reject the concept of having a standard template of information on which to base their decisions. Every person has at least slightly different criteria for making an investment or grantmaking decision.

But investors do have a very important infrastructure in place that philanthropy lacks. Investors in publicly traded markets know that every company will file their financials with the SEC. Unlike nonprofits’ 990s, SEC filings are not documents focused on compliance and IRS driven issues. SEC documents are designed to inform investors (the recent changes to the 990 did move them in this direction). In addition, companies host quarterly conference calls to discuss their business. While every investor has their own criteria for investing, they have a common set of information they can obtain about any company.

But here’s the critical difference. A common grant application means that there is a standard set of information that nonprofits can send to funders. In the stock market, the common set of information is available for investors to go get. This switch from passive receiving of information to proactively going out to find what you want is one of the core changes that the internet (and especially web 2.0) bring to the world. A common grant application misses the whole value of the internet. Instead of having nonprofits fill out and submit lots of grant applications, why don’t they just post a single set of common information for any funder to download? The 990 could serve this purpose, but why should funders let the IRS dictate what information is important? Why can’t the philanthropic community design their own “impact report” template that every nonprofit could complete and keep updated? (I asked Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way of American, this question in a recent podcast.)

Personally I think that most funders should do away with even accepting most grant requests. I think it would be boring to be deluged with requests, most of which I wasn’t interested in. Sounds like spam to me. I’m much more interested in proactively identifying and researching the investments (for-profit or nonprofit) that I am interested in. It sure would help if I could pull up good information about nonprofits on Google Finance the same way I can pull up good information on stocks!

Update: I should be more clear when I say foundations should not accept grant applications. What I believe is that the system of philanthropy should switch from a system of where nonprofits ask for money to one where funders proactively seek out grantees. I layed this thesis out in a Financial Times column earlier this year. But within the current context, I realize there are ramifications if a single foundation stops accepting requests.


  1. Jon Brooks says:

    “Sounds like spam to me.”

    Definitely feels like spam to a foundation. The Reed Foundation wanted to proactively identify ‘investment’ opportunities, so founded to give us a database of projects & charities that we can proactively search.

    It’s early days, but the Reed Foundation has found new projects that we would never have come across if we’d waited for the charity to ask us.


    (formerly Reed Foundation, now full-time Big Give)

  2. paul wislotski says:

    Over the last 14 years I have been doing collective art peaces across America with just a donation bucket set up. I never make more than 5000.00 in any year. Can I sign up for a grant even though I have not filed taxes in the last 15 yrs.