Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose

(This is a guest post from Taylor Ansley, a fellow at Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Taylor Ansley

I attended a session Monday afternoon that, frankly, won’t sound nearly as sexy and exciting as some of the topics covered recently by my fellow bloggers (micro philanthropy, socially responsible investing, venture philanthropy, etc). And yet “Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose” spawned a great discussion about desperately needed measures for improving the grantmaking process that (I hope) a number of funders will implement when they return home from DC.

This session was sponsored by Project Streamline—a group of foundation and nonprofit leaders looking for ways to improve the application and reporting process—and was focused on the results of a truly useful new report. You can find the full Project Streamline report (and I encourage grant makers to read the whole thing) at www.projectstreamline.org. Let me touch on a few ideas I hope folks will consider:

1. “Right Sized” requirements for grant applicants/recipients. Different application and reporting requirements for a $5,000 grant versus a $500,000 grant seem logical. Yet the majority of foundations do not vary their requirements by grant size, grant type, or the length of their relationship with a nonprofit (so a twenty-year grantee still submits their 501(c)3 letter each year). There remain unanswered questions (the answers to some of which will vary across different foundations) about how to distinguish between “small” and “large” grants, as well as what information should be absolutely required of all grantees. Nevertheless, the concept of “right sizing” is extremely helpful in identifying and alleviating burdens on grant applicants.
2. “Start[ing] from Zero:” the notion that foundation staff and board members should start from scratch and ask themselves “what information do I absolutely need?” to evaluate a grant proposal or project. Starting from zero means that funders should always be able to articulate to their grantees WHY they need follow-up materials, grant reports, a letter of support, etc. Many nonprofits interviewed for the study reported frustration from submitting reports to funders and not hearing any feedback. One nonprofit executive quoted in the study quipped: “We assume that [the funders] feed everything to a giant fiery furnace.” Starting from zero encourages funders to only request information that will be used in learning from grants or evaluating past and future efforts.
3. Exploring creative ways (including technology) to make applying for grants, from multiple funders, easier. Every foundation may have particular questions it wants answered, but common information (particularly things that may only vary modestly from year-to-year like contact information or board member names) could be saved in a common repository for groups of foundations. Grantees are understandably frustrated by filling out the same basic information (in addition to substantive descriptions of their work, impact, etc.) for 3, 10, or 50 funders each year. While a common application may not be feasible, what efforts could be undertaken to lessen this burden?

Again, those are just a few of the ideas explored in the Project Streamline report. In a way, it all seems incredibly simple. Yet in a sector that oftentimes seems dominated by process, sometimes it’s useful to examine the burden funders place on grantees (and themselves) through unnecessarily cumbersome methods.