How to Prepare Your Board for Online Grant Applications

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If you're thinking about online grant applications for your foundation, you may be wondering how to get your board, well, on board.  Here are a few tips to position yourself to lead your board and your organization into online grant applications.

  • Get buy-in.  Who in your organization will be involved in using an online grant management system?  Talk with your board chair early in the process to get her or him on board.  If your board chair is likely to resist the idea, recruit another board member who is more likely to get on board, and the two of you can work together to gradually educate your board chair about the benefits of online grant applications.
  • Communicate early and often.  As you start the process of exploring options and preparing to move your system online, get input from people who will be involved (though who are involved in the grant application and evaluation process now, and those who will use the online system) and communicate clearly throughout the organization - and even to your grantees and applicants - that you are planning to move the process online, and when you are planning to make the move.
  • Mitigate anxiety.  Particularly for an organization that has been doing things in the same way for a long time, the prospect of change can bring up a lot of emotion.  Some of it will be positive ("just think of what we can accomplish with an online grant application!" "I'm so excited about all of the time we're going to have by moving online!"), and some of it will be negative ("What if I can't learn how to use the system?"  "What if the foundation doesn't need me any more to process applications?").  Understanding that people will experience that range of emotions is the first step in trying to mitigate the anxiety that some people will feel.  Creating ways for people to feel involved in the process and feel that their voice is heard goes a long way, as does clearly communicating what support will be available along the way.
  • Training and support.  From the start of the process, it's important to communicate that support and training will be available.  That training and support should come in different formats and at different times, taking into account the fact that people learn differently and have varying levels of comfort with technology (and varying levels of comfort with their varying levels of comfort with technology).  Talk to people about what kind of support they need.  Check in throughout the process to ensure that support is being given.  And create low-key ways for those in need to request additional support.

What are your top tips for preparing your board members for online grant applications?

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
August 04, 2011, 06:06 PM

What I Learned about Grant Management in 2010


It's that time of year - the time for "the top" of the year lists.  I'm sitting on a plane, reflecting on the past year, and the six months since this blog started, and figured I'd contribute my own list, in the form of things I've learned and observed about online grant management this year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Foundations are increasingly using online LOIs.  This is both an indication that more foundations are moving their grant application processes online, and, I think, a reflection of the current state of the economy and potentially the start of the implementation of some of the recommendations of Project Streamline.  To the first point, some foundations that have not yet moved their whole grant process online are still requesting online LOIs.  As indicated in an earlier blog post, I think this is a good trend for a number of reasons.  In terms of foundations that are still requesting multiple paper copies of applications, perhaps LOIs are a gateway to moving the whole process online;
  • Despite some progress, online grant applications - and reporting - continues to be a challenge for foundations.  The Technology Affinity Group's bi-annual survey of foundations indicated online grantmaking and donor services remain the top technology issue that foundations are unprepared to address. While more foundations indicated that they had adopted online systems (40% indicated that they had an online application, though not necessarily a complete online system), the majority of foundations still do not have online systems;
  • 2010 was a rough year for nonprofits.  That's not news at this point, but one of the things that really struck me in the State of Grantseeking 2010 survey that PhilanTech conducted with GrantStation was how many really small grants fund an average nonprofit (a “typical” nonprofit in the survey receives grants between $7,310 and $50,000, but 161 organizations – 20% - reported that they had received grants under $1,000).  Given the effort (time = money) involved in putting together a good grant proposal, then the effort (time again = money) involved in reviewing and approving a grant (not to mention monitoring the grant and evaluating impact), the inefficiency of many small grants is striking.  Small grants aren't likely to go away (and, in some cases, shouldn't), but the sector as a whole, as well as the individual foundations awarding those grants, has a responsibility to ensure that the cost of managing the grant doesn't outweigh the benefit to the grantee and its constituencies;
  • Foundations are gradually starting to share more information online.  Of the 77,000 foundations in the U.S., only 29% reported having a website or an annual report.  While that number has increased, the relative absence of online information, particularly given the ubiquity of the Internet, mobile devices, etc., creates an information barrier for grant seekers, and ultimately makes grant research more costly for those organizations.  This year saw some progress on that front, with more foundations publishing not only their guidelines on their websites, but also information about past grants, information about the issues they fund, resources for grandees and other organizations and people interested in those issues.  Some foundations have even embraced social media as a tool to further their missions and those of their grantees.  The Foundation Center's Glass Pockets initiative highlights some of these efforts and tracks the progress of the sector as a whole - and is itself a commendable step in increasing and embracing transparency in grantmaking.

What did you learn about online grant management in 2010?  What are your predictions for 2011?

Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 03, 2011, 04:19 PM

Grant Management for Nonprofits - Some Dos and Don'ts


Google "grant management" and you'll end up with thousands of hits offering grant writing services or articles.  (You'll also get links to the grant management divisions of various government agencies, but that's another story.)

So where is a grant writer to begin?  This post is intended to provide some very high level dos and don'ts in grant management and for nonprofits.  Future posts will address some of the finer points, and will address some dos and don'ts for grant writing as well.

Grant management begins before the grant is received - in order to dedicate sufficient resources to the grant if it is received, you need to know what you're pursuing, why, the likelihood that you'll be successful, and what you're planning to do with the grant once you succeed in getting it.

A few dos:

  • Be strategic about which grants you pursue.  Your organization has limited resources.  Writing grant proposals that are very unlikely to be funded isn't necessarily a good use of those limited resources.  Also, grants can sometimes be costly to an organization once they're funded (see my previous post about The Cost of Managing Grants)
  • Know what your reporting obligations are.  When do you have to submit reports to the funder?  What do they need to contain? 
  • Use a grant calendar to remind yourself and others in your organization about due dates for reports.  The calendar can be on paper, in Outlook (or another piece of software that provides a calendar), or in a grants management tool like PhilanTrack, but what's important is that:
    • Deadlines are recorded;
    • There is a mechanism for reminders;
    • Everyone who needs to know about upcoming deadlines has access;
  • Communicate with others in your organization who are impacted by the grant requirements to let them know what those requirements are, what you need from them, when, and in what format it should be conveyed.  Be sure to communicate with them frequently;
  • Understand what kind of financial tracking needs to be in place.  Most government grants require significant documentation of all expenditures related to grants (foundation grants tend to be a little less exacting, but foundations still want to know where their grant money went).  Be sure that you have a good financial tracking system in place - or that you're working with someone in your organization (or someone contracted to your organization like an accountant) who has a good system in place.

A few don'ts:

  • Apply to a prospective funder without doing sufficient research;
  • Think that your job is done once the grant is funded;
  • Wait until the last minute to let your CFO, accountant, or anyone else who needs to be involved know what the requirements are for reporting on a grant;
  • Submit reports late.  This may sound obvious, but I'm consistently amazed by how many grantees miss reporting deadlines.  A lot of funders will only consider future grants once reports are received (and if they are received on time), so the timeliness of your submissions to your funder is not only good stewardship of the grant, it's also frequently necessary if you hope for future funding;
  • Hide information when things go wrong.  It happens.  Sometimes information is misplaced or communications are confused.  Address that type of issue by getting out in front of it with your funder, rather than waiting until the last minute, or hiding the information altogether.

What are some other dos and don'ts for nonprofit grant management from your experience?


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
December 06, 2010, 07:46 PM

When You’re Ready for Online Grants, but Your Foundation Isn’t

I talk to a lot of foundation professionals who are interested in online grants management, but not quite ready to make the leap.  Why?  Their paper forms are working for them (or are at least sort of working for them), and while the individual I’m talking to may really understand the benefit – to the foundation and its grantees – of managing grants online, The Foundation isn’t ready to change the way it’s been doing things.

("The Foundation" could be some or all of your colleagues or your organization’s board members, or an organizational culture that isn’t accustomed to change.)

Does this sound familiar?  If so, here are a few things you can do to start the conversation inside your foundation:

  • Find out which of your colleagues is similarly excited about online grant applications and who might have some hesitations;
  • Talk to the folks who have hesitations to find out what they are:
    • Are they concerned about the foundation getting flooded with unqualified applications?  (If so, your foundation can add an eligibility quiz to its online application to filter out unqualified applicants)
    • Are they afraid they won’t know how to use an online system?  (If so, there are lots of ways for them to get support and learn how to use the system)
    • Do they think that the status quo is just fine?  (If so, you might consider sharing the Project Streamline report with them, or encouraging them to talk to other foundations and perhaps some of your grantees to understand how moving grants management online helps not only the foundation but your grantees as well);
  • Talk to the folks who are in your camp, and put a plan in place to recruit the resistors.  The process here can’t be aggressive lobbying – it has to be finding out who among your compatriots has a good relationship with the resistors, and creating an environment where the resistors can feel safe to talk about what’s holding them back.

What do you think?  What are some ways you have found to move the conversation forward at your foundation?  I’ll write another post soon with your ideas and a few more of my own.

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
November 17, 2010, 06:36 PM

Online Grant Management – Right Sizing Grant Expectations


Earlier today, I heard a business executive talking about "right sizing" his company, euphemistically discussing layoffs, reductions in staff size.

Right sizing isn't necessarily about reductions - it's about making adjustments.

Right sizing grant expectations is one of the recommendations in the Project Streamline report, "Drowning in Paperwork."  It's easy to say to take that recommendation to mean that foundations should reduce their requirements, that they should make their applications shorter, their reporting less frequent and lengthy.

But that's not my interpretation (nor, I think, is it what the Project Streamline folks mean).  Foundations have an obligation to be good stewards of their endowments and the 5% that they grant.  They have an obligation to ensure that the organizations their grants fund are valid organizations that are aligned with donor intent.  Depending on the foundation and its mandate, it may have additional or more specific obligations.  And some degree of information must be collected from the grantee to facilitate meeting those obligations.

Here’s a guideline: before you include a requirement in a grant proposal or progress report, ask yourself four questions:

  • Do I need this information to make a good decision?
  • How will I use this information?
  • Can I get this information easily without asking the applicant/grantee to supply it for me?
  • How difficult/time consuming will it be for the application/grantee to prepare this information?  Does that seem like a reasonable use of their time, given the size of the grant (or the potential grant)?

(Ok, so that last one was two questions, but you get the idea.)

I wrote an earlier post about increasing use of LOIs, and I think it’s applicable here.  Short form applications (whether LOIs or a short proposal) are a great way to collect information from grantees without creating negative net grants.

In fact, PhilanTech research, conducted with the Urban Institute, suggests five essential categories of questions for reports, represented by the following questions:
  • What did you say you were going to do with our grant?
  • What did you actually do?
  • How did you spend our grant money?
  • What were your challenges?
  • What did you learn?
A short-form proposal wouldn’t look all that different:
  • What are you going to do with our grant?
  • What makes you the right organization to do it?
  • How will you know when you’ve done it?
  • How will you spend our grant money?
  • How will you share your results/experience/learning?
Every foundation will have its own variation on the questions above, and will likely require additional information, and that’s ok.  But please think of your grantees, your information needs, and answer the four (ok, five) questions above when putting together your requirements.

And grantees – you have a responsibility here too: know what is involved in managing a grant from your end.  How long does it take you to put together an application?  To monitor/report on your grant?  How likely are you to receive a particular grant?  In what amount?  Look at the total cost of managing a potential grant -- hours of staff time X hourly rate (based on that person’s salary) + opportunity cost of not being able to pursue a different grant or other activity with that time – and decide whether that grant is worth it to your organization.

Together, we can all work to continue to streamline grants management and get grant dollars to organizations that will use them well.

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
October 28, 2010, 06:59 PM

Online Grant Management - Millennium Development Goals and Data

Millennium Development GoalsThis morning, I attended the Washington DC viewing of TEDxChange.  For the uninitiated, TED is an organization that presents talks (generally at TED - Technology, Entertainment, Design - conferences) by interesting and accomplished people, or, as the organization frames it, "Ideas worth spreading."

(As an aside, TED talks are really worth checking out.  One of my favorites has nothing to do with philanthropy or grants – Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, as a brain surgeon, talking about her experience having a stroke.)

The impetus for this morning's TEDxChange was the 10th anniversary of the UN Millennium Development Goals (for more information about the MDGs, check out the UN MDG site).  The lineup of speakers included Mechai Viravadiya, Founder and Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (nicknamed "Mr. Condom"), Graca Machel, former Minister for Education and Culture in Mozambique, Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health (and prior TED talk presenter - worth watching), and Melinda French Gates of the Gates Foundation.

I'll leave it to others to summarize everything that was said during the talks (or you can watch the whole thing here), and focus on one theme that emerged as I listened to the talks and to the panel of experts assembled for post-event discussion at AED in Dupont Circle in DC: the importance of data in achieving the MDGs - and in social and economic change in general.

Gates' talk used Coca Cola to highlight things that work in developing countries and to propose some lessons at could be applied to development work.  Coke, she said, does three things incredibly well in developing countries: it uses real-time data, empowers local entrepreneurs, and has incredible marketing.

That first point - having and using real-time data - struck me.  Without data, how do we know what's working and what isn't?  Without data, how do we know if any intervention is actually having an impact?  How can we make a case for supporting one initiative over another?  Or the case to support an organization doing the work?  While NGOs clearly aren't the same thing as a multinational company, the broader point is well taken.  

Hans Rosling's talk also highlighted the importance of data (admittedly, the whole talk was about statistics, so of course data is important!).  He showed compelling visualizations of declines in infant mortality rates in both developing and developed countries (and made the point that, particularly as infant mortality rates decline, the distinction between "Western" and "not Western" countries is increasingly irrelevant).  Without good data - and good data collection tools, how would we know that infant mortality rates are declining?  How could the people and organizations working on that issue identify which interventions are working, or which are the most successful?

The importance of data in social change applies just as clearly to foundations and other grantmakers combating poverty, protecting the environment, and supporting communities here in the U.S.  Good data helps grantmakers determine which organizations to support, which interventions are most effective - and can, perhaps, be replicated, which initiative are, perhaps, less effective.  Long term data - trend analysis over several years - can be particularly helpful in both identifying what's working, and in tracking changes in populations and communities served.  More than just helpful, I would argue that information is critical to the work that nonprofits and philanthropies do every day.   And the importance of good tools to support that data collection can't be understated.  

As governments, NGOs, philanthropies and others continue to work towards the MDGs - and other social, economic, and environmental goals - my hope is that organizations will continue to work together not only to accomplish their goals, but to efficiently track, share, and use the revenant data.

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 20, 2010, 09:23 PM

Streamlining Grants Management - Project Streamline

Streamlining Grants Management

Project Streamline Logo

Project Streamline is an ongoing initiative housed at the Grants Managers Network.  Originally formed by representatives of various philanthropic industry groups (which now serve as advisory committee members – see list of organizations below), Project Streamline is taking a hard and close look at both costs and opportunities in grant application and reporting processes.  The initiative aims to raise awareness among grantmakers about the impact of different requirements and processes on the nonprofits they fund, and to ultimately reduce the costs of grants administration for both grantmakers and grantseekers.

PhilanTech wholly supports this effort.  In fact, PhilanTrack was designed specifically to address the inefficiencies in the grant management process.  We also strive to provide grantmakers the information they need to make good decisions and evaluate the social impact of their grantmaking.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted a study a few years ago that determined that, on average, 13% of every foundation grant dollar in the U.S. is spent on grants administration.  With $42.9 billion in grants awarded in 2009 (down from $46.8 billion in 2008)(1), that’s over $5 billion dollars spent on grants administration that could have been spent providing needed programs and services, particularly during a time of increased need.

PhilanTech applauds efforts to streamline grants management, and will continue to post about resources available to both grantmakers and grantseekers – through Project Streamline and elsewhere – to reduce the transaction costs of grants administration to help more grant dollars and resources go to programs and services.

Project Streamline Advisory Committee Member Organizations:
Association of Small Foundations
Association of Fundraising Professionals
Council on Foundations
Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
Foundation Center
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
National Council of Nonprofits

(1) Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates, 2010. Foundation Center.  New York 2010.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
May 17, 2010, 04:59 PM

Online Grants Management - Welcome to Rants About Grants

Welcome to Rants about Grants (and other musings about the social sector).  Yes. I’m a bit late to the blogging party, but I’ve been busy.  I’ve been focused on developing a great product, building a socially-responsible company, and serving the social sector.

None of that has changed, but I've realized that all of the above could be helped by starting this blog, so here it is.

As part of PhilanTech’s dedication to helping the social sector, this blog will share:

  • Best practices in
    • Using PhilanTrack,
    • Grant making,
    • Grant seeking;
  • Things I’m learning from our clients, partners, and the sector in general;
  • Relevant information from around the sector and the blogosphere. While PhilanTech’s focus is on streamlining grants management, nothing in the social sector happens in a vacuum, and there are many good resources, writers, thinkers, and opportunities around the sector and in the blogosphere at large; and
  • Periodic rants about grants, nonprofit technology, and the social sector in general.

This blog will provide a way for you to get to know PhilanTech better – our philosophy, products and services, partners, and our thoughts about grant making and grant seeking.  And it’ll be a way for us to get to know you and your needs better.  If you have any thoughts, suggestions or ideas, please leave a comment below or contact us.

drowning in paperwork
(image used under Creative Commons License)

Author: Dahna Goldstein
May 17, 2010, 04:58 PM

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