Atoning for Grantmaking Transgressions

Last week, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wrote about atoning for grantseeking transgressions.  In that post, I promised to post this week about grantmaking transgressions, and immediately post-Yom Kippur, I’m particularly motivated to keep my promises.  So here it is: atoning for grantmaking transgressions.

As indicated in last week’s post, one of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement.  Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed. 

I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantmakers, may have made in the past year.  Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.

Again, in no particular order:

  • We have been unclear. While grantees and applicants have a responsibility to ensure that their organization and programs are a good fit with the foundation’s priorities before applying, the foundation must help that process by making its priorities clear.  When a prospective grantee visits your website or reads your annual report, if you don’t have a website – and why don’t you have a website?  Even if you don’t have – or don’t want - an online application, you can still help your grantees by putting together a very simple website (it can even be one page).  But I digress.  When a prospective grantee visits your website, can they easily find clear information about:
    • Your priorities
    • What types of organizations and projects you will consider funding (organization type, size, location, issue area, types of grants/requests)
    • What types of organizations and projects you will not consider funding
    • What information should be submitted for a grant request
    • When
    • To Whom
    • In what format
    • What your deadlines are
    • When they can expect to hear something back from you – how long does it take for a request to be considered?  If a grant is awarded, how long does it take from the date the decision is made until the grant funds are in the grantee’s hands?
    • What are the reporting requirements for awarded grants
    • How the applicant can get questions answered in the application process
    • Your preferred initial form of communication (should applicants talk to a program officer?  Submit an LOI if they meet the basic eligibility requirements?  Take an online eligibility quiz?)
  • We have increased the full cost of our grants by asking for information we don’t need. Seeking grants is costly.  Nonprofits spend a tremendous amount of time (read: money that could be spent on other mission-related activities) doing it.  The Center for Effective Philanthropy has said that 13% of every foundation grant dollar is spent administering the grants.  13%.  That’s $6B across the sector. And the breakdown of that 13% is roughly 1.5% foundation expenditures, 11.5% nonprofit expenditures. Foundations can help that. 
  • Take the time at least every other year to review your LOI, proposal, and report forms and processes.  What information are you requesting from your applicants and grantees? 
    • For each piece of information, ask yourself, “How are we using this information?”  If the answer is, “We aren’t,” or “I’m not sure,” get rid of it.  It will save your applicants and grantees time.  Incidentally, it will also save you time, since you and your staff, board, and reviewers will not have to read information that is extraneous to your decision-making process. 
    • Next, for each piece of information, ask yourself
  • We have not actively encouraged our grantees to talk about failure, and we have therefore collectively not learned from it.  Not every project is going to be successful.  Even the most impactful and well-run organizations will have some initiatives that will not work.  If a grant has not gone well, will your grantees tell you about what went wrong?  Will they really?  Many (even most) nonprofits fear sharing failures with foundations.  Their concern is their perception that foundations only fund successful programs.  If you’ve funded them once, they really really really want you to fund them again.  What if their admission that something didn’t go perfectly discourages you from funding them again?  Failures in programs and initiatives (even organizations as a whole) create amazing learning opportunities, not only for the organization but for you as the funder and for the field as a whole.  Assuming that you fund several organizations that work on similar issues – and talk to other foundations that fund similar issues – you’re uniquely positioned to learn from one project’s failures and shortcomings and shorten the learning curve for others so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes.  But you need to get an honest assessment from your grantees of what worked and what didn’t.  This isn’t easy, given the concern that many nonprofits feel about sharing less-than-stellar results. Encourage your grantees to talk about failures.  Reward them for doing so by funding them again – and by helping the issue that they’re working on by sharing information productively and broadly.
  • We have been unwilling to take risks.  It makes a ton of sense of invest in things that work.  But there are a lot of new, innovative, potentially world-changing ideas and organizations out there.  And they’re having a hard time getting funding, particularly because they’re new.  They don’t have a track record, which clearly makes them a riskier investment.  But with higher risk also comes the potential for higher reward.  Some of these unproven new ideas will radically improve whatever issue they’re dedicated to tackling.  And we’ll never know their full potential unless they get some support.  I’m not advocating turning away from successful organizations and programs, but rather trying to push beyond the comfort zone of only investing in things you’ve invested in previously.  It doesn’t have to be a lot.  Maybe 5% of your grants next year could be to organizations under two years old?  Maybe even under a year old?  And maybe you could connect them with other resources (knowledge, people, potentially other funders even?) to help set them up for success?  You may “lose” that money.  But you may invest in something world-changing.

Feel free to add your own grantmaking transgressions in the comments.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
October 06, 2012, 12:19 AM

3 Tips for Presenting Grant Information

Driving from San Antonio to Austin after the Grants Managers Network (GMN) conference last week, I saw a sign on the highway that read, "Travel time to LP 1604, 16-18 minutes."

Without contect, that piece of information is meaningless.  How far away is LP 1604?  How long should it take to get to LP 1604?  (And what is LP 1604?  I figured that one out... LP 1604 is a highway loop (the LP stands for loop) that circles San Antonio.)

The problem of presenting information without context brought to mind Cole Nussbaumer's session at GMN entitled "Storytelling with Data: Visualizing Philanthropy."  Cole is the People Analytics Manager at Google and the data guru who writes about analytics at Storytelling with Data.  She addressed how grants managers can better use visuals to present information about grants, programs, outcomes, etc.

Cole provided compelling before and after images to demonstrate how some basic design principles can make grant information both more accessible and more meaningful:


Animal Care Services   Before


Animal Care Services   After 1

Note how much easier it is to understand the story being told in the "after" image.

Here are 3 tips for presenting grant information:

  • Simplify.  If a specific piece of information isn't necessary to tell the story you want to tell, remove if from the chart or graph.
  • Focus attention where you want it. You have many tools in your toolbelt to help focus attention - color, contrast, size, even text.  In the "after" example above, the use of color and bold text makes it very clear where the viewer's attention should be focused.
  • Help your viewers draw the conclusions you want them to draw.  Don't assume all viewers will interpret the information the same way you do, or the way you intend them to.  If you want to highlight a conclusion that is supported by the data you're presenting, use text to make that conclusion clear, and support it with the visuals.

For more tips about creating compelling visual representations of data, visit Cole's blog.

What are your favorite tips for presenting grant information?

Images from Cole Nussbaumer's blog at
Author: Dahna Goldstein
March 29, 2012, 10:27 AM

How to Prepare Your Board for Online Grant Applications

Stack of Folders

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

Trends in Online Grantmaking

This is the first in a series of periodic looks at trends that we at PhilanTech see developing among our clients and others in the field.  These posts will include grantmaking and grantseeking trends, as well as other items of relevance to grantmaking and grantseeking.  If there is something specific you'd like to see covered, please leave a comment below.

trends in online grantmaking

Three trends in online grantmaking:

  1. I've discussed online LOIs before.  Particularly with the increased volume of grant requests that is accompanying the economic recovery, this is a trend that is continuing, and is one that I think is positive.  Inviting applicants to submit an LOI prior to a full proposal saves both the grantmaker and the grantseeker time.  It has the added benefit of helping some grantmakers feel like they can ease their eligibility restrictions a bit in the hopes of discovering new and intersting programs, but do so in a way that doesn't unduly burden either party;
  2. Quantifiable outcomes.  More grantmakers are looking for their grantees to be able to quantify anticipated outcomes when they apply for a grant, and then report back on those outcomes and how they fared over the course of the grant.  This continues to be fueled by an interest in impact and measurement, which is a subject of ongoing debate in the philanthropy world (in terms of what can and should be measured, what "impact" means, what it says about a "good" nonprofit, and, importantly from the grantseeker perspective, what is involved in collecting and sharing impact-related information with funders);
  3. A character count debate.  As more foundations accept proposals online, foundations see an opportunity to do one of two things: provide applicants with more flexibility, or provide stricter guidance so that applicants are providing more targeted (read: less verbose) information.  Both are valid approaches.  While I lean more towards allowing more flexibility, the reality of a foundation program officer's work day (and that of a trustee or review committee member) is that long-winded applicant response is both less desirable and less effective.  Two takeaways here:
  • Grantmakers can suggest word/character limits without enforcing them;
  • Grantseekers really need to view what they're submitting from the perspective of their readers, and respect the grantmaker's guidelines, even if a response is shorter than you would like it to be.

What trends are you seeing in online grantmaking?

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
July 06, 2011, 04:27 PM

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