On July 21, a panel of five grantmakers — Ben Esner of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Armanda Famiglietti of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Jonathan Goldberg of the Surdna Foundation, Rossana Martinez of the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, and Susanna Zwerling of Verizon — assembled at our library/learning center to discuss online applications in a seminar titled Meet the Grantmakers: Online Grant Applications and Reporting. The panel discussion was moderated by the Foundation Center’s own Vice President for Development, Nancy Albilal. Below is a brief sampling of some of the issues our panelists explored.
Why do funders choose an online application format? Contrary to what you might think, foundations don’t switch to online applications simply to make their grantees’ lives difficult. In reality, electronic formats make it much easier for funders to keep track of their grantees and collect data about their grantmaking. With the growing focus on accountability in the nonprofit sector, many foundations are taking steps to improve the quality and scope of the information they collect about their charitable work. When nonprofits submit their information electronically, it becomes simpler for funders to sift through that information in order to report on their activities to donors, grantees, government officials, and others. Also, the online process allows foundations to behave more nimbly and flexibly when responding to funding needs in various communities.
Using the data provided by nonprofits, funders can use information technology tools to detect trends that may impact future grantmaking decisions. In addition, online applications mean less paper! Both funders and nonprofits alike benefit from cutting down on the mountains of paperwork to which inordinate amounts of time and money are often devoted — going electronic makes administrative procedures much more efficient and far more environmentally friendly.
How can I improve my chances of success in applying online? Efficient or not, applicants still have numerous concerns when completing these online forms. Many bemoan the lack of a “save” feature when the application is in progress, and some are unhappy with application questions that demand a strict yes-or-no reply when the applicant’s response does not always fit neatly into one of the two categories. Here are a few suggestions offered by our panelists on adapting your grant proposals to an online format.
- Read the entire application and guidelines before you begin. Most funders that use online applications should have the full set of questions posted on their web site for you to read before you actually start filling anything out. Familiarize yourself with all of this, and if for whatever reason you’re unable to find the information, call the funder and ask! Assemble all necessary documents in advance. If you gather all of your materials ahead of time — your IRS tax-exempt letter, mission statement, budget information, etc. — and place them in one convenient spot, you’ll have fewer headaches once you begin.
- Draft your proposal in a word-processing document before you post it to the actual application. This will be an easy life-saver for those applications that lack a “save” function. This way, you can take your time, proofread, and polish every answer into its final state before you copy-and-paste into the application’s text boxes.
- If you have any questions or run into any problems along the way, pick up the phone and call the foundation! Nonprofits tend to be afraid of reaching out to their potential funders, but the truth is that these grantmakers appreciate your feedback. And particularly when they’re experimenting with a new application method, they will be glad to hear your concerns and will be all too happy to help you out.
For more information on online grantmaking, read the materials available at Project Streamline, a collaborative project between grantmakers and grantseekers aiming to improve application and reporting processes. Project Streamline has issued a report called Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose, which addresses how organizations can work toward more efficient application systems, and also a Guide to Streamlining series that delves further into online proposals. In addition, try searching the Foundation Center’s Catalog of Nonprofit Literature using the subject/descriptor “Proposal development—standardized application” for ongoing updates on application procedures.
-- Tracy Kaufman, Library Assistant, Foundation Center-New York