Exploring the Pillars: Simplify & Streamline Paperwork

I started my career as a grant writer for a small nonprofit organization in Boston, and went on to write many many proposals for a number of years. One of the early and unfortunate lessons I learned as a grantwriter was that funders have a wide range of different requirements, specifications, budget formats, addendum requests, and overall style and approach. And part of my job as a grantwriter was to navigate this maze of paperwork.

So when our President & CEO Phil Li suggested that we do something different here at Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, I was thrilled. With the consent of our adventurous board, we developed a grantmaking process that simplifies and streamlines paperwork. We accept proposals that prospective grantees have already written for other funders. We have an open submission policy, such that if an organization thinks they are eligible for funding, they can apply at any time.

We request a document that describes their leadership development work, but we don’t even require them to do a search-and-replace to insert ‘Robert Sterling Clark’ where ‘Foundation X’ used to be. The Apply section on our website simply states this request: Please submit a recent grant application that represents your organization well, and reflects our funding interests. Feel free to share one that you’ve used to apply to another funder.

I’ll be honest, some applicants are quite skeptical about our open approach. After all, they are smart and savvy professionals who have spent a career figuring out what foundations (really) want. While it will take a while for some people to take our approach at face value, we insist that there is no particular format or set of questions we need answered. And many organizations have been more than happy to comply.

Guess what? Proposals written for other funders work just fine for us. They give us the information we need to get started, and then we can do the legwork to look up their 990s, talk to colleagues in the field, and—most importantly—meet with them and observe their programs. We think it is a better use of their time and ours to talk, rather than for them to sit in their offices writing to our specifications, only for us to sit in our offices, reading.

All that said, this is new for us, and we are still figuring it out. That is evident in how we work with grantees to evaluate their progress. At first, we asked them to submit reports that they had written for other funders. But we soon found that they didn’t really tell us what we wanted to know about what grantees are learning. So we have developed an oral reporting process, in the form of a set of questions that we call the Check-in Analysis Tool (CHAT–pretty clever, right?). We send the questions ahead to our grantees, and then use them to guide a conversation that serves both as site visit and grant report.

This streamlined process is not a good deed we are doing for grant seekers. It makes our jobs richer and more rewarding and makes us better at getting to our mission. We want to be out in the field, meeting with potential grantees, observing programs, talking to leaders, and learning about what’s state of the art when it comes to leadership development.

Most importantly, streamlining paperwork gives our grantees a little more time to do their important work. We hope that it also increases trust and builds the relationship between us and our grantee partners, so that we can work together in ways that go far beyond the funding check.

Lisa Cowan is Vice President at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This post originally appeared on the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation blog and has been reposted with permission.