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Trust in Philanthropy: Part Four — Simplify and Streamline for Success

Posted on February 12, 2021 by John Ferguson, TPF Fellow 2020/21

Editor's Note: TPF values and approaches often mirror the fundamental principles of trust-based philanthropy. Throughout this series, TPF Fellow, John Ferguson, will explore how they intersect and what it could mean for the future of the philanthropic sector should it become the operational norm, instead of the rare exception.

Continue reading John Ferguson's blog series:
"Simplify the complex, don't complexify the simple." I recently heard the author of Delusional Altruism and nonprofit consultant Kris Putnam-Walkerly utter that phrase during a presentation at the Florida Philanthropic Network (FPN) Virtual Summit. It blew my mind. We often talk about the need to simplify things—our processes, strategies, relationships, our lives in general—but it had never been so clear for me than in that moment just how prone we can be to doing the opposite. To "complexify" things with the best of intentions, though often with unintended results.

When it comes to the grant process as a whole, it is already a complex endeavor for both funders and grant-seekers. There are often tremendous amounts of paperwork involved for grant-seekers to complete and funders to review. (And even though "paperwork" may not be the right word anymore since how we work has become much more digital in nature, I'm still going to refer to whatever the inbox, Teams, or google drive equivalent may be simply as "paperwork," though with less guilt for sacrificing significantly fewer trees.) Then, if the proposal is accepted and the grant is given, there is even more paperwork involved through reporting requirements and evaluations throughout the funding timeline. This can be an onerous process for grantees and funders alike, but the primary burden, more often than not, lies squarely on the grantee. Does it have to?

The third principle of trust-based philanthropy is to Simplify and Streamline Paperwork. Doing so can help alleviate burdensome paperwork throughout the entire grant cycle, freeing up grantees to focus more on their mission and driving impact for lasting change. That is not to say that paperwork is not necessary. Instead, it is a call for funders to consider what paperwork is essential. To make sure there is a purpose behind what is being asked and that its purpose helps move the work forward for both funder and grantee.

Before we dive into ways we might address this third principle of trust-based philanthropy, it is also important to note that some foundations, like The Patterson Foundation (TPF), have moved beyond traditional grantmaking processes to focus more on building relationships with organizations who are working in similar spaces and investing in strategies and initiatives that foster wide participation and strengthen people, organizations, and communities. While that approach may not be a fit for every funder, it has served TPF well. Rather than funding through traditional grant cycles, TPF Invests long term in several different initiatives such as the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR), NGO Thrivability, Digital Access for All (DA4A), Patriot Plaza, and many more.

TPF's initiatives and offerings are constantly evolving to address the needs of today and tomorrow. A great example of that is the Advancing Philanthropic Leadership initiative, which began with the Fellows Program as a partnership with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Not only is TPF now closing in on the start of the 3rd Fellows cohort this summer, but the partnership has also expanded to include a "Study Away" course for both undergraduate and graduate students during spring break and a new winter session course entitled Beyond the Check: The Patterson Foundation's Approach to Innovative Philanthropy. TPF and LFSOP continue to explore new ways to partner and contribute to the learning and development of future leaders in the philanthropic sector.

But for the many foundations and philanthropic leaders who operate within a more traditional grantmaking context, let's examine how we might evolve, simplify, and streamline our grantmaking processes and procedures. And let's start at the very beginning (it's a very good place to start).

Consider implementing one or more of a few emerging trends within trust-based philanthropy to incorporate before asking for a full grant application. Requesting a short letter of interest (LOI) describing the organization's needs and positioning to drive impact is an excellent way of vetting grant-seekers prior to inviting them to apply. Another possibility is to host conversations with potential grantees to get to know them and their work in order to help build a relationship and determine if your goals and vision are aligned. If one or both examples were to happen before the full grant application, there would likely be less submissions that were not compatible with the funder's priorities and more that were to be seriously considered. As a result, organizations that would not be a good match for the funder would not waste their time completing and submitting a full application, thereby freeing them to pursue other options.

Another emerging practice is to accept previously submitted proposals. It should not be surprising that many nonprofit organizations pursue grants from multiple funders. If a proposal prepared for another funder contains all the relevant information needed to assess the organization's viability and fitness, why should they need to start fresh each time with each different potential funder? And what else could be possible if organizations spent less time writing proposals and more time doing the work?

Looking critically at our opportunities to streamline our grant application processes is necessary and can be vastly beneficial to ourselves as funders and our grantees and partners. It is also important to ensure all grant processes and requirements are "right-sized." In other words, do application and reporting requirements match the level of the grant? One size does not fit all in this case. The requirements for a $10K grant should likely not be identical (or nearly as robust) as those for a $100K grant or a $1MM grant. The amount of requirements should be commensurate with the level of funding provided.

Another way to simplify reporting requirements and processes would be to leverage the evaluation already being done by the grantee instead of requiring them to report and evaluate progress through a different system for each funder. Evaluation is an essential aspect of determining the impact of both funders and grantees and should be an important part of any grant report. What I am suggesting is to allow the evaluation to take the form the grantee is already using (as long as it is effective) rather than making them track and enter information in new ways.

These are key ways to streamline processes and requirements to focus on the work itself for both funders and grantees. With more time to devote to mission, grantees can increase their impact, and funders can spend more time learning and building strong relationships with grantees that support their work beyond simply the provided funding.

Building trust increases accountability and transparency. I'm reminded of one of TPF's core beliefs: that people, organizations, and communities are the best architects for their own future. To me, that means that organizations know their work best. Funders have vital insights and resources to bring to the table, but in many cases, are not the experts in the field. That is why grantees exist: to do the work in ways that drive impact and community change. If we can simplify and streamline our grant process and requirements as trust-based philanthropy advocates, we can remove extraneous work and time from the equation, allowing nonprofits to focus on what truly matters and deliver excellence in a way that affirms any funder's priorities and aspirations, even if it looks a little different than it did before.

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