Foundations Moved to Fix Cumbersome Applications — but Grantees Say More Is Needed
In the early days of the pandemic many foundations scrapped the need for grantees to wallow through long applications and complete detailed reports. In tossing aside, at least temporarily, a lot of the processes embedded in the way foundations have historically functioned, grant makers have grantees a peek at how foundations and the nonprofits they support could work together in the future.
One of the biggest gripes nonprofits have about foundations is that grants aren’t always open to anyone who wants to apply, and if it is open, it requires an inordinately long, complicated application.
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In the early days of the pandemic many foundations scrapped the need for grantees to wallow through long applications and complete detailed reports. In tossing aside, at least temporarily, a lot of the processes embedded in the way foundations have historically functioned, grant makers gave grantees a peek at how foundations and the nonprofits they support could work together in the future.
One of the biggest gripes nonprofits have about foundations is that grants aren’t always open to anyone who wants to apply, and if they are open, they require an inordinately long, complicated application.
Last summer, an effort called #fixtheform attempted to highlight some of the biggest peeves nonprofits have about the application process. Foundations responded and dozens of them made a tweak, correcting something that nonprofits found especially irksome.
The co-founders of the effort, Kari Aanestad, co-director of GrantAdvisor, a website that provides grantees with space to anonymously vent — or rave — about foundation practices, and Laura Solomons, head of donor relations at the Sutton Trust in England, polled 2,500 nonprofit employees.
Topping the list was making a grant seeker complete an application without letting them see it beforehand. Other big complaints included lengthy applications in relation to the small amount of cash being provided, repetitive questions, and character limits on responses.
When a proposal writer can’t see the entire application, it’s impossible to get a sense of how long it will take to fill out. Forms that direct nonprofits through a web questionnaire one page at a time can have unexpected “pop-up” questions that demand more research. And those applications can’t be shared among staff so others can provide input.
Working with grant software companies to develop easy, sharable forms that can be downloaded and promoting their effort on social media, Aanestad and Solomons last summer persuaded 130 foundations to switch to a form that potential grantees can review before they start applying.
Nonprofits welcomed the change, but preliminary results of a Grant Advisor grantee survey conducted earlier this year indicates that many are doubtful about whether grant makers will follow through with more changes.
“There is a weariness in the responses,” says Aanestad, who is also associate director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.
Listen to Nonprofits
While many nonprofits would probably rank the need for unrestricted support or grants that can help sustain an organization for several years as more important than an easy-to-complete application, the application process is important because it helps set the stage for an ongoing relationship, says Shaady Salehi, director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.
“Trust-based philanthropy” is an approach to foundation and nonprofit relationships that blossomed during the pandemic. The idea is that foundations need to recognize that people working on solving social problems are usually the experts on the issue. The 2020 shift in foundation giving incorporates a lot of the changes preached by Salehi’s group, a five-year foundation-supported project such as providing general operating support and flexibility in how grant money is used.
Instead of requiring potential grantees to fill out a lot of forms, Salehi says, foundations should work to build a relationship with grantees, listen to what they need, and accept the notion that the people asking for money, rather than the foundation providing it, are the experts.
In grant applications and follow-on reports, foundations often ask nonprofits huge questions that “take a dissertation to answer,” Salehi says.
“Social-change work is not easily proved, and there’s no clear return on investment in a business context,” she says. "[Foundations] are trying to place all these like business frameworks and banking logic on social-change work, which is totally dynamic, totally unpredictable, and totally messy.”