Our goal is to make the McElroy Trust the easiest place to seek funding for good ideas. It’s not the easiest place to get a “yes,” because we see a lot of proposals, ask hard questions, and have high standards. But we try to never make a grantseeker jump through hoops.
I estimate that changes we have made in recent years to streamline our grant application and reporting process save our grantseekers (in total) about 840 hours each year, increase our net grant size—the dollars received after subtracting the cost of applying for and reporting on a grant, and save time for our staff and board.
Our changes were driven by several factors:
- Our approval rate moved from about 6/10 approved proposals in 2005 to 3/10 during the depth of the recession in 2009.
- Our trustees were interested in ways to enhance our support of youth-serving organizations, even as our assets had decreased.
- For a few years we asked our applicants how long it took to apply. The average response was 10 hours for a 4- to 6-page application. Time spent writing our application ranged from one hour to 80 hours! We discovered there was no relationship between the amount of time spent and our decision to fund. People who spent more time writing were no more or less likely to be approved.
- I was ready for change internally. We had been using staff time to summarize proposals for the board, which seemed cumbersome for us and the seekers.
- We were also asking questions we knew the answers to! For example, we asked the Boys and Girls Club to describe its mission and organization every year, even though we had funded them several times.
Our old process was traditional. It included a multipage application with typical questions and a request for typical attachments (e.g., organization or program budget, board list, IRS letter of determination).
Starting in 2012, every applicant sends us only a 1-page letter. (We ask them to call us first.)
- There are no attachments to send, no forms to complete, no boxes to check.
- If we want to know something—like the board roster or annual budget—we look it up on the organization’s website or GuideStar, or call them.
- We take on the responsibility to check that the organization’s tax status is clear (using www.grantr.com), which is more reliable than looking at an old IRS letter of determination.
- If the board is interested in the project, and wants more information, we simply table the proposal and seek just the information we need. That happens about 10% of the time, usually with organizations that are new to us.
- Applicants now spend 3 hours on average to request funds from the McElroy Trust, down from 10 hours!
- We understand the requests better. Fewer words = clarity.
- We spend less staff time summarizing proposals. We use that time visiting funded projects and offering friendly advice to seekers.
- Anecdotally, I think we see a greater diversity of projects because we’ve made it easier to apply.
- I think it’s easier for the board and staff to focus on the essence of the project. We are less likely to get “in the weeds” when we are reviewing. It helps us live out our values of exhibiting humility about what we know, and honoring what our grantseekers know.
- I estimate that 90% of grantseekers like the new process. Some do find it exceptionally difficult to share their idea on one page.
In a further effort to improve the net grant size, we shortened and right-sized our report form. We also decided to accept a photocopy of a report submitted to another funder, if we invested in the same program. One grantee told me it “feels like Christmas” every time she saves a few hours by sending us the photocopied report.
We’ve also recently eliminated deadlines and increased the number of times a year we review proposals from four to five or six. The verdict is still out on the effectiveness of eliminating deadlines.
The trustees have embraced the simplicity of our one-page application. They see our efforts at streamlining as a positive contribution to our community and to the field of philanthropy.
I too believe strongly in streamlining and would encourage others to give it a try. I was a grant writer and fundraiser before I worked on the funding side. These are changes I would have loved. If you aren’t sure where to start, I recommend that you begin asking how long it takes seekers to complete your current application. You may be surprised by the results and have all the data you need to support change.
I am happy to talk with any funders considering streamlining.
Dr. Stacy Van Gorp is executive director of the R.J. McElroy Trust (Waterloo, IA), which annually awards $1.5 million to $2 million to help create experiences that inspire and transform young people in northeast Iowa.