A few years ago, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation had a chance to rethink what we did and how we did it. The foundation painfully let go of important issues and organizations, believing we could do more for New York City by focusing our giving. Our board of directors decided to invest in city leaders, the organizations that develop them, and their networks.
Having determined the what, we started to rethink how we approached grantmaking.
Simplifying and streamlining paperwork
The foundation’s president, Phil Li, and I are former nonprofit executive directors, program managers, and board members. We’ve both spent many years wrestling with funders from the other side of the table. And we were familiar with the wide range of specialized RFPs, individualized budget formats, and the many various attachments that funders request. In fact, I often felt like the smaller the grant size, the more paperwork it required!
Phil and I were also influenced by the Whitman Institute’s Pillars of Trust Based Philanthropy, and we adopted them for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. One of their pillars is simplifying and streamlining paperwork.
I want to note, this is not a good deed we’re doing for grantseekers. It makes our jobs better, and it gets us closer to our mission. As funders, we want to be out in the field, meeting with potential grantees, observing programs, talking to leaders, and learning about state of the art of leadership development. When we spend too much time at our desks, poring over proposals, attachments, and reports, we feel restless and detached.
Having the consent of our adventurous board, we shifted our grantmaking process to ask for proposals that potential grantees had already written for other funders.
Our application process
We have an open submission policy. After reading about our foundation, organizations can apply at any time. We ask for documentation describing their leadership development work. But we needn’t see Robert Sterling Clark where foundation X used to be. In fact, the apply section on our website says:
“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.”
Some applicants are skeptical. Building trust and a good reputation in the field takes time. But we insist on this approach, and many organizations are more than happy to comply.
Proposals written for other funders work well for us. They offer the information we need to get started. Then, we can google their 990s, talk to colleagues in the field, and most importantly, meet them and observe their programs.
It’s a better use of both of our times to talk with potential grantees, and it’s more fun.
All that said, we’re still figuring things out. For example, we initially asked the organizations we fund to submit the grant reports they’d written for other funders. But they didn’t speak to what the grantees were learning. So, we moved to an oral reporting process. At the end of each funding period, we interview grantees and do whatever writing is needed coming out of that conversation.
Streamlining paperwork, especially to engage in trust-based philanthropy, has many payoffs. Most importantly, it gives grantees more time to do their important work. It also increases trust, and strengthens our relationships with grantee partners, so that we can work together in ways beyond the check. Finally, it makes our jobs richer and more rewarding.
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About the Author
Lisa Pilar Cowan is the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation‘s Vice President of Programs, and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development, and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the past 25 years.