About two years ago, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation had a chance to rethink both what we do and how we do it. We adjusted our giving programs—painfully letting go of important issues and organizations with the belief that we could do more for New York City with a more focused giving strategy.
The foundation was interested in finding a way to contribute and make an impact in a city as large as New York, and we decided to leverage our resources by investing in city leaders, the organizations that develop them, and the networks of which they are part. Our board of directors took on the challenge of funding leadership development programs for civic leaders in NYC.
As soon as we determined the ‘what,’ we started to rethink the ‘how’ of our approach to grantmaking.
Both the foundation’s new president, Phil Li, and I are former nonprofit executive directors, program managers, and board members. We both spent many years wrestling with funders from the other side of the desk—and we were all too familiar with the wide range of specialized RFPs, individualized budget formats, and many, many different attachments that funders request. (In fact, it often felt to me like the smaller the grant size, the more paperwork was required.) We were also heavily influenced by the Whitman Institute’s 9 Pillars of Trust Based Philanthropy and have adopted them for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Pillar # 7 is ‘Simplify and Streamline Paperwork.’
I think it’s important to say that this is not a good deed we are doing for grantseekers. It makes our jobs better, 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 the state of the art of leadership development. We feel restless and detached when we spend too much time at our desks, poring over proposals, attachments, and reports.
With the consent of our adventurous board, we shifted our grantmaking process to ask for proposals that potential grantees had already written for other funders.
We have an open submission policy, and, if after reading about us, an organization can apply at any time. We ask for 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 asks: 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—they are smart and savvy professionals who have spent a career figuring out what foundations (really) want. It will take a while for us to build the reputation and trust in the field so that people can believe what we say at first reading. But we insist on it—and many organizations are more than happy to comply.
We find that the proposals they have written for other funders work just fine for us. They give us the info we need to get started, and then we can google their 990s, talk to colleagues in the field, and, most importantly, meet with them and observe their programs.
It is a better (and more fun) 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. At first, we asked the organizations we fund to submit grant 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 are moving to an oral reporting process. We interview grantees at the end of the funding period, and then we do whatever writing needs to be done coming out of that conversation.
We think that streamlining paperwork, especially as part of a larger implementation of Trust Based Philanthropy, has many payoffs. Most importantly, it 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 beyond the check. And last, it makes our jobs richer and more rewarding.
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.