Last May, Conveners.org began facilitating a group of funders, non-profits, technical and ecosystem partners in a Convening Circle we call The Evolution of Grantmaking. This post represents some of the key learnings from that process.    

Tellingly, this project started out under the banner of “A Common Application for Grantmaking”–a concept built on several conversations about whether a shared process and set of questions could change the funding landscape like the University Common Application changed getting into college. We weren’t half an hour into our first gathering before the name changed. Our purpose was to explore how all the stakeholders in the grantmaking process might come together to change the relationships and routines of matching resources and recipients such that the process itself creates a positive impact. We wanted to avoid the “hammer in search of a nail” phenomenon. 

PRIOR ART

One of our first tasks was to seek out lessons learned from previous and concurrent efforts addressing this issue. We looked at a 30-year old common application developed by Philanthropy New York (and still in use by some of the funding partners there today). We learned of a coalition of Jewish foundations who streamlined operations and cut costs through a shared application when they discovered the extent of the overlap in their grantees. And we heard rumors of an effort led by Fluxx to help major foundations standardize the financial reporting they require from potential and current grantees.  

Within the group, one of our foundation partners shared how their Grants Management team was empowered to undertake an 18-month redesign process that reduced the number of applications used by the foundation from 30+ to 3. While a clear indication that this truly is a pressing issue that may be rising to its “moment,” the number of independent efforts (and particularly the lack of awareness and transparency, let alone collaboration, between them) is also one of its greatest challenges. As one participant put it, “there are people out there who would want to be part of this–lots of them–but every one of them is already involved in 5 other groups.”

Here are some of the existing efforts we collected and learned from: 

GETTING TO THE ROOT(S)

Some of the issues were structural. In the opinion of many foundation representatives, the practical and emotional distance between the program officers and grants managers (who actually run the process and interact with grantees) and the senior management and boards of directors (who make decisions about how resources are allocated and the organization is run) explains why an issue that causes acute pain “on the ground” seldom gets prioritized on an organizational, let alone an ecosystem-wide level. When they do, and the process is poorly managed or results don’t deliver as hoped, organizations can become even more resistant to future efforts. “Folks on our board who have seen this process before might have a bit of a PTSD reaction around it,” one of our participants noted.

The group also highlighted that sometimes our creative solutions to dealing with very real constraints of time and resources land us with “worst of both worlds” solutions. Open calls result in too many applications for many foundations to handle effectively, so they end up with hybrid systems of “arbitrary shortlisting and favoritism” as one participant put it, which severely compromises the equity of the process, without any real efficiency gains for either party.  

Interestingly, though, most core issues identified by the group were more philosophical in nature.

Gatekeepers or Gateways?

It’s easy to see that many organizations take the duty of care around the funds entrusted to them very seriously. As well they should. One of the insights for our group, however, was how easily and often the weight of that duty of care gets distorted by power dynamics, implicit bias, and expedience to create problematic or even toxic relationships. Consider what could change if the grantmaking process clearly communicated that the funder recognized the same care and meticulousness in the grantseekers’ work as they feel in the management of their own resources.  As one participant observed, “the current maze of application and reporting requirements doesn’t leave much room for thought partnership and deeper discussion about the work.”

Ecosystem or Egosystem?

But some of the issue, our group asserts, comes down to ego. It’s about how funders see themselves.  “When it comes down to it, almost everyone is convinced that they just wouldn’t quite fit any of these schemes,” said one participant. “All of the really technical, academic work we’ve done on our theories of change and our logic models, our evidence-based approaches and the incredibly nuanced questions we ask based on them, does it really get us to higher impact work? Does it do that better than an authentic, trusting process of co-creation?” Or is it fundamentally about control? Grantees and funders alike assert that the best funders they know actively create systems and culture to counter the message (and the underlying subconscious assumption) that they’re smarter than the people they’re funding. 

SO, WHAT ABOUT A COMMON APPLICATION?

Here are our recommendations to other groups exploring this possibility:

  1. Focus on the “back end.” As one participant concluded; “you’re never going to be able to develop one platform that everyone wants to use. And you shouldn’t try.” Successful efforts, our group asserts, will prioritize interoperability. They’ll likely rely heavily on robust APIs and leverage the work (and business interests) of technology companies serving the space. They’ll focus on a smart, flexible taxonomy that moves customization to the ‘front end.’ And they will be crystal clear, explaining in plain English, how data is collected, stored, used, and shared. 
  2. Start small. Choose one aspect of the application process to focus on and test a solution just for that. Consider the value of a “stub;” all the basics about an organization that end up on (nearly) every application, or the structure of budgets and financial reports, another nearly ubiquitous feature. Learn from grants management providers in the marketplace who are trying to be all things to all people and–so far–disappointing most of them. 
  3. Consider impacting a different point in the grants-cycle. Perhaps the due diligence or reporting stages of grantmaking offer equal (or greater) opportunity for impact while dealing with smaller stakeholder groups. In the words of one program officer; “Imagine if I could share the information I’ve gathered through a site visit with other organizations currently funding a project, and rely on them to provide similar information from their site visit down the line. That starts to get game-changing.”
  4. Beware of silver bullets and unintended consequences. Even the much-lauded University Common Application had profound unintended consequences for students and schools. Small experiments create relatively safe environments to discover what we don’t know we don’t know. 
  5. Target innovative, influential funders first. Don’t try to boil the ocean. There’s a powerful precedent effect in this field. Highlighting successes, even small ones like the ‘manual’ data-sharing experiment undertaken by two of our foundation participants, will go a long way toward broader acceptance.
  6. Get creative about capital. Resist the temptation to think of this ‘solution’ as a product, or an organization, by default. Our group came up with possibilities like staff positions funded piecemeal by a coalition of foundations. Who knows where you could take it.  
  7. Different innovations are needed for large institutions and smaller foundations. Check out “10 Things You Can Change Today to Make Your Grantmaking Process More Equitable”–another collection of learnings from the Evolution of Grantmaking group.