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How Thoughtful Design Crafts Grant Applications | Foundant Technologies

How do you craft grant applications to get the information you need and also support connectedness and strengthen relationships with your grantees?

On 17 January 2024, we explored this question with two experts in the field: Laura Cochran from the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership (INHP) and Brendan McCormick from Exponent Philanthropy (EP). 

During this webinar, we had rich Q&A and attendees craving more. As a first step in meeting this need, we've pulled our Q&A out of the recording and onto this page. You can dig in further by watching the recorded webinar or checking out our related resources. Enjoy!

Key Takeaways: 

  • Tailoring Grant Size to Organization: both “large” and “small” grants vary from organization to organization; balancing these expectations with potential allocations of funds may help build better relationships 

  • "Lean" Funders and Collaboration: Collaboration amongst funders supports foundations with few or no staff; Laura and Brenden discuss how regular check-ins and shared funding pools can streamline processes and align goals. 

  • Invitation-Only Concerns in DEI: To avoid inadvertent exclusion and inequity, grant application processes must maintain transparency and clear communication about funding criteria.  

  • Streamlining Applications and Reporting: Simplifying the grant application process and reporting by focusing on essential questions and reducing redundancy, underscoring the importance of relationship building over rigid adherence to formal processes. 

What do you define as larger grants? 

Laura Cochran: 

I think that depends on the organization. A grassroots organization may consider a $2,500 grant to be significant. For myself, we are a 15-million-dollar organization. I consider $25,000 to be a normal grant. Anywhere from 10 to 25 would be a normal grant. Anything above 50 would be a larger grant. So, unfortunately, it depends on the organizations that you are serving.  

You may find if you're working in a more rural or community-based funding organization or environment, that grant amounts are lower. I think it really depends on the clients. I think that comes in knowing the organizations that you're working with and what they can manage with reporting. It takes a lot of effort and time to manage a grant and its reports. So, if you're working with small organizations that don't have a dedicated grant professional, that might impact the amount of reporting that you require or the length of the application. There's lots and lots of nuances within that. 

Brendan McCormick: 

From the Funder side of things, too, if you're thinking about it, are my grants large or small? Think about the number of grants you're making. If you're making hundreds of grants, your grants may be too small. You may want to consider giving fewer grants of larger size. So, you can really focus on relationships with those organizations. When you're making grants, try to think long-term with those grants. But if you're making hundreds of grants of a small dollar amount that's a lot of work for nonprofits, a lot of work for you as the funder as well. But again, as Laura said, large is a very subjective term when it comes to grant size. 

What do you mean by "lean" funders?  

Brendan McCormick:

“Lean” funders are what we see as foundations with few or no staff. So typically, that is foundations with a staff of around 2 or less. 

69% of funders collaborate with other funders” - Do you have examples of what this looks like in practice? I’ve personally seen this with place-based initiatives but would love a little more context.  

Brendan McCormick: 

I think funders collaborate in a wide variety of ways. We have a lot of resources and stories on exponent. But it can be as light as quarterly meetings amongst place-based funders. Say, "Hey, what are you seeing in the community? What issues are you navigating?" Just checking in with each other type of meetings. It could also be more focused on aligning funds into specific buckets and ensuring needs are being met across the community. We've got a great story in our blog about a group of funders, and Frederick County, Maryland, doing this where they really were aligning their data as well as their practices to make sure they're meeting all the needs in their community. So, I think that's a great way for funders to collaborate. In terms of the non-place-based, it could be as simple as joining a network of funders focused on the same issue area to make sure you're learning from each other. So, I think funding a collaboration has many approaches there. 

Laura Cochran:  

In Indianapolis, we have a group of funders that have collaborated, and they formed a funding pool for summer programming. There are hundreds of organizations that do summer programming. There's one funnel to get funding for your summer camps, your summer programming, rather than having to apply for multiple foundations. They've all come together with their money and put it into one application. And I think that's a great example of a way that makes it easier for the non-profits within that collaboration. 

In this era of D.E.I., how do the panelists view the disturbing trend of foundations who have moved to a "by invitation only" platform? Which, to the nonprofit world, smacks of discrimination. 

Laura Cochran:  

Yes, "by invitation only." That's really an annoying phrase for a Grant Professional because we understand the purpose of it, and there are lots of reasons that the organization might be by invitation only they may have requirements that this foundation is only supposed to support certain things based on the funder’s requirements.  But it’s frustrating, especially if you feel that you might be a good fit to listed giving priorities.

I think if you don't provide any way for an organization to get on that invitation list, that's going to be problematic. That's when you may start falling into racial questions. It's hard to say there's one right way because there's not. But I think communication would be the key to that. 

Brendan McCormick:   

Yeah, I think Laura said it set it perfectly. One thing I would add is it's just kind of if you're doing an invitation-only grant, think about your intention. Is the intent on your end to reduce the burden on nonprofits? So, you're doing research ahead of time to try and reduce the burden on nonprofits and then inviting folks you think are good fits. That can be a good way. But if you're doing it as a way to exclude and only fund pet projects, that can then get into less effective grant-making. 
Laura Cochran:  

You might also want to look at a letter of intent program where you allow new organizations to introduce themselves to you. That might be a solution to that. 

Can you share an example of an "easy" application and/or report? For example, more radio or check box questions vs. narrative, templates, etc.   

Laura Cochran:  

Unfortunately, again, there's not one easy application and/or report. Just adding more checkboxes and more radio buttons won't give you the information you want. When you think about easy applications, they're to the point, right? Do you want to know the needs the clients are facing? Ask that question. Don't then ask, what is the need for this group? The number of questions that we find that are basically the same thing is very difficult.

I think streamlining an application to exactly what you need makes for an easier application. By no means am I advocating for just check boxes. That doesn't address the complexity of the problems that we're trying to work on. From a reporting standpoint, how many reports do you need? Do you need quarterly check-ins? Why are you asking for quarterly check-ins? If you need quarterly check-ins, is it just to ensure progress is being made? Then, is that a 2 or 3-question report rather than a 10 or 12- question report? And is there another way to get that information? That's not necessarily a formal report.

Those are the kinds of things that make things easy and difficult. I think when we use easy, maybe it's more time-consuming. How much time are you asking me to put into either providing you with the information you need or reporting back to you? Please don't make me do a quarterly report on a $5,000 grant, particularly if it's for a million-dollar program - that just doesn't make any sense. But if it's a million-dollar program and you're providing $750,000 of that, check in with me as much as you want. Those all feed into that relationship that's being built. 

Brendan McCormick:

Laura, I agree with your recommendation that small grants should have easy applications and reports. If your organization received a $10,000 or $15,000 grant, would you consider this to be a small grant? And if so, would two reports be considered excessive? 

Laura Cochran:

For me personally and our organization, I would consider a $10,000 grant to be a small grant. It depends on the complexity of the report on whether it would be considered excessive.  

I need more clarity on Laura’s recommendation to make DEI/racial equity “more flexible”. There are systemic issues within philanthropy that perpetuate harm, and I’m not sure lowering standards for nonprofits is the answer. For example, if a white-led organization is developing solutions for under-resourced and historically underestimated communities, that should be questioned by funders. There is a lot of research that BIPOC-led organizations serving their communities are not getting as much funding as white-led organizations also serving BIPOC-led communities. 

Laura Cochran: 

I can only speak from my organization's standpoint on that. We are dealing with affordable housing. We are working in an environment that is caused by systemic racism, and we've got a large homeownership gap between white people and black people across the country due to systemic racism.  

We are also dealing with fair housing laws where we cannot necessarily make programs designed specifically for one racial demographic because that excludes others and doesn't meet the laws. I don't see that as necessarily lowering standards. I wouldn't want anyone to think that that's what I'm recommending, but I think you can deal with being clear on what your goals for DEI are. If you want to serve a certain population, be honest with the funders of their applicants about that. If you want to fund BIPOC-led organizations, be honest and upfront about that. We are an organization that serves a significant percentage of BIPOC families, but we are not BIPOC-led. Is that a disqualification for funding? A third of our board has been appointed by the mayor, and another third of the board is appointed by United Way. We have very little control over who gets on that board. So then, if our board doesn't meet the requirements that are sent out( 51% or 60% of your board must be BIPOC) are you blocking out applicants who are serving clients that you want to impact because leadership isn't BIPOC? There’s no right answer with DEI. If your foundation’s focus is increasing funding to Black-led, grassroots organizations, that’s a legitimate purpose, because you are right, there is a racial gap in funding. Specify that in your funding requirements and priorities. But that is a different funding priority than saying that you want to decrease the homeownership rate gap for black families in Indianapolis. That’s a specific population that may rely on organizations that are not Black-led. In my eyes, that is two completely different funding priorities. Personally, I don’t see that as lowering DEI standards.  

All of our grantees receive philanthropic dollars from multiple funders, and we frequently get comments along the lines of "A common application among local funders would be really helpful." It comes up often enough that we have talked to other funders about it, but obviously, different foundations have different missions and investment guidelines. How common is the use of a "Common App" in practice, especially among mid-to-large-sized funders? 

Laura Cochran: 

I've never used one. I get very leery of one application to serve everybody. I don't see it being suitable for the organizations or the funders because it restricts you. 

Brendan McCormick: 

Yeah, I would say common applications, I think, have become less common over the years as great grant-making software has become more prevalent. But I think it's important there are opportunities to ask questions in the same way. Collect questions in the same way as your peers. So, there's a kind of select group of questions you're all asking the same way. Then you have your additional follow-up questions, specific goals, needs, strategies, and demographic questions. In the same way. Are you asking about age ranges? One organization asks if you are 0 to 10-year-olds, and another if you are 0 to 12-year-olds. The thinking is if you can coordinate this, and everyone's asking for demographic information the same, it will make it a lot smoother.  

If you change from making smaller grants to fewer, larger grants, how do you communicate that to grantees, and what happens if they no longer get grants because fewer are being given out?  

Laura Cochran:  

The only answer I have for that is to communicate it. It could be one-on-one or community-based conversations. I think a lot of that depends on the organizations that you're funding and what is the purpose of the funds?  

Sometimes it makes sense to do smaller grants to a large number of organizations. Sometimes it doesn't. It depends on the purpose of your grant. Do you have a specific goal that you're trying to accomplish within the community? If you want to show significant impact, it might make sense to make large grants to maybe one or 2 organizations. If you're doing smaller, unrestricted support grants just to help keep smaller organizations afloat it might not make sense to fund larger grants. So, I really think that it just comes down to knowing what your goals are as a funder, knowing who your applicants are, who your grantees are, what their needs are, and then meeting the needs of your community.  

Brendan McCormick:  

I think that's all great, Laura. I think the one thing I would add, getting back to that transparency and clarity point, it is important to communicate early. When it comes to making grants, I think you have all the freedom in the world to make changes to your grant applications, but when it comes to making grants, size changes, make those changes a little more slowly, a little more thoughtfully. Be open to communication so that when an organization stops getting funded, talk to them about why/what your goals are and what the purpose of it is.  

Laura Cochran:   

Just communicate it. It's building that relationship. I think that is key. 

Interested to know if you see organizations are moving toward Trust-Based Philanthropy model and how is the reporting being recorded in Foundant. And, is this a PRO or CON? 

Brendan McCormick:  

Yeah, I think trust-based philanthropy and the trust-based philanthropy project is certainly gaining a lot of momentum. A lot of folks are interested in this. But I think what I have observed is the dilution of trust-based philanthropy. I think a lot of folks might think they're doing trust-based philanthropy, but in practice, they may not be, so I think it's a trendy thing that folks want to say they are doing without doing the work of breaking down the power dynamics and building those strong relationships. At Exponent Philanthropy, we advocate for a style of philanthropy we call catalytic leadership and philanthropy. 

There are a lot of parallels with trust-based. But I think it's really about starting with a clear focus on what you want to achieve and building into those non-grant strategies as a way to make an impact beyond the grant as well. So, I think there are a lot of different approaches. Including trust-based activities that encourage funders to focus on relationships. And I think, regardless of what you call it, focus on building strong relationships with your grantees, getting to know them, know who they are, know at they look like. Don't just have a form, and that's it. I think that's the biggest piece of advice I'd give. Don't worry about what you are calling it. Worry about what your grantees are and who they are. 

Laura Cochran: 

Yes, absolutely, Brendan. As grant professionals, we want to have a relationship with our funders. In order to do that, we have to have access, we have to know how to contact you. We have to know that you want to hear from us and that you're open to having a conversation about whether this program might be a good fit. There are lots of questions that we might have that lead us to say, okay, this isn't a good fit. Great. Having that open conversation is key, but it takes time. It takes time from the nonprofit's standpoint, and it takes time from the Funder's standpoint, and it has to be a priority. It has to be something that you maybe reach out to your funders and say, Hey, I just want to have a conversation that's not tied to an application. Or what are you doing, or what problems are you seeing? 

Could the invitation-only be used to continue funding to organizations that have participated in previous capacity building rounds/programs with our foundation? 

Laura Cochran:

Yes - that is a good use case for using an invitation only process/application! 

Is it common practice to share evaluation rubrics as part of info sessions? 

Laura Cochran: 

If you are talking about pre-application info sessions, general knowledge of what reviews are scoring on can be helpful. I don't think you need to provide the entire rubric, but if one section weighs more heavily than others, it's helpful to know that.  

If you are talking about feedback sessions, I think you can provide feedback to organizations without sharing exact scoring metrics. The key is to provide useful feedback as to why an application wasn't funded. Simply saying there were too many applications and not enough funding doesn't provide much help in determining if a program is a good fit for a grant program. I personally would rather be told that my program doesn't fit the goals of the funder than to keep applying year after year. This saves not only your time but also the applicant's time. 

Making it clear what an org's funding priorities are - how do we square that with not making our applications different and/or taking other org's applications? 

Laura Cochran:

Clear funding priorities are completely separate from applications. If you as a foundation are interested in early childhood education, then state that - don't just say education, which could be interpreted by organizations as K-12, higher ed, or even financial literacy education.  

Do you have examples of reporting or applying that use charts or graphics to display information vs. fill in the blanks? 

Laura Cochran:

I have never come across an online grant application that allows for charts or graphics to share information. I would think that you would have to shift to paper to allow for those. And then you are asking for information in a format that no one else requires, resulting in more work for your applicants. 

By hidden questions, do you mean something like question branching on Foundant? 

[From Foundant Team Member] Yes - that is what she means. This is ok to use, but just make sure that the full application is available before they start - and it has all the questions.  

How can we remove character limits in Foundant? 

[From Foundant Team Member] The recommendation / best practice would be to make the character limit larger than you would think is necessary - but then put in a 'recommended response size'. I've seen folks max out all their fields - but then put that they expect this would just be a paragraph. Or 500 words, etc. So there is some guidance, and applicants do not think you are expecting them to use all the available characters. 

What are the chances of winning a grant for young nonprofits without a website? If social media accounts are the only spaces to showcase their work? 

Laura Cochran:

For young nonprofits, I would say that if you aren't able to showcase your work outside of social media accounts, then the organization may not be grant-ready.  

In an effort to reduce redundancy, could there be a broad question or area of the application that could be used to update anything that may have changed, or would this be overwhelming for a grant writer? 

Laura Cochran

I don't think this would be overwhelming. I often see questions asking me to describe any changes in the organization/program. 

How do you balance the frustration of grant professionals - character limits, etc. - and trying to manage the time it takes our volunteer grant committees to review applications? 

Laura Cochran:  

I think that requires you to think about what information you want. Asking an organization to talk about the programs they do in a hundred characters is not giving you the information you want, anyway. So, if you're reviewing an application, think about what information you need, and let organizations answer, that is going to be a better experience for everybody rather than asking a lot of questions and limiting the characters. As a grant professional, I don't want to be writing 12-page grants every time. You know we're not looking to write 12 pages when one paragraph will do. But if you're asking me to talk about the community's needs, then limiting me to 2 or 3 sentences is just a frustration because I'm not sharing with you the information your reviewers need to make good decisions. 

Brendan McCormick:  

The one thing I'd add to that is doing your best to try and shift your mindset. It is much more fun being on the reviewer side than being on the Grant writer side. It can potentially be fun reviewing grant applications because your jobs are not on the line if you don't get funding. So, I am trying to switch that mindset of how lucky I am to get to review these grant applications and dedicate funding to communities or issues I care about. I think having that mindset makes work much more enjoyable rather than being frustrated at nonprofits who are overwhelmed and overburdened, not writing as briefly as you would like them to. 

How to deal with applicants who check "no" on the question that reads, “We only fund in metro area X, are you in metro area X?" and then get unhappy when they are rejected? 

Laura Cochran:

Yeah - that is crazy. Is there a way to have an 'eligibility question' that basically doesn't let them continue unless they confirm they are eligible? What a waste of their own time to do that! 😊 

I have had MANY applicants who have never answered the question, no matter how many characters were given. How would you suggest we handle that?  

Laura Cochran:

Are the questions required? If they aren't providing you with the information you are looking for, I would recommend reviewing how you're asking for the information. They may think you are asking for something else. My other thought as to why this might be happening is that the organizations are not grant-sophisticated, so they aren't understanding the questions. You might look at having information sessions where you go over the basics of grant applications and the information you are looking for. 

We receive over 160 grant applications for a yearly fund of $250,000. We are a very small foundation. It already takes many hours to look over "our" form. If we open it up to however they want to send the information, we will have less money to fund. 

Laura Cochran:

I don't think you have to open it up to however an applicant wants to send the information. My question would be, how clear are your funding priorities? Are you getting a lot of applicants that you don't have any intention of funding? You might look at a brief Letter of Intent form that would allow you to invite only applications that have a good chance of funding.  

If an applicant downloads a PDF of an application in Foundant, they can see the branched questions, correct? 

[From Foundant Team Member] Yes - I have confirmed this with the product team. And I've heard from several applicants that they love applications based on Foundant because they can count on this. 😊 

I offer grant applicants (smaller organizations and individuals) help throughout the application process. However, very few applicants take advantage of it. (We also offer in-person and online workshops.) How can I encourage applicants to be in touch with me more prior to submitting the application?  

Laura Cochran:

It could be part of the application process. I have applied to grant programs before that require a discussion prior to funding. I'm guessing that because you're dealing with small organizations, you are not dealing with applicants who are grant professionals. You may be having EDs or program staff applying, which means that the grant application is simply a means of funding. Participating in optional meetings for a grant proposal probably doesn't rise very high on their priority list. It also depends on how big the grants are. Is it worth taking time away from the program duties to meet with you? 

As a foundation with a staff of one, many suggestions offered here are simply not possible. Convening, developing relationships, managing applications, evaluations, and actually issuing grants. Sometimes we have to pick and choose what’s possible to match our own capacity. 

Brendan McCormick:  

Yeah, absolutely. And the vast majority of folks who are members of exponent philanthropy have  2, one, or no staff. So, I think you are not alone in being a foundation with limited time and capacity. 

This is something we hear often from folks, and we also have a lot of great examples of foundations that are totally volunteer-run, who have great relationships with their grantees, who are doing convenings and connecting. I think the key is to rethink how you spend your time and reprioritize the ways you gather information. Try to spend less time at your desk and more time in the community with nonprofits. I think this is the best advice I can give you. You will get more valuable information out in the community talking with folks in person than you will, just reading websites and reports behind your desk. 

Laura Cochran:  

If you're an introvert like me that may sound scary, but I promise you get better information, and it will also be more rewarding. You will get more out of your work as a foundation staff member, if you're out in the community. Depending on the size of your grants you may not be able to build those relationships in the same way as a staff of 25 that's got a dedicated program manager for each thing. So maybe look at the goals of the foundation and make sure that you're able to accomplish what you want with a staff of one. Your goals may look very different than other foundations. You may be doing smaller grants to lots of organizations that don't necessarily require a lot of reporting back and goals. I think that really it depends on the goals of your organization. 

How do you best handle grantees who are repeatedly not maintaining their side of the grant agreement (i.e., not recognizing the grant they received in their marketing material for the program we grant-funded)?

Laura Cochran:

You stop funding them. If the recognition is nonnegotiable for funding, then those expectations should be crystal clear and possibly even discussed outside of the grant agreement. 

How do you balance making it less cumbersome for grantees but still meet due diligence requirements. For us, small organizations and/or small grants seem to have more due diligence issues.  

Laura Cochran:

It would depend on what your due diligence requirements are. Are you talking solely about 501c3 letters? I don't view that as cumbersome as that is information an applicant should have handy. If you are talking about financial information, I would look at how you are asking for the information and the organizations that are applying. Can you provide multiple options? For example, for a large, more sophisticated organization, providing financial information may be easier as an attachment in its own format. For a smaller, newer organization, it may be easier to fill out a table. By offering both options, you get the information you need, while the applicant is able to provide it in a way that is easier for them. 

We send payment after we receive an invoice/report on how funds were used depending on grant size. Is it more common to pay on the front end or as we are doing? 

Laura Cochran:

I would say yes. I would ask yourself why are you holding funding until the end? What is the purpose. This limits you only to organizations that can manage cash flow for their programs. I've done a few "billing" grants, but mostly they are limited to government dollars.