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Right-Sizing Your Practices and Processes to Best Support Those You Serve

I’ve been talking with numerous philanthropy colleagues recently about a concept that’s somewhat new to me: right-sizing. In my conversations with friends in the field, we’ve defined it as creating something appropriate—in length, size, scale—to what funders are hoping to accomplish and whom they’re working with.

Such discussions have allowed my colleagues, who are grantmakers and scholarship providers alike, to look more deeply at the positions in which they find themselves. They’ve acknowledged that they, as funders, have the resources (money, information, capacity, and more) and the power to make important decisions about how to deploy those resources. In general, they get to call a lot of shots. And, as staff, they often act as gatekeepers to resources that recipients, such as community organizations and college students, need. 

By intentionally improving relationships with their grantees and scholarship recipients, funding organizations can better achieve shared goals. And right-sizing can aid in that, by allowing funders to cultivate robust, collaborative, and supportive partnerships. 

Numerous organizational practices and processes can be considered through this lens. Below I outline a few concepts that both grantmakers and scholarship providers might consider: right-sizing applications, awards, and expectations of recipients. 

Hopefully, these ideas inspire you to take an even more applicant- and recipient-centric approach in the work you do. Right-sizing in important ways can help you maximize your impact on those you serve, and on your community as a whole. 

 

Right-Sizing Applications

One opportunity to right-size is by creating application forms and processes that are reasonable for applicants to complete. What’s reasonable? Consider the following when deciding whether your current application requirements are appropriate:

  • What does the opportunity offer applicants? The time and resources it takes to complete your required forms and activities should be commensurate with the award. For example, an application for a $500 or $1,000 grant that requires multiple hours of a development officer’s time would be a good candidate for right-sizing. That’s just not a strong return on investment for that organization and its staff, who are balancing many competing priorities as they work to accomplish their mission and vision.
  • Who are your target applicant audiences? The organizations and people you hope to serve are likely already strapped for resources. Many nonprofits make do with fewer staff than they need and more volunteers than paid employees. And students who apply for scholarships juggle school, campus involvement, commuting, work, family commitments, and more. By simplifying your application, you can free up your applicants’ valuable time and energy to devote to larger objectives in their work or lives.
  • What information do you need to make a decision? You absolutely need to collect certain data as part of your application to select recipients, make decisions, and evaluate your results. But there’s other data you don’t need (even though you might want it). Only ask for what you need to determine awards and assess impact, and remove questions asking for extraneous information. 

Grantmakers

The POISE Foundation, a Foundant client, discussed how they streamlined their application form in the recent Listen, Learn, and Rebuild with Resilience webinar. Based on feedback from applicants and grantees on what they could provide, POISE eliminated requirements for supplemental items including detailed budgets, audited financials, and profit and loss documents. “We’re now offering our applicant organizations the opportunity to request from a position of strength, by allowing them to focus on the change they want to make front and center in their applications,” said Program Officer Traci R. Johnson.

Instead of requesting a portfolio of budget data, ask applicants to respond to a prompt such as, “Briefly describe your needs and how you will use the funds.” If you must conduct significant due diligence, consider waiting until you’ve identified finalists so applicants can initially focus on their needs and potential impact.

Scholarship Providers  

In the recent Increasing Access for All Students through Data-Driven Practices webinar, Foundant Client Success Manager Elyse (E.C.) Pollick Byrnes offered numerous ways scholarship providers might scale back their application forms to be more appropriate. E.C. described how some of her clients have shifted from requiring lengthy essays to requesting short-answer (even Tweet-length!) responses to very targeted prompts. Her clients have found that changing the question type on a form—from text box to radio button, for instance—saved applicants' time and resulted in a greater number of applications from qualified students.

 

Right-Sizing Award Amounts

Right-sizing your award amounts takes a bit more research. But if your time and budget permit, it can make a big impact on your recipients. You may be able to provide them with resources to make greater investments in pivotal programs or their individual futures. And by taking the actions described below, you might find that even a small increase in a maximum award amount can make an outsized difference.

  • Review your current and recent past applicants’ requests. Capitalize on existing information to begin to learn more about what award amounts would benefit your applicants most. If you use a solution such as Foundant’s Grant Lifecycle Manager (GLM) or Scholarship Lifecycle Manager (SLM), run reports on financial information provided by your recent applicants. For example, if you are a grantmaker, look at the amounts requested on application forms and data points such as the average request and amount range. Or, if you are a scholarship provider, review information collected from financial aid award letters to determine students’ unmet financial needs after all gift aid has been applied, as well as the average and range of need.
  • Talk to your applicants directly. Schedule one-on-one meetings with applicants, send an online survey (with the option to omit their organizational or personal information), or plan a focus group. Ask questions such as, “What award amount would make a difference?” and “What kind of difference would it make?”

Grantmakers

If you or one of your team members have the expertise, dive deeper into existing applicants’ or recipients’ budgets. You may gain more clarity about which resources are more or less secure. Create a simple log of unmet needs and calculate the average and range among all the organizations you research. 

In your conversations with applicants or recipients, ask them to tell you more about their organizational and programmatic needs, in their own words. You could discuss the security of funding sources in their budgets, opportunities they want to pursue but can’t because of funding constraints, or how much they might request if your organization didn’t have a request limit.

Scholarship Providers

Many higher education researchers have investigated students’ unmet financial needs. For example, research from the National College Attainment Network suggests that up to 77 percent of four-year public colleges are unaffordable to students, highlighting the gap between the cost of college and what students can afford to pay. 

Another analysis conducted recently by a scholarship provider sheds light on what students really need to cover expenses. They researched the unmet financial needs—the difference between cost of attendance and the grant and scholarship aid students received—among approximately 450 scholarship recipients attending four-year public universities. They found the average unmet need among their applicants was over $20,000 annually, and students attending certain programs needed greater than $60,000 annually. They used this information to bolster their requests from donors, who appreciated the thorough research and the opportunity to help the provider better respond to students’ actual needs.

 

Right-Sizing: Expectations

Most funders expect their recipients to achieve specific outcomes and report back over time on those results. This follow up is essential to measuring the impact of your programs. But it’s important to be realistic about what you ask recipients to do. In particular, think about right-sizing your expectations around the following:

  • The impact your support can have and what recipients can accomplish with it. Unless your organization commits full financial support to a nonprofit or a student, those resources will go only so far towards helping them achieve their desired goals. Acknowledge the limit on how much your investment can move the needle for them, and be reasonable with your expectations.
  • Your reporting requirements over the short- and long-term. I’m a big fan of evaluative work (and have written about it in blogs such as Developing A Scholarship Program Evaluation Plan: Lessons Learned From The Field). While I encourage funders to collect post-award information from recipients, I also encourage them to request a volume of information shared back at a frequency appropriate to what the funder has provided to the recipient. Reporting back annually, year after year, on a small grant or scholarship isn’t in the spirit of right-sizing.

Grantmakers

If you don’t already, ask applicants and recipients on your application or in conversations what they can reasonably expect to accomplish with the support they request from you during the grant period. Use your previous experiences, professional expertise, and common sense to determine if their intended achievements make sense. If not, work with them to create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound) goals instead. Adjust your organization’s expectations accordingly.

Scholarship Providers

While it would be fair to ask a student to report back immediately post-award for a one-time scholarship, it probably doesn’t make sense to ask them to continue to report back annually for five or 10 years. However, if your awards are sizable and renewable throughout a student’s academic career, you will certainly want to collect ongoing information about their success, and even information on their post-college outcomes.

 

A Trust-Based Philanthropy Approach

To reiterate: A funder and its recipients are partners in accomplishing their shared goals. Your organization wants to contribute in a meaningful way to helping them realize their visions. 

To protect and preserve resources and assets, funders sometimes default to heightened scrutiny and excessive due diligence. Instead, consider Traci Johnson’s suggestion in the Listen, Learn, and Rebuild with Resilience webinar, “Walk in the spirit of a trust-based philanthropy approach.” 

Great partnerships require trust. Evaluating and potentially implementing right-sized applications, awards, and expectations may be important steps for your organization to take to establish trust and better support those you serve. 

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

 

About the Author

Erika Orsulak, MPA, is a consultant and advisor to scholarship providers. Using expertise in organizational leadership, program management, development, marketing, and communications, she guides clients on strategy, program administration, technology, and stakeholder engagement. Erika has worked in the scholarship industry for ten years and in philanthropy for the entirety of her 20-year career.

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