Technology’s Role in Getting Better Applications

Whether you are making grants or giving scholarships, the number and the quality of the applications you receive makes a big difference to everyone involved. If you get too many applications you are probably wasting your applicants’ time (as well as your own). But too few applications and you may be missing opportunities. What about the quality of the applications you get? Incomplete applications waste time - for both you and your applicants - and a poorly written application can take more time to review or could disqualify an applicant you might otherwise fund. 

Most funders know intuitively when they have a problem with the number and quality of their applications when they begin their review process (if not before). But that doesn’t mean you need to rely on your “feel” for the problem. Nor do you need to remember what happens from year to year.

Instead, there are some basic measures you can use to track the quality of the applications you are getting from year to year. With these in place, you can employ technology to change the experience for applicants and reviewers and track your progress at making improvements.

Tracking Your Applications

The system you use to track your grant or scholarship applications should be able to report the number of applications you receive for any funding opportunity. This can be as simple as a table showing applications per opportunity per year. Or you can look at the dollars requested by applicants and compare them to the amount awarded. 

 

Both measures pictured here can help you track the demand from applicants, allowing you to see if changes you make in future cycles increase or decrease demand, hopefully pushing you in the right direction. 

Similarly, your system should tell you the percentage of those applications that are complete, or the percentage of submitted applications that went further than any given stage in the review process. This lets you start to get at the quality of the applications. 


This table shows how many applications were forwarded to a committee for review.  One goal of  changes over future grant cycles should be to decrease the number of ineligible applications.

Another way to measure quality is to score applications. You may have this already built into your review process. Even if you don’t, a handful of scoring questions will let you assess an application’s relative strength. This allows you to track mean or median scores over time, giving you a metric of the quality of applications. 

This final table shows the change in both number of applicants and in scores over time.  This is important data if your goal is to get the right number of high quality applications – enough so that you do not feel like you are missing opportunities, but not so many that you, your reviewers, or your applicants are investing time on applications that are unlikely to be funded. 

Then the question becomes, how can you use technology to change these statistics over time? This is where the technology you are using can play a large role.

Take Away: You can use your grant or scholarship system to collect data on the number and quality of applications you receive. This allows you to measure changes you make in future funding cycles.

The Role of Technology

The systems you use to collect and review scholarship and grant applications give you new options for addressing problems with the number and quality of the application you receive. 

Moving online, if you have not done so already, will likely increase the number of applications you receive while making the application process easier for applicants. A good electronic application will also increase the quality of the applications you receive. It will let you require questions, require that answers and uploads be formatted a certain way, and even let you use logic so some questions are required based on others. Online systems may also let applicants copy from past applications, use one form to fill out multiple applications, and invite collaborators to help them (assuming you want that).

If your goal is to gather more applications, consider using technology that allows you to send a link directly to an application. When publicizing a grant, you will get more applications  (particularly from new applicants), if the press release and/or email announcing the opportunity contains a link taking applicants directly to the specific application.  You might also consider reducing the information you collect in the registration process, assuming your applicants create an online account. And, particularly for scholarship applications, consider systems that let applicants copy parts of past applications, interface with ScholarsSnap, and complete a single form that will populate different applications based on their eligibility. 

If your goal is to get fewer applications, consider technology that gives you multiple ways of communicating your expectations to applicants. Refining guidelines may be required if your applicant pool meets your minimum qualifications and you still need to narrow things down.  Once this is done, make sure you are communicating eligibility requirements as well as any expectations you have for grantees in more places than your website. You may want to add messages to the system at the point where applicants log in and add them again at the top of an application. 

Another technique is to use a quiz that will automatically screen out ineligible applicants. This lets you set up ques that applicants must answer correctly to proceed. Tools like this may also let you direct applicants to the right application from a longer list of possible applications or opportunities. And they can be used in front of or together with a more traditional Letter of Intent or Letter of Interest (LOI).

Finally, you might consider larger changes to your selection process. You can move to invitation-only applications where applicants (selected by staff, volunteers, peers, etc.) are invited to apply. And in-conjunction with invitation-only funding opportunities, you may want to hold meetings with applicants before asking them to complete an application. 

Take Away: There are lots of tools available to people managing grant and scholarship applications to better communicate to applicants, make the applicant experience faster and better, or to help you narrow down your applicant pool. These allow you to get more of the applicants you want and less of those you do not.

As a funder, you often serve a number of constituencies. Fund holders and boards want to know you are considering all available options and doing appropriate due diligence.  Staff and volunteers involved in the review process don’t want to waste time reviewing low-quality applications. And you have an obligation to be mindful of the time and energy applicants put into the application processes you oversee. 

Those who manage the application processes, whether full- or part-time, are usually the first people who are aware of problems that come along with having too many, too few, or poor-quality applicants. There are measures you can implement to understand and track the problem over time. There is also a wide range of tools available in grant and scholarship software that will allow you to make changes to move toward a smoother application process and, ultimately, better meeting the needs of everyone you serve.

 

Thank you to the following funders for allowing us to use data for this post: Healthcare Foundation of Northern Lake County, Howard Gilman Foundation, Massage Therapy Association and the Massage Therapy Foundation, and the Society for Exploration Geophysicists.


More Resources

Are you interested in more practical metrics to help you with your grantmaking?  Check out this excellent resource by our partners Peak Philanthropy, called Assessing the How of Grantmaking.

You can find many more resources on grants and scholarships on our website: https://resources.foundant.com/philanthropy-experience

About the Author

Aaron Spevacek

Aaron Spevacek is a Product Implementation Engineer at Foundant Technologies. In this role he advises foundations and other grantmaking organizations on efficiency and best practices when using grants management software. Prior to working at Foundant, Aaron worked as an Analyst at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd. in Chicago. He’s also written grant proposals in prior roles with Heartland Alliance in Chicago and Volunteer Alexandria in Alexandria, Virginia.

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