A grantor-grantee consortium known as ProjectStreamline.org has just issued a very smart report called “Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose.” As its title suggests, the report offers a skeptical take on the current craze for evaluation while pointing out the day-to-day costs of seeking grant support. Those costs are the reason the Nonprofiteer urges her clients to spend their fundraising time soliciting individual gifts instead of writing grants. But the report also makes clear that grantseeking could be a much lower-cost activity without depriving grantmakers of information they require to judge success or its likelihood.
For one thing, foundations could adopt a uniform grant application. It’s not clear why (other than ego) previous efforts to standardize application forms have ended up producing nothing but additional variation. Surely there’s someone in the grantmaking world with enough clout to push through this simple change, which makes up in utility what it lacks in sex appeal.
The report’s most provocative observation is that grantors’ evaluation demands of grantees are the philanthropic equivalent of outsourcing–that is, securing services from underpaid and unrepresented workers. Not only are grantors better positioned than grantees to assess outcomes by the simple fact of their seeing more of them, they’re uniquely positioned–being that it’s their money–to determine what constitutes success. By all means bring grantees to the table in deciding whether “success” is, e.g., having victims of domestic violence leave their homes or remain in their homes, and by all means require grantees to document in what proportions their clients are leaving or remaining. But any more detailed analysis of consequences is properly the work of people who have resources with which to assess them rather than those who–up to their ass in alligators–are trying to remember that the objective is to drain the swamp.
Saddest but truest in the report? The observation that charities get tempted to do things irrelevant to their mission if there’s a big grant available for doing so. The good news is that charities can cure this condition all by themselves, regardless of what the grantors do. Stop letting the fundraising tail wag the operating dog. Do what you do, and find people who want to support that.
Which leads us back to where we started: in the not-very-long run, individual giving is the better deal.