Foundation Friday: Project Streamline

Hat tip to our colleagues at PhilanTopic for their report on efforts to reduce redundancy and excess paperwork in the grant application and evaluation process, and a salute to the grantmakers and grantseekers involved in Project Streamline.

The Nonprofiteer believes strongly that most nonprofits’ futures lie with individual donors, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional support is important in launching and sustaining many agencies.  So anything that makes the process of securing that support simpler and more straightforward is a major contribution to nonprofit health.

In one of her previous lives the Nonprofiteer was an admissions officer, in which context she was made aware of the enormous waste of applicants’ time and money involved in having a different application form for every single school.  But each school insisted it was impossible to get its unique needs met through a common application form–and it was impossible, right up to the point at which it got done.

In philanthropy, we’re still in the “impossible” stage; but maybe that’s just the last stage before “Voila!”  Here’s hoping, anyway.

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2 Responses to “Foundation Friday: Project Streamline”

  1. Ellen Wadey Says:

    They tried to promote a single application in Chicago back in the late 90s. It was a flop. The design of the application wasn’t the issue. Few of the foundations — even some who were co-sponsors of the project — would accept the application only. They always wanted supplementary materials, and ultimately the standardized application died. Trust me, I’m not advocating for individual applications, but I’m a realist here. Every time a program officer or a board’s interest changes, the likelihood that their application is going to change, and they won’t be satisfied with a standard application is pretty high. And, even if they accept the standard application, they can supplemental information you to death.

    For me, the narrative part is never the issue. I’ve got a boilerplate that I slice and dice — and add in a little appropriate spice — that fits a variety of narrative needs without too much sweat. The issue is the financial statements. There has been an effort over the last 3 to 5 years coming out of Pennsylvania — funded by Pew and Heinz along with a couple others — that has created a web-based system also interested in streamlining grant applications — but in a way that, I think, is very sophisticated. I know that it’s been adopted in several other states, and it was being looked into by a couple large foundations here in Chicago — though I haven’t heard much about it lately, and I’m sure the portfolio losses might put it on the shelf, hopefully not forever.

    The great thing about this system is that it has a fluid interface. The foundations can put in their template for how they want the financial information broken down. If they change it from one year to the next, they can go to the web-site and upload the new format. The organizations have to input their financial information only once annually. There is definitely some upfront time needed the first year, as organizations have to configure their financial information according to categories standardized by the project. But, that is also a great teaching moment. Some people new to the field don’t necessarily know which money goes where.

    Once that work is done, any organization can go to the website — where your organization’s financial information is archived with a password, but this stuff is public info anyways — search for the foundation to whom you are applying, click on their link, and the system will instantly configure your organization’s financial information into the format that that particular foundation/government entity wants. Magic — seriously, magic. Click on the Joyce link, your financials are in the Joyce format. Click on the NEA link, your financials are in the NEA format. You don’t have to recalculate every time.

    And they have a function where you can compare how your organization is doing in comparison to other organizations in your same field, same budget category, etc. — all without naming names so the weak — like the cheese — don’t stand alone.

    This system has prepared for change and variation in a way that the Chicago application did not. I wish it was here yesterday.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Thanks for the additional background. You’re right, of course, that narrative is rarely the issue (unless the organization is chasing grants by doing work it’s never done before, which is a bad enough idea that we WANT it to be costly and time-consuming!) but that the financials are enough to make anyone’s eyes cross.

      Of course, this could be solved if funders would give fewer restricted/program grants and more general operating expenses–but now I’m really baying at the moon, aren’t I?

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