Tracy Kaufman, library assistant at the Foundation Center's New York library/learning center, blogs on Philanthropy Front and Center this week about the growing trend in online grant applications, the difficulties of transitioning from traditional proposals to online applications, and recommendations for grantmakers on how to make their online applications better.
With every passing year, online grant proposals become a growing trend for funders looking to streamline their application process and cut down on paperwork. While online applications are likely to continue in their rising popularity, some nonprofits have found it difficult to transition out of the traditional proposal format.
To offer some advice for struggling development staff, last summer we held a special event at the Foundation Center on how to shift proposal development techniques toward an online format with minimal trouble. Our blog post based on last year's event provides a general rundown on how to avoid the pitfalls of electronic applications (including the accidental loss of data and the confusion over unclear instructions) and make your online proposal more effective.
The Ford Foundation and the Tinker Foundation are two of the many grantmakers transitioning toward electronic grant applications. On June 7, we were fortunate enough to bring representatives from each of these funders – John Colborn, the Ford Foundation's vice president of Operations; and Karen Nassi, the Tinker Foundation's Grants and Technology associate – to the Foundation Center to speak directly with grantseekers on how and why foundations choose to switch to an online application format, and how nonprofits can avoid difficulty in adapting to this switch.
The presentation, which also featured the Foundation Center's own vice president for Development, Nancy Albilal, was titled Meet the Grantmakers: Online Grant Applications and Reporting. Our funders were exceptionally helpful in explaining the ways in which online proposals help to streamline the application process, improve data collection about grantees, and reduce administrative paperwork for foundations. They were also tremendously receptive to the questions and concerns of grantseekers in the audience, who have faced a number of challenges in working with proposals in electronic format.
For those who are struggling to put together online proposals for funding, note that using online applications is a relatively new, evolving process for grantmakers, and many are interested in your feedback. Our presenters and audience members discussed many issues relevant to building more effective applications in the future. For organizations considering sharing their concerns about online applications with their own funders, here are some of the recommendations for grantmakers discussed during our program:
Clearer terminology and instructions. Avoid using too much confusing jargon and make the language of the application equally appropriate for special project funding requests and for general operating support. Your instructions should be thorough and easy to understand, but it will also be helpful to post contact information for anyone with more detailed questions on the application procedure.
Enhanced flexibility. Some nonprofits find it difficult to explain their organization's mission and needs within the tight constraints of an online application. Consider expanding any character/word limits in your application's text boxes to accommodate more information from the applicant, and think about offering an option for applicants to include extra attachments if they are unable to fit all of the necessary information into the boxes provided.
Reduce the risk of data loss for applicants. If your web design team can do it, offering a "save and continue later" option will allow grantseekers to build their applications over time rather than all at once. This will lessen the chance of losing any information that they have entered so far. If this is not feasible, it may help if applicants have a clearer idea of what their risks are. If closing a browser tab or clicking the "back" button will cause any data to be lost, a simple pop-up warning that reads, "Clicking the 'back' button may cause your data to be lost. Are you sure you want to proceed?" may help eliminate these problems as well.
Acknowledge that the application has been received. Many nonprofits have expressed concern that after submitting applications, some funders do not send confirmations of receipt. To include a confirmation will offer applicants greater peace of mind, and reduce the likelihood that they will have to call the funder for confirmation.
Consider standardization. Standardizing online applications would obviously entail a collaborative effort by the grantmaker community, but if a set of standard application and reporting requirements could be adopted by funders, nonprofits could implement timelier, more streamlined application processes without having to tailor each application quite so specifically to each grantmaker's requests.
Online grant applications are likely to become increasingly common in the future, and a substantial number of funders have already embraced the electronic approach. [Note: You can search Foundation Directory Online using the keywords "online application" (in quotes) to find foundations that are working with this type of format.]
To keep on top of all the current information on online proposals, Project Streamline features an enormous number of helpful resources for grantmakers and grantseekers alike on the subject. To start, have a look at some of its online videos for more information, and browse the report, Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose. In addition, for funders looking to research their options for developing online applications, the 2010 Idealware report, Streamlining Online Grant Applications: A Review of Vendors, may be a useful read.