For small nonprofits serving the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United States, time may have run out. The Emergency Food and Shelter Program, a federal program that trickles its way down to local organizations, has yet to disperse its funds this year because of the continuing budget standoff in Congress. Phase 29 Funds for thousands of emergency assistance programs across the country would normally have arrived in April this year. To date, funds for such organizations as Catholic Community Services and Gospel Rescue Mission are neither currently available nor guaranteed (to view affected organizations in your local area visit their community page).
Small and local nonprofits affected by the loss of Phase 29 funds do not have the luxury of engaging in lengthy application processes for grants. Unfortunately, this may be what private grantmakers require.
As detailed in Project Streamline’s 2008 report, Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose , many grantmakers exact significant and highly customized information from nonprofit applicants in their effort to be more “strategic and effective.” “Most nonprofit grantseekers must juggle multiple funders, each of which has a distinct set of questions, a separate grantmaking cycle, a different budget form, individual online or hard-copy systems, and page, word or character specifications, not to mention myriad requirements for how demographic data is to be represented, activities evaluated and results reported,” writes Jessica Bearman. And it is not uncommon for funders to require grantseekers to photocopy, collate, hole-punch, and mail several hard copies of their proposals and accompanying materials for the convenience of board members (Bearman refers to this shift of time-intensive administrative activities onto grantseekers as outsourcing the burden). Finally, the application procedures for small and large grants—sixty-six percent of foundations don’t vary requirements by grant size—can be equally time-consuming. In fact, nonprofits in the Project’s study reported that “smaller foundations were harder to work with: despite small grants, they often have highly specialized requirements.”
What can private grantmakers do to make their application procedures less time-consuming during this critical time?
Project Streamline’s report highlights the practices of several foundations including the Ms. Foundation which, after Hurricane Katrina, “threw their usual modus operandi out the window” in order to “do rapid response grantmaking.” Specifically, the foundation formulated a set of questions that would “gather basic data on the organization, an understanding of the need, and a sense of how the money would be used,” and then conducted phone interviews with organizations to determine eligibility. As well, “the foundation took responsibility for due-dilligence, using IRS information, (rather than requiring nonprofits to submit hard copies of the IRS Letter of Determination), to verify 501(c)(3) status.” The Ms. Foundation successfully continued the practice of phone interviews “before requiring a proposal" long after the Katrina crisis in order to "establish relationships and get the funds committed more quickly.”
Project Streamline's report includes additional recommendations to get funds to nonprofits sooner than later:
1. Re-prioritize program staff duties to ensure personal interactions and relationship-building with existing local charities. Again, staff can use phone or in-person conversations with grantseekers to stand in for aspects of the application process.
2. Use a zero-based approach to information-gathering. In other words, only require nonprofits to submit information that is really going to be used, and that cannot be obtained by grantmaking staff.
3. Be clear, consistent, and up-to-date about eligibility requirements throughout your web and print materials and communications so that nonprofits can quickly determine whether or not it is worth their time to apply.
4. Address due diligence after the foundation has made an initial partnership commitment.
5. Have a streamlined application for small grants to ensure that grantseekers not expend more time and money on getting the grant than they receive in funding.
6. Eliminate requirements such as multiple copies of application documents.
7. Accept applications electronically—be sure to conduct usability testing to make sure files can be uploaded without crashing, and that grantees and cut and paste, save, and print.
8. Accept grantee’s existing materials, particularly budgets.
Thousands of emergency food and shelter organizations have already met the eligibility requirements for 2011 Phase 29 EFSP funding. In past federal budgets, these organizations would find out how much money was coming by January or February. It is April, and they have yet to learn if they will receive funds at all. Private grantmakers would do well to stretch out a hand to these eligible organizations in their local communities, get to know them, and minimize the amount of time they have to spend on getting desperately-needed grants.