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Don’t drown grantees in paperwork

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Mary Mountcastle

A recent report, “Drowning in Paperwork: Distracted from Purpose,” outlines ways in which funders actually prevent their grantees from achieving greater impact due to application and reporting guidelines.

I stand guilty as charged.  The foundations with which I’m associated need to revisit our application and reporting mechanisms to ensure we are using our time and our grantees’ time effectively.

For instance, the report suggests varying application requirements for different grant sizes or for long-term grantees, both of which make sense.

However, I also believe in the importance of some customized information. Funders have different missions, which I think is good, and different emphases.

For instance, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation considers the diversity of grantee boards and staffs in its deliberation process and requests that information on its application.

Efforts to streamline the process have become even more difficult as many funders have become more focused in their grantmaking mission and strategies in an effort to increase their impact.

How we balance our need to collect appropriate information for good decision-making with the desire to avoid overwhelming our prospective grantees with a burdensome process is an ongoing challenge for our sector.  The report calls this an “effectiveness paradox”.

For individual donors or giving circles, there are also several common sense guidelines to follow:

  • “Right size” your requirements. Small grants should have a short, simple application and reporting mechanism. A $5,000 to $10,000 grant may be a large commitment from you, but you don’t want the prospective grantee to spend twice that in staff time preparing and reporting on the grant.
  • Encourage applicants to provide already-produced material such as annual reports and existing budgets whenever practical. A lot of time can be spent customizing information that may not be all that important to the donor. The point is to be clear about what information will be most useful to you and where more general information will be satisfactory.
  • Provide general operating support. Unless you have a very specific reason to restrict your funding, allow the grantee to put your money where it will get the most impact. Operating support should always be the default position.
  • Respect the grantee’s time. Be aware that long or multiple site visits, speaking on panels or other requests all keep the grantee from doing its main work. It is very difficult for a grantee to say no to such a request. Personal relationships with grantors are very important. Similarly, visibility with other potential donors or opinion leaders can also be incredibly useful. So don’t stop making those requests or thinking of ways to connect your grantees with other funding sources or useful contacts, just ensure that there is an upside for the grantee that warrants their investment of time.

Grantees need to recognize that successful fundraising means understanding the funder’s particular area of interest and highlighting that work in your proposal.

The trick on both sides is to find an appropriate balance so that we all accomplish what we seek in common:  to have the most impact on our collective missions.


Mary Mountcastle is a long-time trustee of several family foundations and sometime student of philanthropy.

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