Grants rage is on the rise, and here’s how we plan to stop it

Posted on 27 Sep 2021

By Joshua Presser

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We've been building many of the tech solutions to ease grants rage.

The frustrations of international grantseekers boiled over recently into grassroots campaigns dubbed “Fix the Form” and “100 Forms in 100 Days”. Yet the Australian-made software SmartyGrants was developed to prevent precisely the angst and inefficiencies identified by US and European grantseekers. SmartyGrants’ director of special projects, Josh Presser, explains.

What is #FixTheForm?

The “Fix the Form” campaign was the brainchild of the US-based review site GrantAdvisor, which allows grantseekers to post anonymous reviews of the funders they depend on for grants.

Often described as “Tripadvisor for grantmakers”, GrantAdvisor was founded in 2017 as a response to the unequal power dynamics that prevented grantees from providing frank feedback to grantmakers. By 2020, users had posted 2600 reviews of 800 grantmakers. One of the most common themes? Frustration with grant application processes.

In November 2020, GrantAdvisor drew on these reviews to survey 500 grantseekers in nine countries, asking respondents to identify and rank their top three frustrations from a list of 17, and to rate their negative impact on a scale from “needed a cup of tea after” to “considered changing my profession”.

The results were unequivocal. The number one “pain point” reported by respondents was “not being able to see the full application form ahead of time”.

The SmartyGrants system relies on a nine-stage grantmaking lifecycle as spelt out in the SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit.

Nearly a decade before the inception of GrantAdvisor, SmartyGrants was already working to address the deep well of “grants rage” experienced by both grantmakers and their grantees, who at the time were lumbered with clunky, outdated systems and processes that resulted in money being squandered.

In 2009, we assembled a special team, operating within the walls and the progressive social agenda of Our Community, to develop a technology solution that would address many of these philosophical and practical problems. SmartyGrants was born.

SmartyGrants was built to prevent and address precisely the kinds of inefficiencies and frustrations ranked by “Fix the Form” survey respondents.

Eleven years on, we’re excited to take this opportunity to highlight and celebrate just how far we’ve come in making SmartyGrants far more than just a tech solution. A comparison of Fix the Form “pain points” and SmartyGrants highlights the extent to which technology can be used to drive good social outcomes when it’s used well.

How SmartyGrants stacks up
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Click on each question to see how we've responded to the top #FixTheForm complaints.

SmartyGrants has always allowed grantees to preview and download application forms, navigate between pages, and to save and return to their grant applications. In fact, it seems odd to us that this wouldn’t be allowed by default.

At SmartyGrants we have a saying: “Never ask a question on a form if you don’t know if or how you will use the answers.” Streamlining your application forms and grantmaking processes and ensuring that your policies and procedures are proportionate to the assessed level of risk will ensure that you and your grantees aren’t bogged down in unnecessary form-filling and administrative processes.

To learn more about how risk management and applying the principle of proportionality can help you to streamline your processes, see Risk Management and the Grantmaking Cycle, a SmartyGrants whitepaper.

Heck, that’s just silly. Of course SmartyGrants allows you to save a form and return to it.

Good grantmaking needs good data. Good data powers continuous improvement and allows you to make high quality, risk-informed decisions to maximise impact.

Asking the same questions in different ways across your programs (or within a program) isn’t just inefficient, it also limits your ability to easily report across programs. Creating a common data schema across your whole organisation enables you to get the information you need quickly and easily across any or all your programs.

The standardisation provided by CLASSIE and default standard fields facilitates collaboration and learning among grantmakers. It also means grantseekers aren’t wasting time answering the same questions asked by different grantmakers in different ways.

For grantmakers with multiple siloed programs, achieving this level of standardisation can be a challenge, and requires a commitment from the organisation’s senior leadership to drive change and encourage collaboration between program areas. It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort.

Like we said before, “Never ask a question on a form if you don’t know if or how you will use the answers.” On the flip side, when you’re creating a form in SmartyGrants, be sure to give your applicants all they space they might reasonably need (but not more space that you’re prepared to read).

SmartyGrants comes with a full set of sample forms that contain all the default standard fields. These sample forms can be customised by individual grantmakers, so you can always streamline them or add to them.

Nope, not a problem in SmartyGrants. Upload at will!

SmartyGrants allows grant applications to be downloaded as PDFs and easily shared.

SmartyFile (discussed below) will allow multiple users to login and edit the same form, and will eventually allow multiple users to seamlessly collaborate on grant applications.

Clear eligibility and assessment criteria not only make grantees happy, they are also an opportunity for you as a grantmaker to specify exactly what qualities, skills and experience you require from potential applicants.

The clearer your guidelines, the less time you’ll need to spend sifting through ineligible or unsuitable applications, and the less time grantseekers will spend applying for grants for which they are ineligible or unsuited.

SmartyGrants allows users to build powerful online application forms which can prevent applicants from submitting ineligible applications. Here are some techniques SmartyGrants users can employ to drive up eligibility rates through form design:

  • Include an eligibility checklist or questions at the start of your form
  • Use validation settings to make the eligibility questions mandatory, or to specify required responses
  • Use conditional logic to create and show a message that informs ineligible applicants of their ineligibility, and directs them back to your program guidelines document.

Best practice for writing grants guidelines is outlined here.

SmartyGrants offers bullet points, but not bold or italic text. We’ve sent a note to our developers!

With SmartyGrants, the form you offer online is the same one that your applicants can download. There is no need to edit online and downloadable versions separately.

Smartygrants’ tax status automatic check includes the auto-population of related fields for legal name, unique identifier, and tax status. in Australia, SmartyGrants interfaces with the Australian Business Register and in New Zealand, interfaces with Charities Services and Business.govt.nz. The platform is able to extend this feature to other national tax agents as required.

Grantmakers seeking to streamline processes for grantees by using other open-source information can use internal administration forms. If the open-source information is captured in standard fields, then this can be fed directly into application and assessment forms.

The future feature SmartyFile (discussed below), will cut the time required to complete application forms by allowing grantseekers to store the answers to commonly asked questions and prefill these into application forms.

Offering the option for applicants to self-describe enables you to learn more about your potential grantees. This is why SmartyGrants includes the facility to add an “other” option to questions.

There are two types of assistance to talk about here.

1) Grant program queries

Providing information and assistance to prospective grant applicants is key to receiving eligible and high-quality applications. Grantmakers consistently report that if they engage with grantseekers before submission, they receive higher quality applications.

More information on providing assistance to applicants can be found in the SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit, and also in the helpsheet Identifying Outcomes Agents.

2) Technical queries

SmartyGrants is proud of its customer service, which includes Melbourne-based technical support to administrators, applicants and assessors, by email and by phone. Most importantly, you get a response from a real-life human every time.

This one is a bit of a double-edged sword. Grantees need to create an account to be able to do great stuff like save an application and return to it later (see the complaint “Forms you can’t save and return to”, above), and ultimately, to receive grant payments. However, the good news is that it is simple and straightforward to register as a user on the SmartyGrants applicant site.

In SmartyGrants, grantseekers are able to preview the full application form without registering for an account. When grantmakers make their program guidelines and application forms publicly available, it means that potential applicants don’t have to go to the effort of creating an account unless they’re sure they want to apply.

This one is just common sense. The language you use in your guidelines, application forms and other grantmaking communications should be tailored to the size and complexity of your program, and the capability and experience of your intended grant recipients.

Here at SmartyGrants, we make every effort to ensure that our tools, templates, resources and policies are in plain language everyone can understand.

For more information, see our whitepaper Grantmaking and Communications.


100 Forms in 100 Days
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The campaign “100 Forms in 100 Days” built on the results of “Fix the Form” and aimed to address the biggest frustration grantmakers had already identified: not being able to view an application form ahead of time.

A collaboration between GrantAdvisor and the Technology Association of Grantmakers, the campaign called on grantmakers to make their application forms publicly available so they could be analysed for their similarities and differences.

A total of 128 grantmakers responded to the call, submitting 133 forms and exceeding the target of 100 forms in 100 days.

Analysis of those forms found that that, on average, grant applications forms share 39% of the same questions.

The stats highlighted opportunities for streamlining and standardisation which would benefit both grantmakers and their grantees. Subsequently, five US grants management software vendors made changes to their systems to allow forms to be viewed by grant applicants.

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With frustrating processes, it's no surprise that many grantseekers suffer grants rage.

Why standardise?
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The headline finding from the “100 Forms in 100 Days” analysis – that grant application forms share an average 39% of the same questions – reinforces that grant programs aren’t as different as some of us would like to think.

When faced with the prospect of standardisation, it’s common for grantmakers to say, “Oh, my program is different” or “My program is special.” While every program has its own risks which need to be managed proportionately, there are still many fundamentals that are the same across programs.

Grantmakers who can streamline their processes and standardise across their programs (while still managing risk proportionately) will not only make life easier for their grantees, but also realise significant benefits for themselves.

Standardising your grants policies and processes (including forms) as much as possible across all your grants programs allows you to reduce duplication of effort, leverage economies of scale and automate processes.

Creating revolutionary insights: CLASSIE
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Developed by the SmartyGrants Innovation Lab, CLASSIE is Our Community’s taxonomy for the Classification of Social Sector Initiatives and Entities.

CLASSIE is built into SmartyGrants through a series of default standard fields which allow grantmakers to ask applicants about their primary areas of focus (subject) and their predicted and actual beneficiaries (population).

The CLASSIE standard fields help grantmakers to collect valuable information about how, where and to whom their money is flowing. By standardising the taxonomy across grantmakers, we can “compare apples with apples”, and share, collaborate and learn across the sector. This allows us to create benchmarks and identify wider collective trends to maximise impact.

CLASSIE users can access unique insights through their SmartyGrants dashboard, and we are able to help grantmakers to compare themselves to similar grantmakers on the SmartyGrants system by using benchmarks.

The standardisation provided by CLASSIE and default standard fields facilitates better collaboration and learning among grantmakers. It also reduces the time spent by grantseekers answering the same questions asked by different grantmakers in different ways. Soon, auto classification using CLASSIE will be available in SmartyGrants enabling insights, benchmarking and collaboration like never before (See Classifier – below)

Outcomes Engine

Many years in the making, the Outcomes Engine is a tool built into SmartyGrants to help grantmakers define, track and report on outcomes data.

The Outcomes Engine allows grantmakers to define a system-wide outcomes framework, specify which goals and metrics apply to each program or round, and collect data from grant applicants and recipients in line with their frameworks.

It comes with a suite of outcomes standard questions and sections which can be placed on forms. Tested by grantmakers, grantees and evaluation experts, the Outcomes Engine standard sections have been designed to scale in complexity to suit the needs of those with a sophisticated understanding of impact evaluation, as well as those just starting the journey. They can be easily customised as required to match the capacity and needs of grantmakers and grantees.

Because standard questions and sections have the same magical properties as the other SmartyGrants standard fields, they also streamline processes for both grantmakers and grantees. Data flows seamlessly from one form to the next. This means that grantees can easily report on progress without having to refer to previous reports or their application data. Likewise, grantmakers can assess applications or progress reports easily, with everything in one place.

The Outcomes Engine creates a consistent data schema for the collection, tracking and reporting of outcomes data which allows you, in partnership with your grantees, to understand more about the outcomes and impacts of your work.

Because the data schema is common to all users of the Outcomes Engine, it has also the potential to drive collaboration and cross-sector learning, creating powerful insights about what approaches work best to shift the needle towards shared outcome goals.

Want to learn more? This article provides six practical tips on getting started using SmartyGrants to track your grantmaking outcomes.

The SmartyGrants team is currently rolling out the Outcomes Engine to beta users. Want to be a beta user? Contact us at service@smartygrants.com.au.

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SmartyGrants aims to soon offer the ability to automatically classify grants using the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside other classifications.

CLASSIEfier

CLASSIEfier (https://www.ourcommunity.com.au/CLASSIEfier) is an algorithm designed to automatically apply the CLASSIE taxonomy to grant applications, or indeed to any relevant social sector data. It works by reading a grant application and predicting the main subjects and populations involved.

Currently CLASSIE requires grants to be manually classified, and while usage of CLASSIE has been growing steadily since its introduction in 2016, CLASSIEfier’s ability to retrospectively classify existing records (SmartyGrants holds almost one million grant applications) has the potential to supercharge the amount of data available for analysis, instantly revealing funding patterns and creating powerful benchmarking insights.

By removing or reducing manual (human) classification, CLASSIEfier will also create efficiencies for grantmakers and streamline grant applications for grantseekers.

CLASSIEfier is coming very soon and future releases of SmartyGrants will offer the ability to auto-classify grants by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) .

“What this research shows is that grantmakers share a baseline set of questions that could, and perhaps should, be pre-populated in some fashion without requiring effort from nonprofits." - TAG executive director Chantal Foster, on the findings of the “100 Forms in 100 Days” campaign.

SmartyFile, for grantseekers

SmartyFile will forever revolutionise the process of applying for grants. It is a centralised online repository that will eventually allow grantseekers to store their contact details and answers to common questions, which can then be pre-filled into SmartyGrants application forms, reducing the time and effort required to apply for grants.

SmartyFile will also enable members of social sector organisations to seamlessly collaborate on new applications, managing all their current SmartyGrants applications and acquittals from the one place.

The first version of Smartyfile which allows multiple users to collaborate on grant applications will be launched shortly, with more features to be progressively added over time.

SmartyGrants fields explorations project

Innovation Lab

Data scientists in the SmartyGrants Innovation Lab are currently undertaking an exploration of application form questions in SmartyGrants. The project is similar to the “100 Forms in 100 Days” project undertaken by TAG, but instead of analysing the similarities between 124 forms, the SmartyGrants project is using an algorithm to review the more than 600,000 forms in SmartyGrants, and group questions by similarity.

The project will provide insights into the types of questions grantmakers are asking grantees and the data will inform the development of new tools and resources for grantmakers, and future improvements to SmartyGrants, standard fields and template forms.

Beyond the software platform

SmartyGrants works to drive grants sector reform beyond the SmartyGrants software:

  • The SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit is the definitive guide to building best practice into your grants processes and programs and contains 24 separate policy and operational templates to help you tailor each stage of the grantmaking lifecycle to your organisation’s needs.
  • We facilitate collaboration and sharing of best practice through the SmartyGrants Forum, our regular musters, and the Grantmaking Intelligence Conference (Australia’s only annual grantmaking conference), which draws together grantmakers from all corners of the country (and beyond) to connect, collaborate and share best practice.
  • Indepth whitepapers and help sheets addressing contemporary grantmaking issues are distributed through our monthly newsletter, Grants Management Intelligence.

More information

smartygrants.com.au

SmartyGrants founder spells out agenda for a mature sector