Designing or redesigning your grants program

It can be difficult to know where to start in designing a grants policy and program. This help sheet lists a number of dimensions you can work through in order to establish or refresh your program.


List your various stakeholders. What is their position, their interest? What do they want to own or control? What role will they play? What impact will this have on each dimension of the design decision-making process?

Consider grantees as well as grantors. Grantee stakeholders include not only potential applicants but also community sector experts in your program area.

Community of location versus community of interest

Decide and state what you mean by "community" for your program. Do you want to target certain groups in certain geographic locations? If you do, say so clearly.

Consider keeping a glossary of terms relevant to your program, including "community".

Universal versus targeted

Be specific about your goals: is there a broad group of people whose situation you want to change, or a very targeted group?

Input-output versus outcome

Again, if your goals are broad you may be primarily concerned about the outcomes of your investments. If you have specific goals in mind, you might need to purchase particular inputs to achieve the output you seek.

Purchaser-provider versus participative partnering

In a full partnership, grantor and grantee share control, work together, and see themselves as joint participants in a process. In a purchaser-provider relationship, the grantor provides funding to purchase a particular service.

Established versus emerging organisations

Depending on your responses to the elements above, you might know that you need to purchase services from a well-established, professional entity. But if you are working on complex issues or want to be involved in a partnership, you might feel that you can work with a new or fledgling organisation. You can include capacity-building for the new or emerging organisation in the funding plan.

Integrated versus differentiated services

Services can be multi-purpose and integrated (all things to all people) or they can be differentiated, with different service providers responsible for different elements. Consider which would better suit your goals and give grantees reasons for your decision.

Consolidation versus innovation and experimentation

If you already know what works to address the issue with which you are concerned, you may want to purchase more of the same - this is program consolidation. But if you don't know what works, you might want to experiment with a variety of approaches. That way you build the knowledge base and proceed with innovation and action.

Professionals versus volunteers

Consider whether your outcomes require the involvement of professionally trained staff.

For-profit versus not-for-profit

Many services that were traditionally the domain of not-for-profit, community-based organisations are now being offered by large-scale not-for-profit businesses and even for-profit businesses. Again, you need to decide what you are willing to work with. You probably have to accept that the further you go towards the business model, the more likely you are to sacrifice local community links with your "client" group.

Recurrent versus seeding or time-limited grants

Both models are legitimate and both can sit side-by-side in the same program. You just need to be clear that the funding terms fits your budget, what you want to achieve, how you want to achieve it, and the stage of grantee development. Grants that are too short-term can mean an activity has to cease before its potential has been realised; grants that are too long-term risk circumstances changing during the grant's lifetime. In the same way, grants that are too small can put stress on organisations, while grants that are too big can cause disruptive or unsustainable expansion.

Sole funding versus portfolio funding

If you want a simple, uncluttered arrangement, you are likely to favour a sole funding arrangement. But if you want to spread funding widely, encourage participative partnerships and encourage self-reliance and sustainability, you might favour multi-source or portfolio funding.

If you opt for portfolio funding, you need to articulate why, and take administrative steps to enable one application to be used in multiple settings, as well as have shared contracts, shared reporting arrangements and shared evaluations. But above all, you need to acknowledge that such arrangements are partnerships and require involvement, resources and accountability from all parties.

Consortiums and partnerships versus sole agents

This question presents the same issues as the previous element, but the focus here is on the service provider rather than the funding. If you want an integrated approach, you should say in your grant guidelines that you will favour applications with a partnership or consortium dimension. If the outcome you are seeking is clear and the method is clear, then you might choose a sole service provider.

Direct administration versus third-party administration

It is becoming accepted in Australia that the grantmaking process can be broken down into components that do not all have to be done in-house; some can be contracted to a third party. You need to decide what you can and want to contract to a third party, and why. What do you want to keep in-house, and why? The IT process, for example, requires particular expertise and you might decide to outsource it.

Competitive tender versus application submission

If in your responses to all of the above questions you are leaning towards established organisations, purchasing professional services, and input-output rather than outcomes, then you are more likely to want a competitive tendering approach.

But if you are looking for new players and new solutions and are focused on outcomes, then you might choose an invitation, community development or partnership approach.

You can articulate two processes in the one program. In the interests of probity, you might create two sub-sets of the same program, using parallel processes to achieve the same outcomes.

Objective versus subjective assessment criteria

One size does not fit all in any of these dimensions. For each program the degree of objectivity and the availability of measurable criteria will be greater or less. The question you need to ask is, do the criteria fit with and reflect the other dimensions of your program design?

Summative versus formative evaluation

Decide what you want to know. Is it just quantitatively whether you achieved the goal or target? Or do you want to know how everything worked along the way? Ask yourself what your stakeholders will want to know and don't collect information just for the sake of it. It is a waste of everyone's time.

Lessons learned are not only an important ending to the grantmaking story. They can be the beginning of a new story.

For a more detailed discussion of each of these design elements, read Barry Smith's conference presentation Blood, Sweat and Fears: Lessons Learned from 30 Years of Grantmaking.