Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Simplify and Streamline Paperwork

Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Simplify and Streamline Paperwork

By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President

Editor’s Note: Every two weeks, we’ll be exploring one or more of the seven pillars of the Foundation’s trust-based philanthropy approach. We start today with simplifying and streamlining paperwork. To read a series introduction from Foundation President & CEO Philip Li, click.

I started my career as a grant writer for a small nonprofit organization in Boston. I remember how strange the grant-seeking process seemed to me then– I would write some things down and put it all in an envelope (this was pre-email—use your imagination). In a few weeks or months, sometimes a person is a suit would come check would arrive.

I went on to write proposals for many organizations, and in that time found that funders had a wide range of specialized Requests for Proposals (RFPs), individualized budget formats, program officers with very different styles and approaches, and many, many different requested attachments. I remember late nights at the copy machine, making 24 copies of a proposal for 24 readers at a single foundation, and I remember working with six people from four different organizations to put together a proposal that we submitted two minutes post-deadline, and therefore was never read. Our grantee partner Vu Le writes brilliantly about what it feels like to answer typical proposal questions in his blog Nonprofit AF — I highly recommend the read. 

I suspect that all those proposals I wrote were almost as boring to review as they were to write. So when our President & CEO Phil Li suggested that we do something different here at RSCF, I was thrilled. With the consent of our adventurous board, we developed a grantmaking process that simplifies and streamlines paperwork, which is one of the seven pillars of our trust-based philanthropy approach. We accept, and request proposals that potential grantees have already written for other funders. We have an open submission policy, such that if an organization thinks they are eligible for funding, they can apply at any time.

We request a document that describes their leadership development work, but we don’t even require them to do a search-and-replace to insert ‘Robert Sterling Clark’ where ‘Foundation X’ used to be. The Apply section on our website simply states this request: Please submit a recent grant application that represents your organization well, and reflects our funding interests. Feel free to share one that you’ve used to apply to another funder.

I’ll be honest, some applicants are quite skeptical–they are smart and savvy professionals who have spent a career figuring out what foundations (really) want. It will take a while for us to build the reputation and trust in the field so that people can believe what we say at first reading. But we insist that there is no particular format or set of questions we need answered–and many organizations are more than happy to comply.

We typically find that the proposals they have written for other funders work just fine for us. They give us the information we need to get started, and then we can do the legwork to look up their 990s, talk to colleagues in the field, and—most importantly—meet with them and observe their programs. We think it is a better use of their time and ours to talk, rather than for them to sit in their offices writing to our specifications, only for us to sit in our offices, reading.

All that said, this is new for us, and we are still figuring it out. That is evident in how we work with grantees to evaluate their progress. At first, we asked them to submit reports that they had written for other funders. But we soon found that they didn’t really tell us what we wanted to know about what grantees are learning. So we have developed an oral reporting process, in the form of a set of questions that we call the Check-in Analysis Tool (CHAT–pretty clever, right?). We send the questions ahead to our grantees, and then use them to guide a conversation that serves both as site visit and grant report.

I think it’s important to say that this streamlined process is not a good deed we are doing for grant seekers. It makes our jobs richer and more rewarding and makes us better at getting to our mission. We want to be out in the field, meeting with potential grantees, observing programs, talking to leaders, and learning about what’s state of the art when it comes to leadership development. We feel restless and detached when we spend too much time at our desks, poring over proposals, attachments, and reports.

We think that streamlining paperwork, especially as part of a larger implementation of trust-based philanthropy, has many payoffs. Most importantly, it gives our grantees a little more time to do their important work. We hope that it also increases trust and builds the relationship between us and our grantee partners, so that we can work together in ways that go far beyond the funding check.