Face Plants: The Grant Administration Struggle is Real

By cori schmanke parrish

Deputy Director, North Star Fund 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an occasional series exploring funder failures and mistakes. We call it ‘Face Plants.’ You can find earlier posts in the series on our main blog page. Today we are pleased to feature a guest contributor, cori schmanke parrish from North Star Fund, which is one of our grantee partners (and also a funder themselves). 

When North Star Fund started 40 years ago, our founders wanted to shift power dynamics in philanthropy. They didn’t want to continue the tradition of wealthy white folks making grantmaking decisions. Our grantmaking decisions are made by a group of volunteer grantmakers who are working on the front lines in the communities where we fund – organizers and activists that understand the day-to-day realities our grantees are facing. 

Our grantees are grassroots organizations that are led by people directly impacted by injustice, and they are building power in those communities to hold lawmakers and institutions to account and create social justice. We have a long tradition of making small grants to start-ups, being one of the first funders a group of community members can turn to when something’s wrong in their neighborhood. We also believe strongly that social change takes time, and we support grantees over many years, so they know they can count on us. From the beginning, we have rooted our grantmaking in the values of accessibility, transparency, and centering the needs of grassroots organizations. 

That sounds good, but how well were we living those values? Until a couple years ago, we had a short application form that every organization filled out, whether it was their first time applying to us, or their twentieth. And every organization that was being considered for a grant would receive a site visit, so that the volunteer members of our Community Funding Committee could meet them and hear updates on their work. This helped with the challenge of new committee members getting up to speed on organizations that we had been funding over time. 

For the grantees, however, it was a lot of work for a grant of $5,000. And we weren’t living our values of being an accessible funder when we asked every organization to approach us as if we’d never met them before year after year. We used to have an application with 10 questions that had word limits for each question, designed to keep the applications to 2-3 pages so they were short enough for our volunteer committee to read. Grantees reported that the word limits were very burdensome as they tried to cut their answers to the required lengths.

We asked ourselves how we could make it easier on renewal applicants. Here’s what we came up with: 

  • In 2017, we created a streamlined application for renewals.The renewal application has many fewer questions, including the chance for returning organizations to update their contact information or fiscal sponsorship information only if it has changed. In the narrative, we ask them about their organizational and campaign goals for the upcoming year. We accept narratives that they have written for other foundations that answer our questions. We ask them to limit the total number of pages, but we’re not strict if they go over. 

  •  We continued to request only light reporting. We ask only for a brief follow up report on what they accomplished and what they learned in the prior year. 

  • We started asking for optional feedback in every application form. We ask them to estimate the number of hours that staff and volunteers spent on the application, and whether the amount of work required for the size of grant was “too much,” “too little” or “just right.” In the first year of the new process, 40% of organizations reported a drop in the amount of time required to complete the application, with 50% of the organizations spending less than five hours on it. And the majority reported that the amount of time they spent on the application was “just right.”

Our new streamlined renewal process is now in line with our grantmaking values. As a social justice funder, we want grantees to be able to focus on the actual work of grassroots organizing rather than administrative work for us, and we want to move money to grassroots organizations as efficiently as possible. 

What’s next? We continue to look for ways to streamline our process and reduce the burden on our grantees so they can focus on the important work of challenging injustice, rather than the process of asking for funding. And we have more to learn. This cycle, we realized grantees are confused by the different application forms, and are sometimes filling out the wrong one. We’ll be working to solve this challenge in our upcoming grant cycles!