by Daniel Bloom
As the Jewish Funders Network Conference convenes in Tel Aviv this week it is an appropriate time to reflect on how fortunate we are to have such a well developed system of Jewish philanthropy. The breadth, strength and professionalism of the funding community is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. As the search for greater impact and ROI continues there is one particular aspect of the funder/grantee relationship that is often antiquated, despite the obvious opportunities for collaboration and efficiency. Development professionals at countless Jewish organizations spend their days crafting and tweaking grant applications and reports for hundreds of different funders, each with their own unique requirements. Not only would a well implemented common grant application save thousands of hours of labor across the Jewish communal sector, it would often make life easier for funders as well.
Having a universal grant application is not a new idea, and I want address some of its perceived obstacles as well has its obvious benefits. There are two key elements at play: first, the content of grant applications and reports, and second, the medium of communicating that information between grantees and funders.
Common ground on applications and reports
As it stands, each grant proposal presents a unique challenge to a Jewish non profit. One grant requests a 250 word explanation of the proposal, another a 400 word executive summary. One foundation asks for financial information broken down by certain criteria, another asks for profit/loss statements in a different format altogether. Serious proposals take days to complete, not hours, so it is little wonder that even at moderately sized non profits there are often multiple staff whose sole responsibility is writing grant proposals and reports. Some of my best friends are Jewish development professionals, but I’d like to put a few of them out of a job by seeing an efficient system implemented that takes advantage of the fact that most of content requested on grants is common to all funders. A consensus on what we ask for, and how we ask for it, would drastically reduce the burden on non profits. To be sure, the priorities and needs of funders are both distinct and evolving, and I would not suggest that one size would truly fit all. Rather, an applications system could standardize those questions that are common to all funders, and still leave open the opportunity for unique questions and requests.
A system of common applications has already been adopted by many colleges to reduce the burden on potential students. A common application is also used by many tech incubators, which are actually in direct competition with each other to attract the best startups. Jewish funders have a double incentive in that foundations aren’t in competition – generally, we are all on the same team – and secondly, funders are aware that a non profit hour spent writing grants spends foundation treasure that could be used to further the organization’s mission.
Optimizing the medium of communication
There are a number of ways in which grantees and potential grantees submit applications and reports to funders, ranging from mail or in-person delivery of documents, email or upload submission of Word/Excel/PDF documents, or sophisticated online application systems. It should be clear in this day and age why spending time at the FedEx store should not be part of the grant application process. What may not be obvious is why requesting hard copy submission, or even accepting email submissions, creates a lot of needless work on the funder’s side.
Let us consider for a moment a hypothetical foundation that has an annual application process and receives 50 applications by email. Before the review process even begins some poor program associate, or in the case of small foundations, the CEO, has to copy and paste contact information from all those applications into a CRM. And what about getting all those applications to staff or board members for review? Perhaps we can have the program associate print out copies of each application, bind them into booklets, and head off to FedEx. Alternatively, we can scheme some way to send out all the documents together as one or more attachments. Collecting feedback data from the review team presents a different set of challenges. Our example here is actually fairly benign compared to some of the more ‘cruel and unusual’ systems currently being used to distribute applications for review and gather feedback data. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the opportunities for streamlining afforded by switching to an online application management system.
Online application management systems eliminate repetitive tasks through automation. Contact information can be synced with a CRM, or added as a spreadsheet with only a few clicks. Applications can be sorted and easily distributed to reviewers, and their feedback can be instantly received and collated. Tasks that took hours or sometimes days can be done in seconds or minutes. Traditionalists who prefer reading on paper can still print out their documents if desired, while allowing those who are tech forward, or the younger generation who often spurn paper, to review applications on their laptops and iPads. The only potential downside: cost. Due to the size and inefficiency of the market for non profit technology, these solutions are often very expensive. However, assuming the right product can be found, the savings in time and labor make online application management a worthy investment.
The sweet spot: Optimizing the content and the medium
While implementing either a common application, or an online applications system, would each individually be great steps forward for the Jewish communal sector, it is the adoption of both by a collective of Jewish funders that would truly propel the creation of a more frictionless and productive funding ecosystem. Imagine a development officer opens a dashboard in the universal applications system and sees a list of upcoming grant deadlines. She opens a grant and all she has to do is fill out the five unique questions asked by that particular funder. The rest of the data, such as contact information, staff and board profiles, financial statements and more, has all been pre-filled based on the organization’s saved profile. As all of the communication takes place online, funders even have the opportunity of collaborating with applicants before their final submission. After submission, all of the applications are in a form that is easy for funders to store and distribute as needed. Additionally, while 50 funders individually shopping around for a system would most likely each end up spending good money for a system that didn’t quite suit their needs, 50 funders working together could help create an affordable system that would suit all parties.
A universal grant application would be a boon to the Jewish communal sector on both sides of the funding table, and would also serve as a great testament to Jewish institutions collaborating as a network. If you would like to part of such a venture, or you have ideas, critiques or suggestions, I look forward to your correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below.
Daniel Bloom is the New York Coordinator for PresenTense. The views expressed are his own.