Thursday, August 30, 2012

Trying to solve problems

One of the unfortunate realities for foundations is that they don't have enough money to do what they want to do. I know, I know everyone on the fund seeking side of the table reads that sentence and thinks "Oh, cry me a river," about poor foundations, but it's true, foundations don't have enough money to go around.

One result of this, over time and across countless organizations, has been the evolution of the horrible application process with which we are all familiar. From the outside looking in, foundations appear to be making it as hard as possible to apply for funding. They all have their own forms. The language about what they seek to accomplish is jargon-riddled and as opaque as possible. Some won't take unsolicited proposals at all. Others require several steps of inquiry before agreeing to receive an application.

From the inside, well-meaning foundation leaders and staff try to make things easier. They streamline the process (How about answering "8 questions for a shot at $5 million"). They assess themselves on their responsiveness to applicants and make real efforts to be more available, visible, and helpful. 

Wouldn't it be better if the process were less adversarial? If foundation application procedures were designed to help them find the right projects and help applicants find the funding they need (even if it's not going to be from that foundation?) Or if applicants could get guidance and help to improve their proposals?

Atlantic Public Media hosts a site called Transom which offers a good example of what's possible. Transom is a place where the folks at APM - ever on the lookout for stories - help people with stories craft them into a form where they can be presented on the radio. It offers tools to improve the stories, to craft the telling and to submit them.  There's advice from senior writers, editors and producers from NPR and elsewhere. There are lists of recommendations about technology and editing.

Applying for funding and submitting a story for production are not the same thing.  For writers the process of submitting stories to publishers or producers can be as rejection filled as for nonprofits submitting funding proposals. Transom shows us that it's possible to make the interaction one of working together to get great stories produced and make great public radio programming.

Foundations have made big strides toward being more inviting - (open grantmaking challenges reflect the growing awareness that the best ideas may come from the unlikeliest places.) But there is plenty left to do to get to the place where foundations and nonprofits are working together - from idea generation through proposal, implementation and assessment - to actually solve problems.

Transom bills itself as a "Showcase and Workshop for New Public Radio." I think its time for a "showcase and workshop for social solutions"

1 comment:

Bradford Smith said...

Thanks for speaking up on this issue Lucy. Simply put, the grant application process is a mess, because it isn't one process, it is an endless collection of individual processes designed by endowed, independent and autonomous institutions (foundations). It isn't really intended to be a mess, but may actually be getting worse as more and more foundations collect more and more information related to the effectiveness and impact of their grantee partners. It will take better collaboration, better technology and better knowledge management inside, between and beyond foundations to improve the situation. It is ripe for re-design with knowledge as the goal and compliance as a bi-product.

The Foundation Center published a modest study of more than 60 online application and reporting processes to help nonprofits and funders imagine a better way: And there is always project streamline: