Funders—Try Completing Your Own Online Applications and Reports

In Profiles & Interviews by Michelle Greanias31 Comments

Form Fury

Born out of 1950’s moon shots, our modern tech identity is understandably replete with technology as the wonderful, sole solution, followed by success, for sure, but also by a bunch of Frankenstein’s monsters, which we then try to fix with more technology. We knew the folly of this back then; or, at least Rod Serling did. Nuf poor man’s philosophy. What if we could preempt the cycle? Michelle Greanias makes a case for not letting tech become a hindrance and offers a simple eye-opener of a solution to recognize and correct the course inside the process that determines how money flows to nonprofits from grantmakers.

Technology can and has added significant value to nonprofit fundraising from new channels to solicit support to gathering better and more useable data to strengthen programs. It has also added to the burden of fundraising as grantmakers have also integrated technology into their practices with mixed results.

In our recently released report, Practices That Matter, we measured the significant success we’ve had in raising grantmaker awareness of the impact of their application and reporting practices on grantseekers. And heard the hard truth from grantseekers that awareness hasn’t yet translated into widespread improvements in practice. Asked to tell us what practices really help save time and resources, grantseekers’ number one response was online systems that work.

That’s not surprising given that grantmakers are overwhelmingly shifting to online systems or accepting applications and reports via email. But going online doesn’t equal streamlining. Poorly designed and untested online systems—all too common, according to grantseekers—remain one of the biggest sources of aggravation and unnecessary administrative hours. Comments from grantseekers cited many specific issues related to online systems, including forms where data cannot be cut and pasted but must be input one item at a time (e.g., board member lists), forms with stringent character limits, forms that don’t allow users to review all questions in advance, save work, or go back to previous responses, and myriad other bugs.

Grantseekers reported that the overwhelming prevalence of online systems can, at times, have the effect of preventing them from reaching a real person for a real conversation, a consequence that may be unintended. A few also suggested that some funders have taken brevity too far: “… online systems are configured in such a way as to SIGNIFICANTLY limit the amount of information we can provide, almost to the extreme. We then find that it’s difficult to provide or report meaningful information to the grantmaker.”

I’d like to challenge all grantmakers to pretend that you are seeking funding from yourself—you know your program and organization purpose, goals, and outcomes. Use actual data and respond with serious answers about your organization to all questions, including budgets and financial information. That will give you an excellent sense of the time, effort, and character space it takes a grantseeker to fulfill your application and reporting requirements.

You might be surprised halfway through on how motivated you suddenly are to start streamlining. I know I was when I did this at my last foundation!

I found duplicative questions, questions that were impossible to answer, questions that took too long to answer and didn’t result in information I really needed to make grant decisions. It also made me reflect long and hard about what information I really needed to make decisions, what format I needed it in, and when in the process I needed it.

An easy example is a board list. I realized there was no value to adding this data to our database (requiring significant data entry by the grantseeker). We weren’t planning to contact these people. Our first thought was to request the information in an attachment, which was a definite improvement. But then, we challenged ourselves further—why would we need this information once we checked that it was representative of the population served (our reason for asking for it) so we reviewed the list on the grantseeker’s website, knowing we’d have access to 990s which contain the board list if we ever needed it for any reason. That met our needs with no additional effort on our part, and about a 20 minute savings of each grantseeker’s time.

That’s just one small example of how this exercise might help you identify improvement possibilities so join me in this challenge and share your “aha” moments on ways to make your online applications and reports more user-friendly for your grantseekers…and yourself.


  1. This is great. I’ve seen this in a few government grants I applied for and thought to myself ‘why are they asking the same things and why are their reporting measures so vague?’.

    Fortunately, I landed them. But, I certainly see the importance of this practice among funders. Thank you for shining light on this issue.

  2. Michelle,

    I just lead our foundation (a small healthcare conversion foundation) through the process of switching to an online grants management system. It wasn’t an easy task, but well worth the effort. Along the way the Foundation changed their grantmaking strategy so it was the perfect opportunity to assess our application questions. We used questions similar to regional common applications and few our online software company had at their disposable. Once we were satisfied with the questions we asked grantees for feedback.

    Like many people we did run into the issues of character limits and file upload issues but the software is very flexible so we could make adjustment as needed.

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