No Pain, No Gain: The Reality of Improving Grant Descriptions
Gretchen Schackel is Grants Manager of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.
This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series explores the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.
Join us at a session about the Open 990-PF in partnership with Southern California Grantmakers. Learn more or register here.
You know those blog posts that describe adopting a best practice? The ones that make it sound so easy and tempting that you try it, only to be let down because you discover that either you are doing something terribly wrong, or it is a lot harder than the author made it sound because they left out all of the pain points? Well, don’t worry—this is not one of those posts! In fact, I will start off with the pain points so you can go in eyes wide open, if like me, you end up on a quest to improve your foundation’s grant descriptions.
This post is a sequel to another Transparency Talk article that recently featured our foundation’s executive director, detailing lessons learned about why improving grants data is important to the foundation, as well as to the sector as a whole. That article ended with a brief snapshot of some “before and after” grant descriptions, showing how we are working to improve the way we tell the story of each grant, so I’m picking up here where that left off to share an honest, behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get from the before to the after.
“Capturing critical details when writing accurate and complete grant descriptions aids your efforts on the 990-PF form.”
As the grants manager, it’s my job to put the right processes in place so we can capture critical details when writing grant descriptions to ensure that they are accurate and complete, and well….actually descriptive (AKA “Purpose of grant of contribution” on form 990-PF). This fall marks my 11-year anniversary at the Miller Foundation and one thing that has remained constant throughout my tenure is what a pain writing good grant descriptions can be if you don’t know where to begin. So, I’m sharing my playbook below, because the communities we are serving, and how we are serving them, deserve to be described and celebrated. I’ve learned some tips and work-arounds along the way that I’ll share as I inventory the various obstacles you might encounter
Pain Point #1:
Lean Staffing. We are a staff of four people: Executive Director, Program Officer, Grants Manager, and Administrative Assistant. We don’t publish an annual report; we have just started using social media, and just completed a website redesign. This makes all of us part-time communications staff. I wouldn’t describe this as a best practice, but it’s the reality at many foundations.
Pain Reliever #1:
Grant Descriptions Can Serve Many Purposes. As mentioned above, the editorial process involved in prepping text for public consumption can be labor intensive, particularly in organizations without a communications department. Grant descriptions, which represent the substance of our work, turn out to be handy for small organizations like ours because they can serve many purposes. They are used for our minutes, our website, our 990-PF, and for our eReport to Foundation Center for its searchable databases. We don’t have time to write different grant descriptions for each specific use. So, we write one grant description that we can use in multiple platforms and situations.
Pain Point #2:
Garbage In – Garbage Out. Data starts with the grantees, and I know from talking to them that they are often not well equipped with time or technology to collect good data. It’s not just about what questions are we asking but rather how are we helping our grantees understand what we need and help them get us the best data possible.
Pain Reliever #2:
You have to work with what you’ve got. And what we have is the information provided by the potential grantees in their applications. Most of the information we need can be found in the “Brief summary of the grant request” question on the grant application. Rather than treat this as a test that potential grantees must either pass/fail, we provide detailed instructions of the kind of information we would like to see in the summary as part of our online application process. Taking the guesswork out of the application has improved the data quality we receive at the start of the grant. Our arts portfolio also requires that grantees participate in DataArts, which serves as a collective database that grantees only have to enter once and then all arts funders can access their data. Participating in field-building shortcuts like this is a great way to make the process more efficient for everyone.
Once you have the framework in place to get a good grant summary from your prospective grantees, however, your work is not yet done. Often, important elements of the funded grant can change during board deliberations, so I find it essential to share the grant summary with our program staff before finalizing to ensure we are capturing the detail accurately.
Pain Point #3: Lack of an industry standard on what makes the perfect grant description. There are probably as many ways to write a grant description as there are foundations, and reinventing wheels is a waste of our collective time, so I have long wished for a framework we could all agree to follow.
Pain Reliever #3: The Get on the Map Campaign.
We have learned a lot from Foundation Center’s Get on the Map campaign about the elements of a great grant description. The Get on the Map campaign is a partnership between United Philanthropy Forum and Foundation Center designed to improve philanthropic data, and includes a helpful framework that details the best way to share your data with Foundation Center and the public. What I immediately loved about it is how it reminded me of being that weird kid who loved to diagram sentences in junior high. But perhaps it’s not that strange since I know grants managers enjoy turning chaos into order. So, let's try to use sentence diagramming as a model for writing grant descriptions.
The Anatomy of a Good Grant Description
First, we’ll start with the four elements of a good grant description and assign each a color.
- WHAT: What is the primary objective of the grant?
- WHO: Are there any specifically intended beneficiaries?
- HOW: What are the primary strategies of the grant?
- WHERE: Where will the grant monies serve if beyond the recipient address?
We’ll start with an easy example. Program support grant descriptions often write themselves:
Brief summary of the grant request from application form:
“We are seeking support for Chicas Youth Development which serves over 500 Latina girls and their families in grades 3-12 in Washington County. Chicas launched in 2008 and has since grown to partner with three Washington County school districts and over 500 local families each year to offer after school programming, leadership, and community service opportunities for Latina youth and their families.”
Grant Description: to support the Chicas Youth Development program which serves 500 Latina girls in grades 3-12 located in Washington County.
That was pretty easy!! Particularly because of how we improved the clarity of what we ask for.
The grant below is also a project grant but the Brief summary of the grant request from the application is a little less straight forward:
“GRANTEE requests $AMOUNT to support the presentation of two new publications and four community readings featuring the writing of diverse voices: people who are experiencing homeless, immigrants and refugees living in our community, seniors living on a low income, LGBTQ folks, people living with a disability, and many others whose voices often live on the margins. This project will bring together people to experience and explore art and will focus on those with the least access to do so.”
Grant Description: To support community building through publication and public readings of works written by marginalized populations.
This grant is for both general operating support and a challenge grant. Tricky.
GRANTEE respectfully requests $AMOUNT over two years to support program growth as well as provide a matching challenge for individual donations as we continue to increase our sustainability through support from individual donors. If awarded, $AMOUNT would be put to general operating funds to support our continued program growth in all areas: traditional high school program, statewide initiative pilot program and our college program. The remaining $AMOUNT each year would serve as a matching challenge grant. In order to be eligible for the match, GRANTEE would have to raise $AMOUNT in new and increased individual donations each year of the grant period.
Okay Grant Description: To support program growth and provide a matching challenge for individual donations.
Good Grant Description: General operating funds to support program growth and a challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.
Better Grant Description: This grant was awarded in two parts: 1. General operating funds for mission related activities that provide intensive support to low-income high school juniors and seniors in Oregon. 2. A 1:1 challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.
The above description is a perfect example of why it’s important to read the proposal narrative as well as confer with program staff.
If you follow this process, I can’t promise it will be painless, but it will go a long way to relieving a lot of the pain points that come with grants management—particularly the grants management of today in which grants managers are at the crossroads of being data managers, information officers, and storytellers. I have found making this journey is worth it. Because, after all, behind every grant lies a story waiting to be told and a community waiting to hear it. So, let’s get our stories straight!