A Consumer’s Guide to Grants Management Software
Explore the options and compare available packages. To be released October 3, 2011
Demystifying Grant Guidelines
Grantmakers say "no" to applicants far more frequently than "yes." What does this tell us about the application process? Yes, too many applicants still don't read grant guidelines before submitting an application. However, grantmakers also need to challenge themselves. Could it be that grant guidelines are not written clearly enough to help applicants understand what the grantmaker will fund?
Why are well-written guidelines important to funders? A few years back the Grants Managers Network conducted an informal member survey to determine the ratio of grants funded to proposals received. The results showed that, on average, members funded one out of every four proposals received. That means of course, that 75 percent of the proposals were turned down. This might seem like pretty good odds to some applicants, but that ratio doesn't tell the whole story.
Let me provide a more specific example of what I mean. At MacArthur, in 2010 we received roughly 6,500 proposals, the vast majority of which were unsolicited. The Foundation approved 500 grants in the same year. On the surface that means for roughly every 13 proposals received, MacArthur awards one grant. But the odds are even worse than 1 in 13. Of the 500 grants, 25 were grants to individuals that were awarded outside of the regular proposal review process. So that leaves about 475 grants. Of those, 168 (or 35 percent) were renewal grants: in essence, continuation grants for existing projects. That leaves 307 grants against 6,500 proposals, and the odds of being declined keep growing. Of the 300 or so grants, another 250 were really initiated by the Foundation rather than made in response to a proposal. So, at the end of the day, last year the MacArthur Foundation approved 50 (less than 1%) of the 6,500 of the unsolicited proposals it received.
Grantmakers spend a lot of time saying no to applicants. We frequently say that giving money away is difficult work. That's true, but saying “no” appropriately is difficult work too, and takes its share of resources.
So why is it that grantmakers say “no” many times more frequently than “yes?” Some applicants are at fault for not reading the guidelines, of course; but grantmakers also bear responsibility for publishing guidelines that are not as clear as they could or should be. Funders have a responsibility to write comprehensible guidelines. Comprehensible guidelines have to meet at least two criteria – and there are others. At a minimum, they should clearly describe both the topics and the geographic areas supported. Grantmaking guidelines also should be written in clear, unambiguous language, and be updated regularly.
Grantmakers owe it to grant seekers to prepare and publish clearly written guidelines. To be understandable to applicants, guidelines might be designed and presented as a matrix, where the first level is eligibility, the second is topic, the third is geography and the fourth is grant purpose.
Why is it important to design grant guidelines as a matrix? Because for most grantmakers, the only applications that can be funded are those that have connecting points on all four levels of the matrix: eligibility, topic, geography, and purpose. Let me describe each of these levels.
Eligibility is the first level. Maybe I don't have the correct word, but what I'm trying to convey is that the first step to preparing guidelines is to determine whether or not to accept applications for an area of work.
It is the grantmaker's responsibility to be clear about which fields of work they welcome unsolicited applications for — and for which they do not — and to put this information up front, where it can be easily noted by applicants. It's the applicant's responsibility – and ultimately in its best interest – to respect the funder's wishes in this regard.
The second part of the matrix is topic. Topic is the "what" of the grant. It is the subject of what is being funded. It could be community economic development, AIDS prevention, conservation, performing arts, or international peace and security, for example. It is the subject(s) selected by the grantmaker’s governing body to be the focal point of its funding efforts and is often its identifying trademark.
But proposals are not accepted for funding based solely on their relevance to eligibility and topic. This takes me to the third dimension of the matrix – geography. No grantmaker is large enough to support even one topic everywhere. Choices about the geographic limitations on grantmaking are made for a variety of reasons. Sometimes these decisions are based on the benefactor’s wish to focus on particular geographic areas. Other times, these decisions are made for strategic grantmaking reasons having to do with leverage, conditions on the ground, staff capacities, or budget considerations.
At MacArthur, historically about 40 percent of our grantmaking supports international projects and about 60 percent supports domestic programming – with about 20 percent of our domestic work focused on the Chicago metropolitan area. Nationally, the percentages are about 9 percent for international work and 91 percent for domestic grantmaking.
The final piece of the matrix that should appear in guidelines is grant purpose. This refers to grants awarded for general operations, or to support a project, or to fund a conference, or travel expenses. Another way to think about purpose is to ask yourself what is the action of the grant? Research? General operating support? Endowment? Grant purpose is as important as grant topic and the geography of the grant.
I have described this matrix in some detail because I am suggesting that grantmakers nearly always use this screen in their decision-making process, but rarely is this decision-making matrix clearly evident from the guidelines. Why is that important? Because it is only at the intersection of eligibility, topic, geography, and purpose that a grantmaker can consider taking the next step to making a grant and grantseekers can align their needs with the those of the funder. I believe that funders have an obligation to make these dimensions explicit in their guidelines.
A Consumer’s Guide to Grants Management Software
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