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Reflections on a Revised Grants Process

by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer
2017-May 12

The dust has pretty much settled on our first adventure with our revised grantmaking process. With the benefit of some time to reflect, we thought it might be informative to share what we've seen and learned from this first round.

The Big Picture

Perhaps the most visible change we made to our grant processes was to move the submission deadlines for all of our grant opportunities to the same date. Going in, we wondered whether we would be crushed under the weight of all of the submissions. It turns out that, while we got quite a few submissions, the load was fairly manageable. We received a total of 67 requests: 43 for Core Programs and Services, 15 for the Small Grants Program, two for technology, and seven for Healthy Communities. After reading through everything, we reclassified a few submissions that were better fits for other portfolios (e.g., requests that came in under Healthy Communities that were really more appropriate for Core Programs & Services.

We ended up inviting nine Core Programs & Services proposals, two Technology proposals, and two Healthy Communities proposals. We ultimately funded seven Small Grants requests, both Technology proposals, both Healthy Communities proposals, and eight of the nine Core Programs & Services proposals. The one proposal we didn't fund was tabled for consideration at our next Grants Committee meeting, so there's a very good chance that we'll end up funding that one as well.

Getting Into the Weeds

Because the process is a bit different for each of our portfolios, it seems to make the most sense to consider them separately.

Core Programs & Services

Submissions by the Numbers

Breaking down the submissions by issue area, we received 13 requests for our Intellectual Disabilities category (~$1.2 million), three for Learning Disabilities (~$230,000), 16 for Mental Health (~$1.3 million) and 11 for Substance Use Disorders (~$1.4 million). A few of the submissions crossed categories, but for the purposes of this analysis, we've placed them into one category or another. When you consider that we had $175,000 for each category, with another $133,000 to be spread around as needed (a total of $833,000), you can see that we had to make some difficult decisions about what we would have to decline!

The geographic breakdown for Core Programs & Services requests was also interesting. Thirty one requests came from Massachusetts: nine from Barnstable County, four from Dukes County, 18 from Essex County, and one from Nantucket. In Western New York, eight of our 12 requests came from Erie County with the other four coming from Niagara County. Of the nine full proposals we invited, seven were Massachusetts-based (one from Barnstable County, one from Dukes County, and five from Essex County) and two were from New York (one each from Erie and Niagara Counties).

After we looked at and discussed all of the Core Programs and Services submissions, we elected to conduct a dozen screening calls. The screenings calls were particularly helpful, as we were able to flesh out what was in the preliminary requests. In every case, we heard how passionate our applicants were about their projects, and we learned a lot about where they were coming from and what they were trying to accomplish. This reaffirmed our decision to include these calls as part of the process. The natural give-and-take of a conversation is simply more informative than words on a page (or screen), no matter how well-written the narrative. From there, as noted above, we invited nine full proposals. 

The Review Process

After matching grants to Program Officers, we rolled up our sleeves and began the review process. As you might expect, we learned a few things from this first round. The main challenge we experienced had to do with the time line. With only six weeks to work with grant applicants, we ran into problems with applicants being unavailable due to vacation or illness, and proposal revisions didn't always occur on schedule because of applicants' other responsibilities (e.g., their regular job if they weren't full-time grant writers). In part, we felt like this was because we weren't necessarily clear enough up front about the degree of engagement that would be required to shepherd proposals through the abbreviated time line. We've also decided to try providing more structure to the review process by setting up weekly meetings/phone calls to keep things moving along and to establish standing opportunities to discuss progress and challenges. We're working on a visual "planner" to help everyone keep track of the review timeline/deadlines.

Another of the big changes we made to our process was to co-design evaluation metrics with our grant applicants. Over the latter part of 2016, we developed a "workshop" that we could complete in about an hour with grant applicants to design outcome measures that were consistent with our preferred Results-Based Accountability framework. Where possible, we conducted these face-to-face. If we couldn't do it face-to-face, we tried running the process via video conference. Technology (perhaps predictably) proved to be a bit of a barrier; our video conference connections were sometimes flaky, compromising our ability to run things smoothly. 

Substantively, the workshops seemed to go fairly well. Some of our grant applicants had strong evaluation backgrounds, so it was more a matter of tweaking already well thought-out outcome measures. In other cases, we were building measures from scratch. Ultimately, we did end up with measures that address the three core questions (derived from the Results Based Accountability framework) we ask in evaluating program performance: How much did we do? How well did we do it? Is anyone better off?

As I mentioned earlier, eight of the nine Core Programs & Services grants we invited were funded outright, with the ninth to be reconsidered in the next cycle after a little touching-up. There wasn't anything wrong with that grant, but our Trustees asked us to go back with a couple of things to think about. Let it never be said that our Trustees simply rubber-stamp staff recommendations!

Healthy Communities

We also had further conversations with two of our Healthy Communities applicants, both of whom were invited to submit full proposals. Both Healthy Community requests we elected to pursue were from Massachusetts: one from Dukes County, the other from Essex County.

The process was interesting here, as we got off to a later start. Because we don't necessarily expect to complete the review process within a single grant cycle for Healthy Communities requests, we take a bit longer to schedule screening calls. By the time we'd finished our calls and made the decision to advance both of the requests to full proposals, we were behind the eight-ball if we were going to get these done on the same time line as the Core Programs & Services proposals.

Ultimately, both applicants came to us with pretty well formed project ideas and work plans, so it wasn't as heavy a lift as it could have been. One of the requests barely squeaked in under the wire, but the project and proposal were still strong enough to warrant bringing them to our Trustees. If either or both proposals needed more time, we would certainly have taken it and brought them to our Trustees when they were ready for consideration. Both proposals were funded.

Small Grants Program

Despite having only 15 requests, this was one of the more hotly contested portfolios. We got a lot of strong requests, but $100,000 only goes so far. We ended up placing a higher priority on the small capital and organizational development (e.g., strategic planning, quality improvement, board development) requests than on program design/development requests. This will not necessarily be the case every cycle, as it does vary based on what comes in and what needs come across as the most compelling.

By and large, the advice from this blog post still holds true.

Technology

We ended up inviting both technology grant applicants: one for a planning grant in Barnstable County in Massachusetts, the other for an implementation grant in Erie County, NY.

There isn't really a lot to say here. Our two grant applicants did a nice job of keeping things moving along, and there wasn't a lot of drama. Both were funded, and the projects are now under way.

Observations for Grant Applicants

As we reflected on what did and didn't work for grant applicants, the main problem we ran into in reviewing preliminary submissions was lack of detail. While we don't expect a fully formed project plan at the preliminary stage, we do need enough information to be able to understand what you're trying to accomplish with your project, why you see it as something that needs to be done, how you're trying to accomplish it, and the resources you'll need. The trick is to be complete but concise. When we ask what you need to execute your project, we need more of an answer than, "Money." While we don't require a full-blown budget at the preliminary stage, it's very helpful to have a sense of how funds might be used - will grant funds be used for personnel? contracted services? training?

We also saw quite a few requests that came in under the wrong portfolio (e.g., requests that came in under Healthy Communities that would more appropriately have been Core Programs & Services requests). Where that happened, we reclassified them internally and considered them along with the other requests of the appropriate type. We expected that this would be the case, as this was our first cycle with explicit Healthy Communities guidelines, and the portfolio name can create some confusion.

Perhaps the other main advice we can offer is that it's very helpful for us if applicants draw the explicit connection between their project and the Foundation's goals. If we can't easily see the connection, your request is more likely to end up on the "decline" list. Our goals are outlined on our various grant guidelines, so it's worth an extra couple of minutes to call out the connections for us.

Otherwise, looking at some of the feedback we got from applicants, it appears that there might have been some confusion about character limits. In the entire application, only one question has character limits: the project summary (300 characters). Outside of that one question, you can write to your heart's content!

Other Things Worth Mentioning

One other part of the process we changed was the way we invite applicants who were declined to get in touch for feedback. In the past, we simply had a line in our decline e-mail that said people were welcome to call or send an e-mail. This time, we included a link in the e-mail that linked directly to a shared calendar that let people schedule a 30-minute phone call with a Program Officer. That apparently removed enough friction that we received an unprecedented number of feedback requests. The high water mark for feedback calls or e-mails in the past was around a dozen. Within a week of sending out our decline notifications this time, we had 18 calls scheduled or completed and a handful of emails requesting feedback. Since then, we've probably done another five or ten calls, with a few more cropping up now that we're about to move into another cycle in a week.

If we ran into a major problem internally, it was that we had two Trustee-involved meetings scheduled too close together. Because they were just a week or two apart, we had some internal confusion about what materials needed to be submitted for our Board meeting books by what dates. That created a little bit of scrambling that we could have done without. Everything got done, but it was a little bumpier than we would have liked. Lesson learned: don't schedule meetings so close together!

Closing Thoughts

As we close in on our second grant cycle of the year, we've been making tweaks to ensure that the already-smooth process runs even more smoothly. We're very excited to see what this next round of requests brings and very much look forward to working with the organizations in our communities who do so much to help people with intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, mental illness, and substance use disorders.

You can always get in touch with one of our Program Officers to discuss grant proposal ideas by scheduling a 30-minute phone call here: https://calendly.com/towerfdn-program/30-minute-phone-call/.

 

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