Sunday, April 13, 2008

Foundations, Think of Your Nonprofit Constituents Before You Require Applicants Must Apply On Your Website

It is a new shiny era. We can access information quickly (while hoping that it's accurate and the truth). We can disseminate information quickly (hoping that what we intend to get across is reaching everyone we mean for it to).

As grant writers, today, more than ever before, we often locate potential grant donor's giving guidelines, their IRS tax form 990, their websites (to get to know the organization's history, culture, preference, and style), and other helpful information when prepping a grant proposal. We love the easy and quick access.

We grant writers also apply for grants, online, more than ever before. It is an interesting fact that more and more I see foundations have either completely switched to only accepting grant proposals online, or they have a hard date set when they will no longer accept paper grant proposals (applications), and it's often sooner than later.

It's great on the one hand. Everyone uses less paper. The foundation staff probably reads through applications at a faster pace because the web application prompts can be programmed to send received information to the proper staff, and can even be written to read the documents itself (though, I do not know of any foundations doing this, yet).

The downside is that nonprofits must have access to a computer, know how to use them, and have access to the Internet. Grassroots organizations, in particular, are hit hard by this turn in foundation culture, towards the technology. I wonder how many of these foundations, while I am sure meaning the best for everyone, have conducted surveys or asked their applying nonprofit constituency, 'do you know how to use a computer?', 'do you have regular easy access to the Internet?', 'could you successfully submit the grant proposal on line, that you want to get to us?' I know that for every foundation that I see only accepts applications, online; I've never seen one explain or expound sharing that they have studied their constituent (applying) nonprofits' needs, and the community thinks applying online is easier.

And that's always the implication. There is this idea in our culture, and within the global economy-world that if it's online - a foundation is "modern", "up with the times", and "helping" nonprofits access grants (perhaps even "faster"). I am not sure that any of that is true.

Foundations are not monsters. Nonprofit organizations do the same thing. Many nonprofits do have websites (though, not all). They are using the sites as a part of their marketing or cause outreach. They are fundraising, providing I&R (information and referrals), providing study findings such as statistics, they are keeping in touch about the most recent findings through blogs and email, etc. The fact is, though, for example, if a bottle nosed dolphin is wrapped in free floating fishing net - and in peril, animal welfare or oceanic nonprofits do not, for the large part, require that that the dolphin gets help by contacting them through their website.

I know, I know. Foundations get inundated and receive a lot of applications during a giving cycle deadline. It is a lot of work.

I guess I'd suggest that if foundations accept grant applications online:

1. Foundations should not require that all grant proposals must be submitted to them online. It is a detrimental bias in favor of those nonprofits wealthy enough and organized enough to afford a computer and regular Internet access.

2. Foundations who do accept grant proposals, online, I understand need to provide a word (not character) limit for each question they ask or for the information they request, but it must be realistic and appropriate for nonprofits to make their cases well.

3. Those foundations who do accept applications online need to provide a word (or character) counter next to each and every proposal response prompt on their site. Nonprofits who are applying for grants have enough work to do in writing a proposal and compiling attachments. We do not have the time to count each word (let alone each letter) as we apply. We need to spend our time (and resources) on the work of our mission statement; not your virtual application.

4. Of all of the foundations or companies offering grants, technologists offering grants (e.g. in kind web services, hardware donations, etc.) should not require that all applications be submitted online. When they do, they are biasing the grant recipient to likely be an organization who already has technology in place, knows how to use it, and is already operating in the tech world, at least in part. Yet, the organizations who need expert tech help (perhaps the most) are the nonprofits (and often start ups or grassroots organizations) who have no computer or Internet connection at all. If the goal of the technology company or donor is to assist nonprofits in THE NONPROFIT's mission work, then all nonprofits must have access to the grant. There is a tradition in the United States that donors (all donors) give to connect and effect a cause that they want to get involved in. It is usually not to benefit the donor. Yes, you could say 'It depends on what services or items the grant is offering, for instance, we offer grants for search engine optimization' (SEO).' Yes, this is a service that requires that a nonprofit already have a website, and of course it's great that you're giving to nonprofits, at all. I guess I am urging that technology donors keep in mind that it would be great to level the playing field so that all kinds of nonprofits could benefit (not just website-owning ones). For example, in this example, state that if a nonprofit does not already have a website, your grant will assist them with that AND their SEO.

All nonprofits need less barriers to partnerships, support, and access to the community.

When foundations require that nonprofits apply for their grants only online, they are forcing nonprofits to: use a lot of resources, perhaps more resources than may be feasible; they are biased towards nonprofits who are already net savvy and able to access the net; they are not necessarily asking questions of nor listening to their constituents; they are making assumptions that may benefit them more than nonprofits; but undenyably, they are saving paper.

Is maybe ten sheets of paper, per applicant, more important or even just as important as any nonprofit's mission statement work?!


Anonymous said...

As someone working in a community foundation, I agree with your position on electronic submission of grant proposals. Everytime it comes up in my organization I do my best to remind my co-workers that we don't want to exclude the smaller less-savy organizations at the expense of lossing great ideas that would benefit our area.

One thing to note however, when you mention that these less organized nonprofits will be discriminated against, remember that this may very well be the foundations intent. Some foundations will not entertain applications from organizations with less than a year of operation. Because foundations look at effectiveness by looking at past performance, newer organizations are often taking out of the process quickly. Using electronic submission may just be an unspoken way of carrying this out.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thank you for sharing your 'insider' experience and for commenting.

You make a very good point - I see how requiring online submission of grant proposals is meant to limit organizations without tech resources. I do not state in the blog post that foundations limiting who can apply may be in line with that foundation's strategic planning or even its mission.

I appreciate, too, that you are carrying the torch and reminding your colleagues that the tech requirements are limiting. I assume that the restriction is not necessarily in line with the foundation's mission or future goals that you work for.

I'd be interested to know why your employer decided to accept apps online. I'd also be interested to know whether, before the decision was made, whether or not the foundation asked their previous, current, and potential future grant recipients if they would be able to apply online, if they would be able to submit all of the information they feel they need to provide to the foundation, if they have the resources to apply online, etc.

Again, thank you for your comment!

Anonymous said...


Actually, my organization does not accept applications on-line. As you say this is not a good fit with our mission or the practical application of our work. We have, however, made our application available via email and on our website. This was/is customer driven; when ever we release information about a program, we get requests for the electronic version.

We have actually found that this can be a bit more egalitarian for our smaller nonprofits. When every organization is limited to a 3 page write-up it negates the value of glossy brochures, videos, reports, etc.

(This does assume a base level of technology, as your original post indicates, which in my area can be accessed through the public library.)