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Grantee Perspectives: Maximizing Funders’ Impact

In this episode, our speakers discuss how funders can maximize their impact and improve their processes, all from the perspective of grant professionals. 

Laura Cochran, GPC | Senior Development Associate, Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership (INHP) 

Laura is the Grants Manager for the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership (INHP) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has been a grant professional for nearly 20 years, a member of the Grants Professional Association (GPA) for 13 years, and a Grant Professional Certified (GPC) for 12 years. For the last 13 years, while working at INHP, Laura’s work in grants has focused on raising programs and lending dollars to support affordable housing access. She lives in a suburb of Indianapolis with her husband, son, daughter, and dog. 

Brendan McCormick | Associate Director, Exponent Philanthropy 

Brendan is the Associate Director, Research and Publications for Exponent Philanthropy. In this role, Brendan works with staff, members, and partners to develop resources grounded in research. He leads our efforts to learn more about our community of lean funders. Brendan focuses his research on how foundations approach impact and evaluation, investments, operations, demographics, and equity practices. Brendan has worked in philanthropy and grantmaking with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Greater Washington Community Foundation. He earned his master’s degree in public policy at the University of Maryland, where he focused on nonprofit management and social policy. In his free time, he enjoys cooking new recipes and finding a quiet place to read a good book. 



Brendan McCormick 00:00:00:23

Larger flexible grants. I think that’s what every every grantee says in some way, shape or form. These long term flexible grants are really the backbone of most nonprofit organizations that lets them focus on their missions and less on raising money.

Jaydon Fryer 00:00:20:20

Welcome to Connected Philanthropy. In today’s episode, Guaranteed Perspectives Maximizing Funders Impact Our Guests Brendan McCormack and Laura Cochran discuss how funders can increase their impact. Brendan specializes in research on how foundations approach impact and has countless experience working in philanthropy and grantmaking. Laura has been a grant professional for nearly 20 years and her work in grants has focused on raising programs and lending dollars to support affordable housing access.

Jaydon Fryer 00:00:51:05

She has also been a member of the Grant Professionals Organization for 13 years and has been grant professional certified for 12 years. So without further ado, here’s Brendan.

Brendan McCormick 00:01:02:01

We wanted to start with a few points on kind of where we’re getting all this information from today. So next on it, Philanthropy. We’ve partnered with six foundations to survey over 400 nonprofits over the past couple of years. And across those six surveys, we’ve had a number of multiple choice and open ended questions in common. And so you’ll see some of those quotes from from nonprofits as well, some of the data from those surveys.

Brendan McCormick 00:01:26:25

We also have a data here from our foundation Operations and Management Report, which is a survey of our member foundations. So that gives us a sense of the types of practices that foundations are engaged in. Laura, do you want to talk about some of the. The grant zone and founded entity? It is well, absolutely.

Laura Cochran 00:01:47:14

So the data that I’m going to be presenting came from grant professionals. We surveyed our surveyed members of the Grant Professional Association through the online community grant zone as well as grant professionals, and found themselves community campus that was working with their grant hub software. So what we always hear is they professionals that funders talk to each other.

Laura Cochran 00:02:16:05

Well, I’m here to tell you that grant professionals also talk to each other. And these are two of the locations that I’m involved in where we are able to do that.

Brendan McCormick 00:02:26:23

Yeah, that’s that’s great. And I think as you as you all see, Laura and I are hearing kind of very similar messages, whether it’s from funders, nonprofits. There’s a lot of commonality here, which I think is great and kind of we organized our our information in two big buckets how funders think or how grantees think funders can improve their impact and how folks think they can improve their process.

Brendan McCormick 00:02:51:02

So we’re going to start with the impact here. And there are four big buckets we kind of heard in our survey data that explain it, and that’s to champion the work of grantees, convene and connect, offer larger, flexible, multiyear grants and to center racial equity that so championing the work of of grantees. I think this is one of the biggest things we hear from from nonprofits, really.

Brendan McCormick 00:03:15:03

It’s a great way for funders to increase their impact beyond the grant. How we know founder funders really only have so many grants available that they can make. And this is a way to make that that increased impact. The next hour really that we wanted to focus on is convening and connecting. That’s another way that funders can create their impact.

Brendan McCormick 00:03:35:06

Nonprofits really encourage funders to host more convenings and to support collaboration, both among nonprofits and between funders. Larger flexible grants. I think that’s what every, every grantee says in some way, shape or form. These long term flexible grants are really the backbone of most nonprofit organizations that lets them focus on their missions and less on raising money. And really, we see this as a common tactic, but it’s something folks are still asking for more.

Brendan McCormick 00:04:06:24

So in our data, we found that about 70% of funders are making general operation grants in some way, shape or form, and just nearly 60% are making multiyear grants. But despite this prevalence, it’s again, something that is really asked for amongst nonprofits in our survey data. And then our kind of fourth area is to center racial equity. Many nonprofits see racial equity as really important opportunity for funders to make a bigger impact.

Brendan McCormick 00:04:39:11

And unfortunately, this is an area where nonprofits and funders just aren’t having enough time, energy and resources to engage with this work. So fewer than half the nonprofits we surveyed agreed with the prompt that foundations as center racial equity in discussions related to our grant. And this aligns with the data we’ve seen in our operations and management report, where just over a third of funders indicated racial equity was very relevant to their mission.

Brendan McCormick 00:05:04:26

But we see kind of whether across grant areas this is an area where there’s demand for more support, but that’s related to racial equity training for funders and nonprofits and dedicated funding to support racial equity work as well. But now I want to turn things over to Laura to highlight some of the ways that these practices show up in Canada, the real world, rather than just our survey data.

Laura Cochran 00:05:26:27

Yeah, this is the question that I asked myself was how does all of this data translate into the real world? And the most common frustrations in these topics that Brendan brought up that grant professionals articulate and we talk about, and it just is constantly across the board were we’re running into are unrealistic demands of foundations. So foundations are and this could be anything from according to reports for a $5,000 grant to we want you to cure, you know, cancer.

Laura Cochran 00:06:06:03

We’re expecting really large results for a program that’s not designed for that. Discounting small steps. Not every program is designed to necessarily solve a problem. Maybe it’s just to provide education and so forth. Sustainability, which I know is everybody has talked about. We talk about it with funders. Funders talk about it with us, but being very rigid in what that idea of sustainability means is it’s very difficult and causes a lot of frustration on our end as we’re trying to come up with a proposal, a program purpose.

Laura Cochran 00:06:47:09

What is the purpose? You know, not being clear on what the purpose of the grant program as not being clear on the purpose of what the funder wants to accomplish with their grants. Reviewers who don’t understand the issues, the issues that most nonprofits are dealing with are very complicated. They’re very nuanced. And it’s important for foundations to have reviewers who understand those nuances so that they can understand the the small steps that are, you know, accomplished by a particular program or a single grant, as well as the long term benefits and challenges, and then racial equity questions that are too vague or too rigid.

Laura Cochran 00:07:40:05

Brandon talked about wanting to center racial equity, and I can tell you that nonprofits want to and most likely are focused on that. But how you define racial equity can really impact whether a nonprofit qualifies for your funding. Do you qualify racial equity as being black led organization? Do you qualify racial equity? AS I’m serving low and moderate income families or minorities all in that can can really focus on racial equity, but not necessarily in the way that is just listed in your your grant application.

Laura Cochran 00:08:30:14

So what can you do? We wanted to lead you know, we wanted you to lead this with some ideas of even small things that you can do to make your process easier for nonprofits. And one of them is, you know, carefully review your application and reporting require events and make sure that they match your average grant about small grants should have easy application and reports, larger grants as a fundraising professional and a grant professional, we expect if you are giving us $1,000,002 million, we expect that we are going to have to spend a lot of time reporting on that.

Laura Cochran 00:09:08:03

If your grants are 2500 or 5000, you know, per program cost, that’s a relatively small drop in the bucket. So make sure that the application and reporting requirements match that level and don’t expect large solutions to large problems in one grant period. I’m not going to be able to solve affordable housing in Indianapolis with one grant program. No matter how many dollars you give me to do that.

Laura Cochran 00:09:38:09

It is a systemic problem that we are dealing with that has lots of causes and needs lots of solutions. And one organization isn’t going to be able to do that and then accept that all not not all programs are designed to make major changes in society. We have an education program that will, over the long run, we hope will impact financial literacy changes in a family.

Laura Cochran 00:10:04:22

We can’t guarantee that in a year we can prove that they have learned something in our classes, but we can’t prove that they are going. That’s going to make a significant change in our in our community or in affordable housing. So be clear on the sustainability requirements and don’t penalize organizations that rely on grant funding. Those smaller grassroot organizations that are just getting started often do rely on grant funding to continue their programs.

Laura Cochran 00:10:38:07

So by asking that sustainability question or not doing renewable grant, that is basically causing our organizations to not be able to do sustainable, we then create programs to match grant opportunities rather than the opposite, which is creating programs that work to solve a problem and then getting funding for that. Make sure that reviewers understand the complexity of the problems being addressed, that all of the programs that you’re looking at and more of a level playing field, they can understand the necessary of education program to affordable housing.

Laura Cochran 00:11:21:13

Then that allows them to look at an education proposal at the same level as a proposal that might be developing affordable housing because both are serving the same problem. They’re addressing the same complex problem, but they’re just doing it in different ways and then again, being flexible in how organizations address DTI and racial equity. Some of them may be more passive in doing it.

Laura Cochran 00:11:48:29

We may they may serve a majority of clients that are minority or low and moderate income, but they may not be programs that are designed specifically for those. And there’s lot like there’s lots of ways that organizations deal with DTI and racial equity, and all organizations are at different levels. So providing funding for that, if you want organizations to get to a certain point that is very expensive for organizations to do, and the more money they spend on training and DTI and changing programs, the less that they’re working on actually solving the problems that you want to solve.

Brendan McCormick 00:12:35:07

But we wanted to also focus on just how funders or how nonprofits think funders can improve their processes. So we’ve hinted at a couple of this a little bit already, focusing on relationships of being open and consistent and how you show up, setting reasonable expectations or streamlining your application that and reducing redundancies and being sure to increase transparency and clarity.

Brendan McCormick 00:12:56:11

So communicate clearly and share your goals and strategies. So those are some of the things where we’ve been touching on in this conversation already, but wanted to dig a little deeper into those topics as well. Now. So in terms of relationships in general, we’ve got some promising signs in our data about funders and nonprofits having generally good relationships.

Brendan McCormick 00:13:16:29

About two thirds of nonprofits say they had strong positive relationships with the foundation. But I do want to caveat that and say these or foundations that were actively seeking feedback from the nonprofits they support. So I’d say these are the types of funders who tend to be exceptions rather than the rule. So a little bit of a caveat there.

Brendan McCormick 00:13:36:04

And then in our operations and management report data, we find about six in ten foundations say their board and staff have authentic relationships with the members of the community the foundation seeks to serve. So again, promising sign. But six and ten, that’s still, if you think about it, in terms of school, still a failing grade. So work to be done there.

Brendan McCormick 00:13:58:26

But in general, nonprofits are encouraging funders to be open in conversations and really open to those conversations and be consistent how they show up in those conversations. And as we’ve touched on a big part of these approaches to be actively soliciting feedback and in particular giving opportunities for anonymous feedback and emphasizing they’re anonymous, don’t have the feedback associated with your grant application or reports that feedback is going to be a very skewed and those areas have that feedback opportunity to be totally separate and give those nonprofit an opportunity to really speak their mind in a way that they see is not tied to their funding.

Brendan McCormick 00:14:38:20

And so moving on the how to transparency and clarity, just over half of nonprofits agreed. But the proud that the foundation clearly and consistently communicates its goals and strategies. Similarly, just about half a nonprofit say the foundation’s decision making process appears fair and appropriately transparent. So transparency, it’s really sound simple, but that’s complex in practice. But the fewer questions grantees have during the process and that’s going to make things easier on the foundation as well that so nonprofits encourage funders to really have clear websites, have a newsletter, provide opportunity tips and trainings on how to fill out the grant application, whether that’s hosting a webinar or just having a video recording or making your application.

Brendan McCormick 00:15:30:02

Simple. There’s also just a key part of clarity as well. They also want foundations to be better about sharing their goals and strategies. What is the foundation trying to achieve? If the nonprofit doesn’t understand that they’re not going to provide clear answers to the questions on the grant application? So if they don’t know what the foundation’s trying to achieve, they’re going to just they’re going to submit a grand application because they want money and they don’t know if they’re going to get or not.

Brendan McCormick 00:15:55:26

So they say, why not apply? So it’s there’s a lot of transparency and clarity. And I now lastly, get into more of that and a little bit and I want to just end on.

Laura Cochran 00:16:07:10

The most common frustration of Grant proposals. And this is probably, you know, top five that we’re dealing with here, asking the same question again and again and again in in slightly different ways, not being able to see all the applications before we start. That is huge. These and these are going to be very simple ways to to streamline that application.

Laura Cochran 00:16:35:07

Hidden questions that show up after answering a question and then programs that aren’t designed for grant applications. So using Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Excel. So, you know, what can we do? Carefully review your application and report questions. Why are you asking them? Are you using the information you’re gathering? Are you asking the same information? And, you know, like Brennan said, year after year, is there a way that you can consolidate?

Laura Cochran 00:17:05:02

And if you aren’t using the information, you’re gathering, then why are you asking it? What what good is it doing? Ensure that character and word limits are appropriate to the questions being asked. And I had an example given to me and in one of the forums where they asked for that mission and gave them 50 characters to do so and had, you know, 500 characters for the name of their executive director, that kind of thing.

Laura Cochran 00:17:37:00

Just is is frustrating. So I always want to encourage you to air on the side of offering more characters rather than less. I can promise you that a a grant professional is not going to fill up the answer. If you give us 5000 characters to do it, we will answer the question. If your system does not allow applicants to move easily between sections, provide a PDF of all the questions.

Laura Cochran 00:18:07:03

So if I as a professional am going to look at your report or your application, I am not filling out that application in your system. I am copying questions into word, working in word, and then moving everything back into your system. So if I can’t move between sections and I can’t see all of the questions, that’s very, very frustrating.

Laura Cochran 00:18:31:21

It’s very time consuming and it it does not end up with you getting the information that you want on that same side. Ensure that that document is updated when your application changes. And I can tell you right now, I even just last month I had an application where I used the PDF of all the questions, filled them out, went to put them into the application.

Laura Cochran 00:18:57:22

None of the questions were the same. So I basically, you know, on deadline had to go back and rewrite all of my answers. That was very frustrating. As a grant professional, I had, you know, other deadlines I was working on. So making sure that applicants can see all the information they need before they submit. I do have had questions that require significant information to answer and I also had to had to NHP, where I also help manage outgoing grants so I understand the benefit of, you know, branching questions where if you answer yes, you ask more questions.

Laura Cochran 00:19:43:00

The problem with that is if you’re asking for significant information and those hidden questions and an applicant can’t yet see that ahead of time, then they may not have time to get that information. That might required going to program staff that could require information that they don’t have readily available. And it’s just very frustrating as a grant professional to think you’ve got your grant application or report done and start entering information and then seeing two, three, four more questions pop up that you weren’t expecting.

Laura Cochran 00:20:20:02

And then finally, if you know, if you’re using any of those Apple, you know, Google forms SurveyMonkey Excel. If you can’t afford a grant management system, just use an email. Email word. Documents allow people to work in a program that is designed for tech. That is just the easiest thing. I can’t tell you the number. And I do want to say I do see this less and less, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to fill out Excel Excel documents for a report and language Excel is not designed to type in any kind of narrative.

Laura Cochran 00:21:07:09

So that’s frustration. But honestly, the biggest thing I can tell you is, you know, to develop a relationship with your organization and with your applicants, with the nonprofits in your area, all of these, you know, can be addressed just by having conversations. But if you’re asking for feedback within a report or within an application, you’re not going to get information then that you need.

Laura Cochran 00:21:39:00

We want to have a relationship with you as a grant for, you know, a grant professional. We want to provide you with the information you need or your grant program to be successful. And we just want to work with you to make sure that that is it is done in an easy way as possible for us and for you.

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