If your staff is trounced by the sheer volume of paper that rains down upon the foundation doorstep, then it's probably time your foundation invested in a paperless grant-application process. The best way to accomplish this is with a well-built web-based grant application.
Take a moment to think about how much paper is consumed by a traditional grant application. What attachments do you require ? How many copies of the proposal are required ? What is the page limit on the grant narrative ? How many pages is the summary grant application or cover sheet ? What about all those letters of support, determination letters, cover letters, sample program materials, work samples, financial statements, latest tax returns, etc. ? The total page count for each complete application could be as small as a book report or as much as a whole book.
Imagine that the standard grant application is ten pages long, attachments are another 20, board write-ups are five, and the grant agreement is another five... If you receive 100 grant applications ... and require prospective grantees to submit two copies of everything, you are creating 8,000 pieces of paper .
Now think about how many grant applications your foundation receives each cycle ? How many grant cycles each year ? How long does your foundation keep all of this paper ? 3 months ? A year ? Until the funded grant is completed ? Five years ? The paper-waste and physical storage requirements add up fast and it's easy for small-to-mid-sized foundations to bog down in all that paper.
It's no secret that digital storage is far more efficient than paper storage. Many foundations digitally scan the applications they receive, to cut down on physical storage space. Scanned documents are typically saved as Adobe PDF files. The scanning process is needlessly time consuming; image-scanned documents aren't much better than their paper counterparts when it comes to information retrieval.
In essence image-scanning is like making a photocopy, only the result is an image file instead of a paper copy. You can print it out later, you can email the file to a co-worker, and of course, it will never wrinkle or tear, but that's where the fun ends. Image-based documents might solve the problem of physical storage, but scanned documents completely miss the mark when it comes to information retrieval. To understand why the digital format you choose matters let's do another thought exercise:
The correct answer, of course is “D”. It delivers instant access to the information, in a format which makes analysis a cinch. You don't have to type any numbers in, they are already typed in.
Every other option would require some form of transcription prior to your analysis; you would have to create a spreadsheet and enter the budget data yourself. Option “A” is what you choose when you scan a paper document, only it's no picnic. Option “B” is a nice analog to a pre-formatted paper grant budget. Option “C” is amusing; I included it to illustrate an important point: Just because the file is digital doesn't mean it's in any way useful to your grant-making process.
In practice many foundations require Option “B” (the napkin), some foundations convert “B” into “A” (the photograph), then enter the information from “A” into option “D” (the spreadsheet). Most grantseekers create their budgets as Option “D” (a spreadsheet) in the first place; practically all grant narratives start out as word processor documents. Why go through the shenanigans of printing, then photographing these documents, only to summarize or transcribe their contents for yourself ? Save yourself a headache, let the digital documents transcribe themselves.
Any foundation which currently scans paper grant applications or accepts PDF files in lieu of paper, should consider switching to a well-designed digital application process. It can open up a whole world of possibilities for streamlining your organization's grant-making and grants management process.
Although many grantmakers do not want their grant money used for administrative and fundraising purposes, application and reporting often require labor- and time-intensive activities of the grantseeker, activities that frequently can and arguably should be done by grantmakers … We refer to this phenomenon as outsourcing the burden.
What many people don't realize is how much additional time, money, and materials are consumed by traditional paper-based grant applications. I'm an experienced grant writer, so I know a thing or two about how much effort goes into writing a grant proposal. After the proposal is finalized you still have to print and assemble a complete grant package; this can be quite an undertaking. Paper may be relatively cheap, but printer ink is extremely costly. Some have suggested crude oil or medically-screened human blood would offer significant price breaks compared to inkjet printer ink. For very small non-profits the trip to the post office alone can be an undue burden.
Nonprofits will generally submit grants to an organization which has supported them in the past as frequently as that foundation allows, typically once a year. A lot of the information in these applications will be the same from year to year, so a significant piece of your paper avalanche is basic information you should already have on hand such as basic contact info, determination letters, grant award lists from previous years, end-of-year financial statements from the past 3 years, etc.
The Project Streamline study examines this practice:
Some foundations require that grantseekers submit application material by mail rather than email, because their board requires paper documents or because it is easier for the foundation to keep track of hard-copy submissions. Most commonly, grantmakers require nonprofits to send copies of their IRS Letter of Determination and other basic due-diligence information, even when the nonprofit has been funded many years in a row or when that information is readily available to the grantmaker online.
Online applications require far less packaging time and don't pass printing costs, postage, and other administrative burdens on to grantseekers. The information contained in each application is delivered in a format that is ready for grantmakers to work with; making it easy to copy n' paste text, search past grant-applications for similar projects, and exchange information with other local grant-makers. A search-enabled information retrieval system or grant applicant profile system can help reduce application requirements for grantseekers your organization has previously funded.
Do your due diligence only when diligence is due.
If your foundation is ready to move to a paperless online grant application, don't hesitate to drop me a line. My name is Noah Kleiman and I'm here to help.