Aug. 31, 2020 9:18 am

Are simplified grant applications here to stay?

After moderating a virtual Funders Forum, columnist Valerie Johnson explores the grant application changes that would make life easier for nonprofits seeking funding.

Valerie Johnson (r) led an online forum with (top, l to r) Beth Harper Briglia; Joanne Craig; (bottom, l to r) Virginia Frantz; Phil Fitzgerald.

(Courtesy photos)

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a virtual Funders Forum for the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). I’ve attended many such panel discussions before, and organized a few myself, but moderating was a whole new thing.

Before we started I promised myself I’d be chill. I wouldn’t talk about the inequities that exist in the grantmaker/grantee relationship. I wouldn’t complain about character counts or ask how many different ways they can request we list the members of our board (with titles, with number of years served, with the number of their current term, with their favorite color, or without some but not all of those things, however they’re doing it this week).

Been there, written about that. I wasn’t there to make a splash, I was there to keep the conversation moving and let our funders shine.

But I’m me, and I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without addressing the elephant in the room. Over the last six months, many funders have shortened or eliminated their grant applications in order to expedite funding, including all four panelists. They recognized the importance of getting funding to where it was needed as quickly as possible, and they acted accordingly.

So, now that they’ve had at least one funding cycle with the new, easier, shorter application process, I couldn’t help but wonder: will they keep it?

The panel featured four local funders: Beth Harper Briglia from the Chester County Community Foundation, Joanne Craig from the Foundation for Delaware County, Phil Fitzgerald from the Philadelphia Foundation, and Virginia Frantz from the Montgomery County Foundation.

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Just before heading into breakout sessions, I broke my self-imposed rule to be chill and asked what their thoughts were on the new, shorter applications and whether they’d be sticking around, fully expecting to hear a short and resounding “No” from all four panelists simultaneously.

To my surprise, the answer was not a simple no. All four panelists said that they too appreciated the benefits of the simplified applications, and they were hoping to keep elements of those applications moving forward.

Of course, there is a reason the process is what it is and it’s not a simple change. Just like us nonprofits, our funders have people they report to who demand information and, if not provided, their funding could get cut. That cycle doesn’t just apply to us, it applies to our funders as well. If their board wants to see an aggressive amount of demographic information on the programs they fund, they’re at the mercy of their board just like we are.

There have been efforts to come up with an application that can be accepted by multiple organizations in the past, spearheaded by the Philanthropy Network back when they were still called the Delaware Valley Grantmakers. The Common Grant Application, last updated 10 years ago, is still accepted by a handful of local funders. However, a 10-page word document is not necessarily simple and easy to complete, either.

With so many funders shifting to digital applications, it’s made collaborating on a common application a lot harder. Each system is designed differently and tracks the exact information required by the funder; shifting those applications towards something more universal would take a lot of work.

However, right now the work is always on the grantee. I can’t tell you how many different times I’ve taken the same program budget and hacked it up to fit the standard categories required by a funder so I could submit the budget in the format required. Why can’t funders just allow me to submit the budget with the categories that we use internally? That feels like an easy change that still allows funders, and therefore their boards, to get the information they need.

Similarly, we collect demographic information on the folks we serve. But we don’t always track the exact categories that funders require. Some ask for gender to be split into male or female. Some are male, female, or nonbinary. Some include trans male and trans female. Some just ask for trans. Some include other as an option. Some don’t. Without fail, they all ask that the percentages add up to 100. What if we have nonbinary participants but the funder is only asking for male or female? What if we offer other as an option but the funder doesn’t? Do we just misgender those folks for the sake of reaching 100%? Race always presents a similar quandary.

At the very least, funders could start chatting with one another, and their boards, about universal fields for demographic information, or agree on allowing grantees to submit the budget categories that we use internally.

Those tiny changes to grant applications over the last six months to expedite the funding process made such a difference for us. I saved myself hours by not having to track down and then finagle demographic and budget information into prescribed categories.

Once we’re over that hurdle, the long term goal would be to standardize some of the narrative questions. Do organizational history and overview of agency’s programming go together in one question? Or does history go solo, while overview of programming goes alongside bios of key staff? Or, do the key staff bios go alongside the program description for which you’re requesting funds?

Every application is different, and they all cram two to three questions into one section (but never the same two to three!) with a limited character count. I end up having standard answers to all the questions in a separate document that I copy/paste into the relevant section and then start cutting to hit the character count, which means every application is a little different than the others and a little more time consuming than it needs to be.

If each question was asked one at a time, with the same character count every time, it would save so much time for the grantee while still delivering the same information to the funder and the folks they report to.

And at the end of the day, aren’t all funders hoping that more time goes to direct service and less to administrative tasks anyway?

I’m so glad to see this conversation happening and I hope to see more movement within the funding community here in Philly, and beyond, towards reducing arbitrary questions on applications and creating more commonality among all the applications.

If any funders out there are looking to have this conversation, I’m happy to serve as a conduit to make it happen so be in touch!


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