What if we told you that one of philanthropy’s most ubiquitous practices is nearly always a burden to nonprofits and a disappointment to funders?
The biggest news from PEAK Grantmaking’s survey of grant reporting practices in the field might be the extent to which survey respondents are not satisfied with the way reporting is implemented and used. Indeed, we could argue that grant reports are set up to fail. Often conceived as an opportunity for organization-wide learning, their insights rarely make it off the desk of individual program officers to inform grantmaking strategy or advance grantee goals. Rather than serving as a launching point for meaningful dialogue and support, Lisa Ranghelli from NCRP suggests – at least from the grantee perspective – grant reports often disappear into a mysterious void. And even as an “accountability tool” — often cited as the core purpose of grant reports — our survey and field conversations suggest reporting is an imperfect, often disregarded measure of grantee progress.
When sharing changes they would make, many survey respondents’ aspirations are poignantly modest:
“I would implement an annual process where we review all of the findings from the past year’s grants and look for themes, trends, etc., as a staff. The current process is organic and feels (to me) that there is individual learning but not always organizational learning.”
“Right now the reports give us individual learning experiences, but we wish we could get global data that could be aggregated. Then, we would also have to consider, what do we do with this aggregated data?”
“The biggest change I would want would be for our program officers to take these reports more seriously. Often they never even read them!”
Similarly, when asked to share a reporting practice they were excited and proud of, many respondents raised up their practice of sending a reminder 30 days in advance of a report’s due date. While this is a thoughtful gesture, we can’t help but think there must be – somewhere –more meaningful innovations to celebrate.
In fact, there are: we did find bright spots of intentional, sensible, streamlined, innovative reporting practices. They are out there but appear less frequently than they could or should.
Based on what we’ve learned from those bright spots, from hearing the concerns of grantees, and from the survey of current and desired practice, we offer conceptual and concrete recommendations for making reporting more useful and less burdensome– for grantmakers and grantees.
Three Big Ideas
1. Clarify the Purpose
Grant reports are rarely a legal requirement, which means funders have an opportunity to think deliberately and creatively about why they ask for reports and how they use them. We urge funders to ask this question: Why are we requiring this report? One of the most dispiriting things to hear from funders is some variation of, “The report is the price nonprofits pay for getting our money.” But in fact, the grant was an investment that the funder made in mission-driven work. A report is one (just one!) of the ways the funder can determine whether that work happened, how it went, and what impact it had.
Everything a funder requires should have a clear and articulated purpose, and reporting is no exception. It’s imperative to be specific about how you’ll use reports. Reports that are primarily for accountability will ask different, and fewer, questions than reports that contain information to be aggregated to evaluate your portfolio. Reporting processes that seek to identify (and help alleviate) capacity issues in grantee organizations will ask different questions and should perhaps employ a different format than reports seeking success stories to be shared with board members.
Sometimes funders believe that their reporting requirements are helpful to grantees as meaningful opportunities for reflection. We caution against this assumption. As one nonprofit leader wrote in a response to an earlier survey from Project Streamline: “I really think the meaningful application and reporting process is an objective of funders, not nonprofits. The process is a means to an end for us, and there’s little that is going to make that more meaningful than just having time and money to focus on the work that drives impact.”
Articulating the purpose of your foundation’s reporting requires a strategic, whole-foundation conversation, because the way reporting is used should speak to an organization’s learning priorities, how it understands impact, what it values in supporting grantees, communities, and a field of knowledge. Your organization may not have had this conversation at all yet – or there may not be shared understanding among staff, leadership, board, and the community. Let’s be more purposeful – together!
The frameworks that follow offer a set of reporting purposes and questions for you to consider. The order of the graphics reflects our observation that fundamental and tactical purposes for reporting are often foundational, and initial, uses for reports, with the other purposes reflecting higher level functions. However, it’s not necessary to move through the purposes in this order – in fact, your foundation might begin with a relational, strategic, or transformative purpose for your reporting.
Another way to articulate purpose is by exploring a set of questions that your organization hopes to answer and thinking about how grant reporting explicitly helps you to get answers.
Keep in mind: written narratives are just one way to address the questions that you need to answer. As The Whitman Institute has demonstrated, careful consideration of what reporting needs to accomplish – for the funder and the grantee – can result in something very different from standard reporting requirements. You might use the Pyramid of Purpose to prompt an internal discussion:
Which of these questions will we answer through reporting? Which questions might be answered through another mechanism, like external evaluations, periodic surveys, or interviews?
2. Choose a Smart Structure:
When it comes to reporting structure, funders almost always default to a narrative and financial report, according to the survey. We think that’s a mistake. Once the purpose of reporting is clear, funders can think about how to get the best possible information. Funders complain about reports full of fluff that obfuscate important information; yet, year after year, we ask the same fluff-inducing questions.
Don’t let format dictate function; instead, ask what you hope to discover and then, given time and resource constraints (your own and those of your grantees), how you can best discover it.
If you want to check in on progress and learn whether an effort is proceeding on-track, send an email with simple questions and use the response as a mid-year report. Documented phone calls or site visits can serve the same purpose. One funder recently re-imagined interim reporting as a conversation among multiple grantees brought together to discuss emerging issues. This will allow not only for an efficient catch-up for the foundation, but also an efficient way to encourage peer learning among grantees.
The trick to getting the right information is asking the right questions – and the right questions depend on what you want to know. The right question might be: What went well? It might be: What critical lessons did you learn that would help other organizations doing similar work? And it might be: How could our foundation better support your work? As Deaconess Foundation is learning, the answers to well-considered and timely questions has been well-considered and relevant responses. If you’re not sure whether your questions will work well, test drive them with a few long-term or high performing grantees. The Elmezzi Foundation worked with a graduate student to study their grantmaking and ground their reporting in the lived experience of the board and grantees. Qatar Foundation lives this guideline sincerely – by asking teachers receiving professional development grants to submit and share a lesson plan influenced by workshop attendance. It’s something the grantee would do anyway, it is shared publicly and can influence other teachers (even non-grantees), and helps Qatar Foundation see the application of the experience rather than a registration/attendance receipt.
As hinted at above, smart structure also means good timing. When reports are scheduled at the funder’s discretion, they may not make sense for the grantee’s work timeline – and the timing may not make much sense for grantmaker decisions either. If final reports come in 30-90 days after the grant period ends, they may be too late to influence the next round of grantmaking decisions. Similarly, if the board wants to review up-to-the minute figures, some funders find themselves going back to grantees for more information, months after receiving a report. Why not shift reporting deadlines so that the information is most current when it’s needed?
3. Share Learning
If a report falls in an inbox and no one ever talks about it, did it really make a sound? Our research this round affirmed what PEAK Grantmaking and others have learned in the past: most funders do not share more broadly what they learn from reports. It is a waste of time to require a report, then do nothing with it but check a box. For one thing, these reports take time to create. According to CEP’s 2013 Working Well With Grantees guide, half of nonprofits surveyed had spent more than 15 hours on reporting requirements for a single grant.
Most reports are read (we believe this!), but their contents remain largely in the heads and files of individual program officers and within the confines of the online grants management system. There might be a bit of a vicious cycle here, in which poorly conceived and communicated reporting requirements encourage grantees to write reports that are – frankly – not very compelling or candid. And as a result, program officers don’t find a lot to share or discuss. When you compare that to the living potential of a real dialogue, like the New York Foundation’s documented site visits, the missed opportunity seems clear.
Instead of throwing up our hands (and throwing reports into files!), try this instead:
- Talk with the grantee. Ask questions, make connections, and learn about your impact from those doing mission-centered work inside communities.
- Share the answers, connections, and ideas with foundation staff and board, emphasizing learning and engagement rather than compliance.
- Discuss what staff and board learned and how they engaged with other funders investing in similar issues or operating in the region.
- Share iterations – not official knowledge from on-high — with your peers and other leaders in the field. Help others hear the stories of individual grants, the lessons drawn from groups of grants, and the aggregate wisdom gleaned from your portfolio.
Observers of philanthropic practice often note that the bulk of our effort as grantmakers goes into making grants: cultivating potential grantees, developing RFPs, helping to shape proposals, assessing the relative merits of potential partners, and shaping the conditions of funding. Reporting has been largely the neglected tail of the process – attached because we assume it needs to be, but not highly intentional and not used to its fullest potential.
It’s time to change all that. This seems obvious, given everything we’ve said, but it bears repeating: if you ask for it, use it! We recommend that you go through your reporting requirements question by question, including the financial information you receive, and ask yourself: What do we do with this piece of information? If you can’t easily answer, then that particular requirement or question may need to go, or it may need to be asked or collected in a different way.
And if – when all is said and done –no useful, usable questions are left on the page, ask whether you need a written report at all. Remember: reporting is nearly always optional. You have the power, perhaps even the obligation to shape your reporting process to make it purposeful and meaningful. What’s stopping you?
Specific Practice Guidelines
- Clarify purpose internally and with grantees: Take the time to name the intentional purpose of your reporting process (or purposes – you may have a few) and ensure shared understanding within your organization. But go one step further and make sure that your grantees also know why you require grant reports and what you will do with the information.
- Unless you see cause for concern, keep reporting minimal and annual: Among funders responding to our survey, annual and final reports (which are one and the same for one-year grants) were standard practice, with smaller numbers asking for reports twice a year (about a third) or a few more frequently. Unless a grant is extremely high risk or reporting is being used for crucial grantee support or data collection, we don’t see any reason to demand formal reporting more than once a year or once per grant period.
- Interim reporting – if used – should be developmental/relationship building: If your organization feels an official check-in with grantees halfway through the year is essential, we recommend thinking of reporting as a conversation with the grantee. Consider a documented phone call – which has the added benefit of being a chance to build relationships and offer support – or some other means for touching base.
- Combine final reports with renewal proposals when relevant: When organizations can apply year after year, combining final reports with requests for renewal funding (even if it precedes the year-end or official grant-period closure date) reduces the paperwork burden and makes critical information about the impact of the work usable and purposeful.
- Align questions and requirements to use: Build a reporting program in which the format of the report and the questions you ask are explicitly tied to the purpose of the reporting. Well-considered and timely questions are more likely to inspire well-considered and relevant responses.
- Set deadlines according to sensible timelines: Make sure that the timing of the grant report makes sense for a grantee’s timeline – for example, by setting those deadlines together. And consider also when you need the information. If your organization needs up-to-date data at a particular time and relies on reports to provide that data, schedule the reports – or at least the data-collection part of the report – to align with that need.
- Seek feedback on reporting requirements: Understanding the costs of processes and requirements is the hallmark of a responsible funder. You can’t understand how your process works for grantees without asking. We recommend that all funders use an anonymous survey or work with a third party to gather candid feedback about reporting practices. Asking specific questions is usually necessary in order to get actionable information.