By: Kari Aanestad, co-director of GrantAdvisor.org
We are all living in a time of epic disruption, which is stressful AND an opportunity to discover new ways of being and doing our work together. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic government agencies and foundations have taken some remarkable steps to reduce conditions on funds, allow greater flexibility, and even increase grant amounts. If these moves are intended to reduce counterproductive grant processes, grantmakers also need to re-examine the smothering effects of word and character limits. This is a case of unthinking online forms – meant to increase efficiency and reduce paperwork – turn out to be an archaic practice that actually creates unhelpful, harmful barriers to communication of ideas for grant funding. It’s time to find transformation in disruption – including ridding our grant applications of word and character limits forever!
If you’re a funder who has designed applications to include word and character limits, at this point you may be thinking:
- “But we’re helping prospective grantees right-size the amount of work in applying because writing less takes less work!”
Nope. You’re actually increasing the work by at least 25 percent by putting arbitrary limitations on response fields, that then require applicants to spend hours (yes, hours) playing a game of “cut the words but keep the content.”
Don’t believe me? I invite you to ask any grantseeker “Have word/character limits ever reduced the amount of time and energy needed to submit requests for grant funding?” I will bet money the answer is “NO!” Instead of putting technical limitations on to a field in an online form, consider describing the equivalent page length you’re hoping to see. For example, “We expect responses to this question would be approximately 1/2 page single spaced in Word.”
- “We’re making the application more streamlined and easier.”
Nope again. I’ll let you in on a trade secret…Grant applicants have to re-create your online application as a word document in order to work effectively across teams on writing the case. The word/character limits double this work in that they become another field of information that we manually carry over and have to constantly check as we are writing. In some cases, online applications actually DIFFER in their counting of words/characters than Microsoft Word. So we spend a lot of time and energy making sure we’re within the limits only to discover that we’re actually over because the online form counts differently. More steps = NOT streamlined.
- “We don’t want folks to write too much because we are only human, and there’s a risk that great fundable work gets lost in content overwhelm.”
Grantmakers are in a hard position. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people feel entitled to your time and attention. You have to say “No” a lot. Some of you are in a middle-person position between the broader community and your employer’s executive leadership team and board. You might be expected to know a lot and make informed recommendations that place the grantmaker’s institutional reputation on the line. You want to recommend effective decisions, do right by the community, and do no harm.
- If the goal is rightsizing the work…
- Take a step back and ask your institution, “Do we really need a written proposal?” What are the true inputs that support your decision making process? At bare minimum, what do you need to receive from prospective grantees in order to award a grant? Some people (like brilliant leader Vu Le) would argue that we should rid ourselves of grant applications altogether!
- The National Lottery Community Fund offers to talk with grantseekers who find it difficult or impossible to complete an application form and find alternative ways for the funding request to be proposed.
- If the goal is making the application process more appropriately proportionate to the amount of resources to be allocated…
- Pretend your foundation is asking for funds to re-grant and complete your own application. See for yourself what the experience is like and be inspired by ideas for change along the way. Or go online and complete another funder’s application – here are some options:
- Check out Project Streamline by PEAK Grantmaking to see some promising process reforms being developed from inside the grantmaking field
- Accept narrative proposals as an uploadable word document and provide a general page length recommendation. The Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation (working with Foundant Technologies) has been recognized for doing that very thing: “This grant application from the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation is so beautiful it makes me want to cry.” -@lindsayinMPLS
- If the goal is ensuring your foundation’s resources are invested wisely…
- Look at your current grant application and review process. How much time and energy is it consuming from you and the broader grantmaking team? PEAK Grantmaking is developing a cool tool – net grant calculator – to calculate the time and resources grantmakers invest in making grants, and to understand the time and resources that their applicants expend in seeking grants. What’s the ultimate value of a grant once all the costs of applying have been considered? Make sure the amount of information you’re requiring of grantseekers matches the level of funding you’re potentially providing.
For people serious about cost benefit analysis, a study waiting to happen is a sober calculation comparing resources expended in the application process to funds allocated for select grantmaking programs. In the category of “do no harm” should be an expectation that no grant round should collectively consume more community resources applying than end up allocated. In the world of heavily promoted, “highly competitive” grantmaking there may be bragging rights for the number of proposals received, yet running those numbers against average number of hours required to submit show that there are indeed grant rounds that are a net loss for the community they purport to benefit.
2020 is a year where institutions are proving capable of changing their practices. Eliminating character/word limits from grant applications needs to be on that list.
I often spend more time cipping characters in applications than I do writing the darn thing. Such a waste.
Mark Twain quipped, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” The same is true for grant applications. It takes more time to write and then cut it down than it does to write with a certain page limit in mind. Another option is for grantmakers to give a RANGE instead of a limit. That would tell the grantwriter approximately how long to make their responses but not give a hard cut-off. And just letting the applicant attach a PDF or an MS Word document is even better. Why make us spend time first creating the MS Word document and then having to copy and paste everything into the little boxes?
Uploading a document with an overall page limit is the way to go. It even makes it easier for the grantmaker to read because it can actually be formatted and it allows the organization. It also allows the grantwriter to choose how much real estate to devote to individual questions so as to best make the case. I would also like to see an online common grant application to replace the MN common grant form that has mostly gone by the wayside, though it would have to be improved significantly – its format is cumbersome and does not exactly encourage good writing.
Reading this blog was so uplifting. I agree with every word above. The hours required to write, shorten, copy, paste, shorten again (repeat, repeat) are miserable hours — and a huge drain on productivity. Grantmaker friends, consider the underlying distrustful message you are sending to the organizations you support when you require these complex and time consuming grantseeking processes.
Consider the flip side of the process, especially for competitive grants: the committee reviewing the applications. Their workload is significantly reduced if all applications to be reviewed are presented in a similar format, with all essay or narrative questions kept within reasonably limits. If applications under consideration vary in structure, format, and length, the reviewers have a difficult if not impossible burden comparing apples to apples across the set of submissions. The burden is compounded if the reviewers are volunteers. In my experience, the real problem with word and character limits is that applicants feel an overwhelming need to use every space when short, succinct responses would serve everyone much better.
A tangent; skip this if you wish. A number of years ago, I moderated a League of Women Voters candidates forum. After one of the debates, a challenger confided to me that she felt she didn’t do very well, since her answers were so short, and her opponent used up every second available. Guess who won the election and remains the incumbent today?
Tom, I agree that a totally unstructured application would make it impossible to compare apples. However, that is not what is being suggested here. Instead, a modified approach is being recommended. Yes, same questions, similar structure, format and length are indeed needed for reviewers in order to compare applications, but not to the current rigid extent we have in place for so many grant applications. I have been on both sides, both a grant maker and a grant seeker, and I can tell you the inefficiency for the grantseeker is huge.
By the way, I agree 100% with you about the pressure to fill the space. I’t a problem. I recently worked on a government grant application to a grantmaker that allowed 12,000 characters for a reply. In my experience, the largest I have ever seen is 5,000 characters. I was in a panic as to how to “fill-up” that space! With so much at stake, you start to feel inadequate and ask yourself: the funder wants 12,000 characters?? Yikes!! Oh no! what?? You get the picture. It would be a big relief if the guidelines would say: “We are providing 12,000 characters but we’d rather see short, succinct responses.”
I think a well-written, concise Executive Summary with required topics and the typical Common Grant attachments would provide plenty of information for funding decisions. In fact, I share an anecdote in my grant training workshops in which a program officer confided that all the Board wanted to see was the Executive Summary and Project Budget. As a federal reviewer I’ve noted (happily) that application lengths have been significantly reduced. When 5 pages can earn hundredths of thousands of dollars in federal funding why can’t foundations manage to make decisions with a similar amount of information?