by Kimberly Slipy, Initiative Foundation and Kari Aanestad, GrantAdvisor.org
When The Initiative Foundation first began the journey of updating their grants management systems and processes two years ago, they never have could have imagined the impact that small changes would have on their community and own staff. This 34-year-old community foundation based in Little Falls, MN, is an essential community resource that provides nearly $2 million in grant funding, trains 160 nonprofits, and administers 127 partner funds every year. The following is an interview between Kimberly Slipy, Information Systems Administrator for the Initiative Foundation, and Kari Aanestad, co-director of GrantAdvisor.org.
Q. Walk me through a little bit of the process of how the Initiative Foundation got here. Whose initial idea was it to look at your grants management system and processes? Who was involved along the way, what steps did you take, and how long did it take?
A. I led the overall process and brought together a committee that included my supervisor and lead grant staff members. My role was to continually ask two key questions: “Why do we do it this way? Who does this benefit?” Structure: We set up monthly meetings, and it took about six months to identify all of the issues. Once we co-developed a strategy and plan, it was my job to implement the changes. Tools: We surveyed grant seekers to understand what their top pain points were. We then used a flow chart to map out two key users’ journeys: the nonprofits requesting funds and our internal uses of the system. Once we saw how complicated our system was, we identified all of the possible fixes and then mapped them using a High/Low, Impact/Effort matrix. That way we were able to make the quick, easy fixes to keep people motivated along the way while we also worked on the bigger, more cumbersome issues (like changing grants management tech providers entirely).
Q. I love the simplicity and effectiveness of the High/Low, Impact/Effort matrix. What are some examples of “Fixes” that landed in the High Impact, Low Effort” category?
A. One of the most significant high impact, low effort fixes we implemented, was transitioning from a one-stage application (with LOI) to a one-stage application. This was a simple internal change; we combined the questions from both stages and condensed our one-stage application to the necessary questions only. If the answer to a question wasn’t needed to make a funding decision, we removed it from our application. This greatly reduced the amount of time it takes for grantees to apply for a grant, and it was extremely well-received and appreciated.
Q. What was the hardest part of this work?
A. Changing the actual tech system. We had been locked in a 5-year contract with a system that had been acquired by a bigger company and then they no longer updated it – their system required users to use internet explorer as a browser and in-general, we had a lot of end-user issues that caused frustration. Once we were able to switch vendors to Foundant, it was a lot easier. Foundant is cloud-based, multi-browser-compatible, and has exceptional customer service.
Q. What have been some key results that you’ve seen so far?
A. Since making changes, we have seen the diversity of our applicant pool grow. Improving geographic diversity was one of our primary objectives for evaluating grantmaking process. These efforts resulted a 25% increase in grant applications, and we received an increase in applications from nearly every county that we serve. Another primary objective was to improve the grantee experience, by simplifying and streamlining our grant process. In addition to transitioning from a two-stage to a one-stage application, we amended our grant guidelines to encourage applicant diversity, the timeline between application submittal and funding decision was significantly reduced, and we allow grantee budgets to be submitted in their preferred format. Our nonprofit partners report significantly less time spent on the technical parts of the application, and the new technology and processes are actually much better for our own staff. We didn’t make these changes to benefit ourselves, and yet the end result made our work so much better.
Q. Last question – What advice or words of encouragement would you give to other foundations who are working on making some of these changes?
A. I would encourage them to invest some time and resources in learning some effective process improvement tools. We used a tool called “Dissecting the Frog” (training provided by Myres Consulting). The basic steps include: Identify the problem you are trying to solve, identify the people that touch the process, and define all of the steps in the process. Continue to ask “Why are we doing this?” and “Who does this help?”, as this will help to identify steps in the process that can be improved or eliminated. Once you identify opportunities for improvement, engage key personnel to brainstorm solutions. Prioritize improvement efforts by using an Impact-Effort Grid and then communicate and train staff on the new process. Change management can be complex, so remember to communicate the “why” to grantees and staff when you implement major changes.