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In June we had the pleasure of hosting a webinar in conjunction with the International City and County Management Association and two of our clients -- Loudoun County, VA, and the City of LaQuinta, CA -- sharing best practices for quickly and effectively launching an emergency relief grant program. While our panelists both did so from a local government perspective, their experiences, learnings, and advice can easily be applied to any organization entering responsive grantmaking and planning a new program to support constituents after or during a crisis.
Below are the 12 reoccurring themes that came out of our discussion, and how you can take their insights and apply them for a more successful, responsive program.
While the planning of the actual grant program -- funding sources, distribution amounts, application criteria, reviews, and awarding processes -- can feel like the bulk of the workload, our panelists agreed that all that work can be sullied when the program is not communicated to constituents properly.
In short, your would-be applicants are already stressed and frustrated, and this program, designed to help them, shouldn’t add to that load. By clearly laying out the communication plan and connecting with the right individuals who can help you share those messages, you can ensure applicants understand the program, come prepared to complete the application, and understand the value the program is attempting to provide.
Almost a second phase of the above, clearly define who is owning what parts of the program, and rely on them to distribute that messaging.
Knowing and keeping to you chain of command can be instrumental in ensuring those on the group and those in the office both are fully apprised of constituent sentiment, program effectiveness, and any changes that are in the works, ensuring that messaging can continue to be clear and consistent across all channels. This clarity is not only helpful in general, but imperative within a program where grantseekers are often stressed and scared. This program is seen as a life-line, and as such it needs to feel secure and stable.
It’s not uncommon for organizations providing funding to want to place all the money available to them into the program, forgoing overhead. Yet the time and even emotional cost of this can be far more dear than the nonprofit technology investment required to have program run smoothly.
Loudoun County learned this quickly when, in the hopes of getting their initial program off the ground as quickly as possible, decided to run everything manually using just their current website and team. It became a nearly intolerable workload, with nearly 50 staffers working full time. With no central platform to manage the applications, this team was calling applications, receiving emails with attachments, downloading those files and tagging them in spreadsheets, and attempting to keep all data clean and connected. It was highly stressful and time consuming, and a lesson that lead the county to invest in a grants management system when they were cleared for another round of funding.
A purpose-fit grants management system allows you to set the tone for your program from the get-go with a single destination -- a submission portal -- for all information about the program. Easy to use, here they can quickly complete their application, get auto reminders and communications that you set, and see the status of their application. You can even use this portal for follow-up with awardees, like receipt uploads and progress reports.
Your team’s review process also gets easier, with automatic assignments of applications based on the criteria you set -- perhaps industry, or township, or request amount. If you set up an eligibility quiz within the application, you’ll have less data to comb through as those who don’t meet the bar will be removed. You can customize your reviews too, from a simple yes/no, to scorings and ranking, to long-form feedback.
Best of all, everything you collect -- from contact information to need areas to financial documents that were uploaded -- will be connected and easily accessed in one secure database.
If your program is being created with federal or state funds, then you’ll be required at some point to share back up the funnel exactly how those funds were utilized and the impact that was made. If it's being driven by private donors, they too will expect some kind of report showing where their money went and how it helped. Thinking about how this will be achieved is best done as you begin planning your program, as the data you collect via applications -- and how it is stored and viewed -- can drastically change how easy creating those reports will be.
Grants management software can also help here by allowing you to track grant metrics in pre-set data views or dashboards, then easily export those when it's time to send final reporting to those providing oversight.
While all our panelists agreed that they wanted their applications to be simple and easy to complete for the sake of their applicants, they also saw this as an opportunity to better understand their constituents and the real issues they are facing.
In their instance, running small business relief grants, they took the opportunity to ask questions about the applicants' pre-COVID income and success so they could have a better feel for how much damage had really been done locally. They also asked about rent and mortgage costs, cleaning up their information on real estate values and looking for places where price gauging may have been taking place.
All our panelists expressed their commitment to doing more past these initial rounds of relief funding, realizing that while money was the imperative, immediate need, there was more that could be done to support grantees long term.
For La Quinta and Loudoun County, that meant helping some small businesses decide how to best spend the grant funds for future sustainability. In other cases it could be providing feedback as grantees move forward with utilizing funds, check-ins to encourage and support grantee projects, or connecting grantees to build a cohort they can lean on.
Your program will need to be just that -- a program -- with all the rules, regulations, and perhaps even red tape that entails. But that is not a reason to not manage it personably. At the end of the day, it’s humans helping humans.
Our panelists spent a lot of time running their programs, and a large percentage was in one-on-one communication with applicants. These connections not only helped the organizations better understand their constituents, but helped the constituents trust in the organizations. With a strong relationship from the start, your grant programs have a much better chance at success and longer-term sustainability.
No one on our panel was shy about the amount of time launching grant programs quickly took -- and yet no one suggested bringing in ancillary staff to help with it. Instead, they stressed how important it is for the local team to manage it personally.
For these local governments, it was an opportunity to connect with their community on a deeper level. They also found it more rewarding to be in the thick of it, seeing the results of their efforts. The same could be said for any type of nonprofit looking to launch relief grants; it's an amazing chance to create connection and community.
You may be trying to balance speed with comprehensiveness, clarity with flexibility. Especially in times of turmoil when the future is unknown and things are changing daily, relief program managers need to get comfortable with launching and running a process that perhaps isn’t as buttoned up as they would like.
The trick it seems is doing enough planning to ensure lines of communications and clear expectations from applicants and any review teams. Ones those basic roads are paved, you can add details in real time, adjusting when circumstances demand or improving when an opportunity is discovered.
It’s safe to say most of us didn’t see a global pandemic coming. And even through we know natural disasters and civil unrest can and will occur, we never know the exact details and impact. But from each crisis you respond to, you can learn and utilize that information to plan for the next crisis.
By taking into consideration your own experiences as well as those of others, you can put basic approaches, processes, and the technology needed to facilitate them into a starter playbook, one that you build on over time. Combined with resilient staff and the natural tenacity to help that fuels so many in the nonprofit sector, this can give organizations a respectable head start as they address the needs ahead.