November 13, 2020

4 Tips to Build a CSR Grantmaking Program With Impact

Companies are moving away from transactional CSR models, focused purely on donations and volunteering, to approaches that power equitable, impactful grantmaking. But how do socially-minded businesses make the shift from benevolent donor to impactful grantmaker? Read on to find out.

If your company is actively pursuing a more invested, authentic approach to corporate social responsibility, or CSR, they’re on the right track. 

After all, consumers are more skeptical than ever. According to a 2019 consumer survey, nearly 75% of respondents agreed that “when big corporations donate to charities and help with community projects, they’re doing it more to make themselves look good rather than help people in need.”

That’s a tough perception to overcome. But it’s also a major opportunity. When you approach your social responsibility initiatives with a true commitment to making positive lasting changes, consumers will seek you out and reward you with their business. 

You’ll also build stronger bonds with your employees. A recent employee engagement survey shows that 51% of top talent wants to work for a company with strong social or environmental ties. People want more than money; they want purpose.

So, how do you make this shift toward impactful CSR? 

Rather than donating to the traditional list of nonprofits each year, many companies are developing competitive grant and scholarship programs that focus on issues relevant to their brand. A strong CSR program seeks to understand and solve pressing social, environmental, or economic issues - or respond quickly to emergencies like COVID-19.

Whether you’re new to grantmaking or want to improve your current process, here are four tips for building a grant program that makes an impact.

Clarify the Purpose of Your Charitable Giving

Grant focus areas are the issues or problems your company is trying to address. They should align with your mission and have the potential for significant change.

For example, the pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation says, “We promote health equity and seek to improve the health outcomes of populations disproportionately affected by serious diseases. We do this by strengthening healthcare worker capacity, integrating medical care and community-based supportive services, and mobilizing communities in the fight against disease.” Their focus areas are cancer, cardiovascular, hepatitis, HIV, diabetes, and veteran health. 

This makes sense. Disease prevention is their company’s mission and they have the expertise and context to know which grant projects would be most effective.

Open Philanthropy offers some great insights into strategic cause selection. They argue that passion for a cause often trumps critical review into which areas the foundation can make the most impact. Spend time talking to nonprofit leaders, employees, and other stakeholders to make sure the grant focus areas are a good match for your company’s strengths and resources.

Build Structures that Ensure Accessibility

To create the best outcomes from your grantmaking, you want to make sure you’ve gathered the broadest pool of qualified applicants.  Start with publicity for your grant. Instead of just a brief description on your website, write blogs or post on social media. Generate a variety of content to establish your organization as a valuable resource and reinforce your commitment to the cause. Then, make it easy for busy nonprofits to apply. Keep these tips in mind when creating your application:

  • Make sure you have an ADA-friendly application - Features like alternative image text, extended time-outs, and keyboard accessibility will ensure all users can read and act on your application.
  • Create a qualifying quiz - Ask a few questions first to confirm the applicant is qualified before completing the entire application.
  • Allow to save and return - Choose software that creates a user account, so they can return any time. 
  • Enable integrations - Look for ways to reduce data entry. For example, see if your online application can link to popular apps like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox.
  • Remove unnecessary questions - Weed out any questions that don’t have a specific bearing on your decision or support future reporting needs.
  • Conduct user testing - Ask a neutral person to complete the application and point out anything that’s unclear.

Create Consistent Selection Procedures

By making the selection criteria clear and free of bias, you’ll build trust with applicants while also ensuring you choose a nonprofit with the most potential to succeed. Here’s how to do that.

  • Choose representative reviewers - As you build the team, ask yourself: 1) Will applicants feel the committee is qualified? 2) Is there enough diversity to make sure you’re seeing all perspectives? 3) Do you need representation from individuals outside your industry or field?
  • Remove potential bias - A grant management platform can help facilitate a more unbiased review process. You can hide demographic data unrelated to the decision-making process as well as randomly assign applications to reviewers.
  • Clearly define criteria - As you review your evaluation criteria, is there room for interpretation on how they should be applied? Provide your reviewers with a detailed definition of each criterion, so they’re reading each application through the same lens. 
  • Be transparent - Share the selection criteria and review committee. Be available to answer questions from applicants or other members of the public. You want to show that you’re not just funding pet projects, but those will the most potential to impact your chosen grant focus areas.

Monitor and Report on Outcomes

In older models of CSR, once a company sent a donation, that was the end of the process. However, if you want to be an integral part of the solution and see tangible results, there’s more to do.

  • Stay in communication - While you don’t want progress reports to be time-consuming or onerous, you do want to know how the project is progressing. With a full cycle grant management platform, there’s an embedded CRM. You can keep all your communications, their reports, and other attachments all in one place.
  • Offer support - As a partner, you may be able to provide additional resources like expertise, in-kind donations, or employee manpower. See what else you can do to make sure the project succeeds.
  • Make your grant reports actionable - At the end of the project, you’ll ask your grant recipient for a summary of how they used your funds and whether they achieved the goals set out in their proposal. But this is more than just an accounting exercise. Look for what you and the grantee can learn from the experience, so future collaborations are more successful - and hopefully, you can both build upon them.


Building a CSR model that’s genuinely seeking to support and improve the communities it serves is a sustainable and responsible strategy for companies today. By incorporating these four tips, you’ll begin to shift your company’s role from a donor to a true changemaker.


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