21st Century Grantmaking...Sometimes Old School is Better

 


In 2000, the technology initiative was in full swing, with a gaggle of eager students offering their assistance on a host of web-related projects for the Nonprofit Management Fund.


With such talent available and an interest in conserving Fund partners’ time, in addition to a desire to be more environmentally conscious and reduce our paper consumption, we decided to design a “Grant Review Extranet”. You have to understand that 15 years ago, this simple concept was as complicated as putting on a Broadway musical. Contrary to popular opinion that grant makers are bland and boring, we were “da bomb”.


From early 2001 through 2003, the Fund partners read each application and recommendation online, and then voted online through a password-protected portion of our website. The proposal review and voting process could be conducted in the privacy of their home, office or hotel room. And, by reviewing the early am log in times, it is clear that more than one committee member wore their fuzzy slippers to vote.


Overall, 19 cycles were reviewed through our super-duper extranet, which was another Fund groundbreaking achievement, as we were the first in Wisconsin to use technology for approving grants. When the word spread throughout the philanthropic community, we received several requests for using our software. A missed opportunity to create our own earned income venture for sure.


Throughout the review process, the committee members were able to comment, pose questions, change their vote, and even dissent vociferously. However, the lonely voice couldn’t be heard as loudly, unless we were all sitting at the same table.


According to a third-party evaluation of the Fund in 2003, “the in-person and on-line methods are seen as comparably effective on three very important factors: results in fair grant decisions; results in effective grantmaking; and, provides an atmosphere where all partners can give candid input.”


Despite our intent of reducing their time investment, the ease of the voting process backfired. In actual time, this private and insular process allowed committee members to vote on auto-pilot, spending only a few minutes to cast their ballots. Luckily, policy meeting discussions encouraged committee members to articulate complaints, admonitions, and mea culpas.


  • “I pushed for online voting, thinking it would be easier. Truth is, it isn’t easier.”

  • “Now (with online voting) I just try to get it done.”

  • “While online voting is fascinating, it’s a misapplication of technology because the partners don’t think as much or learn from each other.”

  • “I delegated the online voting!”

  • “People tend to vote with the majority without truly evaluating the issues or challenging the recommendations.”

 

As a result of an honest discussion, the Fund partners decided that despite the excitement of being the first on the block to have a “new-fangled widget”, the extranet was more of a belly flop. They decided to revert back to an in-person grants review process.


  • “It’s helpful to bounce things off other partners.”

  • “It’s a rare opportunity to put everyone in one room.”

  • “It’s a way for corporate, private and family organizations to work collaboratively. You miss that online.”

  • “In the beginning having everyone face-to-face was critical to learn.”

  • “I still miss it.”

  • “I would read more intensely if I knew that I had to express my feelings to a group.”

  • “Voting in-person results in a more careful review (of the materials).”

 

While we tried to be innovative in using resources that we created for local nonprofits through the technology initiative, it turns out that good, ol’ fashioned, face-to-face conversations with colleagues are more desirable than time efficiency. Discourse, debate, and deliberation remain the critical hallmarks of our success as a funders’ collaborative.


 


4 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Rob Meiksins | April 08, 2014 at 07:40 PM EDT

While one giving through the internet, social media etc are enticing and exciting, they remain a drug. Quick response, energy and the wow factor of being new. But in this instance we are talking about initiatives to improve the quality of life over the long term. This is not a thumbs up thumbs down situation. It requires thought, reflection, consideration, and dialogue. That cannot be done electronically. That level of communication has to be old school. You have to be in the same room

2. Scott Gelzer | April 08, 2014 at 08:23 PM EDT

A point I'd add is that the committee and fund advisors truly learned from each other. More than one foundation sent additional staff to the face-to-face meetings for the professional development opportunities.

For me this one is filed under \lesson learned\ with a subtitle \not to be repeated\. Or, put another way, efficient may not be the same as effective.

3. Jim Marks | April 09, 2014 at 01:13 PM EDT

I think this experience illustrates two important lessons: the willingness to try innovative approaches to grant making and the need for continuing evaluation and assessment of those approaches. It's often too easy to stick with something, especially if a lot of time and effort went into it, than to make a determination that it may be having unintended negative consequences.

4. Christopher Wisniewski | April 11, 2014 at 10:41 AM EDT

In some cases there is no substitute for the face-to-face or at least a more hands-on approach. I agree with trying new approaches and there might be mechanisms in the future that strike a better balance, but we're not there yet. It is also good to try things that don't work... and then inform others.

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