Form Design For Trust Based Philanthropy

If not now, when?

2020 has been a year of crisis. We’ve seen how deeply entrenched power imbalances in our society (and sector) have drastic consequences for the most vulnerable, and foundations have largely stepped up to get funds into the hands of nonprofits who are providing vital support for their communities. 

In our work helping foundations select, implement, and optimize their philanthropy tech systems, we support grantmakers in operationalizing their mission and vision through technology. It’s heartening to see more foundations embrace Trust Based Philanthropy, as well as Participatory Grantmaking and other practices/frameworks that help to shift power to grantees, especially in this moment of crisis. 

Recently, we’ve seen more funders looking for ways to implement principles of Trust Based Philanthropy in their grants management system (GMS) and form design. Across several client projects, we’ve compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of tactics that can be implemented in most GMS’s to help reduce the administrative burden on grantees, shift the balance of power to create more equity in philanthropy, and centre relationship building. Some of the tips below also include broader system, process, and workflow updates (e.g. waiving reports). 

This post focuses on tactical shifts in form/application design—fully embracing Trust Based Philanthropy will often require the deeper work of strategic and cultural alignment. We also know that small steps can have a large impact, so if your foundation is interested in these principles, a few tactical shifts in your forms can be a great place to start.

These tactics for trust-based form design align with four of the Six Key Principles of Trust Based Philanthropy laid out by the Whitman Foundation.


Simplify and Streamline Paperwork

Reducing the administrative burden on your grantees means that they spend less time on paperwork, and have more time to focus on delivering their mission. 

  1. Go through the form and pare down the questions to just the absolute minimum amount of information you need to collect to make a decision. Consider that every question you ask the grantee takes away already scarce time and resources that could be spent delivering services. To better understand the time/resources required to apply, and identify friction points/frustrations for grantees, funders should submit test applications through their own forms. 
  2. Pre-populate questions with the most likely responses, and take a trust-based approach. For example, when asking “has your organization been named in a lawsuit in the last 5 years?” set the default answer to no, and then only display a field for entering the details if they select yes.
  3. Add guidance about the suggested number of words, but do not actually apply word counts. One of the most common complaints raised to Grant Advisor is the time applicants spend revising content to fit arbitrary character counts for different funders. Some systems allow for the use of overall or section character counts so grantees can decide how they want to allocate their text among several questions.
  4. Ideally, you are providing general operating funding, so you won’t need to request a project budget. If you are funding projects, keep in mind that an applicant will likely have their own format for budgeting internally, which they then have to reframe/reformat for each application, so let the grantee attach their budget with you in their terms/format. Some funders build their budget templates into the forms themselves, which tends to be time-consuming for the grantee to fill out. Also keep in mind that forcing grantees to commit to spending allocations on a line item basis also reduces their flexibility and responsiveness when urgent needs arise. 
  5. Use plain language on the form, encourage bullet point answers, and let the grantees know that their application will not be reviewed or judged based on grammar or writing style. This ensures organizations that can’t afford to have grant writers are considered fairly against those who hire professional writers. 
  6. Include a space for any additional notes or comments that the grantee wishes to provide that didn’t fit into any particular question.
  7. Allow grantees to elect their preference for reporting (report, attachment, phone call, etc.).


Do the Homework (or reduce the burden on grantees)

This principle suggests that the work of due diligence should be performed by the grantmaker, not the grantee, and helps to shift the power imbalance between funders and fund seekers. 

  1. Consider accepting applications or reports the grantee has already submitted to other funders in lieu of completing your application (or parts of your application). Program staff can take on extracting the key data and filling it into the form on the grantee’s behalf, where it’s important to the foundation to have consistent data.
  2. For programs with an open application, accept a (very short) Letter of Intent (LOI) first. Consider the LOI as an introductory conversation to start to build a relationship—this gives potential grantees an opportunity to introduce themselves to you without putting in too much effort. If the LOI response piques your interest, you should then do some homework about the prospective grantee, and then work with them to shape the proposal together. Note: if the LOI involves more than the equivalent of 2 pages of text, it’s too long. Also consider that allowing submissions in multiple formats (i.e. video, audio, a presentation deck, etc.) could make things easier for the grantees. 
  3. Use organizational profiles to collect standard information and reduce the number of fields on your application form. You can use publicly available resources like Guidestar Charity Check, websites, etc. to create complete organizational profiles on potential grantees. If you want this information structured in a specific way in your system, have your staff do the homework as opposed to outsourcing the administration work to grantees. The more information you can include on an organizational profile, the fewer questions you need to ask on a grant application. When it comes time to renew the grant, this organization information will already be filled in.


Be Transparent and Responsive

Open, honest, and transparent communication with potential grantees helps them better allocate their own resources, and helps to minimize power imbalances.

  1. Explain to the grantee why you are asking each question on the form, how the information will be used, and examples of what you are looking for. You can often add explainer text to fields on your form to accomplish this, or provide examples of successful responses. The more your grantees understand about what you’re looking for, the easier it will be for them.  
  2. Be upfront with what you will fund, and what you won’t—show clear program guidelines at the beginning of your application and include an eligibility quiz so grantees don’t apply if they’re not eligible. Tell the grantee the estimated amount of time it takes to complete the application at the beginning of the form.
  3. Right size the application depending on the funding request—i.e. forms should be short for small amounts of funding. 
  4. Provide a copy of any forms the grantee will need to fill in before they start the application. Make sure this includes any questions with conditional logic (i.e. questions that are hidden unless you select a specific answer to another question). Grantees often prepare their answers in a Word document and paste them into your form, so this will avoid surprises with fields they did not expect.
  5. Mark key fields as required by the system, and ensure that error messages (i.e. if an applicant skips a required field), are clear and easy to follow. If your system has any restrictions on file sizes/types, make sure those are clearly indicated to the applicant at the start of the process.

Solicit and Act on Feedback

Applicants and grantees have valuable perspective on your processes, and are close to the problems your funds are trying to solve—don’t miss out on their insights! 

  1. Include a link at the end of form, or upon submission, to an anonymized survey to collect feedback on their experience. You can also provide a link and encourage them to submit a review via GrantAdvisor
  2. Build a regular practice around reviewing feedback, acting on it, and communicating your actions back to applicants and grantees. Don’t skip this step, as it’s crucial to ensuring that partners continue to feel comfortable offering candid feedback. 


Two key principles of Trust Based Philanthropy—support beyond the check, and multi-year, unrestricted funding—fall outside the scope of application form design/updates. Those need to be adopted at a strategic and cultural level before a revamped application form can help to operationalize them—but the research suggests that General Operating Support is advantageous for grantees, communities, and funders, and the case studies looking at the impacts of capacity building are compelling. So if you’re serious about embracing Trust Based Philanthropy at your foundation, it’s time to start having those conversations. 

To get started applying these tactics, we recommend prioritizing across two areas: the technical implementation difficulty, and the cultural implementation difficulty. This will help you identify the low hanging fruit—tactics that are easy to implement in your system, and will be quickly embraced by your team. 

We recently worked through this exercise with one of our support clients using a 2 X 2 grid, and the results were illuminating. Many of the updates—things like adding help text, incorporating an eligibility quiz, etc.—were both technically and culturally easy to execute, and implemented quickly. Those quick wins built momentum and excitement for the deeper conversations about shifting the culture or investing in the tech needed to operationalize the more complex components of Trust Based Philanthropy. 

We should also note that many funders who are interested in Trust Based Philanthropy are often also interested in embracing best practices for diversity, equity, and inclusion. We haven’t covered best practices for data collection/form design in this post, because others have recently released some excellent resources on the topic. If you’re interested in diving deeper, check out this post from our friends at PEAK Grantmaking, Demographic Data Collection: A Tool for Change, and download the guide it references by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, More than Numbers: A Guide Toward Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Data Collection

Fully embracing Trust Based Philanthropy as a framework for your grantmaking practices will require more than just updating your application forms—it will likely require process, culture, and technology shifts throughout your organization. However, these tactics are a great way to get started, open up a dialogue about these best practices, and start to reduce the administrative burden on grantees. 


If you're looking for technical or strategic support as you implement these tactics in your GMS, Grantbook's Subscription Service offers steady access to our team of experts, who can help you stay agile, responsive, and resilient.


Kenny Li's headshot

Kenny Li

Implementation Consultant & Support Lead

Fluxx Expert, Support Lead

Kenny has always been working at the intersection of technology and social good. His early days in community service started with volunteering for the local municipal innovation department, helping build websites for local businesses and providing technology tutoring to seniors at the local senior centre. He is especially fond of his experience volunteering to support the technical operations during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games.

Before moving to Toronto, he completed his Bachelor’s in Business Administration at Simon Fraser University and worked in IT project management roles at Blackberry, TELUS, and Absolute Software.

Tierney Smith

Philanthropy Consultant

Change Management

Tierney is passionate about building strong technology foundations for grantmakers to engage in epic partnerships with their grant recipients. As a Philanthropy Solutions Consultant, she helps clients craft their digital strategy, select right-sized technology tools, redesign processes, and implement new systems. Her work style incorporates human-centric practices, change management, and an empathetic grantmaking approach. She leads Grantbook's change management coaching practice.

Previously, Tierney worked at TechSoup Canada to provide nonprofits with access to low-cost technology and educational resources. She has also worked as a software developer and project manager in the corporate sector. She has a degree in Software Engineering from the University of Waterloo.