Reflections from PEAK 2023: The power of conversation

After the pandemic hiatus, it was wonderful to be back at PEAK Convening to connect with and learn from grants managers. What stood out to me is how grants management is shifting to a more strategic role within organizations, and grants managers are using this influence to increase their organizations’ impact by aligning grantmaking processes with values. This has certainly been a theme for a long time but it felt even more central, with even more examples of change in action, this time around.

Among the many trends and great ideas I heard, an emerging one that piqued my interest is that conversation-based grant applications are starting to gain traction. In recent years we’ve noticed an increase in grantmakers using oral reporting as an alternative to written reports, a practice that is being adopted more and more; however, applying this approach to applications is a newer shift that I was pleasantly surprised to hear some examples of at PEAK!

The power of conversations in relationship building may seem obvious, but the practice of asking for written applications and reports is so ingrained that it often goes unquestioned. Grantmakers embracing trust-based philanthropy and other grantee-centric practices have drawn attention to the importance of grantee relationships: stronger relationships mean more ability to weather difficult situations, co-create and innovate, tackle problems more boldly, and ultimately have greater long-term impact.

Conversation is the lifeblood of relationships in a way that a written report or automated email never will be.

I’d like to share four examples I heard - two from sessions, two from conversations I had with fellow attendees - of how conversations are or can be used in the application process:

Renewal Applications 

In their session “Embracing the Unknown: Aligning Grantmaking Practices with Strategy, Values and Culture,” Janet Disla, Senior Grants Manager at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, told us about their choice to stop asking for written renewal applications. This was part of a suite of changes resulting from COVID-19, in order to better align their grantmaking practices with values.

The foundation chose to focus on renewal applications because they come from an existing relationship with the grantee, so most of the information already exists in their system. The conversation focuses on whether there are any changes from the previous grant to know about. Program staff get a template with guiding questions and are asked to take notes from the conversation as well as capture key data points in the system (such as a new payment contact), and grants staff keep an eye on the process to ensure the information is indeed getting captured.

This process has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from everyone involved – program staff, grantees and board members – so they will definitely be continuing to use it.

General Operating Support Applications

In streamlining their application process, the MacArthur Foundation realized that they had a great opportunity with general operating support (GOS) grants because it forms a full third of their grantmaking and there are no legal requirements for it. In the session “Radically Rethinking the Application,” Elizabeth Powley, their Director of Grants Management, shared how the foundation decided to start from scratch rather than streamlining their existing application.

They decided to omit an application entirely for GOS grants, opting to use only publicly available materials and a conversation. It was important to them to design for the least complicated grants; they handle exceptions on a case-by-case basis rather than adding requirements for everyone. While they are refining the process for first-time applicants, it is progressing very well, with grantees reporting that they find the conversations easier to do, and deeply respectful.

Letter of Intent/Screening

In a session breakout, I spoke with a grantmaker who had replaced a written letter of intent (LOI) from their two-stage application process with a short conversation. Anyone can schedule a conversation with them (using a scheduling app to minimize admin logistics) to share their idea for a project; staff advise on whether it’s a good fit and provide some general information about the rest of the application process. If it’s a good fit, the applicant is invited to submit a written application.

The organization noticed that while the conversations did take more staff time, it not only reduced grantee burden but it increased the quality of applications, because applicants better understood what they were looking for. The organization was also pleased to receive more applications from non-traditional recipients such as community groups (usually they fund researchers), as the new process was more approachable. Positive results have secured board support to continue this approach and the possibility of rolling it out to other programs.

Small Grant Applications

At my table in the “Journey to the Center of Trust-Based Philanthropy'' session, we had a great discussion about grantee burden in applications and identified a good use case for oral applications (note that this isn’t the actual practice of the grantmaker, just our idea!). This grantmaker primarily funds grassroots groups with small grants; most of these groups have never applied for grant funds before and have zero grant writing experience. As a result, the application quality can vary widely.

The grantmaker has considered using video applications instead, and did a poll which indicated that half of their grantees were interested in this approach while the rest were not. Due to the grantmaker’s participatory, community-based review process, they felt it was important to present all applications in the same format, as videos may get an unfair advantage due to being more engaging than a written application. Nor did they want to require everyone to make a video as for some this might even add more burden.

Our table’s idea was for applicants to have a conversation with the foundation as their application. The foundation would then be responsible for writing down the key points of their application to provide to the reviewers. This would be more accessible for the new grantees and it would also ensure a consistent application quality for reviewers.

Benefits of Conversation

Hearing these examples as well as learning from funders who have used oral reporting show that there are many benefits to interacting with grantees through conversation rather than written materials, including:

  • Grantees are able to stop “performing” and have a more honest relationship with grantmakers, as trust builds over time. They are more open to sharing struggles which they might be hesitant to put in writing, putting the grantmaker in a position to provide support.
  • Grantmakers can also share their own updates and answer grantee questions, making it more of a two-way sharing process.
  • Both parties can explore ideas together and may think of new approaches that wouldn’t have come up otherwise. 
  • Grantees are more likely to share other updates with the grantmaker outside the main check-ins, further strengthening the relationship.
  • Better experience for people with learning disabilities related to reading and writing.
  • No need to log into a GMS, for grantees who struggle to manage their login info

But what about…?

There were a few questions that did come up about how this works in practice; here are a few that stood out to me and some thoughts that were shared:

What if the grantee already has written material they created for other funders?

In this case, the grantmaker can take the existing materials (application, reports) instead - even less burden! However in some cases a conversation may still be good to strengthen the relationship, you can just skip over the updates covered in writing.

What if the grantee would prefer to submit materials in writing?

There are valid reasons for grantees to prefer this, and grantmakers should definitely accommodate it - we’re trying to make a good experience for grantees, after all. Some people simply prefer communicating in writing, and for some ESL speakers, writing can help avoid the pressure of having to speak in a different language. Some funders don’t have this situation come up at all and others do have a minority of grantees expressing this preference, so keep an eye out for it.

What if the program staff doesn’t take notes?

This is a challenge that grantmakers faced. As it is important to keep a record of conversations, create a place to put the notes and follow up to ensure it is happening. Some grantmakers are exploring using natural language processing tools to capture notes, so hopefully that will only make things easier in the future.

I’m very excited to see a shift towards having conversation-based applications, as I think if done well it holds potential to improve the grantmaker - grantee relationship and ultimately increase impact. Hopefully we will see more of this in the future!

Tierney Smith's headshot

Tierney Smith

Implementation Management Service Lead

Change Management

Tierney specializes in helping grantmakers align their grantmaking processes with their values and make effective use of technology. As a Service Lead and Senior Philanthropy Consultant at GrantBook, she helps clients redesign their processes and successfully implement grants management systems. She is especially passionate about creating stronger funder-grantee partnerships by helping funders implement grantee-centric, trust-based practices. 

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.