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Key takeaways:

    • An effective grant cycle is much more than just giving away money. Impactful grantmaking requires strategic planning, headcount, and dedicated resources. 
    • One of the largest hurdles can be the volume of applicants, but eligibility surveys, volunteer committees, and frequently asked questions can help narrow down the pool. 
    • You must clearly communicate your philanthropic mission, the types of nonprofit organizations you’re interested in partnering with, and the desired outcomes.
    • Tools like Benevity and CyberGrants may not always be perfect solutions, but they will help you gain efficiencies.

Corporate philanthropy leaders know the grantmaking process is much more than simply giving away money — creating real impact requires strategic planning. 

In an article for the CSR platform Submittable, Editor Sarah Ashwell wrote, “For both grantors and grantees, the goal is the same: getting the maximum impact out of the funds.”

When it comes to the grant cycle process, every enterprise has its own methodology, but there are some best practices to consider.

1. Considering the required budget and headcount

In her article, Sarah Ashwell emphasized the importance of determining all funding and budgeting details required to run an effective grantmaking process. She highlighted several important questions to consider, such as: 

    • What kind of people power do you need to ensure that the grant funding gets into the right hands and is used optimally? 
    • How much do you need to spend on grantmaking software, grant reviewers, or consulting costs? 
    • How will you track the funds once they’ve been distributed, and how will you report on their impact? 

It’s clear that awarding grants requires a much more involved process than just giving away money. One of the biggest hurdles can be time to review applications and process bottlenecks. 

Ali Mathias, Head of Community Responsibility Strategy and MassMutual Foundation Vice President, touched on this challenge during an ESG & CSR Board panel discussion on advancing corporate philanthropy

She shared that a big focus for her team in 2023 will be reducing the administrative time throughout the grant cycle. At MassMutual, grants over $100K must go to the board for approval, but Ali said that isn’t necessarily the best use of their time and expertise.

Furthermore, their applications are invite-only, but in an effort to be more equitable and open to organizations they’re already familiar with, the team is considering adopting a pre-screening process.

Still, Ali said this raises the important question, “How would we make sure that with the capacity that we have that we can still be thoughtful and provide the time and attention to the applicants?”

2. Outlining clear expectations

Ashwell stated the lion’s share of the grantor’s work will take place at the start of the grant lifecycle, and during this phase, it’s paramount that you clearly articulate your company’s mission.

You can’t expect to source ideal nonprofit applicants without first communicating your mission statement and desired outcomes. 

Transparency is a major focus of the Motorola Solutions Foundation team. During the panel discussion, Karem Perez, the foundation’s Executive Director, said it’s crucial to define your foundation’s values and the types of nonprofit partners you’re looking for

This information should be well documented on your website, within your assets and materials, among other resources. Karem said her foundation team also holds an annual informational call to review that documentation and some frequently asked questions.

“We are very meticulous about documenting the types of programs that we support and seek to support through our grant cycle,” she told the panel. 

Communicating clear expectations will also help your team gain efficiencies. This past September, senior social impact leaders benchmarked their grant cycle processes in a private leadership discussion hosted by the ESG & CSR Board.

Members — senior social impact leaders at large companies — shared that one place they’re gaining efficiencies is through providing more extensive communication about eligibility. 

Members said they have seen good results from developing more extensive eligibility guides, FAQs, and internal one-pagers to help get the word out about key giving initiatives, types of awards, and regions served.

Several members also said implementing an eligibility survey through their grant management tool raised their number of qualified applicants to as high as 90%. 

Karem said the Motorola Solutions Foundation has also leveraged eligibility surveys, which helped narrow down applicants from over 900 to around 350.

3. Creating an effective application process

On top of eligibility surveys, Karem shared how the Motorola Solutions Foundation found a unique way to improve the application process and engage their workforce. 

The team leans on an employee grant review committee, which has been trained on how to review grant applications and the foundation’s key priorities. 

Teams of up to 10 employees review applicants individually and hold group discussions to determine how well-aligned they are with the organization. The committee then makes recommendations to the board of directors.

Karem said this program has been a success for both the foundation and the employees.

“It gives them insights into how the foundation functions, the good that we do, and the types of programs we support,” she shared. 

Leveraging internal volunteer committees to conduct an initial application review is one way to extend your team’s bandwidth and meet the demands of a growing program.

4. Finding the right tools for your program

Grant management systems, such as Benevity, Cybergrants, and YourCause, can also help your team gain efficiencies at each stage of the grantmaking process.

Yet, on our confidential call, ESG & CSR Board members said tool relationships are far from perfect. While some members see their tool team as an extension of their own internal team, others admitted being frustrated with rep turnover and inconsistent service experiences. 

While the relationships with these tools may be complicated, there are still important considerations when selecting the right software.

5. Benchmarking with other CSR and corporate foundation leaders

Gaining grantmaking efficiencies is a work in progress for many companies and their foundations, but benchmarking strategies with other CSR and social impact leaders can help you advance your own program.

During the panel discussion, Ali shared how her team at MassMutual has benefited from the support they receive from the ESG & CSR Board. 

“That is another way that we find [nonprofit] organizations that are a good fit for us, especially when it comes to humanitarian or environmental disasters. I can’t tell you how many last-minute calls the Board has organized, whether it was the war in Ukraine, mass shootings, or hurricanes. The number of people that jump in from many organizations to talk about how we are responding, and what organizations have you found? It has been invaluable in our response.”

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