Effective grantmaking strikes a deliberate balance between process and purpose. Some process is essential, of course, but foundations that are most interested in purpose — in helping grantees effect change — are best served by minimizing grantees’ administrative burden. Foundations can take a big step in that direction by committing to improved data sharing.
Data sharing allows for seamless, automated information flow. It is an invaluable tool for reducing paperwork, saving nonprofits’ time, and ensuring that funders get quality data. It allows for less process … and more purpose.
“In terms of technology, the philanthropic sector is stuck in the past,” says John Mohr, chief information officer of the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s time for the sector to come together and adopt current technologies that facilitate accurate information exchange and save people from repeating unnecessary work.”
Simplify, an initiative based on recommendations from the Grants Managers Network’s Project Streamline, is dedicated to helping the sector embrace technology to facilitate data sharing. Simplify is managed by the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), and its first effort focuses on data sharing for grant applications.
Simplifying grant applications
Simplify developed data sharing for grant applications in partnership with GuideStar. With this data sharing, nonprofits enter their core information once, and then it is automatically added to every grant application they complete for any participating funder.
Each nonprofit maintains a GuideStar Nonprofit Profile that is linked to its employer identification number (EIN). The profile includes the organization’s core information, such as contact information, a board of directors list, financial statements, and so on. Once the profile is established, the nonprofit simply enters its EIN on grant applications for participating funders, and the core information automatically populates the relevant fields.
Simplify data sharing can work with any system, and each foundation continues to use its own unique application. But each nonprofit maintains core data in a single place, rather than entering the same information for each grant application. The result: nonprofits save hours of time and effort — and funders get quality data.
“This type of innovation can help everyone work smarter,” says Marcus McGrew, director of grants management for The Kresge Foundation. “It will save time so more of our individual and collective efforts can be directed to the people, communities, and ideas we are trying to serve.”
Simplify data sharing for grant applications is free for nonprofits, and they have had a positive reaction to this time-saving technology. The Francis Family Foundation, an early adopter of Simplify, heard from several grantees after they completed grant applications with Simplify data sharing.
One grantseeker reported, “It was great. I could skip through all the basic information and get right to the meat of the proposal.”
Another said, “Your foundation’s understanding of the challenges facing grantseekers, and your willingness to address those challenges, are traits that, quite honestly, I wish were shared by more funders.”
Developing open data standards
Data sharing only works if everyone in the philanthropic community formats information consistently. Therefore, Simplify’s work includes setting standards — establishing a consistent format for information so it can be shared between software systems. These standards make data sharing possible.
Simplify’s standards-setting process addresses issues such as whether the data field for a phone number uses dashes or periods as well as what types of information will be included in boards of directors lists. Simplify works with its partner organizations to develop standards sector-wide.
Reaching a tipping point
Data sharing becomes more effective as more foundations participate in it. Many nonprofits already have GuideStar Nonprofit Profiles so using Simplify data sharing can be an immediate time saver. And as more foundations use data sharing for grant applications, it can become a new standard for the sector.
All of the sector’s leading grants management software vendors are either offering Simplify now or will be offering it in the near future. The vendors now offering Simplify are Fluxx, MicroEdge, RoundCorner, and SmartSimple. Those with Simplify data sharing in development are Altum, Bromelkamp Company, Foundant Technologies, Stellar Technology Solutions, and Versaic.
More than 20 foundations are now beginning to use Simplify data sharing for grant applications. Many others are committed to using Simplify but are not using it yet because they are in the process of switching to new grants management software. This type of software change typically involves changes in process and workflow that can take more than a year to implement.
Once these foundations complete their software transition, their implementation of Simplify will be swift. In addition, as more software vendors move from development to production, the number of foundations using Simplify data sharing is expected to grow.
Foundations that use custom software also can take advantage of Simplify data sharing with an application program interface (API) that can easily be integrated into their software. In fact, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which uses custom software, was the first foundation to implement Simplify.
Foundations pay a nominal fee per year to access the Simplify data-sharing functionality. Some grants management software vendors may include Simplify functionality as part of the standard package provided to their clients.
Next steps for Simplify — and for foundations
Simplifying grant applications requires the involvement of many players. In addition to partnering with GuideStar, which houses the data, Simplify enlisted the participation of others, including the vendors that help foundations manage their grantmaking processes and the foundations themselves. Naturally, the effort also includes outreach to encourage all parties to use Simplify data sharing to improve the flow of information between foundations and their grantees.
In the future, TAG will partner with additional organizations to improve reporting, evaluation, and other areas of grantmaking. And, as with data sharing for grant applications, TAG will not earn money from these efforts so it can be an honest broker looking out for the sector’s best interests.
“Data sharing for grant applications is just the beginning,” says Gavin Clabaugh, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s vice president — information services. “We envision data sharing throughout the grantmaking process so both funders and grantees can focus on outcomes and impacts instead of the adminstrivia, the red tape, of grantmaking.”
Now it is time for more foundations to get involved. If you’d like to offer Simplify data sharing as part of your grant applications, contact your software vendor to see if they offer Simplify. Visit simplifynow.org or contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn more about data sharing in the philanthropic sector. Together, we can help grantees and grantmakers focus less on process — and more on purpose.
Simplify is an initiative of TAG, a membership organization of technology professionals working in philanthropy that helps foundations use technology to advance their philanthropic goals. Houston Endowment advances equity of opportunity for the people of the greater Houston area and enhances the vibrancy of our city.