Why “rapid response” grants concern me

When foundations want to award grant funds, well, rapidly, they often create processes that get these funds to grantees in considerably less time than their standard grant processes will. This fast-track process is usually dubbed a “rapid response” grant process. And when this process is created, many celebrate, and others write articles praising the foundation’s ingenuity and ability to quickly move grant funding. It is an all-around high five heard throughout the sector.

After all, they are thinking of how quickly the foundation can now provide financial support to people in need and are marveling at how multiple departments and teams effectively collaborated to make it all happen.

I, however, grow concerned.

My concern is not because beneficiaries have quickly received funding. That outcome is, of course, the best part. The concern is that the foundation did not incorporate this fast-moving approach into its standard grant-making process, and awarding funding to its grantees outside of its rapid response process often continues to take weeks, if not months.

Rapid response processes vary, but, essentially, decision makers in the process are pared down, stakeholders collaborate earlier, a clear expectation of when the grant funds should be approved and paid to the grantee exists, and grantees are asked to provide a straight-forward grant proposal and complete only necessary due diligence.

On the contrary, the foundation’s standard grant-making processes likely function quite differently. Those processes are often complex and multi-layered, requesting information of the grantee that the requestor often does not need, review, or, frankly, understand; producing proposals of many pages that, other than for compliance purposes, are barely read, given the many conversations with the grantee that have already occurred prior to submission; forcing grantees to comply with diligence procedures without rationale; and requiring staff to be formulistic and rigid to the process, often leaving no room for innovation or creativity.

So, in many ways, the creation of a rapid response process is saying, “Let’s improve a piece of our clunky process and make it better only for a handful of situations. In those situations, we will be responsive, nimble, flexible, and partner with our grantees. We will collaborate internally, use a sensible process, and ensure that our grantees timely receive funds. The remainder of the time, however, we may take months to provide funding, use a complex application process, and often fail to effectively collaborate to successfully invest in our grantees.”

Do you understand now why creating rapid response processes concerns me?

Celebrations are not in order until all of a foundation’s grant process is a rapid response to its grantees, particularly for straightforward funding awards (general support to a U.S. public charity, for example).

Of course, any standard, fast-moving grant process may still be ineffective because in some cases, funds may be needed almost as soon as they are requested to preserve life, such as in cases of natural disasters or people fleeing for safety, and a faster process must be created in response. Interestingly, many rapid response processes are created for situations beyond these exceptions, which raises questions as to why the entire grant process would not be similarly revamped to provide a much more rapid response.

Here are eight practices for foundations to extend this rapid response approach to their standard grant processes to allow them to be both generally and hyper responsive when necessary instead of carving out just one process that is rapidly responsive to only certain grantees’ needs:

o  Educate the people in the process. People in the process should be educated on how to improve their performance and mindset within that process instead of how to simply comply with specific checklists. Training staff and board members in the process to continuously think of better ways to invest in grantees will teach them to constantly innovate within that process to make it more effective and efficient.

o  Manage risk appropriately. Foundations should ensure their grants due diligence targets areas that can expose their grantees to liabilities and impact the proposed grant outcome. The process should also then provide staff with the tools to understand how to put contingencies and protections in place to guard against those risks. This approach will focus and improve the grant application process, including both the conversations and paper.

o  Ensure people and processes talk to each other. The grants management process, along with other processes that touch it, such as financial, programmatic, and approval processes, must be reviewed holistically to ensure that these processes and the people within them are collaborative and the foundation’s infrastructure can seamlessly support any changes to the grants process. This collaborative approach will create more responsive, sustainable grant investments.

o  Request only necessary information. Grant applications should strive to understand what the grantee proposes to do with the foundation’s funding, its ability to achieve the grant purpose, obstacles that may arise in the execution of the grant, and how the grantee proposes to address those obstacles. Questions that go beyond this core set of questions should be, well, questioned. Asking only questions necessary to ensuring the grant’s success will improve the speed and efficiency of the grant process.

o  Partner with grantees. A foundation should determine the type of relationship it would like to have with its grantees and the kind of grant maker it would like to be. Once this vision is a value for the foundation, it will guide how the foundation then engages with its grantees and conducts its grant making. Staff and board members will then ensure that their respective contributions to the grant process, the way grantees are engaged throughout the process, and the process itself align with this vision.

o  View compliance as a strategic tool. Foundations should recognize that compliance can strategically strengthen grant investments. Accordingly, foundations should ensure that their compliance and program teams collaborate to holistically invest in a grantee. This collaboration will strengthen programmatic strategy, and better align the infrastructure for the foundation’s work with its goals, which makes the entire grant process more fluid, less scattered, and ultimately more efficient.

o  Create ecosystems. Grant processes are most effective when a foundation is part of a social-impact ecosystem of funding vehicles. This ecosystem allows the foundation to provide funding in any region of the world to likely any organization type in the world and allows the foundation’s grant process to be highly responsive to its grantees’ needs. Creating this type of ecosystem will introduce flexibility, nimbleness, and speed into a foundation’s grant making.

o  Embrace accountability. A foundation’s grant process should have clear parameters for timing and operation and hold each operator and approver within the process accountable to acting within those parameters. Defining and promoting accountability within the process supports a timely grant process and allows space for learning that may improve the responsiveness of the process and the timing of grant awards.

Rapid response processes are obviously not bad. They get money quickly to grantees in need. Still, we may be focusing on fixing only pieces of a broken process when we create rapid response processes so we need to pay closer attention to what we are creating. Indeed, foundations can consistently reach some of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities when they holistically transform their grant processes into truly responsive ones.