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Grantmaking for beginners

Whether you're taking responsibility for an existing grants program or designing one from scratch, starting the new role can be a daunting task. Do not fear! Working through these steps can help you to establish a solid program.

For those starting with a blank slate

  • Why your program exists and what you hope to achieve. This is the first question you need to ask when designing any new grants program. You need to establish they key goals and purposes of your program and confirm that this is consistent with the overall vision and mission of your organisation.
  • Scan the grantmaking landscape to work out where your support could be particularly influential. Meet with people and get feedback on your ideas. Conduct a survey. Write up what you've learned and ask for responses. Draw people from different places and levels of involvement. Seek out contrary points of view. Find people whose expertise is different from yours. What are the windows of opportunity? What are the trends in the field? What infrastructure is missing? What is keeping people awake at night? What has the potential to make a major difference?
  • Write the necessary policies and procedures for the program, and have them endorsed by the powers that be. Your policies and procedures will help grantseekers understand when and why they are not eligible for funding. They will also help protect you from political interference, lobbying from more sophisticated agencies, and disputes from unsuccessful applicants. 
  • Start planning. Many grants programs are annual and you can set out the times from when your program starts to when you will send out cheques.
  • Design your application documents. Finalise the information, make sure it is consistent with your policy and ensure the information you seek is proportionate to the maximum available grant. (Keep it to one or two pages if you can, but if you're handing out $50,000-$100,000, for example, you'll probably need more information). Have someone else check that your documents are easy to read and understand, and error-free.
  • Promote your program in any way you can:
  • Write to previous applicants
  • Use the local media, including ethnic media where applicable
  • Use your organisation's own newsletter and website
  • Stage information evenings
  • Go out into the community, describe your program and answer questions.
  • If you have the resources, sit down with potential applicants and give them individual feedback on their applications. This can be particularly helpful for applicants from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. If providing assistance to potential applicants, be mindful of probity and put in place processes to mitigate the perception that some applicants received “special treatment”.
  • Ensure the level of accountability you require is proportionate to the amount of money you hand out. For example, for grants under $10,000 you might require that once a year grantees fill out a form explaining how the money was spent, and provide you with a copy of their annual report. For grants over $10,000 you might ask for quarterly updates. For more significant funding, you might sit down and have a conversation once a quarter, working more in partnership with the grantee.
  • Be true to your policy and funding priorities.
  • Be available to provide feedback to all applicants, both before and after the application process.
  • Work with unsuccessful applicants to improve their chances in subsequent years.
  • Refer unsuccessful applicants to organisations like Our Community for assistance. 
  • Understand that you will always get unsuccessful applicants who are disappointed or angry. 
  • Be honest with prospective applicants - history is a good guide.
  • Nurture applicants from groups your organisation sees as a priority.
  • Make sure your processes and decision-making are transparent.
  • Think about utilising grant categories and consider recurrent funding programs.
  • Consider using grant management software.
  • Consider taking risks.
  • SmartyGrants users have access to the Grantmakers toolkit, which provides best practice step-by-step guidance and practical policy templates for grantmakers designing, implementing and evaluating a grants program.

For those taking over an existing program

  • Map out the lifecycle of the program and stay two steps ahead.
  • For each step, look at how it has been done in the past. Locate the relevant documentation. Build the relationships necessary to acquire the relevant knowledge.
  • You need to know who makes decisions related to your program, such as those in contract departments and payment areas.
  • Once you have that information, map out a governance structure (including a decision-making chain and directions regarding what people can and can't do). Having agreed documentation can help reduce interference. 
  • Write and learn a 30-second speech that gives a full understanding of what you're in charge of, including purpose and goals, timeframes, the types of things you fund, the application process, the contract process, the payment process, reporting, monitoring, acquittals, review and evaluation. This will help you embed it in your own mind, as well as inform others.
  • Track every contact you have with every applicant, from the first conversation to the last.
  • Check that payment systems are in place and working (which will protect you from dealing with people unhappy because they have not been paid on time).
  • Make a list of stakeholders, what you need to communicate to them, when and how, so you don't leave anyone out.
  • SmartyGrants users can undertake a Grants Health Check, which will enable you to review aspects of your existing grants program management system, or the program in its entirety, identify issues and develop solutions. The Health Check tool will allow you to quickly take the pulse of your grants program, and to navigate to the relevant Elements within the Toolkit for best practice guidance. 

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