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The basics of program reviews

Your grants program might seem to be rolling along just fine: you can see the difference you're making in the community and your grant recipients all seem to be happy. But unless you regularly take a step back, ask questions and re-evaluate, you may not realise that your program is average where it could be great, that your grant recipients say one thing to you and another to their colleagues, or that you could be having a much bigger community impact by putting a few changes in place. 

Why conduct a program review?

A grants program can be broadly meeting its aims and goals even as it is stuck in a box-ticking rut. In fact, your aims and goals may no longer reflect the best way for your program to meet its objectives. A program review will help you to establish whether this is the case. A program review can also:

  • help you to understand what you are doing, how and why 
  • help to align your grants program with your strategic plan and strategic goals
  • improve processes
  • help to define roles and responsibilities
  • improve your paperwork and manuals
  • improve accountability
  • increase communication with community groups
  • increase transparency.

In-house or independent?

Outsourcing regular or occasional program reviews might avoid conflict of interest, but it comes at a financial cost that many grantmakers can't afford. The alternatives are to establish an in-house evaluation unit separate from your grantmaking staff, or to have grantmaking staff conduct the review themselves. 

In many cases this last option is the one that's taken. If you choose the self-review path, seriously consider requesting independent feedback at various points in the process. At the very least, you should keep your stakeholders engaged throughout the review process. 

Where do we start?

First, ensure you have support from your management/executive, so they can garner further support for you. And set your expectations appropriately - a program review is likely to be a long process. Then sit down with key colleagues and ask yourselves:

  • Are you aware of all the grants your organisation makes available? If your organisation is large and supports the community in a variety of ways, investigate and map out all of the avenues of community support. See the Grants Mapping help sheet for further advice.
  • Does clear communication ensure each area knows which grants have been approved and which rejected by another?
  • Is your organisation clear within itself about how it operates and why?
  • Is your grantmaking as effective as it could be?
  • What impact is your program having and is that impact meeting program goals?
  • Are you getting value for money?
  • Is your program flexible? Could it be more effective if it was more flexible?
  • Is your program responsive to community need?
  • How can you best support the community?
  • What could you do to be more flexible and responsive?
  • How could you manage risk if you were more flexible and more responsive?
  • Are your compliance requirements reasonable or do they burden the community with unnecessary or disproportionate red tape?
  • Are your external communications sufficient? Do all eligible groups know how they can work with you, or only those with whom you have a relationship?
  • Do you fund any groups year upon year without question? Do they merit it?
  • Are there unnecessary barriers preventing other groups from accessing grants?
  • Does the technology you use do the job you want it to do? Is it efficient?

Benchmarking

Benchmarking involves comparing the work that you do with the work that others are doing. It can be as simple as attending a grantmaking conference, or you can undertake a more strategic exercise looking at best practice models and meeting other grantmakers to share information. See the help sheet Benchmarking for more details.

Consultation

A thorough review will require input from all of your key stakeholders. 

People can be protective of information if they don't understand why you're asking for it. Keep staff informed of what you're doing if you want to get their most valuable input. 

To get honest information from grantees you need to have a very healthy relationship with them, or you need to give them an avenue through which to provide anonymous feedback. See the help sheet Soliciting Feedback for further advice.

The nuts and bolts

Working through another series of questions can help you to establish whether your program is running as efficiently as possible. 

Program design

  • Are the program's ownership, purpose, goals and expected outcomes clearly articulated?
  • Is the overall program approach (to stakeholders, target groups, tendering, capacity-building) clearly documented?

Program establishment

  • Is there a communication and promotion strategy that ensures the program is going to reach the target group?
  • Is the application process appropriate to the size of the grants and the capacity of the target group? Is it passive or active in approach?
  • Do you have good record-keeping structures and processes that enable you to track applicants from the very first point of contact to the very last?
  • Do your record-keeping structures and processes support monitoring, reporting and acquittal?
  • Is it clear how, when and by whom applications will be assessed?
  • It is clear how the assessment report will be developed (ranking, database, cut-off points etc.)?
  • Is it clear how and when successful applicants will be advised or announced?
  • Is it clear how unsuccessful applicants will be notified? Do you have strategies for dealing with unsuccessful applicants?

Program management

  • Is the contract, agreement or letter appropriate to the level of funds and the level of risk? Is it consistent with the rest of the system and documentation?
  • Is it clear who will negotiate the contract, how, and with whom? Is the purpose of contract negotiations clear?
  • Is the purpose of signing the contract clear (to be legally binding, to communicate the content to an audience, to promote the program, etc.)?
  • Is it clear how and when payments will be made (frequency, milestones, in advance, incentive payments, etc.)?
  • Is it clear what will be monitored (outputs, outcomes, milestones), and how you're going to monitor (reports, visits, workshops)?
  • Is it clear what performance issues would cause concern and what would be done about such issues? Do your monitoring processes fit your program and target group?
  • Is it clear how and when funds will be acquitted (for example, at the end via audited reports or progressively by milestones)?
  • Is there a plan in place to deal with under-performance or evidence of fraud?
  • Is it clear how individual project outcomes and collective projects, outputs and outcomes will be assessed?
  • Is it clear how the program will be evaluated in terms of outcomes, effectiveness and process efficiency?
  • Is there a clear plan regarding publication of the evaluation and lessons learnt?

Implementation

With your answers to all of the preceding questions in mind:

  • Conduct an environmental scan: assess all of the internal and external factors and stakeholders that affect or are affected by your program.
  • Document processes and responsibilities to so that it is clear to everyone what their own and everyone else's roles and responsibilities are. 
  • Reaffirm your vision and objectives.
  • Revise your program structure.
  • Rethink your focus - for example, perhaps you should focus on purpose or policy intent, rather than on guidelines.
  • Improve your application form and the other information and documentation you provide.
  • Rework your processes.
  • Rethink your accountability requirements - they can facilitate change, rather than limit it or direct it. 
  • Establish a question and answer process if you don't have one already.
  • Identify who will be affected by your changes and inform them of your plans.

Sharing what you've learned

Internal communication

To give your changes their best chance of success, you need to have your staff on board. The changes you're proposing may even require a shift in your organisational culture. It is best to involve staff in the process - or at least keep them abreast of it - from the outset, rather than bowling them over in one hit. 

External communication

In the interests of community benefit, consider sharing the lessons you've learned from your review with other grantmakers. The information you share might help them to improve the efficiency of their programs, or it might inspire them to undertake a review of their own. You can also help others to avoid making the same mistakes that you've made.

Be considerate of your staff and grantees when making this decision - staff may not think it's in the best interests of their careers to have stories broadcast about where there is room for improvement. The boards or ministers they report to might not be entirely understanding. And community groups may worry that anything that reflects poorly on them will mean funding goes to someone else next time.

Evaluation

The review process does not end with the introduction of changes; those changes need to be evaluated further down the track and revised if necessary. Monitor your changes and request feedback from stakeholders. 

More help

Grantmakers for Effective Organisations (GEO) has published a guide called Evaluation in Philanthropy. It will take you through examining your own organisation, looking at what others are doing, and five key approaches to evaluation.

SmartyGrants users can access the Grants Program Healthcheck, designed to walk you through the process of reviewing or refreshing a grants program.  

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