About the Survey
Over two weeks in June 2020, Our Community conducted a survey of 87 grantmakers to learn how the COVID-19 crisis had affected grants processes and to gather information on best practice trends within the broader grantmaking community.
The survey opened on Thursday June 4 and closed at 11pm on Thursday June 18, 2020.
This survey was designed and analysed by the SmartyGrants team. SmartyGrants is built upon the knowledge of grantmaking collected through more than two decades of working with grantmakers and grantseekers. The software was built in part as a response to a deep vein of ‘grants rage’ we saw flowing through the grantseeking world, a rage fed by difficult forms, bewildering practices, and infuriatingly slow processes. At the same time, we uncovered another significant stream of grants rage, with capable, well-meaning grantmakers hobbled by expensive, clunky, outdated technology (and some poor practices on the grantseeker side as well).
We identified a need for better education, stronger connections between grantmakers and grantseekers, and a powerful but affordable and easy-to-use technology solution for managing grants. Having determined that no existing system met the standards we believed grantmakers and grantseekers deserved, we built our own.
SmartyGrants is a hosted grants management application that allows grantmakers to receive and manage applications – but it is much more than just a tech solution. SmartyGrants drives sector-wide reform by building best practice into an intuitive and affordable product that grantmakers want to use because it makes their lives easier and their outcomes better.
About Our Community
SmartyGrants is an Our Community enterprise. The Our Community Group provides advice, connections, training and easy-to-use tech tools for people and organisations working to build stronger communities. Our partners in that work are not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises; government, philanthropic and corporate grantmakers; donors and volunteers; enlightened businesses; and other community builders.
Our Community, an Australian social enterprise, has been at the forefront of innovation in grantmaking for the past two decades. As well as producing Grants Management Intelligence, Australia and New Zealand’s only cross-sector best-practice grantmaking publication, we also administer the Funding Centre grants database and education service, and we convene and coordinate a number of grantmaking events, including the annual Grantmaking in Australia conference.
2019-20 funding levels
Nearly one-third (32%) of respondents indicated that they increased their 2019-20 funding levels above expected (pre-COVID) levels. The median reported increase was 30%.
Responding to the crisis
More than half (55%) of grantmakers in our sample indicated that they had added a new grants program specifically in response to COVID-19.
COVID-19 impact on grants processes
A majority of survey respondents indicated that COVID-19 has caused them to change their grantmaking practices and procedures. 81% of respondents indicated that they had taken actions to support grant applicants to apply for grants and 94% of grantmakers said that they had provided additional supports to grantees (individuals or organisations who had already been awarded a grant). Three quarters of respondents (75%) indicated that they had had initiated or approved some sort of contract variations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Focus of COVID-19 response grants
When compared to their usual areas of focus, grantmakers in our sample prioritised Community Development and Economic Development in their COVID response grants. Sports and Recreation, Arts and Culture, and the Environment saw a reduced focus from grantmakers in their COVID-19 response grants
Challenges implementing COVID-19 programs
When implementing their COVID-19 response programs, grantmakers in our sample commonly said that they were challenged by the short timeframes inherent in designing and implementing rapid response grants.
COVID-19 developments to hang onto
Despite the implicit challenges of rapid grantmaking, many grantmakers in our sample indicated that they would like to retain the streamlined, agile and responsive grantmaking practices they’ve developed during the pandemic.
A total of 87 grantmakers responded to Our Community’s two-week survey. Grantmakers from local and state governments made up the largest cohort of respondents, however responses were received from grantmakers representing a broad range of sectors, including federal government entities, philanthropic and corporate trusts and foundations, and educational institutions.
Grantmakers providing funding in the larger eastern states of Australia dominated the sample, however responses were received from grantmakers providing funding in all Australian states and territories, as well as to New Zealand and other overseas locations.
In terms of grant spend, responses were received from grantmakers of all sizes, however the majority of respondents (89%) were small and medium sized grantmakers (granting less than $10 million per annum).
Grantmakers indicated a diversity of focus areas for their funding, with many respondents reporting multiple focus areas. The largest area of focus was Community Development, (selected by 71% of respondents), followed by Arts and Culture, (53%), Economic Development (43%), Environment (43%), and Sports and Recreation (43%).
Unsurprisingly for a survey of grantmakers, cash grants were the dominant form of support provided (selected by 90% of respondents). However, respondents also reported providing a range of other non-grant supports including awards, scholarships and contracts/tenders.
2019-20 Funding Levels
Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, grantmakers had to review their organisational strategies and make key decisions about the best way to deploy resources in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our survey asked grantmakers about any unexpected changes in their grants funding pool in the 2019-20 financial year.
Q6-9 Have you increased / decreased your grants funding pool from what was expected (pre-COVID) this financial year (2019-20)?
About a third of respondents (32%) indicated they had increased their funding pool above expected (pre-COVID) levels. The magnitude of the reported increases ranged from 1% to 130% and the median reported increase was 30%.
Conversely, 16% of respondents reported that their 2019-20 grants funding pool had decreased from what was expected (pre-COVID). Reported reductions varied from 10% to 100%, with the median reported reduction being 22.5%.
Just over half of respondents reported either no change or didn’t know or want to say.
COVID-19 Response Grants
Q10. Have you added a new program/round in response to COVID-19
Faced with the decision of deploying emergency response grants or staying the course with existing grants programs more than half of respondents (55%) indicated that they had added a new program in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Q11. What was the primary area of focus of your new COVID-19 response program/round?
Grantmakers who deployed COVID response grants reported a wide range of focus areas; Community development remained the most common focus (selected by 60% of respondents), followed by economic development (43%) and arts and culture (31%).
When we compare grantmakers’ reported primary areas of focus (Q4) against the focus of their COVID response grants we can get a picture of how grantmakers in our sample have reprioritised their granting. Grantmaker’s COVID-19 response grants appear to have been largely focused on addressing immediate needs and providing relief to their communities.
Community development remained relatively constant, perhaps a sign that grantmakers with this focus identified a continuing need to support their communities through the pandemic. Economic development became a bigger focus for grantmakers as lockdowns took effect and parts of the economy were slowed or shut down.
The arts sector has been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis. We can see from our sample that although some respondents (31%) have targeted the arts sector with COVID-19 response grants, when compared to grantmakers’ primary area of focus (Q4 – 53%), overall, there has been a reduced focus on arts and culture.
Sports and recreation were also hit hard by lockdown restrictions and when we looked at the trend across sample, we saw a significantly reduced focus from grantmakers in their COVID grantmaking. Likewise, the environment also saw a greatly reduced focus, as grantmakers presumably redirected resources to their pandemic response.
The below charts illustrate the differences between grantmakers’ reported primary focus and the focus of their COVID-specific programs. Note: these charts are not indicative of funds allocated.
Q12 - Who is eligible to apply for and receive a grant from your COVID-19 program/round?
Given the top three identified priority areas for response grants (Community development, economic development and arts and culture), it follows that when asked which groups were eligible for COVID-19 response programs, the top three eligible groups nominated by grantmakers were, not-for-profit / charities, businesses and individuals.
Q14. Please describe up to three challenges you faced in designing and implementing your COVID-19 response grants
When asked about challenges implementing their COVID-19 response grants, many grantmakers said that they struggled with the pace of emergency grantmaking. Responding quickly and managing short timelines was a commonly reported challenge. In this context, grantmakers also said they grappled with challenges managing program, process and systems design in a dynamic and uncertain environment.
Grantmakers don’t need to wait until the next disaster to formulate a disaster response. Grantmakers who are proactive and establish a disaster grantmaking strategy (including internal guidelines and criteria) will be well placed to make quick, well-informed decisions, maximise their impact and avoid common challenges faced in these disaster situations. A robust evaluation of a grantmaker’s COVID-19 response programs is a good foundation for future disaster grants planning. For more information see the SmartyGrants’ Disaster Grantmaking and COVID-19 grantmaking help sheets.
Whether you’ve decided on mounting a rapid emergency response or you’re taking a longer-term focus on recovery, SmartyGrants provides an end-to-end grants management solution to fit every grantmaker’s process. Its intuitive design allows grantmakers to quickly build, launch and assess funding rounds, getting money out the door swiftly and safely.
Multiple comments are reproduced in this section to demonstrate both the commonalities and variability of the responses.
“Very short time frames”
“Developing process to enable a quick response program”
“We had to rush to get it together”
“Designing programs to have a quick turnaround time”
“Not enough time”
“Defining clear guidelines quickly in an emerging situation
“Getting the package together in a very tight time frame”
“Short application period”
“Ensuring no overlapping with other services”
“Internal approvals for the program and funding source took too long”
“Making it simpler and easier to apply”
“All existing grant programs were cancelled”
“Backlash for cancelling our normal round”
“Virtual events and having fast internet access”
“Uncertain of restriction timeline”
“Suspending our existing categories after applications had been made”
“Pivoting existing grants towards a COVID-19 Strategy”
“Internal coordination to ensure consistency across programs”
“Targeting and attracting those in need”
“Ensuring relevant level of governance”
“Ascertaining the priority of the needs of the community in developing guidelines “
“Ensuring application process was simple and accessible but still collecting required information around outcomes.”
“Deferring events and delaying funding”
“Designing equitable programs”
“Board ignored evidence-base in making decisions”
“Uncertain of the timeline support would be available.”
“Development of a new Aid Strategy to deliver future grants”
“Managing large volumes of client interaction and expectations with limited funding.”
“Having a good depth of experienced assessors ready assess large volumes of applications quickly and effectively”
“Having twice the amount of applicants that we would have in a normal annual round”
“Connecting with the community”
“Developing programs which reach all sectors/cohorts of the community”
“Uncertain if the criteria would disadvantage any primary users.”
“In trying to minimise required effort by applicants, have we sought enough information to be able to make a fair assessment?”
“Having a good depth of experienced assessors ready assess large volumes of applications quickly and effectively”
Q15 How did you fund your new program / round?
Designing and implementing any new grants program requires resources. When asked how they funded their COVID-19 response program, a majority of respondents (61%) indicated that they redirected funds from other programs.
A smaller number of grantmakers sought additional funds from within their organisation (26%), whilst just a fraction (5%) of respondents were able source funds for their initiative from outside their organisation.
2020 – 21 Funding Projections
Q16. What do you anticipate will be the case for your organisation's funding pool during the 2020-21 financial year?
Perhaps a positive sign in these tumultuous times, almost half the respondents (47%) didn’t anticipate a change in funding levels from the current (2019-20) financial year. Only 24% of respondents predicted either an increase or decrease in their funding pool for the 2020-21 financial year, whilst 28% of respondents said that they didn’t know, or that it was too early to tell.
Of those in the sample predicting a change in funding levels, the majority of grantmakers (78%) were optimistic that funding levels would increase, whilst less than a quarter (22%) anticipated their funding pool would decrease.
Q 17. & 18. Please estimate what percentage budget increase / decrease you expect next financial year.
Predicted increases in funding varied widely (from 1% - 200%), but the median predicted increase was 15%. Likewise, predicted decreases varied from 5% - 50%, with a median estimate of 37.5%.
Refocused / Redesigned Grants Programs
Q19. Has COVID-19 changed your funding priorities?
When asked if COVID-19 had changed their funding priorities, 61% of respondents said that it had, while 39% of respondents indicated that their funding priorities were largely unchanged.
Reported changes in priorities varied depending on the degree to which a grantmaker’s program activities, program beneficiaries, grantees, and/or desired outcomes had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some grantmakers indicated a renewed focus on supporting the vulnerable in their communities – a shift from community development to emergency relief and material aid, for example – whilst others had shifted their focus to helping grantees survive the pandemic. Some grantmakers reported that their priorities were forced to change due to the nature of the programs they were delivering, and a need to adapt the delivery methodology; e.g. a focus on online delivery.
“A large focus previously was on Community Run events; obviously these cannot take place or be planned for at present”
“Have focussed on sustaining own and partner organisations”
“Our Quick Response Grants program focus was changed to prioritise applications that assisted vulnerable people and community members affected by the COVID-19 restrictions and helped community organisations to provide a safe environment for volunteers and staff. Initiatives that supported the community to address social isolation and support social cohesion were also considered.”
“Only in the short term we are looking to directly support organisations who can demonstrate increased need due to Covid or require funding to adapt existing programs to comply with current restrictions. We have retained our regular grant programming but delayed closing dates and project completion dates.”
“We used to train women in groups but changed webinar and WhatsApp group networking”
“Ensure recipients could provide the program, event or use the equipment funded by the grant with social distancing in place”
”There has been a focus on improving grants available to businesses plus an effort to do a 'health' check on the program to ensure it is streamlined and best practice.”
“Increased focus on stimulating economy through small to medium businesses, provide resources to enable groups to reactivate community spaces; focus on enabling community organisation to recommence activity and look at new ways of doing things to enable communities to stay connected.”
“Funding for grant program has been provided through an organisation requiring certain COVID-19 recovery related outcomes. However, the priorities around supporting arts and cultural projects has not changed.”
“Funding priorities that are not normally included in our annual round were material aid and equipment (eg laptop etc for communication purposes)”
“Focus on ability to deliver promised activities and engagement of the community”
“Giving handouts to anyone eligible rather than to address the organisation's strategic priorities (building sector resilience and creating compelling content).”
“Grants for interstate/international travel have been redirected to be more localised due to travel bans and social gathering restrictions.”
“We have had to look at life after COVID-19 and extra support services for the financially vulnerable”
“Greater emphasis on material aid, but we do still have community building priorities too.”
“Unfortunately, businesses across the state will close as a result of COVID-19. Further work will be undertaken to identify impacted industries, regional needs and future opportunities to rebuild and stablise a strong economy. There are some businesses / industries that have thrived during COVID-19 and will be able to capitalise on this growth without grant funding, others who may have closed or partially closed, yet have a strong business plan and future prospects, may need a helping hand to move forward. We will be looking for these state owned and operated businesses that have strong future prospects and good jobs opportunities / growth. Although this criteria played a part in our grant making in the past our focus becomes more around the local ecomomy, local produce, local manufacturing and assisting businesses to be able to adapt to market changes, along with new safety protocols.”
Additional Support for Applicants / Grantees
Many grant applicants and/or grant recipients are struggling with reduced income, remote work, and reduced volunteer numbers, which has affected their ability to complete and submit quality grant applications or deliver their currently funded programs. Our survey asked grantmakers what, if any, supports they had implemented to assist potential grant applicants and current grant recipients.
Q23. What actions, if any, have you taken to support grant applicants during the pandemic? (Select all that apply)
A majority of respondents indicated that they had taken actions to support grant applicants, with many respondents reporting taking multiple actions. Provision of additional information / assistance to applicants was the most commonly reported action (selected by 46% of respondents), followed by extending deadlines – either blanket or on request (38%), and streamlining application processes; for example, by shortening the application form or reducing evidentiary requirements (28%)
Q24 – What actions, if any, have you taken to support grant recipients during the pandemic? (Select all that apply)
Grantmakers overwhelmingly indicated that they were providing additional support to their grantees (individuals or organisations who had already been awarded a grant) during the pandemic, with an overwhelming majority of respondents (94%) reporting that they were taking multiple actions. Only 6% of the sample indicated they had taken no action and were proceeding with business as usual.
Engagement with grant recipients to understand how COVID-19 had affected their projects and operations was the most commonly reported action (70% of respondents), followed by changes to project timelines (67%) and providing funding for operational costs (25%).
Contract variations are a key tool for grantmakers in operationalising support for grantees. Changes to project timelines, activities, KPIs or reporting requirements will usually require a variation to the funding agreement.
Q20. Have you initiated or approved any contract variations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Given the high proportion of respondents who indicated that they had taken action to support their grantees during the pandemic, it’s not surprising that three-quarters (75%) of grantmakers in our sample had initiated or approved some sort of contract variations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q21. How were the variations initiated?
Perhaps a function of the high levels of engagement with grantees (reported above), our survey found that grantmakers had been proactive in initiating variations with grant recipients. Of those grantmakers who had implemented contract variations, three-quarters (75%) initiated the variations themselves, either on a case by case basis with individual grantees (44%), or through a blanket approach applying to all grantees (31%)
Q22. Did you manage the contract variations through SmartyGrants?
SmartyGrants enables users to manage the contract variations process quickly and easily online. More than half of respondents (57%) had used SmartyGrants to manage their contract variations, however grantmakers’ approach to managing variations in SmartyGrants differed, likely due to different internal processes and procedures.
“We contacted organisations by email and by telephone to gauge when their funded project is likely to be postponed. Results were entered into a form in SmartyGrants to capture who needed what variation. Variations were drafted outside of SmartyGrants but emailed to them thru SmartyGrants. In an ideal world, we would upskill ourselves and our processes to send and receive documentation through SmartyGrants and not externally by email.”
“Variation forms and funding agreements”
“Created a project variation application form to be completed by the grantee.”
“Applied a grant variation form to those applicant requiring changes to approve grants”
“Mailout informing grantees of decision, recording keeping in Standard Fields and updating reporting due dates”
“Only to change the date on acquittals due.”
“Applied a grant variation form to those applicants requiring changes to approve grants”
“6-month extension was put in as a file note (less onerous for recipients). All other variations are submitted via a project variation form (application form) on SmartyGrants. Having all recipients complete a project variation for the 6-month extension was thought to be added pressure given the social climate in early March.”
“They requested an extension to their project finish time, which we approved. Not sure where we'd note that in SmartyGrants.”
“New questions added to applications, reopened submitted forms to apply the changes. These changes allowed us to deliver the change in policy in a blanket basis”
“We have an acquittal form called "Variation Request" and an internal administration form to assess and approve the variation”
“We used the "stage" system to help us indicate where projects were at, email system to inform grantees and the Acquittal area to adjust the due date of acquittals”
“Previous rounds (prior to Oct 2019) had less of a reliance on SmartyGrants features, so most contact happened through emails. Only mass communication went via bulk emails from SmartyGrants.”
Contract Variations using SmartyGrants
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing contract variations through SmartyGrants. Grantee needs and grantmaker processes and policies vary. However, here is an example of one approach grantmakers could take to manage variations in SmartyGrants.
An application form is the easiest way to collect contract variation information and record it against applications in SmartyGrants. Grant recipients can use the form to document their requests to vary their grant agreements. When designing your form be mindful of administrative burden and ask only for information you really need. Consider using conditional logic in your form to only capture what has changed. Remember, grant recipients are under pressure, and the last thing they need is unnecessary red tape.
Adding a secondary application form to the original keeps all the relevant information in the same place.
Step 3. Create an assessment form
An assessment form allows grantmakers to document their decision-making process and their rationale for allowing or disallowing the variation. The assessment process enables the final decision on the variation to be recorded against the application.
Step 4. Build a custom report template to generate your variations.
SmartyGrants uses templates to run reports. Creating your own template, or customising an existing template, allows you to easily generate your deeds or letters of variation, much like a regular mail merge. These can then be sent out to grant recipients. This video tutorial takes you through the steps involved in customising a Word template.
Step 5. Execute your variation and record in SmartyGrants
Once the grant recipient has returned the signed variation, you can execute it and send a copy back to the recipient. You can add a file note to the application and upload a copy of the executed variation as an attachment.
Q25. What is the one thing that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic that you hope we will take into the post-COVID era?
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the ways in which we live and work. Grantmakers responding to our survey found no shortage of positive developments, both in their professional and personal lives, which they’d like to hang onto when life eventually returns to ‘normal’.
In terms of grantmaking practice, respondents would like to continue to reduce red tape and streamline internal and external processes. Respondents also said they’d like to retain flexibility and agility in their grantmaking in a post-COVID era, including the use of new technologies.
On a personal level, many grantmakers noted that the pace of life slowed down during lockdown, and appreciated this pared back, more simplified lifestyle. If there’s one thing we’ve learned through this pandemic, it’s that grantmaking doesn’t need to happen from an office. Respondents indicated they’d like to retain the flexibility and balance afforded by home-based work practices.
“How efficient e-meetings can be; especially when there is a bigger physical distance between the parties. Meeting online removes wasted travel time.”
“A slowing down allowing time for a more strategic and considered approach to the way organisations work.”
“The ability to be more creative and flexible operating in a virtual environment.”
“Undertaking procedures to finally work paper-free. Working remotely has forced us to find alternatives to physically signing and scanning documents and moving towards a digital-only environment.”
“As grantmakers we can be responsive, dynamic and adaptable in our grant programs without compromising best practice in grant making, good governance or community outcomes.”
“A slowing down allowing time for a more strategic and considered approach to the way organisations work.”
“Working from home flexibility.”
“Being able to go to work in the spare room in my ugg boots, elasticised pants and fluffy jumpers and still be 'seen' as a professional who knows what she's talking about. Also a bring your dog to work policy would be awesome and probably result in better behaved and socialised dogs in our community - not to mention better behaved humans with improved mental and physical health. Yayyy!!”
“A focus on what really matters. Good health, social connections and a recognition of the importance of the helper in times of crisis.”
“Don't assume you know what the community needs. Find out by contacting them and listening.”
“We’ve had to rethink and look at different approaches to getting things done such as using online tools to do business and to connect with others. We should continue this rethinking and develop tools and resources to draw upon when we need to adapt to future societal challenges and disruptions.”
“To have a grants program that is agile and able to respond to community needs.”
“The ability to combine efforts with groups outside of our organisation. I hope me maintain the level of community involvement and support Post COVID.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the governance role of grants. We are looking to improve the contracts, policies and documentation to maintain good governance but ensure it is simple and responsive.”
“The ability to combine efforts with groups outside of our organisation. I hope we maintain the level of community involvement and support Post COVID.”
“ Flexibility in workplace and also in the delivery of projects. Opportunities for future programs and projects to be accessible both live and digitally to capture a larger audience or number of participants. I hope that people will be more understanding of the restrictions that come with working remotely now they have experienced this and adapt their programs to be more accessible to people who have always operated in that space.”
“The separation due to Covid-19 within the community groups has clearly increased in the passion and desire to be connected and more engaged. The explosion of the use of collaborative digital tools has shown how individuals have adapted to the isolation and reaching out to each other. These new found tools will hopefully ensure future connectiveness and support."
“That we will show kindness and support to those in any kind of need, and continue to build up our local communities and neighbourhoods.”
“Capacity and drive to change. As a business we work best in ‘incident mode’. Collaboration and innovative solutions are supported.”
“The need to support your local community (both economically and socially) has really been highlighted during the pandemic. We've always practised this, however it's been so great to see this message being promoted far and wide, over the past few months. Let's hope this continues for many years to come!”
“That by slowing down you can achieve more. Take a breath, be in your garden, play Lego with your kids and then come to work and find everything just flows instead of building up and tensing in your shoulders. It's much easier to work with someone, client or colleague, after you see their humanity. Their cat/kid/dog/spouse walking through the back of the Zoom meeting has made me realise everyone is actually in same damn boat as me!”
“We need to be collaborative, flexible, adaptive to change, open to new ways and have a good understanding of risk at all levels to enable us to move forward in these unprecedented times. 'Luck is where opportunity meets preparedness'.”
“The ability to change/adapt on the run when required. Overall, we have done a good job in changing the focus, maybe fine tuning it as well, to deliver better against the needs of our community through the grants we provide. It would be nice to think this focus and fine tuning can continue into the future without a disaster forcing us to consider change.”
“COVID-19 has highlighted the pride my team take in being supportive and flexible in our approach to funding community projects, and the acknowledgement from the community that we will try to make grant funding easy and as customised as possible to their needs.”
“More contact with community groups to find out how they are going, and the creation of a monthly hard copy Council newsletter and therefore targeting people who are not connected to the internet or are not familiar with computers.”