Project Streamline: The Big Picture

Posted on | No Comments

To provide some perspective on Project Streamline, we interviewed two philanthropy leaders who were instrumental in its creation. Richard Toth is Director of the Office of Proposal Management at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Chair of Project Streamline. Sara Engelhardt is the former President of the Foundation Center. Their answers shine a light on Project Streamline’s significance and also how their complementary perspectives have shaped the project’s goals.

Question: How did Project Streamline begin?

Engelhardt: When I was at Carnegie Corporation, when an applicant felt we were handling their application or grant wrong, they’d call us up and we’d fix it. But since then the foundation world has become so much bigger and its rules much more complicated. At the Foundation Center, it became almost impossible to keep up with the application guidelines of the 600 foundations we raised money from. So I took the idea for a project to look at the grant application and reporting process to the Grants Managers Network board.

Toth: Grants managers are often the key point of contact between a foundation’s program staff and its grantees, so GMN was the right group to take on a national effort to see if we could improve the grantseeking and grantmaking process. Once we got the go-ahead to start work on the project, we came up with a list of potential partner organizations that could join us.

Engelhardt: I felt it was important to not only have representatives of grantmaking organizations on the project’s national advisory committee but to bring in representatives of nonprofit organizations, as well.

Question: When you went to partner organizations, how did you describe the initial idea?

Toth: There was a struggle about the project’s purpose, so you’re going to get two different answers from us! I’m a pragmatist. I wanted us to take on a project with boundaries; didn’t want to get into the messy area of the relationship between foundation staff and folks at nonprofit organizations. I wanted it to be about the nuts and bolts of the process.

Engelhardt: Whereas I pushed for it not just to be about procedures but to be about the relationship. We needed foundations to understand how their procedures affected the nonprofits they wanted to serve. We thought of grants managers as being in the customer service business. But if you asked them whom they were serving, they’d often say they were serving the foundation staff and board, rather than the nonprofits!

Toth: I’ve always felt we serve both the foundation staff and board and the grantees and grantseekers. At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that is the case. It hasn’t always been–there was a period of time when we were less customer-friendly–but it’s the case now.

Question: What is the significance of Project Streamline?

Toth: We have a lot of redundancy and a lot of waste in the system. For me the time an applicant spends putting a budget in a particular format is time they can be spending on mission. We’ve put in these procedures as proxies to make sure we’re being responsible with foundation money. But the effort that’s put into complying with these procedures is often a waste. I hear nightmare stories from nonprofits. Foundations are trying to be responsible, but in our efforts to do so we’ve set up some onerous systems.

Engelhardt: That’s a strong description: waste distracting from mission. I’d add a slightly loftier view. I believe it’s important to the foundation field because a lot of the negative attention we get from the news media and government stems from the fact that nobody–grantees, grantseekers–is really happy with us. Many nonprofits feel belittled by foundations or even that they’re the enemy. If we can be successful in getting the two sides of the table to talk with each other more effectively, it can be a huge contribution to improving public perceptions of foundations and their grantmaking.

Question: Which flaws in the system identified in Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose struck you as the most significant?

Toth: Overall, the fact that there’s such variability in approaches is striking, as well as how few foundations actually have what seems to me a no-brainer—to vary the process of applying for a grant depending on the size of the award. I was also struck that, in 2008, we still have foundations that can be considered the “mystery foundation”—that their guidelines aren’t clearly posted and nonprofits’ proposals often aren’t acknowledged.

Question: Any research findings surprise you?

Engelhardt: The degree to which people at foundations recognize the flaws but feel powerless to do anything about them. That’s partly why we’re excited about Project Streamline being a system-wide project and including so many partners. In joining forces with others there’s strength. And I think that, if it’s implemented well, the project will especially empower grants managers to see to it that their procedures support nonprofits.

Toth: For a while now, the foundation world has promoted getting projects funded by diverse sources, yet we’ve made it difficult to have happen. Foundations that are co-funding a project but can’t agree on a single proposal format are shooting themselves in the foot. For example, nearly every foundation Project Streamline applied to for funding required the proposal rewritten in their own format! The project represents an opportunity for foundations to work together better and make the process less onerous for themselves and their grantseekers. There are great opportunities for change.

Question: How is the project measuring success? How would you like the foundation world to look and act differently?

Toth: We want to recommend a set of common principles or standards for the industry. We probably spent the first year telling people Project Streamline wasn’t about a common grant application. That’s not what the project is about, and with more than 70,000 foundations, it isn’t very realistic. We’re coming more from the point of view that we need to have a set of principles. Right now we have working groups focused on due diligence, online applications and reporting, budgets and financial reporting, and right-sizing. At the end of this phase we’ll come out with recommendations and principles in those four areas. We’ll then encourage foundations to set aside time to go over the principles and recommendations and take action to improve their approach.

Question: Why is Project Streamline significant to you personally?

Toth: I’ve been at this for thirty years. If GMN and its partners could help the sector become more efficient and effective, I’d be delighted.

Engelhardt: I’m retiring after 42 years in the field. If this project were my only legacy, I’d consider it a great career.