In ye olden days when dragons flew the sky and grain was still milled with water wheels, most foundations only accepted paper submissions. Most also had relatively straightforward instructions that were reasonably simple; since the submissions were done through paper, applicants could create an attractive, well-formatted submission document.
Today things are different. Amazon delivery drones fly the sky and human-like creatures wear Google glasses on the streets, which make them look like Borg extras from Star Trek. Foundations, meanwhile, have created far more work and hassle for applicants by deploying online proposal submission systems that are harder to use and more time-consuming than paper-based submission.
Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Sometimes it does: Facebook now makes it simple to stalk former lovers and discover that, yes, they have indeed gotten fat. But technology doesn’t automatically make our lives easier. Foundations have used technology to take what used to be a reasonably coherent exercise—like “write a three- to five-page proposal”—but they’ve chopped it up and made it incoherent. Now most foundation submissions mandate tiny input boxes with lots of arbitrary character or word limitations.
There are numerous problems with the new systems. Their space limitations are frequently absurd. They might say, “two thousand characters for the needs assessment.” But is that two thousand characters with or without spaces? Different systems use different counting conventions and sometimes don’t say whether they count spaces. The length itself is absurd: two thousand characters is a third of a page. If there are five detailed questions from the foundation about the applicant and project concept, the funder is going to get disjointed, unsatisfying answers that attempt to hit all the questions.
Since none of this can be formatted, it looks like a ransom note when printed—the sort of thing that you’d receive from a Nigerian Prince who has a bank account he can’t access. A lot of systems also won’t let applicants move forward without a value in the input box. So you have to put a placeholder there to move forward and see the whole application (we like “Jack Bauer,” “Tony Almeida,” and “Chloe O’Brien” from 24 as placeholders. But then applicants must make sure that there are no placeholders left in by accident in the upload. Question: “Who is the CEO?” Answer: “Jack Bauer,” could be a problem.
In addition, each foundation has a different system with different questions and restrictions. It’s always been true that foundation submission requirements vary; since they have the gold they make the rules. But while there used to be length variations and some oddball questions (“Do any employees of the corporation sponsoring the foundation volunteer with the applicant nonprofit?”), applications were more similar than different. The Himmelfarb Family Foundation wanted three pages and the Worcester Community Foundation wanted five, but the overall structure was similar.
Now foundations are more different than similar and their online systems present all kinds of roadblocks. With almost all these online systems, applicants start by answering a bunch of questions (“Are you a 501(c)3?”). Fair enough, we guess. Then when an applicant logs out and returns, they have to answer the same questions again! Once isn’t enough! Applicants have to answer five different times.
We’ve been doing foundation proposals for over twenty years. The current trend is making things worse, not better. Technology does not automatically make things better. The best foundation submission is about five single-spaced pages with reasonable headers that explain clearly and concisely the “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” of a project. A project that can’t be explained in five pages is probably too complicated. We call the initial foundation submission document we recommend a “foundation letter proposal.”
We get it: foundations want to be hip and say they have an online system. But the systems they implement are usually terrible and counterproductive. Virtually every person submitting a foundation proposal is getting paid from somewhere. Every minute they spend fiddling with the foundation’s online system is a minute they’re not spending on service provision. Do foundations care? Probably not, but they should.