Depending on the requirements of your funder, you’ll most likely have to file a detailed report about your financials, along with an evaluation of the funded program. Although grant reporting can be a valuable tool for growth, this crucial component of the funding cycle often causes sticking points for both nonprofits and funders.
At its worst, the grant report can feel redundant or perfunctory because a grantmaker asks you to provide information you’ve already addressed. On the grantseeker side, the process of reporting can be rushed to completion because of an emphasis on cyclical reporting, rather than real-time learning. This makes it difficult to use the report as an asset for long-term program assessment.
“Many of us in the nonprofit community worry, ‘To what end are we doing evaluations?’” Mark Loranger, the president of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to homelessness, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Indeed, Loranger asks the most critical question. Although reporting can be a fantastic opportunity to share the advancement of an organization’s work, these reports too often go unread or underutilized. Instead of being used as a launching pad for iteration and improvement, they’re seen as simply another requirement on a long list of requirements to dispense with.
That’s why it’s so important to refocus on the true value of your reporting. A meaningful exchange of data and stories has benefits for both funders and their grantees, working together to validate and improve program initiatives and strengthen the work on the ground.
Don’t let your nonprofit — or your grant pipeline — stall out at the reporting stage. Here are four strategies for successfully navigating your reporting:
- Understand the value of program assessment
The most successful nonprofits have a healthy attitude toward program assessment, data collection, and evaluation because they know that these tools can help strengthen their programs, establish benchmarks for success, and make the case for continued funding.
Before you apply for a grant, make sure you have a good sense of how both the grant and the program funded contribute to the goals of your organization — and how you can demonstrate the success of the program to your funder.
By tying your organizational goals to each funded grant program, you eliminate the risk of chasing after funding that doesn’t support your organization’s long-term goals. And, since most funders require reportees to illustrate how their programs support long-term goals, you’ll be primed and ready to give a detailed answer to this question – with plenty of data and observations to back up your claims.
- Prioritize data collection
Most likely you know better than anyone how busy life can be for your program staff colleagues.
Collecting program data, on top of running an effective program day-to-day, can be an overwhelming process for co-workers in the trenches. On the flip side, if data entry is left until the completion of a program, you could be left in the lurch when it comes time to report to a funder. Worse, you may have to contend with data errors that cost you time – or funding.
To avoid these snags, work with the other managers at your organization to strategize ways staff can incorporate data collection into their regular duties. In order to get staff by-in, tie data collection closely to specific programmatic goals.
By making data collection a priority for everyone – and incorporating evaluation into the culture of your organization – your development staff can track and pull the numbers they need to successfully report on a given program whenever a report is due.
- Build out staff time for reflection and collaboration
In order for reporting to be truly helpful for a nonprofit, the process should always be reflective. Make sure you build in time to think about and reflect on the success – or challenges – of your program, even if the funder doesn’t ask for these reflections.
Here are a few questions to consider as you wrap up each program:
- How are we defining the success of our program? How did we meet our goals? Where did we fall short? Why?
- What does the data reveal about our programs or services? Be sure to think through every step of the process, from recruiting participants to specific participant outcomes.
- How did we address challenges we faced during the program? Think carefully about areas like staffing, training, volunteer retention, participant retention, data collection, or unanticipated needs that arose.
- Did you accurately anticipate how you would need to allocate grant monies? What cost more? What cost less? Why?
- Given what you and your staff learned by running this program, what might you do differently during the next iteration? How will the program grow or change? Why?
While there might not always be time to do so in your busy year, consider scheduling occasional all-staff meetings that allow everyone to reflect on the success of a program once you’ve finished a funding cycle. Suggestions for improvement – or praise for a job well-done – can fuel your discussions for next year!
- Follow the money
Grant monies need to be tracked and spent very carefully, and financial statements are often a crucial legal and administrative component of your grant report.
The best financial reports begin far ahead of the program start date. Before your accountant disburses funds, make sure you’ve developed a good system for tracking how — and who — spends money earmarked for program expenses, especially if those expenses will be covered by a funder.
By encouraging all staff members to maintain excellent records, including receipts, expense reports, and staff labor reports, your development team will have an easier time recording how grant funds were used. Plus, you can feel more comfortable knowing you have a record to back up your narrative!
Although grant reporting can be seen as “a necessary evil” in the nonprofit world, reports offer important opportunities for reflection and growth. Create systems that set you up for success before the grant application even makes it across the desk of your funder. Knowing how to evaluate the strength of your programs ensures that you’ll meet the needs of your community – and your organization – for years to come.
Kristen Evans is a content strategist and critic with a background in nonprofit development. A former grant writer for 826 Boston, she's also written about publishing, television, and feminism for Brooklyn Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, and NYLON, among other outlets.