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AP Perspectives—The View From Skookumchuck Road: It’s Simple - Really

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I was starting a new position as program officer and fiscal manager at a very large community foundation. Soon after I started, the executive director came into my office, sat down, and said, “I want you to take a look at our whole records system and see if you can make it a little less complicated. Maybe it can be simplified or there might be a better way to do things.” I was barely familiar with the records system myself, so at least it would be an education for me. Also, it’s important to remember at this point in time there were no computers in most offices (yes, there was such a time). 

I pulled sample sets of records from the files and soon realized there were several pieces of information and grant applicant/recipient contacts. Records had to be kept in multiple files, including the applicant/grant awardee file, the fund file (each grant was made from a specific fund of the over 180 held by The Trust), and the grant payment/reporting requirements schedule. Each record also had to include any special grant conditions or requirements with deadlines. There were also individual letters sent to each applicant when a proposal was received, and individual letters sent to each grantee informing the organization that a grant had been made. These letters included the date the grant was awarded, grant requirements, and the payment schedule as well as the name of the fund from which the grant would be drawn. All letters were individually typed. Each applicant/grantee file also included notes from the program staff member who (usually) met with the applicants and who had done other research on each organization. Overall, it looked like a massive task, and I already knew some other staff members were skeptical about me — the new kid on the block.

As I went through all of the materials, I soon realized there were seven separate key pieces of information. I reviewed each one and circled the specific information on each. As I continued, I saw that much of it was being duplicated from one item to another, yet an entirely new document had to be completed. For example, a grant made from one of the funds had to have a form filled out for the fund file, another form for the grantee letter, and another for the grant payment schedule. Maybe there was a simpler way, and maybe much of the process of merely inserting the same information on each separate record could be streamlined. 

I started with the individually-prepared letter to each applicant. The letter acknowledged the proposal had been received, and stated a program officer (not named, as proposals had not yet been assigned to staff) would contact the organization for further information and questions. Maybe a simple postcard could be used, and would only need the applicant’s address and contact person on the front? Next, I tackled the grant, if made, materials needed for the grantee and grantee file, the fund file, and the payment schedule file. All of these contained basically the same information, but required a separate letter to the grantee, a form for the fund file, and a form for the grant payment schedule. But wasn’t this all the same information? I created a simple one-page form that could contain all of this. Thanks to the “miracle” of the copying machine, copies of the form could be sent to the grantee, put in the grantee’s file, placed in the fund file, and kept in a loose-leaf notebook with monthly dividers to ensure payments were made and grantee requirements were met. Letters informing grantees of the grant could be simplified and primarily referred to the attached form which gave the date of the grant, the fund the grant was drawn from, the payment schedule, the dates for reporting and other requirements, and any special information.

When I presented these ideas at a staff meeting, one of the senior program officers looked very skeptical and, while never saying outright, “This won’t work,” made comments like, “Well, the old system was working just fine – why change it?” The executive director was very supportive and the staff who had to prepare all of the letters, forms, etc., were relieved. Later, when computers were introduced, I understood the conversion from this records system to digital went smoothly.

So, what’s the lesson here? I often have found simple is better. Systems over time tend to build on top of each other and often can go for years without being examined. Staff come and go, and many, for better or worse, leave a trail behind them of systems, procedures, processes, and sometimes problems. The word “legacy” comes to mind as these all can live on, become more complicated, and create layer after layer. There is always the, “We’ve always done it this way, why change?” But look around you. Everything is changing all the time. The rate of change is also speeding up, and new ideas, technologies, different approaches, and external impacts affect everything we do. Look at all the ways you can use your cell phone. Computers can get quick answers to questions that previously would take days or weeks to answer. I once wanted to know if a prospective donor was wealthy. I found some of the other organizations he gave to online, learned more about his employer and other involvements and interests, and even used Google Earth to look at his home (on the river, swimming pool, large boat, and dock). In fact, there is so much information out there you may easily get overwhelmed and, in a sense, be back where I was when I started with the forms project at The Trust. 

So, the trick is to focus on what is really important, use that as the basis for your work and planning, and keep it simple. Systems and procedures and even your own routines can get locked in if you and your staff don’t carefully examine them periodically and ask some questions:

  • Why are we doing these this way?
  • What are the pluses and minuses of how we currently do things?
  • Can we do things simpler – and better?
  • What specifically can we do?
  • How can we make these changes?
  • How can we evaluate the effectiveness of these changes?
  • Once the changes are implemented, how frequently should we re-examine them?

It can be simple — really!

Gene Scanlan spent over 40 years in the nonprofit sector, including 25 years as a development and management consultant. He has taught graduate courses, led seminars and presentations, and authored over 20 articles and two books.

Read More

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