IN every survey we've ever done, grantseekers have said the most annoying thing about applications is a lack of, or poor, feedback from grantmakers.
Grants surveys over more than 10 years have repeatedly highlighted pleas from grantseekers for details about why they had failed to win a grant. They are often instead left frustrated by unhelpful generic responses.
While things have improved, an astonishing 46% of grantseekers surveyed in 2016 still rated grantmakers as "bad" with feedback.
On the plus side, some agencies have been working hard to improve their performance, with excellent results, and were happy to share their experience at the feedback "hot spot" session at this year's Grantmaking in Australia Conference.
The unit's Dr Andrew Richardson said grants funds were not always fully spent in this specialist field. He said better feedback meant improving future applications, and more satisfied grantseekers.
"Despite our long turnaround times for assessing grant applications, we've had people actually ring back and thank us for our feedback. That's as a result of our structured responses."
That approach includes providing a template for assessors. They then can provide rejection letters that include detailed suggestions about how grantseekers can improve future applications.
The agency has the advantage of employing assessors highly motivated to be involved, such as university lecturers, who volunteer their expert time.
"We employ two assessors for each application and provide detailed responses, including specific suggestions about how they could frame future bids," Dr Richardson said.
Aussie diggers playing two-up near the front at Ypres in December 1917.
One delegate noted that the SmartyGrants system allows this very kind of note-taking and commentary. It allows internal notes to be separated from the official statements sent to grantseekers.
Another grantmaker described how they had introduced a new "standard field" into their SmartyGrants system title "final assessors' comments". This summarised the views of three separate assessors into a single paragraph.
Those responses were available to both successful and unsuccessful applicants, and were presented simply: "Below is a summation of what the assessors wanted to say to you."
Despite the plethora of evidence that the provision of feedback benefits both grantseekers and grantmakers, many grantmakers continue to be bound by old methods of doing things, producing standard rejection letters written as "weasel words", as some put it, aimed at giving away little about organisational rationale.
"Our letters are sent out with the standard generic line about there being 'too many high quality proposals etc.'," one delegate said.
Despite being charged with handling applications, many remain in the dark about management decisions to avoid putting reasons in writing, or said it was "just a historic thing".
Inviting rejected recipients to "please call the grants team for further information" often meant inviting difficult phone calls where administrators had to justify decisions they hadn't made.
That is reason enough for some to reform the process.
But sometimes not revealing reasons to grant recipients was also to protect rejected grant recipients from unpleasant assessments, some "so brutally honest that it wasn't constructive".
One community development team received far more positive reviews about its grants after ensuring community groups contacted the council before applications.
Where previously in one round 40 of 120 applicants were ruled ineligible, that figure was now far more manageable, and the council had committed to assisting with applications.
Another authority, working with a very diverse community, had similarly reached out to help groups before they applied.
"A lot of groups come to us with ideas, including refugee groups who don't necessarily have the ability to lodge these applications. We try to engage them to discuss their purpose, and develop those ideas, with the general goal of spreading the money."
After the hot spot session, we contacted the Australian Army History Unit to learn more about its research grants program, and the reasons for its strong focus on feedback.
This point and others were communicated to the applicant, at the time of his unsuccessful application.
A year on, the applicant successfully re-applied, having gained the language skills, and subsequently completed research in German archives. That led to a ground- breaking PhD thesis, also expected to form the basis of a book, and provide the Army with an authoritative new history.
> What's Next? The Status Quo Is Not An Option (2016)
> Grants In Australia Survey 2014 Results - A Snapshot (2015)
> SmartyGrants Snapshot: Industry Grants Statistics (2012)
> The Role of Evaluation in Driving Grantmaking Reform (2012)
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The AIGM's Code of Practice for Grantmakers spells out the values we believe all individuals who administer grants on a professional basis should strive to honour and exhibit. We welcome feedback and suggestions for refinements.
The AIGM's Code of Practice for Grantmakers spells out the values we believe all grantmaking organisations, whatever their size or sector, should strive to honour and exhibit. We welcome feedback and suggestions for refinements.