No rush, give me the good oil about quick response grants

Posted on 30 Mar 2017

By Chris Borthwick, thinker-in-residence, Our Community

Quick is good. Ordinary grants aren't marketed as "slow response grants", but they may as well be.

If you're a grantseeker approaching many funders, there are probably only two grant rounds a year, so you may have to wait six months right there. Then your application has to go through two or three rounds of assessment, which could take another month or more.

By the time you get the letter, you may have forgotten what you asked for. If you're asking for funds to catch a bird on a branch, it has probably flown away. If you were asking for a rope to get you out of quicksand ... gurgle gurgle.

There is a lot to like about a quick response, and many Australian grantmakers - municipal authorities mainly - have set up quick response grants programs.

Red tape safety or a race to the finish?

While being quick has significant benefits, there are some key issues to consider: do you want to be quick, thorough or fair? Pick one (they're often mutually exclusive). Those bureaucratic hurdles are there for good reason. They were probably put in place when the old "quick and dirty" method led to a scandal, and landed the grantmaker on the front page of a tabloid.

Chris Borthwick

Many quick response programs have replaced schemes where each councillor had their own small bag of money and gave it out as they saw fit. It was a system that was flexible, responsive to the grassroots - and very suspect.

Clearly, grantmakers want their projects to further their goals: to be effective in doing what they want done. This involves dealing with applicants who have their own interests, while instituting procedures capable of discouraging bias, nepotism, or bribery. This means having transparent methods, being prepared to expose decisions to scrutiny and to demonstrate that things have been done by the book. These processes all take time.

Quick response grant programs, by contrast, are designed to be fast, flexible, and responsive. They don't wait for an arbitrary grant round date to roll past. They boast of their turnaround time, the most impressive perhaps being a Californian program where a one-page notice was sent to 6000 teachers offering $500 grants for classroom resources. The teachers sent in their requests and got a response within the hour. Successful applicants got their cheque the next day.

Start small for a big impact

Note, though, that the Californian program mentioned above involved a rather small cheque. Grantmakers aren't idiots, and they're not going to give out real money to any proposal that hasn't run the full gauntlet. Most quick response programs offer a maximum of $3000 for an organisation and $1500 for an individual, though VicArts gives out up to $15,000 and the Shire of Clarence in Tasmania counts out a maximum of $150 (maybe in five cent pieces).

A quick grants scheme can only ever be a supplement to your major efforts, providing a way to stay in touch with community needs, or at least community wants, and - yes - to provide a quick response.

If you are contemplating bringing in such a scheme, you should also use it as a wake-up call. Now is a good time to review your existing programs and see whether they too could be simplified.

Quick grants programs aren't intrinsically better or worse than the old-fashioned type, but they do involve different trade-offs.

Our advice? Don't leap into them until you've walked through the trade-offs across your entire system, and decided on the best you can do in each area.