Expert advice on reporting: progress reports, acquittals and outcomes

Posted on 11 Nov 2020

By Joshua Presser and Georgie Bailey, SmartyGrants

Quality final reports will build good accountability and help you track the progress of your grants.

Good grant reporting is crucial to ensuring accountability, meeting compliance requirements and tracking progress. Without reporting, you have no reliable way of knowing what’s working and what’s not.

So what do the SmartyGrants experts say on the topic?

In this article we bring you a conversation between Josh Presser, the director of special projects at SmartyGrants, and Georgie Bailey, director of business solutions, design and development, who look at what grantmakers need to consider when it comes to reporting.

Their discussion comes from a SmartyGrants webinar on the issue. SmartyGrants users can watch the full webinar here.

Bailey Georgie usethisone June 2019
Georgie Bailey, director of business solutions, design and development, SmartyGrants

What do I do with reporting information?

Georgie: One of the important things for me when designing a program is thinking about what information I’m going to be requesting throughout the process, including the information I'm going to ask for in report and how I’m going to use it. If I’m not going to use it, do I really need it?

Apart from reconciling project financial information, I want to be able to find insights about the outcomes achieved that support my argument for continued funding from government. I’m also looking for things that might help me improve my policies and processes. For example, did we respond promptly to enquiries? Was the application form easy for grantees to complete?

Presser Josh Mar2020
Josh Presser, director of special projects, SmartyGrants

Josh: I think Georgie has done an excellent job answering this question, so I might look at this from the point of view of information from progress reports. Progress reports are a key monitoring tool for grantmakers, to help track grantee progress towards desired outcomes. How are grantees progressing? What’s working, and what’s not? If things aren’t going to plan, progress reports can tell you this early in the process and allow you to take steps to get the project back on track. It’s important to give timely feedback to grant recipients – either letting them know they’re doing well or working collaboratively with them to address any identified issues.

Can you over-report?

Georgie: If you mean over-egg it, ask too much of grantees – absolutely. I have seen many examples of grants officers being really risk averse and trying to be really diligent, putting every requirement known to humankind into their reporting requirements.

It’s about proportionality. I don’t want a grantee to have to invest $10,000 worth of salary time into trying to acquit a $1,000 grant. It’s about whether or not what you’re asking for, when you consider the risk level and the value of the grant, is reasonable and achievable. Can you really expect a recipient of a small grant to invest a whole lot of time and energy to collect a whole bunch of data for you?

Josh: I agree with Georgie 100%. Proportionality is the golden rule. You don’t want to place an unnecessary administrative burden on your grantees. You also don’t want to overburden your own organisation. If you send out a 30-page acquittal form, then someone in your organisation has to review and assess the completed reports when they come back. The acquittal must be proportionate to the level of risk. If you have a a multi-million-dollar capital grant, the requirements will necessarily be different from a $5000 community grant – owing to the differing levels of risk involved.

When do you think successful applicants should be informed of the acquittal or progress report requirements?

Georgie: Right at the start, in the guidelines. Before they invest any of their precious time applying, applicants should understand what is going to be expected of them if they are successful. I also always make sure the reporting template is attached in SmartyGrants as soon as the agreement is in place. That way the grantee can see exactly what they need to be documenting as they go and can even start filling it in as the project progresses rather than have a big job at the end.

Josh: I agree that the reporting requirements should be set out clearly in the guidelines. Often a sample funding agreement can be included in the guidelines too. That way applicants can see not just the reporting requirements, but also the other requirements that they’ll be subject to should their application be successful.

It is important that grant recipients understand their contractual obligations. One way of helping them to do this is through the process whereby you induct new grant recipients.

The level of engagement during induction must be proportionate to the size and complexity of your grants program (and funding agreement) and the assessed level of risk. For example, if the grantee is inexperienced in managing grants, or has not previously been funded by your organisation, you might choose to meet with them to run through the requirements of the funding agreement. If your program is very small, or the grant recipient is very experienced, or you have funded them before, you may just send them the funding agreement and ask them if they have any questions.

The induction stage is also a good opportunity to set the foundations for a collaborative and trusting working relationship, where grantees feel safe to raise any issues and concerns that might come up along the way.

When is the ideal time to acquit? How often should you ask your applicants to report?

Josh: It comes back again to the principle of proportionality. It also depends on the length of the grant; for example, if you’ve got a multi-year grant, you are more likely to have multiple reports. The frequency of reporting must be proportionate to the level of risk. For example, if your program or grant recipient is assessed as low risk, it may be appropriate to just acquit once at the end of the project. However, if you’re working with a more complex, high risk program or a grant recipient who you think may need a bit more support, you may choose to ask for more regular reports. This enables early identification of issues and gives you the opportunity to work with the grantee to make any necessary changes along the way.

Georgie: The only thing I’d add is about timing. It’s important to think about how the reporting deadlines are likely to affect the grantee. Are they very busy doing other things at the time you will be requiring your report? For example, don’t expect end of financial year reports to be with you by 30 June. Most organisations need time to wrap up the books, particularly if you’re asking for audited financial reports.

How do you incentivise grant recipients to complete progress reports on time?

Josh: Some grantmakers talk about carrots and sticks, but I think the most straightforward way to get grantees to submit on time is to make the process easy and meaningful.

If the process is meaningful and grantees can see value in it, then they’re more likely to engage with the process than if they see it purely as a tick-and-flick exercise.

Some strategies to make it meaningful and engaging include providing some information about the purpose of the report for context, and about what the data is used for. Frame it as a partnership where you are working together to achieve outcomes you’ve agreed on.

Some strategies to make it easy are to streamline forms as much as possible. Don’t ask for any information that you’re not sure how you’re going to use; use standard fields to feed information into forms, so grantees can easily see their previous responses and they don’t have to go searching through their records to re-enter information. All these little things add up to making things easier.

Georgie: I agree. I think the most important part is making grantees see value for them in contributing their information so it’s not just about the burden of having to complete meaningless reports. My approach has always been to be clear with grantees about the benefit to them, and to be interested in their journey – I genuinely want to understand how they went. I want their perspective; I don’t just want them to reinforce mine. I also like to explain how the data is used. For example, “We collect this information so we can better understand your needs and continue to design policy and programs that will work for you – you are a part of our policy making process.”

One of the programs I used to run was a very targeted, direct program that worked with a small number of grantees in the same sector. The grantees ended up forming quite a productive partnership among themselves over the course of the grant. From the data we gathered from their individual reports, we were able to provide them with a consolidated report that was very specific to all their needs. They were able to share their data and it turned out to be really valuable for everyone.

How did you use SmartyGrants to collect reporting information?

Georgie: Just as a bit of background, I designed a department-wide data structure by mapping commonalities across 25 programs, and then designed a data collection process, (which included reports) so that we could report across the entire organisation.

This allowed us to see patterns emerge – for example, particular grantees who consistently over-delivered or those who regularly overestimated what was possible at application.

It was always important to collect enough information to understand not just the what but the why. For example, if a project had hoped to have 2,000 attendees and only got 200 we needed to understand why. It may have been for very good reasons.

I used choice lists wherever possible to get consistent data. I made sure validation was set on other questions, so that I was collecting information in the way that I needed it.

The other thing that was really important for me was involving the grantee in the process, so I also included a survey that let the grantee share their experience. What went well? What didn’t go so well? What would they do differently? What could we do differently?

Before the department starting using SmartyGrants, it had no results-based reporting, nothing that let us look at our departmental goals and objectives holistically across programs. Once we had consistent data coming in, we could run cross-program reports that allowed us to report to ministers, executives and key stakeholder groups with ease.

Grantmaking Toolkit
The Grantmaking Toolkit is free for SmartyGrants users.

Want to learn more? Check out the Grantmaking Toolkit

Our experts have tied their suggestions into the processes outlined in the SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit, the definitive guide to building best practice into your grants processes and programs.

The toolkit covers the nine stages of the grantmaking lifecycle, including the two stages dealt with in this discussion:

  • Stage 7 – Monitor: on developing your own monitoring and reporting policy
  • Stage 8 – Closing the grant: on the process of acquittal and project review.


General tools and resources

Acquittals | Monitoring | Evaluation

SmartyGrants HelpHub resources (SmartyGrants users only)

Acquittal and evaluation webinar | More webinars | Acquittals | Evaluation

Outcomes Engine update

The SmartyGrants team developed SmartyGrants to make grantmakers more efficient. Now, the same team is developing a new tool to help grantmakers become more effective.

The Outcomes Engine – a product of Our Community’s Innovation Lab – is the result of years of research and collaboration with grantmakers. It will help grantmakers (and grantees) define, track and report on their outcomes.

The Outcomes Engine uses modern data analytics, data visualisation and impact evaluation concepts and tools to help you analyse your funding patterns, compare the results with your objectives, and track your progress towards your aims.

The Outcomes Engine is entering its final beta testing stage, and you can keep up-to-date with the latest developments by subscribing to Innovation Lab news updates.

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