How might human-centred design help create a better experience for grant-makers and grantees alike?
The Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative (TB-ELI) Grant is a new grant that aims to create meaningful social impact for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. The grant is open to Voluntary Welfare Organizations (VWOs), non-profit organizations, social enterprises, and private corporations with a social mission in Singapore. Besides pilot projects, the grant will also fund existing programmes that need resources to scale up.
With an all-new grant, the SG Enable TB-ELI Programme Office had the exciting opportunity to envision a new way of grant-making. SG Enable approached Outsprint to tap on human-centred design to explore new areas for redesign of the end-to-end experience of the entire grant process. The team felt duty-bound to challenge the status quo, but only if the status quo was a worse-off future than our vision for the grant experience. We asked what do we want the grantees to feel at the end of their grant?
What if a grant wasn’t just about the money? How might we create a holistic experience around the grant, that supports and excites an entire sector?
What’s the current relationship like between grant applicants and fund administrators? How does collaboration happen? What does the sector need most and how would the grant add unique value? How do we create new ways of solving old problems? It was in the spirit of these big questions that we started a design sprint project to learn more and design better.
A five-day design sprint might be short but certainly not any less useful. Field-tested on over 100 startups by Google Ventures, design sprints are a fast and focused way to quickly innovate in any problem space, even for social issues. It can point out new questions to ask about the issue, and these questions can help point the team towards a better grant process and experience. Evolved from the startup world of bootstrapping on tight resource constraints, design sprints are therefore suited for the funding constraints that organisations often face in the public and social impact sector. This approach also plays to the time and manpower constraints of the SG Enable TB-ELI Programme Office and also contain costs.
We walked in the shoes of a hypothetical social enterprise researching through real websites of existing grant makers in Singapore to look for suitable grants for its new tech product for persons with disabilities. This allowed the team to develop empathy and understanding of the painpoints and needs of grant applicants.
We would spend an hour or so to chat with people face-to-face, and at a venue most convenient and comfortable for them, be it their home or a café. Rather than a stiff and boring survey interview, the session is more like a casual friendly chat. This helps us develop rapport and gives them time to open up, and for us to explore deeper questions and truly ‘get under their skin’. Photo prompt cards and journey map sketches also help us achieve that.
When we meet people to have in-depth conversations, we try to meet them in the context of their environment. A guided tour through their work space adds important experiential data to the verbal information they say, helps us ask better questions and allows us to better understand what they are saying.
After all the in-depth conversations, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information collected. During sense-making, we jot down on sticky notes the key quotes and comments that were surprising, insightful or useful for the project topic, organize them into themes and push the analysis beyond the face value of the words into deeper motivations and unarticulated needs. This helps the team filter and synthesize all the rich learnings into something more manageable to ideate around at the next stage.
Looking in the same places often leads to the same answers. Getting the team to venture out of the social sector into foreign but parallel settings in other industries helps spur creative leaps when thinking about solutions. Being able to see other examples of innovation in action also helps us get a tangible feel of how we can apply it in our own setting by borrowing elements of the experience or product. In our case, we visited local incubator space The Hub and learned how they bring in diverse skillsets and mentors to help startups grow.
The team brainstormed ideas around 7 key themes that came up after sense-making. Colleagues from other departments were invited to help the team generate many wild and useful ideas. This was also an opportune time to engage and update colleagues who might be directly or indirectly involved at later stages of implementation. Following the brainstorm, we prioritized the ideas into 3 groups – mission-critical for launch, important but not mission-critical, good but optional ideas – and proceeded to work on the mission-critical ideas.
Storyboard & prototype
Storyboarding is a useful way to organize the many ideas generated during ideation. Creating a story of an ideal experience that a grant applicant goes through from start to end, is a more concise way to share many different ideas. Prototyping ideas by creating rough paper mock-ups of what parts of the service might eventually look like, allows people to see, touch and feel the ideas in a tangible way and thus help them give better feedback on our ideas.
Testing our concepts
We invited 6 people outside of SG Enable to come hear our pitch for the new grant experience and to openly give feedback on what works and what doesn’t. It’s also a great opportunity to bring stakeholders from different parts of the ecosystem together in the same room to hear one another’s concerns and develop mutual understanding.
Reflecting on next steps
The team spent the last hour of the design sprint reflecting on the new tools and techniques they learnt, as well as planning the next steps and design iterations to follow up on.
8 human insights into the grant experience
People we met
We met a total of 11 participants over 6 in-depth conversations and 1 co-design feedback session. They were from different parts of the ecosystem – grant makers, grant applicants, VWOs, public officers, and incubators. Meeting experienced grant applicants allowed us to dive deep into their real needs and pain-points with the current grant-making ecosystem. As the grant team was new to grant-making, we found it super educational too to speak to grant-makers who had administered and closed grants before. We learned vital success factors from them and also blind spots to watch out for as grant-makers. On agreement of confidentiality, their faces are not shown and names are changed.
Insights & findings
Insights are interpretations of what we learned from our interviews and observations. Insights reveal something non-obvious, surprising or valuable for our project. Making sense of what we learned from our conversations, we ended up with 8 insights and opportunities:
Insight 01 / Grant intent
Managing innovation is counter-intuitive: what we do and what we want to achieve might sometimes conflict, if we are not mindful.
It’s easy to lose sight of what really matters when it comes to grant-making. We learned from ex-grant manager Lionel’s (not his real name) experience running technology grants in the public service, to ask the all-important question “Are we driving utilization of the grant, or driving innovation in the sector?” Managing the day-to-day operations of the grant can become about numbers-chasing for outreach, utilization and KPIs, and this might dilute or even conflict with the larger mission of the grant of spurring innovation to better serve needs. Metrics for innovation can be counter-intuitive from the usual metrics for grant management, e.g. having a 90% success rate for proposals submitted to panel for approval might sound good for the grant team, but that might also mean that we’re not pushing innovation enough by self-censoring and floating up only ‘safe’ proposals. Another counter-intuitive point: getting a good number of good projects to be funded under the grant might be important to track in the short-term, but for impact and sustainability in the long term, it is perhaps better to develop an ecosystem of investors and projects that sustains and replicates itself and weans off grant money eventually. All these would not be achieved if grant managers were focused only on hitting numbers.
How might the grant management team continually stay on track of the grant’s vision and at same time, stay relevant with changes in the sector and needs of our stakeholders?
Insight 02 / Collaboration
Interactions are mostly ‘vertical’ and confined between a grant maker and applicant. Seeding lateral connections might then seed more cross-collaborations.
Our experience as mystery shoppers for grants was a confusing one, jumping to and fro websites trying to compare grants. There’s currently no easy way for grant applicants to ‘shop’ for grants and compare them side by side, and it’s even more frustrating considering how huge and diverse the grant landscape is. This inefficiency is then transferred to grant makers collectively, since applicants have to ask around each grant to make sure. Hence there are opportunities for grant makers to collaborate on information and referral, but extending beyond, perhaps during application and reporting as well. Ying (not her real name), an ex-grant manager, mentioned how grant uptake can be enhanced by working with a selective network of funders who refer applicants to you if the proposals are not eligible for their own grants. For VWOs, collaborations are more likely between two organizations when they are not serving the same clients. If they have the same target clients but have different expertise on different parts of the value chain (e.g. a counselling service and a research organization whom both have caregivers as their target clients), working together is possible too.
How might we get grant makers to work together on information and referrals, and beyond? How might we create more opportunities for connections in the grant process, not just between VWOs, but also with social enterprises, research institutes and institutes of higher learning?
Insight 03 / Communications
Jargon may help us cover all our bases for accountability, but it can lead to downstream inefficiencies from queries due to confusion and frustration.
Using technical terms such as “capital funding” or “recurrent funding’ helps us share information that is accurate and transparent to all. But sometimes this leads to downstream inefficiencies in the form of queries, as applicants might not be familiar with such terms, even the ones who had applied before, because applications are not typically their core work and they only come across these terms during application. The whole step-by-step process of the grant application is often not clear, and how information is laid out and presented visually are often inconsistent across different grants, leading to even more confusion. Details are often shared from the agency’s point of view – knowing the date your panel meets is less helpful than knowing when they can expect an answer on their grant application. Evaluation criteria of proposals are not always transparent – this can leads to applicants just trying their luck sending in proposals (and therefore the grant manager has more poor proposals to go through). Last but not least, the tone of the writing is often a signal for the relationship you want to have with the applicant – is the usual top-down, authoritative tone the best way forward?
How might we communicate information about the grant in a way that even someone new to grants is receptive and understand?
Insight 04 / Differentiated diagnostics
Assessing and supporting a project needs to be appropriate to its growth phase. A one-size-fits-all approach might be counter-productive instead.
Ying shared that “In grants, there’s a continuum. There’s this grant model that shows different stages of growth of a non-profit organization, and what type of funds will help them… It depends on where your grant sits, and what’s the aim you’re trying to achieve.” When we identify the stage of life cycle of the particular organization with their idea, we are in a better position to design diagnostic tools and grant support/resources to intervene. This informs the entire grant process – how we fund; how many layers of approval we need; how much to expect from projection figures; what are the reporting commitments; whether we measure outputs or outcomes; the different criteria the Panel evaluates each proposal by. Being able to diagnose the growth phase also informs how we support the organization during implementation. Supporting and enabling them to take steps to be successful within each phase, is key to ensuring long-term sustainability of the project, and thus also the overall impact of the grant.
How might we better assess the different profiles of applicants and their needs, context, challenges so that the support and money from the grant is more targeted?
Insight 05 / Relationships
The best grants in people’s minds are usually likened to marriages. Instead of heavy-handed transactions or pay-for-service, think mutually supportive partnerships
A VWO partner Kay shared very starkly that “There’s also this attitude [that funders have], that “I’m always right. You’re receiving funds. I issue you KPIs and you just do it.” I don’t agree to that. I know my programme better and so let’s set the KPIs together. Of course I will not go for a low and easy-to-achieve KPI, because I do want to make my programmes more robust. This is something we have to be really careful.” Both grant makers and grantees we spoke to preferred having a more equal and mutually supportive working relationship. A ‘master-slave’, heavy-handed approach that centres around money and numbers was frowned upon, although this was still the dominant way of working. Ying emphasizes that “If you view grantees as partners, you will do things differently…” It’s a little bit like a marriage, like how Alicia speaks affectionately of her positive relationships working with corporate partners as a VWO: “It’s a lot of effort, a lot of give and take. We go in and support them. We want to show them that they have been supportive of us so we support them too. It’s a relationship.” How does a mutual relationship look like? Advice was plenty: be less critical but more constructive; “friends” or “partners” instead of “applicants”; involve VWOs in setting KPIs; pitch together to the Panel. Without a doubt, there’s a hunger for a different kind of relationship that we are well placed to introduce as a new grant in the sector.
How might we grow relationships with grant applicants that are equal and mutually supportive like a partnership?
Insight 06 / Capability
The job title “grant manager” is a misnomer. The skill base need to make a grant successful goes beyond mere money management.
Diverse skill sets and capabilities are needed beyond project management, if we want the projects to succeed. The grant manager has to play multiple roles beyond simply managing the numbers. Having industry contacts and access to domain knowledge of the projects is important. Being able to network is an asset too, so as to create connections and foster collaboration.
“I really saw myself as a “grant manager” then. But if you think about the job title, it’s of course set up to fail. I’m managing the grant, not managing innovation. If I’m an innovation manager, I would manage the process, not just the money.” ~ Lionel
As the team thought through their roles, one thing emerges very clearly: there’s no way for any grant manager to possibly have enough knowledge or contacts for every possible project proposal that comes along. There needs to be ways to bring in diverse skillsets, in order to have sufficient depth (in specific fields or domain knowledge such as software development) and breadth (more general skills that are applicable across organizations such as impact measurement, leadership).
How might we bring in diverse skill sets and expert knowledge needed in enabling grantees through the whole grant cycle?
Insight 07 / Process pain-points and time lag
An onerous grant process too focused on accountability affects the success and relevance of the grant in ways we may not see.
Often, it is the bigger and better organizations who might choose not apply if the grant process is too onerous and micro-managed, as they can tap on their own donor sources and are less desperate for projects. Making the process as easy and straightforward as it can – without compromising accountability – is therefore also in the best interests of achieving the strategic outcomes of the grant by attracting the most promising candidates and best ideas, in order to get more impact for the same amount of money put out.
“When it comes to grant calls, we have now become choosy in terms of the process. I want to see how efficiently the funders are going to manage us. If it’s a $3mill project, we can always have one dedicated staff to manage funders. It’s not worth having 3 or 4 people managing a small amount of funding, like $100,000. I can say this because we got volume now. If I don’t, I’ll probably be desperate and do as the funder pleases.” ~ Kay, VWO partner
Besides process burden, there’s also room to improve the experience by reducing time lag (and thus anxiety from waiting) between actions/stages. The grant process is often a linear, hierarchical step-by-step process, of which at various points there are opportunities for running things concurrently to ease waiting anxiety. For instance, instead of waiting a week more for the offer letter to be hand-signed and delivered, perhaps the news can be shared over email first while the mail is on the way.
How might we introduce feedback mechanisms to help us co-iterate the accountability process with partners? How might we make waiting time productive and engaging? What if applicants just have to ‘do it once’ with regards to providing info and reporting?
Insight 08 / Conflicting messages and roles
We tell partners to be bold and innovative in their proposals, but later on we say “don’t fail”. The roles of enabler versus regulator are conflicting and confusing.
Innovating always comes with risk. But with public/donor funds always comes the procurement mindset and a need to demonstrate transparency, fairness and value-for-money. This usually means a low appetite for risk, and a correspondingly high need for control, especially if the project looks like its not meeting outcomes! However, Ying highlights how KPIs don’t tell the full story – sometimes the project must be given time to generate results. VWO partners typically want to ensure quality and integrity of service delivery but a grant manager’s anxiety over public accountability, failure and KPI micromanaging might cause frustration and drive the wrong sorts of behaviour that compromises service integrity. Are there ways to create a process, where so long as accountability is in place and due diligence done, failing can be rationalised?
How might we create a process for accounting for failure where due diligence had been done? How does other public service agencies account for investment losses? How might we make reporting/evaluation more meaningful and useful for partners?
The ideal grant experience
Applicant profiles: looking beyond the average applicant
From the synthesis of our findings, we had a hunch that there were 3 hypothetical groups of grant applicants. These fictional profiles are useful by showing us how one size does not fit all when it comes to managing the grant. Through these 3 profiles, we can envision different ways of support and resourcing for groups of organizations in a more nuanced and targeted way that meet their needs based on its growth phase in the life cycle of their organization or service.
Concept still untested but passionate to launch. “Help me kick-start my idea fast.”
Stable demand, maturing program model and governance. “Help me do more, well.”
Scaling up for broad institutionalization on local or regional scale. “Help me showcase my success story.”
The ideal grant experience
Based on the insights from the previous section, we brainstormed ideas around the ideal experience that a grant applicant would go through together with SG Enable. We re-imagined how our ideas would flow in each stage in their journey with us. This is called a user journey. Hence the storyboards serve to illustrate the spectrum of interactions and activities offered by the grant, how different stakeholders would interact with one another, and how the grant might benefit VWOs, social enterprises, research institutes, funders and other stakeholders. These scenarios of interaction show how the different stages of the grant are structured to serve the needs and alleviate the pain-points of the different stakeholders who are part of the grant process. We can break down their journey into 7 stages: 1) pre-application, 2) application, 3) assessment, 4) notification, 5) implementation, 6) reporting, 7) closure.
1 / Pre-application
Setting the tone right by a human first touch. Seeding collaborations at the onset.
Sam receive an EDM in his email that tells him about an exciting new grant called the TB-ELI Grant. He attends a fun briefing hosted by Ai Ling from SG Enable, where they shared an interesting presentation about the new grant and assessment criteria. What’s even interesting is how they shared the larger intent and mission the grant wish to achieve for the disability sector. It was an inspiring vision. At the briefing, Sam meets interesting people from diverse fields – social sector, technologists, researchers, industry experts, and also Ai Ling, the friendly go-to people for any queries about the grant. He exchanged name cards, made lots of new connections on LinkedIn and Facebook. What made him most excited are the ideas exchanged and possible collaborations with a VWO and research institute. He decides to fill out the application form for an idea his social enterprise had been testing out. The form was easy to understand, written in simple language, visually appealing. There’s even examples on how to think through the logic model, including an eligibility criteria checklist and a diagnostic checklist to help self-evaluation. Information on website provides more details and the FAQs answered most of his questions.
2 / Application
Helpful helpline keeps the relationship warm.
Gina, who also attended the grant call briefing, went ahead to fill out the application form downloaded from the website. As she prepared the relevant information, supporting documents and wrote up the proposal to get more funds for the programme that her organization had been running for the past year, she decided to call up Ai Ling to chat about fine-tuning her proposal. To Gina’s surprise, Ai Ling even offered mentors and industry contacts if she ever need to beef up those projection numbers and counter-check for possible blind spots. Gina also thought of getting in touch with the people she met at the briefing to talk about her proposal and to see if they are interested to collaborate.
3 / Assessment
Differentiated help for different needs. Pitching in to pitch, together.
Ivan receives a call and was sad to hear that his proposal for a national-scale program was rejected. But at least they called so that he could ask questions. An email confirmation was later sent to him to confirm the rejection and closure this time round. Meanwhile, Sam is overjoyed! He was informed of being shortlisted over phone followed by an email confirmation. He meets up with Ai Ling to answer queries and refine his proposal over 2-3 meetings. They highlighted that despite the shortlisting, sometimes things might not work out at this stage if there’s any new information or developments. Sam is confident to make this work. He then goes on to meet the evaluation panel to co-present his proposal together with Ai Ling. He thinks he dazzled them with his pitch. He’s glad he was there to answer questions directly but also heard many useful advice on his project. Back end, Ai Ling recommended different assessment criteria for different projects, as well as fast track approvals and endorsement for those applying for smaller quantum since it has lower liability/risk levels. The “A, B, C” banding for projects based on potential impact were helpful for the evaluation panel to decide fast.
4 / Notification
Celebrate the start of a great partnership. Or if rejected, alternatives offered to help partners press on.
“We will love to partner you and support your project. You can start pre-ops while waiting for offer letter to arrive in 2 weeks.” it said over email. Sam checked through the terms and conditions in the email while waiting for the letter to deliver. He then meets Ai Ling face-to-face to sign the funding agreement and agree to the roles and responsibilities, obligations, reporting requirements, outcomes and deliverables. Sam really happy that there’s fast track approval for his funding quantum below a pre-determined amount. He was also informed that there is flexibility incorporated within the agreement to allow for changes after working with mentors or experts, as well as exit clauses allow for early exit of project if it doesn’t work, and allowing new funders to come in to fund steadily before the current one expires. That’s really good as he might need to iterate on his novel concept. Gina, made it to panel but unfortunately didn’t get her proposal approved. But Ai Ling links her up with another funder who might be more suitable for her. “We wish you all the best.” was nice but a rejection nonetheless. At least she’s not left empty-handed. She decides to pitch a better proposal to the new funder based on the feedback she got from the evaluation panel.
5 / Implementation
Mentors bring much needed diversity of skills to help projects succeed. Fail fast to succeed sooner.
Sam had regular meetings with Ai Ling to discuss issues his project faced. It also allowed them to see the programme in action. Being new to reporting, tracking and evidence-based planning, they provided guidance and tools to help him. What he was really grateful for was the mentor network that he could tap on anytime for advice and consultancy. He also tapped on SG Enable’s network of PWD clients and other VWOs to get feedback and test ideas. He liked the grant team’s Agile methodology-inspired philosophy of “fail fast, fail early”, troubleshoot on the spot together. He doesn’t feel like he’s being monitored or micro-managed like in other grants. Instead he feels supported as and when he needed it. It feels like an equal, mutually supportive relationship instead of a heavy-handed, top-down transaction.
6 / Reporting
Working together to reduce process pain-points and time lag as much as possible.
Sam only had to submit reports every 6 months. He understands that it’s to protect him and help him see if his project is on track. He thinks 6 months is reasonable as he has sufficient time to prepare his reports. In any case, these reporting requirements were communicated clearly upfront in the beginning already. Besides, he finds it really helpful receiving feedback on his performance based on the information he submitted. At the end of the financial year, within 6 months, he had to submit an audited financial statements to demonstrate corporate governance. What he found interesting was how financial reporting was separate and done differently from the outcome reports. As he usually discuss his progress on project outcomes at their regular meetings, he was told that he need not submit a formal report on outcomes; case notes and meeting notes will suffice. That’s saves so much hassle! He’s happy to have more time thinking ahead for his project.
7 / Closure
Continuity and sustainability is key. My ending is your beginning.
It’s been 5 years. As Sam nears the end of the grant, he continues to submit audited statements and there is no need for a consolidated statement. He works with Ai Ling to craft a final report on the project outcomes achieved not just for sake of fulfilling his commitment to reporting, but more importantly, as a way for him to share his success and journey, using the numbers he had submitted over the years as well as client stories, case notes, interviews and videos to illustrate the richness of his outcomes delivered. Even though it’s nearing the end, he was again surprised by the grant team’s commitment to helping him – they linked him up with funders to help him sustain the project beyond this grant term. He’s confident to approach other funders as he has the data and evidence to show that it works. Besides, being a graduate of the TB-ELI Grant has some degree of prestige to it, which would help him secure other funding much easier as he envisions scaling up towards national distribution. It’s been one great journey with SG Enable, and he feels like he’s only just started!
Ending is only a start
This design sprint project captured a qualitative understanding of what kind of grant experience the community wanted. The project team also learned lots of new tools and methods from the design thinking process. The one-week sprint had been instructive, to quickly learn about a problem, point out new questions to ask and turn up blind spots. But we only had one week. Now that we have a rough sense of what people need, how do we develop some of the ideas further? What makes sense to implement? How do we continue to iterate and refine the ideas towards the launch of the grant? So, the team started to think of this project as a set of learning points and ideas to bring forward for further study and exploration as the grant progressed, or as inspiration to deepen understanding of what truly matters to your partners and stakeholders. This report is generative, not restrictive. This report is intended as a vigilant backlog of the experiential learnings received over the week, and therefore becomes a resource to be built upon. Most importantly, the team will need to keep iterating and refining, while keeping in mind the needs of the people we learned here.
The human stories end here, but here is where we can start creating new and better experiences for grantees and beneficiaries. Keep on designing.