Grantmakers: How to optimize your workflow for an online solution

An automated, online application and review process has significant benefits for administrators, applicants and reviewers. But the transition from a manual and offline process can be daunting. Join Zoey Fife, Software Consultant at the Western Colorado Community Foundation, and Sabrina Leblanc, Senior Manager of Sales at SurveyMonkey, as they talk through best practices for optimizing your application and review workflow to fully leverage an online solution.

Read the transcript of the session below:

Zoey, can you tell us a bit more about Western Colorado Community Foundation. What is your mission?

The Western Colorado Community Foundation serves seven counties in Western Colorado. We strive to improve the community by providing grants and scholarships to those communities. We provide over half a million dollars in scholarships and grants every year.

What is your role within the organization?

During my time at the Western Colorado Community Foundation, I helped select a software provider for our application programs and oversaw its’ implementation and rollout. Today, my role is as a software consultant working with the SurveyMonkey Apply system. I’m responsible for administering the scholarship management process.

The foundation was previously using a manual process, correct? What would you say were the top challenges that you were looking to solve when you decided to move online?

Previously we were using a paper application that we would make available as PDF. Most of the applications were filled out on paper, and we would receive a handful of emails. Occasionally we would receive handwritten applications.

The biggest challenge that we had with a paper system was tracking and maintaining the applications. It was a lot of work to make sure that we didn’t lose any applications and that the committee was receiving the right set of applications (we have over 20 scholarships).

Students can be considered for more than one scholarship, so we needed to make sure that they were considered for all of the scholarships that they were eligible for. These are the things that were burdensome with a paper application process. Tracking renewals was also a lot of work.

Knowing that you were moving to an online system, was the goal to replicate your manual process exactly, or were you also looking to optimize some of your workflows?

We used the vendor evaluation period as an opportunity to look at what we were doing, and how we were doing it, to ensure we were providing the best possible experience for students. And that continued when we selected an online system.

The transition was a great time to evaluate whether our application was doing what we wanted it to do or if things could be improved. The biggest areas of focus for us were the applicant and reviewer experiences. We really wanted to optimize and streamline those processes.

How did you go about optimizing your workflow? What did that process look like?

The first thing we did was take stock of what we were currently doing. What areas of our workflow were working well, and what was causing problems or bottlenecks. We mapped everything out so everyone fully understood the process before we began evaluating vendors.

The first step is really knowing your workflow well and and being familiar with each step. Once you’ve taken a step back, you can evaluate vendors with a clear set of requirements and capabilities in mind.

Is there anything, from an applicant’s perspective, that you changed once you moved to an online system?

Definitely! Going to an online solution allowed us to evaluate what we were asking of our students in the application process. Before, we were using a general application form that mapped to numerous scholarships. But, the SurveyMonkey Apply system allowed us to be more thoughtful in terms of what we were asking, and who we were asking. We were able to create and show a specific set of questions to students based on the scholarship they were applying for. So each students were only asked questions that were relevant to them and what they were applying for.

You mentioned that the renewal process was a big focus for you. Could you tell us more about how that looked before and after moving to an online system?

Previously, we would send our renewal students a request via email. Some students would reply to that email with the required documents, others would send them via mail or fax. So we were getting renewal documents from a lot of different sources. And without fail, some of the students would fall through the cracks every year. They would submit all of the documents and their check wouldn’t get cut in a timely manner. Sometimes the student’s email would change and we would have trouble tracking them. We maintained everything in a spreadsheet.

Now, with our online process, we’re able to direct students to the same website every year. We still send them email reminders, but it comes from SurveyMonkey Apply, with the link in it and their information, and it’s much easier for applicants to login year after year. Even if they change their email address, they still know where to go. This helped us keep track of students in a much cleaner way.

Read our blog post: The 6 emails you should be sending to your applicants

With these updates to your workflows, have you seen any difference in the number of applications that the foundation is receiving?

One of the great things about moving online is that we’re able to track how many students begin and complete applications. We can easily send reminders to students to complete their applications before deadlines, or submit any missing materials. This really has helped us increase our submission rates.

Of course, we don’t know how many students were downloading our application before or receiving it from a third party, but as we are in year 3 of using SurveyMonkey Apply, it’s been a great tracking tool to see where students stop, where they get blocked and which students are completing. Now we have data that helps us guide the improvements we make to our process.

Have you gotten any feedback from reviewers? How are they finding the system?

When we first rolled this out, we were skeptical about the reviewers using the system. Being in rural Western Colorado, many of our reviewers aren’t very tech savvy, so we were a little concerned.

But, we’ve actually been very pleased with how the reviewers have used the tool. The reviewers seem to really like the side-by-side review screen where they can see the application, flip through the documents, and review everything on the same page. Having everything in one place for them, where it’s easy access, has been extremely helpful.

Would you say that the process of optimizing your workflow is a “one and done” task? Or is it something that’s ongoing?

At the Western Colorado Community Foundation, we’ve taken the approach that optimizing our workflow is an ongoing process, and I really believe that every year that you use an online solution, you will continue to learn what works and what doesn’t work.

What’s worked best for us is to look at our process on a yearly basis. Once the application process open in the Fall, we begin a list of things that didn’t work well, questions we’ve received, suggestions for change, and we keep a running list throughout the year. In the summer, we have a debriefing meeting where we look at where we can improve and things we’d like to add.

The great thing about using an online system is that you get instant data about how applicants and reviewers are moving through the workflow. You can see where people get stuck, or where they get confused, and use this to prioritize areas that need attention.

Once you identify the changes you’d like to make from year to year, how has the process been in terms of updating your workflows?

I love the ease of use with SurveyMonkey Apply. The ability to make the changes ourselves is really important to us. If we spot a problem or area of improvement, we can update the system right away. We don’t need to depend on anyone else. It’s important to have the flexibility to build out what we need, when we need it.

Plus, SurveyMonkey Apply support is just phenomenal. I can count on the staff to have a response in hours, and even shorter if it’s a true emergency. I cannot speak highly enough about the onboarding process, and the ability during this process to learn the system. The staff allowed us to try things for ourselves. I feel confident that I can make any of the changes that I need to make.

Having already gone through this process, what advice would you give to organizations like the Western Colorado Community Foundation when it comes to preparing for the transition to an online solution or switching from their existing tool?

The best piece of advice that I can offer after going through the process and maintaining it for a few years now is that as you are looking to move to an online system or switch from an existing solution, make sure you’re extremely organized. It’s important to have things mapped out and prioritize the key functionality you need to have.

What we found really useful for us was to make workflow charts for all of our scholarships which mapped out the process and all of the requirements. That helped us see where things overlapped, and helped the onboarding team know what we were looking for.

Definitely a great piece of advice! Thanks for your time today Zoey. If readers have additional questions, or would like to learn more about your experience, how can they get in touch with you?

I’d love to talk to anyone of you who would like to chat about optimizing your workflow or selecting an online system. My email is

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