Actions and Responses to 2023 Applicant Survey

Actions and Responses to 2023 Applicant Survey

Cummings Foundation invited all 284 nonprofits that submitted full applications during the 2023 cycle of the Cummings $30 Million Grant Program to provide feedback via an anonymous online survey. We were delighted to receive a strong response, with 226 individuals sharing enlightening insights and suggestions. These respondents inspired a number of enhancements to the 2024 grant cycle.

Please see below for Cummings Foundation’s responses to information gained through the survey. The complete raw data from the survey is available here.


Short-form application:

In an effort to make the review and selection process more equitable, letters on inquiry (LOIs) requesting annual installments of $25,000 or less will be grouped together for review and will not be compared with those of (presumably larger) organizations seeking larger installments. These presumably smaller applicants who advance to the next stage will complete a shorter, streamlined full application that does not require a budget. In addition, these grants will be awarded as general operating support rather than for specific programs or projects. (Please note that organizations seeking annual installments greater than $25,000 may also request general operating, or they may opt to request program/project support.)

To avoid locking a growing nonprofit into a smaller installment for an extended timeframe, all grants made to short-form applicants will be three-year awards. Once these awards are fulfilled, the organizations are welcome to reapply, and, if they choose to complete the more comprehensive full application, will be considered for a 10-year award.

Simplification—and, in some cases, elimination— of the budget:

Applicants requesting $25,000 or less no longer need to submit a budget. For applicants requesting larger amounts, the Foundation will use the budget template from Philanthropy Massachusetts’ Common Proposal and request data for the first year of the grant only. Thank you, Philanthropy MA, for sharing this valuable resource. In addition, no applicants will be asked to provide balance sheets.

Greater emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI):

The following question will appear on the 2024 full application.

We value organizations that demonstrate a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity as reflected by the individuals who serve in staff leadership positions or as board members. Please describe how your leadership and board reflect the people and communities you serve in terms of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and/or lived experiences. If the board and/or staff currently do not reflect the people and communities you serve, please share the policies and procedures you have in place to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion in your organization. As you consider your response, please know that there are no “correct” answers. Every organization is different, and we recognize that advancing equity is an ongoing process that can be challenging. We appreciate your honest reflections.

LOI development mentoring program:

The newly created “Cummings Coaches” program will pair a limited number of small nonprofits with experienced Cummings volunteers who will aim to help them more effectively navigate the LOI process through one-on-one coaching. Learn more about the program and how to express interest in participating.

Supportive Q&A sessions:

For the 2024 grant cycle, Foundation staff plan to hold Q&A sessions via Zoom during the LOI and application windows to explain Cummings’ grant selection process, offer tips, and answer questions.

More accessible previews:

The LOI and application previews offered online will be provided as Word documents (instead of pdfs) to make it easier for applicants to save and work in those files.

Greater transparency about the selection process:

We added several questions and answers to the FAQs page that provide more detail about who makes decisions and how they do it. Also, our Volunteers webpage has long offered descriptions of our various volunteer selection committees. The instructional guides given to them by the Foundation are publicly available on that page.

Expanded FAQ webpage:

Many of the questions that were asked by multiple people have been added, with their respective answers, to our FAQs page so they will be more easily accessible to future applicants.


Be transparent about who serves on grant selection committees. Invite nonprofit professionals to serve on grant selection committees.

The Foundation has long kept a publicly available list of volunteers on the Volunteers webpage, and is both delighted and appreciative to already have numerous nonprofit professionals serving on various committees.

Offer feedback to declined applicants.

Out of respect for the significant time and effort that grant writers dedicate to creating proposals, the Foundation has always provided feedback to applicants upon request. Although we previously did not promote the availability of feedback, this year’s decline email provided information about how to request it.

Allow site visitors to weigh in on applicants they have visited.

Every site visitor writes a report that is read by Foundation staff and retained in our online grants management system. The last question on this standard site visit report asks: “Is there additional information that a grant selection committee member should consider when evaluating future funding requests from this organization?” These reports, which are often glowing, are made easily available to the grant selection volunteers, who often comment on how valuable they are.

Allow returning applicants to access and reuse information from previous applications.

Nonprofits should have access to all past proposals through their accounts in our grants management system. Please contact us if you have any difficulty finding these documents.

Offer general operating support.

Recognizing that general operating support is both important and difficult to secure, Cummings has always been open to funding these types of unrestricted requests. Currently, all requests using the short-form application will be for general operating support only. Requests through the more comprehensive full application may be for general operating or program/project support.


Have a shorter grant cycle or omit the LOI.

We recognize that the timeline from LOI submission (July) to grant award (May) is lengthy, and we take a fresh look at it each year. To appropriately vet the more than 600 LOIs submitted through the open application process, we have a four-step review method (detailed here) that includes an LOI review, two stages of application review, and Presentation Days (to determine the 10-year grantees). Each and every grant winner is evaluated by at least nine different volunteers.

Given the scale of this program and the fact that grant recipient decisions are made by rotating community volunteers who do not have deep familiarity with the applicants, we currently feel that all the above steps are necessary to allow for proper evaluation and robust discussion in the decision-making process.

Accept alternative forms of applications (i.e., videos, proposals to other foundations), or conduct phone interviews or site visits in lieu of requiring written proposals.

We love these ideas and applaud funders that accept proposals in whatever format the applicant prefers to submit it. Many of these funders, however, have invitation-only programs that field a limited number of applications. In some cases, the proposals are evaluated by one dedicated staff member, and they are not being compared with other proposals.

Conversely Cummings receives more than 600 LOIs and nearly 300 full applications, and each of our volunteers reviews 70-80 LOIs or 20-25 full applications and then discusses them with co-reviewers to determine which will advance in the process. To evaluate this number of proposals in a fair and effective manner, it is necessary for them to be presented in the same format.

Although we recognize the value of in-person interactions, the large number of applicants being considered makes it impractical to conduct site visits as a standard part of the process. When deciding which grant winners will be elevated from three-year grants to 10-year grants, however, in-person conversations are held between grantee candidates and a panel of volunteers. Also, Cummings does conduct annual site visits with most of its current grantees, with the help of a diverse group of more than 80 (of its more than 175 total) community volunteers.

Adjust the word counts / character limits.

Interestingly, we received multiple divergent comments on this topic. Some felt the limits should be lower to encourage nonprofits to be concise and spend less time writing. Others requested more room to write in order to save them the time required to re-write existing material to fit Cummings’ specifications.

We feel that character counts are necessary to avoid overwhelming our grant reviewers. Applicants do not need to use every character allowed, however, and most of them do not. The length of a proposal does not in any way factor into the decision-making process.

Having Foundation staff review and weigh in on the volunteers’ grant decisions.

Cummings Foundation volunteers provide the Foundation not with recommendations but rather with decisions. These decisions are overturned only in rare instances when the Foundation becomes aware of concerning or disqualifying information about which the volunteers were not aware. In such cases, the Foundation notifies the volunteers of the change and the reasoning.

One survey respondent commented: “Cummings Foundation staff should review the decisions of the volunteer reviewers to ensure that the assumptions driving the decision (either positive or negative) are accurate and valid.” This structure would assume that Foundation staff know more or better than the volunteers, and we do not feel this is the case.

Although it is a constant work in progress, we have intentionally created volunteer committees made up of people with different backgrounds, perspectives, expertise, and life experiences. At the various steps of the process, proposals are considered jointly by two, three, four, and then five volunteers at a time. They engage in robust conversation, which often includes the challenging of each other’s assumptions, in order to agree on the list of nonprofits to advance and ultimately be awarded grants.

Another respondent expressed concern that this model does not allow the Foundation to form a relationship with and gain a deeper understanding of an applicant. This is accurate, but with more than 600 applicants and only a handful of staff members, this type of engagement is simply not possible. This “democratized” model, however, also ensures that a nonprofit is considered by fresh eyes each year and will not be disadvantaged, for example, by being considered by the same program officer who has declined it multiple times.


We are always striving to improve our processes for applicants, grantees, and volunteers. Although we expect to conduct more surveys in the future, you are invited to contact us at any time with feedback and suggestions.