With Submittable, the team makes a much bigger impact funding healthy business growth and the arts.
The New Bedford Economic Development Council (NBEDC) is a nonprofit organization with the mission to support healthy business development in the Massachusetts seaport city. Following the height of the COVID pandemic, NBEDC had plans for new strategic initiatives that would make the organization’s influence on the economic and cultural vibrancy of the city even stronger.
A huge goal is for someone to build confidence in becoming an entrepreneur.
Director of Business Development, Communications, and Special Projects
Throughout the crisis, NBEDC provided grants to small, established businesses to help them weather the economic downturn. They received feedback from the community that they wanted support for those wishing to start new businesses as well.
To respond to this emerging community need, NBEDC drafted a concept through the Small Business Administration (SBA)’s community navigator pilot program. Their concept turned into the NB100! program, which offers entrepreneurs a kick-starter grant of $10,000 in addition to training offered through partners which include Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Charlton College of Business.
At the same time, NBEDC’s programs supporting the creative community were growing. NBEDC partnered with the city to implement a 10-year strategic plan for the arts, which included specific funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to support economic recovery and training for artists, as well as two neighborhood-focused programs supporting improvement and maintenance of creative spaces within communities.
It all added to a lot of complex work during a turbulent time. And with a staff of just six, knew they'd need to make some serious upgrades to their current processes in order to take full advantage of their opportunities for increased impact.
This has just been real seamless and the ball just keeps rolling.
For years, NBEDC had been managing their grants with tools like Google Forms or having an applicant send a PDF application over email. This meant Jessica Trombly, Director of Business Development, Communications, and Special Projects, who manages the grant programs for new and emerging businesses, and Margo Saulnier, Director of Creative Strategies and Arts-based Initiatives, who manages the creative grants, were spending a lot of unnecessary time tracking down application materials and other tedious administrative work.
Payments, meanwhile, were originally being made via paper check. But this was a system that would not scale with the projected growth. As Controller Deborah Trombly explains, “It was difficult and time consuming.” So much so, that she began to explore ACH payments to grantees instead.
However, doing the ACH payments manually came with its own set of challenges. “It was starting to get very burdensome,” says Deborah. There were obstacles, such as matching TIN numbers, as well as risks—the potential for human error in transposing a number, for instance.
In fact, Deborah was considering hiring an outside accounting firm to handle the payment piece—which would come with its own set of drawbacks. “As much as I would have been open to doing that,” says Deborah, “there’s also a lot of training, and sometimes people leave, and then you’ve lost all their knowledge, and you have to start all over again.”
These outdated processes were inhibiting NBEDC’s ability to scale—which was directly at odds with their sudden influx of funding and anticipated applicant interest.
Submittable allowed us to increase the number of grants we could administer.
Director of Creative Strategies and Arts-based Initiatives
The team of six at NBEDC knew that to expand their influence, they’d need to streamline all of their processes. They were also focused on ensuring that the new systems they adopted would support their goals around removing barriers for diverse populations, complying with SBA reporting requirements, and instilling entrepreneurs with confidence to pursue future opportunities.
With this in mind, Ramon Silva, the NBEDC’s Senior Director of Real Estate Development and Financial Incentives, led the strategic exploration for a technology upgrade. They ultimately selected Submittable for both grant management and funds distribution. Now, they’re making a much bigger impact on business growth and cultural vibrancy for the city of New Bedford than ever before. All the while, they’re laying the groundwork to grow the new programs even more in the future. Here’s how they did it:
One goal that NBEDC identified very early on was the importance of a positive applicant experience. This begins at the first interaction with an application when an applicant determines if they are eligible.
As Jessica tells it, “One of [our applicants’] biggest pain points is going through an application process and finding out at the very end that they’re not eligible.” To avoid this negative experience, Jessica worked closely with her implementation specialist at Submittable, Sabrina, to ensure that the right eligibility checks were put in place from the outset.
Jessica was also focused on removing as many obstacles to applying as possible in order to ease the way for individuals that could be engaging in a grant application for the first time. The SBA funding they secured for entrepreneurs grants outlined that the applicant pool must meet thresholds around minority and women-owned business. “We wanted to create a very low barrier to entry,” explains Jessica. What does that look like for her? “Apply through your phone. Less paperwork. As seamless as possible.” Jessica met this goal by using Submittable to create easy-to-use and mobile-friendly application forms that featured helpful tools like auto-save and in-app messaging.
The entrepreneur grants were enthusiastically received in New Bedford. They received 171 applications in just three months—a strong showing of demand from a city of 100,000. In fact, they ended up granting funding they intended to last two years in three months. “Clearly there was a demand for this support,” says Jessica.
On the arts side, Margo has also seen the positive impact of implementing an easy-to-use platform in attracting more applicants. “We think the platform is more user-friendly,” she says. This enables them to reach a broader audience and make major strides toward their strategic vision, “art is everywhere.”
Here, the proof is also in the numbers: “[For] our three arts and culture grant programs through New Bedford Creative, we had 226 submissions,” she recounts. In years past, it had been 60-70. The number of grants provided saw similar growth: the three programs Margo oversees grew by over 300%, providing 70 grants in the last year, compared to 12-16 in years past.
Switching to a purpose-built grant management system that saved the team time and kept the train on the tracks is what made all of this possible. “Submittable allowed us to increase the number of grants we could administer,” explains Margo.
On the financial side, shortly after launching the new programs, Deborah learned that Submittable also supported ACH funds distribution. “Right away we were interested in that,” she says.
The team at NBEDC decided to move forward. Now, Margo and Jessica can simply click “Send Funds Now” in Submittable to initiate a payment, and the grantee is paid out via ACH—in most cases, within a few days. Meanwhile, Deborah doesn’t have to worry about the risk of human error in triggering ACH payments manually—and she doesn’t have to hire someone either. Additionally, the platform takes care of the reporting of the 1098 and 1099’s, which for the potential hundreds of awardees, is a significant workload alleviated.
“This has just been real seamless—and the ball just keeps rolling,” says Deborah.
When it comes to reporting, as Jessica explains, “SBA requires a lot of data to be reported on: demographics of participants, number of jobs created, total investments, number of businesses.” That’s why it was crucial that the NBEDC choose a solution with reporting in a centralized hub. “Submittable was so customizable, we could understand if someone was eligible and who they were. I really enjoyed this,” she says.
As a small team NBEDC knew they needed a partner that took a hands-on approach to implementation. Margo admits that she had originally been “scared to touch anything.” But their implementation specialist Sabrina walked her through creating the reports she needed, and provided advice on best practices. For Margo, it helped “instill confidence—I can do this,” as she put it.
For grants administrators like Jessica and Margo, every efficiency gained is time that can be spent more strategically. “It’s allowed me to take on more policy work and additional initiatives,” says Margo.
Meanwhile, Jessica focuses on relationship-building with applicants. “[It] allows us to stay on top of providing more enhanced performance for individuals that are interacting with you. We want it to be a positive experience,” explains Jessica.
The importance of this positive interaction goes beyond the grant the individual is applying for now. As Jessica says, “A huge goal is for someone to build confidence in becoming an entrepreneur.” If they see early success, they’ll be more likely to go after additional opportunities as their business grows. As an example, Jessica cites the potential to move on to applying for grants with Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, another Submittable client.
By focusing on providing the applicant a positive experience early on in their entrepreneur journey, the NBEDC team is looking to plant the seeds for taking advantage of more opportunities throughout their careers.
The team isn’t finished growing yet. “We’ve built the framework,” says Jessica. “Now, we’re excited to keep the program going.”
growth in arts grants applicants in a single year
entrepreneur grant applicants within first three months