Helping Montanans through COVID-19 with thoughtful and fast emergency grant management

Efficient onboarding and intuitive form-building tools were essential to launching the State of Montana’s massive COVID-19 grant program in just a few weeks.

In April 2020, Montana Governor Steve Bullock faced a major challenge. In the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, The State of Montana received $1.25 billion of funding as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds needed to be distributed to in-need organizations and individuals across the state as soon as possible. 

Bullock and his team needed a grant application management solution that would be easy for Montanans from all walks of life to fill out. They also needed a system that was safe and secure. Finally, because they would have to very quickly train hundreds of state employees to review and track submissions, the State of Montana needed a user-friendly, centralized system. 

With Submittable, along with a lot of smart organization and planning, they had a process up and running smoothly in a matter of weeks. 

“I've worked with different application softwares over the years for both grant management and for other purposes in the office. Submittable provides quick turnaround when you can edit your own forms—and it doesn't require a lot of training to learn how to do that.” 

Angie Nelson, Senior Budget Analyst

Facing the challenges of a pandemic 

The roadblocks faced by the State of Montana were the very same roadblocks that Montanans were faced with in the wake of coronavirus: they had to set up remotely, without access to their offices, on limited resources and time. 

Both parties forged ahead by remaining flexible and anticipating problems before they surfaced. 

The first step the State of Montana took was the swift creation of forms that asked enough information to guard against fraud but not so many questions that their application added barriers to getting help or slowed down the review process. 

The second step was taking old forms and systems online and making them consistent—for example, housing grants that had for years been conducted with paper applications needed to be converted into a digital process, with new questions added to address the pandemic. 

One of the program coordinators, Angie Nelson, Senior Budget Analyst, explained how easy form building was essential for her team’s quick start. 

“We created a team of folks that included one that currently worked with Submittable, which was helpful,” Nelson says. “And the functionality of being able to drag and drop fields to create forms was very helpful because it allowed more people to start work on forms in a pretty rapid succession, rather than having just one or two people trained to do that.” 

Onboarding for everyone 

Grant reviewers also needed to be trained—and there were about 300 of them. Many were government workers who had been displaced from their normal day jobs thanks to COVID-19, and they came from diverse educational backgrounds. Staff who had previously managed forest fire or transportation grants were suddenly put in charge of small business stabilization or PPE funding. 

“We had Diana [a Submittable onboarding specialist] host some training sessions that were less than an hour and went through the basics,” Nelson explains. “Those were recorded, so when we had folks come later on, we would forward that training for them to watch. Then as we went, each team would deal with their own unique issues through phone calls, Zoom calls, Microsoft teams calls, and Google Hangouts with Submittable.” 

Learning to pivot 

When the program went live, the state was flooded with 5,000 applications in one day. By the time applications had closed, that number has since increased to over 18,000. 

As issues arose, the state and Submittable joined forces to problem solve in real time. 

First, the team quickly realized that applicants had the same pandemic-related issues that both the state and Submittable faced: they were away from their offices and often lacked time and resources. 

“Obviously a lot of folks are maybe not working in their offices with their printers and all of their network equipment,” she explains. “We moved to accepting photos of documents and other non-traditional file types. We just tried to be flexible as we needed to pivot in the middle of the process.” 

Submittable also took extra steps to ensure the forms were mobile friendly for those away from their desktops and offices. And when repeated questions arose about certain requirements or application steps, Submittable made clarifying changes to the forms to streamline mid-process. 

Reviewing thousands of documents while still being thorough 

Once documents were in, applications needed to be reviewed and either approved or rejected. Submittable’s platform made it easy for the state of Montana to create teams of reviewers and limit certain permissions to only those who needed them. 

“We also very heavily used [Submittable’s] review process features: the reviewer permission levels and the auto assignments,” Nelson explains. “One thing that worked very well was creating team leaders for each group: Level One reviewers did the first basic review of checklists and Level Two dealt with the issues. Then the compliance team, the folks reviewing the financial aspects, made sure each application was ready for award payment.” 

Support for everyone alike 

Submittable assigned a dedicated support person to Montana’s program who helped administrators, reviewers, and submitters alike. 

When the state needed to provide step-by-step instructions to applicants on how to handle a specific action within their application process, the Customer Support team quickly wrote multiple help articles.

“There has been a very high volume of usage of support,” Nelson says. “I personally appreciate the support folks and that we received feedback from support. If they saw a particular portion of an application folks were having an issue with, and if they had a potential improvement that would maybe help  applicants be more successful, they’d let us know. So that feedback was appreciated.” 

Tracking and reporting made easy 

Once grants are awarded, administrators are able to track and analyze data within the platform. 

“For me personally, and for some of the higher level folks in management and troubleshooting, the advanced reporting feature is utilized daily,” Nelson observes. “Folks are using it to sort and pivot and pull updated data daily for various purposes. Reporting has been a very heavily used feature—and a great and effective one for our team.” 

Submittable’s fund tracking features also made it easier for the state of Montana to see the bigger picture while juggling so many different grants and programs at once. 

“The other main feature that we really used was the funds feature: the ability to track funds with the funds tab and use that dashboard,” Nelson shares. “We like the more visual perspective of all the different funds and how much is awarded and paid out. When you have multiple programs and multiple funds, it’s so helpful to see where we're at and track that information.” 

Ongoing help through tough times 

As of the beginning of September 2020, over $1 billion of $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds have been committed with over $329 million of that awarded, supporting nearly 12,000 Montana businesses and organizations.

“I'm just really proud of the group of people that have come together and worked tirelessly over long hours to help people in Montana, the businesses, the organizations,” Nelson says. “None of us have met in a room together. This was all done remotely and to be able to successfully roll out programs and do our very best to help people has been an accomplishment.” 

The programs will continue to benefit Montanans across the state as long as funding and need persist. 

“We had [a grant application] that went live this week for loan deferments for businesses,” Nelson says. “We're still moving and still heavily utilizing the full life cycle of the Submittable’s software.” 

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