Grantmaking Transparency: 10 Ways to Operate in the Open

03/10/2020

In a perfect world, grant applications wouldn’t confuse anyone.

In the real world, grant seekers are often unsure about how to complete their proposal, uncertain if they even qualify and unclear on how their proposal will be reviewed.

When it comes to philanthropy, being honest and transparent is like being a beacon in the dark. Increasingly, fewer foundations are forthcoming about their grant processes in this “dark” era of philanthropy.

Now, more than ever, grantmakers should strive to be transparent through their entire process if they want to strengthen their position in the giving business of philanthropy.

Why should you, the grantmaker, strive to be more transparent in your process?

For one thing, it inspires and builds trust.

Running a transparent operation is important for building good faith with both your grantees and beneficiaries. This doesn’t mean you need to share private data or publicize every detail from previous funding rounds but it does mean being upfront about your processes in whatever way you can.

A transparent grantmaking process helps to improve trust in the philanthropic sector within society as a whole. 

Funders who are open about their process (from peer review to the award stage) are more likely to build stronger relationships and therefore make a bigger impact.

Operating in the open can improve grantee relationships, strengthen funder credibility, and foster greater impact. Let’s explore some tactical ways you can start working more transparently in your grantmaking process.

tactical ways you can start working more transparently in your grantmaking process

1. Write clear guidelines

Vague or unclear requirements encourage unsuitable applications and waste time for both grantseekers and grantmakers.

Make sure your guidelines are clear, easy to read, and free of unnecessary jargon. 

If your grantees need Inspector Gadget level deciphering skills to understand your guidelines, you’re doing yourself and your cause a disservice.

2. Share information about who administers the grants and who the decision-makers are

Who is reading the proposal? How many people review it? Is there one decision-maker or several?

The grantmaking decision process is, to many, mystifying. You can help take grantees and the public out of the dark by letting them know who makes your organization’s philanthropic decisions.

Share data about your staff to help clarify what goes on behind the scenes. Photos and short biographies on your website, especially for your review board, are great places to start and helps assure grantees of a real, human decision-making process.

3. Engage and collaborate with other funders

Philanthropic organizations have started to realize that working in isolation is not the most effective way to accomplish their mission.

Whether your grant exists to tackle small or large-scale problems like climate change and world poverty, your organization doesn’t need to manage it all alone.

It’s rare that funders are completely solitary in tackling specific issues. Engaging with others in the sector means organizations can utilize each other’s assets to foster a bigger impact.

Engage and collaborate with other funders

4. Make your grant process public where you can

The grantmaking process is complicated. Making more of your process accessible online is a great way to ensure transparency with grantees and beneficiaries.

A great example of grantmaking transparency done right is the Kessler Foundation. The entire process from start to end is available on their website—they also share a detailed outline of the specific types of programs they’re willing to fund.

If you’re offering a grant on an invitation-only basis, make that crystal clear too. Otherwise, you’ll wind up receiving tons of applications you’ll have to chuck out. Share the estimated likelihood of winning a grant (using an open RFP process) and include the average time expected to receive a response.

5. Showcase past grant winners

How often has your organization had to sift through piles of unsuitable grant applications until finally finding one that looks like a match?

When applicants can clearly see what type of programs and projects you’ve funded in the past, they’re much more likely to submit their proposals to the most suitable foundations. Outline what previous grants were used for, the size of each grant and any other information you think is relevant.

Sharing case studies featuring those who previously received your grants is also a great way to praise past grantees and show your appreciation for the work they carried out with the help of your grant-giving.

6. Outline where you have succeeded

By sharing your grants data, you’re advocating for a transparent and honest process within the grantmaking business.

In a data-driven world, sharing information helps funders and practitioners learn from each other, as well as build on the experiences and lessons to create bigger impacts.

Find engaging, digestible ways to repackage and share dense evaluations and long-form reports.

Consider producing detailed infographics, summaries, videos, and podcasts to share your key reports with the most important takeaways. Post these on your website and social media channels, and include them in any other communications you might use, like a newsletter.

If your organization shares data on what’s been working and what hasn’t, it paves the way for others to do the same. Help grantees and other organizations better understand the result (and the limitations) of the work you do, while also helping the public understand the impact you’re hoping to make.

Outline where you have succeeded

7. Explain your selection process

Nothing is more disheartening for grantees than not understanding why they weren’t selected.

If your grant is available on an invitation-only basis, make the effort to explain why on your website. Create a downloadable document that explains a step-by-step guide of your selection process and share it on your websites, social media platforms, and newsletter if you have one.

8. Acknowledge funder fragility

For many nonprofits, the risks and consequences of offending a funder can be severely damaging.

Grantees risk losing the funding (as well as access to other funders), damaging their reputation, and weakening their relationships.

Acknowledging your organization’s privilege as a funder is the first step in leveling out relationships with nonprofits. Funder fragility should never deter grantees from giving honest feedback or from questioning parts of your process that they think should be improved.

Bottom line: grantmakers and organizations cannot work well together to make an impact if the party with the most influence (and resources) is too sensitive and fragile to have a meaningful dialogue about their role in creating equity.

Acknowledge funder fragility

9. Ask for feedback to better shape future initiatives

Who better to help you shape your next initiatives than those who have direct experience with your previous ones?

Communication between funders and grantees can be difficult because of the power dynamics usually at play. You can get around this by allowing anonymous comments on your website, gathering information from blog posts and social media channels, or administering a survey. Asking for input can also help you avoid making assumptions while building lasting relationships.

Increasing transparency within your communications can encourage feedback and create a more meaningful dialogue between funders and grantees. 

Any feedback you get should be shared so that nonprofits, beneficiaries, and other funders can easily access and utilize it.

10. Start using grants management software

Grants management software makes it easy for nonprofits to gather their proposals, report on their grantmaking process, and process their reviews.

For you, the grantmaker, you can streamline your communication and keep all the important grantee information under one roof. Manual practices like maintaining spreadsheets and databases call for lots of little errors that slow the process down and ultimately, take time away from the more important work—finding the right organization that aligns with your cause.

Working transparently means keeping grantees in the know. 

Use grants management software to clearly communicate your guidelines and explain the different stages of the process. It makes opportunities easy to access and allows grantees to see the status of their application throughout, saving you on admin time.

It also helps to improve communication with your applicants by sending periodic updates and providing an easy way for grantees to leave feedback.

Use an all-in-one grants management software to measure and analyze your impact so you can build your experiences and create stronger initiatives in the future.

Achieve a bigger impact by operating in the open

Transparency in grantmaking isn’t just a “nice to have”, but a crucial step towards fostering stronger grantee relationships and facilitating bigger change.

Grantees have reported being unclear on the grant review process and nonprofits may refrain from challenging grantmakers for fear of jeopardizing future funding.

Operating in the open is key to establishing and building quality relationships with grantees and running a successful program.

Sharing details about your selection process, past grantees and the reviewing team can help demystify the grantmaking process. Writing clear guidelines saves time and effort while collaborating with other funds can utilize resources to maximize impact.

With these ten tactical steps, you’ll be on your way to running a transparent, trustworthy, and impactful grant program.

author photo of Sabreen Swan
Sabreen Swan

Sabreen Swan is a writer who works closely with B2B and SaaS companies. When she’s not jargon-busting, you’ll find her buried under an old book and drinking too much tea. You can read some of her work on her website.