The new website GrantAdvisor allows registered users to “review” foundations and corporate giving programs anonymously. Think TripAdvisor or Yelp, only for philanthropic practice. Initially focused on Minnesota and California, this website has been planned over many years.
The site is currently free to all users and the grantmakers being reviewed. Funder profiles become public when at least five user reviews are completed. Funders are invited to appoint a key contact who can respond to the reviews on the record. Community guidelines prohibit slander, abuse, overt advertising and other forms of disrespectful participation.
Founders of the project are Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits; Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits and founder of Blue Avocado, the influential web-based magazine for nonprofits; and Perla Ni, executive director of GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit-organization review site created for individuals who have experienced a nonprofit’s work directly.
Is such an effort needed? In a word, yes. Many foundations operate with increasingly cumbersome application requirements that baffle applicants and eat up valuable time. These practices have spawned a small industry of consultants who specialize in navigating application requirements and writing prose that conforms to foundations’ expectations. Foundation trends—some would say fads—influence giving patterns so that certain nonprofit practice areas become “hot” and seem to receive disproportionate funding. Meanwhile, other important nonprofits lose favor, struggling to find new income sources while the new kids prosper. On top of that, many innovative and grassroots organizations work in nontraditional ways. They don’t meet rigid foundation eligibility requirements and are shut out of the grants process entirely.
There’s also a communications challenge in the power dynamic between nonprofits and grantmakers. Most nonprofits choose their words carefully and avoid telling grantmakers exactly what they think of the application and decision-making process.
Take, for example, this comment that a reviewer left on GrantAdvisor:
“Our organization has applied four times to this funder, and never made it past the first round. Each proposal—prep/discussion/ideation, writing, reviewing, rewriting—takes at least 25 hours, and probably more when adding other people’s time. The staff there is very accessible, but the amount of human capital that goes into each application process, with low probability of return (although big return for a lucky few), raises many questions to me about meta cost-benefit to our sector.”
Or this more pointed comment:
“Be aware: If your organization is funded, this funder will likely push you to do a whole lot more work than they are paying you for and to adopt the strategies and tactics they want (rather than trusting you to make your own strategic decisions about how you do your work).”
During its first pilot year, GrantAdvisor is concentrating on Minnesota and California funders, and a small number of national funders who are active in these states. About 35 funders have been actively reviewed, including the best-known names in Minnesota philanthropy such as the McKnight Foundation, Bush Foundation, 3M Gives and Minneapolis Foundation. Organizers plan to expand Grant- Advisor to new regions in coming years, and have not ruled out membership or user fees as a long-term business model.
Each user survey asks specific questions that were developed by GrantAdvisors’ national volunteer board. Surveys request information about the reviewer’s relationship to the funder, their overall experience in the grantmaking process, the time needed to prepare the application and ask for feedback on “one thing this funder does really well” and “one piece of advice for this funder.”
Other organizations also are trying to strengthen applicant-funder relationships. After all, the two roles are interdependent for achieving the mission and goals of the nonprofit sector in areas such as health, education, human services and the arts. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has created a highly regarded survey process called the Grantee Perception Report, in use among 250 foundations nationwide. These reports function in the same manner as an employee engagement survey, asking nonprofits about aspects of their interaction with funders and reporting this data back to the grantmaking entity. The Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative encourages transparency among foundations and encourages the field to adopt best practices in reporting their strategies and results to the public.
The goal of GrantAdvisor is to put even more power into the hands of applicants and recipients. In describing the site’s benefits, organizers say that, over time, it will increase direct feedback, allow funders to benchmark their user reviews against peers, provide new feedback that is not solicited by the grantmaker and save time by improving knowledge in the applicant pipeline, so that more nonprofits understand a given foundation’s priorities and practices.
GrantAdvisor is an experiment for the nonprofit sector. Even with the protection of anonymity, it will be interesting to see whether grantseekers feel empowered to be more candid and whether we will see helpful shifts in philanthropic practice toward clearer communication and streamlined grant processes.