In order to succeed and expand, most nonprofits must typically rely on something beyond their control: outside funding. But that can be tough to access. That’s because most money for cause work is generally allocated through grants–short-term monetary awards–that must be applied for from major funders like foundations.
In theory, this system ensures the groups doing the work feel pressed to actually make social change; the more an aid concept proves out, the more attractive it will look to future donors. In reality, however, the same system also creates an imbalance of power. Foundations get to stand back and judge whether a group appears worthy of their money, leaving those who are being judged in a position where if they do point out any problems with the application process or problematic strings attached to the payout, they might fear jeopardizing future access to that cash.
GrantAdvisor, a crowdsourced review site that launched in late July, seeks to change that by asking nonprofits to anonymously rate their experience working with foundations. The platform works a lot like Yelp or TripAdvisor, giving those who’ve received grants from various groups a chance to review both what it took to earn it, and how effective that funding was in furthering their mission–a chance to comment on things like when and how it was disbursed and what services it might have been earmarked for.
For nonprofits, the benefit is obvious: Finally, a way to give real feedback, and warn others if a funder whose promises look enticing might be more trouble than it’s worth. And for foundations, there’s a real opportunity to realistically gut check their own procedures and to figure out how to improve.
The platform itself is a nonprofit initiative supported by several well-known groups on both sides of these transactions, and a 16-person national leadership panel of more philanthropy experts. That includes representatives from the California Association of Nonprofits and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, both of which were the first to directly encourage their members to sign up and proactively approached foundations about registering to respond to reviews, and GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit review service developer. The Association of Fundraising Professionals and Social Media for Nonprofits, a social media training group, are partners, with major funders like the Peery Foundation, GreenLight Bay Area Fund, Open Road Alliance, and Thomson Family Foundation acting as advisors.
Vu Le, an executive director at Rainier Valley Corps, a fellowship program to empower leaders of communities of color within the Seattle area, who is also on the national leadership panel, considers GrantAdvisor a strong step toward encouraging more open communication between both grantors and grantees. “Because of the power dynamics, we are kind of really afraid to be honest and transparent about the challenges to give feedback,” he says of nonprofits in general, something he knows well because he runs the popular industry commentary website NonprofitAF, which has its own Facebook group for discussions about the sector.
“Funders also feel like we’re not really being very truthful to them, so we’re really trying to get a get around these power dynamics that are very pervasive in the sector and also keep people more accountable because this is public feedback,” Le adds. The site logo symbolizes this; it’s two waving penguins named Grant-y and Grant-r, who are “very open, friendly, and supportive of one another,” according to the site’s explanation. “Like their relatives from the neutral continent of Antarctica, Grant-y and Grant-r are all about cooperation, family support, taking turns, persevering despite difficult conditions, and being graceful in their own specialized way.”
Unlike Yelp or TripAdvisor, the platform’s reviews aren’t built around a star-based rating system. It uses other two different metrics instead. The first is a total number of hours it takes for most groups to actually complete the grant application process. The second is emoji-based score, basically a percentage that’s displayed beneath a smiley or frowny face to show the consensus around three major questions: What was the overall relationship with the funder? How would you rate this funder’s accessibility? How successfully do you think this funder is accomplishing its current philanthropic goals?
The emoji rankings offer a quick snapshot for GrantAdvisor’s basic scoresheet, but because they are also open-ended, users can click on different reviews to read more in-depth explanations. The more in-depth reviews cover things questions like what initial advice the previous grant recipient would give to a colleague about to “start their quest” with the same group and the one piece of advice might the recipient would offer their former funder “about grantmaking or anything else.”
The entire process is supposed to take about seven minutes. Reviewers can also select preset descriptors about the group to highlight each funders obvious pros (“Responsive” and/or “Risk taker”) or cons (“Culturally incompetent” and/or “Bureaucratic”). Those appear atop the summary scoresheet. The site displays both when the interaction occurred, and whether the group got more, less, or equal to what it requested.
The hope, says Le, is that if funders consistently hear that they’re being incommunicative, taking too long to respond, or not focused on the right criteria for change, they might readjust their processes and priorities. At that same time, the public and transparent scores can help groups figure out who to engage with, and how much time winning a grant might really take. “So many of us don’t realize what it takes to write a grant for certain foundations. Some foundations take like 50 or 80 hours of time just to work on a proposal,” he says. “It’s also a way for nonprofit to support one another, by being on the lookout for one another regarding which foundations are worthwhile to apply to.”
Like other review sites, funders can’t opt out of being critiqued. They can, however, publicly respond to reviews with their own comments, which get posted below each critique. By allowing reviewers to remain anonymous, GrantAdvisor ensures that cause groups won’t lose future funding, either from the groups they review or others who might not want to risk collaborating for fear or criticism.
Once a foundation receives five reviews, that feedback gets averaged into a representative score that goes live and is adjusted as more opinions come in. So far, nearly 800 reviewers have registered, offering multiple reviews of nearly 300 foundations. Of those, 45 have gained enough feedback to go live. More than 130 foundations have already registered a contact person who will get alerts and be able to respond to reviews as they’re posted.
On the positive side, here’s a look at the Peery Foundation, a site advisor, whose mission is “to strengthen youth and families to build lives of dignity and self-reliance.”
Below that basic scoresheet, users can scroll down to see basic advice from others, and the organization’s response; each card is clickable and expands to share more information.
Foundation scores obviously vary, but Le says that overall it appears many foundations are approachable with responsive and friendly program officers. “A lot of complaints are around their process. They are taking way too long, or their online process is burdensome.”
Part of that is because the grant application makers may be thinking about convenient ways compile and compare the information they request, but not what it takes for groups to actually go through that process, “[I]f a staff or board member at a foundation has never completed a grant application themselves, they may never know that the process they’ve designed is burdensome, duplicative of other work, and actually undermines the very work of the nonprofit they support,” says Kari Aanestad, the development manager at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits in an email to Fast Company.
Some funders do engage regular community assessments to make sure they’re funding things that are vitally important for their cause. But others do that within the silo of a boardroom or echo chamber of talking other funders, notes Aanestad. That means they could be disconnected from the true needs of the communities they want to serve. Cause groups actually doing on-the-ground work are likely more in touch with what it really takes to make change, and could likely help guide how grants are structured to be more impactful, if only someone would listen.
“While many foundations require hours of diligent program evaluation and thoughtful reporting by nonprofits, there’s little to no public accountability for foundations to verify that their investment strategy has actually yielded the results for which they were striving,” she adds. “GrantAdvisor is that public accountability to ensure we’re all investing in and running at work that best meets community needs.”