Behind Closed Doors: Sharing Grantee Selection Processes and Grantee Data

For many foundations, a first step to becoming more transparent is to share information about their goals, theories of change, and processes for grantee applications. Making grantee selection processes more clear addresses a top complaint from nonprofits: they are frustrated in their efforts to obtain information about a funder’s grant strategies and selection processes, which is integral to developing productive relationships and writing meaningful proposals.

1. Save foundations and grantseekers' time by providing clear guidelines.

EXAMPLE: The Open Estonia Foundation in Europe sponsors a number of competitions, which attract a large number of applications. Historically, the foundation did not publish detailed guidelines describing the eligibility criteria for competitions. As a result, about 50 percent of the applications were inappropriate for the competitions, which led to a huge drain on time for both ineligible applicants and foundation staff. Starting in 2009, the foundation began publishing detailed guidelines for each of its competitions on its website. The result: only 10 percent of applications are now ineligible for the competitions.

Further, many foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals; they only fund certain organizations and projects that they invite to submit a proposal. For funders with that policy, it is helpful to state it clearly on their websites to save time for potential applicants, so that they can refocus on building a relationship with that funder instead.

ACTION STEP #1: Publish the process by which grantees are selected for invitation-only programs and share information on the estimated time it takes to complete an application.

​2. Go beyond sharing grantmaking guidelines.

EXAMPLE: The Weingart Foundation took this approach a step further. For years, it published grantee guidelines. But in 2011, it also began posting its assumptions about its grantmaking. In the past, the foundation prepared these assumptions for its internal use only. But then staff decided to post these assumptions on their website, believing it would help potential grantees to more fully understand the foundation’s thinking. The assumptions include a detailed analysis of where the foundation sees the environment in which nonprofits will be operating for the next 12-18 months, and how those factors will influence its grantmaking. The foundation both publishes its assumptions and also solicits input. It circulates a draft to nonprofit leaders and select partners, and then incorporates feedback into its final version. Whenever foundation staff ask for feedback on this or other aspects of their work, they let grantees know about changes they have made in response. They do so on the presumption that if a foundation asks for feedback, it is important to demonstrate that it is actually paying attention to that feedback. “We’ve gotten so much attention from nonprofits [about publishing these assumptions] who have said, ‘Oh my God, this is so helpful. Now we understand why you’ve identified certain approaches or priorities." These are documents that the foundation already had internally, and staff saw an opportunity to make a bigger impact by taking a little extra time to polish and share them publicly.

ACTION STEP #2: If you ask grantees for feedback, share responses to that feedback in your next e-newsletter or on your website.

3. Respond rapidly and clearly to grant applications.

An important aspect of transparency is providing information in a timely manner. This is true no matter what size or type of foundation. As part of a larger corporate structure, the staff members at the American Express Foundation come from a business approach of operating in a lean environment, making quick decisions, and refusing to waste people’s time. The foundation has a staff of 10 who make grants in the U.S. and around the world. This need for efficiency directly influences its grantmaking application and selection processes. The American Express Foundation starts by publishing clear guidelines about what types of projects the organization is looking for. Then they work with potential applicants, inviting short letters of inquiry to quickly assess a project’s fit so they do not waste anybody’s time. Timothy McClimon, of the American Express Foundation, says, “We are a very small staff. We don’t have a lot of time for a lengthy review process. So we try to be very upfront and very transparent about what we do, why we do it, and what we hope to accomplish.”

4. Create an interactive grants database.

Another way that a foundation can be transparent about its grantee selection process is by making available a grants database where people can learn more about its funding decisions. One of the most sophisticated interactive grants databases is on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s website. In this database, anyone can learn more about the foundation’s grantmaking using filters that include region, program, type of support, year, and dollar amount of grants. The Hewlett Foundation has made the software behind the tool available under Creative Commons licensing as an open source resource so that other foundations can easily use it to display their grants data.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Opening Up.

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