Not all that much good comes with getting older, but one exception is time spent with the best teacher of all: experience. After 27 years in foundation philanthropy, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to learn firsthand some important lessons, and today I share a key one: Publishing your guidelines, and generally being transparent about your grantmaking process, will save you time, energy, and money, and increase the impact of your giving.
It may at first seem counterintuitive, but, in my experience and that of many of my peers, the more you publicize your funding guidelines, the fewer applications you’ll get—especially if you are a funder who previously resisted making your guidelines widely known.
Some funders don’t publicize their guidelines because they fear it will “open the floodgates,” bringing on a deluge of applications that will bury them in paperwork; others keep their funding goals close to their chest because they prefer to be proactive grantmakers; if they say nothing about their funding priorities, they figure no one will approach them.
Experience has taught me, however, that neither assumption is correct. In fact, if you aren’t transparent about what you fund and why you fund it, applicants can only guess. And, if they are only guessing, believe me, especially in this economy, they will tend to resolve every doubt in favor of applying for a grant rather than not applying. That means you will receive more applications, not fewer, and many of those applications will be far afield from the kind of need or purpose you’d like to fund.
Applications submitted on a “guess” waste the time and resources of both grantmaker and grantseeker.
Forefront, a Chicago-based membership association for foundations and nonprofits, actually publishes a tool to help both grant applicant and grant reviewer calculate the true cost of completing a grant cycle. But, regardless of the precise dollars involved, it’s safe to say that each application ultimately consumes a lot of resources on both sides of the process.
So how do you make all that time and energy count for something? Simply by telling people what you actually want to fund.
At both my prior foundation and VNA, we found that the more transparent and specific our guidelines, the more on-target the proposals we received. Receiving just the types of applications that you’d truly like to fund saves time, money, and energy for all involved—and will also allow you to narrow your focus and increase the odds of making a difference. Publishing clear guidelines will also earn you the gratitude and respect of the agencies and communities you are trying to assist.
At VNA Foundation, we operate under the simple credo that we treat every applicant just how we’d like to be treated ourselves, which includes operating under a very transparent process so people know what we fund and how we work. This mindset has earned us kudos as an accessible and partnership-oriented grantmaker, as well as invitations to collaborate both with other funders and with service providers.
Besides the benefits to you and your grantees, publicizing your grantmaking guidelines and procedures benefits philanthropy as a whole.
All of us in this field have the obligation to tell the world—media, legislators, and general public—what we are doing and how we are doing it, and, by implication, why we deserve the tax breaks and other special treatment we receive. An easy but important first step in transparency is to be honest with applicants—and ourselves—about exactly what we’d like to fund.
In short, being open about funding guidelines makes life easier for both applicants and ourselves by generating only the type of applications we’d most like to fund, while also helping our public perception—a pretty good deal all around.
For resources to support transparency, see Glasspockets, a Foundation Center initiative that champions philanthropic transparency in an online world.