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Equity in Practice, Part 1: A Closer Look at Transparency

Kheira Issaoui-Mansouri and Melissa Sines
Equity in Practice, Part 1: A Closer Look at Transparency

In this two-part series, learn how leading funders are turning talk into action to achieve more equitable grant-making practices. Here, we consider the issues of transparent processes and decision making; Part 2 explores the connections between equity and responsible risk management practices.

Philanthropy has seen a surge of interest in racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. As our conversations and analyses deepen, an increasing number of funders are moving from talking and thinking about equity to acting. A natural place to start is the grant-making process. But grant making typically comprises multiple systems and interactions, and breaking down the various parts of the process can help identify specific actions needed to advance more equitable grant making.

Over the past few months, PEAK Grantmaking and Arabella Advisors have partnered to understand how grant- maker values are connected to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what innovative practices look like in those areas. After reflecting on best practices and interviewing a group of members and experts, we arrived at two questions that foundations pursuing equitable grant making increasingly ask themselves (or should!) about transparency.

Are we being transparent enough about our process?

When considering transparency in philanthropy, we often think first about how foundations choose to articulate their priorities with the broader public or the types of data they share on their websites (grantees lists, diversity data, etc.). This type of “organizational transparency” can be helpful in letting grantseekers know what you care about, and can help funders stay accountable to certain goals they set for themselves (for example, publicly sharing diversity data might help funders remain focused on diversifying their workforce).

But when speaking about transparency, interviewees elevated two important types of transparency that happen between a funder and a grantseeker: process transparency and decision-making transparency.

Process transparency describes the extent to which funders explain and share processes related to applying for, receiving, and reporting on a grant. Funders who think deeply about process transparency discussed how they intentionally work on:

  • Clearly communicating about the timeline and steps for applying for a grant
  • Clearly communicating about the limitations and/or flexibility of a grant
  • Cultivating a trusted funder/grantee relationship that enables both parties to share candid feedback and information
  • Clearly communicating about reporting requirements and explaining how the information will be used

Funders who pay great attention to process transparency use a wide range of strategies to put this idea into practice such as hosting pre-application sessions or webinars to demystify the grant-making process, having grant orientation sessions for new grantees, and ensuring that program officers have time to respond to grantee requests. This type of transparency allows for a more equitable grantee-funder relationship because it helps grantseekers understand the process and criteria for applying for a grant and decide if they should devote resources to the process or not. Without process transparency, grantseekers might apply for grants they don’t have a real chance to get or accept a grant that creates a significant administrative burden that they don’t have the capacity to take on.

Are we being transparent enough about our decision making?

In addition to having a sound process that is shared with grantseekers, some foundations have expanded the scope of their transparency practices by being open about their decision-making and proactively communicating about it. For example, one funder described how it uses its blog and other channels of communications to provide a window into its decision-making process and give others an opportunity to contribute to it. This funder described how a program officer of one of its large and new initiatives used its blog to share the foundation’s early thinking about a strategy and seek input from the field. A year later, the program officer reported on how the feedback they heard from grantees and the field was integrated into the strategy and how it was informing future decisions.

Establishing this open dialogue between the foundation and the field allowed this funder to gain helpful insights on how it was framing an issue and developing solutions to address it and allowed grantees and others to engage in a deep dialogue with this funder. Of note, decision-making transparency in this case did not just mean sharing how a decision was made but rather, it meant entering an open dialogue ahead of a decision, being open to feedback, and following up.

While decision-making transparency can take significant capacity, the benefits that it creates seem to outweigh the cost for many funders. Funders who think deeply about decision-making transparency discussed how they intentionally work on:

  • Clearly communicating how decisions are made, and by whom (e.g. share grant-making scoring rubric, share name or people who will be judging the proposals)
  • Communicate why decisions have been made (e.g. explain how proposals are scored, provide feedback on a rejected proposal)
  • Provide context and metrics that can help grantseekers decide if they want to pursue a funding opportunity (e.g. share the size of grants that will be awarded, estimate the likelihood of receiving a grant if using an open RFP process)

While there is no one-size-fits all way to establish effective transparency practices, funders interested in being more equitable can learn from one another to start thinking about where their strengths and weaknesses are and how they can improve.

To explore these questions more deeply and get tools that can help you along the way, check out PEAK Grantmaking’s resources and Arabella’s DEI in Grant Making Toolkit. For more insight on equitable practices, read Equity in Practice, Part 2: A Closer Look at Risk Management.


Kheira Issaoui-Mansouri and Melissa Sines

Kheira Issaoui-Mansouri is a Director at Arabella Advisors. Melissa Sines is Programs and Knowledge Director at PEAK Grantmaking.

This piece was originally published here by PEAK Grantmaking. It has been republished in its entirety with permission. 

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