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NewOnlineSitetoFunctionasaYelpforGrantMakersTheChronicleofPhilanthropy

ARTICLE
DECEMBER 10, 2015

New Online Site to Function as a Yelp for


Grant Makers
By Suzanne Perry
ST. PAUL, MINN.
A group of nonprofit fundraisers, all good
friends, have gathered for drinks, and the
discussion turns to a local foundation.
"We would love to get money from them,"
one says, "but we dont really know how to
break in. Any advice?"
"To be honest," one friend replies, "unless you have a good connection with someone on
the staff whos given you the green light, its probably not worth your time."
"If you do apply, get ready for the buzzwords," another says. "They love to use words like
innovation and inspire. But its not clear what they actually mean. And they embody an
almost old-world philanthropy that focuses far too much on themselves, their staff, their
board, and egos."
"Oh, I dont know," a third friend chimes in. "Ive had good luck working with them. I like
their ideology and their direction."
What if, instead of sharing such observations privately over drinks, grant seekers recorded
them online for others to see?

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People review charities on GreatNonprofits, restaurants on Yelp, companies on Glassdoor,


hotels on TripAdvisor, home-repair companies on Angies List and just about every
other entity somewhere. Foundations have so far mostly escaped such public scrutiny, but
now their time has come.
Meet GrantAdvisors.org, an embryonic online review site that asks grant seekers,
grantees, foundation employees, and others to describe their experiences working with
foundations: Were their guidelines helpful, their staff members receptive, their reporting
requirements reasonable? And, in the end, would you recommend working with them?
Breaking Down Walls
In fact, all of the comments above were made (in slightly different form) about a real
Minnesota foundation by reviewers who filled out a survey that the Minnesota Council of
Nonprofits posted in October to test the GrantAdvisors concept. The Minnesota group is
working with the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits), GreatNonprofits,
and others to get the new site off the ground in several geographical areas in 2016.
The project aims to open up the often-mysterious world of grant making by encouraging
insiders to share information that could help others, and to provide honest feedback to
foundations about their operations something not always easy to do given the power
imbalance between those seeking money and those controlling the purse strings.
"Its really difficult for fundraisers to raise honest concerns about funders, or even to talk
about, if you like, the responsiveness, the customer service, the support that funders give
them," says Andrew Watt, chief executive of the Association of Fundraising Professionals,
who is advising GrantAdvisors.
Jan Masaoka, chief executive of CalNonprofits, likens grant seeking to penetrating a
castle. Some nonprofits are already inside the castle, she says, perhaps "because their
predecessors got into the castle." But others lob their grant application "over the castle
wall, not knowing where it hits."
Each group is seeking different kinds of information, she says. "The people who are in the
castle wall are more interested in talking about, How is the funder affecting the field?,"
she says. "People outside the castle are like, How do I get them to return my calls?"

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The GrantAdvisors project is part of a growing movement to break through foundation


bubbles. The Center for Effective Philanthropy conducts interviews with grantees, donors,
and rejected applicants to help foundations assess their performance. Inside
Philanthropy, a website that offers news and analysis about foundations and major
donors, debuted last year. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a
foundation watchdog, in 2014 started Philamplify, a program that produces
comprehensive public assessments about the operations of individual foundations.
Limited Interest in the Past
Previous efforts to get people to post public reviews have faltered. Inside Philanthropy
invited readers to "Speak Truth to Money" and post what they really thought about
foundations, program officers, and philanthropists.
But out of almost 500,000 people who visited the site during its first year, fewer than
three dozen posted anonymous reviews, prompting the publication to phase out that
feature.
"Why have people been mum, when we all know theres enormous pent-up frustration
with funders?" David Callahan, the publications founder, wrote last January. "Thats a
good question. Fear seems like the most obvious explanation. But I think another factor is
that people are busy and overworked in nonprofits."
Thousands of people responded candidly to Philamplifys anonymous grantee surveys,
Lisa Ranghelli and Yna Moore, the committees director of foundation assessment and
communications director, wrote in June. However, they added, "Our efforts to engage
these same folks on Philamplify.org have not taken off as we had hoped. Even with the
option to post anonymously, we have seen limited use of our online platform enabling
commentary on the recommendations weve made for each foundation we philamplified."
The GrantAdvisors architects are aware that motivating people to post reviews is one of
their key challenges.
But Perla Ni, founder of GreatNonprofits, says she thinks people will contribute to
GrantAdvisors for the same reason they do to TripAdvisor and similar sites. "People want
to read about other peoples experiences, and we want to share our own," she says. "Its
very human." The involvement of groups like the Minnesota and California nonprofit
associations will help, she adds, because they are known and trusted by local charities.
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GreatNonprofits which since 2007 has been posting reviews and ratings of charities by
donors, clients, volunteers, and employees is building and hosting the GrantAdvisors
site.
The projects backers hope the effort will improve philanthropy in the same way that
other review sites have kept businesses on their toes. Ms. Ni points to an academic study
that found ratings of Irish hotels on TripAdvisor improved over a two-year period as the
hotels responded to a growing number of reviews.
Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, says participants at
the councils annual conference in October were enthusiastic about the GrantAdvisors
concept. About 90 percent of 200 people who attended a session that discussed it said they
would use the service, and about 70 percent said they would contribute to it.
Us Versus Them Concerns
With the potential to win a $250 Amazon gift card, more than 145 people have since
answered a GrantAdvisors survey anonymously about the 20 most active grant
makers in the state, including heavyweights like the Bush, Cargill, McKnight,
Minneapolis, and Target foundations.
The survey asked open-ended questions ("If you could change one thing about the
fundraising process with this funder, what would it be?"); factual ones ("What types of
grants does this funder provide?"); and whimsical ones ("If this funder were a Hollywood
movie, what genre would it be?," with possible answers including "horror film," "feelgood buddy flick," and "comedy of errors").
Mr. Pratt says that about 60 percent of the reviews, which have not yet been published,
were positive and the rest neutral or negative.
Dominick Washington, communications director at the Bush Foundation, says his
organization strongly encourages feedback from grantees, grant applicants, community
members, and others, and GrantAdvisors will provide "additional data points." However,
he says he told Mr. Pratt: "I hope this doesnt become a slam book where people pile on a
foundation."
He says his organization awards 50 percent of its money in open competitions, such as the
Bush Fellowship Program and the Bush Prize for Community Innovation. "A lot of people
apply. A lot of people are obviously disappointed that they didnt get a grant."
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Mr. Washington says he favors more conversation between nonprofits and foundations
but worries that a public forum like GrantAdvisors could harden the "us versus them
dynamic." He also questions whether foundations can be compared with hotels. "The
hotel needs to be a place that a broad swath of people want to go to," he says. "Many
foundations have the luxury of being very particular about what types of organizations
theyre working with."
Both the Minnesota group and CalNonprofits have held focus groups of nonprofit
fundraisers and others to get feedback on how to design a successful site one that is not
a magnet for vindictiveness, on one hand, or flattery, on the other.
"We dont want to be attack dogs," says Sheila Bayle, a fundraising consultant who
attended a focus group in St. Paul last summer. "Im a big believer in framing it in a
positive way: Were trying to change the world here and we need your help to do it because
you are a barrier."
But Ms. Masaoka says focus-group participants in California surprised her by saying that
all reviews should be anonymous to avoid the opposite problem: using the opportunity to
curry favor with remarks like "Oh, my God, theyve got the greatest people, theyre got
their priorities right."
Guidelines in Development
GrantAdvisors says it will publish feedback publicly once it has collected 10 reviews on a
foundation. Grant makers will be able to respond to reviews on the site, but the project
leaders haven't yet decided whether there will be a chance to see the comments before
they are posted, Ms. Ni says.
The site will post community guidelines for appropriate speech similar to those that
appear on other online review sites (banning threatening, discriminatory, or pornographic
comments, for example) and set up a system for deciding whether to remove "borderline"
comments at a foundations request, Ms. Ni says.
One grant maker has opened its pockets to support the cause. The Peery Foundation, a
family foundation that awards grants to youth and family programs in the San Francisco
Bay Area, last year committed $100,000 over two years to help GrantAdvisors build up the
project.

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"Considering how nonprofits have always been under the microscope, I always joked with
Perla [Ni] that she needed to start something that rated foundations, and that wed be
happy to be guinea pigs for such an experiment," David Peery, the managing director, said
in email.
The foundation wanted to help level the playing field "between fundraisers (who are so
regularly assessed and reviewed) and funders (who are seldom accountable to anyone
external regarding their performance)," the executive director, Jessamyn Shams-Lau,
added.
Besides Minnesota and California, the project is rolling out in Washington State. Vu Le,
executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps and author of the popular blog Nonprofit
With Balls, has been asking participants at executive-director happy hours in Seattle to
fill out paper surveys about state grant makers. They can now review a list of foundations
online.
Mr. Pratt says GrantAdvisors will eventually also seek feedback on government funding
agencies.
Ms. Masaoka recalls dealing with a program officer who would ask her to buy Mary Kay
cosmetics during phone calls to discuss her grant proposal. GrantAdvisors will give
fundraisers a way to let foundations know about inappropriate behavior like that, she
says.
"When foundations hear feedback, they get better," she says.

Copyright 2015 The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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