Absolute Transparency: An Illuminating Approach to the Grantmaking Process

(Karen Topakian was the executive director of the Agape Foundation for 16 years. The Foundation merged in 2010 with the Peace Development Fund. Currently, she is the owner of Topakian Communications, a freelance writing and communications consulting business. You can find her on Facebook at Topakian Communications.)

Karen Topakian

Transparency in clothing can be provocative. Transparency in decision-making can be illuminating. That's what the founders of the Agape Foundation thought when they decided that their grantmaking process must occur in the light of day, in an environment of complete transparency.

Agape's full name, The Agape Foundation–Fund for Nonviolent Social Change, indicated its commitment to the practice of nonviolence in word and deed. The foundation believed that those with the power, the grantmaker, needed to act with openness and accountability toward those without, the grantseeker.

Most foundations conduct their grantmaking process behind closed doors, shrouding grantmaking activities in a secrecy that can perpetuate a perception of elitism. Such a perception damages the sector, and can breed ill will and mistrust.

By making the process transparent, grantmakers can speak directly to grantseekers and forge a partnership around shared values and actions. That transparency also provides an opportunity for grantseekers to see what parts of their proposal and organization resonate with funders, and what parts may be unclear or misunderstood.

It was this philosophy of transparency and partnership that drove the grant decision-making process among Agape's Board of Trustees. This body of activists and nonprofit leaders read, reviewed, and discussed the proposals after the staff eliminated those organizations which did not meet the guidelines. (Agape only funded young, California-based, grassroots nonviolent social change organizations.)

The board then winnowed the docket down to five to eight proposals that best matched Agape's mission and funding criteria. The real show, however, took place at the next phase of the grantmaking process: the session where the applicants made their presentations, live and in person.

These final candidates received an invitation to attend a day-long session. Often groups were invited because the board had questions that weren't answered in the proposal. An invitation did not guarantee funding, however.

At the granting session, the grantseekers were required to make a 10-minute presentation and answer questions from the board. Their participation need not have ended there. They were also invited to listen to other groups' presentations, join the board for lunch, witness their deliberations and final granting decisions, and participate in an evaluation of both the process and the session at the end of the day.

Board members and grantseekers had to abide by two rules of engagement:

  • Board members must use the question time to raise any outstanding concerns or questions about the proposal so that the grantseeker can address them
  • Grantseekers cannot speak during the board's deliberations

The lunch session allowed the board, staff, and grantseekers to build community by sharing food and camaraderie as partners and fellow activists—further breaking down the barriers between the grantmakers and the grantseekers. This informal part of the meeting also allowed grantseekers to meet each other and learn more about each other's work, with the hope that they would develop relationships, collaborations, and community.

After the presentations, the board began their official deliberations, deciding on grantees and grant amounts by consensus. Not all decisions came easily. Sometimes the board chose not to fund a proposal because they felt the organization was not capable of completing the work as described. Other proposals were declined because the presenter could neither adequately answer the board's questions nor address major concerns.

If that happened, the grantseeker would have known why from the questions and discussion that took place during their presentation. Those moments were always the hardest for all involved, but provided a valuable learning experience for the grantseeker.

Sometimes the board had difficulty reaching consensus on the amount of the grant. Through open and honest discussion, they reached an amount upon which all could agree.

The final item on the agenda, the evaluation of the process, included everyone. Now the grantseeker could share their thoughts and feelings about the experience, allowing Agape's board and staff to learn how their actions were seen and felt by others. This stage—like all the others—was always done with an eye toward improving the process the next time. Always done with an eye toward transparency.

— Karen Topakian

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