I wanted to make another visit to the piece on shared power and transparency in grant making F. Javier Torres and Leila Tamari wrote for Inside Philanthropy which I referenced in yesterday’s post. I wanted to address this issue separately in its own post.
Torres and Tamari talk about the lengths they went to provide grant applicants with as much information about how they were applying their criteria as they could.
When we embarked on refining the application process for the NCPF in 2015, we asked ourselves: “How do we benefit by holding our cards close to the vest?” There was no benefit! As a result, we sought to provide thoughtful explanations for why we needed information in a certain format. We also pushed ourselves to remove as much jargon as possible.
At the next stage of our process (where approximately 7 percent of applicants were invited to submit a full proposal), we made the process more open by providing all applicants with what we’d actually be looking for in the full proposal and site visits. This is the same material we provided to panelists who reviewed all the projects and provided funding recommendations.
However, they said, in their effort to be as clear as possible about the criteria they would be employing in evaluating proposals, they also provided people additional information with which to game the system.
This showed up for us in 2016 when we chose to publish that we were particularly interested in projects focused on community development sectors underrepresented in our portfolio to date. We received hundreds of submissions in which applicants attempted to alter the goals and strategies of their projects into one of the sectors we listed as being “of special interest,” believing this would make them more competitive in the funding process.
More often than not, these projects would have been strong had they been framed in a community development sector more authentic to the work, instead of the ones we stated as priorities for the year. As a result, these proposals were received by our peer review panel as round pegs attempting to fit into square holes, and ultimately decreased their competitiveness.
There are frequent conversations in articles and blogs like mine about how organizations will undermine their operational effectiveness by pursuing grants that ill fit their organization and then by going through the contortions trying to execute grant activities alongside the core programs for which they really wanted the grant money.
Less frequently do funders tell the non-profit community that it was clear to them applicants were proposing something for which they were ill-suited and they would have been more effective taking an approach that reflected their core strengths.
As one who has served as a grant panelist, I can tell you it is often clear that organizations are trying to change color to suit the grant program criteria. It is just that few organizations will come out and generally encourage applicants to avoid taking that approach.
By the same token, the unequal relationship dynamics and opacity Torres and Tamari say the National Creative Placemaking Fund (NCPF) was working so hard dismantle does encourage people to try to game the system.
If you aren’t clear what a granting entity wants, there can be a perceived benefit in correctly guessing the secret combination of words that the granting entity has determined will unlock the funding. There may not really be a narrow set of phrases the granter is looking for, but the opacity of the process means that getting funded reinforces your confidence in your superior ability to read between the lines of proposal guidelines.
Basically, I think in some respects applicants have been conditioned to try to game the system as much as possible. Faced with funders who say they are being completely earnest about what they are looking for, some applicants will be convinced there are some unspoken criteria with which they will align and enable them to gain funding.