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Transparency in Grant-Making: Narrowing the Power Gap for Everyone’s Benefit

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Grant-making organisations make an invaluable contribution to society, giving out £5bn a year from assets worth an estimated £62bn. But for a sector with such influence and power, they are often shrouded in mystery. With calls for greater transparency growing increasingly louder, we look at how grant-making organisations can embrace a culture of openness for everyone’s benefit. 

Independent grant-making organisations are uniquely placed within civil society. They are separate from government, often do not rely on anybody else for their income, and can measure their impact from the success of grants awarded to others. All of this undoubtedly has its benefits. It gives GMOs the ability to focus purely on their goals without being influenced by political or social agendas, constrained by hitting income targets or having direct responsibility for the outcomes of projects. In short, it is why they can make such a monumental impact – albeit often a quiet one.

Recent reports have estimated that only a quarter of grant-making organisations have a website. Those that exist often lack information as basic as contact details, let alone detailed guidance for applicants or evidence of their effectiveness as an organisation. Until recently, this lack of transparency was so prevalent that it is almost the norm. It has led to historic frustration from grantees and applicants who often feel funders hold all the cards in the balance of power. But the tides are slowly turning, and there are increasing calls for transparency from grant-making organisations that go beyond regulatory requirements. So, should you be adopting a more open approach to the information you make publicly available?

Valerie Merrill has worked with Gallery Partnership for 15 years and supports over 60 grant-making organisations to improve their processes and impact. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and many organisations simply won’t be able to be as transparent as others. There is certainly a growing trend and expectation that grant-making organisations are more open in the information they publicly disclose. Still, the first step should be defining what this means for you and the causes you support”. This would certainly be the case for family-funds, which make up 61% of grant-making organisations, where there is a balance to be found between privacy and publicity. Those working within organisations that support causes perceived to be controversial from certain viewpoints may also want to carefully consider how much information they put in the public domain. However, for Valerie adopting a more open and transparent culture that works for your organisation and stakeholders has key benefits that can ultimately improve your effectiveness. She says, “When carefully implemented, the benefits of adopting a greater level of transparency outweigh the risks and bring numerous advantages. It improves relationships and engagement with stakeholders, aids decision-making and can ultimately increase your overall impact by raising your profile.”

Becoming a more transparent organisation cannot be done at the drop of a hat. To truly embrace this, openness needs to be ingrained into your culture and processes, constantly evolving alongside you. If you’re ready to take a look at your organisation’s transparency, what benefits could you expect to see, and how could this work for you?

Build relationships with grantees built on trust and mutual respect

Before considering improving your transparency with the wider general public, assess how open you are with your applicants and grantees first and foremost.

For Valerie, the first step should be assessing the applicant and grantee’s experience. “It’s important for grant-making organisations to put themselves in applicants’ shoes. At the very least, prominent placement of eligibility criteria so they can make an informed decision on whether it would be worth their time to apply. But you should also consider providing information on how they make decisions and, where appropriate, top line information on your effectiveness as an organisation. Grant-making organisations ask a lot from applicants. It’s about looking at what you give back right from the start of the process. Providing additional guidance is easy to implement and kicks the relationship off on a good start.”

Communication with applicants at every stage is key. “In the Information Age, applicants and grantees expect to be kept in the loop. Providing automated updates on the progress of applications and grant payments is surprisingly simple to implement when organisations embrace technology to manage their grants,” Valerie says. “Simple changes like this make your partners feel valued without it becoming an administrative burden.”

Tell your story

How much detail you share is up to you, but publicly articulating your vision, mission and values in an engaging and accessible enhances legitimacy, builds trust and raises awareness of the support you can give. All of this can help in increasing your potential impact.

“Your story is yours to tell. Times have certainly changed, and if grant-making organisations operate completely under-the-radar, then there is always a risk somebody else might misrepresent it,” Valerie says. “Providing publicly available and appropriate information on your organisation not only helps potential applicants find your support more easily, it acts as a level of protection against reputational damage. It goes a long way towards showing your openness to accountability.”

Transparency starts from within

At its heart, adopting increased transparency and openness is a cultural change. Embedding this in your internal processes is paramount in ensuring a genuine, meaningful, impactful approach.

For Valerie, giving your team easy access to the information they need is of the utmost importance. “The clients I work with are always amazed at how much more they can achieve once they have a clear oversight of the grant cycle. It reduces their administration, builds trust between departments and improves productivity. Ultimately, it helps them focus on their purpose.”

If you’d like to implement more transparent, efficient and impactful processes that benefit your internal and external stakeholders, various software packages on the market can help you do this. Gallery Partnership has recently launched a cloud-based version of Benefactor – its market-leading grant management software. The new web application is fully customisable and can be accessed anywhere. To find out more, visit