Stronger Foundations blog: Transparency, the feedback loop, and user research and design

11 July 2019

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we will be publishing a series of provocations offering personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution comes from Anna de Pulford, member of the working group on transparency and engagement. Share your thoughts on Twitter using #StrongerFoundations.

I should start off by saying that what follows is not a criticism of transparency. I am a fan of transparency in grant-making – or, to be nuanced, being open about what you fund. I’m a trustee of 360Giving, which supports organisations to publish their grants data in an open, standardised way. I think that many of the arguments against transparency in grant-making are over-done — in particular, the risk of attracting negative press. I don’t know of any examples where being open about what you fund (beyond what is required by law) has led to a grant-maker being criticised. In any case, the idea that grant-makers shouldn’t do something because it fails ‘the Daily Mail test’ is thoroughly depressing.

However, there is one reality of application-based (as opposed to proactive) grant-making that can be exacerbated by increased transparency: applicants (for understandable reasons) tend to apply for their best guess of what you’ll fund. The more data-led an applicant is, the more they might ask for what you have most funded. Funders tend to process the ‘ask’ in front of them, rather than consider all of the funding needs of the applicant. So the more the funder funds that same thing and so on and so on.

User Experience Research and Design

Like other concerns about transparency in grant-making, the risks can be mitigated — and in fact, can be a useful prompt to consider our design more generally. Your grants data is just one tool that applicants might use when preparing to apply to you. What they read on your website, the pictures you display and the questions you ask on your application form will all inform and influence how the applicant makes sense of your funding approach. All are opportunities.

Reflecting on our design has led us to make a few immediate changes at the Trust I work for. For example, we recognised that asking applicants to fill in a ‘project details’ section on our form reinforced the incorrect impression that we only fund projects (duh). We’ve therefore changed the section to ‘funding request’. We can go much further, though. We want to carry out User Experience Research (which seeks to understand the user’s needs and desires and the journey they go on when they interact with a company/product), widely used in the technology sector, to help inform the design of our communications and processes. We’d hope this would help ensure we are being clear about who we are and what we do, and, importantly, to improve the experience of those applying to us.

Of course, the perils of imperfect historical data driving imperfect future outcomes is not unique to grant-making. They pop up wherever we too heavily rely on representations of the past in order to shape action in the present. Systemic racism ending up embedded in predicative policing algorithmsExclusion of women from senior roles because of online job advertisements being delivered just to men. As a sector, we must remain live to these distortions and ensure we don’t end up trapped in some sort of grant-making groundhog day, unable to escape our past behaviours and preferences.

Anna de Pulford
Member of the Transparency and engagement working group, writing in a personal capacity.

Views in this series are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the working group, ACF, or its wider membership. Find out more information about Stronger Foundations.