Over the last year, in partnership with Luminate (formerly known as Government & Citizen Engagement, part of the Omidyar Network), we delved into the complex environment and relationships of the funding experience, leveraging a human-centered research approach. The goal was to better understand an organization’s experience in the funding process with the Government & Citizen Engagement (GCE) team at the Omidyar Network. Nine insights and thirty-four recommendations emerged from the work, which you can explore on the report website or by reading the report, "On Trust & Transparency: Perspectives from Luminate’s portfolio."

Understanding the experience of the funding process is a perfect fit for the human-centered approach we specialize in. Our interviews used the same topic structure and started in the same place, but by the halfway point, each interview had turned into a semi-structured conversation. Forsaking the predictability of a cookie-cutter approach allowed us to learn the needs, histories, priorities, pain points, hopes, and fears of each interviewee. Then, our follow-up survey zeroed in on particularly hot topics from our interviews. This two-phase research process allowed us to report on what grantees actually felt was important.

What’s the big deal about trust and transparency?

We think one reason that trust and transparency kept coming up is that these are complex topics in any business relationship, but particularly in one with a baked-in power asymmetry. No matter how honest and genuine the conversations between an executive director and an investment lead, one of them is responsible for the other’s organizational survival. But even though it’s not an easy playing field, both Luminate and grantees expressed over and over their hope and their optimism that the relationship actually could be a healthy and open one.

In a trusting relationship, both parties are confident that the other has their interests in mind. In this case, grantees need to see that Luminate truly understands their point of view, and they need to be involved in determining what kind of support is best for them. And, again and again, they brought up the theme of transparency. Transparency doesn’t always lead to trust in relationships, but in most cases, it’s certainly a big step in the right direction.

One major way to bring trust to this challenging area is by sharing as much information as possible about the funding process, the choice of metrics, diversity/equity/inclusion issues, and funders’ dual personal and professional role.

When trust and transparency clash

Not many funders would have the courage to commission a study that was bound to lead into some of the most sensitive areas of their work. The Luminate team was deeply curious about their grantees’ experience, and they saw this study as a way to learn.

In order to help Luminate learn about trust and transparency, we actually needed to develop strong practices around privacy and anonymity in our research process. Our commitment to strong security practices during the research process meant that, Luminate didn’t have visibility into who said what, but they were able to engage deeply in the research design process. Our methods, process, and approach were all transparent with Luminate, with participants, and now with you. If you are interested in following a similar process, definitely dig into the methods and the guides, as well as our blog posts about threat modeling and data practices and earning trust in sensitive interviews. Security threat modeling and ethical practices in design research complement each other beautifully, and we hope that by sharing our tools, others researching sensitive topics can take this approach as well.

An inspiring collaboration for us – and, we hope, for you

We hope that both the insights and methodology are useful and inspiring to you. And we want to express our warmest admiration to the team at Luminate, for their openness throughout this challenging process. One last thanks to Objectively for helping to breathe life into the report on the web. We hope that this report will spark a spirited conversation about how funders and grantees can work together more mindfully, holistically, and, in the end, effectively.

Additional Resources

Photo Credit: XINHUA/SYOGOC-Pool/Liu Jie