Minnesota's nearly 120 philanthropic foundations typically work behind closed doors in giving away nearly $1 billion each year.

Now the nonprofits that apply for and receive much of that money are offering some anonymous feedback on those foundations through a new online rating tool called GrantAdvisor.org.

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits this summer set up the new venture in partnership with the California Association of Nonprofits. The two groups have collectively spent $75,000 on it.

"This is a pioneering effort to really elevate the customer voice," said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota nonprofits council, which has about 2,000 member organizations. "It's a new tool to have a healthy conversation between two groups that need each other."

Navigating the grant process

The twofold goal is to give foundations feedback and create a forum, similar to the popular business review website Yelp, to help fellow nonprofits more deftly navigate the grant application process.

When nonprofits apply and compete for foundation grants, there's scant opportunity for honest feedback for fear of losing funding to someone else, Pratt said.

The result is that foundations become the proverbial boss at the company Christmas party, he said: Everyone laughs at his jokes and loves his suit, without saying what they really think. GrantAdvisor offers more honest, unvarnished feedback.

Some foundations welcome the feedback and are encouraging nonprofits to participate. Others seem less enthusiastic about the prospect of online ratings.

"We don't currently use the tool and aren't very familiar with it," said Alfonso Wenker, vice president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, in a written statement. "What we do know is that foundations and nonprofits are strengthened when they communicate well about their shared goals."

The Blandin Foundation recently sent a letter to its nonprofit grant recipients urging them to check out GrantAdvisor.

"I see it as an opportunity to improve upon our relationships and partnerships, knowing this is new and it's not easy," said Sonja Merrild, Blandin's director of grants. "We have decided to embrace it, take it seriously. We won't shy away from honest feedback."

Merrild said that Blandin, like many other foundations, already systemically solicits input and reviews from nonprofits.

GrantAdvisor works like other popular online review sites. Nonprofit employees who interact with foundations take a seven-minute online survey, and when a foundation scores at least five reviews, its profile becomes viewable on the website.

GrantAdvisor sorts reviews submitted by nonprofits into three scoring categories: overall relationship with the foundation; the foundation's success in accomplishing its philanthropic goals; and how hard or easy it is to reach the foundation and communicate with it.

Reviews also list descriptive words such as "responsive," "worth pitching," "culturally sensitive," and on the flip side, "risk averse," "bureaucratic" and "difficult to work with."

Plans to expand

GrantAdvisor focuses on foundations in Minnesota and California for now, but its founders plan to expand to other states.

So far, the website offers more than 700 reviews on 260 foundations; of those foundations, 42 have at least five reviews and therefore have a public profile on the website.

At this point, the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation is the most reviewed Minnesota philanthropic group, with more than 20 responses from nonprofits. Of those, 82 percent said they had an overall positive relationship with Bush, 92 percent gave it high marks for accessibility and 67 percent felt that Bush was successfully accomplishing its goals.

Foundation representatives are able to respond to comments on the website. Bush Foundation staffers have started to respond to each review, good or bad, with either a simple thank you or information that can aid a nonprofit applying next time.

Merrild said GrantAdvisor is something that nonprofits should be proud of. "I see it as a symptom of a strong nonprofit and philanthropic sector in Minnesota that we can take on something innovative like this," she said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804