Recently, someone asked me to share the best piece of feedback I had ever received from a grantee. As I struggled to think of an example, I paused; realizing how infrequently I’ve solicited feedback from grantees about our work together in my nearly four years working as a foundation professional.
There’s a reason for this: funders and grantees seldom have open conversations about the challenges each party faces in executing their work or the questions with which they’re grappling. Neither funders nor grantees want to appear like they don’t hold all of the answers. As a result, honest conversations between grantees and funders are rare.
And yet, to effectively deliver on our respective missions, we need to be open with each other. A more candid relationship creates space for important conversations, fosters shared learning and promotes new ideas and improvements.
Of course, these types of relationships don’t just happen. Instead, the best partnerships are those that have been formed through an intentional process, shaped by both funders and grantees.
Here are three ways to inform that process:
1. Invest time in building a relationship grounded in respect and trust.
Getting to know the individuals who work at a grantee organization is critical to establishing a healthy and more candid relationship. Consider scheduling regular check-in calls and in-person meetings at an agreed-upon cadence, visiting grantees’ offices and, if a grantee is open to it, even attending a team retreat to get to know the organization's staff beyond the executive and development teams.
I recently spent two days participating in one of our grantee’s team retreats. Throughout the retreat, I got to form relationships with individuals across the entire staff, engage in trust-building activities and understand more about the organization’s strategy, challenges and successes. The opportunity gave me a holistic picture of this grantee organization—beyond what a proposal or report could offer.
2. Use surveys to collect anonymous grantee feedback.
For the past several years, our Foundation has participated in The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report, a survey that collects anonymous feedback from our grantees. This survey is one of the best tools we have for receiving grantee feedback. The results of the survey have informed our work and pushed us to make meaningful changes to our processes.
For example, the feedback we received last year indicated that our reporting processes—which primarily consist of annual or semi-annual written reports—did not include enough opportunities for grantees to have open-ended conversations. As a result, we experimented with adjusting our status reports, incorporating more scheduled calls, site visits and in-person meetings to encourage deeper and more collaborative discussions. The Foundation remains committed to holding these discussions on a regular basis.
3. Flex your vulnerability muscles.
In order to engage in constructive conversations with grantees, foundations and their staff must also work on their own ability to be vulnerable with partners and colleagues. Participating in vulnerable conversations with grantees is especially difficult if having those types of conversations is not a regular practice among internal staff.
With this in mind, our team recently participated in conflict resolution trainings, implemented a new system for offering and receiving feedback among our teams and took personality assessments to learn more about our individual communication styles. Specifically, we used the DiSC assessment, a tool that I’ve found effective for creating a staff culture and language that embraces vulnerability.
Making changes to a grantee-funder relationship is easier said than done, due in part to the inherent power dynamic between funders and grantees. We are aware of and sensitive to this dynamic and do our best to counter it by turning to a set of core values to guide our working relationships. Included in these values are commitments to practicing humility and embracing collaboration.
As foundation professionals, we recognize that our grantee partners face challenges every day and that no one has all the answers. We also believe that we can go further by collaborating and working together to generate solutions. These beliefs lay the groundwork for trust and ensure that behind every phone call and every survey is a sense of appreciation and respect.
With all of these tools at my disposal, I hope that the next time someone asks me for examples of feedback from our grantees, I’ll have plenty at the ready.
Mary Ann Weiss is a Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Based in Washington D.C., she provides guidance and technical assistance to a portfolio of grants advancing vibrant and inclusive Jewish life and nuanced Israel engagement.