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Grantmakers: Listening Leads to Resilient Philanthropy

I love all manner of self-help topics, especially those about forming good habits, improving health, being kinder, and managing money. I have folders full of articles and shelves full of books, and someday I will read them all. Although much of my well-intentioned collection goes untouched, I’ve found that listening to audiobooks or podcasts is an easier way for me to consume the lessons prescribed. Somehow hearing another person lay out the path is simpler to digest.

Avoid the “Funder Bubble”

Funder Bubble

In philanthropy, honest feedback from applicants and grantees may be hard to come by, even if it is requested in earnest. As many funders no doubt find, when holding the proverbial purse strings, one is often the wittiest, smartest, and most attractive person in the room. This funder bubble can make comments from those seeking funding seem suspect. However, continual improvement in grantmaking requires that we listen to what applicants, grantees, committee members, and other stakeholders have to say. This in turn facilitates the growth of the adaptive skills resilience demands.
Let your applicants know you care what they think. Preface questions in both written surveys or verbal conversations with the goal of your request - improving all aspects of the grantmaking process. State clearly that applicant comments will have no repercussions on future funding. Remind applicants that your role is to support work that aligns with your foundation’s mission, and developing grant programs and processes that allow you to make sound decisions and assist applicants in building their capacity is key. By listening to applicants, you can strengthen their resilience through easy to navigate forms that clearly outline funder expectations and reflect nonprofit best practices. 

Gather Better Feedback

FeedbackGrantmakers can invite cohorts of applicants and grantees to brief get-togethers to ask for candid feedback in a casual setting. Anonymous surveys can be used to ask what the grantmaker might have done differently or better. Some grantmakers even include question groups in their applications or follow up reports seeking feedback on topics such as the length of time it took to complete the form and the clarity of the language used. Collecting this type of feedback directly onto grant forms makes applicant responses easier to track over time in a consistent manner.
While applicants and grantees can provide useful information to help improve your programs, it’s also important to include grant review committee members in a separate survey or debrief session at the end of each grant cycle. Build this expectation into your committee timeline and remind members you will be asking for their comments after grant recommendations or decisions are made.

Implement, Streamline, and Continually Improve

During the initial implementation of GLM or SLM, you’re asked to create a base or master process from which you’ll build all others. The expectation is that you make the process, including all forms, as perfect as you can before copying it forward for use. However, the assumption is that this “perfect” process will not stay “perfect,” and if you are listening to the feedback you’ve been given, it likely won’t. Copying and revising your processes annually is the best practice, especially when creating a durable process. Small revisions may be made when a process is live, but more substantive changes should be made less often, if feasible.
Ask. Whether through surveys or conversations, ask stakeholders about current grant processes. Is the timeline appropriate? Are the questions useful? In what ways could you improve? 
  • Foundant Tip: Conversations with applicants can be noted in the Comments section of the Request, Organization, or User page.
Ask often. Each grant cycle should include time for feedback and revision. Make it an expected part of the program. 
  • Foundant Tip: Use Shared Documents to store a calendar of committee meetings and expectations. Summaries of applicant feedback can be housed in Shared Documents for committee review, as well. 
Listen. If you are taking surveys or including questions about the application process on your forms, be sure to take the time to read what you’ve been given. Have you heard this feedback before? 

Listen well. When asking for feedback, don’t make excuses; don’t explain rationale. Just listen, take notes, and say thank you.

Confirm. Tell others what you’ve learned. Share your findings with your team and discuss possible solutions or unintended consequences of any substantive changes you might make to your grant process.  

Adjust.  Copy your Processes and revise your forms based on what you’ve learned, and the decisions made with your team. Ask applicants for the information you need to make good funding decisions, but don’t ask for more information than you will really use. 

  • Foundant Tip: If you’re having trouble summarizing requests for your board, add a text area question asking applicants to concisely summarize their proposal in a limited number of characters. (500 constitutes a short paragraph.) Develop a merge template that uses the summary question and create the merge document from the batch options on the Requests and Decisions page, so that all requests in a process can be included in the merge.
Continual improvement can be built into your processes and programs and you can build trust by listening to applicants and applying what you learn. We’ve learned just how important resilient organizations and systems are. Shouldn’t we focus on building resiliency now more than ever?

About the Author

Ashley began working in the nonprofit community in Memphis, TN in 2005 and joined the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis as a program officer in 2008. In 2013 she became the Director of Grants and Initiatives, managing the foundation’s competitive grant programs. During this time, Ashley helped develop GiVE 365, which became a model for collaborative giving programs in foundations across the United States. She has been a leader in the community foundation field and served as the Chair of ProNet, previously the Council On Foundation's professional development group for community foundation program staff. Ashley is happy to continue her career with a team dedicated to supporting the philanthropic sector. Outside of work, she enjoys being outdoors, especially during bird migration along the Mississippi flyway.

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