Foundations can often seem like closed doors. For the grantee searching for funding opportunities, some foundations appear to be enigmas, their existence mere rumor and their inner workings forever in the shadows. Some foundations are extremely private, and may even exist without websites, funding guidelines, or application processes of any kind.
On the other hand, there are many foundations that are open with the public about their mission, guidelines, and resources. For community-focused foundations that strive to be open to the public, it is critical to align mission and purpose with effective practice. There is a growing awareness within the philanthropic sector about the importance of transparency when communicating with applicants and grantees. This is not just a trend, but a recognition that foundations wishing to achieve their own mission of supporting the community cannot do so within a vacuum.
To best help the nonprofit organizations that we say we wish to serve, foundations must be prepared to invite open, honest feedback, consider it carefully, and then communicate findings and decisions back to the public. This is known as “closing the feedback loop.”
Why close the feedback loop?
The first step in this process is actively soliciting feedback from grantees and applicants. This practice builds trust between the applicant and the funder. By inviting feedback, both direct and anonymous, nonprofits know that the foundation is truly interested in their perspective. When nonprofits feel their ideas and concerns are valued, and trust that honest feedback will not be penalized, they are more likely to feel comfortable approaching the funder with vital communications in the future. This could be as important as reaching out to foundation staff to alert them of leadership transitions, or even fraud – or it could be as simple as alerting the foundation that there is a typo on the application form. In all cases, increased trust creates a sense of respect, partnership, and collaboration that benefits both sides.
Effectively Soliciting Feedback
There are many ways to solicit feedback, and each may be effective for different reasons or in different situations. Because people do not all communicate in the same ways, it is most effective to use a combination of channels to collect the most accurate range of feedback. At the Medina Foundation, we use a variety of methods to solicit and collect feedback:
- Application Forms
- Funder Feedback
- CEP Survey
First, we use our website to let the public know who we are and how to contact us. This is the most basic form of transparency – while not directly inviting feedback, providing clear contact information allows the public to reach out if ever there are questions or comments. Due to the power imbalance between funders and grantees, however, people might not always feel comfortable providing unsolicited feedback, which is why we also have a Feedback page on our site that explicitly invites feedback and shares the ways we collect it, as well as what we do with it.
Utilizing Existing Technology
Our foundation uses an online application system – Foundant GLM. It has become especially helpful for us to solicit and collect feedback through each of the forms in our application process (LOI, Application, and Final Report). This allows applicants a place to quickly and easily convey any problems or frustrations they encountered with the system, as well as provide positive feedback or other comments. This information is reviewed at the same time as the form, allowing for immediate action if necessary.
Over time, it has become clear that most applicants use this space to express their appreciation for our forms and processes, or to simply say “thank you,” but this information is also helpful. This lets us know that we are on the right track. Comments that do include suggestions or requests for changes to the form itself are compiled and analyzed at six-month intervals, so staff can look for trends and consider the implications of each suggestion. Changes made because of this feedback include the addition of an optional “Budget Comments” area on our LOI form, which previously only requested the budget numbers with no room for explanation. We have also adjusted the character limits for certain questions on the application.
Making Feedback Opportunities Accessible
Another way we use these feedback areas is to advertise the other ways in which applicants can provide feedback. We know that some people will still not be comfortable providing comments tied to their name and application, so we offer a short anonymous survey tool as well. This tool, developed by the Peery Foundation, is called Funder Feedback, and takes only seconds to fill out and submit. It allows the user to identify themselves as a grantee, funder, or other type of community partner, and rate the foundation on three areas, using a five-star system. Our survey asks respondents to rate the Medina Foundation in the areas of Respectfulness, Responsiveness, and Clarity. Respondents can also write in comments or suggestions that could help us improve our work. Results are anonymous, and compiled reports are released to the foundation quarterly. The link to our Funder Feedback survey is embedded in our application forms, email signature lines, and on our website.
Recently, another anonymous feedback option has been developed by those in the field looking to increase transparency and accountability for funders. GrantAdvisor.org allows users to post anonymous reviews of foundations online. It also collects basic information such as how long the application process took, how accessible the funder was, and how successfully the foundation achieves its current philanthropic goals. This option is also listed on our website and application forms, for those that would like to leave an anonymous public review.
Taking Transparency to the Next Level
Finally, the Medina Foundation has also periodically participated in the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) Grantee Perception Report (GPR). This is a comprehensive survey conducted by the CEP on behalf of the foundation, so grantee survey results are anonymous and aggregated. The GPR asks about 50 questions related to a foundation’s effectiveness, impact, responsiveness, and processes. This survey is widely used in the field and is based on extensive research and analysis. Nearly 300 funders have commissioned the GPR, and 50,000 grantees have provided their candid, anonymous perspectives. This allows results to be benchmarked against all respondent data, and against data from similar funders. Due to the considerable amount of time, effort, and resources that go into this process, foundations who participate in the survey typically do so every few years at most, but the results carry a lot of weight. The Medina Foundation’s most recent CEP survey resulted in several key adjustments to our website, guidelines, and practices, which we summarized on our website.
Continued, Effective Communication
This brings us back to the final piece of collecting feedback: communicating how it was used. While any solicitation of feedback is useful in strengthening the relationship between funder and grantee, it’s not that helpful to collect information that is not carefully considered. If changes are implemented in response to feedback, there also needs to be some form of communication back to the respondents to let them know that their suggestions have resulted in change.
Of course, not all feedback is able to be acted on – some grantee suggestions, while well-meaning and certainly helpful on their end, would not be possible or practical for foundation staff to enact. In these cases, it is equally helpful to close the feedback loop by letting grantees know why certain things remain the way they do. For instance, our application process requires a budget in a certain format – while somewhat time-consuming for grantees, this allows our staff and board to easily review many proposals each month by keeping the budgets consistent. This explanation is given on our website’s FAQs, which are updated in response to the feedback we receive. The FAQs, in turn, are referenced in the application forms where feedback is solicited – letting grantees know why we ask for feedback, what we do with it, and where they can find the results.
Example of system feedback instructions:
LOI form feedback
We value feedback from our applicants as an important part of improving our work and processes.
Please use this space to share any feedback you may have regarding the LOI process and our online system. To provide feedback anonymously, please take our brief survey here or submit a review on GrantAdvisor.org.
Staff reviews feedback periodically and makes adjustments to our instructions, processes, and website accordingly. Please check our E-Grant System FAQs and General FAQs for updates.
While the Medina Foundation has made great strides in the past few years to increase the quality and quantity of feedback we solicit, use that feedback to enact changes that benefit both our staff and the nonprofits we serve, and communicate the results of that feedback to our grantee partners, we realize there are still many ways our feedback loops can be improved. We have learned a great deal from other foundations who have been working on similar efforts for much longer, and we continue to strengthen our processes for feedback and improvement as we learn. The most important thing we have learned so far is to keep an open mind, and to welcome communication from our trusted nonprofit partners at every turn.
About the Author
Alexia Cameron is the Office and Grants Administrator for the Medina Foundation, a family foundation in Seattle that funds basic human service organizations in the Puget Sound region of western Washington. She is the Foundation’s resident expert in Foundant GLM and manages process efficiencies and communications with Medina’s nonprofit partners. She joined the Foundation in 2014 with a wide range of experience in bookkeeping, logistics, and communications for small businesses and nonprofits. She loves reading, writing, editing, and art, and enjoys serving local communities through volunteer work in the areas of art and finance. Alexia earned a degree in psychology from CSU Sacramento and studied fine art at Otis College of Art and Design.More Content by Alexia Cameron