A Dose of Honesty: The Tyranny of the Anecdote

“We always felt we had a ‘Hannibal-the-cannibal’ relationship: Stay where you are and mind yourself and you’re okay. Take one step forward and your arm will be bitten off.”

“The Foundation has had a negative impact on our organization in spite of funding. Runaround by foundation staff and [the Foundation’s] nontransparent priorities and processes have wasted staff time and effort…. It is disheartening to think that the viability of an important program is subject to an unqualified person’s review, analysis, and presentation of our project to the full decision group.”

In my last “Dose of Honesty,” I highlighted the positive end of the spectrum of commentary we receive from grantees. Here, I figured I’d talk a bit about the other end, using these comments from surveys of two different funders.  Just like positive remarks, the terrible need equally careful consideration.

It’s a rare foundation that solicits candid, grantee feedback through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report, that doesn’t end up with a zinger in there. Invariably, comments like these cause serious freak-outs when staff members read them in the full list of redacted comments we provide.

Yet, as these one-off comments absorb attention and focus, they can distract from the important insights hidden in less snappy language in the rest of the qualitative feedback. So, staff should be upset – but mostly if those comments are part of a broader theme and not, as the zingers often are, just an indication of one very broken funding relationship.

One comment is scant evidence of failure – or, for that matter – of success. The glowing comment that gets tacked up on a bulletin board can wipe away dozens of comments that reveal utter mediocrity, or worse, a serious problem. As intoxicating as they may seem, like the zingers, one or two compliments – in a survey or at a dinner party – are just anecdotes.

Don’t get me wrong – qualitative anecdotes have their place. Terrible comments like those at the beginning of this post make for important warnings to foundations about what to try to avoid. They provide a visceral punch in the gut. But our focus at CEP is to raise up themes worthy of significant attention – and so we try to focus on trends in negative comments that highlight areas in which grantees say funders most need to improve.


Kevin Bolduc is Vice President – Assessment Tools at CEP

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