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10 Things Your Grantees Might Be Saying About You

Date: January 25, 2024

Joseph Lee

Manager, Assessment and Advisory Services

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In a CEP blog post published earlier this week, I offered up a list of 10 Grantee Perception Report participants who had made their assessment results public in 2023 as a way to both thank our many partners in the last year and reflect on what role feedback might play for grantmakers in the coming year. As a companion to that piece, my colleagues and I thought it would be interesting (and maybe a little fun) to highlight some feedback directly from grantees surveyed by CEP in 2023. What follows is a list of 10 quotes from CEP Grantee Perception Reports that bring into focus the rich perspectives that nonprofits provide about funders, and how important these sentiments can be in reframing how best to listen to partners, build relationships, and measure impact.

These comments were pulled from responses to open-ended questions included in CEP’s grantee survey: suggestions, observations, and even some venting from grantees about both funders’ strengths and areas for improvement. As you’ll see, they run the gamut from pragmatic to idealistic, effusively appreciative to soberingly critical.

(Note: these quotes have been edited for clarity and to maintain the confidentiality of grantees who responded to CEP’s survey.)

On a flexible grantmaking approach…

“Their attitude has been a grantee’s delight: they are always eager to hear from us but they give us abundant flexibility to do the work we need to do. For example, they seldom fuss about transferring funds from one budget category to another. They have been there for us through thick and through thin. We have benefited greatly from their self-restraint and from their generous support.”

On onerous reporting processes…

“I think reports should be via . Let’s be honest here — there’s usually a development person or grant writer who writes the reports. Possibly the same person who wrote the grant. It’s grunt work. It’s never an opportunity for reflection, and even if it was — do we really need a foundation to help us reflect? Isn’t that a kind of paternalism? If you really want to know how a project went, skip the five essay questions and ask for a quick meeting with the people who are actually in charge. You will get more from those 15 minutes than all the essays in the world.”

On stepping up to meet funding gaps…

“This particular Foundation is already at the top of the list in terms of responsiveness, empathy, action and understanding. They have — more than once — provided financial support that we had not requested on top of already generous program funding. are on top of developments and needs in the field, and actively solutions to challenges faced by organizations. Mad respect.”

On staying the course with longer-term strategies…

“So many large funders are not patient enough. this I mean they have a strategy or approach, they deploy a lot of money in pursuit of that strategy, and then in two or three or five or seven years if their work hasn’t resulted in dramatic widespread systems change, they pivot strategies. Large funders … wield so much influence in the sectors they fund that these pivots, like a giant abruptly pivoting and creating dramatic peripheral whiplash … can create dramatic peripheral whiplash.”

On centering external perspectives…

“From the beginning of the relationship we have had the luck of having program officers that are incredibly transparent, honest and welcome direct feedback communication. I have seen the shift within the Foundation in centering community power and leadership, which has opened the door to be more explicit around what is actually needed to make the changes we’d like to see.”

On taxing funder-grantee interactions…

“First, the frequency of interactions expected and the level of scrutiny is too high. For over a year, we have been meeting monthly with this foundation. This is more than any other foundation that resources us — including ones that give us almost three times as much as … Once receiving the grant, we are subject to repetitive conversations asking us to repeatedly share our big picture, our work, and updates. It is very challenging to have sincere updates on a monthly basis. It feels like our program officer is not really listening and continually asking the same questions. We have been asked to do an enormous amount of extra work for the funds we have received.”

On leading with understanding and transparency…

“This Foundation and its leadership have taken the time to understand our organization, attend our events, and meet our constituents. They have found ways to engage conversations around partnerships in the community without holding their grant over our heads as a threat. They believe in our mission and have taken the time to understand it in a comprehensive way. Too often, foundations make organizations waste a ton of time in the grant application and review process — detracting from the essential programmatic work. This Foundation is the exception to that very frustrating norm. They understand that time and resources are invaluable commodities, and their grant process reflects that more than any other. The level of transparency and communication creates a mutual respect and sense of true partnership, not a ‘power play.’ This is what makes them brilliant leaders at building our community into a truly special place.”

On general operating support and capacity building…

“Nonprofits without endowments or any guaranteed income stream are in a state of constant retroactive crisis management. This is unsustainable. Funding is never guaranteed, but we waste so much time applying for funding that will only last us 1-3 years that it pulls us away from being able to actualize our mission statements.  Unrestricted general operating support that spans 5-10 years will allow nonprofits to not only hire but retain the staff we desperately need to do this work.”

On the challenge of “sustainability”…

The largest barrier is raising sustaining funds when the organization is not growing or changing. I appreciate the interest in seed investment, but the work we do will never be ‘finished,’ even as we have strong evidence of deep impact in our community over the past 20-plus years. Perhaps collaborative conversations amongst funders in about the best evidence of impact to justify sustained funding would be a great piece of advocacy on the funder side on behalf of nonprofits.”

On haberdashery…

“ a grantee, I just love the way they do their business! So much better than the pre-packaged program that many try to pull off which ultimately feels like an ill-fitted, off-the-rack suit. With , I feel like I have a custom-tailored outfit chosen just for me by the most talented team of haberdashers in town!”

Having read through these quotes, I encourage you to reflect on which resonate as being most familiar — maybe uncomfortably so. Could some of these comments just as easily come from voices within your own grantmaking portfolio? What do they spark in terms of your organization’s appetite for self-reflection and change? And what levers might you pull to ensure that all and not just the loudest of your grantees feel heard and validated? None of these questions yield simple answers, but, if anything, these quotes might help you begin measuring the distance between what’s taken for granted and what might be possible in your work this year and beyond.

Joseph Lee is a manager on the Assessment and Advisory Services team at CEP. Find him on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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