Check out CEP’s new searchable database of resources for individuals and grantmakers.

Contact Us



Funder Listening Practices in Different Regions: Insights in Brazil and Europe

Date: September 14, 2023

Luisa Bonin

Senior Grants and Programme Manager, Common Goal, Fellow, Maecenata Foundation

Never Miss A Post

Share this Post:

Early this year, in a warm and supportive webinar discussion, I launched a research paper entitled “How Foundations and Funders Listen: A Qualitative Review in Europe and Brazil” and presented the findings that resulted from my work as a visiting researcher at Maecenata Foundation in Berlin.

My research and this paper’s publication started from the perspective that it is essential not only to listen and collect data for internal learning purposes but to effectively take the voices of people primarily affected by philanthropic efforts into account to make decisions when building a responsible philanthropic practice.

This focus was also inspired by the work published by Maecenata Foundation, “Trust in Philanthropy: a Report on the Philanthropy; Insight Project 2018-2021,” which analyses how society legitimises trust in philanthropy and creates a self-assessment trust tool for funders and foundations. The interview script for my research was also built upon the work of the “high-quality feedback loop” put forth by organizations like Feedback Labs, Keystone Accountability, and Ekouté Consulting.

With a variety of different aspects of the listening process analyzed, including challenges in the process, different project phases where listening occurs, who is listened to, listening methods, space for feedback, reporting back processes, power imbalances and levels of participation, and after analysis of 30 interviews, I was finally presenting the results.

The research is qualitative with no comparative ambition, and I was, during the whole presentation, in a researcher’s objective mode — focused on what the data showed. The choice to separate my personal preferences and lived experience — I’m Brazilian and I built my professional life working in the NGO sector in Brazil for more than 10 years — was not just intentional, but necessary in order to do the analysis. That is, until the end of the Q&A session, when this question came up: “In your opinion, with all that data, are funder listening practices better in Brazil or in Europe?”

I was definitely not prepared to open my heart and share such a dichotomist analysis in terms of better versus worse practices. But given the situation, I did give my opinion — and I’ll share it here, too. But first, I want to ground my answer with some background on my research methodology and some of the facts and findings of the project.

How I Chose the Organizations Interviewed

The focus was on the listening practice itself and its heterogeneity in different contexts, and not on drawing a strict comparative analysis between countries or regions. Twelve funder organizations were interviewed in Brazil after 30 invitations, and in Europe 30 interview invitations were sent and I had 13 interviewees from Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria.

Budget Discrepancy

There is a huge discrepancy in terms of the combined annual budget between the interviewees in Europe and in Brazil. In Europe, out of the 13 foundations interviewed, 11 disclosed their annual budget and had a combined annual budget of €1,376,619,947. In Brazil, out of the 12 foundations and funders interviewed, only seven disclosed their annual budget for a combined total of €13,560,700.

When Funders Listen

In Europe, most listening efforts concentrate on the strategy formulation and evaluation phases. Organizations in Brazil also give priority to listening during strategy formulation, and right after strategy formulation,  comes listen during implementation and evaluation with the same intensity. Twenty-five percent of them gave examples where, by having frequent exchanges during the implementation stage, they could support grantees to overcome challenges by activating their networks and being flexible when responding to the context.

Variety of Listening Practices

In Europe, foundations collectively cited 29 different methods of listening, and on average, each one uses five methods. In Brazil, foundations and funders collectively cited 10 different methods of listening and on average, each foundation or funder uses three methods to listen.

Feedback in the Listening Process

In Europe, 67 percent of those interviewed have an institutionalized space for feedback, while in Brazil 33 percent have an institutionalized process.

The most common institutionalized form of feedback, cited by 38 percent of interviewees in Europe, is a survey with a focus on collecting specific feedback from grantees on the funder-grantee relationship, while in Brazil, frequent and more general surveys, not necessarily focused on how grantees perceive the relationship, were cited as the most common institutionalized form of feedback, by 25 percent of interviewees.

As a non-institutionalized form, meetings with grantees were cited by 23 percent of foundations in Europe and by 58 percent of foundations and funders in Brazil.

It is important to point out that the quality and honesty of the feedback about the relationship or service, especially to those that are not institutionalized, heavily depended on the quality of the relationship developed and how power imbalance operates in the relationship.

Geographic Reach

In Brazil, the majority of interviewees have a regional and national approach, while in Europe, the majority of have a regional, national, and international approach.

Why do I think the Brazilian organisations in the research are listening better in comparison to those in Europe?

Yes, that was my response, even though we have, in Europe, more institutionalized listening processes, more methods, and more budget in comparison to funders in Brazil.

Aside from my personal experience, my opinion was heavily based on three factors: when funders listen, geographic reach, and the finding that 58 percent of the organizations in Brazil have shared that non-institutionalized feedback occurs in meetings with grantees, against 23 percent of organizations in Europe.

When managing a social project, having a funding partner that listens during the implementation phase is key. Social projects tackle complex problems, and the relationship and trust built during this period are essential, particularly when flexibility is needed for innovation, for changing routes when needed, and even for evaluation.

Besides the above more tangible aspects, listening practices appear to be heavily influenced by the personal experiences, culture, and skills of the individuals building the relationship. This means that individuals with different life experiences will have a different set of challenges in the communication and listening process, in comparison to individuals with similar experiences. Consequently, relationships between organisations in the same state or country e.g., two Brazilian organisations, can be facilitated by: speaking the same language, having the same culture, and sharing similar social challenges. The opposite may also be true: relationships between organisations from different places e.g., Switzerland and Africa, may encounter more layers of challenges.

That is not something new and a myriad of philanthropic organizations are indeed investing in including lived experience in the governance of projects and in listening practices. But the findings certainly stress even more the importance of intentionally including it in decisions.

Finally, organisations in Brazil appear to have a stronger non-institutionalized feedback culture in meetings, and by sharing examples of when this happens and how it influences funder decisions towards projects, it suggests the existence of stronger relationships that do not need to rely on formal structures.

Learning from Both Regions

More significant than my own opinion, what truly matters from the findings and the research overall is what we learn from it, and the insights and best practices from each region that can be tested and/or incorporated by funders in their daily listening practices towards a more trust-based philanthropic practice.

Both the paper resulting from this research and the two related publications for practitioners created from the paper to each region, one for Europe published by Philea and the one with the Brazilian results that will soon be published in Portuguese-BR with GIFE, present some practical recommendations that could be useful for funders’ staff responsible for relationships with grantees.

All the recommendations can be found in the paper and reports, but here are few which are particularly relevant in the context of a comparison between Europe and Brazil:

1. Listening in the Project Life Cycle
Prioritize listening in the implementation phase, especially with actions, behaviours, and methods that allow staff to dedicate more time to listening over other organisational tasks in that phase.

2. Staff Coaching, Skill-Building, and Training Towards Better Listening
In both regions, improving skills such as self-awareness, growth mindset, and relationship curation can help organisations improve their listening process. This becomes even more important in the context of differences between grant organization and grantee culture.

3. Institutionalised Feedback Spaces and Non-Institutionalized Feedback Culture
Both practices are important to a healthy relationship, so it is crucial to create institutionalized feedback spaces that are free of harm for those raising their voices while implementing measures to mitigate power imbalances. Meanwhile, at the relationship level, to improve a non-institutionalized feedback culture, one simple tip for funders is to share mistakes and learnings with grantees to deepen the relationship.

4. Internal Discussions About Power Imbalance
Finally, reflect if there is enough internal space for staff to exchange and learn how power imbalance operates in their daily activities, especially how these learnings turn into new processes and practices to tackle this challenge.

Funder-grantee listening processes contain layers of complexity, and there is no silver bullet or magic solution, nor does one solution fit all types of funder or grantee needs. But to start a process or to improve it, the first step is to talk about it, understand the problem, and reflect on what’s needed. I hope those recommendations can be a way of initiating and cultivating healthy relationships that accelerate grantees’ impact!

Luísa Bonin is a social impact practitioner and researcher, works as senior grants and programme manager at Common Goal, and is a Maecenata Foundation fellow. Find her 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.

From the Blog