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Listening vs. Transformation: Is Philanthropy Changing in the Ways Nonprofits Need Most?

Date: August 9, 2022

Chantal Forster

Executive Director, Technology Association of Grantmakers

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The calls for transformation in philanthropy have become so commonplace in the past two years as to become a new normal. Whether it’s trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking, common data platforms, or calls for alternate reporting formats, important shifts are simultaneously underway and with such scope as to be tectonic.

Such systems change is overdue. And the depth of this transformation is laudable as philanthropy does more than evolve funding choices and issue public statements but also considers the operational changes such as data infrastructure and reporting processes needed to shift power. In the rush to transform, however, we may have missed an important North Star: How do we know whether these changes are actually improving conditions for nonprofits? For example, does a participatory approach increase the ability of a nonprofit to deliver on its mission? Does it reduce the time they must invest in grant applications? How are we assessing whether alternate formats such as oral reporting reduce or instead increase bias in grant renewals?

Listening is a key part of understanding whether transformation serves its intended purpose. Unfortunately, the traditional listening systems employed by philanthropy are ill-suited for such rapid shifts in our practices. According to two separate surveys conducted by the Technology Association of Grantmakers, the dominant methods by which philanthropy listens to nonprofits are focus groups and the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR). Both are vital sources of anecdotal data (focus groups) or long-horizon data (GPR) but neither provide real-time feedback or transaction-level data measuring efficiency and satisfaction for nonprofits. As such, philanthropy has little to no method of measuring the immediate impact of changes to its grantmaking.

There is another way.

Philanthropy, much like higher education and healthcare, is a sector fundamentally “in service” to its constituents. Increasingly, organizations serving constituents such as those in higher education and healthcare have adopted modern forms of listening that are continuous and focus on the success factors important to students and patients, respectively. For example, in my prior consulting work with universities in New Mexico, we conducted journey mapping exercises and leveraged passive listening data such as digital click analyses to learn that the college student journey from selection to second year retention was fraught with numerous points of confusion leading to higher drop-out rates for students where English was a second language. This prompted the institutions to provide new advising services that cut across organizational silos and identify “flag events” such as initiating a credit transfer online that were likely to lead to confusion and unnecessary delays. Designing multiple points of support and pre-emptive communication enabled us to improve key factors for student success.

While an imperfect parallel for philanthropy, the student listening approach inspires an important question for philanthropy: Do we know what success measures are valued by nonprofits and whether our transformative efforts are leading to improvements for them? For example, are smaller community-based nonprofits more likely to value metrics such as “time to complete a successful grant application” or “time to complete a grant report” while larger nonprofits may value metrics such as “time spent with program officer” or “feeling valued by the foundation”? If we can identify these metrics at multiple points in the process for a variety of nonprofits, then, just as the New Mexico institutions did for the above-mentioned students, we can develop process and system improvements as well as communications that meet the wide range of needs for our nonprofit partners.

Some foundations, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have already begun listening in new ways. According to Diane Smith, senior officer, Culture & Experience, who leads the “Partner Experience” team at Kellogg, the foundation has mapped all touchpoints grantees have with their organization, beginning with discovery (pre-application) through application, funding, and reporting. Currently, the Foundation sends out simple five point “micro surveys” at the end of each phase (e.g., discovery) to gauge satisfaction on a rolling basis. Data are reported in a Tableau dashboard visible to the entire staff of the Foundation and leaders are held accountable for the ratings.

While the W.K. Kellogg Foundation continues to conduct the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) every two years, says Diane Smith, “it’s another two years before we implement changes from the GPR so this real-time data enables us to respond to our partners’ needs in the here and now.” Learn more about Kellogg’s approach in a session on sustained feedback this September.

Ongoing, meaningful, and low-friction listening are hallmarks of an approach like the Kellogg Foundation’s “Partner Experience” practice. Nonprofits are invited to share at multiple points throughout their lifecycle with the foundation and with minimal overhead, reducing potential selection bias favoring nonprofits with the time to respond. Feedback opportunities occur alongside each transaction with the grantmaker, reducing recency bias when feedback is only solicited upon successful funding or completion of a grant.

Such micro-moments of feedback, however, only become part of a meaningful “listening and learning system” when supported by an investment in technology. Historically, philanthropy has under-invested in such systems, favoring lengthy surveys and focus groups with results delivered as a PDF report. With an increase in data literacy at most foundations, I believe we’ve reached a point of readiness in adopting data intelligence platforms that integrate ongoing feedback from partners with success metrics from grants management systems into a cohesive view of how well we as funders are serving our nonprofit partners, not once every few years, but on an ongoing basis.

This is the feedback needed to understand whether our deep yearning for transformation is self-serving or, instead, a genuinely community-serving endeavor. Concurrent listening, as well as the skills and systems needed to support it, are a vital part of the radical change underway in philanthropy. Investing in modern and synchronous feedback systems is one way philanthropy can ensure our transformation is moving in the right directions and adapting in response to nonprofits’ real-world needs in a fashion that enables their success.

Chantal Forster is executive director of Technology Association of Grantmakers. 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.

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