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What Comes After Listening?

Date: August 15, 2023

Erin Frederick

Program Director, Zilber Family Foundation

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At the Zilber Family Foundation we often highlight our commitment to operational excellence and continuous improvement. We seek feedback from our grantee partners to assess the Foundation’s practices, programs, and partnerships, and to help identify opportunities to improve. Unfortunately, getting authentic feedback is easier said than done. The power imbalance between funder and grantee can make it difficult to gather the unfiltered information we need to do our best work. So, in 2022, we decided to commission the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct the Grantee Perception Report (GPR).

As part of the Foundation’s ongoing efforts to build trusting relationships with our grantee partners, we entered the GPR process with the intention of reporting the results to grantees and other partners. We wanted them to know that we listen to their feedback and share with them how we plan to act so that they can hold us accountable. We didn’t, however, have a clear plan on how we’d share the feedback with them. To get to the how, we focused on our why.

The Zilber Family Foundation, a place-based funder working in Milwaukee, WI and Oahu, HI, strives to increase access to social and economic opportunity and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. We believe that listening, and most importantly, responding to feedback leads to more authentic partnership and better grantmaking. Transparency engenders trust — the key ingredient to honest dialogue with our partners. In philanthropy, we still find it common for funders to ask for input — from a resident, a community, an organization — but shy away from responding to or sharing that input with stakeholders. We aim to shift this practice, because feedback and listening isn’t the end. It invites a next step as a way to open conversation, engage with, and continue to learn from grantees and partners.

Instead of sharing our GPR results in a one-directional format, we decided to host a webinar to walk our partners through the survey results and provide an open forum for questions and conversation. We surveyed 96 grantees and received 72 responses — a 75 percent response rate. Our webinar registrants were around the same attendance, indicating both a high level of interest and engagement in our collective work. We focused on being honest, informative, and transparent.

A pillar of our approach is being accessible and clear about our strategy and funding decisions. We understand and acknowledge that there is a power imbalance between funders and grantees. Part of the way we work to redefine the power balance is to work toward mutual transparency. This builds authentic relationships and trust, and shifts the relationship from transactional to transformational, which hopefully leads to better outcomes. What this can look like in practical terms is being direct in our communication to reduce ambiguity, being flexible rather than restrictive, and being accountable to partners. It’s not about listening for the sake of listening, but being open to listening to diverse voices and responding to the people and organizations at the heart of our work.

In addition to our grantee partners, we invited local funding partners to further demonstrate the value of honest feedback and transparent communication among funders and grantees.

The webinar highlighted a sampling of our survey results — the highs and the lows. With support from the CEP team, we shared our actionable plans to apply what we learned:

  • Work to ensure the Foundation’s values, systems, and structures that contributed to strong positive perceptions are strengthened and reinforced over time.
  • Celebrate and maintain the practices contributing to the Foundation’s strong relationships and trust-building with grantees.
  • Continue to improve application and reporting processes with focus on gathering useful information, honoring grantee time constraints, and considering alternative application types.
  • Improve frequency and process for gathering feedback on the Foundation’s organizational and community impacts to inform grants and non-monetary supports.
  • Continue to identify opportunities to clearly communicate the Foundation’s goals and strategy, including our learnings, best practices, and trends in the field.

Webinar participants were encouraged to write questions and comments in the chat in real time and they were addressed intermittently during the presentation. After the formal report-out of the webinar concluded, we opened the floor to participations for reactions, questions, and discussion. There was a robust discussion and many felt comfortable participating.

After the webinar, we followed up via email to share the recording, our slides, and the full GPR report.  Several of the local funding partners in attendance asked that the Zilber Family Foundation convene the funding community to talk about the survey process, our results, and our decision to share them broadly. We’re happy to share our experience and do what we can to help fellow funders go beyond listening and take the next step in the feedback cycle.

The Zilber Family Foundation exists to serve as a connector, convener, and funder in our community. We know we can only be successful if we have trusting relationships with partners. Our intention and action to close the feedback loop around our GPR was part of our continued efforts to build trust, shift the power imbalance and increase transparency.

Erin Frederick is program director at the Zilber Family Foundation and has developed the Foundation’s capacity building strategy and grantmaking portfolio. 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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