Funder Q&A: Opening Yourself Up to Grantee Feedback

Last month, CEP staff were joined by Baptist Healing Trust President and CEO Cathy Self and Program and Communications Officer Jennifer Oldham for an insightful webinar discussing the Trust’s experience surveying grantees through the Grantee Perception Report® (GPR). In the chat, Cathy and Jennifer discussed how candid grantee feedback provides a unique and valuable look into a funder’s work, what surprised them about what they heard from their grantees, and what actions they are taking to respond directly to the feedback and improve their work.

Thank you to Cathy and Jennifer for openly sharing their experiences about the process. For those of you who were unable to join us for the webinar, or for those who are interested in a recap of what was discussed, here are several highlights from the chat.

 

CEP: Could you talk about your interest in hearing from your grantees and what led you to use the Grantee Perception Report (GPR)?

Cathy Self: We bring a message to our grantees that we want to do more in partnering with them than just write a check. We provide a number of programs to support nonprofit staff, and we want very much to be involved on the front lines with the nonprofits we fund and their work. We realized that while we are in year 13 of our existence — and while we had heard informal feedback from our grantees and get a lot of unsolicited feedback — we recognized that we were very likely hearing almost exclusively from those who had a lot of good to say. We realized we might not have been getting the kind of feedback to enable us to see the whole picture and enact change that would matter for our grantees. We wanted that kind of feedback that would be particularly meaningful to us.

Jennifer Oldham: Everyone we spoke to who had used the GPR talked about hearing feedback from grantees that they otherwise would not have had access to, based on the inherent power dynamic between grantee and funder. What we most wanted to find out from our grantees was feedback that would affect the way we deliver our services.

 

CEP: What did you learn from your grantees? Specifically, were there any surprises, affirmations, or bright spots in the feedback you received?

CS: We went into the survey hoping to hear that our intention to be a partner to our grantees and not just a grantmaker was going to show itself in the results, and it did. We were surprised, frankly, at the degree of the positive response. As part of the report, CEP generates a word cloud of words that grantees use to best describe the funder, and we were quite stunned that all of the words in our cloud were actually positive words.

This was very affirming — and a bit surprising — because we know we’re not perfect and that there’s room to grow and respond to some of the needs that did come through in the survey.

JO: We heard from our grantees that there were some things we could do to streamline the process. For example, we were surprised by the amount of time that a particular subset of grantees was spending on the application. The ROI on it was not at all what we had intended. So we made changes for our small grant programs. We decreased the amount of information that we request for this type of grant, and we are increasing the dollar amount that can be requested in this category.

Other changes we made were in process improvement. There were process changes we hadn’t considered that we feel will be beneficial both to the grantees and also to us. One of those is paying grants in one installment instead of two.

We all tend to get pretty myopic about our own work. It’s easy to think that what we’re doing is working and not take the time to examine our practices. The results of the survey, then, were a really good prompt for us to go back and look at the way we’ve been doing things for a while, and ask ourselves: Is this still working? Is this still relevant? Is there a way to streamline it and make it better for all involved?

 

CEP: How do these changes play out in the experience of staff at the foundation? Are there any examples of what you or other program officers are doing differently in your work with grantees as a result of the GPR?

CS: We’re continuing to behave the way we used to behave, but frankly, it’s with a great deal more joy and a sense of real relationship with our grantees. I’m seeing staff connect and communicate authentically with grantees out of a place of celebration. We feel that our grantees really “get us,” and the survey affirmed that for us. We had hoped that our grantees would understand us as a foundation, and we feel we are really taking down the artificial barrier that can exist between funders and grantees. We feel that, on an organizational and an individual staff level, we’ve really been able to solidify our relationships with our grantees.

 

CEP: Some of the really positive ratings in your report were in regard to those high-quality relationships with grantees you just described. What’s the secret sauce that goes into that?

JO: I think part of it is that we’ve been more intentional about being accessible. One of the things we’ve heard from grantees over the years is that we’re a lot more transparent than some of our peers. We provide feedback on all of the applications we receive, whether they are approved or declined. I think that’s helpful to people because it’s like having the curtain removed so you can see Oz. It can be helpful to applicants and grantees to understand why we’ve funded what we funded or why we’ve made specific cuts. Even if they may not necessarily agree with our thinking, it removes that layer of mystery. I think this has helped tremendously.

Part of what we’ve done is also to try to be human in front of grantees and show that we’re not in an inaccessible ivory tower.  Grantees can call us, and we can call them. If there’s something that’s outside our particular field of knowledge, we don’t pretend like we know the answer; we call them and ask their input. We hope this has removed that barrier. Transparency is one of the things we’ve worked really hard at, and I think that this has resulted in the strong relationships we have with our grantees.

 

CEP: On the topic of transparency on the internal side of things, how did you engage your staff in a conversation about your survey results?

CS: When we sat down with the entire staff to share the results, if we weren’t in the 99th percentile on a particular area, somebody on staff typically put up a hand and asked, “Why aren’t we in the 99th percentile on that?” It’s human nature to focus on everything that’s wrong. So we started by celebrating everything that was right and talked about what we could do to ensure that that continued to be embedded into the culture of our organization. Then we moved onto the areas where we had opportunities to improve and grow. We did some brainstorming, and we also talked to some of our grantees to ask them, “If we did this, would that be helpful to you?” We wanted to test new ideas a bit before we decided to make a change.

 

CEP: How was the comparative data helpful to understanding your results?

CS: It was significant. If you see a six out of seven, it’s easy to sit back and say, “We’re doing pretty well.” But when you put that in the context of peers, when you’re comparing apples to apples and not just us to ourselves, it’s very telling. It makes all the difference in the world.

JO: I don’t think there would have been any other way really for us to understand our results without that context. We were able to see our results compared to two groups: everyone in CEP’s database and a more focused cohort we were able to create with parameters like asset size and staff size. That way, we weren’t comparing ourselves with say, the Gates Foundation, which is a completely different animal. This helped us a lot to see how we stand in comparison to our closest peers.

 

Baptist Healing Trust, located in Nashville, TN, works to foster healing and wholeness for vulnerable populations through strategic investing, philanthropy, and advocacy. Follow the Trust on Twitter at @BHTNashville and like them on Facebook and YouTube.

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