Funder Q&A: Turning Grantee Feedback into Effective Change

Ethan McCoy

A couple of weeks ago, CEP Manager, Assessment and Advisory Services, Charlotte Brugman was joined by City Bridge Trust Funding and Social Investment Director Tim Wilson and C&A Foundation Head of Effective Philanthropy Lee Risby for an insightful webinar discussing their experiences surveying grantees through the Grantee Perception Report® (GPR). In the chat, Tim and Lee discussed how they acted on what they heard from grantees, and what the feedback and change processes looked like.

City Bridge Trust, based in the United Kingdom, and C&A Foundation, based in Switzerland, are just two of the 25 international foundations CEP has worked closely with over the past 17 years. This year, as she discussed in a recent blog post, Charlotte has relocated to her home city of Amsterdam and is leading CEP’s work to deepen its focus on partnering with foundations in Europe, including through the GPR. If you’re a European funder interested in learning more about CEP’s work, contact Charlotte at charlotteb[at]cep.org. And if you’re a U.S.-based funder interested in learning more about the GPR or any of CEP’s assessment and advisory services offerings, contact CEP Director, Assessment and Advisory Services, Austin Long at austinl[at]cep.org

Thank you to Tim and Lee for openly sharing their experiences about the grantee feedback process. For those of you who were unable to join us for the webinar, or for those interested in a recap, here are several highlights from the chat, edited for length and clarity. You can also watch a recording of the webinar in its entirety here.

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Charlotte Brugman (CB): Tell me a little bit about your organizations and what led you both to seek grantee feedback for the first time.

Tim Wilson (TW): City Bridge Trust is London’s largest independent grantmaker. Our focus is on tackling disadvantage across Greater London and building more cohesive communities. It’s a fairly broad, ambitious mission — we definitely have our work cut out for us.

We wanted to have an independent perspective on our work, but we were really keen to have data validated against a community benchmark. While we tried to understand how we were seen in the past, I think despite our best efforts, everything that we commissioned independent agents to produce for us was always affected by that deference bias…. People have a tendency to tell you positive things. We didn’t really have that sector comparator.

So I think what CEP gave us was something which was new and unique. It gave us a lot of food for thought, particularly around topics like our caseload, our monitoring processes, our program fees. As an experience, commissioning the GPR was something that really engaged the wider staff in a very positive way.

Lee Risby (LR): C&A Foundation is a corporate foundation focused on pulling the fashion industry on a more sustainable path. We’re working across issues like improving working conditions, eradicating forced and child labor, and circular fashion, which encompasses circular economy and sustainable resources.

Why we commissioned the Grantee Perception Report was quite simple. We reorganized out of an earlier incarnation of C&A Foundation in late 2013/early 2014 and during that time, we put in place a lot of new structures and processes. There was quite a lot of creative messiness. With our first cohort of grantees, we thought it was important to get their feedback.

So we looked for the right way to do that, and the Center for Effective Philanthropy was offering a good way of benchmarking against other foundations. The GPR removed some of the bias that you’re likely to get if you carry out a survey yourself, and it provided a very clear and loud set of voices for us to act on.

CB: One question we often get is whether Grantee Perception Report results are useful. Could you share one thing that you learned from your most recent grantee survey that you thought was most helpful and important to you?

TW: Grantees said that they wanted core funding and that they wanted longer-term funding, and we introduced both those changes in our new strategy…. We had the validation to say: there is evidence of definite demand here, and this demand is independently verified. It was really useful.

LR: Listening to our partners, we changed the way in which we speak about grantees. We realized that they are partners with us. So, partly I think it was a kind of cultural change in removing and breaking down some of the power dynamic that comes up when you’re giving money to another to carry out work. To not have a kind of service relationship between a grantee and a funder, but a real relationship and partnership — that’s been quite important to us, and we’ve acted on that.

CB: Cultural change can be really difficult. Lee, I’m curious to hear a little bit more about how you went about addressing that internal change and also then with grantees. What was one challenge that you faced in that process?

LR: We had a lot of internal meetings…real soul searching within the organization. We realized during that startup phase that we weren’t always as clear as we needed to be on procedures and processes — basic stuff.

Cultural change takes time. So when we were looking over what could be easily structurally solved, it came down to changing our concept and proposal guidelines and formats. It came down to making adjustments to our monitoring and evaluation policy and minimum requirements, our reporting guidelines, and our website — making it more easy to read, explicit, and easy to navigate because it’s primarily there for our partners.

The other thing we changed is to be more available for partners when they have questions. I think we’ve become, over time, not only a more listening foundation, but a more open foundation. And I think much of the informal feedback that I have heard from partners kind of echoed that. They actually see themselves as partners now, and there has been a sea change in the way in which we define our relationships with each other.

CB: Tim, internally, how did you go about making changes? How did you manage the change process with your staff and what was one of the challenges that you faced in that process?

TW: I think for any change, the challenge internally was: how do we stop doing what we’re currently delivering? Where is the justification to close any aspect of current programming?

Since we’ve operated as a responsive grantmaker since we were established, with each strategy review…we’ve looked at what we would like to add, and then the programs and the range of services have just grown and grown and grown. This can be quite tough on staff workload. This was something CEP picked up on around how many funding relationships funding managers held in comparison to their peers.

So when we were talking about using a wider range of assets to support partners, we had to be realistic about what that ambition would look like in practice, and we had to consider what the tradeoff would be, for example with the number of organizations that we fund.

So, for example, we’re awarding longer-term and larger grants…and, because we have a finite pot available, we’re awarding fewer grants. The evidence stated clearly to our staff and to our board: this is what is demanded by the organizations that we’re looking to support, which can justify some of those harder calls…. We’re not going to try to spread ourselves so thinly that we support everybody. We will concentrate on delivering our funding with as much impact as we possibly can.

That basis of evidence and data…helped smooth some points which could otherwise have been quite sticky.

CB [reading question from audience]: To what extent is an assessment like the Grantee Perception Report useful in hearing from organizations in unstable or under-resourced environments?

LR: We’re working with partners in somewhat vulnerable situations in countries from the global south like Bangladesh and India, working on difficult issues like forced and child labor. We also work with larger partners, of course, who are based in the U.K. or in the United States. I think what the survey does is that it provides some kind of equalization and levels out any power dynamics, even between partners. They all have an equal voice and no voice is given more weight. I think that’s very important when it comes to the broad range of partners that we support and work with.

 

CB: Do you have any advice for other international foundations that would like to participate in the Grantee Perception Report? Was there anything that you wish you would have known before you did the GPR for the first time?

LR: Just go ahead and do it! There’s nothing more valuable than feedback. We get it all the time in our jobs… It’s an important component of improvement and learning.

To me, the survey is a vital and regular part of holding up a mirror to ourselves, seeing what reflection we’ve got, and being able to act on it. This will be a regular thing for us as we develop as an organization…. It has really changed us. We’re not perfect. And I think the next survey will show once again the areas that we need to improve upon.

TW: I very much echo Lee — just go for it. Certain elements worked well for us. We had an open and inquisitive board. There was a strategy review on the way. There was a general interest and appetite for change and for learning from the data.

It’s not just data for the evaluation specialists or for the [staff] who have a particular interest in monitoring and evaluation. It’s the ones who are interested in all aspects of what makes a foundation effective that [the GPR] really sparks debate with. That’s the whole theme.

If you work at a foundation in Europe and are interested in learning more about the Grantee Perception Report or any of CEP’s resources, contact Charlotte Brugman at charlotte[at]cep.org. If you’re based in the U.S. and want to learn more about the GPR, contact Austin Long at austinl[at]cep.org.

Ethan McCoy is senior writer, development and communications, at CEP.

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