Funders that Don’t Seek Feedback Are Out of Excuses

Aaron Dorfman

In a Telegraph interview several years ago, Lisa Marie Presley said, “Something happens to people around fame and power and money — it can bring out the worst and best in people; it’s a monster you have to tame.”

In the world of philanthropy, this plays out in different ways: the lack of voice and representation of nonprofits and community leaders in strategy- and decision-making in foundation boardrooms, grantees being treated like contractors to execute the “expert” bidding of the grantmaker, and other practices that put funders’ perspectives first.

Unfortunately, having control of the money doesn’t mean donors, philanthropy advisors, and grantmakers have extra-special insight into the thorniest problems facing society.  Success requires that those who control philanthropic resources work in true partnership with the nonprofits and communities they seek to benefit. 

A move towards stakeholder feedback

One of the most significant and positive trends in philanthropy over the past 10 years has been the growing willingness of foundations to get feedback from grantees and the people and communities these nonprofits serve. Thankfully, there are an ever-increasing number of tools available to help them get that feedback.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) was an early driver of this trend. Its Grantee Perception Report (GPR) was the first assessment developed for our sector to help funders get feedback about how they were interacting with grantees. As the GPR has evolved over the years, it has gotten increasingly useful for providing foundations the data they need to make changes in how they operate. More than 320 large foundations have administered the GPR at least once, and about 80 have done it three times or more. Importantly, a majority of CEP assessment users report that they have made changes as a result of what they learned. Some funders, such as the Barr Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and Community Foundation Sonoma County, have taken the step to share about what they’ve learned and how they’re changing in response.

A relatively new tool on the scene puts grantees in the driver’s seat for providing feedback. GrantAdvisor anonymously crowdsources information about grantmakers’ application process. Launched just over a year ago, more than 500 foundations have already been reviewed by at least one nonprofit, and more than 75 foundations have received more than five reviews, which makes the foundation’s profile and reviews public. More than 1,350 nonprofit leaders have registered to be a reviewer for the site.

It’s having an impact already. For example, a Minnesota foundation learned that the “Contact Us” form on their website was broken after receiving reviews on GrantAdvisor saying they were unresponsive; they fixed it so grantees could contact them directly. Another funder, Colocation America, which funds school technology programs, simplified their application form and process and started giving application feedback partially in response to feedback it received from the site.

Exponent Philanthropy just released a new toolkit that focuses on the funder/nonprofit relationship. It includes a self-diagnostic questionnaire and practical advice for how to build more trusting, mutually beneficial relationships with grantees.

Feedback tools for equity and justice

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), which I lead, has also been working in this space for the past several years. Through our Philamplify initiative, we provide two ways for foundations to get honest feedback from grantees, peers, community leaders, and other stakeholders for actionable recommendations to help build a more just and equitable society.

First, Philamplify’s nuanced expert assessments provide in-depth analysis of funding strategies and operations to identify what’s working and what’s not. Of the 12 foundations we’ve assessed, nearly all have reported that they’ve acted on at least one key recommendation. For example, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation completely overhauled its website and joined GlassPockets after hearing that it needed to be more transparent about its funding priorities. The Kresge Foundation announced that it will allocate $350 million to social investments by 2020 after NCRP recommended the foundation direct 25 percent of its endowment to mission investing. Feedback from the Philamplify assessments wasn’t the only factor that drove these changes, but it certainly contributed.

Second, Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice gives grantmakers a one-of-a-kind self-assessment tool to examine how well they are building, sharing, and wielding power. We can achieve lasting outcomes where no one is left behind only when people and communities that traditionally don’t have power are driving the efforts to secure a thriving future.

I view all of these tools as complementary. Funders will learn different things from each, and each provides a different way for nonprofits to weigh in.

But many funders continue to operate in a bubble

In spite of the trend towards getting feedback, there are still many foundations, like the Hess Foundation, that aren’t doing anything at all to listen to stakeholders. Legally, of course, they are allowed to continue operating in a bubble and practicing mediocre philanthropy. Given the variety of tools now available, funders that aren’t interested in getting feedback are running out of excuses. 

Imagine a world in which people and communities feel safe and secure, and thrive regardless of where they live and their race, ethnicity, religion, and other identities. This world is possible, and philanthropy can be part of building it if every foundation staff member and major donor views the communities they serve as true partners, humbly seeks feedback, co-creates strategy with grantees, and shares power with them, too.

Enlightened funders will embrace the tools now available to them and will show others that we can slay the monster and choose to let money and power bring out the best in our philanthropic giving.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Connect with @NCRP and join the #PowerMovesEquity conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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