Grantee Feedback: A Tool for Assessing Program Officers

In my role as a Senior Research Analyst at CEP, I’ve read through thousands of grantees’ comments about working with the foundations that support them. The tenor of these comments varies widely and is often influenced by the nature of grantees’ relationships with their funders, particularly when it comes to their interactions with program officers. Recently, I read this comment from a grantee:

“[The Foundation’s] program officers and program staff are extremely knowledgeable and approachable…. We have actually been able to use their depth of knowledge on topic areas complimentary to ours in order to develop stronger more valuable products and outcomes. Fostering that approachability is really important so that grantees don’t view the relationship as that of serving a funder, but rather collaborating with a colleague.”

This comment shows the impact individual program officers can have on the experience of an entire organization.

While the primary goal of CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® (GPR) is to help funders assess their organization’s strengths and weaknesses relative to those of other foundations in our comparative dataset, many funders also ask us to provide grantee feedback at the individual program officer level. Our experience has shown that this data can be extremely helpful in illustrating individual program officers’ strengths and weaknesses relative to each other, to the Foundation overall, and to the typical funder in CEP’s dataset.

Increasingly, funders have asked us for this program officer level data with an eye toward using it to inform individual performance reviews, and specifically, program officer development. As foundations consider using GPR data in this way, here are some recommendations:

  1. Recognize the most important GPR measures when it comes to evaluating individual program officers. Based on CEP’s research in Luck of the Draw, we know that on some dimensions, program officers influence grantees’ perceptions of foundations more than do the foundations themselves. The following survey items are measures for which data from grantees varies more by program officer than by foundation:
    • Grantee’s comfort in approaching the Foundation when problems arise
    • Foundation’s responsiveness to grantee
    • Foundation’s fairness to grantee
    • Clarity of foundation’s communication of its goals and strategies
    • Foundation’s impact on grantee organizations
    • Foundation’s understanding of grantee organization’s goals and strategies
    • Foundation’s effect on public policy

    CEP recommends that program officers and foundations focus their attention on these measures first, since they are where individual program officers may have the clearest opportunities for improvement.

  2. Keep in mind that GPR data at the program officer level represents only one set of perspectives at a particular snapshot in time. Before foundations and program officers receive GPR data, they should consider the time period during which grantees were surveyed and the time period during which grantees received the grants they thought about as they responded to the survey. What changes were happening in grantees’ fields, local communities, and organizations? What external factors might be affecting grantees’ perceptions of the Foundation and their relationship with their program officer? This unique and important context is an essential supplement to the data CEP provides.
  3. Interpret feedback in the context of program officers’ individual circumstance. Based on CEP’s research in Working with Grantees, we know that much of what predicts grantees’ perceptions of their relationships with program officers, such as reciprocity in initiating contact, can be influenced by decisions beyond the program officer’s control. For example, if a program officer serves on numerous internal task forces, or if she has twice the typical number of active grantees, it will be harder for her to be responsive to grantees. In other words, variation occurs at the program officer level both because of variation in program officer performance and because of program officers’ individual circumstance.
  4. Interpret program officer level data in light of the Foundation’s goals and individuals’ strategies for professional development. This data can be useful in helping program officers determine areas of relative strength and weakness, but it’s important for individuals and their supervisors to focus on the areas which the Foundation cares most about, while realizing that there are measures in this report that are less important to the Foundation or to program officers as individuals. For example, if it is not part of a foundation’s core strategy to influence public policy, lower ratings on this measure at the individual program officer level are probably not concerning.

The program officers to whom grantees are assigned can strongly influence their perceptions of and experiences with foundations. This type of data can be a tremendous resource in assessing and improving a funder’s performance. As grantees are foundations’ chosen agents of change, program officers are foundations’ liaisons; how they interact and communicate with grantees can play an important role in determining the velocity with which change happens.

More and more funders with whom we work are choosing to look at their grantees’ feedback at the program officer level. And at CEP, we believe that assessments that compare foundations to each other, and program officers to each other, give funders a better picture of what’s working and what isn’t. Even though conversations around grantees’ feedback on individual program officers can sometimes be uncomfortable – as any conversation about constructive feedback can be – this type of data can channel conversations around relative strengths and weaknesses into concrete plans for building on those strengths and further improving performance.

 

Elizabeth Kelley is a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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