Grantee Feedback Fuels Changes at Foundations

Collecting feedback from grantees about a foundation’s performance seems like a good idea, but does it lead to any change?

“Since we began [the Grantee Perception Report®] eight years ago, a big question is whether collecting feedback from grantees that is candid, confidential and comparative in nature leads to any change,” said Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) President Phil Buchanan at CEP’s Better Philanthropy: From Data to Impact pre-conference seminar on May 9.

At the meeting, CEP released a new research report that indicates that repeated use of the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) by foundations does appear to be contributing to changes in foundation practices that benefit grantees. The GPR provides provides funders with comparative, candid feedback based on grantee perceptions. A CEP analysis of 59 foundations that have undertaken the GPR at least twice showed that on a number of dimensions in the grantee survey there were statistically meaningful improvements for those funders.

Overall, 80 percent of funders repeating the GPR see some level of positive improvement on the impact that grantees perceive them to be having on their organization, and nearly one-third see statistically significant increases, said Ellie Buteau, CEP Vice-President—Research. Only three percent saw their average rating statistically decline.

“The good news is that funders that are committed to getting improved ratings from grantees are seeing improvement,” Buteau said.

The largest improvements were seen on questions such as:

  • Grantees’ perceptions of foundations’ understanding of, and impact on, their organizations;
  • Helpfulness of a funder’s selection process;
  • Impact on and understanding of grantees’ fields.

Repeated users of the GPR saw the least improvement on community-focused measures, such as understanding of grantees’ local communities. CEP found no improvement on making an impact on local communities.

The findings are particularly noteworthy because CEP found that grantees’ perceptions of foundations in general have not improved in the past eight years, a finding that surprised CEP staff.  CEP hypothesized that given the number of “infrastructure” organizations that have sprung up in this field in the past decade that focus on the experiences grantees have with their funders —including CEP—that CEP would see higher ratings of foundations for first-time GPR users in recent years than it did in early days.

“The disappointing news is that we don’t see recent first-time GPR users rating funders any different than first-time GPR users did eight years ago,” Buteau said.

Those findings make the improvements of the 59 foundations that repeated the GPR particularly striking, she said.

Making changes at foundations, particularly after receiving poor ratings, however, isn’t easy.

Mary Vallier-Kaplan, vice president and chief operating officer of the New Hampshire-based Endowment for Health, said that when the foundation received its first GPR, it ranked in the 25th percentile of funders on several significant indicators.

“It really felt like a punch in the stomach,” she said at the CEP meeting. “We had worked so hard and we thought we had done so well. It took a while not to deny [the findings], question the methodology or say, ‘Well, we’re a new foundation.’”

After Vallier-Kaplan, staff, and board members absorbed the news, the Endowment for Health undertook several steps to improve its ratings, she said.

“We had been so focused on doing a good job and being fair and using evaluation that we had forgot some of the human side of what this business is about,” Vallier-Kaplan said. “Much of what we did to improve was to add the human dimension.”

As a result, when it undertook the GPR again three years later, the Endowment for Health saw greatly improved ratings. On many of the dimensions where the Endowment had lagged behind most other funders, it was now among the leaders.

CEP’s report, Can Feedback Fuel Change at Foundations? An Analysis of the Grantee Perception Report will be released on its website the week of May 16. The report includes:

  • Detailed findings from the CEP research;
  • Stories of the steps that the Endowment for Health and other foundations took to make improvements based on GPR findings;
  • Four common characteristics of foundations that drive real improvement in GPR results.

Susan Parker is owner of Clear Thinking Communications

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