How Listening Helped One Funder Set Strategic Direction

Alice Mei, Kristen Stevenson, and Kho Yin Go

In my many years working with funders at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), one of the most common phrases that comes up in discussions of results is “we’re different” — and there is always truth in that. We’ve worked with more than 350 funders on a Grantee Perception Report, and they represent a huge range of types, annual giving levels, endowment sizes, and staffing. They make different strategic choices about their approach to relationships, their processes, their operations, and more. In our conversations at CEP, we talk a lot about the ways those structures and choices show up in the feedback they receive from grantees and the actions they take in response.

There’s also a wide range in the timing, methods, and reasoning that funders use to assess their work. Some choose to collect feedback following a strategic shift while others seek feedback as they spend down; some pair feedback surveys with leadership changes; and some opt for more custom projects that involve interview or focus groups.

CEP is one piece of a complex puzzle of a funder’s journey to listen and act. In that sense, we see our assessments as a first step and a diagnostic tool — deeply rooted in rigor, confidentiality, and equity — and we strive to provide funders with the partnership and support needed to tease out the context that matters from the context that matters less. To me, building understanding of a funder’s structure and strategies and where feedback fits into their work is the most rewarding part of my job.

This dynamic partnership was particularly front of mind for me in a recent engagement with Minderoo Foundation, who commissioned their first Grantee Perception Report (GPR) in 2023. While CEP works with funders all over the globe, Minderoo Foundation is one of a handful of Australian-based funders in CEP’s comparative dataset. They were also in the unique position of setting a new strategic direction when they engaged with CEP. As such, I invited them to share their reflections on the process of gathering grantee feedback, unpacking the results in their context, and how funders in Australia can use this listening exercise to strengthen the philanthropic sector.

Here’s what they had to say in their own words.

Why Seek Feedback?

In 2023, Minderoo Foundation launched its 2030 Strategy, which embeds a systems-led approach to our work by understanding the systems landscape and tackling the conditions holding the problems in place. It also aims to strengthens our commitment to collaboration by building and fostering stronger relationships with partners and peers to maximize the impact of our resources.

We were also incredibly fortunate as our founders, Andrew and Nicola Forrest, donated an additional AUD$5 billion to the Foundation’s endowment in the same year. We recognise what an absolute privilege and responsibility it is to steward this gift on behalf of our founders.

In the reflections stimulated by the strategic planning process and this gift, we realized that to be more effective we need to concentrate our efforts on building capacity for our partners to deliver and deploy our resources more intentionally. To do this well it is essential to understand how our grantee partners think and feel about collaborating with us and what they require to be successful in achieving our shared outcomes.

We are an evidence-based organization and we demonstrate this through the research we undertake and fund in our focus areas, but we didn’t have access to the same level of quality data when it came to our own operations.

That’s why we turned to CEP. The Grantee Perception Report (GPR) was an amazing resource for us to be able to source honest and candid feedback on Minderoo’s impact on our grantee’s fields, communities, and organizations.

Although measurement and learning are cornerstones of our organizational practices, we had never before provided an avenue for our partners to give feedback in a systematic and anonymous way, so this was a new territory for us. Being able to see how we compared against other funders from across the world through benchmarking data was very important to us. We wanted to understand where we fit among our peers and make sure that we are constantly trying to improve. We can always do better, but we can’t do it on our own.

The Importance of a Baseline

The insights gained from the GPR have been invaluable. The results were confronting but not completely unexpected. On face value many of the scores reflected a positive sentiment and the comments grantees shared were largely positive. However, the comparative data highlighted just how far we are from where we aspire to be.

The results however have given us a baseline to work from and helped us to clarify and focus on the specific aspects of our grantmaking that need improvement. By prioritizing our efforts in where we think we can make the biggest impact, we hope to see improvements in the next survey that we plan to do in three years’ time.

The timing of this survey was also opportune in terms of the launch of our 2030 Strategy and has fed into many of our recent decisions about how we intend to engage with grantees and communities. We have been able to incorporate the feedback into planned changes to the way we work to better align with the needs and expectations of our grantees and ensure we are set up to deliver on our 2030 Strategy outcomes.

Making Meaning of the Results and Shaping a Response

The results from the GPR can be quite overwhelming at first. There is a substantial amount of quantitative and qualitative data provided in the report, so a crucial part of the process was working alongside the CEP team to better understand the data and tools available to interrogate the results.

We took considerable time to reflect on the results sharing and discussing them with our Board, Foundation leaders, and our teams. Deeply reflecting on and examining the results has enabled us to prioritize where we believe we can make the biggest impact and to focus on addressing those issues along with identifying quick wins.

The GPR has served as a catalyst for internal reflection and dialogue within the Foundation. It sparked meaningful discussions around important topics such as power dynamics, voice, our grantmaking practices, and our overall engagement approach. It was critical that we embrace our value of humility, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and that there is tremendous benefit in allowing our partners knowledge and work to shine. We applied a learning mindset to the evaluation of the results which we hope will help to move us towards greater effectiveness and increase our impact.

Through our networks we engaged with other funders who have worked with CEP to implement their own GPRs. It was reassuring to learn from those that have gone before us that our initial response to the results was not uncommon and to hear about different approaches to responding to the results. These conversations also helped us to shape our action plan in response to the results.

We recently presented the survey results to our grantee partners for the first time and shared with them the findings and our action plan on how we are using the results to frame our strategy and ongoing partnerships approach. It was important for us to acknowledge and thank them for their participation in the survey but also to demonstrate our commitment to improving as a funder.  The feedback from the sharing session was overwhelmingly positive and has further galvanized our commitment to work more directly with our partners to listen and respond to their feedback.

Looking Broader: Philanthropic Trends in Australia

Australian philanthropy is evolving in parallel with global trends, with a growing emphasis on strategic giving, impact-driven approaches, and collaboration across sectors. While Australia’s philanthropic landscape retains its unique characteristics and challenges, such as regulatory constraints and a reliance on traditional philanthropic models, it is aligning with global movements towards more strategic, inclusive, and impactful philanthropy.

We are one of only a handful of Australian participants in the GPR so our comparative cohort from a geographical point of view is very small. As an Australian cohort we have informally been sharing our experiences, results, and resulting action plans with each other. We hope that other Australian funders follow us on this path and consider engaging with CEP to get a better understanding of how their grantees perceive their impact as a funder.

The relationships we have with our grantees are critically important in achieving our ambition to forge a fair future. We believe the greatest way for us to have impact is through the work we do with and through our grantees. Working with CEP on the GPR has provided us with data and insights to inform our decisions about how we want to evolve as a foundation, deepen our impact, and strengthen our partnerships with grantees. By embracing transparency and actively seeking feedback, we hope to enhance accountability and trust with our partners and within the communities we serve.

Alice Mei is a manager, Assessment and Advisory Services, at CEP. Kristen Stevenson is director of Partnerships at Minderoo Foundation and Kho Yin Go is an analyst, Partnerships Insights, at Minderoo Foundation.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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foundation strategy, funder effectiveness, funder-grantee relationship, funder/grantee relationships, listening
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