If a Former President Can’t Give Funder Feedback, Then Who Can?

For all the talk of new technologies that might allow grant recipients to provide candid feedback to funders, the funder-grantee power imbalance remains very real. I was reminded of this, vividly, when I was catching up on The Daily Show a couple days ago. Jon Stewart had former President Jimmy Carter on the show to talk about The Carter Center’s amazing progress in eradicating Guinea worm worldwide.

For about four minutes, the former President talked proudly about nearly 30 years of fighting this scourge. He said full eradication of Guinea worm is in sight—down from millions of cases a year in the past to just a handful so far in 2013. And then Jon Stewart (at 4:28 in this video) jokes, “Bill Gates is out there with malaria, do you see him and rib him a little bit? Like ‘Hey man, how’s it going with malaria?’” Carter replies, “We don’t rag ‘em because we get a lot of money from the Bill Gates Foundation….They’re really good people. I really am one of Bill Gates’ greatest admirers.”

 

Watch the video, both for the amazing story of what a funder and a grantee can do together, and for President Carter’s reaction.

 

It was a perfect reminder: if it’s tough for a former President to speak candidly about his funder directly, it’s got to be impossible for most grantees.

And that’s why CEP’s work to provide candid, comparative, third-party feedback from grantees, declined applicants, donors, and staff remains just as important as ever.

It’s only through a confidential survey—in which the respondent’s name will never appear—that a funder can hear amazing comments like these and be confident that it represents a true picture of their relationship and not just an artfully-framed snapshot from a financially-dependent nonprofit.

Below are some positive quotes from Grantee Perception Reports (GPRs) that funders have posted on their websites as an act of transparency and accountability (you can see the full set of links to public GPRs here).

From Wilburforce Foundation:

“All of the Wilburforce staff are a joy to work with. Even when they are asking a difficult question or pointing out an area in which your work might improve, they do it very professionally and nicely. They push just the right amount. They do not try to change your plans, only to improve the way you think about or conduct your work. Above all they are supportive of the work, the goals of the work, and their grantees as individuals.”

From Rockefeller Brothers Fund:

“RBF is a role model for other private foundations, both in terms of the clarity and integrity of their funding processes, and their mission and commitment to creating meaningful, long-lasting change that promotes and respects diversity and cultural understanding world-wide.”

From The Rhode Island Foundation:

“The program officer we work with is highly professional, asks great questions but really took the time to understand the goals and value added of our program for RI residents. Working with her and RIF has been a real pleasure that has strengthened our program work, connections in the state and messaging as well.”

Combined with some comparative data, comments like these can provide real confidence that grantees believe a funder’s work is, well, working!

Of course, while many comments are positive, not all of them are. One of the most frequent comments I hear from funders when talking about a potential grantee survey is this one: “We don’t really need to do a survey. I have great relationships with my grantees. They’re totally forthcoming about what we could do better.”

I can promise you, that’s just not true.

A comment like this is unlikely to be shared directly.

“The disparity between expectations and results was the most disappointing that I have encountered in a lifetime of fundraising. The organizational opportunity costs and inter-organizational relations costs may have exceeded the benefits.”

Or this one.

“We always felt we had a ‘Hannibal-The-Cannibal’ relationship—stay where you are and mind yourself and it’s okay. Take one step forward and your arm will be bitten off.”

Or this one.

“If adequate funding to cover the administrative requirements were requested, such a request would be denied… The foundation treats grantees as criminals who are about to abscond with the funds. The minute detail required for all expense items implies that no level of trust exists between funding source and grantee.”

These are just a few examples from different foundations, but the topics raised are not uncommon. When comments like these rise to the frequency of a theme for any particular funder, it’s important information that should help improve effectiveness and impact for everyone!

CEP’s data strongly suggest that grantees want to find funders that are aligned with their work. They want funders to help them create more impact, with money and, often, with advice and assistance as well. That requires a great funder-grantee relationship. An upcoming report on responses to a recent Project Streamline survey of nonprofits shows that more than 40 percent of respondents have “never had a funder ask for feedback.” Yet we know that grantee feedback is a window into how a funder can make the best use of every last dime it has.

Ten years into providing funders with candid, comparative grantee feedback through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report, a lot has changed. The survey has continued to evolve, as we’ve constantly updated it based on feedback from funders and new research, we’ve increased opportunities for customization, and we’ve moved the report delivery online while making the data easier than ever to interpret. Funders that have used the tool more than once often have seen real improvements in their grantees’ experiences.

Don’t lose out on the opportunity to get this important feedback. I promise you, it will make a difference.

 

Kevin Bolduc is Vice President of Assessment Tools at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @kmbolduc.

 

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