Insights from a Fourth Grantee Perception Report

David Farren

Gluttons for punishment or navel gazers? Who would have thought that the fourth time our foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, completed the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) would be every bit as valuable as the initial one. Each time we have worked with CEP to collect feedback from our grantees, we have gleaned valuable, actionable insights, translating into positive feedback in our next survey results for those suggestions on which we acted. As a result, we now proudly sit among the top funders in CEP’s dataset overall, and most notably for impact in our mission areas.

So, how does a place-based, mid-sized family foundation with a relatively small staff spread across two regions achieve these results? At this point, here is what we think is our secret sauce, which has continued to simmer since we embarked on our first grantee survey in 2006:

Supplying multiyear general operating support for the majority of our grants. In short, multiyear general operating support is the “gold standard” most valued by grantees.  It supports organizational stability, provides flexibility, and helps build further trust in relationships between funders and grantees. If you know your grantee and its work well enough, you can be reasonably confident how the dollars will be spent to advance the underlying reason for the grant.

Providing value in addition to dollars. Our grants per grantee budget on a dollar-for-dollar basis are lower than the average, yet they are still highly valued. We think that our strength is in the overall “value proposition” of our grants — their dollars, plus technical assistance support, sponsoring convenings, providing informal coaching, and paying for scholarships for conferences and other organizational development opportunities. In fact, in our Chicago-based arts funding, we’ve given this approach a name: “Gen Ops, Plus.”

Establishing a number of touchpoints with grantees throughout the grant cycle. Every grantee of ours has a meeting or phone contact with one of our program officers at least once a year, usually more often. This includes our small arts grants, which range from approximately $5,000–15,000. Beyond the money, we sponsor and attend cohort meetings, learning sessions, and informal gatherings with various grantee clusters.

Sure, there is always more that we can do to continue to improve. The latest grantee survey provided meaningful feedback — and not just the good stuff. As a result, we plan to look at the following areas with an eye for improvement: making the application and reporting processes more commensurate with our grant sizes, better sharing our internal impact evaluations with our grantees in the spirit of true partnerships, and sorting out how to best deploy the dizzying array of social media tools given our limited capacity. Most important, we can continue to find ways to extend our reach as effective advocates for our mission areas in the public realm to complement the efforts of our grantees.

If we aren’t out there sharing the value of land conservation, artistic vitality, and regional museum collections in the two communities we serve, who else has the broad mandate and the resources to do so? Foundations are often thought of as neutral brokers with the ability to bring folks together. Now more than ever there is a compelling need to also speak out in support of our core values.  This is something that some of our colleagues in philanthropy seem to shy away from, but we believe it is another important way we can increase our foundation’s value proposition.

Ultimately, our mission-driven strategy comes down to the examples our founders set for community engagement, service, curiosity, and humility. Most of our staff have worked at nonprofits at some point, so we know what the power dynamic between funders and grantees can be like, and we try to remember this every day. After all, where would we be without our grantees?

Perhaps it all comes down to a single word, which is often perceived to be in short supply in the foundation world and beyond: transparency. The GPR inspires us to think about how we can more effectively live the values of transparency in our partnerships with our grantees and co-funders, in our fields, and in our communities at large.

David Farren is executive director of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @GDDonnelley and read the full results of its Grantee Perception Report (GPR) here.

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