In 2008, the Ford Foundation made its first foray into using the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) for vital feedback on how grantees perceive us. Between then and 2017, CEP administered the survey on behalf of Ford four times … and our results were consistently disappointing. Our scores were rarely higher than average. And on the dimensions related to our relationships with grantees our scores were stubbornly in the bottom third, if not fifth, on most indicators.
It was around 2017 and following our fourth survey that the Ford Foundation committed intentionally to strengthening its role as a learning organization, dedicating people and resources through the establishment of an Office of Strategy and Learning. And the institution began building out policies, practices, and ways of engaging that would allow us to improve on the basis of empirical evidence. And, just under three years later, on our next survey, our scores improved markedly.
What made the difference? We believe three overarching factors enabled the change: shifts in grantmaking policy, grantmaking processes, and, lastly and most especially, grantmaking culture.
Starting in 2016, we made significant changes in how we fund. A core part of this investment was through the BUILD program, which offers five-year general operating support coupled with institutional strengthening funds. From the start, BUILD committed a minimum of 40 percent of Ford’s grantmaking to these forms of investments. Over time, we saw marked differences in our grantmaking through:
- Multi-year general operating support grants: Ford now makes over 80 percent of its grants as general or core support, as opposed to 30 percent in 2016. While grant terms vary, the median grant term is about two years, and BUILD grants last for five years.
- Full indirect cost of project grants: When we do make project grants, we now ensure we are funding them appropriately, including the indirect costs organizations have in running projects. Ford adopted a 25 percent minimum indirect cost rate as a baseline, and will cover a higher documented rate when applicable.
- Institutional strengthening support: We invest intentionally in institutional support funds for grantee organizations both through BUILD and more broadly, and we invest in technical assistance for partners in a number of key areas of common challenges (e.g., financial management, leadership transitions) in specific fields or regions.
There is a wealth of empirical evidence that demonstrates the benefits of each of these policies to grantees, and the feedback we have received about the importance of these investments to organizations supports this. CEP’s analysis, both of Ford’s GPR data and that of other funders, bears out that these approaches to grantmaking are associated with stronger relationships with grantees.
The second change we undertook was a series of improvements to our grantmaking processes that have benefitted grantees significantly. Specifically, we worked to:
- Adopt a single application form: We moved from having teams use different forms depending on grant type to having a single set of questions across the foundation to ensure consistency and lower burden on grantees (with only slight variations based on grant type).
- Streamline proposals and reports: We developed and reviewed our forms so that we ask only what we need to know to make decisions (not what we are curious about), thereby lowering the amount of labor and time from grantees. The average number of hours grantees work on our grant requirements has decreased by almost 30 hours, but we still want to see these median numbers (now at 48 hours for our typical $250,000 grants) go down yet further.
- Identify and adopt tools to remove grantee and staff burden: We adopted tools that would allow us to make grants faster and more easily in specific situations, such as awarding grant increases without the need for a new proposal, creating an expedited grant process, and waiving reports when appropriate.
- Improve Program Officer grantee transitions: We also paid attention to feedback we received that grantees experienced frustration when program officers transitioned out and new ones came in, so we created procedures to ensure grantees had a better understanding of whom they could contact in transition.
Ultimately, what matters most is the relationship between grantees and their program officers. Creating the space and incentives for program officers to have meaningful conversations with grantees has been a priority for Ford since 2017. In part we did this by dedicating ourselves to the development of clearer strategies and communicating those externally. But we also made an intentional commitment to strengthening the skills of program staff through an onboarding program and a series of learning sessions around what constitutes effective grantmaking practice.
And yet, we still wanted to understand more what made highly rated program officers so appreciated by their grantees. So, we asked them: what about their approach could we learn from and, possibly, apply more broadly in the foundation? Here is what program officers with strong ratings from their grantees had to say:
- Set expectations: Be direct about expectations, timelines, decision-making, and how you want to work together with grantees. Organize “onboarding” meetings with grantees to jointly set expectations about the relationship, how you want to communicate and how often, what types of updates are expected or necessary, and the types of questions you should discuss. Ask grantees about how they have engaged with funders in the past, and what has worked well (or what hasn’t) to inform your own relationship.
- Be transparent: Grantees should know what to expect and when as they apply for a grant. Philanthropy tends to be incredibly opaque. Explain your internal processes and requirements clearly, with a particular focus on expectations from proposals and reports as well as decision-making processes and timelines around the grant. Be transparent about when and how decisions about renewals or additional funds would be made once the grant is underway.
- Be responsive: Respond in a timely manner to grantee inquiries and communications. Even if you can’t answer now, let a grantee know when they can expect to hear from you. Explicitly tell grantees that they do not have to wait for you to reach out, for a check-in, or for the grant reporting time to talk to you and encourage grantees to reach out any time as needed. If appropriate, introduce grantees to others on your team beyond the main program officer, and make sure they know who and how to reach out to if they need anything.
- Show curiosity and listen: Have holistic conversations with grantees and develop relationships with organizations in the long run. Learn more about the context in which grantees are operating, their organization, the challenges they are facing, and how their work connects to our strategies in different ways. This in turn will enable you to structure support to best suit their needs and goals.
- Engage their work: Grantees, we are learning, often don’t mind writing reports. They mind sending them into the ether and never hearing anything again. With documents that come your way, acknowledge them and engage the substance whenever you can, ideally in a timely manner.
- Do not shy away from hard conversations: Honesty and respect are central to navigating difficult scenarios. It is very possible over the course of your relationship that you will need to discuss complicated organizational health issues or other delicate topics. The goal is to make grantees feel supported, while also being clear if you have concerns. If it’s something serious, like allegations of harassment within a grantee organization, explain what your role should be (and what it is not) and any expectations around it. If exiting a relationship, be clear about why you are exiting, and give grantees enough notice and funding to be able to best prepare.
- Understand your role as being much more than providing dollars: Grantees regularly say they want program officers to be thought partners, connectors (especially to other funders), and strategic allies. Understand your role as one that should offer support well beyond the grant dollars.
- Pay attention to your own GPR results: Especially for those who have been through more than one GPR cycle, absorb and reflect on past results. Prioritize one or two areas for growth and come up with concrete actions on what you can do differently that will make an impact on your grantees.
We hope these lessons can also be helpful to other foundations who are thinking about how to improve grantee engagement and experience in your contexts. We would love to hear about how this resonates with you, and especially about other practices you have seen help move the needle for more effective grantmaking in our sector.
Luc Athayde-Rizzaro is grantmaking effectiveness officer at the Ford Foundation and Bess Rothenberg is senior director, Strategy and Learning, at the Ford Foundation. Find Luc on LinkedIn here and find Bess here.
Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.