A New Year for Openness

Melinda Tuan

It may be the time of year for resolutions, but, to start, I have a confession: openness is tough.

In my role as project manager for Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”), a collaborative effort among funders to make grants that improve philanthropy, I think a lot about how to model the openness we encourage among funders. Our own recent experience collecting and sharing feedback has not only taught me humility, but a thing or two about how all of us, funders and grantees alike, must better systematize and prioritize our efforts to learn from the people we seek to help.

Last year, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) released a report, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency (funded by Shared Insight), which reveals that foundation leaders agree that the best way to be more effective is to be more open about self-assessment and to do a better job sharing what has and hasn’t worked in their grantmaking.

Building on this research finding, Shared Insight is working to increase foundation openness. By openness, we mean foundations being open to hearing from their grantees and the people they seek to help — and acting on what they hear. We also mean foundations being open to sharing how they evaluate their own work and what does and doesn’t work. We believe if more foundations embrace this two-way openness, we will be more effective in our philanthropy and make an even bigger difference in the world.

To walk our walk, Shared Insight commissioned CEP to survey our nonprofit partners from our first year of grantmaking in 2014-2015 through the Grantee Perception Report (GPR). In this process, our intention had always been to share our GPR results with grantees first, then publicly on our website, and through this blog post.

Collecting the feedback was relatively straightforward. CEP’s GPR is a proven survey instrument, which provides a mix of quantitative and qualitative results and benchmarking against the results of peer funders. CEP conducted the analysis and shared the results with us. It was the next steps that proved much more challenging.

Last year, in 2016, we commissioned the GPR in February; received the results in April; discussed the findings internally in May and June; and drafted an interpretive memo to accompany the results to share with our eight collaborative funders at our in-person meeting in July. In August, I went on vacation and had every intention of sending out the GPR findings and accompanying memo upon my return in September.

However, Shared Insight was invited to co-host a meeting on feedback loops at the White House in October — an event we organized and ran only a week before our already scheduled 140-person feedback grantee gathering the same month. After organizing and executing those two major events, it wasn’t until mid-November when we shared the GPR results back with our nonprofit partners. And now, after soliciting our partners’ feedback, we have finally posted the GPR results and our response on our website — nearly a year after the start of the process.

This experience has brought to life how challenging it can be to be open — not necessarily because we as funders don’t want to be, but because being open requires people (in this case, me) to listen, respond, and share in the midst of many other competing priorities. twitter-web

Among 25 other funders that conducted a GPR in 2015, and were then surveyed by CEP, 60 percent reported sharing highlights of the GPR results with their grantees, but only 20 percent convened grantees to discuss the results. More than two-thirds presented or discussed the findings with their boards, but only about one-third posted information about the GPR on their websites for others to see.

Those findings underline the problem: even funders taking the time and effort to use an important feedback tool like the GPR may hit roadblocks taking the additional — but essential — time and effort to continue the feedback process.

Philanthropy experts are sounding the alarm that nonprofits need to take such next steps now more than ever, as the reputation of the social sector — and of foundations, especially — took such a hard hit in the 2016 presidential elections. Henry Berman, head of Exponent Philanthropy, for one, argues in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed for the importance of more open communication to better “champion our stories and the outsize impact” of our work.

We at Shared Insight are grateful to each of our nonprofit partners who took the time to participate in the GPR and provide feedback on how our collaborative can be more effective. We are thankful for the opportunity to learn from and with our nonprofit partners about what it takes to be more open and effective. And we are ready to turn our confession into a resolution that can be a call to action not only for ourselves, but the entire sector: let’s ensure we have not only the will, but the full commitment, to make openness a priority.

Funders, we’d love to hear about your own experiences trying to be more open, and the challenges that can present. Please share in the comments below.

Melinda Tuan is the project manager for Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaTuan.

Grantee Feedback, Grantee Perception Report, grantee perceptions, openness
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