The beginning of a new year is a wonderful time for reflection, and this year connection has been front of mind for me. I’m grateful for renewed opportunities to connect with my family, my community, and my work. Core to connection, of course, are people and the relationships we have with each other. That’s true in life, and it’s true in our work.
It’s been over a decade since the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) first published research on the importance of strong funder-grantee relationships for funders’ ability to have the greatest impact possible. At the time, folks often pushed back on this idea. Fast forward and now, funders I advise rarely ask me why strong relationships with grantees are important or how strengthening grantee organizations is relevant to a funder’s goals. Instead, they ask me, “Alice, what do strong relationships look like at other organizations? How are other funders staffing their organizations, and what’s the optimal caseload for effectiveness? What lessons can I apply at my own organization?”
Thanks to recent advisory projects we’ve conducted, we have a few new findings to add to the conversation.
To recap, CEP has looked into these age-old questions before using data gathered for hundreds of funders through the Grantee Perception Report. First, we examined caseload across funders and noticed high variation, including at funders of the same size. Surprisingly (to us and to folks we work with), we did not see a clear connection between caseload and strength of relationships, including responsiveness. We did, however, see that funder staff who had fewer active relationships with grantees to manage were able to provide more of the most useful patterns of assistance beyond the grant, while those with many relationships to manage were less able to do so.
In separate research, we’ve also learned what funder practices are associated with more positive perceptions of relationships and published these findings in our 2018 report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success. Importantly, despite common practices that drive strong relationships, the high performers we profiled had a large range of number of grants managed – from a couple dozen to nearly 100 active grants per staff.
To delve into more targeted questions related to caseload and staffing, CEP has worked on custom advisory projects, such as one 2018 study funded by the Ford Foundation, who sought to gain a clearer understanding of how program officers spend their time in response to workload concerns. In this specific project, CEP found that program officers at the time spent more than half of their time on activities that were more focused on internal processes (strategy development, grants processing, organizational expectations). This led the organization to seek ways to ensure that staff spend more time on external work – with grantees and stakeholders in their fields and region – with a key focus on generating impact.
In a more recent project, another funder asked CEP to explore the staffing models and structures of 15 high-performing U.S.-based grantmakers, as measured by CEP’s Grantee Perception Report, who give $25M to $40M annually. These parameters were intentionally narrow to reflect anticipated growth into this giving range. As part of this project, CEP analyzed feedback gathered via the GPR, operational data gathered from funders at the time of their respective GPR, and, for the funders selected for interviews, information they shared with us about numbers and types of roles at their organizations. CEP also conducted a series of interviews to collect specific examples and deeper insight into funders’ perspectives and experiences.
While this is not representative sample of funders, we did distill a few broad findings from this recent set of interviews that are relevant to perennial discussions about staffing:
- There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to staffing and structure. Even within this very narrow sample of funders of similar giving levels, staffing and structure varied dramatically, re-emphasizing that there are multiple approaches and paths to high-performance. For example, the number of program staff ranged from three to 14, and caseload ranged from less than 25 grants to more than 80 grants.
- Next, when exploring influential factors in determining staff structure, respondents tended to reference their organizational philosophy or strategy, not numbers. Funders most often mentioned specific funding approaches or strategies, external factors from their fields or communities, and the needs of their grantees. Relatedly, while a few funders mentioned grant count or caseload as factor in staffing decisions, no funders mentioned it as the most crucial factor, often recognizing that those metrics are closely tied to other components of a funder’s grantmaking strategy. For example, in our interview with Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Megan Murphy, shared “It seems like the number of grants isn’t as important as how different those grants are,” while Jon Sotsky of Overdeck Family Foundation described how “context really does dictate whether different models work.”
- Lastly, staffing remains a work-in-progress at most interviewed funders. Several funders have made adjustments to the number or type of roles in recent years, and/or were currently adding roles or undergoing changes. Multiple leaders mentioned relying on staff to sound the alarm and speak up when they are overwhelmed or overstretched and using those moments to reevaluate staffing needs. Other common points of reevaluation in staffing are staff transitions or growth into new areas of work.
Our learnings from this project reaffirmed much of what CEP has found in its past analysis — that staffing varies greatly across funders and that there is not one “right” model of staffing that fits all. Rather than relying on one metric, such as caseload, it appears that listening to multiple perspectives can help ensure that the choices you make about staffing are working well within your context and serving your strategies in service of impact. Grantees, of course, have one important perspective, and so do staff, who play the most crucial role in shaping funder-grantee relationships. We know from our research that that a funder’s internal culture and practices affect the experiences and work of its grantees, too. In fact, we saw this link play out in the aforementioned Ford program officer project, which also found that staff who were able to spend more time on external work were viewed more positively by their grantees, especially their relationships.
So, as we re-emerge from the holiday break and swiftly slip back into the bustle of our day-to-day work, I encourage each of you to take advantage of this time of year to center connection — connection to funded partners, the communities and people they serve, and connection to those you work alongside every day to generate impact. Make a new or renewed commitment to gathering feedback, especially from those you might be hearing from the least. After all, despite all our past and ongoing research efforts, it remains true that listening is the key building block to being highly effective in the eyes of grantees.
Alice Mei is a manager, Assessment and Advisory Services, at CEP. Find her on LinkedIn.