Not too long ago, CEP added a simple question to the beginning of grantee surveys we conduct for funders seeking feedback on their work with grantees:
“At this point in time, what is one word that best describes the Foundation?”
It’s a great question to get a qualitative sense of what’s top of mind for nonprofit organizations about the funders that support their work.
After more than 8,000 grantees from about 40 funders had answered the question, we took a look at responses to see how, in aggregate, they described their funders. The figure below is a word cloud containing the 50 most commonly used words, with the size of the words representing their relative frequency.
50 Words Grantees Most Frequently Used to Describe Their Funder
The first thing that stands out, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that foundations have a pretty positive reputation among grantees. Eight percent of respondents (652 grantees) label their funders as “supportive” and another five percent answered “generous.” Words that I often hear funders using to describe themselves—like “leader,” “catalyst,” and “strategic”—show up as well, though less frequently.
What’s missing is also interesting. There are no frankly negative words among the top 50 (although that’s not true for every individual foundation, as I’ll mention below). I suppose you could argue that “changing” is an undesirable characterization for a foundation, though it doesn’t always have to be. And I’d argue that funders should be a lot more to grantees than just a neutral organization that words like “funder,” “philanthropic,” and “big” portray. But real criticism doesn’t turn up until we see “bureaucratic” just outside the top 50 words.
The results of this question also have real utility for the individual foundations that commission a Grantee Perception Report. The descriptive words a single organization sees from its grantees don’t always match the aggregate, pointing out some real distinctions about individual foundation’s “brands” with grantees. At one foundation, grantees wrote the word “innovative” more often than any other—at four times the rate of the next most frequently used word. Or, check out page 11 of Wilburforce Foundation’s 2012 Grantee Perception Report where “awesome” is in the top 5 words grantees use to describe the foundation. “Innovative” and “awesome” both show up in the aggregate picture, but they took on additional importance for these funders given their unusual frequency of use.
And of course, there’s also value for a foundation when their Grantee Perception Report offers more negative words from grantees. For example, at a number of foundations, “changing” definitely has a more negative connotation as it’s accompanied by words like “fickle” or “inconsistent.” Grantees find some funders “bureaucratic,” “complicated,” “enigmatic,” “frustrating,” and “disorganized.” Combined with other qualitative and quantitative data in the report, these descriptors offer an important lens into what aspects of a foundation’s work could be prioritized for improvement.
As philanthropy continues to debate what our role in society can and should be, it’s helpful to see how one important set of partners currently defines us. Do the words in the figure above represent the attributes we hope foundations would be known by? What would you want your grantees to say about your foundation?
Kevin Bolduc is Vice President of Assessment Tools at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @kmbolduc.