In Uncertain Times, We Must Listen to Those We Seek to Help

Jehan Velji

Now, more than ever, listening to grantees and program beneficiaries is critical to funders’ ability to make a difference on the issues we care about. In Shifting Winds, a new report from CEP about how foundations are considering adjusting their work in response to the new presidential administration and its stated priorities, 36 percent of foundation CEOs responding to a survey mentioned seeking input from grantees as an area where their foundations plan to increase emphasis, and 23 percent reported seeking input from their ultimate beneficiaries as an area to increase emphasis.

While this is encouraging, the numbers are lower than I expected, given findings from another recent CEP study that also captured perceptions of foundation leaders. Released in December 2016, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy noted that seven out of ten CEOs believe that the best way to increase foundations’ impact in the coming decades is for grant makers to seek to learn from the experiences of those they are ultimately trying to help. Foundation CEOs also saw promise in learning from grantee experiences and supporting grantees to learn from their beneficiaries — these practices were cited by 67 percent and 45 percent of the respondents, respectively.

While some foundations feel an urgency to act, others are waiting and seeing, and still others are continuing with their current focus and commitment, the Shifting Winds report shows. I believe, though, that we all need to invest now in learning how to listen better to the people we seek to help — and to the organizations we support to help those people.

If we want to understand what is changing for people, we need to talk with them before we can decide what we need to change and whether we need to change. After all, it is by listening to beneficiaries that we can hear the anxiety many immigrants feel about the administration’s stance on immigration. It is by listening to beneficiaries that we can understand the connections between trauma, mental health, and violence. It is by listening to beneficiaries that we can better understand the connection between physical health and a clean environment.

We should not presume to know more or better than the recipients and beneficiaries of our funding. 

Asked where they plan to increase emphasis in this new political context, foundation CEOs in the CEP study mentioned collaborating with other funders most frequently (46 percent of survey respondents), while 42 percent reported planning to increase their emphasis on convening grantees.

If we are to develop meaningful collaborations with our fellow funders and our grantees, we should make sure our collaborations are strategic and making a real impact rather than just making us feel good because we are trying to work together. I believe a critical starting point for making our collaborations and convenings more relevant and more effective is investing in listening to grantees and helping grantees to collect feedback from their beneficiaries.

While we have a lot to learn about how to do this, Fund for Shared Insight (Shared Insight) is piloting some approaches to facilitate listening to beneficiaries. Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) serves as a co-funder of one of Shared Insight’s primary initiatives, Listen for Good (L4G) — a grant-making and capacity-building program that supports nonprofits’ efforts to systematically gather and incorporate the perspectives of their constituents into organizational decision making. Listen for Good is focused on applying a semi-standard survey instrument, which includes using the Net Promoter System (NPS®) employed widely in customer feedback circles, to the nonprofit beneficiary context. The core feedback tool is simple, consisting of six standard questions that all participating L4G organizations are required to ask, as well as a few optional demographic questions and up to five custom questions for each organization. The quantitative and qualitative responses to the L4G survey are gathered using a variety of data collection methods — including kiosks, tablets, paper surveys, and in-person interviews — and in multiple languages, when appropriate.

PACE Center for Girls (PACE) is a nonprofit grantee in L4G (as well as an EMCF grantee) that provides academic and social services at 19 non-residential sites across Florida to girls who are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. PACE staff have used data from the L4G process extensively to gain insights about variability in programming quality across the sites, such as the degree to which girls feel treated with respect and feel like they belong. “Having the results has opened opportunities for us to talk about our program model and day-to-day operations from our girls’ perspective,” said one PACE executive director.

In addition, the L4G process is reminding staff that little things really do count — because they inform clients’ lived experience. PACE has a proven track record in helping girls deal with “big picture” issues such as preparing for future work and educational opportunities. But, as staff report, “understanding the value of creating an inclusive and supportive environment is just as important as meeting the ‘big picture’ issues. Girls want to feel they are in a welcoming environment, they want to have their opinions about the Center’s day-to-day experiences heard.” As one PACE girl said, “Take our suggestions and make sure we have lunches we want to eat.”

L4G feedback data is creating opportunities for PACE to share the girls’ perspective on its program model and operations with executive leadership, middle managers, and field staff. Staff at headquarters are using the feedback to drive conversations about engagement, improve the process of onboarding girls to ensure they stay in the program long enough to benefit from it, and share best practices across sites. Moreover, L4G is giving girls the opportunity for self-advocacy, engaging them in conversations about the meaning of these findings and about strategies to address them.

In April, Shared Insight sponsored a panel at the CEP Conference in Boston. The session, “Listening Better to Beneficiaries: A Most Promising Practice for Impact,” featured three former participants in the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a program that provides employment services to individuals with criminal records. CEO, another EMCF and Shared Insight grantee, is an example of an organization that is trying to build a listening culture, with the goals of improving the client experience and program effectiveness. In a blog post on the CEO website, Nate Mandel, program innovation associate at CEO, describes the panel discussion and how listening more closely to clients has helped improve client engagement.

In June, EMCF will convene CEO and the six EMCF grantees that are part of L4G to learn more about how listening to participants is helping to inform program improvements. We also hope to learn more about how funders can support such efforts and how EMCF can improve our own work by listening to both our grantees and their participants. We have co-funded participation in L4G for interested EMCF grantees because it is an opportunity both for them and us to learn more about the beneficiary feedback process and how it can inform program improvement.

Another example of how funders listening to grantees can result in better support to grantees is captured in what the Haas, Jr. Fund learned when they reached out to grantees in response to the shifting political environment. At a recent meeting of the Bay Area Capacity Building Funders affinity group, hosted by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Haas, Jr. Fund shared feedback from roughly 30 grantees about the leadership and organizational pressures they were feeling. They found that leaders were actually eager to discuss the mounting internal challenges they faced: “Everyone is asking us about our program priorities but no one has asked us what we need to support our organizations internally.” The challenges grantees voiced included the need to fill critical new staff positions without the bandwidth to organize and staff the search process, the need to develop faster planning strategies so that organizations can quickly chart new paths forward once new threats emerge, and the need to leverage a flood of offers to help and donations from new supporters.

As one grantee put it, “As soon as we have two nickels to rub together, we want to hire another organizing position because that’s where the need is and that’s how you move the community. That’s how you build power and those things are so important. But we can’t do those things without a stronger foundation and support to build it.” The Haas, Jr. Fund has used this input to recalibrate its leadership and capacity support for grantees. Information like this, and data collected by other funders, have the potential to enhance collaborations among capacity-building funders who are also thinking about how best to support grantees during these uncertain times.

If one of our responses to uncertain times is to support more collaboration, I believe we can create more effective and strategic collaborations if we incorporate into them systematic approaches for listening to grantees and beneficiaries. Ultimately, better listening will ground us in reality while we try to address the needs of the people we seek to help and build a more just society. 


Jehan Velji is portfolio manager, director of portfolio strategy at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF), where she leads planning and related efforts to regularly update and refresh EMCF’s core grantmaking strategy.

beneficiary feedback, Grantee Feedback, research, Shifting Winds
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