Understanding Beneficiaries to Build True Partnerships

Matthew Leiwant

This post is adapted from the CEP report, Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help.

The five foundations highlighted in Staying Connected all view grantees as being a crucial resource to help them develop and maintain an understanding of the needs of their ultimate beneficiaries. After all, grantees are the ones working on a daily basis to address the needs of those whom foundations are ultimately seeking to serve.

We know that most nonprofits gather feedback from those they are serving. CEP has found that collecting beneficiary feedback is a widespread practice at nonprofits. With this in mind, we asked grantees of the foundations profiled in the report what their organizations do to develop and maintain an understanding of beneficiary need:

“When we’re working with a group of patients or a community, we use focus groups, surveys, or one-on-one communications. One example is when we were trying to figure out where to build a hospice inpatient facility, better known as a Hospice House. We were able to use focus groups to determine that physicians, patients, and the community felt this special facility needed to be on the hospital campus, close in proximity to healthcare facilities, and easily accessible. This valuable input helped make the decision to build the Hospice House on the hospital campus.”

– Jill Bramblett, Executive Director, McLeod Health Foundation

“We have five team members whose roles focus on community engagement. Every day they are out in the field, serving on local boards or councils, building relationships, and listening to our partners’ needs and concerns. Because of this, we have a strong understanding of the most pressing issues and what people care most about.”

Erin Hart, Interim President & CEO and Chief Operating Officer, Expect More Arizona

“Our board of directors elected two clients of our organization to sit on its strategic planning committee. We also had two members of the broader community in that group — one from a community association in West Baltimore and the other from a hospital collaborator.

– Kevin Lindamood, President & CEO, Health Care for the Homeless


Since nonprofits are doing this work, some foundations believe it is enough to rely on grantees’ knowledge of their beneficiaries, rather than developing an understanding on their own.

But most of the nonprofit leaders we interviewed for this report disagree.

“Seeing everything from one lens doesn’t work. You need that different perspective. So it’s helpful, not only for the foundation, but for the nonprofit, too, when foundations have an understanding. Then, when we have conversations, they have some different knowledge they can share with us.”

– Victor Leandry, Executive Director, El Centro

“It’s crucially important for foundations to have their own understanding of the needs of beneficiaries. Everybody has to keep each other honest and have their own sources of information. I don’t know how you would decide what to fund if you didn’t have some vision of the communities that you wanted to support and some direct knowledge of them.” 

– Donald Kerwin, Executive Director, Center for Migration Studies

“I think it’s really important for foundations to understand their beneficiaries. It allows them to thoughtfully use experiences with other people and organizations to provide constructive feedback about what the nonprofits could do differently or better. That sort of communication — of not just learning independently, but rather looping back to the grantees with input — is really critical.”

– Sarah Hemminger, CEO and Cofounder, Thread: The New Social Fabric


From the grantee perspective, foundations must independently understand the end beneficiaries of the work they are funding in order to build a true partnership with their grantees. This sentiment not only came through in our interviews, but is also backed by data. In CEP’s recent research, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success, we found that grantees’ perception of how well a foundation understands their intended beneficiaries’ needs is highly related to the strength of a funder–grantee relationship.

Download Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help here.

Matthew Leiwant is associate manager, research, at CEP.

beneficiary feedback, beneficiary perceptions, funder/grantee relationships, research
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