Why Staff Feedback Should Matter for Everyone

Prior to joining CEP, I spent several years working with Global 1000 companies to implement employee engagement surveys, and I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that almost every crucial organizational outcome (profit, customer satisfaction, etc.) is tied to the engagement and commitment of individual workers.

Research done across the past several years has shown us that the extent to which staff believe in and derive value from their work, feel connected to their organization’s goals, and are empowered to do their best work every day affects the outcomes an organization seeks to achieve.

Harvard Business Review recently published a series of articles in its January – February 2012 issue about the importance of employee engagement and satisfaction. The research presented in these articles, as well as from a variety of other sources (e.g., Gallup, Mercer), overwhelmingly demonstrate that employees who “thrive”:

  • Deliver higher quality work at a more productive rate,
  • Stay with their organizations longer, and
  • Attract others who are just as committed to the job.

This concept goes by many names – satisfaction, engagement, empowerment – but the outcomes of increased productivity and high-quality work remain the same regardless.

What about foundations?

For funders, I would argue that employee satisfaction and engagement are critical to the organization’s ability to accomplish its mission and create social impact. Staff are a funder’s primary link to grantees, which in turn are the organizations working on the ground to catalyze change. We know from CEP’s research in Luck of the Draw that individual foundation staff members often play a larger role in grantees’ experience than do the foundations for which they work. In many cases, there’s actually more variation in grantee perceptions of individual staff members at a single foundation than among different funders.

So, at a time when growing turnover at foundations may be causing instability for some grantees, it’s more important than ever to address issues of staff disengagement. The HBR articles suggest a few overarching tactics to better engage staff:

  1. Communicate and clarify how employees’ daily work connects to the Foundation’s overall mission and impact.
  2. Provide opportunities for employees to develop and continue their professional growth, which includes the support of their direct manager or supervisor.
  3. Offer constructive and timely (i.e., not just once per year) feedback on employees’ performance.

But how do we know if staff are engaged, or if investments to create a thriving work environment are worth it? I have been surprised by how many major foundations, with larger staffs, don’t regularly take the pulse of their employees in a way that provides meaningful insights.

CEP has developed a staff survey process that is confidential and anonymous so staff can be completely candid. It is also grounded in the context of comparative data, so funders can understand how their results compare to those of peer institutions.

As with all of our other assessment tools, CEP’s Staff Perception Report uses a customizable survey specific to philanthropic funders to provide feedback within a comparative context, which allows funders to better understand their distinctive strengths and opportunities for improvement. While CEP has worked with over 200 philanthropic funders to survey their grantees, only three dozen of those funders have asked us to survey their staff. CEP’s research team is working on a report on what we’ve learned across those funders, which will be released later this year. As we develop a larger data set, we will also look at the connections between grantee perception results and staff perception results, and I am betting we’ll see one.

Leaders of foundations need to know what the staff really thinks, across all the various dimensions of both job satisfaction and perceptions of foundation effectiveness. It’s easy for leaders to believe they know this already – that people are completely candid with them about how it’s going – but our experience suggests that this is often not the case.

I hope more funders will join those who have already participated in CEP’s Staff Perception Report process.


Austin Long is a Manager at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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