How Well Do You Listen to Grantees?

By Ruth Masterson, Exponent Philanthropy 

The good news is that many funders already listen to their grantees. Almost two-thirds (62%) of Exponent Philanthropy member foundations use information from grantees to inform their grantmaking, and 38% gather feedback from their grantees in a systematic way.

But not only can it be hard to set aside time to ask and listen,
the power dynamic between grantees and funders (wherein grantees want to stay on funders’ good sides) is a powerful one that strongly influences what your grantees may be willing to say.

In spite of the obstacles, are you curious to learn from your grantees? Here are just a few questions you might ask:

  • What insights do grantees have about your cause or community of interest?
  • How well are your funding strategies working? Are you missing opportunities for greater impact?
  • How easy it is to work with your organization as a funder? Are you asking the right questions in your grants applications and grant reports? Are your grant applications right-sized for the dollar amount of your grants? Is your grant application process reasonable and easy to navigate?
  • Do you communicate effectively about the foundation’s strategies or about what you need from grantees?

There are three primary ways to learn from grantees: first, second, and third perspective.

  • First perspective is what you observe from your own experience: opinions, anecdotes, or information you gather more systematically. Although I don’t discount the insights gleaned from insightful observation, we can’t rely on only our own perceptions. For example, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) reports that 60% of foundation CEOs were confident their foundation was primarily responsible for progress made in their field!
  • Second perspective is information the other party gives you—in this case, the grantees. It means asking them directly what they think. There are several strategies to obtain information from grantees. You can hire a consultant to do group interviews; convene grantees in other formats and ask them questions; conduct (or hire a consultant to conduct) individual interviews; or conduct a survey (as a distinct project, within grant reports, or at an event where many of them are together).
  • Third perspective is what others outside the grantor–grantee dynamic see. Unfortunately, data from this perspective is limited. The only data-driven resource I know on this topic is CEP’s report “Working Well With Grantees.”

Some of the strategies mentioned above can be carried out in-house by your own staff or board. As an alternative, many consultants are available to assist you in developing strategies for listening to your grantees (see National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers or Exponent Philanthropy’s Directory of Foundation and Philanthropy Advisors). I’m also aware of two available surveys designed for and tested by funders and their grantees: CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and Declined Applicant Perception Report and Exponent Philanthropy’s Grantee and Applicant Survey, which is part of our Practical Board Self-Assessment toolkit.

How might you listen better to your grantees? Consider the following questions (as well as more than one method to deepen your understanding):

  • What specific questions will you ask? Do you want to know how your funding process is experienced? Draw on grantees’ expertise to learn more about the field?
  • Which questions are your highest priority? It may be difficult to get all your questions answered at one time.
  • Will you want to ask the same questions again after some time has passed, to see if there has been a change?
  • Who will you ask? Will you listen to grant applicants or grantees only? How will that affect what you learn?
  • Does the approach ensure that grantees feel comfortable? The most candid responses come with anonymity. Non-anonymous approaches can still be fruitful, but they’ll never be as candid.
  • What are your motivations? Are you committed to self-reflection and improvement?
  • When is the right time? How will you incorporate the results into internal discussions?
  • Do you want to bring in a third-party consultant or organization for support? What is your budget?
  • Are you optimistic or reasonably confident that you’ll glean useful information for positive change?

What next steps will you take to be a better listener to your grantees?

Related resources

2015 Foundation Operations and Management Report (Exponent Philanthropy members only)
2013 Foundation Operations and Management Report (available for purchase by non-members)

Ruth Masterson

Senior Program Director Ruth Masterson works closely with members to create written materials and training curricula, and answers member questions on foundation administration, governance, boards, and tax and legal topics. She is our data guru and also project manager for Exponent Philanthropy’s Practical Board Self-Assessment. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Ruth served nonprofits in her work at Adler & Colvin, the Council on Foundations, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

4 thoughts on “How Well Do You Listen to Grantees?

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