Better than a Bad Lunch… An Honest Critique

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy

When I started working in philanthropy, a colleague in the nonprofit sector said something to me that – as it turns out – many of us have heard: “Well! You’ll never have a bad lunch or an honest compliment again.”

As it turns out, I’ve had some bad lunches, (especially at conferences) and maybe even an honest compliment or two, but the comment resonates now more than it did at the time. In my work with Project Streamline, a Grants Managers Network (GMN) initiative that encourages funders to understand and minimize the burden of their application and reporting practices, I continue to be surprised that grantmakers rarely seek or use feedback from grantees and grantseekers. This is hardly news. The power imbalance in philanthropy is well-documented and amply bemoaned, and a quick search turns up reams of heartfelt writing on the topic. Melinda Tuan wrote pointedly about it in her article The Dance of Deceit in 2004. Alliance has focused its September issue on power and philanthropy. And CEP Vice President, Kevin Bolduc, discussed it recently in his blog post, “If a Former President Can’t Give Funder Feedback, Then Who Can?”

Application and reporting practices are central to a funder’s relationship with grantseekers. They are the first – and often only – opportunity for a community stakeholder to understand the funder’s values. So when grantseekers encounter an online system full of cumbersome bugs, a budget template that contradicts the categories they use for accounting, or reporting requirements that seem redundant or meaningless, they may conclude that the funder doesn’t particularly value their time or trust their motives.

Here are some things we know:

  1. A sensible and streamlined grantmaking process supports effective nonprofit organizations by minimizing unnecessary time devoted to seeking and reporting on funding.
  2. Because grantmakers rarely seek candid and specific feedback, it’s likely that they don’t know the impact that their application and reporting practices have on individual applicants or on the nonprofit sector. In my experience, very few have an accurate sense of how long it takes an applicant to complete their proposal process.
  3. Grantseekers are most likely to provide feedback about the impact of grantmaking practices when they are asked about specific aspects of the process in a safe and anonymous way.

“I’m less likely to give feedback in an application or report, since it seems tied to my current relationship with the funder. Anonymous surveys are much easier, although I’ve typically received those only from funders who are already making my job pretty easy.”

– Grantseeker (comment in anonymous Project Streamline survey, 2013)

The philanthropic field is increasingly interested in using data to inform strategy decisions, and feedback on grantmaking practices can provide critical data to shape foundation decision-making. And yet, the impact of grantmaking practices on funding recipients is often exempt from scrutiny. Perhaps funders are in a hurry to jump to evaluating what seem like weightier aspects of their work, such as the impact of funded interventions on beneficiary populations and policy. More likely, funders assume that their process works well because it gets them what they need, they don’t hear complaints, and their “clients” keep coming back. I explored this in a series of two Project Streamline blogs, Feedback Matters, Part 1 and Part 2. GMN’s most recent guide, The How of Grantmaking, includes questions about grantmaking practice in the set of core questions that every grantmaker should be able to answer.

Among the many questions that a funder can ask about whether their practice is sufficiently streamlined, I think the most critical are these:

  • How much does it cost a grantseeker to apply for our funds?  
  • Is this expense appropriate, given the funding provided to the successful grantee?
  • (for open RFP processes) Does the process drain resources from other mission-aligned organizations that may apply for, but not receive, funding?

The first question can be answered, although funders and grantseekers don’t always seek the information. New cost audit tools, available from the Donors Forum, the Illinois based regional association of grantmakers and grantseekers can help both sides of the table understand the true costs of the grantmaking process. The cost audits were developed as part of a Streamlining Community of Practice, composed of both grantmakers and nonprofits, who came together over a period of months to build mutual understanding of the impact of grantmaking practices. Grantmakers who have participated in CEP’s Grantee Perception Survey are also given great insight into the grantee experience.

There aren’t straightforward answers to the second two questions, but they need to be asked. At the very least, grantmakers should know what their net grants are (the funding that’s left to an organization for their mission-based work, after subtracting what it cost them to apply for and report on a grant). This data allows a funder to make informed decisions about whether – and how – their process should be more efficient to make the best use of the time and energy of both successful and unsuccessful applicants.

At this point, I think we know enough about the power imbalance between funders and grantseekers to stop imagining that nonprofits and other grantseekers will suddenly jump up and give unsolicited feedback when a process is too onerous. They won’t. But by asking the right questions, funders can get the data to make that honest critique of their own practices, and use that analysis to make smart streamlining decisions.

Grantmakers that wish to benchmark their practices against those of their colleagues can use a free Streamlining Self-Assessment tool [no longer active as of 2016] developed by CEP and Project Streamline.

 

Jessica Bearman

Jessica Bearman works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, and R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. She is also known as Dr. Streamline. Follow her on Twitter @jbearwoman.