Grantees of the World, Unite – And Speak Up!

A few months ago, I was corresponding with Jessamyn Shams-Lau, executive director of a California family foundation, and noticed something unusual about her email signature.

Below her name appears the line: “You should rate me anonymously here on Funder Feedback.” The link takes you to a series of questions, including: “Please rate how respectful I was.” “Please rate my general consistency in doing what I said I would.”

Not many organizations go as far as the Peery Foundation, Shams-Lau’s employer, to solicit feedback about their operations. But the notion that funders should hear more about what grantees and grantseekers really think is gaining traction in the philanthropic world.

I contacted Shams-Lau because I was working on an article for the Chronicle of Philanthropy about GrantAdvisors, a website that allows people to post anonymous reviews about their experiences with grantmakers.

The Peery Foundation has committed $100,000 to the project, which Shams-Lau described as an effort to level the playing field “between fundraisers (who are so regularly assessed and reviewed) and funders (who are seldom accountable to anyone external regarding their performance).”

Kyle Reis, a former grants manager turned nonprofit executive, calls that dynamic a “power imbalance:” Because there are many more grant applicants than money available, power flows to the organizations that hold the purse strings – and that discourages grantees from speaking up.

Some foundations are making more of an effort to rectify that imbalance. Hundreds have asked the Center for Effective Philanthropy, for example, to prepare “grantee perception reports” or “declined applicant perception reports.”

But Reis knows what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat. For more than 25 years, he worked at the Ford Foundation, holding jobs including grants manager for several programs. “One of the things I used to say half jokingly when I was at Ford,” he told me, “was that I could call a grantee and they’d call me back in five minutes.”

Reis now works as senior director of global data services at TechSoup, an organization that helps nonprofits get technology resources. While most of the funders he has dealt with have been great, he says, a few times the grant-application experience was so awful that he thought about complaining. But he decided to keep quiet, like most (if not all) of his nonprofit peers would in his shoes.

Reis, who will appear on a panel at GrantStation’s Innovations 2016 Forum on Philanthropy, has some suggestions. For example, he says, foundations should keep telling grantees that they want honest feedback. “The first time you say it, they’re not going to say anything,” he says. But after the sixth or seventh time, “they might open up.”

They should also empathize with nonprofits that complain about onerous application and reporting requirements, particularly for small grants. Reis praises Project Streamline, an effort by the Grants Managers Network to reduce the burdens on grant seekers in those areas.

Another Innovations 2016 panelist, Alex Forrester, has reflected about how to build better relations between funders and grantees since co-founding the nonprofit Rising Tide Capital in 2004. His biggest wish? That the two sides could build more trust so that they could speak frankly to each other about whether the nonprofit is fulfilling its vision and meeting its goals.

“What do I think about every night? Where am I falling short? Where am I failing? That’s the most interesting thing to be talking to people about,” he says. “But I almost never get asked those questions.”

Rising Tide Capital, which gets money from both corporations and foundations, provides business education and consulting to low-income entrepreneurs in northern New Jersey.

In a business partnership, Forrester told me, the parties align to take on “a challenge that inherently involves the risk of failure” or a lack of clarity about the approach, and they continue to learn together. In a philanthropic partnership, he says, “all the risks of failure, obstacles, and challenges are for me to figure out.”

He would like to see grant reports, along with in-person conversations, focus more on what the nonprofit has learned, along with the challenges it faced and how it intends to overcome them in the following year.

One other suggestion: Nonprofits often consider it “rude” to ask foundations how long they will provide financial support, so he wishes grantmakers would be more open about how they will make that decision. “If you had a marriage,” Forrester says, “and it was just renewing annually, it would be very difficult to plan for the long term.”

GrantStation’s Innovations 2016 Forum on Philanthropy will include a panel on “Listening to Grantees.” In addition to Alex Forrester, it will include Michelle Greanias, Grants Managers Network; Janay Richmond, National  Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; and Lindsay Louie, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Kyle Reis will appear on the panel “Investing for Impact.”

Learn More

Register for Innovations 2016, to attend live or by webcast at a special discounted rate just for Grant Managers Network members. Find the discount code in the GMN Members-Only Discussion Community.

  • $400 to attend the Forum ($200 discount)
  • $199 to take the Live Webcast as a group ($50 discount)
  • $99 to take the Live Webcast as an individual ($50 discount)

Review a foundation at

Change the conversation by adjusting your grant reports so they focus on what your organization learned, the challenges it faced, and how you will overcome them in the future.



This, and other posts by Suzanne, are available on GrantStation’s TrendTrack, your information pipeline to get up-to-speed and stay current on the trends happening in the world of philanthropy. 

Suzanne Perry

Suzanne Perry is a contributing author to GrantStation and a contributing writer to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Follow her on Twitter @copsuzanne.

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