2013-05-15 feedback

Feedback Matters – Part 1 of 2

Dr. Streamline tries valiantly never to write grant proposals or reports (that’s hard work, people!) but occasionally it can’t be avoided.  A year or so ago, I had occasion to develop a proposal to an arts funder on behalf of my children’s school. The proposal was for a small grant, maybe $5,000, and required an immense amount of paperwork. It required detailed bios and work samples from the artists we wanted to engage. It required a budget using a cumbersome template. It required a detailed narrative with questions about partners, impact, evaluation, sustainability.  And yes. I had to send hard copies. All in all, it probably took several days’ of my time.

Naturally, I couldn’t let this cumbersome, wrong-sized process go un-critiqued.  “I’m going to give them some serious feedback on this ridiculous application,” I vowed.  But I kept finding excuses for not writing the email or making the call.  While I was busy procrastinating, we got the grant!

And suddenly, my desire to provide this feedback was, well… greatly diminished.   I never did send that angry email and—surprise!—the funder never requested feedback from me.

Recently the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog told the story of how Jimmy Carter (you know, the former President of the United States) was  reluctant to speak candidly about the Gates Foundation. They write:

… if it’s tough for a former President to speak candidly about his funder directly, it’s got to be impossible for most grantees.

2013-05-15 why bite the hand that feeds ya

So let’s take a look at the feedback situation.  I’m sorry to say that it’s not pretty.  From recent Project Streamline research for the Practices That Matter report, we learned that…

  • More than half of grantmakers surveyed had not even considered adding a way to get candid feedback.
  • On average, grantseekers reported that only 14% of their funders sought feedback in one way or another.
  • More than 40% of surveyed grantseekers said that they had never had a funder ask for feedback.
  • When grantmakers do seek feedback, they often request it casually in conversation or as a question on an application form.  (sidenote:  who is going to provide really good critical and constructive feedback as part of an application?  No one, that’s who. )
  • Grantseekers are reluctant to offer feedback to grantmakers, sometimes even when asked.  One said it bluntly: “Foundations have reacted extremely negatively to feedback, perceiving it as criticism. I believe that offering feedback has cost us funding.”
  • Often the grantmakers asking for feedback are the ones that already have strong cultures of customer service.

Dr. Streamline will now throw a small tantrum:  This is not acceptable!  Without information about application and reporting practices from the grantseeker perspective, grantmakers don’t know how long their process takes (and they can’t calculate the net grant). They are less likely to learn whether their online systems work smoothly or whether their staff are responding to questions in a timely and respectful manner. They miss opportunities to build stronger relationships and engage grantees meaningfully in improving funder operations.

Why are funders not seeking candid feedback about their practices?  Tune in next time for an analysis of why grantmakers don’t seek feedback and some practical suggestions for getting candid and constructive information that will improve your grantmaking practices.

Dr. Streamline

Dr. Streamline is also known as Jessica Bearman. She, along with her colleague Streamlining Surgeon Alice Cottingham, and a cohort of Streamlining Interns, are available to answer all of your streamlining questions. Together, they diagnose the good, the bad, and the mystifying, and prescribe cures for your streamlining woes.If you have a question about your own grantmaking process, or one that you’ve encountered, please write to Dr. Streamline at drstreamline@peakgrantmaking.org for a useful (and possibly entertaining) Rx.

  • Dear Dr Streamline,
    Can’t Wait For The Second Part Of This Series Which Should Be Titled How To Commit Grantseeker Suicide. Funders Want Honest Feedback As Much As They Want Lice And They’re Likely To Treat Those Who Provide Either Pretty Much The Same Way.
    BTW, what’s Wrong With Your Comment Section That It Capitalizes Every Word?

  • Dr. Streamline, I agree that the feedback situation and the cumbersomeness of applications are no good. And I applaud your tantrum. How do we find what is good? If requesting feedback point blank, as part of an application, or even after a grant is already approved doesn’t provide grantseekers a truly safe space in which to provide this feedback – and I understand why it wouldn’t – then what does? How do you suggest we request this information in a way that that affirms a commitment to not react negatively and that invites candid answers?

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  • I sit on the review committee of The Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation. We hand out small stimulus grants ($80K) and PhDs top-ups. In our last round we specifically asked applicants for comments on the process, and assured them that these comments would be anonymous and examined separately from their application. We also asked them how much time they spent writing their proposal as we are keen to reduce waste. We plan to use the feedback to improve the submission process for our next round.

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