Feedback Matters – Part 2

And now back to feedback!

In the first installment of this blog series on feedback, Dr. Streamline looked at Project Streamline’s most recent data, showing that funders rarely seek feedback on their application and reporting practices — especially not in an anonymous candor-promoting way. Now we take up the question of why. Why don’t funders, who care about their grantees’ success and well-being, get data that could improve grantees’ experiences in applying for and reporting on funding, save time and money, and further strengthen trust and openness?

  • “We know what our grantees think: they love us!” Many funders have excellent relationships with their grantees and believe that they have insight into their grantees’ experiences. Funders may believe that they’d hear about any problems, issues, or complaints directly from grantees anyway… and since they don’t hear anything, everything is perfectly fine. I can assure you that this isn’t the case. It takes courage to complain about practices and suggest improvements, especially when unbidden.
  • “We don’t know how to get good feedback.” I was astonished to read this comment from a funder responding to the Taking Stock survey: “A grantee survey sounds like a great idea, but they are pricey and complex.” Really? There are many ways to solicit feedback, and Project Streamline encourages grantmakers to consider using more than one strategy — see below. 
  • We’re all trapped in the same system. Indeed, even when grantmakers sincerely want feedback, grantees may be wary or not willing to offer it. Consider this response to a survey question about why grantseekers do not provide feedback:

It’s impossible to have an “honest” conversation when the other party holds all the cards. It just isn’t possible. Grin and bear any request, no matter how unreasonable, becomes the most sensible response. Always.

The system is pretty well-entrenched, but it’s not immutable. As a funder, you need to show (and show… and show again) that you want feedback, that you will consider suggestions, and that you will not penalize grantees for honest and constructive criticism.

  • Some feedback is dumb. To some extent, you can minimize this by asking the right questions, but yes, some of the comments you receive may be silly, unrealistic, or self-serving. You aren’t obligated to use all the feedback you receive. Everything goes into the hopper and then you look for consistent themes and constructive thoughts. Be clear about your process for seeking and using feedback, so that no one thinks that all recommendations will be immediately implemented.

Alrighty! So you’ve decided to take the plunge and find out what grantees think of your practices! Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Administer your own anonymous survey. Third party assessments are helpful, thorough, and will push your organization to consider things you wouldn’t otherwise think about. But don’t let price keep you from getting started. You can begin by using an online survey tool, such Survey Monkey. Subscriptions to these tools are not expensive and they are easy to use. Later this year, Project Streamline will be promoting sample surveys that you can adapt to your needs.
  • Ask the right questions. We’ve found that you get much better information if you ask specific questions. If you ask, “How was our application process?” you might get an uninformative positive response for all sorts of reasons: the grantee doesn’t believe you really want to know, she is just happy that she received a grant, or your application was not as burdensome as the last one she completed. It’s much more fruitful to ask questions such as:
    1. How long did it take you to complete our application (please consider all members of your staff who worked on it and all steps, including initial conversations and developing the budget)?
    2. Please provide feedback about the narrative section of the application. Do you have any suggestions to make the questions more clear and relevant?
    3. To what extent was the online system easy to use? Please comment on any issues you encountered.
  • If having direct conversations, do so when funding isn’t in question. There are occasions when conversations or focus groups with grantees are the best ways to get good information. For example, a question-by-question review of your application to get feedback on narrative questions might be very helpful if your questions are often misunderstood by grantees or tend to get redundant and not-useful responses. These conversations are best held when a grantee has a secure grant in hand, and is confident that their honest critique is providing a service to you.

How have you sought and received really excellent and helpful input on your application and reporting practices from your grantees?  Let us know by commenting or emailing! 

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 for a useful (and possibly entertaining) Rx.