When viewed amidst an Excel spreadsheet or Word table timeline, funder reporting often appears as a dry, lifeless line of text—a required milepost to acknowledge, but hardly anticipate. While a necessary component of a funder-grantee relationship, reporting typically engenders about as much excitement as a cupful of cod liver oil. Just hold your nose for a few seconds (or in this case, a few months or more), swallow, and it will be over.
But the grant reporting process does not have to become an onerous endeavor. And while some reports are by necessity strictly compliance-oriented, even those more prescriptive obligations offer opportunities to share learning, communicate impact, and provide thought leadership to the field. As Jessica Bearman so aptly notes in her PEAK Insight Journal article, A Better Way: Recommendations for Better Reporting, “… the way reporting is used should speak to an organization’s learning priorities, how it understands impact, what it values in supporting grantees, communities, and a field of knowledge.”
Evaluators of philanthropic initiatives, or of broader portfolios of programs, can play an important role in guiding foundations on how to turn reporting mandates into ongoing opportunities to share learning and articulate impact. A central aspect of this guidance is to position the required reports into components of a broader strategic communications plan that focuses on telling a comprehensive story about the program over the course of the investment. Evaluators can collaborate with funders, as partners in learning, to craft this communications strategy. There are a couple important ways to make this happen:
1. Establish expectations early in the relationship—even during proposal development—for collaboration around turning reporting requirements into opportunities to communicate learning, and provide specific examples.
As a communications professional who works for an evaluation and strategy firm, I come to the party with the firm belief that “reporting” and “communications” must be inextricably linked. For instance, when drafting a proposal for a prospective project, evaluators should frame funder reporting milestones as reflection points to identify what the partners have learned thus far and determine how to repackage content from those reports to share with the program’s target audiences. The evaluator should indicate the reporting process can help the funder consider questions such as: 1) What are the changes that this investment wants to achieve? 2) How might the investment affect or shift the narrative around a particular issue? 3) Are there opportunities to shape the field? If so, what can we say? 4) What is the story we want to tell? 5) How can we “tell the story” and to whom (which audiences are most appropriate)? and 6) What do we want those audiences to do?
By positioning reporting as an ongoing strategic opportunity to share impact, rather than as a transactional task, the evaluator is setting the stage for a more collaborative relationship around reporting should the organization “win the work.” And by establishing this approach, the evaluator is allaying any potential surprises with the funder—or possibilities of misaligned expectations about reporting – when designing the evaluation plan or project workplan at the beginning of the engagement. In fact, project kickoff meetings are often a suitable time to discuss the value of integrating reporting and communications, and to establish how the evaluator and client can work together to turn these milestone requirements into opportunities to articulate learnings and impact.
2. Collaborate to identify how to integrate content from reports into opportunities to communicate learning and impact throughout the term of the project.
I like to think of grantee reporting as a starting point, rather than as a more summative exercise. Whether the reporting requirement is in the form of a more formal questionnaire about the activities undertaken during a specified period, or a narrative report or memo, there are likely numerous rich opportunities for evaluators to extract salient stories about impact. The key is to communicate with the client about this intent, so that they are on board with—and fully understand—this approach as part of a broader communications strategy.
Several examples of this type of collaboration come to mind. For one client, we developed a more traditional year-end evaluation report, but at the same time mutually determined how we could craft a series of blog posts, an infographic, and national conference panel sessions as elements of an ongoing strategy to articulate learnings from this investment that would be of value to the field. With another client and its partners, we routinely discuss opportunities to convert key themes and lessons from an annual reporting memo into online publications that are shared with important audiences for this initiative. And for a long-time client that requires detailed annual reporting narratives, we use this process as an opportunity to help identify compelling stories of grantees that can illustrate the impact of this program, and work with the funder to disseminate those profiles and blogs to other individuals and organizations that would benefit from their work. In each of these instances, early on we discussed with these clients the value of integrating reporting into an ongoing plan to share learnings and impact, and involved them as “thought partners” in this strategy.
As I implied at the outset of this piece, the prospect of tackling funder reporting can typically elicit a “just do it and get it over with” feeling among evaluators—a sigh-inducing must-do milestone on a project timeline. But reporting can offer evaluators and their clients a more vibrant opportunity to reflect on the results to-date of the program investment, to understand what they’ve learned, and to determine how to most strategically communicate that information with stakeholders who can help create the desired change. This collaboration around reporting can help bring the reporting narrative to life, fling it off the shelf (or extract it from its Word folder), tell a story of impact and, ultimately, turn that cup of cod liver oil into a refreshing beverage.