Foundations must recognize that good communication with grantees is essential to better partnerships and ultimately greater impact, according to Foundation Communications: The Grantee Perspective, a report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
Surveying nearly 17,000 grantees for their opinions of the communications efforts of 142 foundations, CEP found that staff at surveyed organizations place a high premium on communications, which can, as one respondent put it, minimize the “vast power differential” that can exist between foundations and their grantees.
In particular, staff at grantee organizations see three aspects of funder communications as the most critical to their success: (1) consistency among communications efforts, (2) responsiveness of foundation staff and (3) helpful application and reporting systems.
When asked which resources are most helpful in shaping their understanding of a foundation’s goals and strategy, grantees put one-on-one communications at the top of the list. On a scale of 1-7, where 1 is “not at all helpful” and 7 is “extremely helpful,” grantees gave conversations with foundation staff at 6.5. Not far behind were clear, specific guidelines, which were also put on the “extremely helpful” side of the scale, with an average of 5.9. Group meetings, foundation websites and annual reports were considered less helpful.
Conversations between grantee and funder staff emerged as the key to perceptions of the evaluation process. Grantees who did not discuss completed evaluation reports with foundation staff rated the evaluation process a 3.8. But those who did discuss the completed reports felt better about the evaluation process, giving it a 5.1 rating.
The report also features the story of how the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s communications with grantees played an important role in its response to significant cuts in its grantmaking. A few months before CEP conducted a survey of Packard Foundation grantees, the foundation had discontinued entire funding areas because of shrinking assets. In response, foundation program officers, directors and the CEO personally contacted each of its grantees, discontinued or not, to explain the changes. Afterwards, the CEP grantee perception report found that, in most dimensions, there was no significant difference between current and discontinued grantees in how they rated Packard Foundation communications.
The report outlines practical steps foundations can take to improve communications with their grantees:
- Make communication the responsibility of all staff, even if one person is directly responsible for the foundation’s communication efforts.
- Establish and review communication standards for program officers, grants managers, and other staff, and balance responsibilities to ensure program staff have enough time for high-quality interactions with grantees.
- Before the grant is made, make clear how processes will unfold. After the grant is made, communicate with grantees about the reports they submit.
- Approach grantees with a “how can we help” attitude, even if in-person attention is not possible.
- Audit your print, online and verbal communications to ensure consistency in descriptions of program and foundation goals. Consider a third party for objective review of all communication resources.