Who Is Your Customer?

Reprinted with permission from Kris Putnam-Walkerly

It’s easy to get mired in the way things have always been done, and sometimes it leaves us blind to our customers’ real needs. So take a moment and ask yourself one critical question: Who is my customer? In my experience this is a question that most foundations simply don’t ask themselves.

I was talking last week with a funder client (let’s call her Mary) who said that a big lesson she learned is that they should give their applicants more time to respond to a request for proposal. They had only given their applicants about a month; during that month, the applicant had to decide whether and how to apply jointly with other organizations that were also invited, prepare the application, secure matching funding, and write the proposal.

Nonprofits are essentially this foundation’s clients, and it was obvious to me that they were asking their customers to scramble to do all of this in a very short period of time. Actually, the fact that Mary was surprised to learn that a month was not enough time to make all of that happen was what surprised me. This seems like the kind of learning that one would expect from someone new to philanthropy, or perhaps from a relatively new foundation with little grantmaking experience. But this foundation has been in existence for literally decades, awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in grants every year. As an organization, they have likely issued close to a thousand requests for proposals over their decades of existence.

When I asked Mary why they had such a tight time line, she explained all the various departments and people within the foundation who had to sign off and approve a request for proposals: communications staff, grant management staff, contracting, finance. There were multiple levels of leadership, and each of them had a week to review the RFP before passing it on to the next person within the bureaucracy.

When you added up all the time they gave themselves internally to approve RFPs, it was significantly more time than the applicants were given to apply. The trouble is they weren’t paying attention to their customers. Are they there to serve themselves, or are they there to help nonprofit organizations have an impact on the issues they care about?

By contrast, another client we work with has spent tremendous time and resources to reengineer their internal processes, increase automation, become more internally lean, and speed up decision-making in order to increase efficiency and better serve their grantees. I believe they do this because they recognize that the grantees are their customers, and they focus on themselves only to discover how they can better support their grantees.

Three questions can help get to the heart of the matter, and I’d like you to answer them:

  1. Who is your customer? Your staff, or the nonprofit partners you are funding to meet the goals of your foundation?
  2. Are you aware of what your grantees are experiencing in trying to work with you?
  3. What steps can you as a foundation take to examine your internal processes and determine whether your focus is on helping yourselves or on helping the communities of the nonprofits that you serve?

The answers to these three questions should provide insight into your grantmaking practices. I hope you will spend some time considering and discussing your answers, because doing so should provide a clear road map to improved customer service – with the ultimate goal of better grantmaking.

Want to learn more?  Listen to a podcast version of this newsletter, or check out Kris’ blog post Be Nice. Don’t Lie. 10 Ways to Improve Customer Service.

© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Guest Blogger

GMN welcomes blog posts from members, colleagues from peer organizations, thought leaders, and others in the philanthropy sector. Contact Nikki Powell at npowell@gmnetwork.org.