The Benefits of Cultivating Candid Feedback

Jennifer Teunon

Several years ago, the Medina Foundation, the organization I lead, converted to an online application. About seven months after it launched, one of our grantees called to tell me that it had a pretty serious formatting glitch. This was something we had missed when we tested it, and it forced grantees to create workarounds. It wasted their time and created unnecessary stress. Although we quickly made the fix, I couldn’t stop thinking about how, in all of that time, no one else called to complain. It made me wonder what else we weren’t hearing from our grantees.

The Medina Foundation is a family foundation based in Seattle. We fund basic needs and human services in the greater Puget Sound region. Next year, we will celebrate our 70th anniversary and hit a milestone of investing $100 million in our community. We have many long-time grantees and we work hard to be approachable and responsive, but we realize that the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits doesn’t always lead to authentic conversation and constructive feedback.

Being a good partner to the organizations we fund is important to both our staff and trustees. We are inspired every day by the incredible work our grantees are doing in our community, and we want to make sure that there is an avenue for them to tell us how we can do better. While we could always directly survey our own grantees, we know that still might not produce the most honest answers — it can be hard to criticize a foundation if you think there may be a consequence of not receiving funding in the future.

CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR) was an ideal solution for us. Not only would it provide the opportunity for our grantees to give anonymous feedback, but the survey of more than 50 well-researched questions would also be compared with the results of other foundations, giving us the context necessary to understand our results (CEP’s dataset includes responses from 50,000 grantees of the nearly 300 foundations that have commissioned the GPR). This comparative data is crucial to see where your foundation is doing well and where there is room for improvement.

In 2015, we hired CEP to conduct the GPR, and the survey was sent to 200 of our recent grantees. We had a 68 percent response rate (just above CEP’s average response rate of 66 percent), and we’re grateful to the 136 grantees that took the time to complete the survey. And our respondents did so much more than just submit basic responses — we received 19 pages of both thoughtful and instructive comments.

When CEP compiled all of the results and presented them to our staff and trustees, some of the findings reinforced what we hoped was true:

  • Positive Relationships: We ranked in the 86th percentile for having a positive impact on grantees’ fields and in the 89th percentile for positive funder-grantee relationships. We strive to be accessible and, although we were happy with this result, we know we can always improve — this will continue to be an area in which we stay vigilant.
  • Importance of General Operating Support: We heard how much our grantees value general operating support. According to CEP’s research, this support only makes up 20 percent of the average funder’s grantmaking, as opposed to over 70 percent of Medina’s. In the spirit of improvement, we feel like we can still do more by encouraging other funders to provide this essential funding. We have talked on panels about how essential this support is to organizations, and I wrote a blog post for the National Center for Family Philanthropy on the topic.

We also heard from our grantees about where we can do better. Since we received the results last fall, we have worked on addressing each of these areas that the GPR brought to light:

  • Clarity: We heard that our processes could be clearer. In response, we updated our guidelines to more accurately reflect our giving. We also redesigned our website to be more informative and user-friendly, we revised our status report to be less burdensome, and, in an effort to continually improve our processes, we have added requests for feedback into our letter of inquiry, application, and final report forms.
  • Help Beyond the Grant: This is an area in which Medina ranked lower than the average foundation, though we do also have a much higher caseload. We learned that we have 85 active grants per program officer, compared to 33 active grants per program officer at the typical foundation. These caseloads don’t allow our staff much time to meet with grantees (beyond site visits), attend nonprofit events, etc. We fund in 14 counties and six issue areas. And since all of those geographies and giving areas are important to our board, we are not currently planning on making fewer grants, which would be the main way to increase engagement with each grantee. While increasing non-monetary support may not be an area in which we make a lot of immediate change, we still believe it’s important that we’ve been made aware of it, and we may find ways to address it at some point down the road.
  • More Multiyear Grants: Since the recession, Medina has made few multiyear grants, and grantees asked us to consider increasing this. Although we know that giving larger, multiyear grants is a best practice, the challenge is getting the balance right — we don’t want to commit too much of our grants budget and not be able to respond to new organizations or emerging needs. Our trustees, however, recently approved allowing up to 15 percent of our grantmaking budget to be committed in multiyear grants.

We shared these results with our grantees and posted an update on our website. Many grantees reached out to tell us how much they appreciated us asking for input and feedback, and, even more importantly, they expressed appreciation that we shared back the results — and how we are addressing them. As one respondent said, “so often one participates in a survey and then…you never really know what happens.”

We believe that Medina can only be successful if we are helpful to the organizations that are addressing the most critical needs in our region. By commissioning the GPR, truly listening to our grantees, and assuring those organizations that we are committed to doing better, we’re hopeful that grantees won’t be reluctant to reach out to us about ways we can improve.

Jennifer Teunon is the executive director of the Medina Foundation in Seattle, Washington. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years. Learn more about the Foundation at www.medinafoundation.org.

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