Before I get started, I’d like to thank the folks at CEP for asking me to contribute to their blog. I’m looking forward to the conversation that will unfold here.
I’m a person who appreciates candor in my relationships. I think it runs in my family. I don’t know too many Ragins who will hesitate to tell you what they think about anything — always with tact and respect, of course. As such, I was excited (and admittedly a bit nervous) when the Hewlett Foundation commissioned CEP to conduct its third Grantee Perception Report (GPR) in 2009. Having previously worked at CEP, it was odd to be on the receiving end of grantee feedback for the first time, but I was anxious to learn what Hewlett’s grantees thought of the performance of the Performing Arts Program, where I serve as associate program officer.
So what did we learn? First, the good news. Compared to other foundations, grantees rated our program quite positively for its impact on and understanding of the field, local community, and organizations that we support. Given that the Performing Arts Program is field-specific as well as regionally focused, we were pleased with this result and felt affirmed in the grantmaking approaches we’d chosen to take. Though we don’t have direct measures of impact (we’re still working on it), grantee perceptions therefore are important performance indicators, as these organizations have on-the-ground knowledge upon which to draw.
However, we received less positive ratings on other important measures, including the clarity of communications of our goals and strategy and the helpfulness of our selection process in strengthening grantee organizations. In response to open-ended questions, grantees expressed a desire to better understand the Program’s strategy and to have it communicated more consistently. They also wanted to know how their work fits into our strategies. With regard to the selection process, grantees told us something we certainly know — relative to other arts funders, our application is long and difficult. We intend the rigorous thinking that is required to complete our application to be of benefit to the organizations, and while many responded that they found the “extra” application elements to be useful, we recognize that improvements could be made.
As a program officer, it’s easy to get trapped in a bubble, deprived of the critical feedback necessary to improve practice over time. This is why GPR results are so helpful. They give us a necessary reality check that we may not otherwise receive.
So what did we do? After a number of internal conversations, as well as some Program-specific follow-up sessions with CEP staff, we made a few changes that we think will help the Performing Arts Program move in the right direction. We now reinforce and communicate to grantees the Program’s goals and strategies as frequently as possible, particularly when having in-person meetings. We placed our Program’s logic model on the Hewlett Foundation website and refer grantees to it, as well as other funders and interested parties. Three times a year, we host a series of grant seeker workshops, during which the Program staff review goals and strategies with grantees, walk through the more challenging application elements, and field questions. We also revised our application, identifying and removing some redundant elements.
I’d be curious to know what other folks have done to improve communications about goals and strategy and to make their selection processes more helpful in strengthening grantees. Any good stories or suggestions? CEP has published a number of reports about ways in which foundations have made improvements in response to grantee feedback. Check them out, if you haven’t already.
Ron Ragin is an associate program officer in the Performing Arts Program at Hewlett Foundation. The views expressed are his own.