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How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where they created and now direct the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community challenges, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

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Mandy Ellerton

When we started working at the Bush Foundation in 2011, we encountered a machine we’d never seen before: the Lektriever. It’s a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack, and allows you to seriously pack in the paper. As a responsible grantmaker, it’s how the Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades.

In 2013, the Bush Foundation had the privilege of moving to a new office. Mere days before we were to move into the new space, we got a frantic call from the new building’s management. It turned out that the Lektrievers (we actually had multiple giant filing machines!) were too heavy for the floor of the new building, which had to be reinforced with a number of steel plates to sustain their weight.

MMG 2015 Headshot1
Molly Matheson Gruen

The Lektrievers symbolized our opportunity to become more transparent and move beyond simply preserving our records, instead seeing them as relevant learning tools for current audiences. It was time to lighten the load and share this valuable information with the world.

Even with all this extra engineering, we would still have to say goodbye to one of the machines altogether for the entire system to be structurally sound. We had decades of grantee stories, experiences and learning trapped in a huge machine in the inner sanctum of our office, up on the 25th floor. 

Learning Logs Emerge

We developed our grantee learning log concept in the Community Innovation Programs as one way to increase the Foundation’s transparency. At the heart of it, our learning logs are a very simple concept: they are grantee reports, shared online. But, like many things that appear simple, once you pull on the string of change – the complexity reveals itself.

“Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning.”

Before we could save the reports from a life of oblivion in the Lektriever, build out the technology and slap the reports online, we needed to entirely rethink our approach to grantee reporting to create a process that was more mutually beneficial. First, we streamlined our grant accountability measures (assessing whether the grantees did what they said they’d do) by structuring them into a conversation with grantees, rather than as a part of the written reports. We’ve found that conducting these assessments in a conversation takes the pressure off and creates a space where grantees can be more candid, leading to increased trust and a stronger partnership.

Second, our grantee reports now focus on what grantees are learning in their grant-funded project. What’s working? What’s not? What would you do differently if you had it to do all over again? This new process resulted in reports that were more concise and to the point.

Finally, we redesigned our website to create a searchable mechanism for sharing these reports online. This involved linking our grant management system directly with our website so that when a grantee submits a report, we do a quick review and then the report automatically populates our website. We’ve also designed a way for grantees to be able to designate select answers as private when they want to share sensitive information with us, yet not make it entirely public. We leave it up grantee discretion and those selected answers do not appear on the website. Grantees designate their answers to be private for a number of reasons, most often because they discuss sensitive situations having to do with specific people or partners – like when someone drops out of the project or when a disagreement with a partner holds up progress. And while we’ve been pleased at the candor of most of our grantees, some are still understandably reluctant to be publicly candid about failures or mistakes.

But why does this new approach to grantee reporting matter, besides making sure the floor doesn’t collapse beneath our Lektrievers?

Bushfoundation-Lektriever photo
The Lektriever is a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack. The Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades. Credit: Bush Foundation

Learning Sees the Light of Day

Learning logs help bring grantee learning into the light of day, instead of hiding in the Lektrievers, so that more people can learn about what it really takes to solve problems. Our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. Our grantees are addressing wildly different issues: from water quality to historical trauma, from economic development to prison reform. But, when you talk to our grantees, you see that they actually have a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another about effective problem-solving. And beyond our grantee pool, there are countless other organizations that want to engage their communities and work collaboratively to solve problems.  Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning, making it #OpenForGood.

We also want to honor our grantees’ time. Grantees spend a lot of time preparing grant reports for funders. And, in a best case scenario, a program officer reads the report and sends the grantee a response of some kind before the report is filed away. But, let’s be honest – sometimes even that doesn’t happen. The report process can be a burden on nonprofits and the only party to benefit is the funder. We hope that the learning logs help affirm to our grantees that they’re part of something bigger than themselves - that what they share matters to others who are doing similar work.

We also hear from our grantees that the reports provide a helpful, reflective process, especially when they fill it out together with collaborating partners. One grantee even said she’d like to fill out the report more often than we require to have regular reflection moments with her team!

Learning from the Learning Logs

We only launched the learning logs last year, but we’ve already received some positive feedback. We’ve heard from both funded and non-funded organizations that the learning logs provide inspiration and practical advice so that they can pursue similar projects. A grantee recently shared a current challenge in their work. It directly connected to some work we knew another grantee had done and had written about in their learning log. So, since this knowledge was now out in the open, we were able to direct them to the learning log as a way to expand our grantee’s impact, even beyond their local community, and use it to help advance another grantee’s work.

Take, for example, some of the following quotes from some of our grantee reports:

  • The Minnesot Brain Injury Alliance's project worked on finding ways to better serve homeless people with brain injuries.  They reflected that, "Taking the opportunity for reflection at various points in the process was very important in working toward innovation.  Without reflection, we might not have been open to revising our plan and implementing new possibilities."
  • GROW South Dakota addressed a number of challenges facing rural South Dakota communities. They shared that, “Getting to conversations that matter requires careful preparation in terms of finding good questions and setting good ground rules for how the conversations will take place—making sure all voices are heard, and that people are listening for understanding and not involved in a debate.”
  •  The People's Press Project engaged communities of color and disenfranchised communities to create a non-commercial, community-owned, low-powered radio station serving the Fargo-Moorhead area of North Dakota. They learned “quickly that simply inviting community members to a meeting or a training was not a type of outreach that was effective.”

Like many foundations, we decline far more applications than what we fund, and our limited funding can only help communities tackle so many problems. Our learning logs are one way to try and squeeze out more impact from those direct investments. By reading grantee learning logs, hopefully more people will be inspired to effectively solve problems in their communities.

We’re not planning to get rid of the Lektrievers anytime soon – they’re pretty retro cool and efficient. They contain important historical records and are incredibly useful for other kinds of record keeping, beyond grantee documentation. Plus, the floor hasn’t fallen in yet. But, as Bush Foundation Communications Director Dominick Washington put it, now we’re unleashing the knowledge, “getting it out of those cabinets, and to people who can use it.”

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

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