Transparency Talk

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Anonymous Isn't Just for Donors: Encouraging Honest Grantee Feedback
April 9, 2012

(An interview with Jon Clark, President of the James S. Bower Foundation.)

Jon ClarkTransparency Talk (TT): Glasspockets is always in search of good examples of online transparency and accountability practices. One of the tenets of accountability is tracking complaint and response mechanisms. Large, independent foundations can budget for consultants to help them develop stakeholder surveys, so we were particularly interested in the anonymous feedback form you developed, since it can serve as a model for other foundations with limited budgets to bring in outside help. Tell us why you prioritized creating such a mechanism.

Jon Clark (JC): When the James S. Bower Foundation started in earnest in 2006 it was our hope to be able to have honest conversations with nonprofits and others in the community. I knew from my experience in the nonprofit sector and as part of other foundations that the deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table, or at least in the corner of the room, keeps people from saying what they need to say. Whether that prevents the warts and all program assessments that we really want, or keeps people from calling any of us out when we are arrogant, misguided or just plain stupid, it hinders our ability to be our best in service to our community. I would say that this was one of the key values we started with as an organization.

The deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table... keeps people from saying what they need to say.

The vast majority of our effort to create an environment where honesty can happen is to do our best to be open and honest ourselves. We aspire to be careful with what we say and to do way more listening than speaking. That said, the transactional realities of foundation relationships are what they are and we probably aren't as great in this regard as we'd like to think, so we created an anonymous comment form on our website, which went live in 2007.

TT: Tell us how your feedback mechanism works.

JC: The form is prominently located on our website behind the tab "Feedback. Even though people are encouraged to email me directly with their comments, they also are given the option of reaching us anonymously. The link takes the person to another site where we have no access and we receive the comments in the form of an email from that site with the sender attributes removed.

TT: Was this expensive to create or maintain? Is this something that any small foundation with a limited budget can do? Are there ongoing maintenance costs?

JC: Not at all, the costs have been nominal.

TT: What has the response been like so far? Are grantees or grantee hopefuls using the form?

JC: Ironically, over the years we have not been inundated with feedback. We did receive some pointed criticism about an off-hand comment I made at a workshop about not waiting until the last minute to get your proposal in. Someone pointed out that when you are a busy development director, sometimes that's the best you can do. They said I was showing insensitivity to the way they had to work. They were right. For the most part though, this feedback form is mostly a spam catcher.

TT: Why do you think that is? And does its lack of use diminish its importance in your view?

JC: The question of why remains a bit of a mystery. While, as executive director, I would love to claim it is because we are doing our jobs so well that no one is complaining, I know there is another answer. The truth is that we are a smaller foundation in a smaller very tight knit community where most foundations and nonprofit leaders are on a first name basis. This form is not necessarily culturally appropriate to our environment since feedback tends to be more upfront. My staff often recount genuine conversations with members of the community where they receive feedback, both good and bad.

TT: With all that said, is it a failure?

JC: While it has not raised our game as much as we had hoped, we leave the form there in case there is ever a time when our culture is compromised and we do need to hear safe words from our community. I think every foundation should give such a voice to their potential and current grantees. In fact, the larger the foundation, the more I would encourage such a platform. Even if it is not used every day, or you have to sift through spam to hear what may need to be spoken softly, it is still an important pathway and one that may ensure no voices are left unheard.

-- Jon Clark


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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

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