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Grantees Speak About the Philanthropic Funding System
August 14, 2014

(Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant for GlobalGiving and FeedbackLabs.)

MarcMaxson_GG_sweaterI believe that philanthropic foundations could make major progress in serving their target groups if they paid more attention to what grantees were saying about them – but not in the cozy pat-each-other-on-the-back love fest way. I mean listening to real honest feedback. Recently, we at Feedback Labs (as a neutral third party) decided to ask a group of 1,200 organizations to publicly share stories about their experiences with funders. We adopted our community storytelling approach to this task. It emphasizes open-ended narratives with just a few follow-up questions about the story, intermediation (people are a little more likely to say something negative if the boss isn’t in the room), and confidentiality. 

Sample Feedback

I selected these particular comments because the variety of issues addressed illustrates the importance of asking open-ended questions. In this case, the question was “Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was your relationship like? Did you receive support from them?” You can add your own story to the collection if you like.  Here are some of the representative highlights from grantee stories about funding agencies and the grantseeking process:

Comments from GlobalGiving partner organizations:

  • This process leaves little room to establish a relationship with the grantmakers because we just fill in a standard form and perhaps attach a project summary and accounts.
  • It was so important for us to understand - who are the decision makers? What are their priorities - what aspects of your project are particularly appealing to this organization given their vision and mission?
  • They were cold bids and we really did not attempt to build any relations with the foundation by writing to them or calling them up to understanding where our shortcomings had been the previous year. This really affected our chance of winning the grants. 
  • We got to meet the Swiss organisation through a common friend who had been following our work for years. 
  • I was nervous when I sent the first email requesting for support to run programmes in Nairobi. They responded positively and made a trip to Nairobi to see the programme first hand.
  • We waited endlessly to get an approval. One of the basic problems in dealing with a large CSR unit is that one has to keep on following up and have one person dedicated to it.

Comments from smaller emerging orgs not yet partnered with GlobalGiving:

  • The grant makers give a lot of hope and we have approached relevant funders, they do not ascertain the real needs but look at the proposal and decide although worthwhile maybe try next time. This disrupts our plans as we have to strain parents and guardians to contribute more.
  • All our requests, in spite of the care which we grant to our documents, are always rejected. 
  • They do not even send feedback to inform you about your proposal and what you can do to improve it. So I have been frustrated as far as fund raising is concerned.
  • It was tiring, stressful having to consult with partners, including government entities where time factor was not always of great concern to them, giving us more pressure as we were pressed for time and had deadlines. We would be promised to be called back only to not hear from persons from whom we required urgent information for weeks. 

Relationships

There was a rather even mix of both success and failure stories because we explicitly asked organizations to tell one story of each type. In my read of these stories, success is usually associated with building personal ties with the person who signs off on the grant in the foundation. In fact, some storytellers describe the process as being primarily about “who you know.” For a sector that’s been talking a lot about “evidence-based” and “data-driven” lately, it seems that based on this feedback, the most important thing in winning grants is not evidence or data, but rather the social capital of an existing connection. 

This one comment cuts to the heart of the matter: “They funded us for 13 years! A record! Until their South-East Asian representative retired.

Evidence of a lack of respect

Most mentioned proposal content only to say that they felt a well-written proposal had been ignored. Others complained about a lack of feedback after being rejected. More than one complained about never even being told they were rejected. The funder just went silent. This is why I think the work of FeedbackLabs is so important. There are many ways to create funder transparency and accountability, but simply creating feedback loops in which the grantmaker actively listens and responds to grantees and rejected applicants would likely lead to greater change and effectiveness for all concerned.

Corporate social responsibility
It also bears mentioning that there were a few corporate social responsibility (CSR) stories about being courted when the company wanted to show an influential person that the company was being charitable, but once the meetings were over, the effort was abandoned and promises of funding dashed. We don’t often hear about this side of corporate philanthropy.  And while, of course, it is possible that the companies in question may have had valid reasons for declining support, the collective stories from the field illustrate an unfortunate but common thread of grantees who emerge from the grantseeking process feeling disrespected.  In fact, in one of the follow-up survey questions, storytellers checked the box for “respect” more often than nine other tags for what their story was about:

Ttlak graphic
 One of our story visualizing tools. Larger icons mean that this group of storytellers tagged their stories as being related to this topic (e.g. respect) more often than in tens of thousands of our benchmark stories.

But it is important to note that not everyone feels this way. Many storytellers went out of their way to talk about how wonderful it was that a funder would consult them on issues from time to time. If that kind of two-way respect was commonplace in the philanthropic sector, then there wouldn’t be so many exclamation points at the ends of sentences about it.

This is just a little taste of a much larger report in the works that will be available later this year.

You can see many of these stories at storylearning.org/search or follow this link for only the grantee stories we mentioned.

-- Marc Maxson

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  • 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."

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