Exploring the Pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy: Solicit and Act on Feedback

By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President 

Editor’s Note: Every two weeks, we’ll be exploring one or more of the six pillars of the Foundation’s trust-based philanthropy approach. View previous posts in the series here.

Two year ago, we launched a new grantmaking area here at Robert Sterling Clark—we now fund network and leadership development programs. As we developed this new grantmaking area, we also implemented a new way to evaluate our grantmaking. We asked each of our grantee partners to complete a self-assessment tool to help us understand the progress they were making with our support.

The evaluation tool required that grantee staff and board members complete a survey, which would then suggest which areas they needed to work on to become a stronger, more effective organization. We promised them that we, at the Foundation, could not see individual organizations’ scores—we would only see the aggregate scores of all our grantee partners at once. This way, we hoped that they could be completely honest, and use the tool to guide their organizational development. At the same time, we would use the aggregate scores to evaluate how we were doing as funders, in fulfilling our goal to help our grantee organizations to become stronger. We were quite pleased with ourselves for creating this non-punitive system that we thought would help both them and us.

And then a strange thing happened. Very few of our grantees completed their surveys. We reminded them gently, then less gently. We wrung our hands, we talked to experts, we complained to each other that “we ask so little of them! Why don’t they do this one easy thing?” We thought about tying the release of their grant funds to the completion of the survey. And then we did something really nuts–we asked them what they thought of the tool.

At our grantee retreat last year, an outside consultant led a conversation with our grantee partners about this evaluation tool. We were not in the room, and they were encouraged to be completely honest. And they were. Every one of them gave it a thumbs-down. Not only were the surveys laborious, not only did they not find the self-assessment useful—but most importantly, they questioned whether the size grants that we were awarding could even have any impact on the kind of organizational development we were assessing.

We were discouraged, a little taken aback, and a tiny bit insulted. And at the same time, we knew they were right. We were asking them to evaluate our work based on a false premise. Within a week of that conversation we suspended the evaluation tool and asked for volunteers to work with our evaluator to examine our theory of change and to come up with a new assessment plan. We launched that new system this fall and are waiting for the results (the new-and-improved survey is due back on November 1!).

This experience drove home for us how important it is to both Solicit & Act on Feedback. It’s not easy for me, personally, to ask for feedback. Most of the time I feel like I will be happier if I don’t know what people think of me. It’s also loaded to ask for feedback as a foundation–when we are handing over the money, there is a lot of pressure on our grantee partners to tell us how smart and pretty we are. But in this case, the response to our question ended up saving time and effort for the grantees. We are certain it is going to give us a better picture of how our funding is impacting our grantees than we would have if we hadn’t asked.

Perhaps the most radical thing we did was to tell our grantee partners what we were doing with their feedback. Many nonprofit leaders are focus-grouped and surveyed and interviewed into oblivion, and never hear what comes of their ideas. In this case, we have emailed our grantee partners quarterly to keep them up to date on how we are following their lead and improving our system.

I may not start asking people what they think of my shoes or my singing voice, but this experience has convinced me that we should keep asking our grantee partners for feedback, and keep on telling them what we do with it.