A Safe Place for a Funder-Grantee Dialogue

Phil Buchanan recently wrote an intriguing article about the challenging role of the Foundation CEO, and the difficulty of soliciting genuine constructive feedback. I agree with Phil’s viewpoint that we need strong foundations with good leaders who are willing to listen, truly listen, to both internal and external observations. However, I would take it a step further. Far too often, the Foundation CEO is not interacting with grantees, and thus, while he/she can set a good example, constructive interaction between the funder and the grantee would best be served by also encouraging their VPs and Program Officers to be open to hearing and evaluating that same feedback. From my observations, this does not always happen.

It is not easy to successfully attain a culture between nonprofits and foundations in which constructive feedback is shared and heard on both sides. Having run three nonprofit organizations, I will personally share that I never would have felt comfortable giving feedback to a current or potential funder (whether they be a program officer or the foundation president) for fear that we would be declined when we submitted our next proposal. I’ve always had good relationships with my funders, and none of them were retributive. However, I didn’t want to give them any reason – even subconsciously – to stop supporting the organization that I represented at that time.

I’ve spoken to foundations that have provided opportunities for direct constructive feedback – and they have sometimes regretted it. Grantees were brutal in their criticisms, and emanated a sense of entitlement for continued funding. As a former grantee of many fantastic and supportive foundations, I’m embarrassed to be associated with these types of grantees, and wish that they had been more respectful in their approach.

Thus, there needs to be a middle ground. There must be a way in which grantees can thoughtfully and gracefully provide feedback to foundations. My first thought is to ask foundations to provide grantees with a way in which to provide that constructive feedback anonymously. But I would be concerned that there would be one or two grantees that would be the extremists, whose unsigned comments we read far too often in the comment section of the online newspaper. That would ruin it for everyone else. So I was excited to stumble on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report, and believe that it could be a really valuable instrument to open a candid dialogue between grantees and foundations. In the end, it will make all of us far more effective in changing our community for the better.

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