Don’t “Ghost” Declined Applicants: The Ins and Outs of Giving Applicant Feedback
Mandy Ellerton joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where she created and now directs the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community problems, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem.
This post is part of our “Road to 100 & Beyond” series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the “Who Has GlassPockets?” self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, promising practices in transparency, helpful examples, and lessons learned.
I’ve often thought that fundraising can be as bad as dating. (Kudos to you lucky few who have had great experiences dating!) Lots of dates, lots of dead ends, lots of frustrating encounters before you (maybe) find a match. All along the way you look for even the smallest sign to indicate that someone likes you. “They laughed at my joke!” or, in the case of fundraising, “they seemed really excited about page five of last year’s impact report!” Not to mention the endless time spent doing online searches for shreds of information that might be useful. This reality is part of the reason why Bush Foundation was proud to be among the first 100 foundations to participate in GlassPockets. We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking, because both in dating and in fundraising, it can be heartbreaking and crazymaking to try and sort out whether you have a connection or if someone’s “just not that into you.” If only there was a way to just “swipe left” or “swipe right” and make everything a little simpler.
“We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking.”
I’m not proposing a Tinder for grantmaking (nor should anyone, probably, although hat tip to Vu Le for messing with all of us and floating the idea on April Fool’s Day). But over the past several years, Bush Foundation’s Community Innovation program staff has used a system to provide feedback calls for declined applicants, in the hopes of making foundation fundraising a little less opaque and crazymaking. We use the calls to be transparent and explain why we made our funding decisions. The calls also help us live out our “Spread Optimism” value because they allow us to help and encourage applicants and potentially point them to other resources. This is all part of our larger engagement strategy, described in “No Moat Philanthropy.”
How Feedback Calls Work
We use a systematic approach for feedback calls:
- We proactively offer the opportunity to sign up for feedback calls in the email we send to declined applicants.
- We use a scheduling tool (after trying a couple different options we’ve landed on Slotted, which is relatively cheap and easy to use) and offer a variety of times for feedback calls every week. Collectively five Community Innovation Team members hold about an hour a week for feedback calls. The calls typically last about 20 minutes. We’ve found this is about the right amount of time so that we can offer feedback calls to most of the declined applicants who want them.
- We prepare for our feedback calls. We re-read the application and develop an outline for the call ahead of time.
- During the call we offer a couple of reasons why we declined the application. We often discuss what an applicant could work on to strengthen their project and whether they ought to apply again.
- We also spend a lot of time listening; sometimes these calls can understandably be emotional. Grant applications are a representation of someone’s hopes and dreams and sometimes your decline might feel like the end of the road for the applicant. But hang with them. Don’t get defensive. However hard it might feel for you, it’s a lot harder for the declined applicant. And ultimately, hard conversations can be transformative for everyone involved. I will say, however, that most of our feedback calls are really positive exchanges.
- We use anonymous surveys to evaluate what people think of the feedback calls and during the feedback call we ask whether the applicant has any feedback for us to improve our programs/grantmaking process.
- We train new staff on how to do feedback calls. We have a staff instruction manual on how to do feedback calls, but we also have new team members shadow more seasoned team members for a while before they do a feedback call alone.
What’s Going Well
The feedback calls appear to be useful for both declined applicants and for us:
- In our 2018 surveys, respondents (n=38) rated the feedback calls highly. They gave the calls an average rating of 6.1 (out of 7) for overall helpfulness, 95% said the calls added some value or a lot of value, and 81.2% said they had a somewhat better or much better understanding of the programs after the feedback call.
- We’ve seen the number of applications for our Community Innovation Grant and Bush Prize for Community Innovation programs go down over time and we’ve seen the overall quality go up. We think that’s due, in part, to feedback calls that help applicants decide whether to apply again and that help applicants improve their projects to become a better fit for funding in the future.
- I’d also like to think that doing feedback calls has made us better grantmakers. First, it shows up in our selection meetings. When you might have to talk to someone about why you made the funding decision you did, you’re going to be even more thoughtful in making the decision in the first place. You’re going to hew even closer to your stated criteria and treat the decision with care. We regularly discuss what feedback we plan to give to declined applicants in the actual selection meeting. Second, in a system that has inherently huge power differentials (foundations have all of it and applicants have virtually none of it), doing feedback calls forces you to come face to face with that reality. Never confronting the fact that your funding decisions impact real people with hopes and dreams is a part of what corrupts philanthropy. Feedback calls keep you a little more humble.
What We’re Working On
We still have room to improve our feedback calls:
- We’ve heard from declined applicants that they sometimes get conflicting feedback from different team members when they apply (and get declined) multiple times; 15% of survey respondents said their feedback was inconsistent with prior feedback from us. Cringe. That definitely makes fundraising more crazymaking. We’re working on how to have more staff continuity with applicants who have applied multiple times.
- We sometimes struggle to determine how long to keep encouraging a declined applicant to improve their project for future applications versus saying more definitively that the project is not a fit. Yes, we want to “Spread Optimism,” but although it never feels good for anyone involved, sometimes the best course of action is to encourage an applicant to seek funding elsewhere.
I’m under no illusions that feedback calls are going to fix the structural issues with philanthropy and fundraising. I welcome that larger conversation, driven in large part by brave critiques of philanthropy emerging lately like Decolonizing Wealth, Just Giving and Winners Take All. In the meantime, fundraising, as with dating, is still going to have moments of heartache and uncertainty. When you apply for a grant, you have to be brave and vulnerable; you’re putting your hopes and dreams out into a really confusing and opaque system that’s going to judge them, perhaps support them, or perhaps dash them, and maybe even “ghost” them by never responding. Feedback calls are one way to treat those hopes and dreams with a bit more care.