Grantmakers, Go On—Ask!

(Jessica Bearman is lead consultant to the Grants Managers Network’s Project Streamline, an initiative to help funders understand and minimize the burden of grantmaking. She blogs as Dr. Streamline at

Bearman-150Improving foundation transparency and accountability can improve relations with grantees and prospective grantees, especially around the application process. Have you ever wondered:

  • Are your grant application requirements sensible and comprehensible to applicants?
  • Does your online application system work well or waste grantseekers’ time?
  • What does your application process cost nonprofits (unfunded and funded) in time and financial resources?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not alone. But there is no reason to be afraid to ask.

Project Streamling header (640x131)Project Streamline, an initiative of the Grants Managers Network, recently reported that many funders—more than half in our survey sample—don’t seek feedback on their practices from nonprofit grantseekers. Grantseekers reported that, on average, fewer than 15% of their funders had ever asked for input.

This means that funders don’t know the answers to the questions posed above.

Nonprofit grantseekers have learned all too well the perils of unsolicited candor. They often don’t believe that funders want to hear anything critical about practices. As one grantseeker put it, “As far as negative feedback, I don't give it unless they ask for it, or I do not plan to ever approach them again.” Meanwhile, funders seem oddly unwilling to invite constructive critique that would both demonstrate good partnership and improve their systems.

But funders have so much to gain from inviting feedback from grantseekers and grantees; it’s hard to imagine a significant downside to increased transparency. So, go onask!

Although you may have strong relationships with your grantees, they’re not likely to tell you the whole truth unless you ask specific questions in a format that allows them to comment anonymously.

Ask by surveying. I believe that an anonymous survey—either your own or one administered by a third party—is a good place to begin your inquiry. Although you may have strong relationships with your grantees, they’re not likely to tell you the whole truth unless you ask specific questions in a format that allows them to comment anonymously. For example, I worked with a foundation to ask very detailed questions about their budget forms. Grantee comments pointed out confusing sections, which the foundation was then able to clarify. They also decided to stop using budget forms for general operating support grants after receiving consistent feedback that the forms didn’t work for organizations’ budgets.

Ask in conversation. You can also get great insight through focus groups or individual conversations by asking directly for feedback after you’ve granted funding, or when there’s no funding on the table. Again, specificity is critical. “How was the process?” will not get the same type of useful response as, “Did you run into any issues using our online system? How would you suggest we improve it?”

One experienced grantseeker was asked by a funder to review their application, question by question, in a private conference call. She reported that her feedback made a difference; the funder later modified or eliminated requirements that were particularly difficult to manage.

Ask as part of ongoing learning and improvement. Grantseekers can appreciate and respect your interest in improving the grantmaking process, and they will be more inclined to be honest if they know you have a plan to use their constructive comments.

No matter how you do it, asking for input on these practices shows nonprofits that you recognize that applying for and reporting on grants carries an administrative burden. It tells them that you’re serious about minimizing unnecessarily labor-intensive tasks. It also tells them that you’re conscientious about your own learning process and improvement as a funder.

You may need to ask, and ask again, but eventually your nonprofit partners will understand that you truly want to know what they think—especially if you post your questions and share their input publicly. And they will thank you for it.

Tell us about your experiences seeking feedback from applicants and grantees. What worked well for you, and what did you learn?

-- Jessica Bearman

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