What Do Nonprofits Really Think about the Packard Foundation?

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is one of the largest foundations in the United States, with a huge footprint in the Bay Area, its home turf. So how well it works with nonprofits looking for Packard support matters a lot.

Recently, the foundation enlisted the help of the Center for Effective Philanthropy to get grantees’ honest opinions of Packard and prepare a Grantee Perception Report to summarize its findings. Then Packard did something that not all foundations do when they work with CEP: It made the report public. 

The 2014 evaluation process began with Packard sending contact information for all active 2013 grantees. Grantees were asked to compare Packard to other foundations of similar size and scope, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the California Endowment, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Only about 56 percent of Packard grantees, 602 organizations, completed the survey, but the results still paint a decent picture of where Packard stands to improve.  

The Packard Foundation Wields a Lot of Power

Packard grantees responded that the foundation has a greater impact in its fields compared to other funders. Packard received a 74 percent rating in the “impact on grantees’ field” category. Although the perceptions of the foundations impact on local communities and on their organizations were more positive than negative, those responses were more neutral and comparable to other funders. 

But It Doesn’t Always Understand Factors That Affect Nonprofit Work

Overall responses in 2014 were less positive than in 2012 regarding Packard’s understanding of social, cultural, and economic factors that affect grantees’ work. Grantees’ satisfaction about Packard’s advanced knowledge in their fields declined in 2014 as well. That's interesting, given the high caliber of the people that work at Packard. Still, it's hardly unusual for foundation folks to end up operating at a remove from what's happening on the ground, a complaint that program officers themselves often have about these jobs. 

Packard is Supportive

The survey asked grantees to identify one word that best described the foundation and created a “word cloud” with the most common responses. A total of 42 grantees described the Packard Foundation as supportive. Other common but less frequent responses described the foundation as generous, strategic, committed, and thoughtful. In 2014, 25 percent of Packard grantees received operating support, 65 percent received program support, and 10 percent received other types of support. This breakdown is pretty similar to the average funder todaya fact that we often complain about at IP. 

But It Shies Away from First-time Grantees

In both 2012 and 2014, first-time grants only accounted for 13 percent of total Packard grants. The average funder gives about 29 percent of its grantmaking budget to first-time grantees, and cohort funders have been giving about 32 percent to first-timers. Packard has actually been dropping its first-time support, as it committed 20 percent to new organizations back in 2010. We empathize with nonprofits that can't get in the door at foundations. But on the other hand, we're also cheerleaders for funders providing more multi-year support, which decreases opportunities for new grantseekers. 

What This All Means for Packard

More grantees responded in 2014 than ever before, but the foundation also gave out more grants in 2014. So the overall response rate dropped by five, to 12 percent. Overall grantee satisfaction with the Packard Foundation hit a peak in 2008. Packard President and CEO, Carol Larson, was pleased with the 2014 results overall, but recognized room for improvement.

Where Packard really stands to improve is in its impact on grantees’ communities. Packard only received a 38 percent ranking in this category for 2014, which was the lowest of all categories in the survey.

One grantee commented, "Packard has provided long-term support to the region. However, it's only been relatively recently that the money is making its way to community-based and led organizations, as supposed to intermediary organizations that do very little work on the community level. Specifically, in [our] region, only recently has funding come directly to [local] groups as opposed to environmental groups who 'partner' (and I'm using that term very loosely) with [the locals] themselves."

Packard might also be thinking about how its people are kept informed about developments in key fields. 

As one grantee wrote, “Packard has no idea what is really occurring in [our] field. They depend on organizations [that] are only interested in getting funding. If [Packard] had an objective review of the literature, they would have learned that there is no research to support [certain] programs. My recommendation is to hire their own research analyst who has experience in the field and can objectively review the literature."

While Packard grantees report being treated fairly and clearly understanding the funding process, they definitely want things from Packard besides renewal money. They want more transparency with upper management, more direct communication, more frequent feedback, and more warning about shifting funding priorities. Review the results for yourself by downloading the PDF of Packard’s Grantee Perception Report.

Related: IP’s Profile of the Packard Foundation