"The Human Factor." How This Foundation is Responding to Grantee Feedback

 flower travelin' man/shuterstock

 flower travelin' man/shuterstock

In the fall of 2017, the Barr Foundation commissioned the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct a Grantee Perception Report, or GPR. More than 200 respondents participated in the GPR, which is a confidential survey of grantees and declined applicants about working with a funder. This is an important tool for foundations to gauge how they're managing relationships that come with built-in tensions. 

As CEP's president Phil Buchanan told Inside Philanthropy: “Getting candid, comparative feedback from nonprofits they support is crucial for funders, given the power dynamics between those seeking resources and those who possess them.”

Barr received mixed results in the survey, finding that its partners were more satisfied in some areas than others. It was also sometimes rated as “typical.”

Barr's last GPR was in 2012, and ratings for the overall quality of Barr-grantee relationships improved from being in the lowest quartile in 2012 to a more "typical" level in 2017in the 37th percentile.

Last month, Barr President James Canales and Vice President Roger Nozaki co-wrote a blog post about the results of the GPR outlining how the foundation is responding to the feedback.

“We aspire to be so much more than typical,” they wrote, adding that they saw wide variation in responses among their grantmaking programs. A few areas of potential improvement were obvious to the foundation. The Barr team dedicated several meetings and a spring staff retreat to analyzing the GPR results and developing plans to address them, particularly those areas where respondents expressed concern. Canales and Nozaki share three lessons and goals in their blog.

First, Barr was told its application and reporting process were too complicated and confusing. In response, each staff member will test out the process themselves. They will aim to make the system more streamlined and less cumbersome. Barr will launch a new learning and evaluation section on its website in response to low ratings on the usefulness of its reporting and evaluation practices.

Second, Barr was told its staff needs to be more accessible, especially after a grant has been awarded. So they say they will more clearly communicate their engagement plans and what they want to hear from grantees, and respond to all messages in a timely manner.

Third, respondents found the Barr application processes and grant structure somewhat “inflexible.” Barr plans to make proposal and reporting processes more customized. Canales and Nozaki state, “A request to renew a general operating support grant should be much more streamlined than a first-time request for project support, for example.” They also recognize that organizations prefer less-restrictive support and say they will give multi-year general operating support when possible. Barr will also accept proposals and reports developed for other funders in some cases, and has already done so.

In closing, Canales and Nozaki reference a 1973 annual report essay by  the late president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Alan Pifer, who felt that “the human factor” was the most important aspect of foundation work.

“Many factors contribute to a foundation’s effectiveness and impact. Yet, few are as important as the human factor … It is the standard to which we intend to hold ourselves. And we invite you to do the same,” Canales and Nozaki write. The full 89-page 2017 GPR report is available on the Barr site.

While CEP's staff doesn't discuss the GPR results for specific foundations, or how well funders are following up on survey findings, Phil Buchanan said, “Funders should close the loop with grantees after receiving results of their Grantee Perception Report by communicating what they’ve learned and what steps they plan to take.”

Clearly, Barr has taken this advice seriously. 

As we often report, this foundation focuses its grantmaking in three areas: arts and creativity, climate, and education. It calls this mission “investing in human, natural and creative potential.” Barr is the largest private foundation in Massachusetts and has granted more than $838 million since it was founded in 1997.

Also in the second quarter of 2018, Barr announced the launch of the $30 million, six-year Arts Amplified initiative, as previously reported by Inside Philanthropy. This 15-partner capacity-building initiative centers on "powerful art and bold leadership by Massachusetts arts organizations to create more vibrant communities." Like many current arts-related philanthropic projects, this undertaking includes a focus on connecting art and social change.