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Grantee feedback drives improvements

The McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework states that, “We believe much of the power and impact of our work derives from the quality of our relationships with the people closest to the issues we address.” Our long-term success depends on strong and productive grantee partnerships. So to enable the best outcomes, we’re always looking for ways to support and strengthen these essential relationships. And where better to start than asking our grantees themselves for honest feedback? I’m happy to share the results of McKnight’s latest round of grantee input, plus some of our plans for improvement.

McKnight program staff and Region & Communities grantees at a recent gathering.
Region & Communities program staff and grantees at a recent gathering at our offices.

Since 2003, McKnight has contracted with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, a nonprofit research organization, to survey recent grantees. CEP gathers anonymous feedback about various aspects of our work, from grantmaking processes to communications, responsiveness, and field impact. They then compare the results to grantee perceptions of other foundations around the U.S., coupling McKnight-specific feedback with a useful national perspective. With each new survey, our board and staff take time to analyze what we’ve learned and identify specific steps for improvement. Importantly, the news hasn’t always been good… In 2010, grantee ratings placed McKnight in the lowest quartile nationally for how we communicate about program goals and strategies, prompting significant internal conversation and several follow-up changes in what and when and how we communicate with our grantees. Happily, our communications ratings are much better this time around. (More on that in a minute.)

Last fall, CEP surveyed 374 McKnight grantees from the previous year, a response rate of about 67% of those contacted. (Our neuroscience and international programs employ different feedback methods, and aren’t included in this survey.) We learned that McKnight was rated highly for our impacts on fields, communities, and grantees. Also, ratings of our grant review process have improved since the 2010 report. And over 60% of grantees now report receiving some sort of non-monetary assistance from McKnight in addition to a grant. Meanwhile, satisfaction levels dropped around McKnight’s reporting and evaluation practices, an area we’d attempted to improve after relatively low ratings in the last survey. Clearly a nut we still need to crack. An in-depth excerpt from the full 2013 Grantee Perception Report is online.

A chart excerpted from the 2013 Grantee Perception report. (Click to enlarge.)
A chart excerpted from McKnight’s 2013 CEP Grantee Perception report. (Click to enlarge.)

As noted above, ratings for McKnight’s communications went up considerably with this latest survey; in particular, “communications clarity” jumped from the lowest quartile of ratings nationally to nearly the highest quartile. Some thoughts on what drove this upswing:

  • We expanded upon successes. Across programs, we adopted a policy requiring all grantseekers to speak with a program representative and confirm strategic fit, before submitting an official grant inquiry. We modeled this after a longtime practice of our Environment program, which generally received our highest marks for grantees’ understanding of program objectives.
  • We added points of contact. Several programs have adopted or intensified grantee convenings year round, to review strategies and invite questions and input. We also added new feedback loops like an anonymous survey attached to our online grantmaking process, directly resulting in quick fixes to our grant applications like increased word limits, better navigation, easier document uploading, and more.
  • We cleaned up our act. After the 2010 report, we revised grant guidelines across programs for consistency and easier-to-read language. We instituted standards like a 48-hour guideline for responding to incoming emails and phone calls. And we tailored grantee input to development plans for individual program staff — addressing challenges and building on strengths, for more consistent grantee experiences.
  • We talked with each other! We leveraged grantees’ feedback in many internal conversations, as reminders about the overarching need for clarity and consistency in how we communicate. Among McKnight’s board and staff, an urgency to speak clearly and consistently about who we are and what we do emerged as a driver in the development of McKnight’s Strategic Framework, released in 2011.

As with past CEP Grantee Perception Reports, this year we’ve examined the latest data and identified several opportunities for improvement. On most fronts, our biggest goal is to work hard to preserve and maintain grantees’ positive ratings of many measures. But we will also focus on improving perceptions around McKnight’s reporting and evaluation, consistent quality of interactions, and overall satisfaction with our grantmaking process. More details are linked via our “Action Plan” below, but briefly, our committed to-do list going forward:

  1. Improve grantee experiences with our reporting and evaluation processes across programs.
  2. Foster consistent grantee perceptions in terms of quality of interactions and satisfaction with grantmaking process.
  3. Maintain favorable perceptions of McKnight’s impact on fields, communities, and grantee organizations.
  4. Maintain our clarity of communication of goals and strategies.

We’ll be checking in periodically about these issues. We encourage your ongoing input here on this blog, through our website’s feedback form, on Facebook or Twitter, or in person with any McKnight staffer you see at our offices or in the community. We’re counting on you to let us know how we’re doing. Although the money we grant is unquestionably important, McKnight’s greatest assets are our relationships with program partners — chiefly, the hundreds of hardworking grantees who give our grants the legs and hands and vision to make a lasting difference every day. McKnight’s 2013 Grantee Perception Report provides insights not only into grantee perceptions, but also into important ways our staff can better pursue our mission by strengthening crucial grantee relationships. Ultimately, we believe that what our grantees tell us, and what we do with that information, can help make us a more strategic and impactful grantmaker.

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September 2013