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Our Voice: Kate Wolford: How Nonprofit Feedback Shapes Our Work

July 19, 2011 - Article reprinted from the Minnesota Council on Foundations' summer 2011 issue of Giving Forum.

The McKnight Foundation counts on partnering effectively with our grantees. To foster collaboration, the foundation's staff and board recognize the great value of frank, direct grantee feedback.

One critical tool is the Grantee Perception Reports authored by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit research group. CEP gathers anonymous feedback about our grantmaking process, communications and overall impact, and then compares results to grantee perceptions of other foundations and to previous McKnight grantee surveys.

McKnight has surveyed grantees three times through CEP – in 2003, 2006 and 2009. The latest Grantee Perception Report was published in August 2010, and our plan of action to address the findings is well underway.

Here's a look back and a look forward at how grantee feedback is shaping our work.

Strengthen What Grantees Tell Us We're Doing Right

In each of the three surveys, grantees have consistently rated McKnight highly for our understanding of our grantees' fields; our work to advance knowledge in the fields we support; our effect on public policy; our understanding of local communities; and our understanding of our grantees' goals and strategies.

The positive feedback in these areas reflects that several of our initiatives are paying big dividends with grantees.

We have established a history of providing support for general operations to grantees when appropriate and tying the majority of our grant dollars to multiyear commitments – practices that we understand are highly valued by grantees and very useful to their ability to do consistently good work over time.

Grantee ratings for impact are also likely influenced by McKnight's historic commitment to strategic policy reform across all the programs we support, with notable ties currently to our efforts in regional development, affordable housing and the environment. We believe our commitment to fostering local talent, skills and engagement shows up in this impact rating as well.

Our arts team – as one example – was viewed by grantees as being particularly responsive in terms of ongoing technical support and overall relationship management. Our other programs are looking at this team's approaches and practices; we can all benefit by learning more about our colleagues' success.

Zero in on Communicating More Effectively

Perceptions of McKnight's broad communications, including interactions between staff and grantees, have not improved as we would have hoped since 2003.

In 2006, McKnight's grantees rated our staff's approachability, fairness and responsiveness as average. How clearly and consistently we communicate about our goals and strategies was also given only average marks.

These findings were particularly worrisome. We depend on collaboration with our grantees to achieve results, and those collaborations are most effective when everyone has a crystal clear understanding of our shared goals and strategies. So, coming out of our 2006 results, we focused on several strategies to make McKnight's communications more clear, consistent and timely.

We undertook a full communications audit to foster greater clarity and consistency across all McKnight's various communications vehicles, from our website to our guidelines and how we're covered by the media. And we reviewed and standardized protocols among our program and grants management teams, which led to some important changes in how grant reports are solicited and reviewed by staff.

We experimented with big and small improvements: We invited anonymous grantseeker feedback on our guidelines' clarity. We reviewed all language used in grantee correspondence to clarify our expectations and all parties' responsibilities. We added direct e-mail addresses to the staff listing on our website to promote accessibility and transparency in staff roles. We documented and distributed to all staff our standards for grantmaking, from prescribed turn-around times for returning calls to how we process payments, ensuring a more uniformly positive experience for all grantees and grantseekers.

And, after reviewing McKnight's operational and legal requirements for grant reports, we made another important change in how information is shared between grantees and our staff: We no longer require final reports for most general operating grants. (We do still require interim reporting for multiyear grants, as well as final reports for program or project-specific funding.)

But despite these concerted efforts to improve communications after the 2006 results, our communications ratings declined again in 2009. As we continue exploring what's behind the most recent communications scores, we believe they are related to grantee uncertainty around several in-depth program reviews and a major programmatic change in our grantmaking for children and families, underway at the time of the 2009 survey.

With that in mind, we're working even harder to communicate more regularly, transparently and speedily with our grantees during times of change, which is a recurrent state of business for any dynamic organization. We distributed year-end letters about McKnight's financial status and grantmaking outlook for the coming year, and we aimed to communicate frankly and openly about two staff-wide furloughs in 2010. We've also shared program evaluation results with our grantees, giving everyone as much information as possible about how our research connected with any resulting program changes.

Although CEP's survey results indicate McKnight's website is a high-value communications tool, the most important communications opportunities are clearly discussions between staff and grantees. So, we were pleased that in this area of communications, we did see a slight uptick in 2009 in how our grantees view their interactions with McKnight staff. We will continue to emphasize spoken communication.

Maintain Our Efforts to Seek Grantee Feedback

Although CEP's grantee perception survey has been a major instrument for McKnight, we also look for other, more regular opportunities to hear from our grantees.

For instance, when we introduced online grant applications last year, we included an anonymous feedback survey about our new processes, which led to revisions in how we gather financial information.

Site visits for every grant, regardless of size, also provide regular opportunities for our staff to solicit feedback from grantees.

By adding "commenting" on our website and engaging in social media, we're encouraging anyone to sound off in real-time or ask us questions.

We believe ongoing evaluation is healthy. We will continue to share the resulting action plans with grantees, so we all better understand our approach and shared impact.

This article originally appeared in the "Voices" section of the summer 2011 issue of the Minnesota Council on Foundations' Giving Forum.