Listening and Understanding

At December’s Continuing Education presentation, “How to listen to grantees (and still find out what we need to know),” Bobby Krause of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors made the point that we must actively and empathically listen to our grantees. His presentation to his fellow Grant Program Committee members contained good communication and relationship building advice, namely, show up, shut up, engage and interpret. This advice fits well with recent research by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives.

Here is the summary of CEP’s findings:

  1. Foundations are not as in touch with nonprofits’ needs as they think
  2. Nonprofits most desire help in fundraising, staffing, and communications
  3. Both nonprofits and foundations have a role to play in closing the gap between the support nonprofits need and the support foundations provide
  4. Nonprofit CEOs see general operating support grants as having the greatest impact on strengthening their organizations

The first finding is hardly surprising, and neither are the numbers behind it: 95% of foundation leaders believe that their foundation cares about the health of their grantees and 87% of them believe that they are aware of grantee’s needs. But only a minority of grantees (43%) believe that foundations care about strengthening their organizations and most of them (58%) say that foundations don’t ask them what they need.

It seems trite to say that funders care about the health of their grantees. It is the grantees, after all, who execute the funder’s mission. Money may be an essential ingredient, but it is the grantees who do the work. So why would they think that foundations do not care about them?

Much of the answer lies in the parties’ unequal bargaining position; the grantee asks, and the grantor decides. According to CEP’s research most grantees (64%) primarily consider what they think a foundation will fund, rather than what they really need. JSF has adopted practices to mitigate the power imbalance (listening is one of them) but nonprofits’ telling funders what they want to hear is pervasive, if understandable.

Going back to Bobby’s presentation, we must do more than listen to grantees. We must “interpret” and deeply understand them. What do they care about? Do their values and mission align with ours? What are they doing? What do they want to do? Will their work fit well with our mission and strategy? Does their leadership inspire confidence? The understanding that comes from answering these questions is the first order of business and is by far the most difficult part of the grant making process.

Our grant making process is designed to quickly decline requests that obviously do not fall within our mission and strategy and concentrate on those few that might. We frequently spend a year or more researching and meeting with a potential grantee (and its end users) before deciding whether to entertain a grant application. Implicit in our decision to accept a grant application is confidence in the grantee and a belief that its work aligns with our mission and strategy.

It follows that the grant transaction should be a simple matter of asking how we can best support a grantee or potential grantee. If we have done our work well then the grantee will trust us and tell us exactly what it needs.

Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 18 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.

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