WRITTEN BY PATRICK J. TROSKA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
The end of a calendar year marks a natural opportunity to pause and reflect on the past year. If you’re like me, you take these opportunities seriously to both affirm what is working well and reset those things that need retooling. Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, workout more, spend more time with family, save money, go on that incredible vacation, and more. Personally, I start almost every year with the intention of reading more for pleasure. My job requires significant amounts of reading – reports, studies, correspondence, proposals, etc. – that diving into a novel too often feels like more of the same. Unfortunately, I often end the year with a stack of unread books. But I am determined in 2015 to read more – to shut out the world around me and fully indulge in one created by someone else. If you have any good suggestions, send me an email!
Here at the Foundation, we try to end every year with healthy conversation among staff and trustees about what we accomplished, what we learned, what is left unfinished, and what failed. We want to make sure we’re doing the best work possible. However, rarely, if ever, can we claim success or failure as our own since almost everything we do, we do in tandem with others. We acknowledge that our relationships with our grantees and other community-based efforts vary in intensity, purpose and structure. Within these relationships we strive to be helpful and supportive, and to figure out ways to add value. That is why we engage in regular dialogue with them to ensure our support is helpful, understanding that our resources are limited and the needs being addressed are great. We also acknowledge that direct feedback may not be possible given the power imbalance that exists between grantees and foundations in general.
So this year, we wanted some objective feedback about our performance from those most directly connected to our work. We engaged The Improve Group to gather feedback on our behalf. They conducted a number of phone interviews with stakeholders we do not fund and organizations who approached us for funding but were denied. They also conducted a web-based survey of all our grantees about their experiences with the Foundation. All responses were aggregated and reported anonymously in a follow up report. Here are some key findings:
- Grantees, declined applicants, and other stakeholders reported many favorable opinions about the Foundation’s perception in the community. For example, all or nearly all grantees reported that the Foundation understands the environment in which our grantees work, the types of work being done in the field and the issues grantees are looking to address.
- The vast majority of grantees report that our grantmaking process is respectful, thorough and straightforward. Grantees also agree that our grantmaking process has an appropriate set of requirements and expectations for the size of grants we provide.
- Less than half of grantees agreed that the Foundation events, activities, and/or convenings they have attended were worthwhile in moving discussion forward on issues.
- Declined applicants and stakeholders shared that our “invite only” approach has many positive aspects. The approach requires less work for organizations and it increases their personal communication with the Foundation. A few other stakeholders shared that the “invite-only” process can be a barrier for organizations that have insufficient grant seeking and development staff resources.
- The majority of declined LOI applicants reported that the feedback they received from the Foundation staff was very basic and “standard stock reply,” which was not particularly helpful.
- A few stakeholders shared that while they believe their organizations align with the funding priorities of the Foundation, it is challenging to receive funding if you do not have a relationship with the Foundation. The perception amongst these stakeholders is that the Foundation already has predetermined which organizations we are willing to fund.
- Some declined applicants shared that the Foundation has a tendency to focus on only a few “hot topic ideas” that are supported by many of the other large foundations in the community. This can prevent many innovative programs from receiving grant support as we seem less likely to take chances on these lesser known organizations.
- Many of the declined applicants and other stakeholders appreciate the added value that foundations can contribute besides financial support to help their organization or programs grow. In particular, declined applicants appreciate the availability of our conference room space.
We take this feedback very seriously. While there are many positives, there are some areas for improvement as well. We need to make sure that the covenings of our grantees and other stakeholders have a clear purpose and add value to their work. In the future, co-creating these gatherings with our grantees will allow for greater opportunity for impact. We need to make sure our feedback to declined applicants is as clear as possible and jargon-free, and the reasons for denial are aligned with our funding priorities and strategies. Finally, we need to be more willing to take risks on new efforts that align with our funding priorities when resources are available to do so.
Some things however, will not change. With limited resources and a grants budget that doesn’t increase much each year, we can only fund so many efforts, many of which have a long time horizon. We are committed to funding these efforts over many years or for as long as it makes sense and progress is being made. Building and supporting these relationships is a hallmark value of the Foundation. This means that many of the same organizations will be funded each year, leaving little room to add new grantees. We will continue to seek new ideas through our Letter of Inquiry (LOI) process and our engagement in community efforts, but cannot guarantee that any of these efforts will be funded. We will continue to work with other funders and community stakeholders to address deeply entrenched issues like education reform, homelessness and housing stability, workforce development, and transportation access. Working collaboratively with others is a core value of ours, and we will continue to seek partners who are committed to working on these issues. As a community amenity, our conference room will continue to be available to nonprofits and other community stakeholders when available at no charge to them.
2014 was the 70th anniversary of the Foundation’s founding by Jay and Rose Phillips. Throughout those 70 years, the trustees and staff of the Foundation have made every effort to do its work thoughtfully, humbly and responsively, keeping the needs of the community at the center of our mission. We continue to strive for excellence in all that we do, while honoring the entrepreneurial spirit of the family. Your feedback – positive, negative or neutral – is always valued. It is our plan to do the feedback and community perception report annually to gauge our progress from year to year.
Coming soon: 2014 Year in Review Part II: “Grantmaking Highlights”