Grantee Perceptions: Feedback we received from grant recipients, and how we’re responding

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For almost two decades, the Hewlett Foundation has partnered with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to survey our grantees so we can learn from their feedback and continue to improve our grantmaking practices. These surveys of grantee perceptions — answered anonymously to ensure candor and benchmarked against our past performance, as well as our peers — help our ongoing efforts to live up to our guiding principles: Are we making a meaningful impact in the world with our grantmaking? Are we forging strong partnerships based on mutual respect with the organizations we support?

Our latest survey was administered in the midst of the pandemic, after more than a year in which Hewlett Foundation staff, who are largely based in the San Francisco Bay Area, had halted grantee site visits and convenings and so missed the learning that comes from the candid back-and-forth and relationship-building of such interactions. We are grateful to all of our partners who, while continuing their own work under challenging conditions, managed to share their views in the survey. The feedback was particularly important as Hewlett staff have been responding in real time to uncertainty and compounding crises — adapting our own operations, retooling our strategies, and announcing new commitments. Against that backdrop, the survey, administered late last spring, offers results that, while encouraging in many respects, identified important places where we can continue to improve.

What’s working well

“Overall, Hewlett’s grantee ratings generally remain strong,” CEP’s analysts report, “at or above grantee ratings of other very large funders on most measures explored in CEP’s grantee survey.” Underpinning these generally strong ratings are some key grant practices, including flexible funding, true cost funding, and streamlined processes. The foundation’s practice of offering largely unrestricted grants is a vital factor correlated with a host of positive ratings. We know that flexible funding — whether general operating support or general program support — provides grantees, from arts groups to tribes to think tanks, the freedom to make the best choices and adapt to changing conditions; it was a critical factor empowering many of our grantees to nimbly adjust when the pandemic first hit.

Other grant practices were also important and well-received: Even among grantees who receive restricted support, roughly two out of three Hewlett grantees indicate that their grant covered the full direct and indirect costs of the work it was meant to fund — a healthy and improving percentage, but one we won’t be happy with until it reaches 100%. At the same time, drawing on feedback from past surveys, Hewlett has, for several years, been working to streamline our grant practices to make the process of applying for and reporting on grants less burdensome for our partners — and the latest survey indicates that grantees are seeing the benefits of those efforts. The CEP analysts report: “The combination of relatively large grants and efficient processes results in grantees receiving a larger amount of grant money per each hour spent on foundation processes than do grantees of more than 97% of funders in CEP’s dataset.”

Grantee ratings of whether the Hewlett Foundation is having a “significant positive impact” on their fields remain high, and higher than the typical very large funder in CEP’s cohort. The foundation’s investment in knowledge and advancement of public policy are viewed as “distinct strengths, providing ratings in the top 20%” of funders who were measured, according to CEP. In open-ended comments, grantees describe the foundation as a “source of strategic insight,” “frontier pushing,” and “the center of a network of grantees and other partners.” Grantees also provide solid ratings for trust, transparency, and respectful interactions with their foundation contacts. The CEP analysts call out ratings as “particularly strong” for perceptions related to responsiveness and approachability when a problem arises for grantees, and report that, the “vast majority of grantees, 97%, note that Hewlett staff spent at least equal or more time listening than talking.” This is part of the seven habits that we encourage our program staff to adopt as everyday behaviors for excellent work with grantees.

and what’s not

While grantees rated the Hewlett Foundation’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion higher than is typical for foundations — 82% of grantees are aware of Hewlett’s actions in response to the movement for racial justice — they also urged us to provide more information about our efforts, and especially to communicate more about the work we are funding as it relates to specific fields. The survey also shows that we can and should do more to develop and demonstrate understanding of the people and communities served by our grantees, which we aim to improve when resuming site visits and by building on some early investments we’ve made in more systematically listening to those most affected by the conditions we want to change. One recent example of this type of systematic listening comes from our Education Program, which commissioned survey research to understand the information needs of parents regarding K-12 education.

A key challenge exposed by the survey concerns maintaining clarity and consistency of communication — an area where Hewlett had improved greatly in recent years, but saw a decline during the pandemic, leaving us similar to the typical funder in the overall dataset and our peer cohort of large funders. While disappointing, this was not entirely surprising; after all, Hewlett does not maintain offices or staff in other countries or in U.S. states beyond California. We rely to a great degree on travel, site visits, field conferences, and our own grantee convenings — all of which had been on hold for more than a year when the survey was taken. Complicating matters further, we were simultaneously making adjustments in our grantmaking strategies in response to inequities laid bare by the pandemic, the overdue racial reckoning in the U.S. and worldwide, a worsening of the climate emergency and biodiversity, and a crisis in U.S. democracy. The survey showed that grantees want more information about these changes and, specifically, where their individual organizations fit into these evolving strategies. This feeling was particularly acute among grantees who experienced a change in their primary contact (i.e., whose program officer had left the foundation). Such grantees were significantly more likely to offer lower ratings on clarity of communication. Against the backdrop of the pandemic and its accompanying uncertainty, such turnover — which is baked into Hewlett’s practice of using term limits — and the lack of sufficient communication caused even more anxiety among grantees, something we are strongly committed to addressing.

How we’re responding

We take the results of these Grantee Perception Reports seriously. Indeed, many of the practices that were highly rated in this year’s survey are the result of the actions we took in response to feedback from past surveys. Under the topline findings for the foundation as a whole lies variance by program and strategy. Foundation staff mine these data for areas of vulnerability and ideas for concrete improvements. Each team conducts its own examination, meeting with CEP staff for additional insight, and then the senior staff who manage and support grantmaking come together to share ideas, lessons learned, and proposals for improvements. Here are some of the ways we’re responding to the latest round of feedback:

We’re committed to seeking new opportunities to reconnect with grantees and communicate about our strategies, especially in one-on-one and in-person settings. The survey shows that while grantees were aware of broad foundation-level actions — related to the pandemic and racial justice, for example — there was a lot of variance in their awareness and understanding of actions in our individual programs and strategies. Even more striking, there is enormous pent-up demand among grantees for meaningful interaction with their program partners — for individual, interpersonal communication between program staff and grantee.

With the availability of vaccines, and broad lifting of travel restrictions, our program staff are increasing their in-person meetings with grantees. This is particularly important in programs where grantmaking strategies have recently been or are being revised. Program staff in our Gender Equity & Governance Program, for example, who recently refreshed our approach to Transparency, Participation, and Accountability, are hosting in-person grantee meetings and workshops in Mexico, Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya. In past years, our Education Program has relied on in-person grantee convenings to build community and understanding across its network; they expect to resume convening, possibly in smaller groups, as a means of connecting grantees with each other and with the foundation. And we expect more of this kind of activity in all our programs.

We’re committed to continuing effective practices and ensuring smooth transitions. We want to maintain the tried-and-true practices that drive positive grantee feedback across a host of measures, from supporting the advancement of knowledge to providing flexible funding and ensuring that project funding covers true costs. We will look to build on these where we can. High ratings in the current survey are tied to the streamlined application processes and reporting requirements that grantees experienced — and we’ve identified ways we can still do more. Our Performing Arts Program, for example, developed a new, abridged grant application after the onset of the pandemic that it will continue to use, where possible, moving forward. Meanwhile, in recognition of the challenges and uncertainty experienced by grantees due to program staff transitions, a taskforce co-chaired by Hewlett’s head of human resources and one of us (Jehan), as head of our Effective Philanthropy Group, is developing and elevating foundation-wide best practices to ensure that such transitions happen more smoothly. Some specific practices already being deployed in individual programs include developing a transition plan, at the level of grant portfolio, ahead of a program staffer’s term end that includes proactive communication with all grantees and identifies a specific, alternate foundation contact, who is not term-limited, to act as a liaison before the transition occurs.

We’re committed to improving our practices and sharing more about our approach to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Just as CEP began administering the survey, the foundation was building out a team led by a newly named chief of equity and culture, Charmaine Mercer, to help us make good on our commitments to combating systemic racism. In the coming year, Charmaine and her team will be supporting the rest of the foundation as we consider how best to continue addressing matters of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion with our people and partners and in our policies and practices. Our programs are all evolving in different ways, depending on their circumstances and work. Our Gender Equity & Governance program, for example, plans to amend its proposal application and reporting process with an eye on furthering Hewlett’s ambition to provide more grants and funding to organizations with headquarters in the Global South. The Effective Philanthropy Group, which makes grants to strengthen the philanthropy sector, will be incorporating questions related to DEI and racial equity into its process as it refreshes its grantmaking strategy related to Knowledge for Better Philanthropy. Every program is making changes as we learn and adapt. Grantees in different programs express varying levels of awareness about these commitments, so we will seek to more consistently convey this information in our materials, program-wide communications, and interactions with individual grantees.

Above all, we remain committed to continuous improvement. Indeed, the very practice of asking for, sharing, and responding to feedback is itself tied to a core guiding principle — our commitment to transparency, openness, and learning. This makes us a better institution. So keep the feedback coming; we really are listening.

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