Seven habits of excellent work with grantees: Practical tips for program staff

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There are many important elements to effective philanthropy, but a critical – and sometimes overlooked – element is the human one: the relationships that program staff forge with grantee partners. At the Hewlett Foundation, one of our guiding principles is a commitment to working collaboratively and with mutual respect. But how do you put that commitment into practice with actual behaviors on a day-to-day basis?

In the Hewlett Foundation’s 2018 Grantee Perception Report, we saw more variation than we would hope for among programs in grantee responses to three questions about our work with them: (a) staff responsiveness, (b) the frequency with which we ask about and support the true costs of projects, and (c) the frequency with which we talk to grantees about measuring results from the grant.

Each program is taking its own steps to address grantee feedback that is particular to its program, but we also felt it was time to develop guidance for all program staff about what it means practically, in our daily work, to treat grantees as partners. Our desire to deliver a strong and consistent experience for grantees in their interactions with the foundation has led us to articulate Seven Habits of Excellent Work with Grantees.

Our goal in articulating these habits is to specify a few key behaviors and actions, while providing a shared framework on what it means to do “excellent” work with grantees more generally. The habits apply to all our programs and initiatives. Importantly, they are not a set of firm rules to be followed — as another of our guiding principles is giving staff flexibility and autonomy in their work. We know that our staff members already do many good things in their work with grantees, which both include and go beyond these seven habits, which is great. We also appreciate that staff will adapt how they interact with grantee organizations according to the different cultures and contexts in which they and grantees are working.

We chose to focus on habits because they are the building blocks of how we live and work on a daily basis. As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Habits are mental shortcuts learned from experience. Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at a time. … Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.”

We know it takes time and energy to form habits, but once formed, they should actually save time and energy. The Seven Habits join a suite of similar guides the foundation has provided for program staff, including how to approach strategy, evaluation, and tracking progress. While these guides are written for Hewlett Foundation staff, we share them publicly using a Creative Commons license because we hope they may contribute usefully to others’ work and because we welcome feedback on our work.

Process to Develop the Seven Habits

We didn’t pull these habits out of thin air. In addition to the feedback from the 2018 Grantee Perception Report, we also looked to CEP’s research on what contributes most to effective funder-grantee relationships. There are five main factors (see diagram), so we ensured the habits covered each of those areas.

Further, we commissioned a scan to learn from similar guidance other funder or infrastructure organizations may have already created. We didn’t find quite what we were aiming for. We were looking for something more behavioral and aimed at excellence. Next, we conducted interviews with all 55 of our program staff to hear their reflections on their work with grantees, where they feel they do excellent work, where they hope to improve, and where they would like more support.

Once we articulated a draft of the habits, we did some testing. We invited staff volunteers to try building one habit over a few months — and 32 of 55 program staff signed up! The testing phase was helpful in crystalizing how we shaped and described the habits, provided insights on how to put the habits into practice, and it helped build momentum internally to embrace and adopt the habits. In parallel to staff testing, we also asked a few program staff alumni, other funders, philanthropic infrastructure groups, and grantees for their feedback on the draft habits guidance. You will see several grantee quotes throughout the guidance. Everyone who contributed feedback is listed in the acknowledgements.

Measuring our Progress

We know sometimes things will get busy and habits might slip. That is OK and no one is immune to slips from time to time. We encourage staff to build systems so they can get back to the habits as their routine behavior. In addition, we will build reflection on the seven habits into our annual performance review process — not to enforce compliance but rather to create the opportunity for staff to reflect on their work with grantees, identify strengths and areas for improvement, and determine whether they need or want additional support. Of course, periodic Grantee Perception Reports will continue to provide us with valuable feedback on our progress as well.

The Hewlett Foundation must work in respectful partnership with grantees if we want to achieve our goals. We hope the articulation of these habits provides staff across all programs with the support and flexibility to do consistently excellent work with grantees.

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