Last week, I spent three hours on two long conference calls . . . and I can’t wait to do it again. Now maybe you read that and think something like I bet that’s his entry for “Most Unlikely Opening for a Blog.” Except it happens to be true.

The idea for the calls came from Fay Twersky, director of our Effective Philanthropy Group. As part of the Foundation’s ongoing effort to work more openly and transparently, she suggested holding an open conference call with our grantees. We could share important news, she explained, and, more important, could let them ask questions they might have of me or of our program directors. The plan was to hold something akin to a corporate shareholders’ meeting—a town hall-like forum for conversation, inquiry, and dialogue.

We weren’t sure it would work. To begin with, everyone is busy and we didn’t know how many people would participate. Even if people did participate, we couldn’t be sure what kinds of questions they would ask. It’s an unfortunate fact that grantees are sometimes reluctant to ask us hard questions, presumably for fear the message will be unwelcome or perceived as biting the hand that feeds them. (To which I can say only that the concern is misplaced: we have thick skins here at the Hewlett Foundation and would much rather know what you think so we can make changes if necessary.) We also worried about whether the questions would be of broad enough interest to engage the whole audience. Our grantees work in disparate fields and face vastly different challenges in their day-to-day work. Would people who work on family planning in Africa find value in listening to questions about performing arts in the Bay Area or conserving the Boreal Forest?

Still, we thought the idea worth trying. So we sent an invitation to all our active grantees. To make participation as easy as possible we decided not to ask for RSVPs, and we blocked out time for two calls—one in the early morning, another the following day in the late afternoon—to accommodate grantees in different time zones around the world.

The first call was only so-so. There were fewer participants than we had hoped, and they asked only a handful of questions.  The questions were good—touching on things like our new blog, our processes for evaluation, and our rationale for term limiting program officers—but it was clear that participants weren’t entirely sure what they could or should ask. We ran out of questions before the allotted time had passed and ended the call a few minutes early.

We used the day between the two calls to think about what we might do better. I had framed the first call around the results of our most recent Grantee Perception Report, which may have left participants unsure about posing questions that had nothing to do with the survey. So I opened the second call without any reference to the GPR and instead emphasized that we were eager to talk about anything and everything. At the urging of several colleagues, I also focused on speaking more slowly, as even my own staff said I was hard to follow, which probably discouraged some potential participants.

The second call went much better. The time of day made a big difference, and more than twice as many callers were on the line. Participants asked wonderful, challenging, interesting questions on topics ranging from how we can better support grantees during turbulent economic times to how we think about partnerships with government or with other foundations, how we balance short-term expectations for individual grantees with the long-term outcomes we hope to achieve, and more. We took eighteen questions and went a few minutes over the allotted hour and a half and there were still questions in the queue when we ended the call.  (We answered these separately off-line.)

I found the calls challenging and interesting, nerve-wracking at moments, but exhilarating and informative. And fun. On balance, the experiment was a clear success, and we’ll definitely do it again. I hope to reach even more of our grantees as word spreads. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get and give feedback. It’s also an opportunity to foster a sense of community, to give grantees a feel for the breadth of the Foundation’s work and for each other. More than a few wrote me afterwards to say they hadn’t realized how many things we support and were surprised how much they got from hearing about wholly disparate fields. Most of all, it’s an opportunity for us to listen and learn.

Of course, no need to wait.  If you have questions or comments about the Foundation and its work, please let us know. We want to hear from you.