Exploring the Pillars: Solicit & Act on Feedback

Two year ago, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation launched a new grantmaking program, with an exclusive focus on leadership development programs and networks. As we developed this new grantmaking area, we also implemented a new way to evaluate our grantmaking. We asked each of our grantee partners to complete a self-assessment tool to help us understand the progress they were making with our support.

The evaluation tool required that grantee staff and board members complete a survey. We promised them that their individual responses would be anonymous, and that we would only see the aggregate data. This way, we hoped that they could be completely honest, and use the tool to guide their organizational development. At the same time, we would use the aggregate scores to evaluate how we were doing as funders. We were quite pleased with ourselves for creating this non-punitive system that we thought would help both them and us.

And then a strange thing happened. Very few of our grantees completed their surveys. We reminded them gently, then less gently. We thought about tying the release of their grant funds to the completion of the survey. And then we did something really nuts: we decided to ask them what they thought of the tool.

So we invited an outside consultant to our grantee retreat to lead a conversation with our grantee partners about this evaluation tool. We were not in the room, and they were encouraged to be completely honest. And they were. Every one of them gave it a thumbs-down. Not only were the surveys laborious, not only did they not find the self-assessment useful—but most importantly, they questioned whether the size of our grants could even have an impact on the kind of organizational development we were assessing.

We were discouraged, a little taken aback, and a tiny bit insulted. And at the same time, we knew they were right. We were asking them to evaluate our work based on a false premise. Within a week of that conversation we suspended the evaluation tool and asked for volunteers to work with our evaluator to examine our theory of change and to come up with a new assessment plan. We recently launched that new system and are waiting for the results.

This experience drove home for us how important it is to both solicit and act on feedback. In this case, the response to our question ended up saving time and effort for the grantees. Not only that, but we feel confident that we are now better positioned to get real feedback that will actually help us assess how our support is contributing to their work.

Perhaps the most radical thing we did, though, was to tell our grantee partners what we ended up doing with their feedback. Many nonprofit leaders are focus-grouped and surveyed and interviewed into oblivion, and never hear what comes of their ideas. In this case, we have emailed our grantee partners quarterly to keep them up to date on how we are following their lead and improving our system.

I may not start asking people what they think of my shoes or my singing voice, but this experience has convinced me that we should keep asking our grantee partners for feedback, and keep on telling them what we do with it.

Lisa Cowan is Vice President at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This post originally appeared on the Robert Sterling Foundation blog and has been reposted with permission.