Beyond the usual suspects: Community feedback for funders

How can foundations get honest feedback from those directly affected by their work?

Written by: Seema Shah

Date: August 13, 2019

We all know the joke about funders: Become a funder and suddenly you’re the funniest, smartest and best-looking person in the room.

Like any joke, there’s an underlying truth to it, one that highlights the inherent power dynamic that exists between funders and nonprofits – a power dynamic that makes it tough to get honest feedback.

To address this dynamic, tools such as the Grantee Perception Survey and GrantAdvisor let nonprofits offer their experiences with funders anonymously, and innovative foundation-funded initiatives like Listen4Good are supporting nonprofits in their efforts to get direct and systematic feedback from their clients.

At the same time, nonprofit leaders too often serve as the proxies for the communities their organizations serve.

Yet the perspectives of individuals and communities who are directly affected (young people, people living in low-income communities or people with disabilities, just to name a few) by the issues foundations are tackling can be quite different than those of nonprofit leaders.

As one funder recently shared with me, in talking to grantee partners, she and her colleagues received “messages that reaffirmed what we were doing — [creating] a closed cycle of information, rather than a critical dialogue about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

For this particular foundation, getting closer to the people whose lives were directly affected yielded a newer and richer set of insights that helped shape their strategy.

The importance of getting these candid perspectives and the role such perspectives play in designing relevant and impactful grantmaking strategies is exactly why the “Sharing Power” portion of NCRP’s Power Moves toolkit encourages funders to go beyond the usual suspects and forge relationships with community advisors, beyond their grant partners.

Interestingly, survey data from the Center for Effective Philanthropy shows nearly 70% of foundation CEOs believe that learning from the experiences of those they are trying to help would increase the impact of their work.

However, field-wide data from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations shows that a much smaller percentage of foundations have systematic ways of getting feedback from directly impacted groups.  

So how can foundations engage more directly from those with lived experience and benefit from their expertise? Core to getting honest feedback in any relationship is an underlying level of trust.

Here are some examples of how foundations have created the conditions for building trusting relationships and eliciting honest feedback, as they’ve engaged directly impacted groups in their work:

  • For one-off efforts, like listening sessions, consider bringing in a trusted community leader as a facilitator. In a series of listening sessions designed to inform its strategy, the NoVo Foundation created local planning committees and worked with community leaders who have relationships and credibility with community members to recruit participants and to facilitate sessions. These community leaders also played a role in making sense of the themes that emerged from these listening sessions. Although foundation staff remained in the room during these listening sessions, they were able to lean on their local partners to create a safe space for sharing. Moreover, engaging their local partners in the analysis that followed ensured that the feedback they received was truly “heard.”
  • Some foundations have also had success using a human-centered design approach. The California Endowment, for example, used this approach in Del Norte as they were shaping their work around improving literacy. The approach allowed parents, young people and other community members to unearth both pain points and potential solutions. Not only was the process interactive and engaging, but it also fostered empathy and understanding, building trust among stakeholders in the process.  
  • Some foundations have formed advisory councils of directly impacted groups to inform their work. Because this type of engagement is deeper and ongoing, it provides an opportunity to build a different kind of relationship. For example, Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council not only contributes to the foundation’s thinking on justice reform, but the foundation also invests deliberately and thoughtfully in the leadership development of the young people involved, setting the tone for a relationship based on respect and reciprocity.
  • Ultimately, accountability and trust are most evident when funders and their constituents can connect on an even playing field with shared decision-making power. This year, the Consumer Health Foundation put out a call for people with lived experience with housing instability, low-wage work as an adult, or unemployment or underemployment to apply for Consumer Health Foundation board membership. The foundation views the leadership of those from impacted communities not just as the right thing to do, but as “mission critical.”

These are just a few ways to create transformational, rather than transactional relationships, with people who are directly impacted by the issues foundations are tackling, ultimately increasing a foundation’s ability to invest in solutions that will make a meaningful difference in the communities they’re serving.

Seema Shah, Ph.D., is the founder and principal of COMM|VEDA Consulting, which provides research, writing and project management services to the social sector. Follow @sshahphd on Twitter.

Power Moves