When I was young and new arts grantmaker, I once unintentionally shared a link to an application that wouldn’t allow applicants to submit their application. We were using a new database and as the deadline approached, only a few applications were showing up where we thought they would. Finally, we got an exasperated email from someone who’d been going in circles for a few hours. The email led us to a queue full of applications awaiting our approval.

Part of me is relieved GrantAdvisor didn’t exist then; I cannot imagine the reviews we would’ve gotten from applicants all over the country. But, on the other hand, it would’ve been totally fair for folks to comment on how, while we were trying to fund arts experiences in rural areas and schools where they weren’t funded, we were creating unnecessary barriers to folks who didn’t have the time to deal with my error.

With my supervisor, I apologized to everyone who applied and who was intending to apply. We extended the deadline until the end of the week and adjusted our work plans. I am the first person to admit mistakes happen. I can also recognize that we don’t always realize they are happening which means we will unintentionally hurt people we don’t mean to. This reality is why, as I am trying to frame up this post—“Anatomy of an Effective GrantAdvisor Response”–I am struggling to find the same metrics as I did when I wrote about the “Anatomy of an Effective GrantAdvisor Review.”

I am not sure if I can write as detailed a piece about responses, because I know two truths about them: what each person needs to hear is different, and the largest responses will take time to come, which is frustrating for those already doing work in our communities. That being said, I think a large part of my task is seeking out something that rarely exists: any response at all, willingness to apologize, sharing information about internal processes, and an openness to hearing how change can happen and continuing the conversation without negative retribution.

Any response is better than silence

In the early days of GrantAdvisor, we heard many foundations were getting together anytime they got a review to write a response. This was exciting; it meant foundations were listening! But, when I went to look at how they were responding, I noticed many of them were replying, “Thank you!” and nothing else.

Many responses like these were on reviews that were positive or thanked the foundation for their work. If there was a negative review, the response might direct the reviewer to the foundation’s online grantmaking guidelines, or have no response at all. The latter was the most concerning.  Any response is better than silence when it comes to feedback. I started to see the “Thank you!” as the equivalent of a head nod in an actual conversation. Someone is listening, but maybe they’re not quite sure how to respond yet, or they aren’t in the position to off anything more.

Willingness to apologize

The Bush Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota is one of the most reviewed grantmakers, and they offer a variety of responses to let reviewers know they are paying attention to their feedback. In this response, they apologize and take responsibility for making someone feel underappreciated in their grantmaking process:

We’re sorry you feel this way. Our staff are always available over email, on the phone or in person to answer questions. In fact, we strongly encourage everyone to reach out to us before applying for a grant so we can save you time.

We’re sorry you feel underappreciated. We try to be clear and open with grant-seekers about what is a fit within our funding. Sometimes we aren’t clear enough that the project isn’t a fit. We don’t want people to waste time applying if they aren’t a fit.

Thank you for leaving feedback. We’ll keep working on getting better and being more clear. Feel free to contact staff at any time to get feedback on why your project wasn’t a fit.”

As readers of reviews, we can see that the Bush Foundation is open to talking with grantseekers before they apply to make sure that potential partners are the right fit. This can save applicants time as they conduct prospect research.

Sharing information about internal processes

Sharing information about internal processes allows reviewers and readers of reviews to understand how a grantmaking entity is conducting their work. This kind of sharing is a glimpse of the kind of transparency we are hungry for at GrantAdvisor.  Take this response from the Best Buy Foundation in Richfield, Minnesota:

Thank you for your feedback. We appreciate your perspective. The Best Buy Foundation has a limited budget and has carefully crafted its guidelines in collaboration with the community and workforce development trends. The Best Buy Foundation has worked with an independent consultant to help gather community and teen perspectives to better inform our philanthropy, which helps underserved teens become better prepared for tech-reliant careers.

To that end, we often engage in conversations with potential partners to ensure the partnership is a good fit both ways. It is not our intention to request or require the nonprofit partner to do work outside of their mission. We’ve found that open and honest conversations with potential partners helps to create long-lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships that deliver on a shared vision and outcomes. For our larger grant partners, we keep the communication lines open to ensure it’s a fit for both parties. When we invest, its Foundation funds, employee resources, and mutual thought partnership. Again, we sincerely appreciate the input and value the feedback.”

From this response, we learn that The Best Buy Foundation gathers community feedback from partners, uses asset-based language when it comes to talking about their community, and is willing to have conversations with potential partners.  

Openness to hearing how change can happen and continuing the conversation without negative retribution.

The Peery Foundation in Palo Alto, California is known for their transparency and openness to have conversations. In a recent response to a review, their Executive Director, Jessamyn Shams-Lau, who is a co-author of Unicorns Unite, writes a response that encapsulates all the markers of a good response above, and calls for a continuation of the conversation that lets the reviewer know how they can contact the right person at the Foundation. Read the Perry Foundation’s response:

Dear Reviewer, Our team at the Peery Foundation actively discusses and reflects on these reviews to learn how to do our work better. Thank you for being so honest in your review and sharing your experience. Critique can often provide the most useful information for us in trying to improve.

I’m sorry that you had a negative experience with the Peery Foundation. We know philanthropy is a deeply flawed practice and, in addition to acknowledging our part in that, step by step we’re aiming to address those flaws. Most days we think we are heading in the right direction. Some days we get it wrong. We openly acknowledge that every day we continue to learn from nonprofits, and other peers in the social sector, how to serve nonprofits and community better.

Your review is a great opportunity to do that. I would be grateful to learn what aspects of our process and/or communication caused you to have a negative experience. If you are willing I invite you to contact me directly. You can call our office at 650.644.4660 and leave a message with your phone number or email and I will get to back to you as soon as I can. If not (I completely understand why you might choose to remain anonymous), I don’t believe it’s possible to edit your existing review so would you submit a new anonymous review sharing more details and suggestions for improvement? If you can provide me with at least the aspects of our approach that didn’t work well then I will ensure we fully discuss your feedback, at our next team meeting, and do everything we can to improve.

Again, thank you for your candor,

Jessamyn Shams-Lau
Executive Director, Peery Foundation

So what’s next?

As I said earlier in this post, change takes time. Learning to respond to feedback is something that’s learned. I also know we all have pain points in our jobs and the person who is registered as a key or alternative contact on our site, may not feel like they have the autonomy to speak for the foundation or make the changes that they feel need to be made.

No matter where you are in your foundation, I think there is something to be done. Maybe it’s bringing feedback to board meetings. Maybe it’s starting to write “Thank you!” in response to the reviews that come up. There are many ways to being to engage with transparency in philanthropy. Like I said, any response is better than no response at all.

About the author: Andrea Sanow is the development coordinator at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and serves as the GrantAdvisor content coordinator for www.grantadvisor.org. In this role, she supports and advances the philanthropic support of MCN’s programs and operations as well as increases the visibility and credibility of GrantAdvisor.

The featured image of this post if a photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.