by Cindy Matthews and Kelly Degering, Community First Foundation

Foundations and nonprofits need one another in order to succeed in their charitable missions. Sometimes things get in the way –  like inadvertently cumbersome applications (#FixTheForm), broken contact links, misunderstanding of priorities. A primary goal of GrantAdvisor is to close the feedback loop between grantseekers and grantmakers, lifting up promising practices and reform opportunities in order to strengthen the sector. In the first four years of the project, thousands of people have used GrantAdvisor to publish more than 2,600 reviews about 795 foundations in 49 states. And dozens of foundations have proactively used this free tool in their strategic planning, evaluation, and learning. The GrantAdvisor team is thrilled to host Cindy Matthews and Kelly Degering as guest bloggers. Cindy and Kelly work for Community First Foundation (CFF), a creative organization in Colorado that’s making good use of GrantAdvisor. CFF’s profile has received 41 reviews and holds an impressive overall community feedback score of 100%. They have spent the past year listening to what their community needs through GrantAdvisor’s free platform, and reforming their grants process accordingly. Here’s their story of how they did it:

It’s exciting when a coworker returns from a conference eager to share a new tool. That’s what happened for Community First Foundation following Philanthropy Colorado’s 2019 Powering Partnerships luncheon. Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, was a keynote speaker and shared how she uses GrantAdvisor to listen to the communities they work with. Our interest was piqued – how could we use this anonymous reviewer platform to help us listen and improve?

In 2020, Community First Foundation was heavily engaged in strategic planning to create a new roadmap for our organization and a dedication to relentless listening emerged. GrantAdvisor aligned perfectly with that effort.

Vulnerability and courage go hand in hand.

When you ask your customers and stakeholders to give you feedback anonymously, you open yourself to criticism. More importantly, you commit to listening and changing when change is needed. This is scary and uncomfortable, and risky. To combat that fear of risk and uncertainty, embrace the idea that excellence can only be achieved when you create the space to learn what is and isn’t working. Don’t be afraid of anonymous feedback as a potential risk for exposing problems. Embrace it as an opportunity for the kind of radical listening that leads to authentic transformation of organizations and their processes. Then, prepare a plan to guide the process and leverage it for authentic engagement.   

GrantAdvisors’ policy is to not remove negative reviews; it does, however, provide opportunity for response. As we prepared for this adventure, it was important we commit to reviewing the platform weekly, at a minimum, and more frequently immediately before, during and after open grant application periods when interest is high. 

A plan to combat jitters.

Before we made the leap to encouraging our users to evaluate us using GrantAdvisor, we paused for self-reflection and preparation. We spent considerable time reviewing the platform and feedback provided to other organizations. We explored the comments provided under “We’re doing great!” and “We have work to do!”.  We reviewed the top descriptors our peer organizations received and identified the ones we wanted to see attached to our name. “What are the descriptors we want to see in our reviews and how to they align with our values?” 

We contemplated what the descriptors meant to us and what we hoped they meant to our grantees. 

We wanted each reviewer to feel immediately listened to and drafted how we might respond to both positive and negative feedback. What would we say in response to those uncomfortable criticisms? How would we work to be better? 

We spent time learning about the tool and platform and reading the FAQ which includes general questions, reviewer questions and grant maker questions. We wanted to feel the user experience to understand how reviews are provided and how the information is shared so we could listen and grow as a funder. We wanted to improve our organization and achieve our mission in more impactful ways. This isn’t easy or comfortable work; self-reflection rarely is. But rolling up our sleeves and having a plan alleviated some of the pressure and gave us a path to move forward. It also allowed us to establish benchmarks, goals and ambitions for our use of GrantsAdvisor in our listening efforts. 

The big invite.

After exploring the GrantAdvisor tips for branding and marketing strategies, we built a campaign plan to invite people to tell us what they think. We wanted their reviews – including the ones from those who didn’t receive funding. The timing was perfect. Because of COVID, Community First Foundation launched a rapid-response fund to support our community. We worked quickly to fund local nonprofits and we were eager to hear from them to determine if we were meeting their needs. If not, how could we do better?  Time was of the essence and GrantAdvisor was the right tool at the right time. 

We sent an email to each of our Jeffco Hope Fund grant applicants, regardless of whether or not they received funding, and invited them to tell us how we did. 

The reviews are in!

The reviews began pouring in and we were grateful we had a plan in place to guide our response. We referenced our draft messaging to expedite our responses which generally included three key points.  1) Thank the reviewer for their feedback. 2) Add relevant messaging and customize each response to the individual reviewer. 3) Reference the relevant organizational value in our response.

Business as usual.

GrantAdvisor is now a routine part of our grant process. We’ve added a link and invitation to review us on GrantAdvisor at the end of our grant applications. We are beginning to promote the review tool on our social platforms.  We regularly monitor reviews and share with our staff and board the sentiment dashboard and what we’re hearing so we can identify ways to do better. 

Aspiring to make good possible.

Community First Foundation wants to make good possible. To do that requires that our stakeholders feel heard and want to collaborate with us. That’s why we established benchmarks before launching our campaign so that we could set our sights on what we aim to be! We want to be in the Top 10 for Great Foundations in Colorado. We want to score 85% or better in overall relationships, accessibility and in accomplishing our current philanthropic goals. We want to see a rating of 80% or better in how reviewers feel about us and our application process. We want to see the majority of respondents indicate they spend between 5 – 10 hours on applications. Less was even better.

Grab the bull by the horns.

What are you waiting for? Open your organization to radical listening. Jump in. Take the dive. Grab the bull by the horns. Open that can. Whatever your catchphrase, you’ll be glad you did. Don’t let fear keep you from getting feedback. Create a plan, socialize the idea with your leadership team, and embrace it as a learning opportunity. By championing listening you’ll begin to hear the sounds of success.