(Kris Putnam-Walkerly is founder and president of Putnam Community Investment Consulting, Inc. Her blog, Philanthropy 411, and Twitter feed are widely followed by practitioners and thought leaders in the sector. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)
The California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) commissioned a Grantee Perception Report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy in 2009. Though its ratings with respect to both consistency and clarity of communication were statistically similar to or higher than those of other foundations, comments and suggestions from grantees indicated room for improvement in communication between staff and grantees. CHCF decided to retain Putnam Community Investment Consulting to identify ways to improve its communications with grantees. Our focus, in turn, was to analyze the results of CHCF's Grantee Perception Report and to conduct further research that included assessing the grantee communications practices of CHCF program staff and other foundations, as well as examining the presentation of grantee resources on its Web site.
Why? Because clear communication with grantees matters. According to CEP:
Grantees are typically a foundation's chosen agents of change, selected for their ability to create impact. The better a foundation can communicate its goals and strategies to grantees, the more effective these partnerships will be -- and the more likely grantees will be to perform in ways that are consistent with the foundation’s goals....
Effective communication with grantees is not just the job of program staff, but of staff at all levels of the foundation -- from administrative assistants, to human resources, communications, evaluation, and executive staff. CHCF certainly subscribed to this idea when it embarked on a review of its grantee communications practices. Below are fifteen recommendations for improving grantee communications that resulted from that effort (the full report, Improving Communication Between Foundation Staff and Grantees, is available for download):
1. Consistently communicate your foundation's goals and strategies through both written and verbal communication with applicants and grantees.
2. Regularly discuss grantee communications challenges, best practices, and grantseeker feedback survey results at program team and staff meetings. You can also encourage regular meetings of program officer/program assistant teams to discuss the status of proposals, grants, and grantees, and even organize formal discussions for program assistants to share their strategies for successful grantee communications and to troubleshoot communications problems.
3. Ensure program staff has adequate time and resources for consistent grantee communications and for building strong relationships with grantees.
4. Incorporate grantee communications into staff performance appraisals.
5. Conduct regular grantee satisfaction surveys to keep grantee experiences at the forefront and to track progress in making improvements.
6. Pay special attention to communications measures identified by CEP that support grantee satisfaction and effective communication. These measures include the quality of interactions with foundation staff, clarity of communication of a foundation's goals and strategy, foundation expertise in its chosen field(s), consistency among communications resources, and selection and reporting processes that are helpful to grantees.
7. Make sure program staff consistently direct grantseekers to grant guidelines, templates, and other resources designed to help them.
8. Spend time talking with grantseekers about: (1) your selection process and timeline; and (2) the foundation's and applicant's expectations (e.g., for final deliverables, reporting, communication during the grant period) before a grant proposal is finalized.
9. If multiple foundation staff will be working with the same grantee, be sure they coordinate their communication and expectations and represent a "single voice" emanating from your foundation.
10. Develop a grantee communication checklist for program staff. We created one for CHCF that you can download and modify to meet your foundation's needs.
11. Compare your funding guidelines against the common characteristics of highly successful funding guidelines developed by CEP. Make adjustments to your guidelines as appropriate.
12. Consider conducting/organizing a communications audit and/or Web site usability focus group.
13. Solicit grantee feedback when making improvements to funding guidelines and/or your Web site.
14. Ensure that funding guidelines and Requests for Proposals (RFPs) make a clear connection between the funding opportunity and your foundation's goals and strategies.
15. Make sure it's easy for grantseekers to find information on your Web site about how to apply for a grant.
You can learn more about the California HealthCare Foundation's efforts to improve its grantee communications and assess impact here.
Has your foundation made efforts to improve its communications with grantees? If so, what worked? If you work for a nonprofit, what foundation communication strategies work best for you? And what would you like to see foundations do differently? Use the comments section to share your thoughts and ideas!
-- Kris Putnam-Walkerly