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15 Ways to Improve Grantee Communication at Your Foundation

August 16, 2010

(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.)

Effective_communication02 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

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Posted by Kevin Bolduc  |   August 17, 2010 at 01:32 PM

I couldn't agree with this excellent report more. The challenges of effective foundation communication certainly involve all staff, not just program or communications staff. Thank you Kris for continuing to push our thinking. I know this report will be valuable for the funders CEP is working with and I'm so happy CHCF decided to make it public.

Posted by Geri Stengel  |   August 17, 2010 at 02:38 PM

While I agree with the point -- good communication between grantees and funders is critical -- I think the "15 Ways to Improve ... " is an example of what is wrong with most communication, to wit: redundancy and too much detail.

The first three guidelines said it all: Let people know what you want, make sure they understand, and give your staff the resources and incentive to fix any lapses. By all means, offer more detailed guidelines for those who want them but first make sure that you've gotten your message out.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly  |   August 17, 2010 at 04:59 PM

Kevin, thanks so much I'm glad you find the report helpful!

Posted by Travis Manzione  |   August 17, 2010 at 05:41 PM

A huge thank you to both the Putnam and CHCF teams, as well as to all of the foundations whose contributions helped to shape this report. The guidelines and communications checklist are valuable tools for steps both foundations and program staff can take to ensure effective communication with grantees. I look forward to sharing this resource with other funders CEP is working with.

Posted by Pamela Grow  |   September 17, 2010 at 01:42 PM

It's terrific that this is being addressed. Just last week I got a reminder of how badly foundations communicate when I received a copy of a declination letter on a grant I'd prepared for a client. It basically said nothing whatsoever - yet a phone call and chat with one of the foundation's program officers revealed an entirely different story. Had I not made that call (and few organizations would after getting that letter), I would never have re-applied.

I agree with Geri that the first three guidelines say it all. I'm all about keeping it simple. I think it's important, too, to look at what's right in foundation communication. One example of a *grantee friendly* foundation site is http://thehf.org/.

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