Why are foundations falling short on giving grantees advice?
By Sidni Shorter In Foundations Posted September 17, 2015 0 Comments

You may have noticed the recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how “Foundations Fall Short in Giving Grantees Advice on Evaluations.” While the subject of this post was not surprising, its appearance in the news was interesting to me. For those of us who keep up on foundations and their relationships with grantees, we know not a lot is written about foundation shortcomings, and even less appears in books—maybe one or two titles at most in the last decade. The reason I share this point is that it gets to the heart of the matter in this article.


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Article contributor Alex Daniels reports: “Two-thirds of nonprofits don’t get guidance from grant makers about how to use data to measure their performance, even though most foundation support comes with a demand that grantees evaluate their work, according to a report released by The Center for Effective Philanthropy.” Almost all the 138 nonprofits surveyed said foundations collected information to gauge nonprofit performance, yet 64 percent said they did not receive any support from foundations on how to organize and interpret what they gather.

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The center’s vice president and study author, Ellie Buteau, found these statistics surprising since an earlier study in 2013 of foundation CEOs reported that 75 percent claimed they were already providing this assistance to nonprofits.

What’s at the root of this disconnect?

Mystery: Foundations are often characterized (and perhaps miscast) as mysterious mostly because communication has traditionally been weighted on the part of the grantee to the foundation—not the other way around. This is a breeding ground for miscommunication. As a result, not much is publicized or written about foundations—good or bad—because their walls are not often penetrated.


Complexity: The incredible variety of how foundations operate internally doesn’t help the disconnect either. Of the 86,000+ foundations in the U.S., more than 90 percent of them are independent foundations—generally started by individuals and families–all as different from one another as a handful of snowflakes. One of my colleagues likes to say, “If you’ve worked with one foundation … you’ve worked with one foundation.”


History: In this case, history seems to repeat itself. In a related article, Doug Donovan reports, “Patricia Kozu, a former board member at the center and managing director of the National Employment Law Project, says she finds it discouraging that so little seems to have changed in the relationship between grant makers and grant seekers over many years.”

“What’s surprising is that we’re still talking about these issues,” Kozu says. “These aren’t just a few voices out in the woods. This is throughout the nonprofit field. It applies to all of us.”

Lack of scrutiny: Buteau adds poor communication is at the root of foundations’ lack of understanding about what nonprofits truly need. Nonprofits are partly to blame because they are understandably unlikely to challenge how foundations assist nonprofits or see the foundation role as one that strengthens nonprofits rather than simply funds programs. Nonprofits feel broaching this topic would put their relationships at risk.


Glimmers of change


Fortunately, a few glimmers of change may help others catch on to a better way of grant making. Several foundations in the center’s study results revealed high marks. Daniels describes one: “The Assisi Foundation offers a 12-week course called Before You Ask, designed to help potential grantees define their goals. Doing so, Jan Young, the foundation’s executive director told the center, enables nonprofits to be realistic about what they can accomplish and helps them plan how to measure success. A staff member also provides free educational sessions on program evaluation.”


Additionally, according to A Versatile American Institution (Brookings Press, 2013), foundations are getting better about opening the lines of communication with grantees and stakeholders in the form of online tools and websites that facilitate transparency and case stories to share best practices.


Time for a collective voice


While an incredible amount of sea change is made possible by the foundation world and countless causes are advanced by insightful foundation leaders, the fact remains that no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement. Perhaps these studies produced by an objective third party will help nonprofits gather a collective voice when it comes to the communication (and power) imbalance between grant makers and grant seekers.


By Erica McGeachy Crenshaw, CEO of Execute Now!


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