Listening to grantees: When and how should trusts and foundations respond to feedback?
We recently carried out a listening exercise for the Walcot Foundation, an endowed Lambeth-based foundation that gives c.£2 million a year in grants to organisations, schools, and individuals. The Foundation wanted to know how grantees experience its grant-making processes and were prepared to make changes in response to what they heard.
I was really struck by the speed with which the Walcot Foundation acted on the reflections and feedback of grantees and wanted to share their story. The listening exercise is a great example of open and trusting grant-making in action. We end with some reflections for other trusts and foundations who are interested in carrying out a similar process.
Sonakshi Anand, Senior Researcher at IVAR
Overall, grantees were positive about their experiences of the application process, various aspects of grant management, and their interactions with the Foundation staff. But they also identified some areas for improvement. Building on their experience and drawing from our Open and Trusting Grant-making initiative, we highlighted some areas which might benefit from further reflection and possible adaptation by the Foundation. This included:
- More flexibility in grant-making processes: for example, providing flexibility in document requests and reporting, as well as simplifying the application process and making core funding available, with longer continuous funding opportunities for grantees.
- Flexibility in communication: listening to the grantees on their preferred mode of communication and making this available to them, for example, some prefer a face-to-face interaction while others prefer online meetings.
- More clarity and transparency in grant-making processes: for example, on the Foundation’s priorities and outputs/outcomes expected from grantees.
You can read more about grantee experiences in our report, Listening to grantees.
The Walcot Foundation’s response
We reviewed the feedback and felt we needed to respond in two ways – first, to make immediate changes to our grant-making processes. Second, to take some broader questions into our strategy discussions.
Responding to the feedback on process, we are:
- Simplifying our application form and documentation: We have reduced the number of questions asked and have provided suggested response lengths. We decided against word counts, as some grantees find these frustrating and time consuming.
- Linking in a capacity-building partner for completing application forms: For organisations who might struggle with writing applications, we can link them with CLEN – our capacity building partner. For individuals, we have made support for completing application forms from Centre 70 more prominent on our website.
- Changing the documentation required from individuals: Recognising some students find it difficult and intrusive to provide financial information from their parents, we have made it clearer that we will accept proof of a Universal Credit claim from their parents rather than full bank statement as evidence of low‐income.
- Changes to reporting and communication: Reporting from college students has been amended so they provide a short, written report and are no longer required to provide receipts. We have also made our phone numbers more prominent on the chaser email making it more obvious that we are happy to respond to phone calls. For organisations, we will provide an anonymised example of a completed report to give clarity about our reporting requirements.
- Making it clear from the outset that we offer supportive grant-making processes: At Walcot Foundation, through our verbal expression of interest system, we have always ensured that we receive a low number of written applications. This means we can spend time with each applicant supporting them to help ensure that the outputs and outcomes are clear and fit with the Foundation’s priorities. However this part of the process was not on our website. We’ve now made it much clearer that we provide this support post-submission.
Responding to wider feedback on our strategy: Within this review of our grant‐making processes, we felt that some issues highlighted were more strategic in nature rather than process‐orientated. These will be considered as part of our forthcoming review of strategic priorities. Examples include providing core funding rather than project funding, longer and uninterrupted funding rather than the current six-year funding period, and funding more than one project within a school.
Learning and reflections for Trusts and Foundations
- The when? It is important to get the ‘timing’ of these listening exercises/evaluations right. Choose a time when you are ready for change with time and headspace to reflect and act on the feedback.
At the Walcot Foundation, we aim to conduct a listening exercise like this once every three years, as this fits in well with our wider strategic thinking. It means we can build in time to reflect on our grant-making processes, make changes that reflect the experience of our grantees, and ensure they feel heard.
- The how? It is key to listen and respond swiftly. We looked at feedback from the process and strategy perspective. Process changes can usually happen swiftly and are often easy to implement. It is key to action such changes right away and not to lose sight of the larger strategic feedback. It is important to build this time in from the start of the process so that you have capacity after the report is completed to make changes and not lose momentum.
There will be times when responding to grantee feedback may require creative solutions – to address both – the identified issues in the funding experience and retain a process that works operationally for the board/foundation. For example, we decided not to offer video applications to organisations as – given the grant sizes involved – it is important that written applications are received for both accountability and clarity on both sides. Instead, we decided to support new/small organisations that do not have significant fundraising capacity, or groups and grantees with additional needs (e.g. dyslexia or those for whom English is a second language), by providing capacity building support for writing applications and assistance during the grants process.
Finally, it is important for Trusts and Foundations to be transparent about the listening exercises they undertake. It helps build trust when grantees know that their feedback is leading to positive change and that we are listening and responding to their feedback and are open to adapting our grant-making processes, making these more straightforward.
We find our Triennial Listening Exercise vital in helping ensure that our grants are provided effectively, efficiently and supportively. This systematic feedback enables us to see how we can improve our systems and our service to our grantees. It is so important for Foundations to provide space for grantees to influence our processes. Most importantly we need to make sure that we have enough space and organisational capacity to make the necessary changes to our systems once the Listening Exercise has been completed.
Daniel Chapman, Grants Manager at the Walcot Foundation