A view of Boston's historic Pilot House from the harbor

Matt Conti

And We Sing Well, Too

Last spring, Barr got some challenging feedback from grantees. Interim Executive Director Melinda Marble shares what we have been doing in response.

There is a Yiddish proverb: the man with money is smart, good looking, and he sings well, too. Working for a foundation makes one a “man with money.” It’s been years since anyone looked at me and said “that’s a dumb question.” My advice and recommendations are invariably received with politeness—even enthusiasm—that far exceeds their value.

Because of this dynamic, foundations have few opportunities to receive candid feedback. This is why we periodically engage The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to administer its Grantee Perception Report to our grantees. This report provides an invaluable opportunity to gather feedback on their experience of Barr. And with over 40,000 responses and 290 funders in CEP’s dataset, it also allows us to benchmark ourselves against our peers.

Barr worked with CEP first in 2003, again in 2007, and most recently in 2012, when more than 100 grantees responded. It was gratifying to learn that, compared to 2007, our grantees see Barr as having a more positive impact on their fields. However, grantees also rated the quality of their relationships with Barr staff lower than they did in the past.

This was bad news. For me, success in any organization depends both on high performance and strong partners. We know our work at Barr depends on strong relationships of mutual trust and respect with grantees. They are the ones who carry out the work, after all.

So we recommitted ourselves to strengthening those relationships and we set about to better understand the findings in a 100-day improvement project. Over the summer we hosted three focus groups, attended by more than eighty grantees. These were designed and facilitated with great skill by consultant Cynthia Gibson, who created an atmosphere in which grantees could be very candid. These sessions deepened our understanding of the survey results.

While we heard some praise, many grantees felt that their interactions with Barr had grown more transactional over the years and that our application process was cumbersome. In particular, we heard a strong desire for more personal, substantive relationships with program officers. We also heard many great ideas and suggestions for improvement.

Perhaps the most poignant and on-point feedback was the strong desire that we listen more. The focus groups were our attempt to start that, and the grantees who attended were incredibly generous with their insights, and they expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share them. Many pointed out that they had never been asked before about the quality of their relationship with a donor.

In response, Barr staff worked to define the kind of experience we want grant seekers to have. During the 100 days, each program officer had a conversation with at least one grantee—not about their project or proposal, but their relationship with Barr and how it could be strengthened. These were enlightening, and a reminder of the power of a simple conversation.

We completely revised our grantmaking process, removing excess questions and structuring it to be easier for grant seekers to make their case. We created new ways for grant-seekers to give us feedback and to introduce us to new grant ideas.

We have given program assistants more responsibility to clearly convey next steps and guide grant-seekers through every phase of the process. We are also looking at our internal processes, finding ways to simplify wherever we can to free up program staff to spend more time in the field, listening, learning, and supporting our grantees.

Finally, we are also doing professional development work together that reminds us to listen better and question our assumptions—two safeguards against the unintentional arrogance that sometimes develops when funders get too far from the field. We’re also exploring time management and the overload that can happen with too many meetings and internal processes.

How are we doing? We will rely on our grantees to help us answer that question. We intend to take more frequent soundings, including sending each grant applicant a brief survey to comment on the review process.

When I step down as interim director, I hope to leave Barr a little better balanced in its quest for big impact and strong relationships. I hope grantees feel more at liberty to let me know when I am singing off key. And I hope you will let us know what you think of our efforts.

Updated February 3, 2015

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Melinda Marble

Guest Author Former Deputy Director