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If You Don’t Tell Them, Who Will?

I just finished reading a brief, but unfortunately “sobering” (their words) report from the Center on Effective Philanthropy (CEP) that also doesn’t mince any words in describing what it calls a failure of foundations to keep their grantees well informed about how they were responding to the economic downturn over the past couple of years.

Based on surveys of over 6,000 grantees from 37 foundations across the country, CEP found that:

  • Nonprofits do not perceive funders to have communicated their responses to the economic downturn clearly, if at all.
  • Nonprofits report that funders have offered them little useful help in responding to the challenges of the downturn.

The report goes on to say:

When asked how clearly, if at all, foundations had communicated with grantees about their response to the economic climate, 30 percent of grantees indicate that no such communication had occurred. Of those grantees that did report receiving communication, 22 percent indicate that their funder’s response to the current economic climate was unclear. This is almost three times the number of grantees that rate other communications from their funders as unclear.

Grantee comments about funder communication during this difficult time highlight the importance of, as one grantee says, “candid discussions of [foundation] priorities during the economic downturn.” Another grantee comments that “with guidelines changing, I feel a need for more frequent communication and reassurance. I fear that our funding could be swept away as the economy changes.”

If anything, CEP researchers Shahryar Minhas and Ellie Buteau, PhD, understate the point when they write:

Good communication matters. The less clear grantees find their funders to be in communications about what they are doing in response to the downturn the more likely they are to indicate that their funders have not helped them respond to the current economic climate.

More than just helping them feel included in their funders’ plans, the report reminds that it’s unrealistic to expect grantmakers and grantees to work together in harmony toward common goals when one of the two is ill-informed. As the report states:

Grantees face significant demands while coping with the reality of fewer resources. Grantees who have found their funder’s response to be helpful tend to perceive their funder as having a better understanding of their organization’s goals and strategies. It is important that nonprofits have, as one grantee points out, “the help of the foundation staff in understanding the impact[of the current economy] and interpreting what that will mean for the [foundation’s] grantmaking.”

From its vantage point, CEP says says to improve grantee/funder communications foundations need to:

  • Clearly communicate with grantees about their own responses to the economic climate.
  • Be involved helping grantees consider changes they are making in response to the economic climate.
  • Work to build better relationships with grantees, particularly by taking the time to understand the goals and strategies of grantee organizations.

While calling the overall findings “bleak,” the report did find some bright spots.  These included, The Cleveland Foundation, which is cited as among the top ten funders on how grantees measured the value and usefulness of foundation communications with them about the economic impact.

The full report is available here.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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