By Michael Levine
There’s an adage about philanthropists: “when you become a philanthropist you never again eat a bad meal or tell a bad joke.”
Being a funder comes with unusual challenges to activities as simple as gathering feedback, exchanging ideas, and expressing opinions:
- It can be extremely difficult to get honest, critical feedback from potential grantees (who often fear that giving critical feedback could jeopardize their funding).
- Tentative or unconsidered program officer feedback can have more effect than intended in shaping potential grantee priorities, even if the program officer only meant to offer a consideration or idea.
- It is easy to “lead people on” and waste their time, even when we aren’t trying to do so. Expressing even casual interest in something can be interpreted by a prospective grantee as encouragement to put a great deal of planning and work into things they hope we’ll fund.
We consider these challenges to be fundamental to our work. Our grantees tend to be our most valuable source of input, and are ultimately our only route to impact. Among the worst mistakes we could make would be failing to have honest exchanges with them, unintentionally distorting their work, or wasting their time.
The challenges we’re tackling here are complex, and we are still far from having a fully developed approach. In this post, we share some of our current internal guidance for program officers about how they can try to manage these challenges. We hope this will generate feedback from others (funders and grantees) about their experiences and how we can manage these issues better.
It can be a big challenge to get honest, critical feedback on our thinking
By default, we do not get much pushback, which makes us concerned that we might be making knowable mistakes that people don’t want to tell us about. To mitigate risks from this problem, we have tried to encourage program officers to:
- Build strong, comfortable, trusting relationships with leaders in the fields in which we work, in the hopes that people who feel comfortable with and trust our staff will share critical feedback without fearing reprisal.
- Make clear that we appreciate critical feedback and are receptive to it. Even if we disagree with feedback, we want our critics to feel rewarded rather than punished for speaking up; so when possible, we try to make some tangible change based on feedback we receive.
- Use prompts like “What would you say if you were hanging out by the water cooler complaining about our work?” or “What do you think other people might not like about our work?” or “Can you give me some criticism of our work? I know there must be something.” to draw out feedback or criticism from grantees and other knowledgeable observers. (When we do draw out feedback, we try to follow the previous principle to encourage more in the future.)
- Volunteer criticisms of ourselves and our work that we think are valid and that we’re working on.
- Make a point of talking to people who tend to be more critical, including those who are too powerful to care what we think or who are just habitually blunt. We’ve also found that other funders can be a good source for critical feedback.
- Send out a periodic survey to grantees that allows (or requires) anonymity. (This is along the rough lines of the Grantee Perception Report, though we currently use our own survey.)
We risk influencing and distorting grantees’ work, even when we’re trying to simply give feedback for their consideration
If we tell a grantee we think it would be good for them to do activity X, they’ll occasionally come back with a major proposal to do X, or will modify their plans to do more X – even if they think (for good reasons, and based on better knowledge than ours) that X is a bad idea.
We think it’s good to be open with existing grantees about what we do and don’t like, but also to be very explicit about things like “This is just an off-the-cuff thought, and I’d defer to your judgment; if you think it’s better to go the other way, then that’s my preference as well.” We would welcome suggestions about how to deliver this message more clearly (or whether it’s the right one to be delivering).
It is easy to “lead people on” and waste their time
In our experience, expressing even casual interest in something can be interpreted by a prospective grantee as encouragement to put a great deal of planning and work into things they hope we’ll fund.
Our internal guidelines for grant investigators are intended to catch this sort of thing early by requiring them to get explicit approval from grant decision-makers before they express “strong interest” to a prospective grantee. This does not guarantee that every grant we deeply investigate will eventually be funded, but it does reduce the likelihood of a potential grantee wasting much of their time pursuing a project we never had any serious interest in. As stated in our public guide for grant-seekers, we strive to keep prospective grantees informed about the likelihood of receiving a grant.
Though we generally prefer norms of openness and honesty in communications, we often need to withhold information about our level of interest in funding particular groups and particular types of work in order to avoid leading people on. We encourage program officers to be explicit about this (e.g., “I shouldn’t comment on how interested we are in that, because we don’t want people to plan around us yet”) rather than vague or cagey.
Our program officers often need to explicitly ask potential grantees not to put any work into something, and often disclaim that they need to check with our team before they can give any indication of interest.
Potential grantees don’t always make avoiding this problem easy, because they often disclaim an explicit interest in funding. We joke internally that a lot of people have heard the saying, “If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money,” and taken it a bit too much to heart. People ask us to brainstorm, to sit on advisory and governing boards, and insist that they just want feedback and ideas; we’ve learned that these requests are often, nonetheless, effectively about fundraising.
We have found it’s often a good idea to ask people directly whether they are seeking funding, and/or tell them whether they are a potential fit for our priorities over the next year or so, even when they don’t bring it up themselves. That can clear the air. That said, sometimes people have been offended by the assumption that they’re seeking funding, so it can be a bit of a balancing act. We have definitely not mastered this dance yet.
Navigating these challenges
Across these issues, we encourage program officers to adopt openness and honesty with others as a default strategy – and in particular to try to make sure everyone knows their real chances of getting funding and/or having it renewed, and what criteria we’ll be using to make these decisions (including when this means sharing our preferences for how organizations will go about their work). It’s a tough balance to strike – the dynamics mean it can sometimes be risky for us to be too blunt in stating what we’re looking for, but ultimately we think more damage is done when people hold out unrealistic hopes regarding our funding plans, or don’t trust us.
We think being honest about what we’re looking for will help maximize our impact because it will save potential grantees’ and our time, and will help ensure that grantees know what we’re planning and what we’re looking for. It’s also a matter of “leading by example” since we want people to be honest with us. But we’re not sure yet if this is the right approach.
We consider one of our major open challenges to be finding more ways to become grantee-centric: to avoid unintentionally wasting grantees’ time and distorting their work, and to get honest feedback from grantees that improves our work. We continue to experiment with different approaches.
We’re curious how others think about and navigate these dynamics, and would welcome comments or references to publications on this point.