Democracy Fund

The Democracy Fund invests in organizations working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.

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Listening to Our Grantees: Lessons from our Second Grantee Perception Survey

By Joe Goldman / 2018 July 11th

​As a learning organization committed to the success of our grantee partners, Democracy Fund regularly gathers feedback from grantees in order to better understand what is working, where we need to do better, and how we should think about the role we are playing in strengthening our nation’s democracy. This isn’t always easy given the natural power dynamic between funders and grantees – and so we work with the Center for Effective Philanthropy to periodically collect anonymous feedback through their Grantee Perception Survey.

​Last year, Democracy Fund took part in our second Grantee Perception Survey administered by CEP. Since receiving the results last fall, our staff has had the time to reflect on the input provided to us by our grantees and implement a number of changes to our grantmaking approach in light of what we heard. We would like to thank our grantees for their thoughtful and detailed feedback. This blogpost provides an update on what we heard and what we’ve committed to doing differently.

When we asked our grantees to participate in our first Grantee Perception Survey in 2014, Democracy Fund was in the process of becoming an independent foundation. What our grantees shared then had a significant influence on our grantmaking approach – from how we streamline our processes to how we think about measurement and evaluation. For example, as a result of this work, we reduced our grant processing time by nearly 30 percent.

​This year’s survey, open to all grantees who held an active grant with us in 2016 came at no less a transitional time for Democracy Fund. While we are no longer a start up, it’s hard to overstate the tremendous growth that this organization has managed over the past 18 months. Our staff size has tripled and our Democracy Fund portfolio has grown from 28 organizations when we first surveyed in 2014 to 74 organizations in spring 2017. As our original programs have matured, we’ve taken on a range of new programs and special projects to ensure that this organization is able to stand up for our constitution and democratic norms at a time of great consequence for our country.

This sense of growth, maturation, and change is evident in what we heard from grantees.

Here are just a few of the key things we learned:

We provide more support to grantees than most other funders. We provide larger grants and more general operating support than our peer funders. Our higher staff-to-grantee ratio compared to others means we’re able to be in more frequent contact with our grantees. This finding aligns well with our intent – and we’re glad to see our grantees found us living this approach day to day.

Grantees are still waiting for us to demonstrate impact. As a young foundation, many of our efforts are still nascent. Grantees rated us lower than other funders on impact in the field and effect on public policy as our work is only beginning to gain traction.

Our grantees recognize our field expertise and appreciate our efforts to advance knowledge in the field – but we can do better. Grantees gave us solid scores in our understanding of the field and see us as emerging thought leaders, reflecting the fact that much of our staff comes from the practitioner community. Still, they thought we can do more to understand grantee organizations themselves, pointing to a need to better support our field-expert staff in their transition to grantmaking roles.

As we have grown in size and complexity, we’ve paid less attention to some relationships — and it shows. Many grantees — in particular grantees who received smaller grants — sometimes felt out of the loop on Democracy Fund’s thinking. Grantees sought more clarity and consistent communication about our processes and decision-making. Many wanted more transparency about our strategy, especially as our democracy entered a period of profound change. And we heard that we need to do more to foster trust with grantees, so that they are more comfortable reaching out to us as challenges emerge.

“We are committed to improving and most effectively supporting our grantees’ work.”

We are grateful to our grantees for this honest and thought-provoking feedback. Over the past several months, our team has had the opportunity to engage with the survey results. We have begun to implement a variety of improvements to our processes to address those areas where we know we can do better.

Each of our programs has taken the opportunity to discuss these results with their grantees to gain deeper insights and have been engaged in thoughtful internal conversations on how to address them. Grantees can expect to see the following improvements:

  1. Clarity on applying for a grant: We are revamping our processes for initial grant review to promote more clarity to applicants on where their applications stand, how much time the process will take, and what might be expected if funding is approved. We are also entering into an effort to right-size grant requirements based on grant size. 

  2. Engagement with grantees post-approval: We are revising our practices for how to engage grantees post-approval in check-in calls and how to review learning together and share clearer expectations. This reflects direct grantee feedback on how they want to engage with Democracy Fund.
  3. Support beyond the dollars: Leveraging what was a clear bright spot in our survey results, we are assessing what additional non-monetary support we can offer to grantees, and how to ensure all grantees are aware of the resources available to them. We are also more deliberately seeing how to connect grantees with new funders. We will continue to offer and improve opportunities to bring grantees together for networking and shared learning. 

  4. Streamlined grant reporting and metrics to put learning first: We are revamping our grantee reporting practices, which will provide new structures, tools and guidance to ensure reporting is easy and best serves the learning needs of both the grantee and the foundation.

We also know that changes at the broader organizational level are necessary to ensure we our clear about our strategies and approach. We will be working to:

  • Increase transparency on strategy and results: We will be clearer with grantees about our strategies, the approaches we take with our grantmaking, and the learning and results we have achieved to date.
  • Support program staff development: We have launched an Excelling at Grantmaking program to support staff to improve their ability to form strong relationships with grantees that are supportive and produce shared learning.

I’m excited about the new course we’ve set for our grantmaking practice through the changes I’ve described. Democracy Fund is maturing from our start-up phase at a critical moment for our democracy. Our grantees are engaged in profoundly important work that will shape the future of this country. To meet the challenges ahead, our grantees and partners need us to be at our best. We are committed to improving and most effectively supporting our grantee’s efforts. By continuing to listen to one another, we’ll rise to the occasion together.

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