Listening Carefully to Build a Better Foundation

Listening Carefully to Build a Better Foundation

As anyone who works at a foundation will tell you, getting candid feedback can be difficult. In fact, as someone who came out of the rough-and-tumble world of city government, I was shocked at how polite people became once I started working at the San Francisco Foundation. Of course, I understand why. People feel like they have to be nice to us, especially if they are grantees. But that makes it harder to know how we can do better. We receive occasional feedback from our donors, but it has been our sense that we need to learn more about how to engage them better and serve their philanthropic goals more directly.

As we considered how to best achieve our goals as a foundation, we knew that we needed to gather candid, constructive feedback from our grantees, applicants, and donors in ways that would be most useful to us and to them.

Last year, we partnered with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to solicit anonymous feedback from our grant applicants, grantees, and donors. CEP has a long history of conducting this type of research and they are particularly helpful because we can compare our results against our peers, drawing on CEP’s database of research results that includes feedback from nonprofits connected to more than 320 funders across the country.

There was so much we wanted to know about how our applicants, grantees, and donors perceive us. We wanted to learn how applicants and grantees had been experiencing the foundation as we’ve shifted to an agenda focused on racial equity and economic inclusion, and as we rolled out our new grantmaking technology. We wanted to know more about the overall donor experience, the extent to which donors think that we are making a difference in the community, and how we can best support their philanthropic goals.

The findings from the two surveys were extraordinarily helpful. They gave us an excellent picture of what our perceived strengths are and where our opportunities for growth lie. We are deeply grateful to all those who took the time to participate in the survey. To those of you who did, your feedback is essential, and we truly value it.

Here is what we heard and how we’re planning to use that feedback to make us a stronger, more effective foundation.

Grantee and Applicant Perception Report

This has been a period of transition for the newly-renamed Community Impact Department in terms of strategy as well as staffing, and our scores reflect that. Grantees told us that they do not have sufficient clarity about our strategies nor where they fit into those strategies, and we have work to do to clarify those priorities in the years ahead. We have been in a period of profound change over the past few years, and we are about to enter another growth phase as we ramp up partnerships with a number of large foundations and donors. As we embark upon this exciting journey, this feedback has been particularly helpful to inform what it will take to succeed.

Given that we work with a number of small, leanly staffed organizations, it’s been a priority for us to be particularly mindful of our grantees’ time. We were heartened that our grantees report that they spend a relatively limited amount of time burdened by our grant requirements imposed by us over the life of the grant. Similarly, grantees reported that we have done a good job in funding work that they are already doing or planning, rather than pressuring them to modify their priorities. These responses reflect our commitment to being responsive to the needs of our grantees, and we continue to put an emphasis on this.

We were also very happy that grantees understand and connect with our focus on equity and inclusion. When we launched our equity strategy three years ago, we knew that it would take time and attention to share this strategy and put it into practice. We are just getting started, but we think that we’re making progress.

On an absolute scale, grantees are quite satisfied with the foundation, but relative to our peers, we see room for improvement, particularly in the following areas:

  • Understanding their goals, strategies and contexts: Grantees don’t feel that we sufficiently understand the context in which their work occurs, including their goals and strategies, their local communities, and the challenges they confront on a regular basis.
  • Responsiveness: We need to do a better job of responding quickly and helpfully to their questions and comments, and to make sure they know their main point of contact at the foundation.
  • Clarity of Communications: Grantees did not have a clear enough understanding of our goals and strategies, and where they fit in, particularly as we embarked on our grantmaking focused on racial equity and economic inclusion.

This candid feedback proved to be at least as helpful as the more complimentary responses. Here is how we are using what we heard to make us a better grantmaker and stronger partner.

Putting what we’ve learned from the report into action

These are the overall steps we are planning to improve our responsiveness, deepen our relationships, and improve our communications:

  • Technology: We are making sure that our staff are adequately trained on new systems so they can respond to inquiries and help applicants.
  • Relationship Management: We will identify one point of contact for each grantee so they know who to turn to for questions and feedback. We are committed to managing staff transitions with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • Strategic Clarity: Applicants are looking for greater clarity on their fit within the pathways of People, Place and Power. We are working closely with our Marketing and Communications Department to better articulate our goals and strategies, and to help grantees better understand their important roles in advancing these strategies.
  • Frequent and Ongoing Communications: We understand how important it is to be responsive. We want to make sure that all phone calls and emails receive prompt responses. Our goal is to communicate early and often with all grantees and applicants. We are developing and implementing a prompt response protocol to ensure that all inquiries receive the response they deserve.
Some of the changes we have already begun implementing
  • We are simplifying the grant application process, as well as simplifying and clarifying our application language. This includes adjusting how much documentation is necessary to receive and report on a grant. We are making it easier for grantees to use fiscal sponsors, and we’re changing internal processes to make it easier to get grants approved and disbursed so grantees can get paid more quickly.
  • We are very focused on ensuring that the Open Cycle grants process fully incorporates the needs of applicants. We have already begun to work closely with grantee partners to put applicants at the center of how we are designing our Open Cycle grants process.
  • We are conducting a series of focus groups with our grantees to test our approaches, how we communicate with applicants about the entire grant process, and then using the feedback to make adjustments.
  • We are working to increase the number of site visits we make to new grantees, and we are hosting more convenings and consultative sessions to deepen the partnerships with our grantees and to better learn about their work.

This is just a start, but we’re very excited about how these changes will strengthen our work and better serve our grantees. Throughout this process, we have been reminded that change is hard. While we are taking many steps to address what we learned from the CEP applicant and grantee perception reports that we believe will yield better results in the next year, we know that it will take time and sustained focus to operationalize our equity agenda into every part of our grantmaking. The steps we have outlined are key markers in our journey towards becoming a learning organization—and we know that a continuous cycle of feedback, reflection, and improvement will make us more effective in our mission to advance racial equity and economic inclusion in the Bay Area.

Donor Perception Report

The San Francisco Foundation was founded in 1948 by a group of donors who cared deeply about this community and wanted to do whatever they could to improve the lives of people in the Bay Area. That spirit of generosity and caring continues to guide our work to this day. Our donors are essential partners in our work to build a more equitable Bay Area, and their feedback has been extremely valuable to us.

The feedback we heard from our donors was similar to that of the Grantee and Applicant Perception Report. In short, our donors gave us positive ratings on an absolute scale, but we lagged behind our custom cohort on a relative scale. As with our grantees, donors recognize our commitment to equity, which has been the centerpiece of new and exciting programs like Keep Oakland Housed and Oakland Goes Outdoors.

Nevertheless, we received feedback that we need to do a better job to respond to donors, understand their goals, and communicate the value of our work and how it supports their philanthropic priorities. As with the Community Impact Department, we are taking the feedback to heart and we are in the process of addressing the responses in the following ways:

Staff responsiveness and better understanding donors’ goals
  • We know how important it is to be responsive to our donors. We are adding staff who have deep experience in philanthropic advising and who can work directly with our donors to help them establish personalized giving plans. We’re implementing new technology to make it easier to recommend and track grants. We’re training staff across the foundation so that we can improve the service we provide. We pledge to do whatever we can to help donors connect their passion for change to results in the community.
Donor satisfaction
  • We are conducting ongoing evaluations of our donors’ satisfaction, gathering information in real-time, and working to maintain contact with donors at all giving levels.
  • We’re planning listening tours to hear directly from our donors about their interests and how we can provide services that best meet their philanthropic needs.
Communicating clearly about impact
  • We’re working to communicate more clearly and in ways that donors find exciting and compelling. This includes exploring new ways to tell stories about how we’re making a difference in the community through video, social media, and our new annual report that highlights the role that our donors and grantees are playing to make change in the Bay Area. Finally, we’re highlighting areas that donors care about within our equity agenda, including how our work intersects with the arts and environment, as well as our work to prevent homelessness, which is a high priority for our donors.
Deepening engagement with donors
  • We are partnering with our Community Impact Department to find more ways for donors to engage on the issues that matter to them. This includes offering donors more ways to learn about what’s happening in communities across the region. In the months ahead, you’ll be hearing about events in which donors can learn from each other as well as from the leaders of some of the most enterprising and exciting organizations in the region.
Building a stronger community together

Nobody enjoys hearing challenging feedback, but we have been very careful to receive that feedback in the spirit with which it was offered—as a way to help us improve our ability to serve our donors, our grantees, and to make the Bay Area a place where everyone can have a good job and an affordable home in a place where they feel that they belong.

Our commitment to building deeper, stronger relationships with our donors, our grantees, and the communities we collectively serve extends across the institution. It begins with a Board of Trustees that has enthusiastically supported us and this work and includes each and every person who works at the San Francisco Foundation. I am deeply honored to work with such a talented, dedicated staff and board.

We have our work cut out for us, but that is a privilege, not a burden. This feedback has helped us focus our efforts on work that we know needs to happen and which we are thrilled to embark upon. We are extremely grateful for the support our donors and grantees have provided, and we are eager to use this opportunity to both lead and serve our community with compassion and thoughtfulness. We look forward to continuing to provide you with updates about how we are using this feedback to strengthen the San Francisco Foundation. Thank you again for your engagement and support.