Transparency in the REACH Foundation’s grant making and operations has always been held as a core tenant of our work by the foundation’s Board of Directors and staff.
As part of our grant relationship, REACH staff encourages our nonprofit partners to be transparent with us about major changes and challenges in their organizations so that we can learn from their experiences and provide guidance or additional resources, as needed. This kind of sharing can only work if we are open, too, and seek out honest feedback from partners and peers so that we can do better in communicating the foundation’s goals and priorities, building relationships and promoting shared learning.
One basic but valuable method for understanding how we are doing as an organization is to survey current and former grantees and other partners. In 2016, we contracted with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a national organization that helps foundations understand and strengthen their performance, to implement a survey to measure our grantees’ understanding of the foundation’s strategic priorities, assess the quality of staff relationships with grantees, and describe the impact the foundation has on grantee communities and their field.
The CEP survey was sent to grantees from 2015 and 2016 – a list that included all core operating partners, and program, capacity-building and other discretionary grant recipients. The survey measured grantee perceptions in six areas – foundation impact, relationships, grant making processes, transparency, knowledge and understanding, and contributions to nonprofit sustainability. CEP received responses from 58 grantees, for a 68 percent response rate. Their responses were compiled into a report that provided important information and provided us with insights into areas for improvement.
Some of our take-aways included:
The adoption of a new strategic plan in 2015 – with a new theory of change and associated outcomes and strategies – created some uncertainty among different groups of grantees. For example, program grant recipients were less likely to have a positive view of the foundation, which may have been related to the foundation’s decision to end grants for programs in 2016. Organizations that received funding through REACH’s outcome investments tied to our new five-year strategic plan and/or our expansion of core operating grants perceived the foundation in more positive terms than program grantees. It raised the question for us: Were their higher ratings due to continuation of funding or to the quality of the relationship?
The CEP survey highlighted differences in staff relationships with various grantees. For example, core partners – those that receive general operating support – have typically had longer relationships with the foundation’s program staff. In contrast, some discretionary grant recipients receive one-time or only occasional support. The CEP survey results showed that these organizations perceived the foundation less positively than grantees with which we have worked over time.
The open-ended responses to questions about how grantees perceived REACH were generally positive. For example, when asked how grantees would describe interactions with the foundation, 90 percent rated the foundation as good, very good or excellent in responsiveness to grantee and community needs; 10 percent perceived REACH to be inflexible, challenging or difficult to work with. Nearly 95 percent of grantees noted that the foundation has had a positive influence on access to care in their community.
Although one key area of investment for REACH is public policy and advocacy, 25 percent of the survey respondents indicated they were unable to judge the impact of REACH’s investments on public policy within their fields. Given the foundation’s increased investments and activities in health policy and advocacy, this response suggests we need to be more proactive in sharing the foundation’s policy priorities and discussing the progress or impact our investments have had on policy in Kansas and Missouri.
Other findings included:
- 91 percent of respondents said that the foundation’s responsiveness and was “good, very good or excellent,” and that our communications with them and the community were consistent. More than 80 percent responded that our transparency is “good, very good or excellent.”
- Approximately three-quarters of respondents indicated that REACH has helped advance knowledge in their fields, and has had a positive impact on their organizations and their sustainability.
- Nearly 90 percent believed that REACH has a good, very good or excellent understanding of their field and of the communities in our service area.
- Three-quarters believe REACH has had a positive impact on their organization, report that the foundation has at least a good understanding of their goals and strategies, feel they have been treated fairly in the grant selection process, and agreed that the selection process is transparent. A similar percent agreed that once funded, they feel comfortable approaching REACH staff when or if a problem arises during the grant term.
- Finally, more than 80 percent consider REACH’s work in health equity important and have seen a positive influence of our work on access to care.
These results offered a gratifying confirmation of the contribution the REACH Foundation strives to make in our community, but we recognize there are areas in which we can improve. The CEP survey is one tool we can use to identify ways to strengthen our work. Some of these include:
- Approximately 30 percent of respondents indicated they would like REACH to have a better understanding of their organizational challenges; about 20 percent would encourage the foundation to better understand the contextual factors affecting their organization.
- 32 percent believe REACH should be more open to grantees’ ideas regarding our funding strategies – suggesting that foundation staff could do better at listening to grantees.
- 37 percent believe REACH could be more transparent about what has not worked in our previous investments – in other words, to share learnings from our mistakes as well as successes.
- Approximately half of our grantees would like help understanding how the foundation evaluates its work and investments.
The survey findings were shared with the REACH Board and its Program and Policy Committee, and staff has set aside time within team meetings to reflect on our procedures, communications and relationships. We have made adjustments in how we communicate as a start:
- In learning that grantees would like the foundation to have a better understanding of their organizational challenges, REACH program staff have begun additional check-in phone calls this year with core partners to learn more about the internal and external issues they are confronting.
- To improve understanding of the foundation’s work in public policy, REACH program officers are discussing these priorities more widely with current and potential partners. In addition, we are using our established communications tools – web site and social media feeds – to reinforce our policy interests and highlight the activities of grantees.
- To clarify the foundation’s approach to evaluation, program staff is sharing the foundation’s theory of change and highlighting selected performance targets and other metrics that are part of our outcomes investment approach. During this year, we expect to expand information on the web site to more fully describe how REACH evaluates its community investments.
Since our start in 2003, the Board of Directors and staff have embraced a belief that the foundation’s ability to achieve its vision and mission is tied to the efforts, effectiveness and ingenuity of strong nonprofit partners. As we pursue our own continuous improvement journey, we welcome your suggestions for how we can cultivate transparency, learning and dialogue.
We invite you to reach out to any member of the REACH team with your questions and ideas.
Brenda R. Sharpe, President & CEO