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The Center for Effective Philanthropy reported that 82 percent of grantmakers find it challenging to create evaluation materials that result in useful findings. Echoing this sentiment, a recent nationwide survey of grants management professionals found that 31% were not confident they could evaluate program impact of their grant funds at all.
These are troubling statistics, for both grantees and grantmakers. It’s tough to accurately measure impact for social issues with so many possible variables. In the article “Let’s Be Realistic About Measuring Impact,” the Harvard Business Review acknowledges the challenge:
“Does it really make sense for all mission-driven organizations to measure their long-term impact on society? Surely measuring impact matters but we need to be realistic about the constraints. It requires a level of research expertise, commitment to longitudinal study, and allocation of resources that are typically beyond the capabilities of implementing organizations.”
So, what should we take away from this? Rather than throw the concept of impact out the window, grant managers need to work more closely with grantees to redefine impact. What measurements are feasible? What really matters to the communities being served? An open dialogue is the best way to discover the answers.
Fortunately, we can lean on forward-thinking foundations to guide the way toward better impact reporting. We’ve gathered some ideas from across the grantmaking landscape to help you advance your organization’s mission.
Ready to get more insights from your grant impact assessments?
Let’s dispel the notion that onerous reports are the price a grantee must pay for receiving the grant. They’re not. Everything a funder requires in the impact report should have a clear and articulated purpose - and you should share that with the grantee. This creates respectful transparency. It can also open the door for suggestions on how best to communicate their impact.
Your Next Step
Go through each question in your impact report and ask yourself, “Why do we need this?”
For the questions you’ll keep, identify where it will be used. It’s helpful to identify core areas such as accountability, public relations, or strategic learning.
Indicate the reason right on the report, so grantees understand why they’re providing the information. For example, if you requested a case study of a client, you could say, “We’ll use this in our annual report to help donors see the effect your program has on individuals in their community.”
Taking the steps above will help your grantees understand the “why” behind your reporting questions. However, it’s also important to demonstrate that your organization values their insights and relies on them to improve future grant opportunities. The key is to communicate with the client about this intent and set the expectation.
For example, as part of the reporting requirements, you could ask the grantee to write a blog post for your organization that summarizes what they learned as they completed the grant project. Or perhaps when you ask for specific statistics, you explain that they’ll be used for an infographic that shows the impact of their type of program. You might require that they join a panel session for a local conference after their grant cycle. All of these tasks will produce a different mindset. You’re not just collecting data, you’re asking them to process what happened and how the entire field could benefit.
Your Next Step:
Communicate that impact reporting is meant to be a learning opportunity for both parties.
Think about a part of your report that you could repurpose into a useful exercise for the grantee to reflect on what they learned.
When you have multiple grant programs, you’ll quickly see from the first exercise above that some questions just don’t work in every context. They might be overkill, outdated, or irrelevant. While there’s something to be said for consistency, especially when you’re doing data analysis, this should be balanced with a realistic expectation for variation in your programs. When your reporting requirements better match the grantee’s work, you’ll get a clearer picture of their impact and reduce unnecessary confusion.
Your Next Step:
Identify which questions you need from all grant programs to create aggregate statistics across your entire grant portfolio.
For each type of grant, customize the questions. For example, instead of asking: “How many individuals participated in the program?” you could say, “How many students participated in the education initiative?”
Consider if you need to cut back on reporting requirements for smaller grants or those provided to organizations with limited staff.
Grant managers often get stuck in the financials/narrative format. And while ditching written reports altogether is a major departure from what most grantmakers do, the Whitman Institute offers an interesting model.
The Co-Director of the Whitman Institute shares their approach. “All of our funding is unrestricted (much of it multi-year) and we do not require formal written reports. Our approach to reporting is that it is primarily about learning and happens organically through conversations with those we support. These can range from one or two meetings/calls per year to more frequent contacts depending on our relationship with them and what is happening with their work.”
They structure their inquiry around two to three core questions, such as “what have you learned and how are you incorporating what you’ve learned into your work going forward?” Their focus is on learning, rather than accountability.
Even if your foundation isn’t quite ready to take the leap, you might consider how to incorporate more conversations into your reporting process. Peak Insight Journal offers some fresh ideas for ways to gain valuable insights from grantees, while also building relationships that foster honesty.
“If you want to check in on progress and learn whether an effort is proceeding on-track, send an email with simple questions and use the response as a mid-year report. Documented phone calls or site visits can serve the same purpose. One funder recently re-imagined interim reporting as a conversation among multiple grantees brought together to discuss emerging issues. This will allow not only for an efficient catch-up for the foundation but also an efficient way to encourage peer learning among grantees.”
Your Next Step:
Are there any aspects of your reporting process that you could replace with conversations - video chats or in-person meetings?
Do you incorporate enough questions that delve into what they learned? Or is your report skewed toward accountability?
Many grantees feel like their impact assessments fall into a black hole. They submit the report (after many hours of effort) and they don’t hear anything in return. It’s easy to see why most grantees don’t associate grant reports with learning.
Instead of a single formal report at the end of the grant cycle, grant managers should encourage open communication. By doing so, program staff will have more opportunities to learn about their grantees’ challenges in real-time and provide strategic guidance. Grants management software is an easy way to keep these communications in one place. A customized solution can help grant managers organize the incoming information into reports, so the valuable insights aren’t lost in an email or attachment.
Your Next Step:
Look for opportunities to engage with grantees (that’s not a burden on them)
Consider software that will streamline and organize feedback into useful insights
By putting these strategies into practice, your organization can have a grant evaluation process that’s focused, useful, and builds lasting relationships with your grantee partners.