Ask Questions, First to Learn but Then to Act

This was originally published on August 2, 2016 on Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of the series "Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy," produced in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

Written by: Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

When grantmakers go looking for feedback from their grantees, they can ask a lot of questions. But grilling grantees and listening to them are two different things, and the distinction is as much about intent as impact.

Sometimes grantmakers’ questions focus on day-to-day program administration or the metrics that stand in for impact on the ground. But while those kinds of questions are good and important, they can leave grantees feeling like they’re under a microscope—especially if they sense that future funding depends on their answers. Questions that move beyond process to the bigger picture of how a grantee works—such as the nature of the inequity that grantmakers and the grantee are partnering to address—can lead to a better sense of collaboration and co-learning.

As the co-director of the Building Movement Project, which brings a social movement perspective to research on nonprofit organizations and their impact, I’ve filled out my fair share of surveys and sat through many interviews at the urging of the grantmakers I depend on to make ends meet. Most of the time, I don’t mind when funders ask about my organization’s work and metrics. And I actually take it as a sign of respect when grantmakers ask me what I think about the support they provide. Hearing that my answers will be anonymous certainly helps me be more forthcoming, especially when they ask what would have made the application process less onerous. But I place the bigger premium on knowing that grantmakers really hear my answers and use them to help address strategic questions that really matter—that my answers aren’t just sucked up into some big data machine concerned only with efficiency and identifying other potential grantees.

As it happens, I’ve also been on the other side, interviewing grantees on behalf of grantmakers. Given the power differential that comes with this role, I could easily fall into the trap of becoming an “askhole.” So one of my go-to questions for grantees is, “What are the funders getting wrong?”

Getting people to weigh in on what grantmakers don’t know helps break the ice and reminds grantees of their own expertise. It establishes that the purpose of the conversation is to learn from people doing the work on the ground, and it affirms that the grantmaker-grantee relationship is a partnership established to tackle problems and move toward solutions. Sometimes the answers reveal that funders need to learn more about the nuance of the organizational landscape, or the historical tension playing out beneath the surface within coalitions and collective impact projects. Other times, the lessons are that funders should pay more attention to how issues and constituencies intersect so that they can fill strategic holes in their grantmaking. Some answers confirm that grantmakers’ vaulted vantage point can identify hard-to-see commonalities between grantees and connect organizations that might not otherwise work together.

But whatever grantmakers learn from grantees, the lessons matter only if they inform future action and if grantmakers report back to grantees about the impact of their input.

One of my favorite projects was listening to grantees and gathering feedback for grantmakers working within the LGBT movement. The grantmakers had already heard loud and clear that one thing they were getting wrong was their narrow focus on a few policy demands (this was before same-sex marriage won). They were looking to identify opportunities to fund under-resourced and unlikely collaborations that would expand the LGBT issue agenda and strengthen alliances with non-LGBT groups. The program officers had hunches about what issues might help bring organizations together in key states, so I started by interviewing national experts—many of which were already grantees—to tap their knowledge of the political, organizational, and policy landscape at the state level.

I then worked with the grantmakers to zero in on a few important issues the national advocates identified as especially promising; some were already on the grantmakers’ radar, but some took us in unexpected directions. In my second round of interviews—this time with local groups doing innovative work on the ground—I asked questions to find out who they saw as allies, how they thought about the policy and organizational landscape, and, yes, what the national funders were getting wrong. These conversations yielded a whole new set of learnings and lessons; ultimately, they helped the grantmakers settle on a funding strategy of investing in local organizations that were working in very tough political environments, but on issues that weren’t thought of as LGBT issues at the time. Some of these groups had budgets so small they normally wouldn’t even be considered for grants.

The process of asking questions, learning from the answers, and then changing the funding strategy to fit what grantees were saying actually paralleled the kind of emergent model now being hailed as a better fit than “strategic philanthropy” for meeting the realities of social change in a complex world. We arrived at that model because we started by listening and learning, and because the grantmakers were committed to crafting a strategy that fit the groups they wanted to invest in, rather than making the groups jump through hoops to qualify for pre-determined grants.

Looking back, however, this project fell short in one important way: We never shared the insights from the research phase back to the national organizations who had done so much to inform the funding strategy. If feedback really is a loop, then it’s logical for grantees to expect that their time spent on the phone with evaluators, tracking metrics, and filling out surveys will, at a minimum, shape the learning and action of grantmakers. But grantees shouldn’t have to take it on faith. Grantmakers have to demonstrate that they can listen to, absorb, and respond to the concerns and insights that surface from conversations with grantees.

So, grantmakers, when you next approach grantees for feedback, start out by honoring the knowledge differential that they have over you and make a commitment to share your learning back to them. It may not balance the scales completely, but it could offset the power difference inherent in all grantmaker-grantee dynamics. And if they think you learned the wrong lesson, they might actually tell you.


Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is the co-director of the Building Movement Project (@BldingMovement on Twitter), which develops research, tools, training materials and opportunities for thought partnership that bolster nonprofit organizations’ potential to work together to address the issues facing their communities. Before moving into research and capacity building, Sean spent more than a decade doing policy analysis, advocacy and organizing work for the Center for Community Change and the National Council of La Raza.