The many and varied roles foundations are called upon to play in societies today call for a high level of professionalization. Comparing internal assumptions with external perceptions can be a productive way for foundations to learn, and so become increasingly professional. This requires feedback both from grant applicants and from those with whom a foundation has actually entered into a working relationship.
How do foundations handle and decide on applications? How do partners perceive their relations with a foundation? What characterizes the relationship beyond the obvious elements of a grant or a cooperation agreement? The answers to these questions can shed light on a foundation’s work and effectiveness, yet up to now European foundations have lacked external feedback on them. ‘Learning from Partners’ has been designed by the Centre for Social Investment at Heidelberg University as a systematic approach to remedying this. The Center for Effective Philanthropy had previously initiated their Grantee Perception Report to screen the feedback of US grantees.
This approach is not an effort at impact measurement: it is rather a variation of a customer satisfaction report, appropriately tailored to the mixed approach of European philanthropy with its strong tradition of operating foundations.
Four main elements are evaluated in the Learning from Partners questionnaire:
- Applicants’ and partners’ satisfaction with all stages of contact with the foundation
- Administrative processes, including application procedures, notice of granting, final report and settlement instructions
- Capacity-building effects
- Perception and positioning of the foundations within their respective field of funding and operation
Despite their general willingness to cooperate, the Learning from Partners pilot study raised some concerns among the participating foundations. What would come out of such a large-scale comprehensive approach to generating feedback, from declined applicants as well as grantees? Would respondents take substantial differences in approaches and roles of foundations into account?
These anxieties were laid to rest by the results of the study. The key characteristics of each of the six very different participating foundations were well reflected by respondents in their reactions. Foundations with a more operating approach received different responses on capacity-building effects from those focused purely on grantmaking and/or research.
‘In general, partners did not expect foundations to perform tasks that were not within the realm of their respective strategies.’
In general, partners did not expect foundations to perform tasks that were not within the realm of their respective strategies. The responding partners were well aware of the foundation’s structure and operations. They saw and appreciated foundations as prestigious and reliable organizations.
Though criticism was less harsh or prevalent than expected, there was of course some critical feedback. Foundations have been generally responsive to these criticisms, which were documented in individual reports. In many cases, they have used the information for improvement and learning. Stiftung Mercator, for example, has implemented a two-stage application procedureThe Volkswagen Foundation has improved internal processes related to staff changes and the introduction of new programme managers. The Fritz Thyssen Foundation has revised its web presence and started listing contact people for each funding area.
The Learning from Partners project results go beyond the individual foundations. They draw a picture of the German foundation sector in general. Foundations are seen as competent and reliable institutions, with a specific role in complementing the state and, above all, as innovative organizations. On this last point, however, the survey suggests that they are less innovative or flexible than they like to describe themselves.
The follow-up project ‘Learning from Partners II’, which began in September 2014, has seen increased interest from foundations. The number participating has almost doubled, with five out of six of the original cohort again participating. This suggests a growing interest among German foundations both in serious feedback and perception reporting from their partners, and in longitudinal comparisons. At the same time the project has started to attract interest from abroad. Colleagues at the Copenhagen Business School are preparing a Danish version in cooperation with CSI. In our view, such surveys can only increase the potential of foundations to become more effective in structuring their partnerships with their grantees and other partners.
Volker Then and Martin Hölz are executive director and project director at the Centre for Social Investment at Heidelberg University. Emails firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com