Alex Jacobs: How the Joffe Trust used GrantAdvisor to listen and learn

02 Mar 2020 Voices

Alex Jacobs explains why the Joffe Trust joined the UK pilot of a tool enabling real-time reviews from grant-seekers and what it has learned so far.

A friend of mine recently started working at a grantmaking foundation. “Wow,” he said, “now everyone laughs at my jokes!”

Foundation staff don’t often hear the unvarnished truth. That’s unhealthy in all sorts of ways, like getting in the way of honest conversations that drive learning and improvement.

Here at the Joffe Trust, we recently used GrantAdvisor to overcome this natural power imbalance. It allowed us to collect anonymous feedback from the people we work with.

As a funder, we aim to be responsive to our grantees and engage in the substance of the issues we work on. In our case, that’s work on tax and corruption, and strengthening small non-profit organisations. 

There’s always a chance that we overstep the mark. Our processes and style may not be as friendly as we think. And our interventions may not be as helpful as we hope.

Gathering feedback

We wanted additional insights to inform an annual planning meeting scheduled for the end of November 2019.  So, in the first two weeks of November 2019, we asked 120 individual contacts to tell us about their experience of working with us over the previous year.

We used GrantAdvisor to gather the feedback. It was easy and free to use, and generated extremely valuable data. 

We selected GrantAdvisor for four reasons. 

First, the feedback is anonymous and remains on the public record. Anybody can see what people said about us. 

Second, GrantAdvisor has been carefully designed and is simple for respondents to use. 

Third, we wanted to help build up a sector-wide initiative that has huge potential. 

Fourth, as it gets more established, we should be able to compare our feedback to other grant-makers and benchmark our performance.

You can see the results for yourself here on GrantAdvisor. We also published this report summarising and responding to the data.

We received 41 responses, a rate of 34 percent. We set a clear two week deadline for receiving feedback, which may have helped keep this rate fairly high. 

GrantAdvisor is open by design. Anyone can post a review. We received feedback from people whose applications we had rejected, as well as those we fund and those we collaborate with. Of course there is always the risk of selection bias in who we asked and who chose to respond.

Findings were gold dust

The findings were gold dust for our planning meeting. They identified areas that respondents feel we do well, such as good communication, a personal approach, simple processes and supporting ‘hard to fund’ work. 

When asked to give us one piece of advice, most respondents replied along the lines of ‘keep doing what you are doing’.  Specific advice included: keep facilitating networks and learning events, consider a newsletter for grantees and be careful about only funding a proportion of a proposal rather than all of it.

When we reflected on these findings, we were encouraged that, in general, our strategic approach is working along the lines we hoped. The feedback confirmed that we did not need any major change of direction.

We were glad to hear that we had made progress since the year before. In 2018 when we asked for feedback, respondents asked us to improve our website and play a more prominent role in the sector. These issues did not come up this time around.

And we noted the areas to improve. We fed these directly into our annual plan for 2020. 

Right now, we’re getting set up to publish a short and simple newsletter. And we’ll carry on running a small number of networking and learning events, where we’re confident they can add value.

Mirrors what we ask from our grantees

Overall, GrantAdvisor was tremendously valuable for us. The process was simple for everyone involved and the feedback we received directly useful, as we work to continually improve what we do. 

It also mirrors what we ask from our grantees. We ask them to include feedback from their key stakeholders in reports back to us. We published our feedback report so as to model good practice in transparency and enable grantees and others to interrogate our work better.

We would enthusiastically recommend that other grant-makers consider using GrantAdvisor as part of their process for learning and improvement. It’s so valuable to find out when your jokes are funny and when people are laughing along through gritted teeth.

Alex Jacobs is director of the Joffe Charitable Trust 

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