Setting the Stage for Learning: Grantee Reports that Actually Mean Something (to the Funder AND the the Grantee)
Some General Reminders for Funders:
- The quality of the information you receive in reports is only as good as the quality of the relationships involved between grantee and grantmaker, or between grantees.
- The trust and candor involved in the reporting process tends to grow rather slowly and can disappear much faster – even suddenly. If you want meaningful reports, recognize and reward them.
- The more that reporting feels like compliance, the less helpful information you will get.
- The best report forms are simple, clear, consistent and inviting.
- Ideally, the grant report form and its questions should mirror your interests and questions as a grantmaker. That is, the reporting form should not “surprise” but reinforce what you have already said in person, or in the original grant letter.
- Where and how these questions get asked can vary. Some of these questions are usefully asked on site visits, in small groups (often convened informally over breakfast or lunch), in staff meetings, etc. Grant reports and forms are just one of many ways of tracking progress and learning about what it takes to be effective.
- It is often helpful to bring up learning and key challenges earlier in the process, in person or on the phone, in a way that sets the stage for a later written report (which ideally repeats some of the same questions in the same language.)
- Both “sides” could benefit from asking how reports are actually used (or could be used). If there is no real answer, reports are not likely to be meaningful.
- Think about how reporting feels and looks to the grantees. If in doubt, ask them.
- Saying that meaningful reports are important doesn’t make it so. Demonstrate that reports are being taken seriously through some modest, consistent steps and through concrete actions.
Progress comes from incremental steps in the right direction. Problems are real and deeply imbedded in the “systems” of which we are all a part. It may take some time for people out there trying to cope with multiple deadlines and formats to believe that: you are serious, you really want to know what happened, they might benefit from making the report into a learning moment by discussing it in a group, they ought to consider the value of reporting concerns as well as successes, and so forth.
Some Indicators That Reports Are Being Taken Seriously:
- Time and energy are spent deciding which questions work.
- Report forms include questions about what has been learned; what has had to change (and why) from the original proposal or plans; what does the grantee think has been most important, most difficult, most surprising; what is their advice to others considering similar work; what would help them be even more effective in the future; what could the grantmaker add, drop or do differently?
- On the grantmaker side, there is value placed on follow-up and discussion with grantees – at least by phone – just after reports are submitted (vs. only prep just before the forms are “due”, which signals that the report is most about compliance).
- Once you hear or see or read something, there is some “looking for patterns,” and perhaps modest reporting about these patterns to fellow staff or with grantees. Noting patterns leads to change in policy or practice, to finding more or better Technical Assistance or organizational development supports. Insights gained from noting patterns are used to shapes agendas for meetings, newsletters, or planned discussions.
- The quality of reports, or the learning they might generate, get used in staff development and planning at the foundation, and is considered in performance reviews of staff.