From reviewing promising new ideas to evaluating project success, funders spend a lot of time examining others’ work. Looking outward is an important part of the job; our success grows from the success of our partners. Now that the Health Fund is entering our fifth year of grantmaking, we’ve turned the critical lens around to examine our own effectiveness. Are we growing in a positive direction? How can we do our job better?
In the interest of an outside perspective and honest, unfiltered feedback, we asked the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to survey our grantees and applicants on our behalf. We hoped to learn more about what we’re doing well, what we can improve, and, perhaps most importantly, what our place is in the diverse landscape of philanthropy.
An Industry Standard for Assessment
CEP assesses philanthropic organizations in order to provide “a powerful combination of dispassionate analysis and a passionate commitment to improving lives.” More than 320 funders have sought feedback through CEP’s Grantee and Applicant Perception Report. Last year the Health Fund became the newest participant, joining philanthropic leaders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
In early 2018, CEP surveyed 70 Health Fund grantees and 55 applicants on numerous topics, including our level of impact, understanding of beneficiaries, communication, application and evaluation processes, and assistance beyond the grant. They then benchmarked the responses against their pool of hundreds of funders and sent the results to us. The final report illuminated some key successes, as well as some important areas for growth.
Grantees were asked, “At this point in time, what is one word that best describes the Foundation?” Eight grantees described The Health Fund as “supportive,” the most commonly used word.
We were pleased to see that the survey results reflected back to some of our own perceived strengths. There were a few that came up repeatedly in the final report:
We give big grants. One of the most straightforward of the CEP report’s conclusions: our grants are large. Our median grant size of over $360,000 puts us at the 88th percentile of funders. This past year, we awarded over $28 million in grants to Michigan organizations. We most recently gave over $14 million to support two areas: Healthy Aging and Special Projects & Emerging Ideas. We’ve found that making significant investments in our grantees’ projects allows them to be ambitious in their ideas and gives them the greatest chance of lasting success.
We communicate well. Our program officers pride themselves in being accessible, open, and thorough in their communications with grantees, and that effort was reflected in survey responses. Grantees complimented high levels of transparency, responsiveness, and approachability, and they described the Health Fund as “meaningful,” “honest,” and “unfailingly helpful.” Applicants who didn’t ultimately receive funding were equally complimentary: their survey responses placed the Health Fund in the top 10% of the CEP’s pool of over 250 funders in clarity, consistency, and honesty of communication.
“The direct and open communication with the Health Fund has been so helpful and consistent…It is clear they are being intentional about developing a culture that is sensitive to the organizations they are funding and even those to whom they are declining funding.”
We understand the organizations we work with. The CEP ranked the Health Fund in the top 30% of their dataset for understanding of grantees’ fields, contexts, and needs. Our transparent communication and ongoing quest for feedback surely play a part in that, as well as our engaged program staff, who often travel the state to visit with partners and learn about their work. We believe it’s key to understand the projects we fund and the systems in which our partners are working, not only for the success of the grants, but also in order to have an effect on that system. We try to make sure that understanding goes the other way, too, giving potential applicants as clear a window as possible into what we’re looking for and how we hope to support change.
Room for Improvement
Even more important than understanding what we do well is finding out what we could do better. As a young foundation, it’s no surprise that our grantees and applicants had constructive criticism for the Health Fund, and we already have ideas on how to learn from their advice. Some of the main takeaways:
The application process takes a while. According to CEP, the average grant application and selection process takes about 20 hours of time. Our grant application process requires twice that amount. That said, the report also states that 93% of rejected applicants would consider applying again, and many reported that the in-depth process strengthened their programming. Concept papers account for much of the increased time required for our application process, and grantees affirmed the utility of Health Fund feedback on them. We will continue to seek out ways to streamline the application without sacrificing the benefits of our in-depth process.
Our grants are short. With a median length of just 1.6 years, the Health Fund’s grants are shorter than 85% of those in the CEP funder pool. Some organizations expressed concern about sustaining funding for the projects we fund. As you’ll see below, we’re looking for alternative ways to support promising work.
There’s more we could do. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is our grantees’ need for assistance beyond the grant dollar. Organizations are eager to connect with new funders, collaborate with other agencies, attend events, receive trainings, and increase their reach.
“Opportunities to meet with other organizations receiving funding could help facilitate additional collaboration and/or coordinate activities to address specific health issues.”
To those who had this request: we hear you! We know that writing a check is just one piece of the puzzle. Our goal is not just to fund, but also to advise, to support, to connect, to build—to help make Michigan a leader in health, through the countless individuals and organizations already doing groundbreaking work in this state.
What We Learned
As a young organization, we are still shaping our place in Michigan’s philanthropic landscape, and we continue to seek ways to build the breadth and depth of our support for the groups we fund. It’s encouraging to know that our commitment to transparent and approachable communication with our grantees is paying off, and we want to make sure that communication and understanding continue to be core to who we are in years to come.
And in the spirit of new year’s resolutions: as 2019 begins, we’re planning on quadrupling our assistance beyond the grant in the form of capacity building, technical assistance, and other strategic support. You’ll also see us providing more venues for grantees to make connections and have an ongoing dialogue.
Michigan Health Endowment Fund is more than a monetary funding source. We strive to lead and unite, and to help the organizations we fund leave deep and lasting impacts on health in the state of Michigan. Look for future blog posts to highlight some of this diversified support, as well as examples of some of the extraordinary work our grantees accomplish and the immediate impacts they have on our state every day.