Lessons Learned from our Grant Recipients

Our grant reports emphasize self-reflection and are intended to focus more on what has been learned rather than on hard metrics or outputs. We understand and recognize that our grant recipients are the ones closest to the work on the ground, their communities, and the people they serve. Therefore, we look to our grant recipients to help us better understand what is going on. However, we also believe we have a role to play in facilitating lessons learned across our grant recipients based on our bird’s eye view of what is happening among the projects and programs we fund across the country. From our grant reports, we have identified a few high-level insights that we hope will be of use to others. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is one more way in which we hope we can promote knowledge sharing and support our grant recipients to succeed.

Plan for stakeholder engagement

When grant recipients begin a new or next phase of a program or project where outreach to new and diverse stakeholders is needed, it is necessary to take the time to do this right. Oftentimes, we hear from our grant recipients that they wished they had more time to reach out to and engage community members, clients, or partners. This is hard work, but projects and programs that seem to have the greatest success understand the importance of building trust in their relationships with stakeholders first and foremost before planning and doing particular activities. There is no one way to do this and it can often involve some iteration. However, as a starting point (where appropriate), we encourage our grant recipients to budget and plan for stakeholder engagement in their applications and project plans.

“If we were starting again, we would also build in more time for consultation, with the understanding that buy-in is built through true engagement — listening and revising, being transparent in the work, and open to critique.” ~ Grant recipient

Resource: 12 Critical Points on Stakeholder Engagement from the Sweet Briar Experience — Nonprofit Quarterly

Create space to learn from others

Most of our grant recipients understand and take to heart the importance of gathering feedback from the people and communities they aim to serve. However, gathering feedback isn’t something that should only be done in service of completing reports to funders. Rather, ongoing feedback should help with the ultimate goal of delivering or improving the service, program, or project. This means creating the space for staff, volunteers, community members, partners, etc. to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts even when those conversations can sometimes be difficult.

“We need to focus on developing a system for capturing the qualitative feedback and conversations we have with our [leaders and participants]. We found many of their conversations and anecdotes very insightful and informing, identifying various community development needs and gaps.” ~ Grant recipient

Resource: Creating a safe space — My-Peer Toolkit

Extend your network

Some of our grant recipients noted that there was often more to the issue they were trying to address than what they initially thought. For instance, an organization that developed a great employment training program and had great feedback from their participants, nonetheless realized that this was not translating into as much long-term employment for their participants as hoped. Staff began to think more about who the relevant local employers might be and whether they could be engaged further in the program design to better reflect what skills these employers would need from future employees. This led to doing more outreach to employers — some of whom they had no prior relationship with — which led to more awareness for their work as well as better training programs for their participants. In short, when things don’t always go as planned, think about who else (either in your network or not) might be good to talk to.

“We need to think more about how to increase our recruitment to our program. This may mean revisiting our client profile, how we do outreach to partners, and the messaging we use.” ~ Grant recipient

Resource: Using Outreach to Increase Access — Community Tool Box

Set goals and evaluate

Evaluation is an important part of any learning organization and can take on many different forms. This means going beyond counting outputs such as how many events were held or how many people were served and focusing more on what was learned and why something worked or didn’t. It should be used to inform action. That is to say its central purpose is to help organizations to do their work better and achieve their mission. Figuring out what approach, methodology, or tools to use should begin with a conversation about what it is you and your partners want to learn.

Resource: Learning Together: Five Important Discussion Questions to Make Evaluation Useful — Ontario Nonprofit Network

We are agnostic when it comes to how you do evaluation and believe that whatever approach you choose should work for you. That being said, here are a few specific resources, approaches, and tools that have been used by some of our grant recipients:

  • Theory of Change and Logic models. Logic models and theories of change offer “an explanation of how the activities of a program, project, policy, network or event are expected to contribute to particular results in the short-term and longer-term.”
  • ESAT (Employability Skills Assessment Tool). “The Employability Skills Assessment Tool (ESAT) provides a framework and quantitative assessment methodology for the development of nine employability skills: motivation, attitude, accountability, time management, stress management, presentation, teamwork, adaptability and confidence.”
  • Developmental Evaluation. Developmental Evaluation “is an evaluation approach that can assist social innovators develop social change initiatives in complex or uncertain environments… it facilitates real-time, or close to real-time, feedback to program staff thus facilitating a continuous development loop.”
  • Social Return on Investment. “Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a framework for measuring and accounting for this much broader concept of value; it seeks to reduce inequality and environmental degradation and improve well-being by incorporating social, environmental and economic costs and benefits.”

Have an important lesson or example to share? Contact Ben Liadsky (Ben[at]counselling.net)