Late last year we received the results of a grantee perception survey, conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. While we were digesting the results and planning how we would respond, the COVID-19 virus evolved from a distant concern into a global crisis. It became clear that strong relationships are key to getting through this, and, as a funder, no relationships are more critical to our ability to help than the ones we enjoy with charities, non-profits and social enterprises from coast to coast to coast.

Below we’ve summarized the results of the grantee perception survey. What we know about COVID-19 is that the current crisis will continue to disrupt everyone’s work for a prolonged period of time, and so we recognize there’s an opportunity for us to supplement these learnings with new insights, in order to adapt our practices to the circumstances in which we all find ourselves.

What we heard

Survey respondents pointed to our strengths and weaknesses in six main thematic areas:

  1. Foundation’s goals and strategies: Our contributions and support for work in particular domains was recognized. Our clear focus on subjects such as Indigenous reconciliation, social innovation and social finance were appreciated, and considered of significant importance for Canada. On the other hand, some grantees felt we did not understand certain areas of their work well enough, and we didn’t communicate a clear strategy and objectives. 
  2. McConnell’s role in the philanthropic sector: Grantees welcomed our leadership in the work of pan-Canadian systems change. Our commitment to social innovation, while welcomed by many, is too assertive in the views of others. Many grantees supported our commitment to the “long view” as well as our dedication to strategic learning and sharing of insights sector-wide.
  3. Foundation relationship with grantees: Many respondents appreciated our flexible reporting requirements and the depth of relationships staff often cultivate with grantees. Our support for grantees’ learning activities, professional development and capacity building were applauded. Conversely, a minority felt we were too prescriptive in our approach, and recommended a less hands-on relationship.
  4. Non-financial support: According to the survey results, this was a distinguishing strength of the Foundation. Grantees that received additional non-financial support from us — for convening, research, networking and training for individuals and capacity building for organizations — tended to rate their experience of the Foundation more favourably than those that received funding only.
  5. Grants management — Due diligence and selection process: That McConnell’s portal is open for grants all year round was popular. However, some applicants — especially those who had proposed complex, collaborative projects — were concerned about the length of time it takes the Foundation to make decisions. Some respondents welcomed the “generative” process whereby, after an application has been selected for further due diligence, applicants work with staff on getting a proposal ready for the Board’s review.
  6. Funding Parameters: Grantees expressed appreciation for our ability to tolerate risk, in particular for bold, innovative initiatives. They also welcomed our ability to attract other funders. However, the practice of requiring co-funding as a condition for awarding a grant can slow down final decisions. Some grantees would like us to consider more funding for ongoing operations and multiple or longer grants. Our willingness to support core organization functions and not just provide project funding, as we do through the Social Innovation Fund, was a plus for many respondents.

What we’ll be doing

Short term: We will be revising many of the primary communications resources through which we stay connected to grantees — grant notification letters, the Foundation website, and others. Our goal is to make these clearer and more informative, and to provide better means of ongoing dialogue in situations when that can be helpful to grantees. 

Mid term: We will spend the next few months learning about the needs of current and potential grantees, paying particular attention to the new demands and stresses imposed by COVID-19. We operate a COVID-19 Slack channel and plan to integrate more learning feedback loops into our website and newsletters in the form of surveys and other invitations to connect.

Long term: The Foundation is implementing a new strategic direction and also undergoing a structural transition. We will integrate what we’re learning into a comprehensive overhaul of the systems, processes and  strategy currently underway. We will report on these endeavours at a later date.

Photo: Jackie Ookimawwitt