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Thanks for signing up for news and extracts relating to our forthcoming book on Modern Grantmaking. 

As well as sharing extracts, we’re going to be using these mails to invite you to online events. The first of these is a conversation with Ciorsdan Brown, Co-Founder of the Grant Givers’ Movement, to be held on 16th March 2021.

This movement is one of the most exciting ‘bottom up’ reform movements we discovered when researching the book, and whatever country you work in it’s likely you’ll find Ciorsdan’s story of shaking up UK grantmaking fascinating. Sign up to the event here.

Right - so onto the first of our book extracts. This one's about why it's so important that funders think of themselves as providing a service.  Please feel free to ask us questions direct, or tweet us with the hashtag #ModernGrantmaking.

Book extract from the chapter 'How can I improve the experience of grantseekers and grantees?'

'As a funder you have a very interesting power dynamic because you can provide a really poor service and a terrible user experience and people will still come back, because they need the money'.
—ANGELA MURRAY, experienced designer of funding programmes and grant management systems

We’ve all been there. It’s mid-morning on a warm summer’s day, and you should really be getting on with your job. But not today. Today you’re sitting with an increasingly sweaty mobile phone glued to your ear, listening time and time again to the message that ‘Your call is important to us’. You’ve been on for over 30 glacial minutes, and your will to live is sapping away as Slade sing ‘Here it is, Merry Christmas’ on repeat.

You’d absolutely love to just slam the phone down, but this call really matters. If you don’t stick with it, something is going to go really wrong. Without this call you’re not going to have any heating, or an airline ticket, or perhaps the right toy for a highly unpredictable two-year-old. In fact you’d absolutely love to not be on the phone at all, but when you were using the website to solve your problem, something went wrong – your credit card kept getting rejected or maybe your login wouldn’t work. So, here you are on the support line.

Eventually a real human picks up the call – a nice one if a bit hard to hear down a crackly phone line. They ask you a number of questions before transferring you to another department. But as they hit the transfer button the call simply hangs up. Your heart sinks. You’re back to square one.

If this story sounds familiar to you, you know what it is like to suffer from a poor-quality customer experience. This chapter is about trying not to cause this kind of suffering to some of the world’s most hard-working and inspiring people.

Why should we invest time and energy in offering grantseekers and grantees a good experience?

One of the shadiest secrets of the grantmaking profession is that utterly miserable applicant experiences are the norm, not the exception. Here are a few anonymous quotes from grantseekers about their experience of applying to different funders:

  • ‘It was worse than dying.’
  • ‘This proposal has ruined me. It’s taken probably 20 full days of work by five people with no indication of whether it will be successful.’
  • ‘It made me want to leave my organisation and change careers.’

Nor are really awful experiences in grantmaking limited to people trying to get money - they happen to grantees too. The process of agreeing contracts with funders, securing payments, filing reports and doing the work of measurement and evaluation, if badly designed and thoughtlessly delivered by the funder, can also cause misery.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and with a bit of knowledge, courage and diligence you can make sure that your organisation doesn’t make your grantseekers feel like the people above.

What causes bad applicant and grantee experiences?

'The challenge in foundations is that very often they are set up to serve the needs of the board so they can make decisions about how to allocate money rather than the needs of a ‘secondary’ user group, that is people that are after that money.'

—DAN SUTCH, director of Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology

It is quite common for some funders to provide a very good service to their boards but not such a great service to their grantseekers and grantees. In these cases, it is usually because grantmakers perceive their boards rather than their grantseekers and grantees as the main people being served. This can result in funders putting time and effort into trying to understand and meet the needs of board members instead of the needs of grantseekers. 

Another cause of problems is that it is generally quicker and cheaper for institutions to offer bad customer experiences, and generally more time consuming and expensive for them to offer good ones. Funding organisations, in particular, can be guilty of offering poor experiences because they aren’t under any market or political pressure to offer good ones. There’s nothing to counterbalance the bureaucratic tendency to put in place yet more questions, attachments, surveys, letters of support, accounts, incorporation documents, budgets, inside leg measurements and so on.

As Sufina Ahmad, director of the John Ellerman Foundation told us, ‘In the funders I’ve worked for previously,  I’ve seen time and again a layering or adding of more complexity to processes rather than reviewing wholesale and figuring out what should be removed to make our offer better.’ Sadly, we aren’t surprised.

So, given that there’s a lack of incentive to offer a good experience, why should a grantmaking organisation such as yours bother to improve things? Why go to the hassle?

For many grantmaking institutions this will be a genuinely novel question, one that has never come up before in internal discussions or board meetings. That’s because an organisation will analyse and debate the quality of service it is offering only if it believes itself to be offering a service in the first place.

Some traditional funders don’t see grantmaking as a service. They see the activity of grantmaking as an act of munificence – the bestowing of gifts on lucky individuals whose only conceivable reaction is delight and gratitude. Just as it would be very rude and ungrateful to complain about your birthday presents, it would be unthinkable to criticise the nature of grants or the way they are handed out. This, we believe, is not an uncommon view of customer service in funders: they ain’t customers and we ain’t providing no freakin’ service.

Attitude-wise, Modern Grantmakers come from a totally different place. As set out in Chapter 1, one of the five key values of Modern Grantmaking is service. This means that Modern Grantmakers see themselves as serving grantseekers and grantees, not as a monarch tossing coins from the window of their gilded coach.

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