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Listening Carefully

In 2019, I attended Philanthropy Colorado’s 2019 Powering Partnerships luncheon and heard Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation speak. I was inspired by her approach to using an online tool, GrantAdvisor, to listen to the grantee communities they work with. In 2020, Community First Foundation began our strategic planning to create a new roadmap for our organization and a dedication to relentless listening emerged early on. This gave us the perfect opportunity to try GrantAdvisor.

Vulnerability and courage go hand in hand.
When any of us ask our stakeholders to give us feedback anonymously, we open ourselves to criticism. More importantly, we commit to listening and changing when change is needed. This is scary and uncomfortable, and risky. To combat that fear of risk and uncertainty, Community First Foundation embraced the idea that excellence can only be achieved when we create the space to learn what is and isn’t working. We couldn’t let fear of anonymous feedback as a potential risk for exposing problems drive our decision. We had to embrace it as an opportunity for the kind of radical listening that could lead to authentic transformation of our organization and processes.

A plan to combat jitters.
Before we made the leap to encouraging our stakeholders to evaluate us using GrantAdvisor, we paused for self-reflection and preparation. We wanted each reviewer to feel immediately listened to and drafted how we might respond to both positive and negative feedback. What would we say in response to those uncomfortable criticisms? How would we work to be better?

We wanted to improve our organization and achieve our mission in more impactful ways. This isn’t easy or comfortable work; self-reflection rarely is. But rolling up our sleeves and having a plan alleviated some of the pressure and gave us a path to move forward. It also allowed us to establish benchmarks, goals and ambitions for our use of GrantAdvisor in our listening efforts.

The big invite.
We invited people to tell us what they think. We wanted their reviews – including the ones from those who didn’t receive funding. The timing was perfect. Because of COVID, Community First Foundation launched a rapid-response fund to support our community. We worked quickly to fund local nonprofits and we were eager to hear from them to determine if we were meeting their needs. If not, how could we do better? Time was of the essence and GrantAdvisor was the right tool at the right time.

We sent an email to each of our recent grant applicants, regardless of whether or not they received funding, and invited them to tell us how we did.

Business as usual.
GrantAdvisor is now a routine part of our grant process. We’ve added a link and invitation to review us on GrantAdvisor at the end of our grant applications. We are beginning to promote the review tool on our social platforms. We regularly monitor reviews and share with our staff and board the sentiment dashboard and what we’re hearing so we can identify ways to do better.

Aspiring to make good possible.
Community First Foundation wants to make good possible. To do that requires that our stakeholders feel heard and want to collaborate with us. That’s why we established benchmarks before launching our campaign so that we could set our sights on what we aim to be! However you choose to gather feedback, don’t let fear or risk aversion keep you from getting it. Create a plan for getting and responding to feedback, socialize the idea with your leadership team, and embrace it as a learning opportunity. When we listen to the communities we serve, and create space for both good and bad feedback, we are on a path accomplishing the extraordinary.

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Paul is the Director of Business Processes at the Community First Foundation

Paul Mulligan
Director of Business Processes

“We wanted to improve our organization and achieve our mission in more impactful ways. This isn’t easy or comfortable work; self-reflection rarely is.”

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