Seeking feedback - why and how it drives forward progress and change
In April 2023, we commissioned nfpResearch to complete our second perception audit for us again, and you can see the results from our previous perception audit by scrolling down to the section titled 'Our 2020 perception audit results'.
We received a total of 233 responses out of a possible 691 to the survey, meaning we had a response rate of 33%.
87 respondents were grant-holders and 146 were unsuccessful applicants, which represents a response rate of 55% and 27% respectively for these groups. nfpResearch typically finds that the response rates for grant-holders is about 40% and for unsuccessful applicants is 15%.
We don’t take feedback for granted and appreciate deeply the time given freely by organisations to audits such as these. We know that there is always a power dynamic that exists between a funder and its applicants and grant-holders, and this can discourage organisations from giving us direct and honest feedback. However, we hope that by running these surveys via nfpResearch and in an anonymised way, alongside the fact that we can demonstrate that each time we ask for feedback we act upon it, that this demonstrates that there is an integrity and robustness in our perception audit process.
Our entire organisation is made up of seven full-time staff, and whilst we strive to be an outward-facing and collaborative organisation, we know that there will always be limits to how much we can learn and take in from others. 243 people taking the time to respond to our perception audit, provides us with exceptional levels of insights and understanding of our application process and how we are perceived and understood externally.
What did the 2023 results show us – the positives
The Foundation was perceived as a positive, supportive and progressive force in the wider sector, that has a good reputation, is approachable, has strong leadership, and a strong feedback culture. 85% of our grant-holders felt that we were living up to our organisational values of being responsive, discerning, connected, flexible and applying a personal touch too.
Our offer of core funding remains highly valued, as does our offer of funding for policy, advocacy and campaigning work within our Social Action and Environment funding categories. Respondents were also very positive about the involvement of Trustees in application assessment – particularly as part of the second-stage Visit, with 7 in 10 respondents feeling better understood afterwards.
The results on providing feedback to declined applicants were particularly encouraging. 60% of unsuccessful applicants are now clear on why their application was unsuccessful, compared to only 36% in 2020. Applicants commented that the feedback received was clear, constructive and personalised. According to nfpResearch, such a significant and demonstrable improvement is unprecedented amongst the benchmark and in their years of conducting perception audits.
The application process experience outranks that of the average funder and has improved, with 61% of grant-holders and unsuccessful applicants rating the application process as excellent or very good compared to 54% in 2020. There was a positive response to our pre-application support, and an appreciation for this being provided by all levels of the Grants Team. The time grant-holders spend on applying has reduced since 2020, as well as the time taken for us to reach a decision on whether to award a grant (3.3 months on average for grant-holders and 2.5 months for unsuccessful applicants) which is around the same as the benchmark average for both.
What did the 2023 results show us – areas for improvement
We saw a reduction in the number of grant-holders who would describe us as ‘very helpful’ after receiving a grant – this went down to 46%, having been at 69% in 2020. The main reasons given for this relate to the levels of staffing changes at the Foundation in 2022, and some grant-holders being less clear on who to contact during this time. This also impacted our results in relation to the number of grant-holders who felt ‘very well’ understood, which went down to 38% (having been 45% in 2020). It was reassuring to see that many respondents did reflect that the new Grants Team is settling in well, having joined in November and December 2022, and that they were feeling much clearer now on who their points of contact were in the organisation.
Some respondents also raised the issue of our criteria to support work that is nationally significant, and this being considered by some as a barrier when applying to us, particularly for organisations embedded in their communities and operating more locally. However, there were also insights around the national significance criteria being a way in which the Foundation can have a wider reach and greater impact. Only 25% of unsuccessful applicants found us to be flexible, particularly in relation to funding criteria. This is perhaps inevitable, given that we have seen year on year increases in our application numbers and this means having to decline more organisations.
We also used the audit to consider in more depth our funder plus offer, i.e. the support we can provide beyond our grants. The Foundation has a small funder plus offer already, comprising trainings and access to our meeting room in London mainly. The responses offered us some ideas to explore, like supporting grant-holders to network with each other, or strategic, legal and consultancy support. Some responded that whatever the offer might be, they would likely struggle to find the time to engage with it meaningfully.
The findings present a real opportunity for us to continue improving the way we work.
Declinations – The feedback we provide on applications we decline has improved significantly since 2020. However, we need to be sure that when declining applications, we provide more than just the reason of there being insufficient funds. Since January 2023, we have implemented processes that mean we avoid doing this altogether. We also updated our feedback process for the Museums and Galleries Fund in February 2023, whereby we now provide a standard declination email to all declined applicants that includes a summary of the main reasons an application was declined and then provides the offer of more detailed feedback should this be requested. Previously, we told organisations they had been declined, without providing any reasons. We also introduced a Complaints Policy in July 2023, aimed at unsuccessful applicants primarily.
National significance definition – There is some confusion about what national significance means. Since August 2020, we have been completing annual reviews of our funding guidelines, and we have received feedback previously about there being some confusion on the definition of national significance. This resulted in some clear changes in 2021 and 2022. We reviewed the way in which we described national significance again in 2023 as a Board and team, and hope that this ongoing review of the definition of national significance will make it clearer.
Pre-application support offer – It’s not always clear that pre-application support is available. This information is available and stated on our website in multiple places and in our funding guidelines. However, in September 2023 we added a note to the contact us page stating that all pre-application enquiries should be directed to Stephanie and Jo, our Grants Officer and Grants Manager respectively. Hopefully this will help to make it clearer that pre-application support is available.
Grants management – Some of our grant-holders felt that they didn’t have as clear a point of contact or relationship with the Foundation in 2022, due to staffing changes and a restructure in 2022. Since January 2023, the grants portfolio has been spread across four members of the team, rather than three, and every staff member has introduced themselves to each of our grant-holders as their point of contact. We continue to ensure that all our offer letters make clear who the manager of the grant is, and we offer ‘check ins’ six months into the first year of a grant between each grant-holder and the manager of their grant, in case there is anything they would like to discuss. Our current structure also means that we have more time available for progress and final reports to be read in detail and in a timely manner, and this is reflected in the quality of the responses grant-holders receive on their reporting.
Our funder plus offer – We asked about our funder plus offer in the audit and will need to consider what our funder plus offer should be in 2024. Whatever we design needs to consider carefully that many organisations just want the money and don’t want to feel the pressure to attend funder plus activities. We also need to consider how to complement the good programmes of funder plus being offered to organisations already, like strategic, legal and consultancy support from Lloyds Bank Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. We would also need to consider the feedback on other funder plus activities we have offered already, for example Smarter Not Harder training, Aim-Hi Earth training and More in Common focus groups and themed discussions.
In April 2020, at the height of the first Covid-19 related lockdown in the UK, we commissioned the market research and consulting company nfpResearch to complete a confidential and anonymous survey with all our unsuccessful applicants, grant-holders and former grant-holders from the last two years. We were keen to use this as an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of those that have undertaken part, or all, of our application process and use this feedback to think about how we can improve our grantmaking. The survey also allows us to benchmark our performance against eight other funders that have conducted similar surveys through nfpResearch. You can find out more about why we wanted to complete this survey in this blog on our website.
This is the first time that we have undertaken a survey of this nature. The first stage of the research collected quantitative feedback through the survey (though there were many open comments too), and the second stage collected qualitative feedback using in-depth interviews with six grant-holders and four unsuccessful applicants.
We received 361 (out of a possible 629) responses – of which 143 were grant-holders and 218 were unsuccessful applicants. The high response rate gives us a high degree of confidence in how representative the results are.
In summary, we were considered an approachable, human, flexible and professional funder that sought to support causes that many other funders won’t – with our preference to offer core funding an additional bonus. It wasn’t clear to everyone though that we are a small organisation of six staff, with just three members of the team working on grants full-time.
We were praised highly for seeking to understand the organisations we work with through our application process and grant management. However, we have work to do to ensure that the decision times are better understood and explained, and reduced if possible – with 50% believing us to be quick in making decisions compared to 59% for the benchmark average.
Our application process was considered excellent or very good by 52% of respondents, and where pre-application advice was sought and received it was thought of as very helpful – although it was mentioned that not everyone realised pre-application advice was available, and in some cases pre-application advice had not been made available to those requesting it.
89% felt that the application was reasonable for the size of grant they were applying for, comparable to the benchmark average, but our inconsistency in offering verbal or written feedback for why we have rejected an application – especially at first stage – was seen as an area for clear improvement. Our applicants tend to spend more time applying for a grant from us than the benchmark average – but this might be due to the fact that we meet with applicants at second stage to inform our decision making.
A high proportion of grant-holders found reporting back on their grant ‘not difficult’, outperforming the benchmark average. However, 17% of grant-holders were interested in a closer working relationship with us (compared to 7% of the benchmark average).
There’s a lot for us to reflect on in our results. You can read the full 2020 report here.
In response to this feedback, we delivered the following next steps:
- Our grantmaking process in terms of the decision times for our two-stage process needs to be clearer. In November 2020, we added details on the timelines we work to on our How to apply page.
- Pre-application advice needs to be available more consistently in a way that is feasible for a small team like ours. To this end, we update our funding guidelines annually and include new or updated frequently asked questions based on what we are hearing. We have also expanded the grant team’s capacity in the last year by adding a new permanent member of staff, which should mean we can provide more pre-application support over email, phone and in-person or virtual meetings.
- Feedback on unsuccessful applications needs to be given more readily. From October 2020 onwards we have started providing written feedback on why an application was unsuccessful at first stage, and we hope our increased capacity in the team will mean that we can give further feedback over email, phone and/or in person or virtual meetings to those that need this.
- Our grant management needs to offer more contact and support to those that want it. We have reviewed the distribution of the grant portfolio across the team over the summer, and feel that this is now spread more evenly, which should enable the three staff with a grants portfolio to be more responsive
- Some queries were raised about how open we were to supporting organisations we haven’t funded previously. Based on our 2020/21 grantmaking figures, we can confirm that 50% of the grants we made last year were made to charities that have never received a grant from us before, 33% had not applied to us ever before, and 17% had applied to us at least once before unsuccessfully. This is now something that we report on annually in our Annual Report and Accounts.
If you want to learn more about our perception audit work, please contact our Director, Sufina Ahmad.