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Reporting lessons from your grantmaking

Sharing the lessons learned from your grantmaking with other grantmakers and the broader community is one of the richest ways to add value to work you are already doing. Frank reporting requires conviction that what doesn't work is just as valuable in terms of lessons and growth as what does work

Why bother?

There are some within the philanthropic sector who see knowledge-sharing and learning as a luxury, costing time grantmakers can little afford; others face stakeholder pressure to tell only the good news stories about what worked, rather than sharing information about what went wrong, or what didn't work. However, there are very good arguments for going ahead and reporting on lessons learned anyway.

A report by the UK-based charity consultancy New Philanthropy Capital, Foundations for Knowledge, puts it like this: "… learning is not an 'optional extra'… Knowledge is essential to charitable funders." 

Drawing out the knowledge from lessons learned through your grantmaking can:

  • help you to understand social issues;
  • help you to understand how to tackle those issues;
  • help you to work out which initiatives to support; and
  • help you to fund effectively.

When financial resources are stretched (and there are few grantmakers who have sufficient funds to satisfy every applicant who approaches them), you can capitalise on your knowledge bank to increase your impact. You may not be able to hand out as much money as you'd like to, but you can provide people with valuable information.

Reports from your grantees

One option is to encourage your grantees to tell their own stories about funded projects. 

If you want grantees to be frank about things that went wrong, they need to trust that you won't hold it against them in future and that there is some allowance in the budget for time spent on reports. They need to understand that you truly believe that what does not work is just as important as what works; that the lessons learned will contribute to other work in future. 

Some grantmakers ask grantees not only to write a report but to write it in such a way that they are happy for it to be published on the grantmaker's website. 

Funding community reporting

One way of maximising learning is to fund it - add a reporting component to your grants. You could also make it a condition that lessons learned are shared with others involved in similar work. On the flip side, you can offer grants for community groups to learn from the work of others.

You can support grantees to publish an article, or subsidise their attendance at conferences where they can share information about their experiences. 

Early on in a project you might not be aware of the potential learning opportunities, but you may choose to spend more on the evaluation and dissemination of lessons further down the track, when you become aware of the potential. 

Producing your own reports

While the groups you fund may well have important messages and solutions to share, they may not have the impetus to make their voices heard. While they may be happy for lessons associated with their work to be shared, they may see their mission as limited to serving their community and that anything taking resources away from that (to spread information further afield) is not appropriate for them. You can maximise the value of the money you've invested by helping to ensure that policy makers, opinion leaders and even others in the community sector hear their message.

Foundations for Knowledge observes that grantmakers are uniquely placed to acquire and share knowledge and can play a crucial role in sharing information about lessons learned. By learning from your own work and that of other grantmakers, you can make better decisions and create wider influence by encouraging government, other funders and charities to adopt the best approaches. 

Where grantees managing projects can only comment on their particular project, you can take an overview, comparing one funded approach to another. 

One question you will have to answer is, who will do the communicating on your behalf? Can you capitalise on existing internal resources, or do you need to get new people in or outsource the job? You need to work out how you can fund reporting within your budget - it is not cost-free and may be difficult to just add on to the workloads of current staff. 

When you take on a large project you could consider budgeting for a final report that sets out the numbers and also reviews how things might have been done differently. 

Formats

There are all sorts of forums you can use to get your message across. Some of them include:

  • Issuing a media release and holding a media conference. Be aware, however, that the media will not often consider grantmaking work to be newsworthy, unless there is a major change, major achievement or significant amount of funding involved.
  • Producing an article for an academic journal in the relevant field.
  • Publishing information on your website. 
  • Using your own newsletter, and sending it to existing stakeholders and anyone else you think might be interested.
  • Using your annual report to tell stories about your work.

Other tips

  • Make sure the language you use is user-friendly - don't use jargon.
  • Play to your strengths. The Sesame Workshop, for example, the not-for-profit educational organisation behind Sesame Street, uses its colourful characters to catch the eye and convey important messages.
  • Make sure that information on your website is not buried beneath too many clicks.
  • Ask for feedback on your published materials. 
  • Be a good storyteller - often the best way to get your message across is through your grantees' stories.
  • Research your audiences and communicate to them in ways that are accessible to them.
  • Tailor communications for different audiences, but ensure that all of your communications activities are integrated and that they reinforce one another. 
  • Don't impose external, independent evaluation on projects too soon. Grantees ought to be given a chance to crawl, to walk and even to run before being subjected to rigorous evaluation. 
  • Ensure information is distributed to the people who will most benefit from it, rather than simply trying to have it covered by mass media (and probably failing because they are not interested).
  • Don't impose your methods on a grantee pursuing its own information distribution strategy. 

Beyond reporting

If you want real benefits to emerge from your reporting, it's not enough to describe your activities and how efficient they were. Information that is more useful includes details about which approaches under what conditions yielded significant results. We need to know how something was achieved, or how circumstances came to be where something didn't work out. Analysis and critical reflection are required. 

As the former chair of the Ian Potter Foundation, Dr Dorothy Scott, once said, "Projects are not either successful or unsuccessful. Usually there are degrees of success and lack of success and we need to be able to identify the elements that were more or less successful." 

In Foundations for Knowledge, New Philanthropy Capital refers to explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, and says you need to report on both. Explicit knowledge includes: 

  • grantee progress reports
  • program evaluations
  • annual reports from grantmakers and grantees.

Tacit knowledge includes:

  • strategies for encouraging grantees to share failures as well as successes
  • accumulated knowledge of the history of efforts and organisations working in a field
  • the ability to assess synergies and gaps in programs across many organisations.

Information about better and worse ways of doing things does not necessarily result in change. If you want to see the process through, you may need to partner not only with grantees but also with policymakers and governments. Publication should not be an end in itself - it should be a means to an end. 

Accessibility

Publishing information is one thing; ensuring people are aware of and able to access that information is a separate consideration. Here are some tips:

  • On your website, publish a prominent link to reporting documents.
  • Advertise the latest additions to your website on the homepage.
  • Link directly to a projects results page in your various marketing materials, particularly emails.
  • Make your information visible to search engines by using well-designed page titles, page descriptions and metatags. 
  • Put the newest documents at the top of a page - many people don't scroll down.
  • Enable users to go straight to a relevant section from a menu at the top of the page. 
  • Make sure you have a printer-friendly version of your document available.

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