The power of parsimony: why less might be more when it comes to grantee reporting

It’s a moment that many organisations dread: the looming deadline for a report to a funder.

Done well, the process of gathering and making sense of information about a grantee’s work can be a useful learning exercise for both grantee and funder.

Done badly, it is a time-consuming slog to both compile (on the side of the grantee) and wade through (on the side of the funder) the swathes of ‘uninformation’, where no-one is left any clearer on the big question: what does the work we do add up to?

What’s the issue?

The ‘line’ is often more like a chasm.

Grantee reporting treads a delicate line between accountability (letting funders know where their money has been spent) on the one side, and learning (critical reflection on what has and hasn’t worked well) on the other – and that ‘line’ is often more like a chasm.

Faced with time constraints and the perceived power dynamic of sharing information with people that shape future grants, accountability often wins out. Thus grantees report a mix of activities, to demonstrate how busy they have been, and success stories, to demonstrate how effective they have been.

And this can be resource intensive. Precious resources are channelled into processes that have the potential to generate useful insights, but that all-too-often present missed opportunities for real learning.

Given reporting is here to stay (funders aren’t likely to make investments without wanting at least a minimal level of feedback), we asked ourselves:

  • How can we change the current system that leaves both sides feeling deflated?
  • How can we promote real learning from the resources invested in all this reporting?

Addressing the challenge – efficiency and usefulness gains

Some foundations recognise that they have an important role to play in addressing this challenge, and are working to do something about it.

For example, the Hewlett Foundation has done some soul-searching after recognising that whilst their reporting systems made their work easier, they were creating quite a burden on existing and potential grantees. They stripped back proposal and reporting requirements to a trim three-question ask from grantees, focusing on information that would be useful to both parties.

Along similar lines, Project Streamline did some fantastic work on understanding how foundations could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of information flows between grant-makers and grantees. See here for a good introduction.

When it comes to the usefulness of funder reports, the Inter-American Foundation is something of a poster-child, with its reporting and evaluation process regularly scoring top marks in the Centre for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Survey question:

“How helpful was participating in the foundation’s reporting/evaluation process in strengthening the organization/programme funded by the grant?”

Giving Evidence has shared their findings from probing why the Inter-American foundation fare so well. They found that integrating reporting and evaluation into the intervention, alongside a high level of evaluation engagement and feedback, seem to be the innovations that have made the difference to fostering a helpful dialogue between grantee and grant-maker.

A way forward

Itad has done some further thinking, based on our work as learning partners and evaluators for funders and grant implementers.  (For example, see here for recent work with Norad). We have identified three key ways in which funders and grantees can work together to reorient the reporting process to maximise the potential for learning:

  1. Adopt the principle of parsimony: only collect (ask for) information you actually use. And then use it! There are many questions you can ask, but what are the most important ones you need answers to? What is the rationale for collecting and reporting this information? How does this stack up compared with the benefits for each side?

Funders: let grantees know what you appreciate about their reports, and where there might be room for improvement. Discuss the implications of making any changes in terms of the availability of information, or resources required. Recognise the resource demands reporting can impose, and the opportunity cost in terms of learning that this can present.

Grantees: Ask questions of your funder. When you submit a report, if you don’t hear much back, send a prompt. Was that report helpful? What was missing? What can we change for next time? Provide feedback regarding the resources consumed in reporting, versus the internal opportunities for learning. Is there something we could cut from the report without losing valued information?

  1. Create a safe space for open and honest conversations: recognise that there is a power dynamic at play, and be upfront about what that means for each side. Be clear in how you would like the relationship to progress and what is required from each party to make this a reality.

Funders: Role-model best practice, by demonstrating humility and realistic expectations of what grantees can and cannot achieve. Provide grantees with reassurance by showing that you understand the difference between failing to achieve an outcome, and failing to try your best to achieve that outcome.

Grantees: Be brave. Share which elements of the reporting process are most useful for learning, and which seem to be less so. Respond to requests for more honest reporting by sharing experiences that didn’t go as planned, and monitor the response you receive. If you sense reproach, raise the fact that you have been explicitly asked to be more honest about what hasn’t worked so well and that this will inevitability include less-than-positive stories.

  1. Be realistic about what can be achieved and the limits of the relationship: set realistic expectations of the types of information you are likely to exchange. Grantees are not likely to share every hiccup or challenge with their funder, but neither are they likely to single-handedly change a law on a key issue. Setting the boundaries of the relationship will be helpful to guide future conversations.

Funders: Demonstrate an understanding of your role in skewing the conversation towards the positive – and why this matters. Let grantees know that you’re aware they’re unlikely to tell you everything, warts and all. Emphasise that without a degree of more honest reporting, you’re unable to support them in the best possible way.

Grantees: Set realistic expectations about what can be achieved, and your role within this. In the end, nobody benefits if you overclaim your success or contribution to this. Funders will be sceptical, partners will be peeved that you’ve not acknowledged their role, and perhaps most importantly you will be unable to understand your true added-value to achieving change. Focus instead on using the information you collect for reporting for internal learning. Maybe this means creating two documents from your analysis – an external funder report, and an internal lessons-learnt document.

A deeper issue?

There is a potentially deeper underlying issue at play that feeds into this situation: grant managers are often overloaded. The pressure on their time means they are less able to meaningfully engage with grantee reports, or take the time needed to create a safe space. When faced with a time constraint and their own trade-off between accountability (internally, to their managers and directors) and learning, they focus on the ‘need to know’ for their internal reporting, crowding out space for learning.

It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about improving the reporting dynamic for the longer term as, without creating the proper space required for meaningful engagement, it will be all too easy to revert to the status quo.

Added to this is the challenge of building a long-term consistent approach posed by changes in personnel. Funders and grantees often have long-term relationships, but individuals in specific posts will change. Clearly articulated guidance, robust relationship handovers, and restating expectations during the period of change will help to smooth the transition.

A last word

If you take only one thing away from this post, let it be this: the courage to experiment with a reporting model that isn’t working for you.

We would love to hear from you with your experiences of funder-grantee reporting. What have you seen work well in constructing meaningful exchange of information between funders and grantees? How can we move closer to a position of mutual benefit?

Laura Hopkins and Rob Lloyd, December 2018


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