There’s an adage about philanthropists: “when you become a philanthropist you never again eat a bad meal or tell a bad joke.”

Being a funder comes with unusual challenges to activities as simple as gathering feedback, exchanging ideas, and expressing opinions:

  • It can be extremely difficult to get honest, critical feedback from potential grantees (who often fear that giving critical feedback could jeopardize their funding).
  • Tentative or unconsidered program officer feedback can have more effect than intended in shaping potential grantee priorities, even if the program officer only meant to offer a consideration or idea.
  • It is easy to “lead people on” and waste their time, even when we aren’t trying to do so. Expressing even casual interest in something can be interpreted by a prospective grantee as encouragement to put a great deal of planning and work into things they hope we’ll fund.

We consider these challenges to be fundamental to our work. Our grantees tend to be our most valuable source of input, and are ultimately our only route to impact. Among the worst mistakes we could make would be failing to have honest exchanges with them, unintentionally distorting their work, or wasting their time.

The challenges we’re tackling here are complex, and we are still far from having a fully developed approach. In this post, we share some of our current internal guidance for program officers about how they can try to manage these challenges. We hope this will generate feedback from others (funders and grantees) about their experiences and how we can manage these issues better.

It can be a big challenge to get honest, critical feedback on our thinking

By default, we do not get much pushback, which makes us concerned that we might be making knowable mistakes that people don’t want to tell us about. To mitigate risks from this problem, we have tried to encourage program officers to:

  • Build strong, comfortable, trusting relationships with leaders in the fields in which we work, in the hopes that people who feel comfortable with and trust our staff will share critical feedback without fearing reprisal.
  • Make clear that we appreciate critical feedback and are receptive to it. Even if we disagree with feedback, we want our critics to feel rewarded rather than punished for speaking up; so when possible, we try to make some tangible change based on feedback we receive.
  • Use prompts like “What would you say if you were hanging out by the water cooler complaining about our work?” or “What do you think other people might not like about our work?” or “Can you give me some criticism of our work? I know there must be something.” to draw out feedback or criticism from grantees and other knowledgeable observers. (When we do draw out feedback, we try to follow the previous principle to encourage more in the future.)
  • Volunteer criticisms of ourselves and our work that we think are valid and that we’re working on.
  • Make a point of talking to people who tend to be more critical, including those who are too powerful to care what we think or who are just habitually blunt. We’ve also found that other funders can be a good source for critical feedback.
  • Send out a periodic survey to grantees that allows (or requires) anonymity. (This is along the rough lines of the Grantee Perception Report, though we currently use our own survey.)

We risk influencing and distorting grantees’ work, even when we’re trying to simply give feedback for their consideration

If we tell a grantee we think it would be good for them to do activity X, they’ll occasionally come back with a major proposal to do X, or will modify their plans to do more X – even if they think (for good reasons, and based on better knowledge than ours) that X is a bad idea.

We think it’s good to be open with existing grantees about what we do and don’t like, but also to be very explicit about things like “This is just an off-the-cuff thought, and I’d defer to your judgment; if you think it’s better to go the other way, then that’s my preference as well.” We would welcome suggestions about how to deliver this message more clearly (or whether it’s the right one to be delivering).

It is easy to “lead people on” and waste their time

In our experience, expressing even casual interest in something can be interpreted by a prospective grantee as encouragement to put a great deal of planning and work into things they hope we’ll fund.

Our internal guidelines for grant investigators are intended to catch this sort of thing early by requiring them to get explicit approval from grant decision-makers before they express “strong interest” to a prospective grantee. This does not guarantee that every grant we deeply investigate will eventually be funded, but it does reduce the likelihood of a potential grantee wasting much of their time pursuing a project we never had any serious interest in. As stated in our public guide for grant-seekers, we strive to keep prospective grantees informed about the likelihood of receiving a grant.

Though we generally prefer norms of openness and honesty in communications, we often need to withhold information about our level of interest in funding particular groups and particular types of work in order to avoid leading people on. We encourage program officers to be explicit about this (e.g., “I shouldn’t comment on how interested we are in that, because we don’t want people to plan around us yet”) rather than vague or cagey.

Our program officers often need to explicitly ask potential grantees not to put any work into something, and often disclaim that they need to check with our team before they can give any indication of interest.

Potential grantees don’t always make avoiding this problem easy, because they often disclaim an explicit interest in funding. We joke internally that a lot of people have heard the saying, “If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money,” and taken it a bit too much to heart. People ask us to brainstorm, to sit on advisory and governing boards, and insist that they just want feedback and ideas; we’ve learned that these requests are often, nonetheless, effectively about fundraising.

We have found it’s often a good idea to ask people directly whether they are seeking funding, and/or tell them whether they are a potential fit for our priorities over the next year or so, even when they don’t bring it up themselves. That can clear the air. That said, sometimes people have been offended by the assumption that they’re seeking funding, so it can be a bit of a balancing act. We have definitely not mastered this dance yet.

Across these issues, we encourage program officers to adopt openness and honesty with others as a default strategy – and in particular to try to make sure everyone knows their real chances of getting funding and/or having it renewed, and what criteria we’ll be using to make these decisions (including when this means sharing our preferences for how organizations will go about their work). It’s a tough balance to strike – the dynamics mean it can sometimes be risky for us to be too blunt in stating what we’re looking for, but ultimately we think more damage is done when people hold out unrealistic hopes regarding our funding plans, or don’t trust us.

We think being honest about what we’re looking for will help maximize our impact because it will save potential grantees’ and our time, and will help ensure that grantees know what we’re planning and what we’re looking for. It’s also a matter of “leading by example” since we want people to be honest with us. But we’re not sure yet if this is the right approach.

We consider one of our major open challenges to be finding more ways to become grantee-centric: to avoid unintentionally wasting grantees’ time and distorting their work, and to get honest feedback from grantees that improves our work. We continue to experiment with different approaches.

We’re curious how others think about and navigate these dynamics, and would welcome comments or references to publications on this point.

Comments

It feels like there might be some potential financial solutions to the first problem, of not getting honest feedback. Set up an incentive gradient where you pick the grantees who most changed your mind on something important, and give a small but non-symbolic amount of extra money (a prize), with the clear explanation of why and what for.

I imagine this would help more with grantees you support many times. To help make this spread to new grantees, you can also keep a page detailing such prizes that you’ve handed out, and send it along to potential grantees to let them know. I also imagine that you can offer different amounts depending on how useful the critical feedback has been.

If you are able to credibly signal the value of information to potential grantees, it could be really great. A sentence like “We once funded organisation X for 6 months, not because we liked what they did, but because they were the only people who told us we were making big, important mistake Y” lets me know I can trust you to care about / fund my honesty as well as my organisational effectiveness.

My guess however is that you have already spent a good deal of time thinking about how to turn money into valuable information, and either think this would not create the desired incentives, or would do so too much (leading to goodharting).

Thanks Ben for this idea. It could be a fair amount of work to make these kinds of rewards go right, and often what we’re looking for is smaller feedback on how our processes are impacting grantees rather than macro changes to our strategy (though we welcome both). But we appreciate the input, and will keep it in mind as we continue to wrestle with these challenges.

No worries. I do expect that big changes to the overall incentive gradient will percolate down into the smaller conversational norms between a funder and a grantee.

It sounds like you need funder-grantee liaison.

I mean, that’s effectively what the OPP is.

Noooo….if they are the funder, by definition they aren’t also the liaison.

If I were a funder-grantee liaison, I would talk to the grantee first to get a feel for how the project is going, what concerns/questions/hopes they have, and apprehensions he/she may foster in regards to the funder.

Then I’d meet with the funder to hear what questions/feedback they have for the grantee and/or project. You know, what they want to talk about with the grantee.

Then I’d plan a lunch for all three of us to chat and have a good time, and would casually and carefully lead them towards productive conversations. A good liaison does this without anyone one noticing, even though they know that is the precise reason for the lunch,

Afterwards, the same day and again a few days later, I would follow up individually to help them digest the information, make sure they felt heard and hear what remained a problem and help them strategize what to do next.

This approach gets the job done with the added bonus of strengthening bonds between both sides of the table, and the institution itself. It doesn’t rely on rewards that make a person feel good in the moment. The positive effects on healthy interpersonal relationships and fulfilling the basic human desire to be heard, understood, and affect change are life changing. Plus, both the funder and grantee would learn a few skills people skills, specifically when there is a complicated power dynamic. Who wouldn’t want that?

The opening sentence of this article makes me wonder, does the OPP have a gifts and entertainment policy? Receiving gifts, meals, etc., has been shown to unconsciously influence decision making, even among highly critical professionals (e.g., doctors). It might make sense, even to avoid the appearance of impropriety, for the OPP to have a policy under which gifts and entertainment are reported and limited in some way.

Thanks Ian. I wouldn’t read the adage literally, but since you asked, Open Phil does have a policy for gifts and entertainment. Our staff is expected to avoid accepting anything of value (>$10) from people or organizations in our fields. Open Phil covers all expenses associated with us doing our jobs, including travel, conferences, events, meetings, dinners, transportation, accommodation, etc. Disclosure to our leadership team is required for anything on the fence.

This also a problem we face - thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. Have you thought about publishing some sort of brief about how you would like grantee relationships to be? Grantees could then read this, and understand better what Open Phil values. There might still be incentives to game it of course

Thanks John for sharing this idea. We have a couple of pages on our website that serve some of this function – our Guide for Grant Seekers (https://www.openphilanthropy.org/giving/guide-for-grant-seekers) and our Grantmaking Stages (https://www.openphilanthropy.org/our-process-grantmaking-stages) lay out our process for evaluating potential grants, and signals our desire to keep prospective grantees posted on the likelihood of receiving a grant, the likely timeline, and the likely amount of investigation that will be needed. But it’s possible that a page describing an ideal relationship could be helpful. Have you produced something like that before, or have you seen a good example of it elsewhere?

No we haven’t produced anything like this or seen an example anywhere, though I’ve been thinking about doing so a lot over the last few months.

I guess it depends a little on the cause area, but i would say that on the micro level it can be fairly easy to discern some of the people who are more likely to give critical feedback, as they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. There are also organisations which could be funded which are more critical of aspects of effective altruism anyway. This could lead to the development of relationships that are more enriching in terms of the type of feedback received in a micro and macro context.

Generally though on the macro level, and in relation to the animal movement, it’s a thorny issue, particularly within effective altruism and the dominance of utilitarian approaches and Peter Singer as a founder and leader. My general feeling is that effective altruism and organisations associated with that approach are disinclined to examine some of the foundational issues associated with the power dynamics within the animal movement. So choosing not to do this will in my view lead to lower levels of push back and higher levels of conformity. Particularly as those groups associated with this approach tend to receive funding and those who aren’t do not. There are so many layers to this, but in a recent journal article Lisa Kemmerer wrote about some of the associated issues, not that i agree with all the points, and i am uncertain to the accuracy of some them, and yet i do generally agree with the issues that are emphasised and believe it would be worthwhile to pursue them in more depth.

http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol21/iss1/12/

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