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Opening up on funder strategy: what to say, how, and when

Is there a more dreaded phrase for grantee ears than “funder strategy refresh?” In the best case, a funder strategy review will likely mean a limbo period in active grantmaking; worst case it can lead to a funder deciding to exit the grantee’s issue area.

How can funders make the strategy process more open and intelligible to grantee partners, fellow funders, and the fields they serve? What to communicate and when? These have become active questions among members of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) funder collaborative that brings together seven major funders of good governance programming, representing around $600 million in active grants.

Even in a small collaborative such as TAI, at any one point, there is at least one of our members entering or exiting a strategy process. We’ve noted growing demand from foundation directors and program officers alike to compare notes and encourage each other to communicate strategy steps and decisions in ways that feel responsible, authentic, and respectful. There is a desire to tap field insights to inform funder strategy and a desire to manage the anxiety that funder reviews can provoke. Ideally, these are not in competition.

So, what are funder recommendations for communicating strategy?

  • Set clear parameters for input. Be clear on if and when you are inviting feedback in the strategy process and to what end. Often a funder will commission a field scan, evidence review, or trends analysis and will invite partner input or validation of those products. Draft strategy positions or theories of change may be shared. This shift to greater transparency in funder thinking and a more iterative process is to be encouraged. However, it’s important to be specific on the expectations and channel for feedback and to be up front about how feedback will be acknowledged and used. You don’t want partners left with the sense that they took the time to comment, but their input disappeared into a strategy black hole.
  • Know your audiences. Take care early in the process to map out who are the stakeholders to prioritize for communication – for example:
    • Grantees
    • Peer funders
    • Researchers and practitioners working on the funded issue
    • Colleagues (don’t neglect internal communications – sometimes foundation staff can feel in the dark.)
  • Communicate proactively. “Communicate early and often” has been an oft-repeated phrase in our funder discussions. A vacuum will only amplify anxiety and fuel rumors about strategic directions that may or may not be accurate. TAI members have found it helpful to be up front on the reasons for a strategy review, the anticipated timetable, and any sense of how radical a shift it may entail.
  • Sequencing matters. Especially, as you get to strategic decisions with implications for future funding, the order of outreach really matters. Communicate to current grantee partners first, then fellow funders in the field, then the broader set of field organizations.
  • Mode of communication matters. While the announcement of the start of a strategy review might be done electronically, decisions regarding future funding priorities and the implications are best communicated in ways that allow for two-way communication. Funders should create conditions that enable listening and back and forth to understand questions and concerns.
  • Invest in internal messaging capacity. It is valuable to develop a clear set of messages that can be communicated consistently. For example, one TAI member worked with a consultant to build up a set of standard talking points to introduce the strategy process and initial decisions to partners, as well as anticipated FAQ responses. These talking points and FAQs were regularly revised based on conversations already held.

What can this all look like in practice? The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Transparency, Participation, and Accountability team is in the process of completing a strategy refresh that will result in some shifts in its priorities and grantmaking. The team has used a combination of advance messages, regular updates, public blogs distilling learnings, and webinars to contextualize published field review and evaluation and explain strategy shifts. They have actively sought input and been careful to respond to feedback received. That proactive communication has proven quite resource intensive.

As Dana Hovig, Program Director of Gender Equity and Governance at the Hewlett Foundation, notes: “We have strived to bring grantees, partners, and peer funders along on the refresh process, seeking their input at multiple points. This is part of our commitment to transparency and openness, and it is also a way to ensure that we respond to the changing context in a meaningful and effective way. At the Hewlett Foundation, we trust our grantees to be our partners in problem-solving and believe it is critical to engage others in pressure testing our ideas. We recognize that strategy refreshes can cause uncertainty and anxiety, but we hope that sharing our experience, findings, and lessons learned contributes to creating new opportunities for collaboration and further strengthens the field.”

Finding the right balance is often a work in progress and TAI members are still wrestling with some communication challenges. For example, announcements of a strategy review and asks for input tend to raise a lot of questions from partners to which the funder will not have immediate answers – a strategy refresh is often a six-month process if not longer. So, what best to say in the meantime? On a different note, strategies necessarily involve choices, but not everyone will agree with those made. So, how do you best communicate the rationale, be open to criticism, and be clear on what is fixed and what is still open to adaptation?

As one TAI funder director noted, communicating strategy is “more art than science” and there is always room for improvement. The philanthropic community needs spaces for funders to talk frankly of their experiences, hear feedback from those on the receiving end, and encourage reflection. After all, the next strategy review will never be far away.


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