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Honest Feedback: The Greatest Gift a Funder Can Receive

Judy Belk

May 12, 2018—In mid-April, I met with 12 grantees for a “lunch with the CEO” at our office in Los Angeles. It was informal and comfortable; no hard-hitting agenda. Just me, my staff and local community leaders talking about our vision for California, our commitment to social justice, health equity and wellness in our communities, and the opportunities and challenges we face.

This lunch, the second of many to come, was a direct and heartfelt response to feedback our community partners shared with us.

About the Center for Effective Philanthropy survey

Last year, we worked with the Center for Effective Philanthropy to survey 202 grantees and 272 declined applicants. We asked them for their genuine and anonymous thoughts about our work.

Among other issues, our partners pointed out that we could be even more effective if we made ourselves more available, easier to reach and more approachable. They asked to meet more frequently with our program directors and me in order to better understand our priorities, initiatives and opportunities for collaboration. We wholeheartedly agreed and began hosting these bimonthly CEO lunches as one small way to make ourselves a more engaged partner.

Overall, we got great marks on the surveys. Our grantees said they feel heard and seen, that we’re having a strong impact on their fields and that we’re empathetic, collaborative and understand their challenges and needs. The survey also asked about whether or not we demonstrate a strong commitment to values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Our grantees gave us high marks on showing our commitment, and using our platform and voice to advance these values.

“Cal Wellness listens to its grantees in a way that is rare in the field.” This was one of my favorite comments because listening has been one of my priorities since I became CEO in 2014: to actively listen and truly hear our community partners, and then take deliberate action. For example, for the past few years, we have been engaged in a multiyear “customer service initiative” to improve our speed and efficiency. The result? We’re getting dollars out the door more quickly, we’re overhauling our grants management system, and we’re striving to be more transparent.

What we learned

After celebrating the encouraging survey results, we quickly dove into analyzing the areas where we could improve.

Among many things, we learned that our grantees want us to support them beyond making core operating and multiyear grants, which they praised us for. They asked for more opportunities to collaborate with us, more convenings and more help with capacity building. We learned that our grantees and applicants want us to be quicker when responding to their inquiries and questions and clearer as to why their applications were denied. We found out that being more approachable and easier to talk to is a priority. Finally, we learned that our grantees want us to extend our voice, digital platforms and marketing savvy to bring more attention to their work.

How we’re acting on our learning

The CEO lunches are just one of the action steps we’ve come up with so far. For example, we’ve moved to downtown Los Angeles and are moving to downtown Oakland next week because we learned that place matters. Our new offices can now serve as vital community meeting spaces, and our staff are now able to have frequent face-to-face conversations with our community partners. We’re also planning to hold a convening for all grantees in November 2018 to support community and power building. And to make our communications more effective, we’ve started redesigning our website to make it more accessible to our grantees and applicants.

As a funder, we’re responsible and accountable to the communities we serve. As we go along, we can either assume that we’re doing well and heading down the right path, or we can ask people we’re serving to tell us how we’re doing so that we can correct our course if needed and double down on what’s working well.

Take those lunches for example. When I asked lunch attendees for advice, they weren’t shy. They said things like: “Smart decision to move downtown, what took you so long?” “We produce the reports you request, but don’t always get to debrief.” “Can’t foundations work on developing a common application?”

As a funder, it’s not our place to impose our grand ideas from above; our responsibility is to use our judgment and expertise while relentlessly listening to the communities we serve. We have to listen even when the feedback is not glowing and even when it doesn’t meet our expectations. Actually, that’s when we have to listen the hardest.

Please check out our survey results. We are making the results public because we want you to know how we’re doing – and what we’re doing to better serve California.

Read the Full Report
Read the Key Findings Summary
Grantee Perception Survey


Judy Belk image
President and CEO Judy Belk

Judy Belk leads The California Wellness Foundation in pursuing its mission to improve the health of the people of California. In her role, she uses her vision and her voice to help Cal Wellness “level the playing field” so that everyone has access to good-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods and quality health care services.

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