Reimagining Reporting for Greater Impact

Friday, February 16, 2024

Reimagining Reporting for Greater Impact
By: Lisa Cowan, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Rachel Pardoe, New York Community Trust, and Leela van Balkom, Cricket Island Foundation

This is part one of a multi-part series following the work of this collaborative over the next year.

A recent poll of more than 2,500 nonprofit employees showed that nonprofit leaders are spending upwards of 30 percent of their time reporting on grants. While comparable data for foundation staff does not exist, we all know that grant reporting takes up a significant part of our day. Our collective time is valuable, especially at this moment of compounded environmental and social crises, and an upcoming presidential election that will shape the future of our democracy. Given this, philanthropic professionals might stop to consider: Are we making the most of our hours at work? Is philanthropy catalyzing the impact we hope for or might our approaches require adjustments? 

Traditionally, the grantmaker role has focused on compliance: ensuring nonprofits are completing agreed-upon activities by collecting reports, reviewing financials, conducting site visits, and reporting to institutional decision-makers. Over time, particularly as more nonprofit leaders have stepped into grantmaking positions, the role has evolved. Program Officers now spend more of their time bridging the gaps between trustees and frontline communities by communicating the realistic needs of grantees, and identifying opportunities for funder collaboration. For example, at the Haas Fund, Program Officers are shifting their role from funders to partners and the Trust Based Philanthropy Project recently released a guide on reimagining the role yet, given the proportion of grantees’ time spent on reporting, there is more we can change to improve our interactions with grantees and foster their impact. 

At the end of 2023, a group of eight funders* with common New York City-based grantees** came together to test a new reporting approach. Grantees were given the opportunity to define the scope and style of reporting for one year. The participating funders agreed to put aside our individual, institutional processes and commit to whatever the group of grantees proposed. Grantees were responsible for designing alternate reporting processes and providing feedback and were compensated for their time. 

The funders’ goals for this collaborative experiment are to:

  • Test alternative reporting approaches that free up grantees’ time.
  • Disrupt the traditional power dynamic between grantmaker and grantseeker by putting grantees in the driver's seat to define how they report their progress and impact.
  • Gather feedback from participating grantees to better understand what reporting approaches support a mutually beneficial partnership.
  • Distill actionable changes to reporting that lead to more transparent and productive relationships and support nonprofit mission impact

One month into the experiment, grantees were given the choice of foregoing reporting altogether, providing written or oral reports, or hosting site visits. Instead, they prioritized opportunities to build relationships with program officers through regular funder briefings, conversations, and other in-person and virtual activities. Frankly, this surprised us and raised more questions, such as: 

  • What type of support, beyond the check, do grantees actually want and need from their funder partners? 
  • How can funders build mutually beneficial relationships evenly across a portfolio, particularly if there are a large number of grantees?  
  • If grantees participate in defining reporting requirements, how do we as funders gather the information we need for decision making?  
  • What information do we, as funders, really need to gather from our grantees’? What questions are we accustomed to asking that aren’t necessary or helpful? 

We’re open to deconstructing what we’ve done previously and questioning our assumptions along the way. We are committed to sharing our reflections with our peers via PNY’s Insights blog and invite you to join us in this learning opportunity. 

*Participating Funders: Cricket Island Foundation, Korean American Community Foundation, Mertz-Gilmore Foundation, New York Community Trust, New York Foundation, New York Women’s Foundation, North Star Fund, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Stonewall Community Foundation

**Participating Grantees: Advocacy Institute, Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Center for Justice Innovation, Faith in NY, New York State Youth Leadership Council, Street Vendor Project, Trail Blazers, VOCAL-NY

If you're interested in learning more about this collaborative experiment, contact information for the authors is below. And keep an eye out for part two with updates and learnings from this work!

Lisa Cowan
Vice President, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation

Rachel Pardoe
Senior Program Officer, New York Community Trust

Leela van Balkom
Program Officer, Cricket Island Foundation