As a learning organization, we continually seek ways to become more efficient and more impactful in our philanthropy. That usually involves a lot of self-examination. But looking inward is not enough. We’ve found that one of the best ways to identify areas for improvement is to ask those who know us best—namely, the grant partners we invest in.

Richard D. George
Chairman, President
& Chief Executive Officer

To that end, we enlisted the help of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct anonymous surveys of our grantees and applicants earlier this year. The resulting Grantee Perception Report allows us to measure ourselves against CEP’s dataset of survey results for more than 250 funders built up over more than a decade, as well as a custom cohort of 13 funders that more closely resemble us in scale and scope. We’re grateful to our past, present and prospective grant partners who took the time to respond to the survey. Their perspective is invaluable; the candid feedback they provide inspires us to aim high and shines a light on both our progress and our shortcomings.

This was our second Grantee Perception Report. We received our first one in 2014, and it included some eye-opening results. We made some changes in response to that survey, and it’s gratifying to see how much progress we’ve made as a result over the past four years.

"Grantee ratings place Great Lakes in the top 10 percent of funders for the responsiveness and approachability of (their) staff. These positive perceptions of relationships are bolstered by a strong sense of transparency, with grantees now rating Great Lakes higher than typical on this measure."
- Center for Effective Philanthropy


Thanks to the efforts of our talented and dedicated program managers, we showed significant improvement since 2014 in relationship building, where we are now in the top 20% among all funders in CEP’s database; responsiveness and approachability, where we are now in the top 10%; and transparency, where the new survey put us in the top 30%. We’re pleased to learn that our grantees view us as teammates working alongside them to achieve a common goal. We’re deservedly proud of the high marks we received in these areas, especially in light of the higher-than-usual turnover we experienced among our grant staff during the period preceding the survey.

"They are one of a small number of funders that we view as “part of the family” – trusted colleagues with whom we can be open and exploratory with as we wrestle with challenges and barriers, in addition to celebrating success."
- Grantee

"Compared to staff at many other foundations, we find GL program staff to be very straightforward about their goals and what they are willing to consider funding. They see us as the experts and do not try to micromanage or unduly influence the project design."
- Grantee

Toward Deeper Understanding and Greater Flexibility

But the feedback wasn’t all lollipops and roses. One recurring theme was that we need to gain a stronger understanding of our grantees’ practical realities and day-to-day challenges. Grantees placed us in the bottom 30% in how well we understand the field in which they work and the bottom 20% for how well we understand their organization’s strategy and goals. Moving forward, we plan to improve in those areas by visiting and listening to our grantees more.

We also recognize the need to make sure our requirements align with the rhythms and rules of the field and that we are prepared to take individual institutions’ unique circumstances into consideration. We will continue our efforts, already in progress, to streamline and build more flexibility into our application and reporting processes.

"At times I feel that the program data that we collect and report is not always the most accurate measure of outcomes or progress…. Great Lakes often asks grantees to fit into a fairly specifically prescribed project/program idea, at times with little flexibility to account for differences among institutions/missions."
- Survey Respondent

Spreading the Word for Greater Impact

Moving forward, we also want to do a better job of communicating to the field what we learn through our grant projects. As an organization committed to fostering large-scale systemic change, we recognize that in order to “move the needle,” we need to share those insights more effectively with the people on the front lines of higher education who work every day to bring about that change.

A Never-Ending Process

According to CEP, transparency is one of the strongest predictors of good funder-grantee relationships. A big part of transparency is the willingness to listen to our partners and communicate clearly with them about changes we will make in response to their input. The listening part is why we conduct surveys like this one. The response part is a never-ending process to which we will always apply our best effort.

Richard D. George
Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer