At the Zilber Family Foundation we often highlight our commitment to operational excellence and continuous improvement. We seek feedback from our grantee partners to assess the Foundation’s practices, programs, and partnerships, and to help identify opportunities to improve. Unfortunately, getting authentic feedback is easier said than done. The power imbalance between funder and grantee can make it difficult to gather the unfiltered information we need to do our best work. So, in 2022, we decided to commission the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct surveys and create a grantee perception report (GPR).

As part of Zilber’s ongoing efforts to build trusting relationships with our grantee partners, we entered the GPR process with the intention of reporting the results to grantees and other partners. We wanted them to know that we listen to their feedback and share with them how we plan to act so that they can hold us accountable. We didn’t, however, have a clear plan on how we’d share the feedback with them. To get to the how, we focused on our why.

The Zilber Family Foundation, a place-based funder working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Oahu, Hawaii, strives to increase access to social and economic opportunity and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. We believe that listening, and most importantly, responding to feedback leads to more authentic partnership and better grantmaking. Transparency engenders trust—the key ingredient to honest dialogue with our partners. In philanthropy, we still find it common for funders to ask for input—from a resident, a community, an organization—but shy away from responding to or sharing that input with stakeholders. We aim to shift this practice because feedback and listening isn’t the end. It invites a next step as a way to open conversation, engage with, and continue to learn from grantees and partners.

Instead of sharing our GPR results in a one-directional format, we decided to host a webinar to walk our partners through the survey results and provide an open forum for questions and conversation. We surveyed 96 grantees and received 72 responses—a 75 percent response rate. Our webinar registrants were around the same attendance, indicating both a high level of interest and engagement in our collective work. We focused on being honest, informative, and transparent.

A pillar of our approach is being accessible and clear about our strategy and funding decisions. We understand and acknowledge that there is a power imbalance between funders and grantees. Part of the way we work to redefine the power balance is to work toward mutual transparency. This builds authentic relationships and trust, and shifts the relationship from transactional to transformational, which hopefully leads to better outcomes. What this can look like in practical terms is being direct in our communication to reduce ambiguity, being flexible rather than restrictive, and being accountable to partners. It’s not about listening for the sake of listening but being open to listening to diverse voices and responding to the people and organizations at the heart of our work.


Read the full article about why funders need to listen by Erin Frederick at PEAK Grantmaking.