An Open Letter and Commitment to Our Grantees


An Open Letter and Commitment to Our Grantees

Author Kyle Peterson
Kyle Peterson

Executive Director

Listen. Learn. Act. 

As a family foundation that strives every day to make a difference in the world, we embrace good ideas from our partners and know that honest, constructive feedback is vital to helping us get better at our philanthropic work. 

Our Board chair, Carrie Walton Penner, put it this way: "It has always been important to me that we don't enter into a community thinking we fully understand the context or have all the answers. This means we need to focus on relationship building and partnerships." 

The aspiration to be more open is one of five core values for the foundation.  

That's why, about one year ago, we asked grantees across our Environment, K-12 Education and Home Region programs to offer their honest assessments about the foundation. In all, 557 of you completed the Center for Effective Philanthropy's Grantee Perception Report, a tool used by many leading foundations to evaluate their performance.

We compared the results to those received by more than 250 other funders so we could understand how we perform in relation to the larger philanthropic community. We also measured ourselves against a unique cohort of 14 foundations with similar-sized staff and grantmaking budgets - so we could see how we compare to our peers. Thank you to all the grantees who took the time to provide us with candid feedback.

In a field that needs to learn from our partners, the report provided us with a valuable reality check.

The good news? We found that in several ways, our steady, focused approach is producing hoped-for outcomes.

Nothing is more important to the Walton family and our hardworking staff than making a real difference - and we are encouraged that you believe we are. We ranked in the 85th percentile among all funders for affecting public policy in our focus areas. Compared to our peer foundations, we rated high for advancing knowledge in the areas in which we work.

Grantees view the Walton Family Foundation on average as an effective funder. We ranked in the 69th percentile overall for the amount of impact the foundation has in our fields of specialty. 

We ranked in the 93rd percentile for the "return on investment" our grants produced, with our K-12 and Home Region programs showing particular strength in this area. We understand this to mean that our grantees do not feel overly taxed with unhelpful processes in their efforts to secure a grant from us. And most grantees recognize that the foundation is making a concerted effort to collaborate with them in the measurement and evaluation of their work - our Environment Program scored in the 94th percentile. 

"WFF is a leader across a range of conservation, water quality and agriculture issues and policy," one Environment Program grantee wrote. "It is facilitating the development of policy that strengthens and advances conservation and collaboration among groups, industry and others working on these issues."

An education grantee said the foundation's "consistent focus on high-quality choices has had a major impact in the field."

We appreciate the kudos. However, the survey found we also have ample room to improve how we work. We identified these cross-cutting areas of attention for us: 

Relationships with grantees. Many grantees felt our staff could be more responsive and approachable. We ranked relatively low overall - in the 24th and 16th percentile, respectively - in this area compared to other foundations. 

Understanding local communities where we work. Grantees believe we need to understand better the social, cultural and socioeconomic factors at play in our work. We ranked in the 27th percentile, in relation to the larger group of foundations, in understanding the needs of the people that our grantees and we are trying to help. 

Sharing our strategy. Grantees want more clarity on our overall strategy and goals. On the question about how transparent the foundation is with their organizations, the survey found we ranked in the 33rd percentile compared to other funders. Wrote one grantee: "Having a clearer understanding of … goals and strategies would help me and other grantees in the field better understand where we fit in, how our priorities fit together, and how we can play a role in helping the foundation achieve its goals."

The CEP survey produced a range of results that differed from program to program within the foundation. For example, grantees rated our Home Region Program quite favorably when it came to relationships with grantees and understanding local communities. It is important to note this, and even more so, to learn from the powerful best practices taking place in our Home Region Program.

As the foundation passes the mid-point of our 2016-2020 strategic plan and nears the beginning of a new planning process, we have made it an organizational priority to act on these survey results.
We shared all of these results with our Board. Our leadership and staff then spent deliberate time analyzing and digesting the results. In each of our program areas and departments, we are implementing changes within annual plans to improve how we work.  

So, where do we go from here?

In the months ahead, we will be sharing with you our approach to strategic philanthropy.  

Many things will look the same. We will continue to have defined theories of change about how the foundation and our partners can influence systems change. We will focus our investments in key geographies and communities to help create proof points that drive change in other places. We will actively seek and track data to help monitor progress, to test our hypotheses, to double-down when things are working or correct our course if they are not. 

At the same time, we want to grow in new directions. 

We will increase collaboration by working with a more diverse group of partners. This effort will include partners who align perfectly with our strategy and others who may not align completely, but who make a positive change in the areas in which we agree. We will seek new opportunities to collaborate with other funders on shared goals.

We intend to provide more ways for grantees, and other stakeholders, to give input on how to execute more effectively our strategic plans. We will create regular opportunities for you to share your views and let us know if projects are not playing out the way we intended. We will strive for greater transparency about the problems we are seeking to solve and the underlying values that drive our decision-making.

There is still a lot of work to do as we determine how to make good on these intentions. We are looking to the best practices of others and building on a few of our own. A few promising approaches we are considering:

  • Updated program strategies on our website
  • An online searchable grants database
  • Grantee conference calls that give you the opportunity to hear directly from foundation leaders and gain additional insight into our strategies and progress
  • A series of roundtable conversations and forums to hear from grantees and partners
  • An expanded commitment to engaging grantees in providing input into our next five-year strategies
  • A commitment to conduct future CEP grantee perception surveys to measure how we have improved

Over 30 years as a family foundation, we are proud to have built strong relationships with our grantees. It is in our DNA. As we look forward, we are excited about working with you to make those bonds even stronger.

In the spirit of being open, please send any comments or questions to me at kpeterson@wffmail.com. A survey is a great way to learn how we can get better, but the door is always open for you to let me know what you think.

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