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Listening to Grantees to Create Partnerships: Transforming Grantmaking Practices

At the Commonwealth Fund, we are working to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into every facet of our organization, including by building inclusive and equitable grantmaking practices. Over the past 18 months, we conducted an audit of our grantmaking policies, procedures, and practices.

To understand grantees’ perception of the Fund as a grantmaker and identify ways to improve, the Fund partnered with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). In the fall of 2021, CEP sent a confidential survey to 181 Fund grantees with active grants in 2020 (104 grantees responded, yielding a 57% response rate). We compared results to more than 300 funders and a cohort of 10 peer foundations. We reviewed and discussed results internally and held meetings to discuss grantee feedback and identify next steps.

We have used these observations to identify how we can improve all stages of our grantmaking cycle — from development to project management to closing. Our goal is to strengthen relationships with grantees and to partner with them to work toward improvements in policy and practice to promote better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency in health care, particularly for people of color, people with low income, and those who are uninsured.

What Do Grantees Value

We learned that grantees see the Fund as playing a crucial role in driving policy change, specifically by informing or contributing to the implementation of federal and state policy.

Most grantees value their interactions with Fund staff and positively rated staff’s approachability, openness to ideas, respectful interactions, and compassion for those whom grantees seek to serve.

Where Can We Do Better?

Grantee feedback points to several areas in need of attention, including improving responsiveness, communication around goals and strategy, transparency, and reducing administrative burden.

Responsiveness and clearer communication around goals and strategy. Grantees rated the Fund lower than peer foundations on measures related to responsiveness and providing clear and consistent communication about goals and program strategies.

Greater transparency. Ratings for overall transparency are also lower than those for other funders surveyed.

Reducing administrative and reporting burden. Fund grantees report spending more time on application, monitoring, and reporting activities than was reported for other funders surveyed. While grantees said the Fund is more adaptable than the typical foundation, they rate all other aspects of the reporting process, including relevance and straightforwardness, in the bottom third of CEP’s data set.

Incorporating Grantee Feedback to Improve Our Practices

Improve Responsiveness and Communication Around Goals and Program Strategies

We have taken steps to provide clear and consistent communications to grantees about the Fund’s goals, strategies, and processes. We have outlined specific annual funding priorities for each program on our website so that prospective grantees know our short-term priorities. We have created resources for Fund staff that standardize communication and information-sharing practices with grantees, including checklists to remind staff members to talk with grantees about how their goals and strategies intersect with the Fund’s. We believe these practices will help us be more responsive and ensure consistency across program areas.

Program staff are talking to grantees early in their project cycles about where grant-related papers should be published — by the Fund, grantees’ institution, or in another venue. These early conversations can help grantees and program staff develop communication dissemination plans that include strategies to amplify grantees’ work. Dissemination plans could include briefings or webinars, sharing work with policymakers, and engaging in social media.

Streamline Processes and Reduce Administrative Burden

We implemented changes to reduce the administrative burden grantees experience during proposal development, such as streamlining proposal guidelines to fit different types of projects, instead of trying to make everything fit into a classic research proposal. In addition, once a grant is approved, we revised our reporting requirements and payment schedules, offering flexibility on interim reports (or eliminating them in many cases) or allowing verbal or email updates in place of formal, written reports. For grants with terms up to a year, we have switched from three to two grant payments, and have reduced the number of interim financial reports required.


We value our relationships with grantees and are committed to making the Fund a better partner. Much like our DEI journey, we believe that building strong partnerships with grantees is a process without a finite end; there is no “aha!” moment. The journey requires ongoing reflection, accountability, and a willingness to question and revise practices.

We appreciate the grantees who completed the CEP survey, and the honesty and thoughtfulness of their comments. We plan to conduct another survey in 2023 to hear from more grantees about what is working well and how we can improve. We invite grantees to share feedback with us in the next survey or with Andrea C. Landes, vice president for grants management.