In this post, an observer of foundations who writes from Oregon offers some suggestions of how funders could improve their communications about results of grants.

Ever wonder who gets grants and what those grants have funded? It is often surprisingly hard to find out. And it is even more surprising, given the importance for grant makers of conveying to various audiences their success in fulfilling the grantors’ respective missions, that so few use their web sites to highlight what exactly was funded, in what amounts, and what resulted from those grants.

This topic has been on my mind since mid-2008, when I began to work on ScanGrants, a free online service listing funding opportunities in the health sciences.

Since that time, I have spent thousands of hours visiting the web sites of major philanthropic organizations, small foundations, disease advocacy groups, scientific societies, professional organizations, and occasionally the sites of health sciences journals. Indeed, I view the web sites of practically any group that offers funding opportunities (for example, clinical research grants; grants for programs in community, behavioral, or public health; scholarships for conference attendance, professional development, or associate-level, undergraduate, or graduate studies; fellowships; or essay awards) in medicine and health.

My work at ScanGrants leads me most often to sites of foundations that fund research or professional education of individual investigators.

This is very rewarding work, and I never cease to be amazed and moved by the generosity of the funders and the stories behind some of the gifts (such as when a scholarship is created in the name of a particularly beloved patient or when a prize for scientific achievement is named for a pioneering physician). And, certainly, the sums of money I have read about are substantial—such as grants in the millions for cancer or neuroscience research.

Naturally, I often wonder what becomes of all that money. I often pause during my workday to ponder this. I look for the personal stories of the grantee and the population he or she helped, or how the grantee otherwise used the funds for professional development and, thereby, for the good of society. Sadly, I often seek in vain for the anecdotal side of the world of philanthropy.

As a casual visitor to a funder’s site, one is often left with little notion about the rest of the story. What a missed opportunity on many levels—the good of the funder’s reputation as a public benefactor or an agent of real change, and the foregone chance to tell inspiring stories about research and the career success of those dedicating their lives to science or the betterment of society in general. After all, you never know who may visit your web site: the chance to interest that one bright high school student (and future social worker or Nobel Prize winner) in your cause is always there.

My advice also applies to other funders whose stories might be about the success of a community program, instead of the success of a talented individual.

So who are the master storytellers out there when it comes to narratives about funded projects? Who tells a compelling (or at least a detailed) story?

Not surprisingly, given its reputation as an innovator in grant making in health and health care, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers a model of accountability in its Retrospective Series, a series of reports that not only illustrate what the RWJF has focused on and accomplished via grant making but also are themselves beautifully produced and make a genuine contribution to the subject at hand (for example, end-of-life care or tobacco-cessation programs). The foundation provides these reports in a handy PDF format on its web site, free to all.

Granted, not every grant-making organization possesses the financial wherewithal or subject-area expertise that the RWJF does. Still, it is increasingly easy to produce fairly nice-looking reports in a PDF or e-book format, and, thus, not doing so is a lost opportunity from a marketing, accountability, and messaging standpoint.

And if a grantor does not have the staff or other resources to put together a glossy report, at the very least, a list (on its web site) of recent grants with such details as the purpose of the grant, the amount given, and the name and location of the grantee is de rigueur. Here, again, the RWJF provides a model, as does the Commonwealth Fund.

The Commonwealth Fund’s web site also provides downloadable, completed grant reports. (These are mainly for its own use, but they also benefit those interested in how health policy funders operate.)

As it states, “Memoranda prepared by Fund staff on completed grants are key to ensuring the accountability of the foundation’s grantmaking process and execution of program strategies. It is important that these memoranda not only document project outputs but also attempt early assessments of impact. These documents, which are archived, will be important to future historians of American philanthropy….The Commonwealth Fund’s practice of systematically examining all Board-level and Small Grants Fund projects completed in the course of a year, scoring them on performance and other measures, and preparing a report that draws out lessons learned provides valuable insights for program development, management, and communication [staff] and helps promote accountability throughout the Fund.” Such candid discussions of what was hoped for and what actually occurred are commendable vis-à-vis transparency and the literature of grantsmanship.

And, speaking of candor, at the state level, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the mission of which is to improve the quality of life and quality of health for the financially needy of North Carolina, does an admirable job in providing a frank assessment of the success of its programs, much to the benefit of grantees and those whom they and the trust want to help. Check out the downloadable reports on the Evaluation and Research page of the trust’s web site.  

Since writing the above, I have surfed and clicked around in the world of grants, and as I end this post, I am more convinced than ever that grantmakers need to take a look at their web sites and pretend they are first-time visitors. Can such visitors find out easily the answer to the question, “Where has the previously awarded money gone?” That is, “Is it clear that our grants are making a difference in the lives of real people and that our grants have improved things, somewhere, tangibly? What is better because of our programs? What specific person or program was able to accomplish something concrete because of us?” Oftentimes, those questions are unanswered, to the detriment of both the visitor to the site and to the reputation of the funder.

Okay, so who excels on their web sites at answering that key question, “Where has the previously awarded money gone?” Well, the Aetna Foundation clearly lists grants and their purpose and provides links to the reports and articles that resulted. This foundation has a succinct, but impressive roster of tangible accomplishments and contributions to health research.

Finally, foundations should not be shy about profiling those to whom they have given scholarships, for example. Often it is the story of a young person who might never have gotten the chance to go to medical school that is so compelling. Dry statistics about “our programs” take the funder only so far. Tug my heartstrings!  Do the same with grantees at a higher level (such as researchers funded).

For example, even though most foundations lack the deep pockets of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, check out the Grantee Profile of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development. (This profile is actually part of its Global Development Program.)

Now, that is a well laid-out page. It provides the particulars of the grant program and includes a video showing the people who got the grants, the places they live, the projects they are engaged in, and the people the grantee and grantor are trying to help. As the cost of video production declines, don’t dismiss out of hand featuring on your site a video describing a project. After all, “In this video, meet three African agricultural scientists whose research is helping small farmers to find solutions to their production challenges and create better lives for their families” is fairly straightforward narrative and could be emulated at the community level by small foundations here in the United States.

Personalize, personalize, personalize. And when you’re creating content, make sure I can download it, e-mail it, tweet it, bookmark it, pin it on Pinterest, and otherwise share it through the ever-increasing number of social media venues. Keep me on your site by making it “sticky.”

Tell me a story.