Food For Thought, TNB's Success

How grant makers and recipients can do great things with data

By Deborah Elizabeth Finn, Senior Strategist, Tech Networks of Boston


Over the course of a year and half, Tech Networks of Boston held a unique dialogue program to facilitate grant maker/grant recipient dialogue on nonprofit data and evaluation. Applying for grants is a creative, complex, and comprehensive process, and we wanted to dive into the topic with a variety of professionals who provide the grants, as well as those who seek them. Executing the three-part series was a way to discuss the challenges both parties face in a safe environment that encouraged transparency.

TSNE MissionWorks provided the event space and refreshments, and Essential Partners provided facilitation and guidance for the structure of the session. We were thrilled to have these mission-driven organizations act as co-hosts.

The inspiration for organizing these dialogues grew directly out of feedback we received during Tech Networks of Boston Roundtable sessions that focused on nonprofit data and evaluation.  What we heard were concerns expressed by both grantors and grantees about the disconnection that they were experiencing in dealing with these topics. Instead of sweeping the differences under the rug, we wanted to bring them together to talk about the challenges and brainstorm some best practices.

The initial idea of creating a dialogue was also informed by conversations with our nonprofit clients who were struggling to define WHAT they were evaluating, HOW they were evaluating it, and WHY they were evaluating it.  It was a humbling realization that the integrated IT services that we could offer in support of their efforts were not sufficient in themselves, because the most serious challenges pertained to strategic organizational decisions that needed to be made before a database platform was selected, customized, integrated with the existing IT infrastructure, and implemented. If we wanted our nonprofit clients to be happy with the technology, we needed to help them achieve some clarity about those prior strategic decisions, and the participation of grant makers who might be mandating certain kinds of data collection or evaluation methods would be enormously helpful.

Although reflective structured dialogue is not our specialty, “we’re better together” is our slogan, and we do pride ourselves that collaboration is one of our strengths, so we reached out to Essential Partners. We knew that talking about an emotionally fraught topic is difficult and frightening, but that deeply experienced facilitators could make this a positive and fruitful experience.  Likewise, we engaged with TSNE MissionWorks, which not only has a depth of experience in providing management support and consulting services to nonprofits, but also a runs a world-class nonprofit center with state of the art meeting space.

As far as we know, this series was the first in which grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients came together in equal numbers and met as peers for reflective structured dialogue. World class facilitation and guidance was provided by Essential Partners, with the revered Dave Joseph serving as facilitator-in-chief.

Here’s how I’d characterize the three sessions:

  • June 2017:   What is the heart of the matter for grantors and grantees?
  • September 2017:  By listening to our peers, we discuss the imbalance of power in the grantor/grantee relationship.
  • January 2018:  Let's work together to compile some best practices how to address this as grantors and grantees.

Here are some thoughts based on what I learned during the dialogue series, and also on untold numbers of public and private conversations on the topic.

Funders can help by: 

  • Understanding that nonprofits perceive funders as having not just money but also much more power.
  • Asking nonprofits to define their goals, their desired outcomes, and their quantitative measures of success – rather than telling them what these should be.
  • Factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
  • Understanding the real cost in dollars to grantees who provide the data reporting and evaluation that you request.  These dollar amounts might be for staff time, technology, training, an external consultant, or even for office supplies.
  • Providing financial support for any data or evaluation that the funder needs –  especially if the nonprofit does not have an internal need for that data or evaluation.    Items to support might include staff time, technology, training, or retaining an external consultant with the necessary skill set.
  • Putting an emphasis on listening.


Nonprofits can help by: 

  • Engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and sharing this information with funders.
  • Understanding that grant makers are motivated to see nonprofit grant recipients succeed.
  • Understanding that grant makers are often under pressure from donors and their boards to deliver a portfolio of outcomes.
  • Integrating the use of data and evaluation into most areas of operation – this means building skills in data and evaluation across the entire organization.
  • Gathering with other nonprofits that have similar desired outcomes and comparing notes on failures and best practices.
  • Fostering a data-friendly, continuous learning culture within nonprofit organizations.


Both groups can help by: 

  • Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.
  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
  • Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
  • Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
  • Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.
  • Making “I don’t know” an acceptable response to a question.
  • Measuring what you really value, rather than simply valuing what you can easily measure.
  • Working toward useful standards of measurement.  Not all programs and outcomes are identical, but very few are entirely sui generis.
  • Sharing responsibility for building the relationship.
  • Speaking with each other on a regular basis.
  • Studying (and implementing) community-based participatory research methods.


We've compiled these recommendations and other takeaways from the session on a dedicated webpage to provide a starting point for a regional or even national conversation about data and evaluation. It's important to continue this conversation so both parties can collaborate to achieve better results.

Do you have any thoughts on how grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients can work better together? We invite you to give us your thoughts below.



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