Listening to Grantees to Build a Better Organization

Photo by: Creative Sustainability (on Flickr)

RLF is committed to advancing justice and equity as we pursue conservation, environmental, and climate solutions; expanding diversity in the environmental movement; and ensuring that our staff are buoyed by a sense of belonging as they engage in this important work. As an organization, we’ve been working hard to evolve our practices internally and externally—to show up with authenticity, compassion, and dedication; listen; and make sure the voices of historically underrepresented and/or excluded people are heard.

To see how effective we’ve been, we asked our grantees—many of whom are on the frontlines of environmental injustice and the climate crisis—what they think. 

In 2022, we began working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct a Grantee Perception Report (GPR) that surveyed about 300 grantees, of which nearly 60 percent responded. We are immensely grateful to our grantees for the time they took to provide valuable, honest feedback. We are also grateful to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which funded the extensive GPR effort. Not only was their support generous, but also timely, as we had been exploring strategies to gain meaningful input on our DEI plan commitments related to grantmaking and partnership.

We received the GPR results in late 2022 and have since spent quality time digging into the report’s rich findings and insightful comments. At RLF’s recent all-staff gathering in April, we discussed and prioritized action items focusing on DEI, grantee relationships, communication, and grant processes. Many of our conversations revolved around our specialized role as both a grant maker and a grant seeker, and how that introduces constraints as well as opportunities. Grantees may not always recognize that we, too, work under parameters that funders place on the grants we receive—including dollar amount, time frame, and grant objectives. At the same time, we have a unique opportunity to build deep relationships with an array of diverse and exceptional leaders and offer tailored support that not only meets program objectives but strengthens frontline organizations engaged in the long fight for just and resilient outcomes in their communities. We are hopeful that the feedback we received will help us be better partners to our grantees and effectively work with our funders to build greater flexibility into our own grant agreements.

This blog summarizes some of our takeaways and action items. We welcome comments and questions, and look forward to ongoing conversations about our efforts to be a better partner and ally.



Field and public policy impact

  • Feedback: Grantees rated RLF highly on our impact on, and understanding of, their fields. RLF’s highest score was on the question, “To what extent has RLF affected public policy in your field.”
  • Reflection: Policy advocacy is at the heart of what RLF does—whether, for example, it’s parks access, marine protection, or public funding for climate resilience—so we are very happy to see this result. It also made us reflect on what makes RLF successful and effective at advancing public policy. What are some things that are working well that we should strive to maintain and build upon? On the flip side, does this success come at the expense of something else?

Helpful proposal process

  • Feedback: Grantees indicated that RLF’s proposal process is a helpful opportunity to strengthen the effort funded by the grant. Most grantees also found RLF’s reporting to be straightforward and adaptable to fit grantees’ circumstances.
  • Reflection: As both a grant seeker and grant maker, we are mindful about proposal requirements and processes, and it was helpful see that our efforts to minimize administrative burden on grantees is recognized and appreciated. However, RLF rated lower on the appropriateness of selection process relative to the grant size, and clarity and transparency of the selection process requirements and timelines. We are evaluating some near- and long-term improvements to our grant processes, including the likely rollout of a new grantee portal next year.  

Beyond the dollar support

  • Feedback: About a third of surveyed grantees reported receiving non-monetary assistance from RLF. Of those, 90 percent found it to be a moderate to major benefit.
  • Reflection: This illustrates that time staff spend with grantees—for example, providing thought partnership, consultant support, or making introductions to other funders or policymakers—is valued and appreciated. We see this as an opportunity to better articulate—to both funders and grantees—the value-add of RLF’s approach to strategic grantmaking.

Areas for improvement

Clearer communication

  • Feedback: RLF has room for improvement when it comes to clearly and transparently communicating our goals and strategies. Grantees shared that they do not understand how their funded work fits into RLF’s broader efforts.
  • Reflection: RLF has not made it a practice to communicate broader programmatic or organizational strategies with grantees. Seeing this feedback, we agree that it would be beneficial to develop new tactics to share our goals with grantees and be more transparent about how their work fits into the big picture. See action items below.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

  • Feedback: RLF also rated on the lower end of the spectrum for clearly communicating what DEI means for our work and for explicitly demonstrating our commitment to DEI in our work and in staff interactions. 
  • Reflection: Advancing DEI in our workplace and in our work has been a priority for several years, so this was sobering feedback. We clearly have more work to do to translate our commitments and goals into action that connects and resonates with our grantees and partners. See action items below.
  • Feedback: Less than half of respondents to the GPR survey indicated the efforts funded by the grant were primarily meant to benefit historically disadvantaged groups.
  • Reflection: While we have not set explicit targets on what this percent should be, we are motivated to do better. Grantmaking is a major tool RLF uses to solve problems—along with policy advocacy, coalition-building, research, and others—and we feel the bar must be set higher.

Longer, more flexible support

  • Feedback: RLF’s median grant size of $60,000 ranks around the lower third of CEP’s database. More troubling was the finding that nearly half reported the grant did not cover the full cost of the work. In written comments, grantees requested longer-term and more flexible support, which we have been hearing from grantees for a while.
  • Reflection: We endeavor to provide flexibility to grantees but are often constrained as an intermediary, aligning funds going out with objectives of funds coming in. Nonetheless, we must look for creative solutions to offer as much flexibility as we can.

Action items


Good communication is central to building trust. RLF staff generated a list of potential action items to improve how we communicate with grantees, with these rising to the top:

  • Update our website to clearly communicate what we do, our desired outcomes, and stories about the work.
  • Add language in grant agreement letters to articulate how the grant fits into RLF’s broader strategy.
  • Share and discuss emerging insights from our strategic planning process with grantees and make a summary of the plan easily accessible.
  • Develop a newsletter to share organizational and programmatic updates.   
  • Explore opportunities to facilitate communication and information sharing among RLF grantees.


We are dedicated to fostering more honesty, understanding, and trust among our grantees when it comes to DEI. Here are some ways we hope to begin building that trust, and we welcome additional ideas:

  • In April of 2023, we started recruiting for a Vice President of Equity and Justice who will guide RLF’s efforts to update and develop new strategies, programs, and campaigns to prevent, correct, and address environmental inequities and injustices. We look forward to the changes this new leader will begin bringing to the organization very soon.
  • Create more time and space for candid conversations with grantees: seek honest input about how RLF can be a more effective ally, clearly communicate why DEI is important to us, and share the “why” behind what we fund.
  • As we implement our new grantmaking system, we plan to collect demographic data from grantees to inform and influence our grantmaking, but we want to be thoughtful about it so as not to add undue burden on grantees.

Grant processes

We get it, grant processes can be unnecessarily tedious. Based on grantee feedback, we’d like to make some changes that minimize burden on grantees, while still ensuring the accountability and data-gathering we need. Some ideas include:

  • Limit proposal questions to what is essential, especially for grants of smaller dollar amount.
  • “Right-size” the proposal and reporting requirements based on type and size of grant. Interim reports could be waived or replaced with a phone call whenever possible.
  • Leverage our unique position of being a grant maker and grant seeker to advocate for improved practices in the philanthropic sector, for example, by documenting and sharing the impact of longer-term funding.
  • Whenever possible, plan grants over a multi-year time horizon, even when our funding comes in one-year cycles.
  • When we roll out a new grantee portal (as part of our Salesforce grantmaking system implementation), draw on best practices we’ve observed in other systems and focus on the user experience.

Grantee relationships

Most of the categories in the GPR boil down to this: relationships. Whether it’s communicating our strategies or progress on DEI, understanding grantees’ strategies and the communities in which they work, or ensuring smooth grantmaking processes, all of these depend on strong relationships built on a foundation of trust, respect, and kindness. RLF staff discussed many ways we can enhance our grantee relationships, including:

  • Conduct more site visits.
  • Organize convenings or other ways to gather, both socially and to exchange strategies and ideas.
  • Explore ways we can offer more beyond-the-dollar support. We were struck that 90 percent of grantees receiving non-monetary support found it beneficial and impactful. Some successful models we’ve employed in the past include 1) the Western Communications Hub, which offers tailored digital communications support through an effective cohort model, and 2) Parks Now, a highly successful and collaborative coalition advancing equitable parks access; we organized the coalition and provided wrap-around support to sharpen communications and advocacy efforts.

We are grateful to gain this invaluable feedback—both the positive and the more critical—and look forward to tracking our progress with future surveys. We now have a clearer sense of what we need to work on and are eager to start putting new approaches into practice. The success of our work depends on the trust and respect we foster among the grantees with whom we partner. We are committed to being a better partner and, together, making meaningful progress toward a more just and resilient world for people and nature