Treebeard Trust’s Partner Survey: What We Learnt
Charitable Foundations are in the business of assessing others. We assess organisations, programmes, people, impact, balance sheets; whether it be for grants or impact investments, this is pretty much the core function of a funder. But there are some obvious barriers to this ‘assessment’ coming full circle – to grantees telling us what they think of our approach and our processes.
Treebeard Trust turned ten years old this year – as good a moment as any to look in the mirror. So, earlier this summer, we shared a short survey with our current and former partners.
As important factor was that we wanted our partners to be able to be entirely open, without feeling they were jeopardising the relationship.
To this end, partners were asked only to identify what kind of investment they had received from Treebeard (ten years in, our combined current and former portfolio size provided, we hoped, a reassuring cover!). We then asked partners to comment on Treebeard’s mission and values, on our assessment and reporting practices - and how these compared to their experiences with other funders. We also asked their thoughts generally on the post-investment support they received from Treebeard, and again, their experience of this with other funders.
We were grateful to receive thoughtful responses from 34 current and former partners. Eight respondents had received an equity investment (24%); one property (3%); four had received a debt investment (12%), and 26 had received a grant (76%). Three respondents had received both grant funding and financial investment.
It was interesting to read partners’ responses about our mission and values – our values in particular drew thought-provoking comments. For example, questions about whether our stated values are indeed ‘values’ in as much they are things we believe in, or, are they drivers of how we work? Are they about how we operate as an organisation, or about what we look for in others – or both? We plan to take the opportunity of a November trustee meeting to reflect on this collectively, and perhaps to revisit our values and clarify some of these points.
When it came to responses about due diligence and assessment processes – clarity, simplicity, proportionality won out as best practice. Treebeard’s light touch is appreciated, as is our personal approach. However, some responses led us to consider whether our open and personal approach means we sometimes fall short on clarity or consistency of process.
Helpfully, there were practical comments about post investment support – related to Treebeard and to funders more generally. It’s easy to think our partners love a “fund and step away” approach. Whilst that is appreciated in many cases, it was also clear from the responses that genuine and intelligent interaction between investor and investee – whatever the type of funding provided – is welcome. Even where a funder lacks specific knowledge about the work a partner is doing, they are still able to provide at least a layman’s perspective; at best, intelligent, challenging questions or examples of good practice (or pitfalls) they have seen elsewhere. And although many funders are unable to attend all partner events or respond to all updates, it was also clear from responses that even a brief acknowledgement of partner communications was appreciated.
Perhaps to be expected, leading the way on the ‘worse practices’ front was lengthy, prescriptive reporting that goes unacknowledged, undiscussed (and possibly unread): unhelpful, demoralising and a drain on resources. Face to face engagement supported by data the partner was capturing for their own purposes, as opposed to filling out funder report forms, was the preferred approach.
One thing that stood out in the responses was the interest from our partners in hearing more about a funder’s work and strategy – indeed, hearing more from funders generally! There were some suggestions for funders to share newsletters – something Treebeard has been exploring this year – and a deeper insight into what funders are doing and why. We have determined therefore to make better use of our website, to include more content about issues we are exploring and what we are learning, and to share this content more proactively and directly with partners.
One thing is for certain: the survey was a worthwhile exercise – for Treebeard in that it has provided thought-provoking insight and actionable recommendations; but we hope it was similarly positive for those partners who participated, an opportunity to be entirely frank about what it is like to be on the other side of the fence.
Whilst maintaining partner anonymity, we’d be happy to discuss our survey further with funders who are interested to delve into the responses further; likewise, if other funders have carried out similar exercises and have insights to share, we’d be interested to hear about what you have learnt!