My colleague was lamenting the other day about how difficult it often is to get more than a one-word answer from her 9-year-old son when he comes home from school. “How was your day?” she’ll ask. “Fine,” is the reply. “What did you do today?” “Stuff.” “Didn’t you do anything interesting?” “No.”
It’s not that her son is particularly non-communicative; later in the evening (like when it’s time to go to sleep) he’s full of stories about the day and questions. My colleague realized that when her boy arrives home from school, he simply needs a break from thinking about it, or else wants time to process everything before discussing it.
We agreed that it’s not this is not just a nine-year-old boy phenomenon. When we conduct research on behalf of clients, interview grantees and partners, or attend very deep meetings with the intent of documenting the conversations, we also need time and space to let our thoughts and observations swirl and settle. The time we give ourselves to reflect, as either consultants or grantmakers, adds value to our learning. We’re able to draw conclusions and make inferences, follow up on lingering questions, and formulate a clearer big picture that helps inform future decisions.
The same is true about gathering feedback about an experience – about a grant initiative, about a conference you’ve hosted, about reactions to research you’ve presented, or other situations where you’ve asked people to process a significant amount of information.
Ask for feedback in the short term, and you’re likely to get shorter, knee-jerk, or more constrained answers. Give your audience a chance to rest and reflect, and those answers may very well change, deepen, and resonate with more constructive feedback.
Our instinct often is to ask for immediate feedback so as not to lose those precious thoughts or reactions that people form in the short term. But many times, that’s just what those reactions are – short term. Ask people what they learned immediately after a grantmaking initiative closes, and they are likely to share only the lessons or observations from the last few weeks or some version of the project’s overall goals. Wait three months, and you’ll hear more about the relationships formed, the ideas that they’ve pursued further, the way their organizations have changed, and where true long-term need still lies.
As an added bonus, once you have a little time under your own belt you’ll be able to ask better questions as you solicit feedback – questions that are more likely to elicit the information you need to better communicate the impact of your work and to make better decisions going forward. So next time you’re about to push for feedback, take a deep breath, clear your head, and give it a minute!
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a nationally recognized philanthropy advisor. Contact her to help assess the impact of your grantmaking. Learn more by reading her article “Oops I Forgot to Evaluate” or a case study about why the Ohio State Bar Foundation chose Putnam to conduct its first, major program evaluation.
What our clients have to say: “Our evaluation work with Putnam was essential to supporting one of the most significant grantmaking endeavors our foundation has ever had. Kris helped our board see the importance of looking beyond the grant award itself, and we are looking forward to doing more evaluations like this as our organization matures.”
– Alison Belfrage, CEO, Ohio State Bar Foundation
Upcoming speaking engagements: Kris will be moderating a panel discussion at the Donors Forum of Illinois in Chicago on September 25th and speaking at the Exponent CONNECT conference in Arizona on October 7th. Learn more!
© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.