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Getting to the Heart of Healthy Funder-Grantee Relationships

This week we repost Getting to the Heart of Healthy Funder-Grantee Relationships by Amanda Broun and Katie Jones of Independent Sector. It is part of the series Putting the Grantee at the Center of Philanthropy, a collaboration between Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “tells the story of why and how grantee inclusion is key to effective philanthropy, from both the funder and nonprofit perspectives.” This post searches for ways to mitigate an inherent power imbalance between grantor and grantee – an issue central to effective philanthropy. We commend this to grantors and grantees alike and welcome your comments, insights and suggestions.

– Malcolm

In 2014, Independent Sector (IS)—a leadership network for nonprofits, foundations, and corporations committed to advancing the common good—began to outline a new strategic vision. We convened an advisory panel of experts, engaged consultants at Monitor Deloitte to facilitate the process, and ultimately identified nine trends that will impact the nonprofit and philanthropic sector over the next two decades. The panel then asked a series of questions, including: What are the impediments to organizations meeting their missions in light of these trends? What must we do now and in the future to prepare the social sector for what lies ahead?

This led us to organize a year-long, cross-country “conversation tour” called Threads. As an illustration of a person standing on the shoulders of another person who is holding up a red light bulbpart of Threads, IS and 80 partners held 15 different community town halls to hear directly from nonprofit and philanthropic leaders about, among other things, barriers to meeting mission. One impediment to meeting mission people consistently raised was strained relationships between grantees and funders, an issue we labeled as “power dynamic.”

Given such a robust topic, IS sought to understand the nature of grantee-funder relationships when they go well. We wondered, would anyone be willing to talk to us about their relationships? Would they be honest? What was it about successful grantee-grantmaker relationships that led to a positive power dynamic and results?

To our delight, we were able to identify 20 pairs of grantees and funders who mutually believed they had a healthy relationship. We conducted 40 qualitative phone interviews (individuals were interviewed separately) to answer these questions:

  • What are the factors that contribute to healthy relationships? Is it a shared vision? Shared metrics? Something else?
  • Do the grantees and funders engage in shared behaviors and practices? Are there underlying conditions that support those practices? If so, could others adopt them?
  • And, most importantly, if a grantee and a funder have a healthy relationship, does it make a difference in the communities they serve?

The conversations were fascinating. In our interviews with Denise Joines, senior program officer for The Wilburforce Foundation, and David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, for example, both mentioned the “bad coffee” they drink in their work together—a term they use to describe the importance of cultivating relationships and ensuring community buy-in for lasting impact, which often means going to many small, local establishments and drinking several cups of bad coffee. As we spoke about their vision of success, a shared hurdle they needed to overcome together, and where they saw their relationship in 10 years, it became more and more apparent they were aligned.

These interviews and others show there are some very healthy grantee-funder relationships out there. We’ve also seen that many of the organizations who are in these relationships engage in specific practices and behaviors that are mutually reinforcing and respectful, and draw on the strengths each partner brings to the table. Some of the themes we’re seeing are:

  • Partnerships based in learning: A mutual commitment to learning and piloting new approaches. Several interviewees spoke about how performance metrics were often considered a baseline for learning, rather than a punitive aspect of the relationship.
  • Shared vision of success: A clear and mutual articulation of what success looks like, agreed on at the onset of a project, was useful when adapting strategies and tactics. In fact, three-fourths of people we interviewed said a shared vision was critical to navigating unexpected hurdles.
  • Co-development of plan/program: A plan or project developed together often makes it more comfortable for each partner to proactively offer feedback or elevate challenges. Grantees and funders alike shared how they set the mutual expectation that things will inevitably go wrong in the work, so determining how to diagnose, identify, and act to address those challenges together was always a core element of the relationship.

This fall, IS will release eight case studies that detail more of these healthy practices, behaviors, and supporting conditions across grantee-funder pairs, and highlight several organizations that execute them well. We will also share a synopsis of learnings across all 40 organizations, and pilot a number of related tools at our upcoming conference.

We believe strengthening relationships between grantees and funders is an important part of preparing the nonprofit and philanthropic sector for the challenges it will face over the next two decades. IS’s goal in this work is to help grantees and funders engage in healthier relationships so that organizations fulfill their missions and strengthen the communities they serve.