What Is Behind Great Funder–Nonprofit Relationships?

Often in the complex funder–nonprofit relationship, it seems nonprofits do the asking, reporting, and proving, while donors sit in positions to say yes or no, how much, when, and what’s required. Achieving a different, deeper relationship takes more than just good intentions—it takes flexibility, finesse, and a sincere desire to acknowledge and address the power dynamics at play.

In collaboration with the National Council of Nonprofits, Exponent Philanthropy will gather funders and nonprofits in four locations in the coming months for a half-day of facilitated programming dedicated to helping everyone build better working relationships and increase the impact of their work.

In each location, two pairs of funder and nonprofit partners will share their experiences and help to spark conversations. You can hear from some of the featured speakers below.

Get dates and locations for the upcoming half-day events for funders and nonprofits >>

In your experience, what contributes most to successful funder-grantee relationships?

Wendy Chang (funder, Dwight Stuart Youth Fund): Championing leaders and supporting their personal as well as organizational development. Funder–grantee partnerships are strongest when there is commitment beyond programs—when people, process, and systems matter.

I take pride in having an open door and high level of awareness of the issues confronting our grantee organizations. If every update or discussion with a grantee was just that “everything is fine,” then I couldn’t offer any help or guidance. I find that I am more invested if drawn in by grantees sharing their obstacles or things that may not be working. An opening is created and relationship strengthened when vulnerability is shared.

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Trust Is Essential to Changemaking; Funders Must Take the First Step

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy, and Colleen O’Keefe, Sauer Family Foundation

In any group or in any relationship, trust is the feeling that allows people to work toward common purpose. Trust comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. But more than that, trust allows us to be ourselves, to be creative, use our talents and skills, and take risks. Where there is trust, we feel empowered to try new things, and take advantage of opportunities.

Where there is trust, we feel safe enough to be vulnerable. This is really powerful. It means we can share challenges and problems, offer new ideas, and provide honest feedback. By being able to be honest and open, we make it more possible for problems to be addressed, and good ideas to be considered and put into action.

For all its power, trust is often elusive, difficult to build or keep.

What Creates Trust?

The foundations of trust have to do with a feeling of safety. And at organizations, a feeling of safety comes from the leaders, the people who have formal authority and power. The management expert and thought leader Simon Sinek explains (TED Radio Hour on NPR, originally broadcast May 15, 2015):

The sense of feeling safe comes first. So when we feel safe, trust will emerge. This is what the foundations of leadership really are. The reason we call someone leader, is because they choose to go first. They choose to extend trust first, even before maybe any signs have been offered that they should.

It is the willingness to express empathy before anyone else. When we assess that someone would do that, and we see that they have that integrity, and they would willingly sacrifice their interests for our lives, we cannot help ourselves. The natural human response is trust.

As human beings, if those especially in leadership positions express empathy for our well being, we reward them with our trust, and our loyalty, our love, to see that their vision and the company is advanced.

We forget that these very human things require us to sacrifice. And it can come in any form, you know, time or energy. But I think the foundation of trust really is the willingness to sacrifice for another.

Opening Up Authentic Conversations With Grantees

The lack of trust between funder and grantee remains one of the biggest barriers to impact in philanthropy. Without open, honest conversations, funders can’t learn what nonprofits really need to deliver outcomes desired by funders, grantees, and most of all—people and communities in need.

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5 Challenges to Teamwork in Family Giving

By Dawn Franks, Your Philanthropy 

Based on “5 Keys to Build Teamwork in Family Giving,” originally posted on Your Philanthropy’s YP Journal on March 23, 2016. 

“Coming together is a beginning,” said Henry Ford. “Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” I know Henry was referring to building cars, but that quote also holds the keys to a sustainable blend of family and philanthropy. Success depends on teamwork in family giving.

Over the past 10 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with more than 25 families involved with different styles of family giving—from the family pocket, from a donor advised fund, and from private family foundations. Each family brings all their personality, operating style, and history with them to each gathering of the family, and that includes when philanthropy is the subject.

Yet families don’t often see themselves functioning as a team. Differences and dysfunctions can be a hindrance to team building. Patrick Lencioni wrote a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team in which he describes the interpersonal aspects of team building. Each dysfunction is highly applicable to families involved in philanthropy.

Absence of Trust

If it seems unlikely that a family would lack trust, remember that no one knows us like our family. They know the best and the worst of us. Family knows our natural talents and every wart. So it isn’t surprising that, as Lencioni describes it, we might be unwilling to be vulnerable. Yet, as I have sat with families while they do the work of giving together, it’s when they value one another’s differences that they excel. Trust comes from knowing we can work toward a common good even with all the warts in the room.

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It’s About Trust: Balancing Relationship with Risk in Social Entrepreneurship

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

The Skees Family Foundation and Th3rd Plateau co-hosted a dine-around for social entrepreneurs and their funders at the Exponent Philanthropy 2012 National Conference last month. We had an “oversold” turnout of about forty highly engaged professionals, with a perfect balance: half funders and half entrepreneurs. Even our organic, locally sourced, family-style dinner was cooked by an Opportunity Fund microentrepreneur. The food and conversation surpassed our wildest hopes—and the input from attendees got me thinking even more deeply about risk and trust, and why we fund very early-stage social entrepreneurs.

Upaya Social Ventures

Our India client Draupadi; two neighbors sharing advice on their new jobs; ultra-poor kaccha house in Godha Village. (c) Upaya Social Ventures

The Indian sun broils down on our heads near the thatched-roof hut where 60-year-old Draupadi stands wringing her slim hands. She’s complaining about her arthritis and her three goats.

I’m in Uttar Pradesh, visiting a social enterprise we fund through U.S.-based Upaya Social Ventures. Draupadi’s skeptical of us because of her experience with local milkmen who charge high-interest loans and pay fluctuating prices. She’s stressed, because none of her new goats are milking. “Don’t worry,” her neighbor Saraswati assures her, “the milkman pays you only 15 rupees, but this company pays much more.” She explains that Draupadi will receive a steady weekly salary all year, through the milking and dry seasons.

As we do here in the U.S., Draupadi takes her friend’s word for it, and she takes a measured risk. After all, she used to get only a few days’ manual labor per month, hauling stones, bricks, or water at construction sites. “This job is better,” she admits. Continue reading