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Funders! Let's Be Honest...

Updated: May 6

The funder-nonprofit relationship is complex, multi-faceted and can be tricky to navigate. The very nature of any grantor-grantee relationship is such that all parties are going to experience moments of uncertainty.

And that’s ok.

We are working together to achieve social change and though we may be heading in the same direction (for the most part), each organization is unique. There is no paintbrush solution. There will be times when our paths may diverge and cause some discomfort.

This is healthy. Collaboration requires differences in perspective. Partnerships, in any form, are a continuous negotiation so in order to address problems we need to reflect on our needs and communicate honestly.

However, not every relationship between funders and nonprofits will be successful. There are times when our priorities, values, strategies, and cultures are too disparate to have a productive relationship.

And that’s ok, too.

Building Respectful Relationships

We need to explore compatibility with funders before we work together. And the best way to accomplish this is to meet up and talk. Like any new relationship, we need to get to know each other before we make longer-term commitments. We can identify goals and find complementing priorities. However, it’s important that funders are ready to have this conversation. Though it is difficult to turn our back on funding, it is better to walk away from a funder if there isn’t a fit on a fundamental values level and if the relationship is not honest and respectful. Differences can be negotiated but a healthy relationship is fundamental.

We can’t force it.

Meeting with funders, even if you learn there is not a fit, is time well spent. Something is always learned in conversation and from asking the right questions.

Critical Conversations

Once both parties are comfortable with (or, at the very least, intrigued by) the relationship and potential partnership, we can begin to have conversations that explore goals and values. Although this kind of exchange may seem taboo, or even risky, these discussions are vital to overall sustainability and success without stretching capacities. These critical conversations require bravery, honesty, and vulnerability.

We need to share our values and approach so we can create the cross-sectoral partnerships that the sector needs in order to create real change on complex issues. We can't do this work alone. We need to collaborate out of our comfort zone and into new spaces. It's important this is done with empathy, deep listening and honest reflection. Too much is at stake to not get this right.

Being open and frank with funders about our goals, capacities and priorities can help to deepen our relationship and cultivate trust. And that can help us feel less anxiety about whether these conversations will have any negative consequences. For example, if a funder is asking for an evaluation then advocate writing evaluation cost into the budget for that grant.

Activating deep listening is just as important as sharing our perspective with funders. Because when they know we also have their goals in mind we can truly build long-lasting relationships.

For example, if a company wants employees to be engaged in a non-profit's programs but this poses a safety risk for clients then we explore alternatives. Maybe we have employees volunteer at an already existing event so as not to create new work and satisfy everyone's goals. We need to get creative and can always brainstorm together. It is okay if we don't have all the answers on the spot. We can take brainstorms back to our organization as well. Developing strong and aligned partnerships requires listening and openness on both sides.

A Partnership of Equals

Unequal power dynamics are inherently pervasive in the grantor-grantee relationship. It is important to acknowledge them out loud so we can open the door to more honest conversations and begin to break down this dynamic. When we ignore this power dynamic, we all lose; we may make promises that we cannot keep or agree to deliverables that we cannot achieve simply because we are desperate to maintain the relationship and our funding.

Both parties benefit when we shift to a partnership of equals. When we focus on what is achievable through candid conversations, we can make greater progress towards each party's goals. Sometimes just calling out the power dynamic helps bring new awareness to addressing it together.

We also need to shed our fear of questioning expectations. If both parties understand ‘we’re in this together’ then working through challenging situations can be accomplished without it being a crisis of thwarted intentions. If something that the funder requested is just not working, we need to tell them why. Through this conversation, we can try to discover what the underlying goals were and adapt solutions better fitted to our context.

For example, mandatory, funder-imposed evaluation forms can be problematic if they do not reflect our organization’s values and approach. But if we’re able to drill-down and discover what they want to be measured and how it’s important to their goals, we may be able to negotiate and come to an agreement about an approach that works for all. We can maintain our values, save time and satisfy multiple interests. It is possible for all of us to achieve our goals, and in many cases, create something even better when we work together through honest conversations.

Reward & Risk

Sometimes critical conversations are welcomed with open arms and funders learn and adapt processes as a result. Change can happen within both parties as a result of meaningful conversations, mutual respect, and bold partnerships.

But sometimes organizations can be indirectly defunded or penalized as a result of these conversations. It is a risk to embark on this journey of discovery because what we discover may be disappointing. However, honesty and true partnership in funding relationships are ultimately more sustainable than a relationship built on power and control.

Saying ‘No’ With Purpose

We have to be careful of what a scarcity mindset can sometimes enable us to do and accept. Holding fast to our mission can help us to say ‘no’ to money that will stretch our capacity. When we chase funding that requires us to deliver on something that does not align with our organizational goals, we risk stretching our teams’ capacity and our organization can lose focus. The more time spent focused on going after grants and funding that match our values, mission and approach, the more effective we can be. This alignment becomes especially important when juggling multiple funders across multiple programs. Also, it becomes easier to have candid conversations because it is not selfish; it is in the best interest of your mission and cause.

Having critical conversations can be uncomfortable. However, when we cultivate strong relationships built on trust and engage in honest conversations, we can achieve a greater collective impact. Addressing the power dynamics inherent to the grantor-grantee relationship can start to tear down inequalities and we can approach our relationship more as partners. And, if we are laser-focused on the kind of funding we want to pursue, then these conversations become natural.

Also, funders change their priorities and staff over time so keep an eye out for future opportunities to reconnect and re-explore alignment if things don't work out the first time.

Language Matters

Some advice to funders: When you say, ‘I know what it's like to work in a nonprofit’, even if you've worked at one in the past, it makes it hard to be honest with you. Instead say, ‘I want to learn from nonprofits and have honest conversations with you because our goal is to help you satisfy your mission.’ There must be mutual learning and respectful conversations, otherwise, we risk organizations stretching their missions which costs everyone more in the end.

This blog is a collaborative piece by EPIC team members Michael Prosserman and Tina de los Santos

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