Insights on Building Honest Communication Between Funders and Grantees
December 5th, 2019
If you’ve seen one foundation…you’ve seen one foundation.
This common refrain in the nonprofit world is a reminder of the singularity of every funder. In turn, with this premise, grantees, potential grantees, consultants, and others spend significant time and resources getting to know each funders’ preferences, habits, and other traits. Doing this for one funder is challenging; for multiple funders even more so. And, of course, doing it while also continuing to carry out the everyday work of the organization is most challenging.
Those on the funder side gain a new perspective when we step back and try to put ourselves in the shoes of grantees. We gain compassion for the professionals at these organizations and the challenges and windy paths they navigate. And we exhibit humility when we say, clearly, that the outcomes of our actions toward them don’t always align with our intentions.
Two recent interactions of mine with grantee-partners demonstrate this—and represent a moment of learning for the Jim Joseph Foundation. Our starting point for a funder-grantee relationship is a desire for frequent, relatively informal correspondence to build a relationship premised on partnership. Our mentality is that we—the funder and grantee-partner—are in this work together. These types of interactions, we believe, will create a level of comfort for the grantee-partner that makes sharing challenges and shortcomings easier. When those occur, as they almost always do to some degree, we can problem-solve together.
Yet, these two grantee-partner interactions opened my eyes to the very real challenges with this approach. One grantee-partner said they were not in touch with me for a much longer period of time than I would have expected because they were not comfortable sharing a half-baked idea regarding the Foundation-supported initiative. The other grantee-partner said they lacked the confidence—they even felt like imposters in their work despite strong momentum and learning outcomes—to proactively maintain ongoing communication with the Foundation. As the funder representative, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my first inclination was to question why both grantee-partners felt this way. However, after a short time, I began to reflect on the reasons these grantee-partners hesitated to interact with the Foundation in the way we hope all grantee-partners do. I quickly recognized that this was as much of a learning opportunity for the Foundation as it was for the non-profit executives.
Here are some takeaways that we think are beneficial to share and digest with the field:
We share this now with an understanding that the Jewish philanthropic sector is in the midst of a particular moment of change. Over recent years, major funders have or will sunset and other, newer funders will look to fill voids. Our field is also in the midst of numerous leadership changes among nonprofit organizations; those new leaders are younger and come from more diverse backgrounds. Their lived experiences mean they may inherently have different approaches and ideas about effective grantee-funder communications. Simply, increasingly new people will continue to occupy the funder-grantee roles in the coming years. As we move forward, we take this fact and our recent experiences and related learnings into account. The funder-grantee relationship is unique in every situation—so too are the communications that best suit each interaction.
Aaron Saxe is a Senior Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.