It’s Easy to Take the First Step

Reflections on Exponent Philanthropy's "Great Funder-Nonprofit Relationships"

I spent all morning this past Wednesday (9/20) participating in a program presented by Exponent Philanthropy and the National Council on Nonprofits on “Great Funder-Nonprofit Relationships.”  An equal balance of nonprofits and funders – more than 70 people – participated in this last of four such programs held across the country.  Funded nationally by the Fund for Shared Insight, this local program was also supported by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.

Many nonprofits and funders approach the topic of grantee/grantmaker relationship building with fear, anxiety and trepidation.  Nonprofits are put off by the power dynamic.  Funders feel overwhelmed.  And yet we know that when organizations and grantmakers develop authentic, sustained relationships, the quality of those partnerships increases dramatically.  Both can to achieve much more when they work together and communicate on a regular basis.  But even with this knowledge, it remains hard to make such connections a reality.

Throughout the discussions on Wednesday, however, I was struck by how simple and easy it is to create and foster such relationships.  We heard presentations from several funders and nonprofits who were actively collaborating and working side-by-side to achieve great things.  And it didn’t take some policy change to make it happen. It didn’t require some rewrite of the operating documents.  All it took was someone reaching out and saying, “Let’s explore how we can help each other.”  It’s that basic.

Here are a few of things that stuck with me from the day’s discussions:

  • It’s essential to create connection opportunities outside of the actual grantmaking process.  Both nonprofits and funders agreed that communication and interaction should take place in contexts beyond the “application moment.”
  • Openness, transparency and honesty are central characteristics of any successful relationship, and it’s absolutely the case when nonprofits and funders work together. And while many of us are fearful of talking about the “messy” or the “failures,” when we get past that, it unlocks a whole new level of connection.
  • Very simple steps can get the ball rolling.  Nonprofits and funders were encouraged to list out the characteristics of an “ideal” relationship.  Such a list can be an easy way to start a conversation – “We thought about our relationships with our funders, and we’d love to share with you how well we match up.”

Exponent’s series on the nonprofit-funder relationship concludes with a webinar on November 9th.  Reflections, data and perspective from the various sessions – held on the East Coast as well as in California – will be summarized to guide discussions on the 9th.  Long term, I anticipate that resource tools and guides will emerge from this work.  I’m looking forward to the continued conversation, and to helping nonprofits and funders implement these exciting ideas.

Whether you’re the leader of a nonprofit organization, the head of a family foundation, or a program officer of a larger grantmaking foundation, the first step is easy.  Commit to relationship building and stronger communication.  Ultimately everyone is committed to similar objectives – solving the world’s problems, improving our communities, supporting people in need, etc.  Working even more closely together, think of all that we can accomplish!


If you, your organization, or your foundation are interested in learning more about or even implementing the lessons learned from this program, contact Marshall Ginn