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

Fundraising Lessons from Philanthropy Lessons

I’ve always said that nonprofits could learn a lot about good fundraising just by reading some of the advice and guidance that’s being given to funders.  Whether it’s Charity Navigator’s “Tips for Donors” or “Giving Guidance and Tips” from the Wise Giving Alliance, there are plenty of excellent roadmaps showing donors how to give, how to choose a nonprofit partner, and how to spot organizations that are doing well, as well as those who are not making much of an impact.

Each of these tips and guiding principles can be easily turned around and shaped into sound advice for nonprofit leaders.  For example, when the Wise Giving Alliance tells donors to “resist being pressured,” nonprofits should take note of this advice and make sure that appeals – whether by phone or in person – respect the prospect’s right (and need) to make a thoughtful decision.  Or when Charity Navigator advises donors to “start a dialogue” regarding programmatic results, nonprofits should be prepared, and have on hand compelling (and understandable) information describing the impact their initiatives are having on the issue or cause they address.

I mentioned Exponent Philanthropy in my previous post.  They are currently in the midst of their annual conference in Chicago, and I’ve been getting daily highlights of the conference’s proceedings.  In today’s email, I was pointed toward their Philanthropy Lessons website.  Supported by the Fund for Shared Insight and released in partnership with The Chronicle, Philanthropy Lessons features real stories of giving in action from funders and grantees from all across the country.  The lessons are shared both as short videos as well as blog posts.

The videos contain fantastic advice that, while intended for donors and funders, provide extremely useful insight for nonprofit leaders.  A few things stood out as I listened:

  • Funders are being told to “get out of the office” and see their grantees in person. (Fundraisers are being told the same thing all the time!)  Reach out to your donors and invite them over to come and see you!
  • Many donors interviewed in the video spoke passionately about the “experiential” nature of interactions they have with nonprofits and the community being served.  Funders are looking for that authentic experience, not the perfect performance.  (So it’s alright if the kids are making lots of noise or the clinic is bit chaotic.  That’s your reality.)
  • While funders might enjoy site visits, some were clear that overly structured site visits, where the executive director pulls out a very formal agenda, are a bit of a turn-off.  So that well-rehearsed “dog and pony show” might not be the best approach.
  • Empathy goes a long way in any relationship, and relationship building is a critical component of both sides of the philanthropic equation.  Funders need to remind themselves that it’s hard for a nonprofit when funding has to be scaled back or eliminated for various reasons.  But nonprofits must realize that these are hard decisions for the funders too.  They don’t want turn away from a favorite nonprofit partner, but sometimes they have to make tough decisions, just like nonprofits do.

These are just a few of the insights I gained in reading through the posts and watching the videos.   I am sure more will come as I check out the remaining videos. 

Take a look at these and other advice being given to donors.  Think about how your nonprofit can help its current and potential donors to have the best possible experience.  Talk openly about the type of relationship you want to build with each other. Demonstrate that you are ready to (and are eager to) engage with them as an active partner.   As one of the funders said, “When they let us in, then the work begins.”  Share your visions for how each of you can have an impact on your community, issue or cause.   



Investing in Nonprofit Leaders - Modeling Behavior for Funders

Exponent Philanthropy (the national organization for foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families and individual donors) recently released an updated version of their informational piece on “Investing in Nonprofit Leaders.”  It lays out the case for why and how grantmakers should make an effort to provide nonprofit grantees with resources to foster and strengthen this critical component of nonprofit management.  It recommends ways to adjust grantmaking practices, and suggests specific funding and support opportunities that can help individual leaders as well as broadly foster leadership throughout an organization. 

From my perspective, one of the most critical elements of this primer’s guidance focuses on the interaction between grantees and their funders.  “Building trust,” “beginning the conversation,” and “talking about red flags” form a framework for honest discussions, which the author asserts can lead to a funder’s ability to clearly understand a nonprofit’s needs when it comes to leadership development.  On paper, it looks like sound guidance and an easy roadmap toward a solution, but we know that it is still a real challenge for nonprofits and funders to have such frank exchanges.  I don’t want to suggest that this is always the case, but too often it is the reality of the dynamic between grantmakers and grantees.

Perhaps one way to open the door to such conversations is for your nonprofit’s own board to “model” the behavior it might like to see from its funders when it comes to leadership development.  If even in small ways, I think there are steps any board can make which can demonstrate a commitment to leadership within their own nonprofit.  Here are some examples:

Supporting Individual Leaders – The Exponent primer suggest ways that funders can support individual leaders through such moves as sabbaticals or coaching, or by funding staff retreats and other team-building exercises.  Your board can make some moves of its own in this area.  When it comes to budget planning time, make sure you invest in your staff.  Even a modest professional development budget, or a few dollars set aside for the Executive Director to use for personal coaching or support can go a long way toward demonstrating your commitment to strong leadership.

Networking and Training in the Community – Funders often can have a broad, sweeping impact when they fund or create training and networking opportunities that are available to the entire community.  Peer networking and learning is critical to strengthening the sector and skills building.  On your own board, you should encourage efforts by staff to engage in the wider community.  You should recognize, not discourage, staff who are active in networks, organizations and forums that can promote your nonprofit and advance your cause.

Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders - We all know that building and strengthening the pipeline of future leaders is essential. Funders are being encouraged from all angles to address this head on.  But what can a board do right now?  Your board can make immediate moves to support that next generation, many of which cost little to no financial resources.  For example, consider establishing a position on your board for a young leader, which can provide an opportunity for someone to learn about board service.   (Make sure to provide that person with appropriate mentoring!)  You can encourage senior staff to provide skills building to junior staff through job shadowing or “lunch and learn” gatherings, anything that promotes the sharing of expertise and experience.

With these small moves, I believe a nonprofit can position itself well to start that frank, honest conversation with its funders.  Even if you’re struggling to fully realize some of the steps suggested above, you can clearly demonstrate a commitment to leadership development at your nonprofit. You will promote leadership development as a true organizational value.  You will model the behavior you hope to see from your funders. You will be doing your part even while engaging funders to do theirs.

Explore these ideas.  Take some initial steps.  Demonstrate your commitment.  Then turn to your funders and say, “We’ve started this, now we need you to join us.  We can all agree that strong leadership is essential to our fulfilling our mission.  We need your help to take it to the next level.”