Editors Note: This piece was originally published on "Nonprofits with Balls" (juggling balls, that is). Also, please save the date for the Get-A-Beer-And-Undo-Nonprofit-Power-Dynamics Day on July 7th, 2017!
Every time I talk to program officers about how to make the funding process more effective and equitable, I often get this response: “Vu, I agree with the stuff you’ve been kvetching about, you unconventionally sexy vegan, you. But…it’s the trustees at my foundation. It can be challenging to convince them to do things differently.”
It makes me think of the dynamics in our sector, and the not-often-talked-about role of foundation trustees. We nonprofits work with program officers, and despite many of them being really nice and down-to-earth people, the power differential can make them intimidating and scary. Foundation trustees, being even higher up in the chain of command, are terrifying, made even more so because they also have an aura of mysteriousness. This is how we nonprofit professionals imagine a meeting of foundation trustees:
In the darkness of a forest, a group of cloaked figures surround a fire, chanting in unison. The chanting reaches a crescendo, and a hearty cry of “SUSTAINABILITY!” marks the end of the ritual. A lone uncloaked figure approaches the flames. The others turn their gaze toward him, their faces obscured in the darkness. “Brother Timothy, what news from the field?” asks one.
Brother Timothy clears his throat. “There have been more whispers of unrest. Cries for general operating funds, for multi-year funding, for faster grant decisions. There are those who seek to add kindling and stoke the embers. What is your will?”
There are murmurings, and among the murmurs are calls for “innovation” and “disruption,” “impact investments” and “social entrepreneurism,” “community engagement” and “equity.” Then, a soft, firm voice commands silence. All turn to listen. It was Sister Agnes, her silver hair burnished gold by the dancing fire, her eyes piercing with their own mysterious light. “Brother Timothy,” she says, “assemble your program officers. Prepare them. We must gather more data. We shall not move without consulting the Grimoire of the White Paper.”
OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. But honestly, that’s how many of us in the field see foundation trustees: Mysterious figures with really cool cloaks holding secret meetings in the forest at night, probably under a full moon. Of course, we know this is not true of everyone. I know several trustees who love being in the community and talking to nonprofit people, and even clients. But overall, this is the image we have of Trustees. And I’m wondering if this is an effective dynamic for us to perpetuate.
Trustees rely on program officers to act as liaisons between nonprofits and foundations. But many of us nonprofits would imaging that the dynamics between program officers and trustees are similar to the dynamics between program officers and nonprofits. We nonprofits are often afraid of telling program officers the truth and pushing back. I’ve been told that program officers are affected by the same power differentials in their relationship with trustees.
Well, if that’s the case, then there’s a huge issue. If feedback does not reach the highest level of decision making, then change will be difficult to effect. If we want our sector to be more effective in addressing the problems we’re trying to solve, then these power dynamics—between foundation staff and trustees, between nonprofit staff and program officers—have to be better. They current dynamics have perpetuated a highly adversarial system full of suspicion and mistrust among everyone. The suspicion and mistrust have created and maintained some really crappy processes—restricted funding; one-year grants; individualized grant applications, budgets, and reports, etc.—that have been leading to millions of hours wasted and thousands of professionals burning out each year. It’s perpetuated the Nonprofit Hunger Games.
As much as we’ve been talking more recently—at least at the funder conferences I’ve been invited to or stealthily infiltrated—about shifting power dynamics and fostering better collaborations between nonprofits and foundations, we can’t do that if we fail to notice and address power where it is most concentrated, and that is often at the rarefied trustee level. I have a couple of recommendations:
Program officers: We need you to push trustees even harder. Because trustees are difficult—usually impossible—to reach, we need you to speak for us. Most of us don’t have experience on what it’s like to interact with trustees, so we can only guess how terrifying it is. Probably as terrifying as it is for us to talk to you. But if we all don’t deliver feedback and ideas honestly to each other and create room for discussion and disagreement, then our community loses.
Nonprofits. We also need to provide more honest feedback to our program officer colleagues. And we need to be more supportive. I know there are many program officers trying each day to influence their trustees to change the way things are done at their foundations, with varying degrees of success. After talking to program officers over the years, I sense a level of frustration among many program officers, who are more on the ground and thus have more knowledge about what the sector needs, and yet they may get stymied by trustees who are used to doing things a certain way. We can help by providing the information and stories POs need to convince their trustees on stuff we care about.
Associations of grantmakers: You play an important role in bridging relationships between nonprofits and foundations. Help address the power dynamics by tackling it head-on and creating opportunities for the various parties to interact. This includes inviting trustees to critical conversations normally held between foundation staff and nonprofit folks, as well as initiating conversations specifically between trustees and nonprofits to alleviate program officers’ constant pressure to translate nonprofits’ feedback and ideas.
Trustees: Recognize the tremendous amount of power you wield, and how that affects your staff, as well as the entire nonprofit sector. And come get a beer with us nonprofit folks. We rarely see you at conferences or meetings or summits or focus groups, and so we start building this image of you as aloof and mysterious and out of touch with reality, to put it bluntly. But why is there this wall between us? Are we not trying to solve the same issues in society, but we each have different roles to play? Can we just get a beer together and get to know one another without the layers of formality?
I honestly think that we’d get a lot more stuff done for the world if we’d just have a beer together more often (see “3 reasons we all need to go to more happy hours.”) That’s why I’m declaring July 8th, 2016 “Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics” Day. Any combination of nonprofit professionals, program officers, and foundation trustees should use this day to get a beer together. No agenda. Just get a beer. (Or coffee or ice cream, if you don’t drink). First round on me. You can even wear your cloak, if you have one.