In the 11+ years that I’ve been working in institutional philanthropy I have had the opportunity to have many private and public conversations with nonprofit leaders and activists about what they really want out of their relationships with funders.  On a regular basis I hear these leaders express their wish list for funders: general operating support, long-term commitment and reasonable evaluation requirements.

None of these requests are exactly big surprises. And, in fairness, there are a number of reasons why funders can’t or won’t fund in these ways. Regardless of the logic, the truth is that not enough foundations provide this kind of financial support, which, in my opinion, is the best grantmaking strategy a foundation can practice. I am committed to influencing foundations to evolve to this more progressive type of investment until the end of time (wish me luck!).

Now, it is not these typical requests from nonprofits that agitate me. However, there is one request I find frustrating – that is, when nonprofits request that foundations listen – yes, to simply LISTEN to them. Listening is something that EVERY funder can do regardless of charter, asset size, issue, etc. Every human deserves the dignity of being heard. Program officers may have little influence to impact a board or CEO’s funding strategy, but they can LISTEN to grantees with an open heart. After a decade, I can’t believe I’m still hearing this request from nonprofit leaders!

In these moments, I always remember my favorite Beyoncé song, “Listen.” "Listen" was recorded by Beyoncé for the 2006 film adaptation of the Broadway musical, Dreamgirls, in which Beyoncé’s character Deena Jones sings the song in an expression of independence from her controlling husband. It’s also the song that comes to mind when nonprofit leaders tell me that they wish funders would listen – truly listen – to them. I imagine a choir of nonprofit leaders passionately singing these lyrics from “Listen” (as they beat their chest and tears streamed down their faces):

Listen… the time has come for my dreams to be heard

They will not be pushed aside and turned into your own all 'cause you won't listen!

Listen… I'm not at home in my own homeI've tried and tried to say what's on my mind…

Listen…now I'm done believing you, you don't know what I'm feeling…

Why is it so difficult for funders to listen?? Why are nonprofit leaders even in a position to have to request simply being heard over and over again? And why are funders so controlling? – that is really the question that nonprofits want to ask.

I read this amazing article on moving from controlling to empowering leadership – here are a few adapted thoughts as it pertains to our role as funders.

Fact: foundations have power. This power should be used to influence, rather than control. Funders who listen before acting and use their power to influence demonstrate care about the needs and interests of their grantees as well as their own. Rather than imposing control, they create an environment that elicits motivation and commitment from partners. They seek mutually beneficial goals and inspire grantees to better levels of performance out of self-interest rather than force.

Foundation leaders really operate at their best when they understand their ability to influence is much more fruitful than their ability to control. The purpose of leadership is not to shine the spotlight on yourself, but to unlock the potential of others so they can in turn shine the spotlight on countless more. Control is about power – not leadership. Controlling funders restrict potential, limit initiative and inhibit talent and impact from their grantees. Foundations that ignore priceless input from their grantees stifle creativity and leadership.

Great leaders and organizations need room to breathe, explore and take risks. When funders listen and support great nonprofit leaders, organizations will flourish and grow. Grantees almost universally describe the negative impact of this style of leadership. Controlling leadership causes them to feel frustrated, demoralized, and insignificant. Grantees learn to simply put up with such funders at best by keeping their heads down and at worst not being fully transparent with their funders.

Like Beyoncé’s character Deena Jones, I understand that the fatal flaw of controlling [philanthropic] leaders is that they don’t listen. They believe that they know more than others. They’re not open to learning or being influenced. They make positive assumptions about their own abilities and negative assumptions about the people around them. So, how can we do better?

  1. Foundation leaders need to remember that no one is smarter than everyone.
  2. We need to understand that success requires collaboration. 
  3. We need to view grantees as partners who truly want to contribute.We need our leadership to create a context in which teams of people share accountability to make great things happen. This is what empowering leadership is all about.

Let’s start listening to (seeking first to understand) our grantees, before responding with answers and solutions.

Let’s facilitate the solutions of a problem by asking questions such as, “What are the outcomes you/we want from this situation?” “What options do you see?” “What can you do?” “What support do you need from me?” “How can you hold me, as the funder, accountable?”

By using such tactics, philanthropic leaders don’t give up power. We actually increase our power by leveraging our most important asset—the people around us whom we depend on and who are essential to realizing our goals. In the long-run, “influence-with” leadership offers far-reaching advantages over “power-over” leadership. It is this kind of leadership that builds trust and goodwill and taps into the collective genius of all of us in the nonprofit sector. Listen - and let nonprofits do what they do best.