Reflections on the Grantee-Funder Relationship: the Hidden Leaf Foundation

In 2012 we invited our grantees to submit a reflection on the nature of the grantee/funder relationship. This question stemmed from our own exploration of the power dynamics that limit the authenticity of relationships between funders and grantees. At Hidden Leaf we’ve been wondering: How can we at Hidden Leaf address the power imbalance that exists between the two groups? How can transformative practice assist us in building a more honest and collaborative relationship? How can we support other funders in building more authentic relationships with their grantees? Overall: How can our joint commitment to personal and collective awareness transform this often-awkward relationship to better serve our shared vision?

We received a rich mix of observations and suggestions in response to our question. We are very grateful to our grantees for their candid reflections. Many respondents laid out specific ways to increase the authenticity of this often-challenging relationship. We lifted out some of the common threads from the reports and summarized them in the list that follows.

It is our intention to use this feedback to shape how we show up as funders—both in relationship with our grantees and with others in the field of philanthropy. We also hope to keep this communication growing over time, and to keep learning as we go.

Suggestions from Hidden Leaf Grantees to Funders:

  1. Support grantees with multi-year, core operating grants! [This was most often sited as a way to build more collaborative, stable and balanced relationships.] Multi-year funds provide the most sustainable source of funding for organizations, allowing them to focus on deepening the impact of their work instead of on the restrictions of a contract. As one grantee wrote: “Multi-year grants remove the cloud of year-to-year funding withdrawal from over the grantee’s head and thus could potentially lead to more honest dialogues between grantees and funders.”
  2. Support work based on what is emerging from grassroots, rather than funder-driven initiatives.
  3. Provide funding across sectors and issues. Single-issue funding limits the work of a grantee whereas multi-issue funding helps strengthen the work of an organization as well as our collective vision for social justice.
  4. Become champions of your grantees’ work. Work towards a dynamic in which funders are not only financially invested in the work of their grantees, but are also talking about and advocating for their grantees to other funders and organizations. Help guide grantees to other foundations and make introductions, act as references, etc.
  5. Simplify the amount of paperwork required for proposals and reports. And use the application process to learn about grantees’ work “on our terms.” “Ask us to share who we are, how our programs work, how we envision change” (rather than asking grantees to relate to the funders’ framework or theory of change).
  6. Speak to other family foundations (about transformative social change) such as the Council on Foundation’s annual Family Philanthropy Conference or the Northern California Grantmakers Association gatherings.
  7. Invite grantee leaders into board meetings to further a partnership-based dialogue. Look into the “giving circle” model and philosophy. There are some very poignant and useful principles in these forms that could be instructive. And family foundations have a lot more flexibility than other institutions to experiment with things like a practitioner advisory board, etc.
  8. Hold grantees to a more specific and higher bar as well as look critically at those organizations which are not diving into this (transformative change) work thoroughly and effectively. Look harder at the groups funded and determine whether they are truly making mindfulness a priority. For those that are diving in, dive deeper – especially around bringing in expertise, funding, shared stories of success from the field, ways to leverage this work in the broader movement, gain broader publicity for efforts to attract like-minded people, etc.
  9. Create the conditions for grantees to report to funders about how the funder is performing. Set up regular anonymous 360 reviews for funders, grouping all grantees to allow anonymity. Give grantees the opportunity to give open-ended feedback about the relationship dynamics and how well, or not, the funder is showing up in their role.
  10. Conduct site visits. Maintain contact throughout the year. During site visits, grantees can be who they are and interact with funders person-to-person versus over paper, through the phone or by email. Without this personal interaction it is hard to feel a sense of true relationship with funders.
  11. Talk about the money in a really direct way: “Here’s what I can put in my budget for you, here’s what I need from you.” Be clear about money.
  12. Give feedback. Grantees often submit reports with little acknowledgement.
  13. “Undoing Racism” training by People’s Institute should be required for all funders.
  14. Inner awareness work for staff at all foundations would be great, too!

This post originally appeared on the Hidden Leaf Foundation website.

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Power Dynamics in Family Philanthropy

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