A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

What Is Behind Great Funder–Nonprofit Relationships?

Often in the complex funder–nonprofit relationship, it seems nonprofits do the asking, reporting, and proving, while donors sit in positions to say yes or no, how much, when, and what’s required. Achieving a different, deeper relationship takes more than just good intentions—it takes flexibility, finesse, and a sincere desire to acknowledge and address the power dynamics at play.

In collaboration with the National Council of Nonprofits, Exponent Philanthropy will gather funders and nonprofits in four locations in the coming months for a half-day of facilitated programming dedicated to helping everyone build better working relationships and increase the impact of their work.

In each location, two pairs of funder and nonprofit partners will share their experiences and help to spark conversations. You can hear from some of the featured speakers below.

In your experience, what contributes most to successful funder-grantee relationships?

Wendy Chang (funder, Dwight Stuart Youth Fund): Championing leaders and supporting their personal as well as organizational development. Funder–grantee partnerships are strongest when there is commitment beyond programs—when people, process, and systems matter.

I take pride in having an open door and high level of awareness of the issues confronting our grantee organizations. If every update or discussion with a grantee was just that “everything is fine,” then I couldn’t offer any help or guidance. I find that I am more invested if drawn in by grantees sharing their obstacles or things that may not be working. An opening is created and relationship strengthened when vulnerability is shared.

Sasha Rabsey (funder, HOW Fund and Present Purpose Network): Relationship-building, like social change work, is a journey and is about more than financial resources and returns. Enter into the relationship with an open heart and an open mind.

Trust is number one, and that can only be earned with time and patience on both sides. Be aware of your biases, understand your power and privilege, and be open to the work it takes to be your genuine and authentic self. Know the work of the partner, see it, and believe in it. Be curious, ready to share and learn.

Margaret Butler (grantee, Komera): Funders must understand and own their power and come with the intention of partnership. Bring sector knowledge and context, and be open to learning, listening respectfully and deeply.

NGOs should also understand their power and come to the table not seeing the funder just as a source of dollars, but as a thought partner. Listen to ideas and admit that we don’t always have the answers. Also don’t promise the moon to funders for the sake of money. Share what it takes to build something in a meaningful way and be honest about the good as well as the challenges.

What is one lesson you’ve learned about building and maintaining these relationships?

Wendy: Although funder-grantee power dynamics may still exist, I work hard to develop and maintain strong, friendly relationships with grantees. As many of these relationships have or will span decades, I value my grantees’ trust in me and hope they feel the same. In addition to our grants program, all our initiatives are people-centered and relationship-orientated.

Sasha: Be prepared for hard work. This is about long-term solidarity. Also have humility. This work is not about you; it is about community, humanity.

Wendy Chang directs grantmaking, initiatives, and capacity building activities at the Dwight Stuart Youth FundHer community contributions include serving as board member of Lambda Legal; chair of OUT Fund and member of Circle of Change (giving circles); advisory council chair of the Liberty Hill Foundation; chair of the Los Angeles Partnership for Early Childhood Investment; president of National Charity League, Inc., Westside Chapter; and member and past chair of Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Los Angeles.

Sasha Rabsey is founder and director of the HOW Fund and HOW Fellowship, which support international mentorship programs for girls. She is also the co-founder of Present Purpose Network, a collective action fund comprised of women who pool their resources and invest in meaningful solutions that impact young women and girls. Sasha serves on the boards of IDEX, Bantwana Initiative, and Komera, and Exponent Philanthropy’s Programs and Services Committee.

Executive Director Margaret Butler brings a background in teaching, international development, and nonprofit management to Komera, which she founded to support adolescent girls in Rwanda. Margaret is also co-founder of the East African Girls Leadership Summit, which brings together promising young women from across Eastern Africa to be effective change makers in the world. Most recently, Margaret co-founded AMPLIFY, a consortium of like-minded community-based organizations working to create strong, vibrant African communities by investing in girls’ education and leadership development.

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