The right question is not “What can I do for you?” It is “What can I do with you?”
When I worked at the Global Fund for Women (GFW), one of our mantras was, “How we do our work is as important as what we do.”
This resulted in a grantmaking program that very deliberately trusted and respected grantees’ expertise and decisions, including providing general operating support. We operated without deadlines and accepted unsolicited proposals in any language and any format.
On site visits in Kyrgyzstan and Morocco, I witnessed firsthand the impact of our approach on the relationships between GFW and its grantees. Grantees always set GFW apart from their other funders and described GFW’s support as “much more than money.” They also felt comfortable enough to provide candid feedback on GFW’s work, and often shared their programs’ failures and challenges as freely as their successes.
Although the funder–grantee power dynamic certainly did not disappear, the playing field for these grantees was a bit more level than with other funders.
What can small-staffed philanthropy take from this example?
No one expects a small foundation or individual donor to accept unsolicited proposals in any language, of course. But there are many manageable and meaningful actions that can contribute to positive relationships with grantees.
Sasha Rabsey of The HOW Fund too believes that how she does her work is as important as what she does—so much so that it became the name of her family’s fund. Together, Sasha and I give the following recommendations when working internationally:
- Understand the cultural context and take stock of how you represent yourself to grantees and their beneficiaries. If you don’t want to simply be seen as dollar signs in the eyes of potential grantees, be very clear about your ability (or lack of ability) to support their work. Come with an aim of collaboration rather than assistance and communicate that clearly as well. And be aware of the power dynamics inherent in this work. Read more of Sasha’s thoughts on righting the power imbalance.
- Aim to let people do their work and get out of the way. In my research on international philanthropy, it came through loud and clear that, to be effective, you must trust that grantees know their context, problems, and solutions best, and you must let them implement their own solutions. By honoring their leadership and knowledge, you avoid disempowering grantees and lessening their buy-in to the work at hand. This approach translates into providing general support grants and minimizing the burden of monitoring and evaluation.
- Be realistic in your expectations of grantees. Understand that no one will give you 100% of what you want, and, if they do, it should be a red flag. Especially when funding at the grassroots level, meet groups where they are. That means, for example, not expecting a complicated plan for scaling up when they don’t even have paid staff or a copy machine.
Rachel Humphrey, MNA, PCC, joined TCC Group in September 2012 as a consultant focusing on strategy and capacity building for foundations and nonprofits. She earned a master of nonprofit administration degree from the University of San Francisco in 2003 and is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through the International Coach Federation. Prior to working as a coach and consultant full time, Rachel served as the director of philanthropic partnerships at the Global Fund for Women. Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachelzh.