How can funders and grantees overcome barriers to trust?

Without open, honest conversations, funders can’t learn what nonprofits really need to deliver outcomes desired by funders, grantees, and, most of all, people and communities in need.

One of the biggest barriers to getting the complete story is the lack of trust between funders and grantees. Another task is creating the conditions necessary to listen and learn.

The foundation: Trust

Trust is the foundation for so much that human beings build and accomplish in the world. Trust comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. More than that, trust allows us to be ourselves, to be creative, to use our talents and skills, to take risks.

A fundamental step in bridging the divide between funder and grantee is for funders to acknowledge they have more power and to recognize that they must go first to build trust. The funder must take the first steps—and lead.

As management expert and thought leader Simon Sinek explains in a National Public Radio TED Radio Hour (May 15, 2015),

The sense of feeling safe comes first. So when we feel safe, trust will emerge. This is what the foundations of leadership really are. The reason we call someone leader, is because they choose to go first. They choose to extend trust first, even before maybe any signs have been offered that they should.

At a session on developing trust with grantees, funders reflected on qualities and mindsets that are essential to building trust. They shared these ideas for funders:

  • Be clear and transparent about your mission, and what you fund and don’t fund.
  • Engage grantees and make it a priority to spend time with them.
  • Listen carefully, openly, and in a nonjudgmental way. Have humility and empathy.
  • Respect the grantee’s knowledge and experience, and make clear your desire to learn from the grantee.
  • Desire to understand the community, issue, and field in which grantees work. Doing so signals to grantees that you respect the complexity of the work and are invested in it.
  • Provide multiyear funding, general operating support, and capacity building grants. Allow time for the work to bring about results.
  • Come together to reflect on the work. Some funders call this “being together in process” and “working alongside grantees.”
  • Build evaluation collaboratively.
  • Offer to convene grantees to share experiences with one another.

Another tool: Open-ended conversations

You will be surprised by how much you can learn from conversations with nonprofits that are not about due diligence, fact-finding, or evaluation. Approach these conversations with a simple curiosity and desire to learn.

Consider all organizations as valuable sources of experience, not just the wealthiest and most secure ones. Sometimes the small, scrappy, grassroots nonprofits are closest to their constituents and can offer you penetrating insights you will not get anywhere else.

Explore different venues and settings for these conversations. Sometimes the most effective settings are neutral ones, such as cafes and breakfast and lunch places. Meet with executive directors but also with program staff, volunteers, and trustees. Avoid having an agenda. Begin by asking about their work, what they enjoy, and what challenges they face.

Other questions you might ask include:

  • What issues do you think are most urgent, most in need of attention?
  • What important problems are being ignored?
  • What approaches are working? What isn’t working?
  • What are gaps or opportunities?
  • If you found funding to do anything you wanted, what would you do to address the problem?
  • What role can we play—as funders and also as convenors, matchmakers, researchers, advocates?

Spend most of the time listening—and listening attentively. The more you listen and the less you talk, the more your conversation partner will see that you are interested in his or her experience and perspective, and the greater the potential for trust. Avoid trying to steer the conversation in a direction you desire it to go; you will learn much more if you follow where the person is going.

It may take several conversations, but, over time, if you listen and make clear your desire to learn, grantees and others in your community or field may share with you what they truly need to make impact in their work. Your listening, your time, and your genuine interest and sense of caring will create the conditions for greater honesty.

Surprising insights will emerge in your conversations. The insights, the relationships you build, and the trust you develop over months and years will illuminate gaps and leverage points. There, small investments of your money, time, connections, and influence can build the capacity of key organizations and catalyze impact and change in your community or field.

Indeed, bold, catalytic philanthropy can begin with the humblest of acts: taking time to listen and learn.

The power of trust

Where trust is alive, funders have terrific advantages:

  • Everyone involved is clear about the organization’s purpose and goals.
  • The organization values learning, curiosity, and the building of knowledge by all.
  • Trustees, staff, and family members feel empowered to use the best of themselves and be creative. Every individual has the freedom to pursue and take advantage of emerging opportunities without having to seek permission.
  • Leaders spend less time checking, reviewing, and micromanaging—freeing themselves to focus on exploring new and emerging ideas, opportunities, and partnerships.
  • Funder and grantee have open and honest conversations; as a result, the funder is more likely to be responsive to real needs expressed by grantees.
  • Experimentation, learning, and discovery flourish inside the foundation and in its work with grantees and in the community.
  • The foundation or donor is comfortable taking greater risks, and acting boldly.

As one Exponent Philanthropy member sums up nicely:

Get the whole story. Get the 360-degree view. Learn about good people and programs. Find out needs and weak spots. Get tipped off to authentic leaders. This requires that people trust you, which comes from keeping confidences and promises, by being open and in touch, and by keeping your eyes wide open.

We wholeheartedly agree.

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