Toward Partner-Centric Philanthropy
Updated: May 2
An Unfortunate Power Imbalance
If you work in the social impact sector, you’re certainly aware of the power imbalance between nonprofits who seek funding and the funders who provide it. Unfortunately, this power imbalance creates perverse incentives, discourages effective communication between partners, and ultimately, serves no one.
I was recently reminded of the power imbalance between nonprofit organizations and their funders when a partner told me a common story. She said,
If a foundation staff member asks to schedule a meeting that is 2:00 am for our East Africa team members, it is not uncommon for the team to just make it work without a word to the funder. I’ve seen team members huddled in a dark corner on calls like that. I don’t think funders are trying to be difficult at all, but it doesn’t occur to all of them that our schedules are difficult to align. Nonprofits don’t want to be a squeaky wheel by asking for alternative times.
I found her story convicting and humbling, as I’m sure I’ve been the foundation staff person in that or similar stories before.
So, what’s to be done? If well-meaning foundation staff are missing the mark and nonprofits aren’t comfortable bringing it to their attention, how do we change course?
A Different Approach
At RTNF, we try our best to remember that this power imbalance exists, choose to listen and look for it, and mitigate it as much as possible. We know we’re not perfect, so we try to remind partners and prospective partners that we are open to being shown ways we can improve our operations.
Over the 6+ years since we hired program staff at the foundation, we have learned of many ways we could change the way we work to be more partner-centric. We’ve learned from partners and other forward-thinking funders who pioneered empathetic philanthropy before it ever occurred to us. Here are a few suggestions (that RTNF is also working on):
Be crystal clear in your words and on your website about what makes an organization a good and not-so-good fit
Make applications short and easy, or eliminate applications altogether. Whether you accept unsolicited proposals or not, the primary suggestion here is to ask for as little applicant time as possible during review. Check websites and documents applicants already have on hand.
Make sure the applicant’s time invested matches their potential for funding. That is, only ask for more of an applicant’s time as they are showing more and more potential to be awarded a grant.
Recognize that your time zone is not everyone’s time zone (e.g., add a note to emails saying “If these times don’t work well due to time zone differences, just let us know and we can figure out a better time.”)
Ask for documents organizations already have on hand, rather than asking them to create long, unique application packets
Make funding decisions quickly
Seek feedback (e.g., verbally and/or by including a link to anonymous survey in your email signature)
Change the words you use (e.g., calling partners “partners” and not “grantees”)
Offer feedback on declined applications. Too often, organizations apply year after year with no sense of why they are not moving forward in the application process.
Provide unrestricted funding, multi-year commitments if possible. This allows partners to be strategic
Offer goodbye grants when a partner is no longer a strong fit (rather than discontinuing funding without warning)
Provide helpful connections and coaching to partners, in addition to funding
Share notes with other funders. Many funders have similarities in their values and application processes. When we share notes, organizations don’t have to jump through the same hoops for each new potential funder.
This is by no means a list of things that RTNF does perfectly, but we do put significant effort into implementing partner-centric practices. We also reserve time regularly for listening, reflecting, and improving.
Seeking feedback can certainly be nerve-racking. I know from experience that it can be jarring to realize that despite working for an organization that gives meaningful grants to a few incredible organizations each year, I may also be the cause of frustration to many. It doesn’t exactly hit in the warm fuzzy region that philanthropists are so used to, but I’ve found that after the initial vulnerability hangover that constructive feedback often causes, it can also lead to the incredibly fulfilling work of making well-considered improvements to the way we work and it can strengthen our relationships significantly.
In short, we are trying to center our partner’s experience more in our work. We do this because we want to get out of our partners’ way. We believe in their work, trust in their judgment, and want them to spend more time worrying about those they serve, not us. We hope others will join us in the attempt.