In 2015, Independent Sector (IS) engaged in 15 community conversations with 80 partners across the country to hear from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector about its most pressing challenges to meeting mission. We are committed to being responsive to what we heard in these conversations we call Threads. In every city IS visited, one consistent impediment to meeting mission was raised: the strained relationships between grantees and funders. We called this the ‘power dynamic’.
IS seeks to add to the depth of knowledge needed to move grantee/funder power dynamics in a more productive direction. IS’ goal in this work is to help grantees and funders engage in healthier relationships so that organizations fulfill their missions and strengthen the communities they serve.
This synopsis provides a snapshot of what we learned from 40 qualitative phone interviews with grantee and funder pairs who believe they have healthy relationships. It is intended to highlight the key findings, potential trends, and areas for further exploration.
The key findings from this work are:
- Most grantees and funders believed that a healthy relationship between them improved results for their beneficiaries.
- Most individuals stated that their relationships are grounded in learning, and metrics were used for learning, rather than punitive measures.
- Co-development of a plan or program often led to grantees and funders sharing accountability for meeting metrics, proactively addressing challenges, and offering unsolicited feedback.
- A shared vision of success between grantees and funders was reported by most of those interviewed.
- Scale and sustainability was generally a shared goal of grantees and funders.
In addition to this synopsis, IS developed and published a series of eight case studies which illustrate healthy behaviors between grantee/funder pairs. They can be found here. Building on the information gleaned through this work, IS will also create a series of tools to aid the transfer of healthy behaviors, conditions, and practices to other individuals who manage the power dynamic in their daily work. This work is a pilot for IS in creating new content based on a community-voiced need. It is our hope this work can inform others who hope to have healthier relationships between grantee and funder partners.
Independent Sector (IS) is committed to helping grantee and funder organizations enhance their partnerships to ensure both are effectively helping society’s most vulnerable populations. From Independent Sector’s cornerstone Building Value Together Initiative, which outlined practices to help foundations and nonprofits achieve successful outcomes, to Charting Impact to Threads, IS has long worked to address how nonprofits and foundations can have healthier relationships with one another and best fulfill their organizational missions.
Through our 15 cross-country Threads conversations, conducted with 80 partner organizations, in every city IS visited, one consistent impediment to meeting mission was raised: the strained relationships between grantees and funders. Building on the work done previously by IS and others, IS sought to add to the knowledge needed to move grantee/funder ‘power dynamics’ in a more productive direction. IS’ goal in this work is to help grantees and funders engage in healthier relationships so that organizations fulfill their missions and strengthen the communities they serve.
This synopsis provides a snapshot of the learning gathered from 40 qualitative phone interviews with grantee and funder pairs who believe they have healthy relationships. It is intended to highlight the key findings, potential trends, and areas for further exploration.
Through a variety of sources, including, but not limited to IS’ Power Dynamic Advisory Group recommendations and IS member suggestions, we identified a universe of 112 potential examples of healthy grantee/funder relationships. From this initial universe, 40 nonprofits and foundations, constituting 20 pairs who believed they had healthy relationships, were interviewed via phone for 45 minutes each between May 20th and June 15th, 2016. Grantee and funder interviews were conducted separately so alignment between pairs could be better assessed.
For the purpose of this work, a healthy relationship was defined as:
- Alignment between the grantee/funder responses.
- Embody a relationship that is authentic/honest, representing the opportunities and challenges which come with partnership.
- Discussing, at all or with some frequency, both productive and unproductive aspects to partnership.
- Having jointly developed terms of the relationship/what the future looks like.
- Illustrating demonstrative impact in their communities as a result of their work together.
It is important to note, the 40 conversations were only intended to capture the personal views of individuals interviewed, and we recognize all experiences with organizations are different. All organizations were asked the same series of questions, with additional questions added as appropriate. The questionnaires used, as well as other resources, will be available through the IS website.
DETAILED KEY FINDINGS
Most grantees and funders believed that a healthy relationship between them improved results for their beneficiaries. Of the 39 individuals asked the question: Do you think the beneficiaries of the nonprofit see a better product when grantees and funders have a healthier relationship? 33 (85%) said they do believe the beneficiaries of the nonprofit see a better product.
- Yes, because the work is expedited. There is a smoother delivery of services if there is clear communication, honest, transparent and responsive dialogue going on behind closed doors. When funders say “wait and see” and place difficult constraints, it messes up the work.
- Yes, due to the shared focus on quality, evidence building, and continuous improvement. Beneficiaries should be accruing dividends from the investment.
- Yes, because morale is affected by everything that goes on. If you don’t have a healthy relationship with a funder then it shows.
Of the six individuals who answered “no”, a common attribute was that most provided direct services primarily funded by the government. Collectively, this group of six felt the beneficiaries of their direct service should not see a difference regardless of where the funding comes from.
- I hope not. I want my beneficiaries to know we will always be there for them, regardless of our funding.
- Why would my beneficiaries know anything about funders? They are receiving a service/benefit. They are receiving the appropriate staffing ratio and quality services in quality space. All of it should feel the same regardless of funding relationships.
Most individuals stated their relationships are grounded in learning. Thirty-five out of 40 people interviewed shared that metrics were generally used as baselines for learning, rather than punitive tools which would restrict funding.
- Everyone asks for outcome metrics, [but] they ask for internal reflection, and that reflection is what changed our practice.
- Our funding is not tied to milestones, but rather if we achieve our shared vision of success which is about creating dialogue and moving the needle.
- Because we fund in such diverse spaces, we can’t have the same metrics for success across our portfolio. Part of our application is to ask about their vision for success and use that as our metrics. Setting expectations is where you set yourself up for success or disappointment. If we end a project and they didn’t meet expectations, the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘did we set expectations appropriately?’
Co-development of a plan or program often led to grantees and funders sharing accountability for meeting metrics, proactively addressing challenges, and offering unsolicited feedback. Thirty of the 40 individuals interviewed reported that co-developing a program or plan helped both sides feel more comfortable elevating and addressing unexpected hurdles.
- Things did go wrong [in our work together] and we had to work through it together. We both knew at the onset failure would be part of this so “fail early, fail smart” was always part of the design.
- We know that when things do not go as planned, it is generally because of things we have no control over. We strive to be proactive and when we start seeing indicators that things are going awry, we develop a plan together. In order to do that you have to be willing to say what didn’t work, why do you think that it happened, and what you will do about it. Plus you need to be open to their suggestions.
- In year 1, we were more cautious about sharing mistakes; in years 2 and 3, we became more comfortable sharing struggles. Over time, it became apparent they weren’t grilling us for things that we didn’t completely succeed at. They wanted us to learn, adjust if needed, and succeed. They asked good questions, made recommendations for resources, and were open to shifting money to move the work forward.
A shared vision of success between grantees and funders was reported by most of those interviewed.
29 of the 40 individuals (75%) interviewed said that a clear and mutual articulation of a vision of success agreed to at the onset of the project ensured alignment. This helped when adaption was needed in strategies and tactics.
- Our shared vision of success is for the work to have an impact on the organization. You can’t possibly work on the scale and level of a grant like this if you didn’t evolve.
- Starting out, our thing is we don’t want to micromanage the grantee. We will measure our success by if you deliver on what you say you are going to do. The overall intent of the grant does not change, but the specifics may change.
- It is the same vision, it has become more defined and more valued over time. At the beginning it was a vision, now it’s more of a mission. The vision is what we want to see happen. We are working on a mission to make it happen. We are finding ways to have the impact we want.
Scale and sustainability were generally shared goals of grantees and funders. Thirteen pairs of the 20 interviewed shared that scale and/or sustainability were shared goals of their work together. Of the six corporate philanthropy pairs interviewed, four reported this was a core piece of their partnership.
- We had a shared vision of scale and we know we can scale well. We could not have done that without their investment.
- They are clear about their view of success. The program must scale, be replicated, have validated social impact outcomes, and be on a path to sustainability.
Sustainability has always been a shared goal, and the key strategy to get there has been long-term general operating support and a commitment to shared learning through a sustainability lens.
OTHER INTERESTING DATA
When a learning cohort of grantees was part of a funding relationship, generally both partners mentioned its value in their interviews. In the 12 interviews which involved a learning cohort of some kind, four pairs (eight people total) mentioned its value.
- The cohort became its own professional network outside of us. Cohort members now serve on one another’s Boards and introduce one another to other funders.
- [It is] so helpful to have networking among counterparts; convening the cohort of grantees creates a collaborative versus competitive environment.
- Cohorts [help] to amplify voices and make an impact nationally. As their voices get louder, we want to be a partner for them.
The health of the relationship did not seem to correlate to tenure of the relationship. Across 20 pairs, there was a range in the length of engagement:
Number of Partnership within Tenure
AREAS FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
With a topic area as robust as power dynamics, and with increased attention to the topic, we believe there are positive signs indicating relationships are becoming healthier. Based on our initial research, these are the areas we recommend for further exploration, and the associated questions we raise with them:
Feasibility of Transferability. All 40 interviewees were asked, “Which behaviors do you have in your relationship that are transferable to others?” Below are the most frequent mentions of the attributes which people believe are transferable:
- Good communication – 16 mentions
- Consistent engagement – 15 mentions
- Long term and/or general operating support – 14 mentions
- Transparency – 11 mentions
- Respect – 10 mentions
Others included: setting clear expectations (7 mentions); trust (6 mentions); and honesty, humility, compassion (5 mentions).
The attributes listed above are unique from one another, and we suspect, some are more readily transferable than others. Given IS’ goal to produce a series of tools which aid the transfer of healthy relationship characteristics to those who manage power dynamics in their daily work, we are asking ourselves: what are the root causes of these values? And, how can we better understand their interconnected nature so we can create useful tools?
Community Foundations. Of our 40 interviews, only one was conducted with a community foundation. Given these organizations serve as both grantees and funders, we suspect it could be a fertile ground for learning more about how to move relationships in a more conducive direction. Specifically, what could the sector learn about how community foundations use both lenses to create change within their local communities?
IS is developing prototype tools to aid the transfer of healthy behaviors, practices, and conditions to those who manage the power dynamic in their daily work. These tools will be developed using a combination of resources including, but not limited to: IS’ Threads Report, prior research done on the topic of power dynamics, the information gleaned during these 40 interviews, and by analyzing the common themes most apparent from the eight partnerships for impact case studies. We anticipate the prototype tools will be released in 2017.
Facilitating healthier relationships between grantees and funders is a pilot for IS in creating new content based on a community-voiced need. We see the eight case studies, synopsis, and prototype tools as cornerstones to being responsive to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. We hope there will be opportunities to partner with others to expand and evolve this work so healthier relationships will lead to more organizations can achieve their mission.
If you are interested in engaging more in this work, we encourage you to join us at the
IS Conference in Washington, D.C. November 16-18, 2016 where our prototype tools will be tested.
If you have any further questions or comments please reach out to Marie LeBlanc, manager, Independent Sector at firstname.lastname@example.org
LIST OF THOUGHT PARTNERS
We would like to thank the following organizations for serving as thought partners throughout this pilot:
1 in 6
A Community for Education
American Express Foundation
Center for Creative Leadership
Cisco Systems Foundation
Communities In Schools
Creating IT Futures Foundation
Foundation for the Mid-South
INMED Partnerships for Children
Koreatown Youth and Community Center
L.A. Family Housing
MOMS Orange County
Mondel?z International Foundation
National Academy Foundation
National Wildlife Refuge Association
No Boundaries Coalition
Open Road Alliance
Per Scholas, Inc.
Prince George County Public Schools
Share Our Strength
The Assisi Foundation of Memphis
The Cricket Island Foundation
The Durfee Foundation
The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
The James Irvine Foundation
The Music Center
The Wallace Foundation
The Wilburforce Foundation
T. Rowe Price
We would also like to extend a sincere thank you to the Independent Sector Power Dynamics Advisory Committee for contributing their extensive experience and thought leadership on this topic.