Five Tips for Building Strong Relationships with Grantees

Caroline Altman Smith

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has just released its Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities report, which pulls back the curtain on what program officers think about their positions, how they spend their time, their opportunities for professional growth, and all kinds of other insights. CEP provides the survey data without comment, leaving you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions. But even without any accompanying explanatory text, behind the numbers you can almost hear program officers crying out: “We want to build and maintain strong relationships with our grantees, but we need more time and resources to be able to do it!”

We all know that strong relationships with grantees are important for productive partnerships that lead to greater impact. But when it comes down to it, do foundations really walk the walk? Program officers say that “internal administration” and “grant-related processes” currently take up the greatest amount of their time. But it’s clear that many would prefer to spend their days differently, as 53 percent say “developing and maintaining relationships” should take up the most amount of their time.

So, how do you build meaningful relationships with grantees when your foundation is understaffed, your portfolio is too large, and it’s so easy to become bogged down in reviewing proposals, preparing board dockets, reading reports, submitting conference session proposals, and the million other things that program staff must spend time on?

Relationships between funders and grantees may have their own unique quirks and power dynamics, but they are not fundamentally different from any other good relationships, which are based on mutual respect, open communication, and reciprocity.  Here are a few ideas that program officers may find helpful to keep in mind when they have the desire to strengthen relationships with their grantees, but not a lot of extra time in which to do it:

  1. Be intentional about initiating contact with grantees. Grant awards are often preceded by a frenzy of paperwork and back-and-forth exchanges between program officers and grantseekers. After that initial excitement dims, many grantees complain that their program officers never write, they never call. We know from CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® (GPR) survey data that grantees value hearing from program officers off-cycle, not just when reports or payments are due. Try to reach out more frequently to offer encouragement and support, introduce resources, or just check in so that the communication burden doesn’t always fall on the grantees. These communications don’t have to be long and involved; even a few thoughtful lines make it clear that you’re following the grantee’s work, celebrating their successes along with them, and are available to help as needed.
  2. Personally invest in your grantees. According to the report, 92 percent of program officers say a primary reason they work at their foundation is because they believe in its mission. We need to also believe in the people who toil daily in the vineyards of social change, and make it clear that we value and support them. A nonprofit executive director friend of mine recently told me: “I’m more likely to trust and confide in a PO if I feel they are investing in me as a person, and are dedicated to our organization’s development. There’s a big difference in our relationships with build vs. buy funders. We have much better relationships with funders who know us well and have a genuine personal commitment instead of ones who view us as transactional vendors who just deliver programs.” Show that you care about grantees as individuals by asking how they are, expressing concern, remembering birthdays, seeking out capacity-building opportunities for them, etc. That human touch can make a big difference without taking up much extra time.
  3. Try to make life as easy as possible for your grantees. Come prepared for meetings. Don’t put your grantees on speaker phone and make them strain to hear you during what are often high-stakes conversations for them. And don’t ask them to do things for free, like springing unexpected additional requirements on them (e.g., extra reporting for the board) or asking them to call other organizations to explore collaborations if you can’t clearly articulate the potential value. Working at a nonprofit can often be quite stressful, and program officers must respect that and be careful about placing any undue burdens on grantee partners that take up valuable time and energy. The golden rule applies.
  4. Provide more general operating support (or at least advocate internally for this). This old chestnut? Yes. We know that this is the most valuable type of support for nonprofits to receive, and that our grantee partners are clamoring for it. Unrestricted support is an incredible expression of trust in an organization’s leadership and can serve as protein powder to bulk up strong relationships.  When foundations take a more holistic approach and fund general operations, they are more likely to be able to understand the challenges that nonprofits face and the impact of their long-term investment. Granting this type of support does not take more time, and often can take less, as you are freed from line-item budget negotiations and the time required to splice out your foundation’s precise contribution.
  5. Introduce your grantees to other funders. CEP’s More than Money report made it clear that grantees value all sorts of nonmonetary supports that program officers provide, but introductions to other potential funding sources top the charts. This can include hosting a funder briefing, doing a warm handoff to another funder who funds in the same area, or at least offering insights about which other funders might be a good match. Peer endorsements speak volumes. If you believe in a grantee’s work enough to fund it yourself, ideally you will actively seek ways to bring other funders into the fold. Taking the time and energy to help grantees make connections to other funders is a great act of trust and shows that you’re willing to vouch for the quality of your grantees’ efforts and outcomes. This show of support (and the fact that it may unlock additional funds) signals to grantees that you care about their success.

The new report demonstrates that program staff have the best of intentions when it comes to developing and maintaining relationships with grantees, and that they clearly acknowledge how important these relationships are for both sides. Every program officer, regardless of circumstance, can take steps to demonstrate to grantees through both words and actions that we value them and their contributions to our shared purpose.

Read the Report

Caroline Altman Smith is the deputy director of education at The Kresge Foundation, where she has worked since 2008. She served for five years before that as a program officer at Lumina Foundation. For more on her work, follow @kresgedu.

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