To Get on the Same Page as Grantees, Funders Must Play the Same Game

Jeff Kutash

Whenever I talk with my foundation peeps about our relationships with grantees, one theme almost always comes up: we funders want our grantees to see us as partners. We want to be Batman and Robin. Bert and Ernie. Han Solo and Chewbacca. That’s a wonderful thought, and that is certainly what we strive for at Peter Kiewit Foundation, the organization I lead. Sadly though, while we funders want to be seen as a partner, we don’t necessarily act like a partner. We make nonprofits guess how much to apply for, commit to no more than one year of funding at a time, and provide answers or requirements when we should be asking questions and taking notes.

So what is it that prevents us from being as in-step with our grantees as Fred and Ginger? As mutually accountable as Thelma and Louise? Well, there’s the obvious challenge of the power imbalance inherent in relationships between funders and grantees. We have money. Nonprofits want money. We pal around with other funders and senior mucky-mucks. Nonprofits want access to said funders and mucky-mucks. We have nice offices, really good healthcare plans, and competitive salaries. Nonprofits — not so much. In fact, we probably would refuse to even fund nonprofits who spend money on such wasteful, unnecessary, indulgent, and frivolous extravagances like office space, healthcare, or competitive salaries!

It is also hard to be partners when we as funders are playing one game (if you will), and nonprofits are playing another. Just ask Vu Le, executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps and author of the Nonprofit with Balls blog. I recently had the privilege of facilitating a brilliant talk Vu gave at the 2016 GEO national conference about “trickle down community engagement” (quick aside: read Vu’s blog post on this topic — it’s worth your time). And while the talk was largely focused on grassroots nonprofit organizations working in communities of color, one of his main points applies equally to all funder-grantee relationships.

Vu posited that nonprofit organizations “play soccer” — they navigate complex dynamics, have minimal resources, lack access to funders and decision makers, and struggle to impact the most intransigent issues. That’s a hard game to play well. And then we funders come in and ask them to “play football”’ — we tell them to show us their logic model, fill out our budget template instead of using their own, align with our strategies, and adhere to our grant process and reporting requirements. That doesn’t sound like the basis for a strong partnership. Has peanut butter ever asked jelly for its “theory of change?” 

Let’s face it, we funders typically aren’t interested in, or good at, playing soccer. And nonprofits struggle to play football. So what do we do? I would argue that if we want to truly be partners with nonprofits, we have to be playing the same game — and it should be their game. Nonprofits work incredibly hard to serve people and communities. We should work just as hard to serve them — not the other way around. 

So let’s assume for a moment that we have all decided to play soccer. We now need to make sure we are playing the right roles and the right positions. Some foundations operate mainly as makers of grants. They decide which nonprofits to support and how many zeroes they should put on the check. In other words, they act like the team owner. Other foundations are more strategic. They put together a portfolio of grantees and develop a theory of change for how everyone will work together to have impact. In other words, they act like the team coach. I don’t think either model is overly effective in creating partnerships, or in creating real change. The first assumes that nonprofits on their own can solve our society’s most challenging problems. They can’t. The second assumes that foundations have all the answers. We don’t.

My belief is that we have to join our grantees as players on the field, each bringing our own unique strengths and skills. We need to be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. After all, a soccer team needs players at different positions — forwards to shoot on goal, midfielders to control space, and defenders to keep the opponent from dribbling toward the goal. So what positon do funders play? I think maybe we are the goalies. We stay at the back, we see the whole field, we help organize our teammates into useful formations, and we feed them the ball.

So I know what you are thinking. That’s a snappy metaphor, Jeff, but what do we actually do if we want to be the macaroni to our grantee’s cheese. Cheech to their Chong. Mulder to their Scully. I don’t claim to have all of the answers. But based on the work we are doing at Peter Kiewit Foundation to improve our partnership with our grantees, let me offer a few suggestions and examples:

  1. Take steps to minimize the power imbalance. As an example, we do as many meetings as we can at our grantees’ locations. They feel more at home, and we learn so much more about their work, their organization, and the people and communities they serve. We also try to ask thoughtful questions and do a lot more listening than talking, both because we have great respect for our grantees’ expertise, and because if we give our opinion first, it can limit our ability to have a direct and productive conversation.
  1. Be transparent. As I have written in another CEP blog post on transparency, I believe all foundations, at a minimum, should share their priorities, their grantmaking guidelines, and how they make funding decisions. To be a true partner, though, foundations should also provide grantees with feedback, engage in open dialogue about how to shape projects or how much to apply for in a grant, and share information about our successes, our failures, and the issues we care about.
  1. Structure your grant process to minimize the burden, and structure your grants to maximize the value. We eliminated every question in our application that was not valuable to understanding the work and making a good decision, and we have begun to work with grantees to co-develop grant reporting requirements. We have increased the use of unrestricted and multi-year grants, we are starting to identify and cover true overhead costs, and we look for opportunities to provide additional funding to help grantees address self-identified capacity needs.
  1. Use all the tools in the toolbox. Foundations are uniquely positioned to influence policy, commission research, communicate tough messages to decision makers, and facilitate collaboration. We simply have more flexibility and a greater ability to take on risk than our nonprofit partners do. By doing so in addition to making grants, we can help create a policy and funding environment more conducive to the work of our grantees, and we can directly impact the complex social issues we are mutually trying to solve.

Let me close by quickly pivoting from one type of partnership to another, namely marriage. When I showed this blog post to my wife, her comment was, “Why do you have to use a sports metaphor? That’s so typically male.” I didn’t have a good answer for her, so I guess I have more to learn about partnerships if I want my wife and I to be Sonny and Cher, Miss Piggy and Kermit, or Marge and Homer.

Jeff Kutash is executive director of Peter Kiewit Foundation in Omaha, Nebraska and former managing director at FSG. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @JeffKutash, and email him at jbk@pkfdn.org.

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