Giving Relationally: Prioritizing a Culture of Empathy and Joy

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of First Fruit, a foundation that provides resources to leaders and organizations working among the poorest segments of the world (and where I work as a program officer). After four decades of working in more than 90 countries, managing more than 1,000 granting relationships, and giving nearly 4,000 grants, it was a moment of great celebration — but also of deep reflection, as we began to think more concretely about how we could carry out First Fruit’s mission more effectively in the future.

In the thick of these conversations, I remember connecting with a long-time, trusted grantee about how some of these reflective discussions were raising more questions than answers, and as such were eliciting in me more uncertainty than clarity and celebration. I shared with this grantee my anxiousness as we sought to define what moving in a new direction might mean. How different will it look? Will I still feel satisfaction in our work? As a planner and one whose role as program officer forces me to think a few steps ahead to meet multiple deadlines, this was unfamiliar ground.

Upon hearing my concerns, the grantee shared how his organization had gone through a similar shift in its modus operandi after revisiting their own calling in a desire to improve. He shared about the concerns they had, the struggles of getting through major obstacles and breaking old patterns, and the moments of joy that came with making it to the other side, where change eventually yielded positive results.

Empathy Both Ways

The grantee knew what we were going through as an organization, and he assured me that this transition was a shared experience, and that I was not alone. In that moment, I realized it was empathy that he had extended to me and my situation.

In my role as a program officer for a medium-sized foundation, I feel a responsibility to serve our grantees well. Much of this responsibility is due to an awareness of the age-old power dynamic that exists between the funder and the grantee, which I am sure many of my peer program officers share. At First Fruit, we have made intentional efforts to counter that dynamic through a culture of relationship building and treating those with whom we work with dignity.

In CEP’s recent report, Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities, an obvious professional and personal desire for program officers to care for and encourage grantees comes through. According to the report, 79 percent of program officers surveyed have a professional background in nonprofit organization work, and a significant percentage of those individuals also have experience raising money from foundations and interacting with foundation staff in those former roles. In addition to integrating those experiences to help with our assessment of granting opportunities, funders can also draw from them to more freely and authentically offer a deeper sense of empathy to grantees as they do their work. And when we build a culture of empathy, it can lead to that same care and encouragement to be given to us in return.

For example, this past year has been replete with this kind of reciprocity with grantees, especially as we begin making internal changes at our foundation and entering choppier periods of growth. Many grantees have been able to genuinely encourage us to persevere, or have offered lessons they have learned in their own organizations’ journeys through needed transitions. And, because of our ability to connect regularly and directly with long-term grantees, that kind of trust develops quickly and has impacted the depth of transparency and vulnerability in our connections.

Joy When Giving

Joy — that is, experiencing deeper meaning in the work — is a huge factor for all of us who work as program officers.  In addition to the healthy discussion about whether our foundation was effectively carrying out its mission, a greater theme emerged in our questioning: Are we giving joyfully?

At the staff level, this is something we fail to ask ourselves regularly amidst the busyness of our schedules. Not surprisingly, the CEP report indicates that more than 98 percent of respondents agree that having strong relationships with grantees is important to achieving their foundations’ goals. And, if given more time to spend with them, 60 percent of respondents stated they would want to spend more time learning about and/or developing relationships with the grantees they support. (Only 28 percent stated they would spend that additional time helping grantees in technical or procedural areas.)

But what if joy in the work was something that we also considered a goal of the foundation and not just a personal desire? Would we experience our relationships differently?

With a current staff of seven, there is an obvious need for a lot of flexibility in how my colleagues and I at First Fruit operate, and in what we consider part of our job description. I wear many hats in my program officer role, and it often changes with the seasons. But one of the upsides of this is being able to hit the pause button at times (often at the request of our Board and founders) to prioritize certain areas, like ensuring that the foundation is on the same page with where our living founders are headed, or empowering staff to discern what areas of our internal operations are more burdensome than joy-giving. All of this enables us to give better grants, often outside of traditional structures that might rule out the less noticeable, but nevertheless highly effective, grantee organizations. Saying we want to experience this joy both at the personal and foundation level is important.

In the funder-grantee relationship, when we can mutually encourage and learn from one another, there is a deep sense of joy that makes even the toughest periods of organizational growth worth enduring. When we achieve this, we move from being solely funders to being more like partners called to work together to achieve something greater than we could have done alone. And that makes all the difference in our work.

Read the Report

Manivanh Khy joined the First Fruit staff in 2012 and manages a granting portfolio for the foundation’s strategies in Asia, Francophone Africa, and a special focus area on leadership development.

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