Love Your Nonprofit Leader as Yourself

Dana Doll

This year-end season, let’s pause and consider how we can put the “Philo” (love in Greek) at the center of our philanthropy. Instead of our usual approach to philanthropy as the love of humanity, the end beneficiaries of our grants, I encourage funders and others in philanthropy to bring it closer to home and more personal: how might nonprofit leaders also be recipients of our love?

From my days of founding and leading a nonprofit, one conversation still sticks with me. I was excited for the chance to share our story with a faith-based funder. I thought our mission of building community with women and teen girls who were new Americans and refugees would resonate with her.

It was quite the opposite. She was curt and didn’t do much listening. Her tone was belittling and at one point she accused me of ‘just thinking the church wasn’t doing a good enough job’ so instead I ‘went around them’ and tried my ‘own thing.’ (For the record, that piece stung because we were working in close partnership with churches and this was a community effort.)

The pain I felt in that conversation had almost nothing to do with whether or not they’d fund us. The source of my pain was the power dynamic that I often felt in conversations with funders. This power dynamic was on full display here, whereas it’s usually more subtle. It’s not that she didn’t understand our work, it’s that she didn’t even try to. She also made a number of sweeping judgements over an initial phone call.

In my first two years of foundation leadership, I’ve tried to embody the opposite of what I experienced in that conversation and more than one of our grantees has said to me, “I can tell you’ve sat in this seat before. Most people who do your job have not.”

To be clear, I have done nothing spectacular or impressive in my first two years by way of systems or bigger and better gifts. I, too, have to tell people they aren’t a good fit for our foundation and I have even had to end some ongoing funding relationships. These are difficult conversations to have, but I am deeply invested in the foundation’s outcomes. But my deepest hope is to have a posture of genuine respect and empathy for nonprofit leaders, even when turning them down, because I remember what it’s like to be a founder and executive director and…

…Think that starting a new venture to support vulnerable people would feel more like community organizing and less like a feast and famine cycle of donor engagement.

…Feel like I had earned at least an honorary undergraduate degree in accounting, marketing, human resources, and other subjects in the executive director-school-of-hard-knocks.

…Answer just as many, if not more, detailed questions for a $5,000 grant as for a $100,000 grant.

…Understand that mutual respect doesn’t line up neatly with funding. I remember receiving funding from someone who enjoyed wielding a sense of power over our staff and being turned down by a funder who held deep respect for us and our work yet was crystal clear on why we weren’t the right fit for their priorities.

So, how do we love nonprofit leaders as ourselves? Some days, this question feels overwhelming, and definitely more art than science. Other days, I recognize that research has already been done pointing to the practical steps, and it’s simply up to us to put them into practice. For example:

  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy challenged much of our general posture toward nonprofit work when they proved that the idea of nonprofit ineffectiveness is a myth. How can we let this study inform our approach?
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy has tirelessly advocated for the health and effectiveness of multi-year general operating support and even went the extra mile, studying why most funders are aware of this fact and still don’t do it.
  • Earlier this year, there was a movement to Fix the Form, asking funders to make their application questions available on their site. One easy step that would save myriad hours of effort for applicants.

These are small, practical steps funders can take to better love nonprofit leaders. What will you implement in your philanthropic leadership in the new year?

In addition to small, practical steps, I want to see more funders who want to shift the culture entirely. I’m asking myself questions like, how can the ‘capacity-building’ for grantmaking rest on the foundation’s shoulders rather than the nonprofit’s? Can funders commit to gleaning their own information for reports from shared platforms and applications, thereby freeing up nonprofit leaders to spend more time serving beneficiaries rather than donors?

As a faith-based funder, my faith tells me that if I’m doing anything in philanthropy right, that love should be at the center of it — love for beneficiaries and for nonprofit leaders. Sometimes that love leads to the practical steps I’ve already shared, other times it simply means flipping the script on that power dynamic and doing everything we can to create trust and communicate respect to the nonprofit leaders sitting across the table.

Dana Doll is the Director at Micah 6:8 Foundation.

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