Philanthropy End of Summer Beach Reading: Part 3

In my musings about some of the stuff I’ve been reading this month, I discussed the quest for impact and the role of strategy. Too often overlooked by foundations is the vital role of strong relationships in strategy execution and achievement of impact.

Indeed, the work to build strong relationships is often seen as at odds with impact, when in fact it is quite the opposite. Strong relationships are a prerequisite for impact.

I frequently hear funders say, essentially, that adversarial, strained relationships with grantees are the inevitable collateral damage of pursuing impact. But I don’t think so. I think achieving shared goals requires an openness, shared understanding, and clarity of communication between foundations and grantees. Strong relationships provide the basis that allows the really tough and important discussions—and disagreements—to occur.

Our Grantee Perception Report (GPR) seeks in part to measure the degree to which strong relationships exist and some of our research resources, such as the recently released Working Well With Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff, are about helping foundations to do this work better.

It’s not about grantees being happy. It’s not about “customer service,” either. That’s a terrible analogy for the foundation-grantee relationship (the money flows in the opposite direction, for one thing).

It’s about achieving shared goals. It is in that context that relationships matter.

So I was so pleased to see John Esterle, Malka Kopell, and Pamel Strand’s thoughtful piece, From the Kids’ Table to the Adults Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks.

They argue that investing in relationships is essential for achieving crucial societal goals. They call for a recognition “both that the dichotomy between ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills’ is false and that ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills are equally essential.”

Their argument about relationships goes well beyond the relationship between foundations and grantees, but they rightly stress the importance of these relationships—and of funders who “walk the talk.”

“When funders support relationships,” they write, “they open themselves up to becoming part of the relational web of their communities, which can provide additional opportunities for positive change.”

If you need further persuasion that relationships are crucial to driving change, I recommend this New Yorker article by Atul Gawande on why some innovations spread and some don’t. “To create new norms, you need to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change,” Gawande writes. ”People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change.”

Gawande’s long and incredibly interesting article concludes with the story of a nurse in India who is part of an effort to improve the care being provided during childbirth there. It is, apparently, quite difficult to get nurses to change their practices (the same is true of doctors, as Gawande’s article makes clear) even when there is evidence that the change will result in better outcomes.

Gawande describes how the 24-year-old nurse, Seema, seeks to influence a more experienced nurse who is not using practices that are known to result in better outcomes for newborns. Eventually, after a number of conversations, the nurse starts consistently acting on Seema’s counsel.

Gawande asks her, “Why did you listen to her? … She had only a fraction of your experience.”

“In the beginning,  she didn’t, the nurse admitted. ‘The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.’ From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.”

Gawande asks her why.

“’She was nice.’

‘She was nice?’

‘She smiled a lot.’

‘That was it?’

‘It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,’ she said. ‘It was like talking to a friend.’”

Gawande’s article draws on a number of historical and more recent medical examples to powerfully make the case that, if we’re seeking change, relationships matter. Exactly the argument Esterle, Kopell, and Strand make to foundations.

It’s time, they argue, to bring relationships to the adults table in our discussions of impact.

(Disclosure: The Whitman Institute, which John Esterle leads, is a grant supporter of CEP’s YouthTruth initiative and a client of CEP’s.)


Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.

foundation staff/program officers, networks, role of philanthropy, Working Well With Grantees
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