Reflecting on Power and the Funder-Grantee Relationship

Jonathan Raymond

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Approaching the end of my second year as president of the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation, which improves life outcomes for children through education, I’d been giving a lot of thought to the overall field of philanthropy. Then, reading a recent New York Times op-ed by Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, something struck me.

As Walker points out, access to internships and the social capital they bring is a privilege unevenly distributed among our youth. Words like his bring attention to this important issue, but are the words we generate always matched by actions and deeply sustained investments that will spur transformation by those doing the work in the field? Philanthropy, perhaps the most profoundly privileged field of all, often under-invests in, under-values, and places unrealistic expectations upon, the grantees toiling each day to bring about real change.

A key factor, I realized, is the grantor-grantee power dynamic. For me, those with the real “power,” i.e. the knowledge and ability to make change happen, are the grantees and partners who do the work. Yet those same organizations — working tirelessly on behalf of children or other vulnerable populations — must come to us to obtain resources,  which places us in a position of power. Therein lies the distortion.

Recalling my days as superintendent in Sacramento, I am vividly reminded of what it’s like to be on the other side of the power dynamic. One foundation I’d worked closely with in my previous job in Charlotte, N.C. wanted nothing to do with my new school district simply because of geography. Being in Sacramento, suddenly we didn’t fit their definition, idea, theory, or research. But what about the importance of the work we were doing? Why not consider the importance of “practice” when the futures of 43,000 children lay in the balance? Silence. Another foundation dangled the possibility of a “fellow” if we filled out multiple applications, only to later reveal they planned to concentrate their fellows in Denver, Chicago, and New York City. Finally, there was the foundation that followed up their overtures by arriving two hours late (with no notice) for a site visit, and leaving early despite days of preparation by our team. As grantees, we had the power to change 43,000 lives, yet based on the whim of a distant high-priced consultant, or a casual decision to cut short an essential site tour, that power was taken from us.

A second factor is fiscal shortsightedness. If we really knew our partners and the work they do, would we keep behaving as if we were evaluating software startups? “Become sustainable in three years,” we often say to a nonprofit, without regard for their capacity to generate revenue. As the people holding the resources, how often do we stop to think that without the folks who do the work, there is no work? One of the greatest legacies we can leave is a network of strong, healthy organizations, without whom the work on the ground would not happen.  We should concentrate on investing in their long-term health and success.

Third is instability. Foundations have the ability to commit resources for multiple years, enabling work to unfold over time while an organization builds capacity and establishes itself. Often times, however, we do our best interpretation of Sugar Ray Leonard, bobbing and weaving from one idea, program, initiative, and grant to the next. Let’s use the inherent resource advantage we have  —  unconstrained time  —  more wisely and responsibly.

Fourth, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to call attention to an issue, as Mr. Walker eloquently did. Yet looking out across the philanthropy landscape, I sometimes see more talk than action. Where is the sense of urgency? At times I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb, “talk does not cook rice.”

Fifth, when it’s time to exit, can we do so with dignity? Do we give partners sufficient time to search for new resources to fund their work  —  especially when large dollars are at stake? Are we supporting their efforts to find new funding? Have we considered the well-being of the community our partner serves, or the impact we’re having on that community’s ability to trust future nonprofit interventions? How one leaves is often as important as how one gives; doing it right requires great thought, care, and attention.

Finally, how about being as honest and generous with our grantees as we strive to be with our colleagues and loved ones? The people who daily engage in the difficult work of changing society for the better deserve our kindness, our patience, and our humility  —  they should never feel like second-class citizens. When we shortchange grantees, we abuse our power. 

Working in philanthropy is a privilege  —  and our impact and legacy are tied to what we choose to do with that privilege. Will we use it to advance an idea, call attention to a vexing community challenge, invest in the leadership of an organization, model and leverage potential solutions?

Today, more than ever, the complexity of challenges requires us to think deeply about the work and its implications. Can we find ways to work and learn together as a field and with our partners in the field? Doing so will require new thinking and finding new ways to collaborate. It will require us to be clear about how change happens, and to be humble in our charge. In short, all of us in philanthropy must ask the questions to generate the conversations and ideas leading to a better way.

Jonathan Raymond is president of the Stuart Foundation, which is committed to improving life outcomes for young people through education. Follow him on Twitter at @jraym0.

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