Grantee Voice: Relationships Matter

Naomi Orensten

This is the final post in a six-part series on what nonprofit leaders think foundation funders could improve upon in their work. Findings are based on survey responses from 244 nonprofit leaders who have agreed to be a part of CEP’s Grantee Voice Panel a nationally representative sample of leaders of U.S. nonprofits across a broad range of geographies, fields/issues, and sizes who confidentially provide CEP with their perspectives working with foundations.

The fifth most common suggestion for what nonprofit leaders would like from their foundation funders, mentioned by 12 percent of respondents on our Grantee Voice Panel, is for stronger relationships between funders and grantees.

At CEP, we believe that strong funder-grantee relationships — grounded in clear and consistent communication and high-quality interactions — are important for effectiveness. Nonprofit leader feedback underscores this. 

Broadly, suggestions highlight a desire for funder-grantee relationships grounded in trust, honesty, and openness. Nonprofit leaders suggest funders have more “genuine dialogue with grantees,” and do more “for grantees to meet with funders as equals.” Open partnerships, in their eyes, will “allow us to be honest about acknowledging real challenges” and play a big role in the ability of funders and nonprofits to achieve more together. One nonprofit says that good relationships help us “meet our joint goals, more as strategic partners than as a funder. When this happens, it is so powerful, the combination of funds and partnership brain power.”

Nonprofit leaders directly connect strong relationships to their ability to be effective. One says: “When our organization had an internal crisis last year, I pretty quickly knew which funders would have my back and help me sort it out, and which funders would hold it against me during the next grant cycle if they knew. More like the former, please!”

Nonprofit leaders also want to engage more with their funders. Just as they want to understand their funders’ goals, they want their funders to understand their goals and strategy, their context, and more about who they seek to serve. “Get to know us better” and “learn hands on,” they say. In their eyes, it’s important for funders to develop “a more complex understanding of the funded programs, outside of grant narratives,” which will help them understand and have more realistic expectations about “the pace and impact of community work.”

Harkening back to suggestions for improving grant processes (discussed in the series’ second post), comments about stronger relationships with funders connect to grantees’ desires for clearer, more open, and more transparent communication from funders, particularly as it relates to foundation goals and priorities — and how the work of grantees fits into them. “Help nonprofits really understand what you want to do in the community,” is a common refrain, as is, “We want feedback. Why were we turned down or even why were we funded?”

Since CEP’s founding more than 17 years ago, we’ve emphasized the importance of funder-grantee relationships as a crucial component of effective philanthropy because funders and their grantees must work well together if they are to achieve shared goals.

CEP’s research report Relationships Matter sheds light on what constitutes a strong funder–grantee relationship, and what nonprofits say it takes for funders to foster such relationships. Read that report — relationships matter in their own right!

Of course, we’re not alone in emphasizing the importance of strong funder-grantee relationships. But that doesn’t mean that funders have done enough yet to make the changes they need to make in order to prioritize relationships.

To staff at foundations, here are some discussion questions to consider as you reflect on how you can build stronger relationships with your grantees in service of greater effectiveness and greater impact:

  • Why do strong funder-grantee relationships matter for your foundation? Have you clearly articulated this, both internally and externally?
  • Where do you think your relationships with grantees are strongest and weakest? What support are you providing to staff to help them build these relationships?
  • How clearly and consistently do you think you are communicating with grantees (or not)? How do you know?
  • In what ways are you responsive and approachable to grantees (or not)? How do you know?

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Concluding Thoughts

This series has presented the most common suggestions that nonprofits have for their foundation funders.

As you have seen over the course of these posts, these suggestions are not new. They closely align with comments grantees have been sharing with CEP since we started the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) over 15 years ago, and with comments grantees have shared in surveys for various research projects.

Acting on these suggestions can help funders be more effective — and in doing so can have a profoundly positive impact on nonprofit organizations and the people and communities they serve.

See all posts in the series here.

Naomi Orensten is director, research, at CEP. Matthew H Leiwant is a former associate manager, research, at CEP.

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