Share the Power

You’ve made it to a foundation—a perceived seat of power. People invite you to events. They come to your meetings. They even respond to your emails. But you have to recognize an important truth (one that was uttered by Spiderman’s uncle): with great power comes great responsibility.

CEP’s new report, Working Well With Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff, highlights the importance of cultivating good relationships with grantees. Given our responsibility for making these relationships effective, I’ve come to wonder: could we as funders do a better job of building and managing these relationships by sharing the power that we have?

For me the answer is yes! Indeed, funders create networks of people and information, distribute capital and build infrastructure. We design theories of change, strategies, programmatic priorities, grant applications and reporting policies. Meanwhile, grantees are subject to those decisions, processes and requirements. But as funders, do we really hold all the cards? Not really. We don’t execute programs. We do not have first-hand experience with the nuances of our beneficiaries, the barriers, the accelerants and the opportunities.

Funders alone cannot achieve the change we hope to see without the knowledge, expertise and muscle of our collective grantees—just as our grantees cannot implement without funders. We are in a symbiotic relationship, and we should be happy about that. We can work together to achieve our mutual goals, but to do so, we—the funders—need to share the power.

When power dynamics get in the way, there are real consequences. Grantees too often defer to funders, and we potentially miss out on the best thinking if we force our agenda and fail to listen. Conversations that are veiled with pleasantries or manifest as round-about discussions prevent us from getting to the hard truths and lessons learned. In these situations grantees and funders spend precious time decoding the intentions behind word choice, timelines, actions and non-actions.

What can funders do to recalibrate the power dynamic? We all have relationships, and we must be aware of the power dynamic inherent in the relationships with our grantees. And taking that one step beyond awareness, we must effectively share power in these relationships.

With that thinking in mind, I suggest focusing on three key approaches that we can take to making funder-grantee relationships more effective.

  1. Do the job with verve. we owe it to our founders, our grantees and the field. Throw yourself into the job with humility and respect. Be judicious—but not shy about—any requests and requirements. Read and use the information you’ve requested. Prepare for meetings and site visits. Be curious. Obsess about learning. And be generous with what you do learn.
  2. Define the engagement. Relationships work better when people know their roles and the rules of engagement. Lay the groundwork by communicating about intentions, expectations, processes and timelines up front. If we identify how we can best engage with grantees, both parties can begin by managing a healthy relationship, instead of wondering about how many questions are too many, how likely funding is for a project or how often we’ll be checking in to learn about the work.
  3. Be present. When you engage, make the most of it. Invite feedback. Actively listen. Show respect for the relationship—and share the power within it—by being respectful and involved. CEP has made this easy for foundations through its set of survey tools, specifically the Grantee Perception Report. This effective vehicle provides candid grantee feedback to funders presented with comparative data and insights for funders to take action.

At the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation we strive to think not only about our grants, but about the relationships that we’re building to fuel the change that we want to see in the world. The three Grantee Perception Report surveys that we’ve conducted have underscored that our grantee relationships are critical to our work. And based on what we’ve learned, we’ve made changes that allow us to more effectively share the power in our relationships. We have redesigned our grant policies and processes to enable our program officers to shape grantee relationships based on respect, collaboration, learning and problem solving.

And we want to do even better. I hope that you’ll note your ideas on how best to share the power in relationships between funders and grantees in the comments below or by directly reaching out to us.


Carol Ting is the associate director of grantee approaches at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

foundation staff/program officers, Grantee Perception Report, leadership, nonprofit sector, Working Well With Grantees
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