What Does It Take to Build Strong Relationships?

Amy Shields

Over the past 20 years, the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) community has championed the idea that strong relationships with nonprofit partners matter. As we say in Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?, “When we build trust with and tap the knowledge of nonprofits and community members, we amplify each other’s strengths and arrive at better solutions. In order to build these relationships, we need to recognize how our power can create hesitation and tension in our partners — and own the responsibility of creating authentic connections.”

GEO’s research shows that grantmakers who are more connected to their grantees are more likely to provide the type of support that nonprofits need to succeed — things like capacity-building support and multi-year, general operating support. We also recognize that it can be daunting to think about where to start when it comes to improving relationships with nonprofit partners.

That’s why CEP’s work on the critical role that program officers play in shaping the funder-grantee relationship is so helpful. So often, we think about the practices and policies of our organizations as a whole. But when it comes to relationships, it should come as no surprise that people matter! Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success shows the areas where a grantee’s experience is more strongly shaped by the program officer than the foundation.

Skills Matter

CEP’s findings align with GEO’s work on the importance of supporting foundation staff in gaining the right skills to build strong relationships with nonprofits. GEO’s upcoming publication on inclusive grantmaking highlights some of the specific skills and backgrounds that foundations are looking for when they hire new staff. Many look for grantmaking staff who have significant nonprofit experience. Others seek staff from community organizing backgrounds or who come from the communities they serve. Still others mentioned hiring or training for qualities like exceptional listening skills or the ability to build connections and networks.

These may not be the types of expertise that foundations traditionally seek in program officers, but we should value these relationship-building skills as much as other types of experience. These are the kinds of skills that are needed if program officers are to gain a greater understanding of their nonprofit partners and the context in which they work. As Relationships Matter says, “The issues nonprofits work on are complex, and their organizations are often strapped for resources. The context in which they work is also complicated, with systemic issues often at the root of the environmental and social problems that they work to address.”

Culture Matters

Relationships Matter highlights the importance of foundation transparency and openness to grantees’ ideas. In GEO’s recent work on productive organizational culture, we identified similar attributes that allow grantmakers to adopt practices that better support nonprofits. We name them as transparency and trust, and respect and humility.

If we want to build trust with others, we have to be transparent about what we’re doing and why.  Funders have to communicate better with grantee partners and find new ways to hear from nonprofits and the community. That means admitting we don’t have all the answers, and relying on the lived experiences of nonprofit staff and community members to help us better understand issues and potential solutions. Approaching relationships with transparency and humility helps us to learn from grantees, and those insights can then improve grantmaking and inform strategies.

Actions Matter

What does it mean to act in a way that demonstrates transparency and openness to nonprofit partners? Actions are the visible and tangible manifestation of culture. If we want to be seen as authentic, our actions have to match our values. Relationships Matter highlights program officers that take very real steps to live the values of transparency and openness. Jamie Allison of the S.H. Cowell Foundation talks about checking with grantees to make sure her write-ups accurately represent the nonprofit’s results. Jackie Hausman of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation talks about all of the different ways to listen to those in the field — from visiting grantees, to meeting with parents and families, to joining a membership organization for funders in the biomedical field. Nick Randell of the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation talks about blogging about upcoming changes to provide ample information before new changes are rolled out.

The GEO community echoes the importance of these actions. For example, our members host Q&As with nonprofits and funders. They create grant programs to support emerging and grassroots organizations that don’t have 501(c)(3) status, but who are doing important work in the community. They prioritize face-to-face conversations with nonprofit partners throughout the year to talk about what’s going well and what may need to shift. Some even delegate grantmaking authority to the community and local nonprofits. These actions demonstrate their commitment to transparency and their willingness to hear new suggestions and ideas.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Relationships Matter surfaces behaviors that individual program officers can embrace to build strong relationships with nonprofits. GEO’s work on inclusive grantmaking and organizational culture highlights some of the practices that foundations can adopt to support program officers and set organizational priorities to emphasize strong nonprofit relationships. Our community tells us that stronger relationships lead to better outcomes.

So, what are we waiting for? It’s up to grantmakers to prioritize this work and hold each other accountable. Together, the philanthropic field can make strong relationships a lynchpin of our work and strategies. Together, we can build a field that values lived experience and theories of change equally. Together, we can join with our nonprofit partners to make progress on the issues that all of us care about. As GEO’s Nonprofit Advisory Council says in its Letter to Philanthropy, “We are a country of abundance. We are vested partners in this business of problem-solving and change-making. Let us move forward boldly in relationship and trust — in the name of creating better solutions and making greater progress, together.”

Amy Shields is program manager at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO).

You can download Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success here.

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