Why We Might Be Undervaluing Strong Funder-Grantee Relationships

Kevin Bolduc

This blog post from CEP’s Vice President, Assessment and Advisory Services, Kevin Bolduc originally appeared on the CEP blog in November 2017. It is reposted here as part of our Rewind series.

At CEP we are always thinking about the ways that strong funder-grantee relationships affect the success of foundations’ efforts.

This topic has been a major emphasis in our research agenda for more than a decade, as we have continually investigated the questions, “What are the core components of the funder-grantee relationship? And where should funders focus their efforts to maximize the strength of those relationships?” Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success lays out our current understanding.

Underlying this ongoing focus on strong relationships is our belief — and an evidence base — that those relationships are necessary components of a funder’s effectiveness and ultimately impact. Using data from hundreds of Grantee Perception Reports, we find that the strength of funder-grantee relationships is correlated with higher grantee ratings of a foundation’s impact on fields, local communities, and organizations.

More and more, the foundation staff I speak to agree with this instrumental argument that strong relationships are important in achieving outcomes. It’s only once in a while, now, that I hear the refrain: “If our grantees say we have great relationships, it means we’re not pushing them hard enough for outcomes.” (This, by the way, has always been a silly argument anyway, contradicted by both common sense and the many foundations that have demonstrable impact and great relationships with grantees.)

There’s no doubt about it — relationships are important in creating impact. That alone makes them indispensable in service of philanthropic success.

I want to suggest, though, that this articulation does not completely express the full value of a strong funder-grantee relationship.

As nonprofits, grantees and funders alike work to solve some of the most pernicious and discouraging problems our society faces. These problems present challenges that often touch on the inherent dignity of all people. The sheer scale of the issues, and the material and emotional resources entailed in our responses, necessitates a collective effort. As part of working to rise to that collective calling, building strong relationships — those that transcend power dynamics, differences in race and creed, and even (sometimes) ideology — is important in and of itself. These relationships represent our collective intent and demonstrate that the better society we seek is possible. They reinforce the value inherent in each of us. They are deeply moral expressions.

I think that if we value strong funder-grantee relationships (or, for that matter, strong workplace relationships and environments) only for their necessary role in creating impact, we’ve undervalued them. We’re ignoring the necessary heart and soul of our work. As a voluntary sector, we are called on to exemplify the best ideals of what can happen when groups of people come together to address common challenges. And those ideals demand that we build strong relationships.

A few years ago I was presenting grantee survey results to the board of a large foundation. The president and board members were disproportionately drawn from academia, and I had presented to them before. I was talking about the opportunities for this funder to strengthen its improving, but still only average, relationships with grantees when the CEO interrupted me and said, “Kevin, relationships are orthogonal to impact.”

I panicked a little bit. What the heck did orthogonal mean? Context clues pretty clearly suggested this was a signal to move on. But I wasn’t quite ready to give up the opportunity to emphasize to the board that the foundation’s grantees suggested it could build even stronger relationships. As I began my answer, I remembered from stats class that orthogonal means “statistically unrelated,” and so I made my case that relationships were actually quite related to the impact this foundation was deeply committed to creating.

Only later when I looked up “orthogonal” did I see that it also means “at right angles.” So, whether he meant it or not, I think that CEO was partially correct.

Strong funder-grantee relationships do have value that’s unrelated to their correlation with impact.  And if we think about them only as a mechanism to create another unit of marginal impact, we’ve missed part of the point — that strong funder-grantee relationships are also a crucial demonstration of our sector’s belief in common action and the inherent dignity of every person.

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @kmbolduc.

Download CEP’s report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success, here.

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