Conversations to Schedule Today to Strengthen Your Nonprofit-Foundation Partnerships

Written by: Lia Weintraub

Date: March 12, 2015

At one end of the spectrum, grantmaking is a transaction, in which there is little connection between the grantmaker and the grantee beyond the exchange of forms, reports and funds. At the other end, grantmaking is relational, with grantmakers and grantees acting as collaborative partners in the amelioration of social ills. But to establish this form of partnership, both the grantmaker and the grantee must confront the power dynamics that characterize the traditional funder-nonprofit hierarchy. These conversations are sticky and uncomfortable, but if carried out, can greatly improve the way that the social sector operates. So what should we be talking about during these discussions?

1. A clear and explicit expectation of what both organizations hope to gain from their partnership.

Grantmakers and grantees often have different interests, so despite the great potential these conversations offer, one party may be more reluctant to establish a more relational norm of communication. Be clear upfront about what your organization hopes to gain from the conversation, and ask what the other might gain. This helps to set the course for how the foundation and the nonprofit are to engage moving forward, and together they can challenge the traditional notion that foundations carry the majority of the power through their ability to allocate resources at their own discretion. By viewing the exchange as more of a partnership, there is increasing recognition that the foundation and the nonprofit each have something to gain from discussing how they can carry out their relationship more effectively.

2. The types of grants that would best serve the grantee.

This type of conversation not only serves the grantee, but also the foundation. By ensuring that the grant meets the needs of the nonprofit organization, the foundation is ultimately ensuring that its grant has the greatest impact possible. If a grantmaker initiates this conversation, or ensures a safe space in which the grantee feels comfortable doing so, both parties will be able to honestly discuss the best practices for accomplishing their shared goals. NCRP has long highlighted certain grantmaking practices that ensure peak effectiveness. With this research in mind, grantmakers should consider flexible, multi-year grants that allow nonprofits to build infrastructure and capacity. This type of grantmaking offers myriad benefits:

It shifts the commonly-followed program evaluation model. Instead of looking at the impact of different projects, foundations can look into the overall social impact of the nonprofit organization.

  • It allows nonprofits to stay true to their mission and think about long-term impact, instead of short-term programmatic deliverables.
  • It takes the administrative burden off of each partner from having to process grants every year
  • It creates a longer time horizon for the grantee-grantmaker partnership.
  • It allows the grantee to maintain staff continuity and organizational leadership.

3. How to hold each other accountable to the same standards.

Foundations rely heavily upon grantee data to understand the impact of their grants. However, many do not hold themselves to similarly strict standards of evaluation or to similar metrics. Doing so could provide greater transparency in the philanthropic space, as grantees have greater information about how foundations perform. This could also be a great feedback circuit, allowing grantees to share information about what works and does not in the way that their grantmaker carries out its allocations.

Plus, having a similar set of measurements to evaluate success will empower grantees, facilitate further dialogue and better allow both parties to define future metrics of progress (as outlined in a recent Responsive Philanthropy article on co-creating metrics by USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity’s Jennifer Ito). A foundation holding itself to the same standards of evaluation that it holds its grantees to signals a more equal partnership, in which each side can be critiqued for its performance. The topic of balance is applicable to many other contexts the grantee-grantmaker relationship creates, from email response rates to issue impact. Engaging equitably is an indispensable component of partnership.

There is no single way to carry out these conversations, and no one script for how grantees and grantmakers can engage in a more equal partnership. Being upfront about intentions and sincere in the desire to form a partnership is the best grounding for these conversations. And grantmakers shouldn’t be shy to initiate and encourage this process – after all, the inherent power dynamic can make it difficult for grantees to muster the courage to do so. Ultimately, if foundations and nonprofits work together relationally, society as a whole benefits. Therefore, both the foundation and the nonprofit have stake in addressing the nature of their relationship and how they can best respond to each other’s expectations and needs.

Lia Weintraub is field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.