To build healthy relationships with grantees, funders need to shift the power dynamics

Written by: Jennifer Choi

Date: October 20, 2017

Power dynamics are the most significant source of tension in building trust and healthy relationships for better place-based funding by national funders. It’s touchy and no one really wants to name it, but it’s true: It’s very difficult for funders and grantees to be honest and lean into tough conversations about solving complex problems when a pronounced power dynamic exists between them. And it really gets in the way of good work.

The Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program just released a paper raising the issue of power dynamics between funder and nonprofit organizations, and even between national and local funders regarding national foundations and place-based philanthropy.

The paper also details best practices around national funding in local news projects, namely setting the stage for healthy, equitable partnerships between national and local players on local issues. It captures the Democracy Fund’s learnings from its earlier partnership with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and its Local News Lab and the fund’s efforts to replicate this work in different cities across the country.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Associate Director of the Public Square Program Josh Stearns in the community journalism space since my days at Chicago Public Media and his days at Free Press, and we’ve long grappled with community space and building trust. I appreciate the empathetic perspective Josh has gained by going from the nonprofit space to the funder space and now, from local funder to the national funder space, applying the lessons he’s learned in navigating all sorts of roles.

I applaud seeing a national funder implore other national funders to have humility, and be transparent, communicative and clear about their roles in partnership with local players. You don’t often see that in practice because it implies that funders will consider giving up some power and control for the greater good.

At NCRP, we recommend national funders go even further to ensure that their strategies are relevant in the local landscape:

1. Utilize an equity lens on how we define “readiness” and “experts” and who we choose to invite to the table in high-stakes, decision-making conversations.

The paper discusses the importance of ensuring that local communities have a level of readiness that is conducive to broader capacity building with a national partner. But more importantly, foundations must be mindful of their own cultural, establishment-based norms of “respectability” that can get in the way of uncovering true community champions who are amazingly talented and have considerable credibility and real capacity to lead on-the-ground efforts.

These heroes are in their work for a reason, and sometimes that means they’ve never really engaged with a foundation before to support their work because they are savvy, enterprising and committed to their cause.

If we’re truly talking about community credibility, it’s important to explicitly seek out and invite community leaders (people who already have the community’s trust and reflect the community both demographically and through its values) to play a key role in the decision-making process. These leaders often fall outside of foundations’ radars. It is still too rare to see a majority of these community leaders have any real agency in high-stakes conversations solving complex community problems. By being more inclusive, foundations can be smarter, more responsible and thoughtful partners in efforts to improve and strengthen communities.

Often funders can get presumptive or even lazy about sending invitations beyond the usual suspects and those outside of their comfort zones in community collaborative conversations. It’s critical to continue to interrogate how and why they make the decisions that they do when they identify partners in their work.

2. Remember that this requires courage. Lean into discomfort.

Part of being brave is the willingness to give up and share power, and to build power from within communities. That bravery invites grantees, nonprofit organizations and community stakeholders to fully participate in honest and constructive conversations.

If the conversations are not getting to the heart of a real tension, it’s difficult to nurture authentic and sustainable growth. The trust that grows from experiencing and working through conflict in the context of an environment where resources are scarce is the basis of transformative change. So sophisticated facilitation skills are key and should not occur cheaply or half-heartedly.

We’ve continued to learn and apply these lessons through our As the South Grows initiative – where we, as a national organization, are learning to build trust with our rural partners on the ground to inform best practices on funding in the South.

We’re also collecting lessons learned from our Philamplify initiative to identify the most effective ways that funders can meaningfully shift power for stronger communities in the form of an assessment toolkit. Stay tuned for more info on both soon!

 Jennifer Choi is NCRP’s vice president and chief content officer. Follow @jennychoinews and @NCRP on Twitter.

Image by JD Hancock. Modified under Creative Commons license.