The Donor-Grantee Trap: Executive Summary

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Author(s): Thomas J. Tierney, Richard (Dickie) Steele

Published Date: October 27, 2011

The Donor-Grantee Trap: How ineffective collaboration undermines philanthropic results for society, and what can be done about it. A guide for nonprofit leaders, their boards, and their donors.

Scarce resources (both money and time) are routinely wasted in the critical linkage between donor and grantee. As a consequence, our communities—the causes and constituents we are trying to serve—are being unnecessarily shortchanged.

What’s needed is more effective donor-grantee collaboration, so that philanthropists and the nonprofit organizations they support can get the absolute most from every scarce dollar they invest.  

Reduced to the essentials, there are three imperatives of true collaboration—for which both donors and grantees must share responsibility. They are: 

  • Resource it Right: Make sure that the grantee has what it takes to get the job done.
  • Pursue Partnership: Develop shared goals and a productive working relationship (which demands a certain level of strategic clarity and a reasonable “cost-of-capital” burden on the grantee).
  • Get Better Together: Create the necessary conditions for learning and continuous improvement. 

These imperatives appear simple; experience has shown, however, that following them almost always requires confronting—and overcoming—some deeply ingrained dynamics, assumptions, and behaviors.

The Donor-Grantee Trap details each imperative in turn. It is written for nonprofit executives, their boards, and their major donors. Based upon and excerpted from the book Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman, it is also supplemented with content from several related Bridgespan articles, which reflect The Bridgespan Group’s extensive field experience working with both donors and their grantees.

This work by The Bridgespan Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Bridgespan's Terms of Use page.


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