How Strong Are Your Relationships with Your Grantees?

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Summary

Are you and your current grantees functioning as true partners—or train wrecks? These strategies for building successful partnerships will help you and your grantees boost each other’s ability to get results.

How well do you work with your current grantees?

Are you and your current grantees functioning as true partners—or train wrecks? These strategies for building successful partnerships will help you and your grantees boost each other’s ability to get results.

Most donors rely on grantees to provide the link between aspirations and results. In Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman write:

“The ability to work effectively with your grantees is the fundamental operating requirement in the journey from aspirations to real impact. They, not you, are on the ground, doing most (if not all) of the heaviest lifting. So it’s really not much of a stretch to say that your single most important job is choosing your grantees wisely, then doing everything you can do help them deliver the best possible results.”

This tool will offer some support for how to do this with the grantees already in your portfolio. See more on how to choose new grantees.

So, you’ve found that organization whose passion for changing the world matches your own, and you’ve made a grant. What are the keys to a partnership that achieves results? In our experience, the most effective donor-grantee partnerships are grounded in a shared vision of success and are buoyed by a strong working relationship to achieve this vision.

A shared vision of success

To build a shared vision of the results you hope your grant will create, you must:

  • Be clear with your grantee about your hopes for your collaboration;
  • Truly listen and understand your grantee’s top priorities; and
  • Learn from your grantee how its work fits in with the efforts of other organizations, and confirm that this aligns with your vision. 


Without this understanding, it’s possible you won’t agree when it comes to making tough decisions. When faced with competing priorities, your grantee may see your goals as a distraction—in which case, it is highly unlikely that you will get the results you seek.

Sometimes it may appear that you and your grantee are aligned. For example, imagine that you are funding an organization that runs an afterschool program you believe in and want to help grow. But are you sure your definition of growth matches that of the afterschool program? Perhaps you envision national expansion while the organization would prefer to serve the same kids with deeper services, such as summer camps and college counseling services.

The following questions can help you determine whether you and your grantee share a vision of success:

  • If you and your grantee were separately asked about the grant, “What would an “A” look like?” what would your answers be? Do they agree?
  • Can you quickly and relatively easily list your grantee’s top priorities as an organization? How does the organization go about creating change in the world?
  • Who else is funding this organization? From what you know, do those funders have similar goals to yours? If not, have you asked your grantee how it manages conflicting goals?
  • Have you and your grantee discussed the roles you play in the broader landscape of change? For example,
    • Have you thought about how you could help your grantees work together to share learnings and boost impact?
    • What type of additional support (using your time, influence, and relationships, for example) could you provide to help each organization thrive?
  • Have you thought about how you could help your grantees work together to share learnings and boost impact?
  • What type of additional support (using your time, influence, and relationships, for example) could you provide to help each organization thrive?

A strong working relationship

All else being equal, would this grantee prefer you to another funder?

While “getting along” is an important component of a strong working relationship, truly successful partnerships do more than that—ultimately boosting each other’s ability to get results. As a donor, do you have resources (such as expertise or connections to other funders or nonprofits with similar goals) that could complement your grantee’s work? Are you willing to share those resources?

Often characterized by mutual respect, strong donor-grantee relationships are about more than writing a check. The following questions will help you think about how you and your grantee work together:

  • What is the nature of your relationship? Is this a business transaction, or are you two partners working toward the same goal?
    • Do you enjoy working with the grantee and vice-versa? Are you happy to pick up the phone when a leader from this organization calls? Do you look forward to meetings?
    • All else being equal, would this grantee prefer you to another funder?
    • What is the power dynamic of our relationship? How often do you make last-minute requests or adjustments to scheduled meetings? Do you follow the “Golden Rule” when interacting with this organization?
    • Have you learned anything from this grantee that has affected the way you do your job or make decisions? Can you think of a change your grantee made based on a shared learning or insight from you? How did that adjustment drive results on the ground?
  • How candid is your relationship?
    • Has this organization ever shared serious problems with you and asked for help?
    • Can you think of a time when your grantees shared unsolicited feedback? How did you react to this information? Do you foster ongoing candor, or do you shut it down?
    • Have you ever gathered feedback (anonymously or not) about what it is like to work with you? Was any anonymous feedback different from what you expected to hear or from what you hear when the feedback is attributed?
  • How frequently do you connect? Who tends to reach out first? The Center for Effective Philanthropy has found that frequency of contact, particularly when it was the funder who reached out, is a hallmark of strong relationships.

Partnership, or a train wreck?

It might help to envision your relationships on a matrix, with shared goals and a productive working relationship each on its own axis. True partnerships, characterized by highly aligned goals and a highly productive relationship, occupy the upper right corner of the matrix. The lower left corner, populated by pairs of institutions with opposing strategies and dysfunctional relationships, is home to the train wrecks. Many organizations fall somewhere in between—either determined to work together to pursue shared goals (resembling a forced march), or used to working together, with little consideration for pursuing the same results (an amiable association).

Without either shared goals or a productive relationship, your relationship with your grantee might end up looking and feeling like a train wreck. Take a great organization with strong leadership and demonstrated results in a particular field. You fund them to carry out a program that is aligned with your interests but adjacent to their top priorities, and then the economy goes south. With limited funding, the organization can’t focus on your grant. As a result, leadership feels stretched, and your working relationship is strained.

An organization with whom you have a strong working relationship, but lack shared goals might turn into an amiable association. This situation may arise when funders adjust their strategies to become more focused or follow a new approach. All of a sudden, longtime grantees no longer “fit” into the strategy. However, these grantees continue to do great work and together you share resources that help each other learn, but you’re now seeking different results.

Alternatively, both parties could stick together, determined to meet their shared goals, but find that the working relationship is missing—a forced march. This can occur when there is clear strategic alignment, but you have different working styles. You might prefer to be extremely engaged, while the grantee just wants a check with no strings attached. Alternately, you might not have many nonprofits to choose from to create your desired impact. You feel “stuck” with one grantee focused on your particular issue and wonder how you can work together better.

Finally, there is everyone’s ideal—a true partnership, where you and your grantee align on goals; arm in arm, you drive for results, learning from and contributing to each other’s strategies. In this case, take a real example. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF), which focuses on disadvantaged youth, identified the nonprofit Youth Villages – whose mission is to help troubled children at home with their families – as a promising partner. Through a rigorous screening process EMCF identified strong strategic alignment and the potential for collaboration. EMCF provided significant multi-year funding, resulting in dramatic growth for Youth Villages.

Where do most of your grantees fit on this matrix? (If you’d like to plot all your grantees and identify a path forward, print this PDF worksheet out for discussion.)

Strategies for building your relationship

No matter where you land with your current grantees, there are ways to begin improving your relationship.

Partnership: Regularly explore opportunities to build upon and leverage your successful partnership through innovative strategies, enhanced collaboration with other organizations and constituents, and increased financial and/or nonfinancial assistance.

Amiable Association: Actively clarify the strategic disconnects around shared goals and/or theory of change. Learn from one another; determine if overall results can be improved by more fully supporting the grantee’s strategy—or by grantee more actively embracing your strategy. Either accept the lost opportunities (and possible tensions) inherent in a lack of shared goals, or work together to get better.

Forced March: Identify practical opportunities to boost productivity through improved communication, better proposal and approval processes, more effective grant management, and useful reporting requirements. Simultaneously, pursue areas where you can add additional value to the grantee, such as mentoring, board development, program expertise, technical assistance, and fund-raising.

Train Wreck: Jointly confront the “brutal facts” of the situation. If constructive progress cannot be made to better align the strategies and/or improve the working relationship, then it’s probably best to transition out.

This piece was inspired by – and in part excerpted from - Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman, Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results, (Public Affairs, 2011)

Notes

  • Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman, Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results, (Public Affairs, 2011).
  • Ellie Buteau PhD, Phil Buchanan, and Timothy Chu, "Working With Grantees: The Keys to Success and Five Program Officers Who Exemplify Them," (Center for Effective Philanthropy, 2010).
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