Candid Conversations

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At the National Council of Nonprofits, we are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for emerging trends or cultural norms: both those that prevent charitable nonprofits from advancing their missions, and those that get in the way of effectiveness. One example is the still-too-prevalent myth that overhead, and/or administrative costs, are to be avoided at all costs; another is the power-imbalance between grant-seeking nonprofits and the private foundations or government agencies that hold the purse strings. This power imbalance mirrors the external economic inequity between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our society that so many foundations and nonprofits missions are striving to correct. It also makes it extremely difficult for grantees and grantmakers to have honest, respectful conversations – yet honesty and respect are exactly what’s needed when a nonprofit must let a long-time donor know that it is facing a shortfall, and ask for help – or when a foundation decides to pursue different goals and needs to communicate that decision to its grantees. Consequently, we are on the lookout for ways to encourage honesty and respect despite this power imbalance, such as by creating pathways for grantmakers and grantees to build trust, which is fundamental to candid conversations. We wonder: Are gatherings at which a panel of grantmakers sit behind a table talking to (as opposed to with) charitable nonprofits successful in creating pathways for candid conversations? How can we do better?

In an effort to find out and share what we’re learning, we partnered with Exponent Philanthropy – the country’s largest association of funders and the only one dedicated to serving foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families, and individual donors – on a new project that we hope will help shine a light on authentic ways to build trust and lead to solid mission partnerships, with effective and candid communications, between donors and nonprofits. We helped design and facilitate four programs to explore “Great Funder-Nonprofit Relationships.” As we encourage participants to listen intently to one another, we will be practicing our own listening skills so that we can share practical ways that grantmaking organizations and charitable nonprofits can build trust, increase their comfort level (with such things as sharing not only what worked, but also what didn’t), swap insights, grow empathy, and in the end - improve the process of putting donated dollars to good use and the ability of nonprofits to sustain great relationships with funders. While we can’t promise that no private foundation will ever ask you again to describe your impact in 3 different ways, on 6 different forms, we hope that by spreading the word about this work more grantmakers will understand why some of their requests feel like demands, and more nonprofits will find non-threatening ways to “speak truth to power,” so that they can forge valuable and sustained partnerships with major donors, private foundations, and other funding sources. 

As a result of this work, we are sharing "The secret sauce of great funder/nonprofit relationships."

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