Mutual Misunderstandings? Grantee-Donor Relations

Strategic Philanthropy
Thursday, June 30, 2011

While the relationship between donors and “doers” has been a hot topic since the dawn of philanthropy, there seem to be too few conversations in which donors and doers come together to explore these issues face to face.  Sure, we’ve all seen conference panels where donors recite what they look for in a grantee as they scan the room under their glasses to make sure every nonprofit leader is scribbling notes furiously, and we’ve all found ourselves caught in an uncomfortable doer gripe session at some point. So it was with interest that I agreed to help facilitate an intimate “Donor and Doer” conversation

 conceived by Karen Ansara and Willy Foote and organized by New England International Donors (NEID), an affinity group for donors seeking to raise the quality and quantity of international philanthropy originating from New England.

We started the evening by separating the donors from the doers so each group could talk privately before coming back together to compare notes and talk through the issues. We dove in by asking each group to identify the adjectives that best describe their most valued relationships with the other. We then asked each group to put themselves into the other’s shoes and list the adjectives that would describe the most valued relationships from the other perspective.  

Despite the diversity within both groups, the adjectives were surprisingly similar. (One outlier did cause a chuckle: doers unanimously identified “sells us to others” as the adjective that describes their favorite donors – although I’m pretty sure that is not technically an adjective.) What kinds of descriptions did we hear?  Committed, a good listener, intellectually curious, inspired and inspiring, challenging (no, not that way, as in “willing to challenge”), collaborative, and flexible.  

On the surface, the two groups seem to be in perfect alignment. So if we, as donors, just act on this understanding and strive to be the partner we all want us to be, why are we still unsure of - and often unsatisfied with - our role and the doer’s role in our mutual relationships? 

This is not a rhetorical question. I’m hoping to hear answers from all of you, but I will share one answer proposed by Sasha Chanoff. Drawing from Jennifer McCrae’s work and her Exponential Fundraising course at Harvard, Sasha articulated the issue as one not of misunderstanding, misalignment of values, nor lack of empathy. Instead the culprit could be that we allow the transaction to define our relationship:

A lot of fundraising is done from a transactional lens, that is the grantee is looking to the donor for money and the focus is getting that money in the door.  Within this exchange and relationship are power dynamics that are unequal and problematic, and this kind of transactional relationship is not necessarily fulfilling.

I’m drawn to how Jennifer talks about how a relationship that's connected to meaning for both the donor and grantee and personal growth is more effective, and builds long-lasting alliances. This means understanding the values that the donor and grantee have and exploring ways to bring those values to the front of the relationship and use those values to deepen the relationship, which also works to make the donor feel connected, and fulfilled on a personal level.  And this "growth" lens also takes down the kind of imbalanced power dynamics that can exist because donor and grantee are building a friendship based in their shared interests and views of the world.

As donors, are doer’s approaching your work together through a “growth perspective” or do you continually find yourself in a relationship defined by the “transaction perspective”? And equally important, are you approaching the relationship the same way?  How can a donor move from one perspective to the other?