Funder-nonprofit relations matter, but is anyone listening?


The fraught relations between funders and nonprofit organizations was a hot topic in philanthropy last year.

But as I watched the Medici’s: Masters of Florence series on Netflix over the holidays, I was reminded how power for good or bad has always been a dynamic tension in social change circles.

Searching for signs of humility, empathy, and trust

Our friends at the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) have been saying this for the past 20 years.  Jennifer Choi reminded us that power dynamics are the most significant source of strained relationships between foundations and nonprofit organizations.

Martin Levine offered blunt advice in the Nonprofit Quarterly.  In Listen More to Nonprofits and Speak Less, he offers hope that some funders can learn to be more self-aware.

But self-awareness never comes easy to institutions with power.  I recently wrote how this blind spot may prevent funders having honest conversations about data and evaluation with nonprofit leaders.

Hoping for honest funder-nonprofit conversation

Last September, I joined a lively event in Boston where Henry Berman of Exponent Philanthropy cajoled a funder-nonprofit audience to have a long-overdue conversation about this problem.  Exponent’s national funder-grantee conversations were held in collaboration with the National Council of Nonprofits and helped crowdsource ideas for better relationships.

The latest report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) validated the findings harvested by Exponent and NCN.  CEP’s report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees and the Keys to Success, highlighted what it takes to build strong relationships while navigating the power imbalance between funders and nonprofits.

Rethinking how we structure philanthropy

These cyclical waves of admonitions asking philanthropy to behave better are needed, but they tend to focus on the behaviors of individuals in the system.  They offer less insight how the structures and processes of the funding dynamic get in the way of changing the normative behavior of funders.

My colleague, Cynthia Gibson outlined the most provocative argument for why and how foundations can begin to grapple with inequities in power.  The key may be to re-imagine how it is structured.

In Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come?  Cynthia highlights several frameworks for action that promote inclusion, openness, and participation.

Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation captured the crux of the matter in his introduction to the paper:

“If philanthropic decision-makers do not have sufficient connection or access to lived experience of the people we seek to benefit, the quality of our decision-making will suffer and our impact and legitimacy will be lessened.”

Prentice Zinn advises donors on planning, strategy, and evaluation. He is a principal of GMA Foundations and can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Exponent Philanthropy’s blog in January 2018.