Subtle ways power dynamics manifest between nonprofits and funders – Nonprofit AF

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[Image description: A cute little brown squirrel, standing on a log, staring off to the left. Very fluffy tail. Image by Sebastian Latorre on Unsplash]

Last week, a colleague told me they wrote a grant proposal that totaled 72 pages, for a $5,000 grant. I really hoped that this was a piece of performance art, titled something like “The Ontology of Philanthropy and the Meta-Futility of Existence.” But no, it was real.

Power imbalance is pervasive in our sector, as ubiquitous as hummus, though not nearly as delicious. There is always asymmetry in power when one party holds resources that another party needs. This imbalance leads to all sorts of awfulness. There are endless horror stories like the above. Power differentials warp people’s minds, allowing for the internalization of toxic philosophies like strategic philanthropy, which leads to the perpetuation of crappy funding practices.

Unfortunately, people often think it’s something that only other people are guilty of, that they themselves don’t perpetuate it. There are lots of great program officers, and they are probably just as horrified by a 72-page grant proposal as the rest of us. But power dynamics can often be more subtle, to the point that we don’t recognize it, and even nice program officers are caught up in it. Here are some examples:

“Meet the Funder”-type events: During these events, funders would explain their priorities and provide advice on how to increase one’s chances of getting funding from their foundation. It can be helpful to get a chance to meet and engage with funders. But why is it always “Meet the Funders” and never “Meet the Nonprofits Doing All the Actual Work”? That would be awesome. Nonprofit leaders would offer advice to funders on how to best be partners: “If you want to have a better chance of us accepting your grants, give multi-year general operating funds. Also, you need to indicate clearly how your foundation aligns with our priorities to end poverty.”

Funders thinking it’s a big deal when they show up: A new foundation CEO called me up, pitching the idea of a “listening tour.” I told him that would seem like His Majesty the King of Funding will be coming down to visit the unwashed masses to hear their peasant concerns. I told him to just spend time where nonprofit people are already gathering and not to make a big fuss about his being there. The best, most helpful foundation staff are always already in the community, so when they show up somewhere, it is not some sort of rare, not-to-be-missed event; the fact that you’re there should be boring, in a good way.

Funders leaving right away after dropping by: At many nonprofit conferences and summits, there are funder panels, where program officers show up to dispense advice and answer questions. Immediately after though, these funders would leave. Sure, some because they are trying to be thoughtful about creating a space for nonprofits to speak their minds. But I’ve seen lots of events where funders are explicitly invited to stay for the entire duration, and most choose not to, and nonprofits learn to just be grateful for any of the funders’ time at all. The signal that this often sends is “I have graced you with my presence, and now I have more important work to do.”

Feedback is often one-way: Nonprofits appreciate the rare times when a funder spends time giving feedback as to why a grant proposal may not be successful. But again, why is it always nonprofits that are the recipient of feedback on what they can do better? How often do funders think to solicit feedback on how to improve their processes, and then to actually act on the feedback? Not often enough, or else we would see less burdensome and sometimes silly requirements, or ideally we would stop having grant applications altogether and each nonprofit would just have one master-proposal that they use for all funders.

Gratitude is expected of one party: Many development directors and EDs will send a thank-you note to program officers after getting a grant. It is rare, though much appreciated, for a nonprofit leader to receive a thank-you note or gesture from a program officer. One time, a few EDs and I met with two program officers. The program officers brought each of us a small gift bags filled with treats from local small family businesses. I was so surprised by the thoughtfulness, I nearly wept into the vegan cashew brittle in my bag. If we’re all in this together as equal partners trying to make the world better but playing different roles, shouldn’t the gratitude, like the feedback giving, be mutual?

Character limits exist: I’ve written about this earlier, but I can’t stand character limits. Nonprofits collectively waste hundreds of thousands of hours every year translating and editing from one grant proposal to another, because some funders want a question answered in 500 characters, other funders in 1,000 characters. If you have character limits on grants, the message you’re sending is that your time reading grant proposals is more important than that of the people writing the proposal, and because you have power, the proposal writers will just have to put up with it.

There’s lots of other ways power imbalance manifest; add your thoughts in the comment section below.

I’ve been seeing more conversations about power and philanthropy. This is great. The more we reduce the power imbalance, the more effective nonprofits and funders can be as partners, and the more we’ll be able to cut through the BS and successfully tackle cool stuff like participatory grantmaking and systems change work.

To do that though, all funders need to be aware of power dynamics and how it manifests in their everyday life. And then try to mitigate for it. Don’t have events where funders are positioned as experts there to deliver wisdom to help nonprofits increase their odds in the Funding Hunger Games. Be so present in the community that it’s not a big deal when you’re there. Clear your schedule and stay for the full conference or summit you’re invited to so you have an understanding of what nonprofits are excited and worried about. Stop having character limits in your grant applications. Heck, stop requiring your own special snowflake grant application and just accept a proposal that’s already written. Ask for feedback of your grantees.

Also, go through your files and see how many thank-you notes you’ve received from grantees, and maybe consider writing a few of your own to thank them. They’ll probably fall out of their duct-taped chairs in surprise.

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