Break on Through to the Other Sides: Unpacking Power Dynamics Between Funders and Funded

By Diane Knoepke, Vice President, Alford Group

If you’re working in the social sector, you’ve probably said – or at least heard – things like this in discussions of the dynamics between grantmakers and grantseekers:

“We want this to be valuable for both sides of the equation.”

“I’ve sat on both sides of the table.”

“We need to understand how things work on the other side.”

Perhaps this “both sides” idea is a misnomer. At least that is what I walked away thinking after moderating two dynamic panels of funders and their nonprofit partners at Friday’s “Straight Talk: Unpacking the Power Dynamic between Grantseekers and Grantmakers” event, hosted by Chicago Women in Philanthropy. When we think of partners in funding relationships as the “asker” and the “asked,” we are missing a lot of dimensions to the power dynamics present in these relationships.

Let’s take a look at some of the common organizational power differentials we need to further unpack in funding relationships.

Who has the money?

Indeed, the default sense remains that funders have power in that they are a critical source many nonprofits rely on to carry out their social mission.

Who creates the impact?

No matter how it’s measured, though, we are increasingly seeing acknowledgement of the power that nonprofits have as front-line vehicles for creating impact. Francia Harrington, Executive Leadership, Civic Engagement and Strategic Partnerships, at Fifth Third Bank spoke of the bank’s relationship with Chicago’s Navy Pier (a nonprofit organization since 2011) and the power Navy Pier brings to the relationship. Not only did she speak of the Pier’s size, scope, visibility, and historical resonance, she emphasized its unique power to leverage those assets for the benefit of families and other nonprofit organizations and truly embodying “the People’s Pier” moniker.

Who sets the expectations for success?

While nonprofits of all kinds are often the front-line vehicle for impact, we see tensions when funders place an emphasis on measuring outcomes that are not aligned with the outcomes the nonprofits aim to achieve or that are burdensome to measure. We need to balance dynamics like:

  • Not-for-profits’ need to balance what is “fundable” with what is mission-critical,
  • Funders’ and nonprofits’ desire to “prove” versus “improve” impact, and
  • Interest in immediate versus long-term results.

Hina Mahmood of Woods Fund Chicago discussed Woods’ focus on supporting systemic change, which does not typically happen in one or two grant cycles. They leave it to grantees to set the bar for impact and measure it, with a focus on learning what should be done going forward rather than validating what has been done in the past. Kristin Hettich of Alphawood Foundation and Julie Nakagawa of DanceWorks Chicago spoke of measuring partnership success by gauging the strength of the relationship itself and how to help each other meet their own organizational goals for impact.

Certainly, we need to know whether our investments are making a difference. How we approach that determination in partnership can be a significant hotspot for the power dynamic – and differential – among funding partnerships.

Who holds the expertise and cultural competencies?

Every corner of the social sector is brimming with brilliant people working tirelessly to make a difference. Yet power players in the sector too often overlook the expertise and cultural competencies that live within communities. Whether funders or nonprofits believe they know best, any individual or organization can be committed to its own ideas or models at the expense of what works. Some of these biases are implicit, some explicit. Steve Hosik Moon of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago spoke of how the “model minority” stereotype (that many funders and others still hold) limits understanding of both the needs of diverse Asian-American communities and the funding available for solutions to meet those needs.

Hina Mahmood spoke of Woods’ core principle of centering the grantee experience and ensuring that nonprofit leaders are seen and treated as the experts in how to accomplish change. Similarly, Yolanda Knight of the Steans Family Foundation spoke of how they look for, and look to, community-based organizations run by leaders with the lived experiences of those beneficiaries they are trying to help.

Who provides access?

Gatekeepers are going to gatekeep, which makes sense as few funders could support every opportunity that comes across their desk. But some funders use the power of strong gatekeeping to knowingly or unknowingly restrict access by impactful nonprofits that do not fit a certain pre-conceived mold.

Dr. Carolyn Vessel of I AM ABLE Center for Family Development (a Steans Family Foundation grantee partner) implored all of us, and especially funders, to think about how levels of capacity and the ways we communicate may be rendering worthy and innovative organizations less powerful and less seen. For example, certain organizations are not able to afford a professional grantwriter or they communicate in a way that is outside of what funders expect. Dr. Vessel called for that to change. “We may not speak your language,” she said as she called on those in power to become “bilingual” to understand the substantial ways a smaller or less visible organization is addressing problems funders care about, even and especially if they communicate their solutions in a different way.

Some funders are working to address this – Ms. Harrington of Fifth Third Bank spoke of her team’s attempt to try to help every interested nonprofit in some way, even if the organization is not a good fit for Fifth Third funding. Ms. Hettich spoke of Alphawood’s online form for inquiries from potential grantees that they review weekly in order to ensure that all nonprofits have the opportunity to tell their story. Both Ms. Harrington and Ms. Hettich spoke of attending events in a variety of communities and sectors—that are not connected to their default peer groups—as critical to doing their jobs.

So…what do we do about it?

Our panelists provided many ideas and approaches to mitigating power dynamics, while acknowledging that they are unlikely to eliminate them.

  • Get clear. No matter which aspect of the power dynamic we discussed, all panelists stressed honesty, transparency, frequent dialogue, and a commitment on the part of all partners to get their hands dirty.
  • Get aligned. The panels spoke of ensuring, prior to partnership, that there is a values match between the partners and that they bring those values to life by getting messy.
  • Get real. Talk about what is and isn’t possible, even when it’s uncomfortable. Address and embrace failures as the opportunities they are.

In addition to the organizational and sector forces discussed above, our conversations on Friday also highlighted how the presence of certain individual identities—gender, race, age, and others—can upend “typical” power dynamics in unexpected and often unfortunate ways. For example, how do the power dynamics change when the funder is a young woman of color and the grantee is an older white man?

You may or may not experience the power drivers and dynamics of funding relationships discussed in this piece. If you don’t, it is worth considering why. We all have work to do in unpacking whether our power or privilege inoculates us from experiencing certain barriers or roadblocks. As one of our panelists implored us all, “let’s not require the most impacted to do all of the work.” Where we have power and privilege, we need to look inside those communities and experiences different than ours and do the work to understand and mitigate power differences whenever possible.

As Ms. Nakagawa of DanceWorks Chicago said, we all need to flex our “muscle of courage” to ask the difficult questions and have the difficult conversations to build positive relationships that actually make a difference.

Panelists: Patrick Sheahan, Francia Harrington, Julie Nakagawa, and Kristin Hettich                         Moderator: Diane Knoepke

Panelists: Steve Hosik Moon, Dr. Carolyn Vessel, Hina Mahmood, and Yolanda Knight

Panelists: Patrick Sheahan, Kristin Hettich, Julie Nakagawa, and Francia Harrington