Insights to Capacity Building from a Grantee Perspective

Editor’s Note: Next week, GrantCraft will launch its new guide Strengthening Grantee Capacity. We’ll be featuring more posts and related content on capacity building in months ahead, so please consider sharing your wisdom with us.

Conectas, a human rights-focused non-governmental organization based in Brazil, works closely with many funders to advance their mission. Lucia Nader wore several different hats, including executive director, during her twelve years at the organization, and shared several observations in a conversation with GrantCraft about grantee-funder relationships as they relate to thinking about culture.

Trust is key. “Without trust,” shared Lucia, “there can’t be complete honesty, and so there can’t be real understanding of our culture and way of working.” For instance, especially in human rights work, there are many approaches to interventions where an organization can’t fully know what an outcome will be – and therefore neither can funders. There were times when funders showed trust in Conectas and its staff regardless of having proof of the likelihood of success, which allowed Conectas to be more transparent about challenges and needs, and other times where too many questions about an approach got in the way of being able to share real concerns with the funder. “What many organizations want, what we crave, is honest exchange with funders and the people we’re helping alike. Some risks and new situations don’t have straightforward answers. We need trust and understanding to achieve the impact that both funders and our organization are looking to have.”

Culture sharing happens in casual conversation. “Face-to-face conversations are much more productive and important to building trust than writing reports that very often funders don’t even read. Funders really have to come and see what's happening during a visit where not everything is planned, and meet (formally and informally, like over shared meals) with multiple people – staff, board members, maybe even community members.” Lucia recognized that some nonprofits might not agree with this advice because it takes a lot of work and energy to have these face-to-face exchanges – exchanges that sometimes necessitate translators to communicate effectively – but that these efforts are worth it because there are some things – like your leadership style and attitudes towards your programs – that can’t easily be verbally communicated but are important for a funder to understand if they want to be a helpful capacity-building partner.

Allow power to shift. Conectas hosts a funders meeting during its biannual international human rights colloquium, as many funders find value in attending. “By letting us sit in the expert and organizing role, our funders learn from us and let us help build their capacity. Yes, it’s risky, and not all nonprofits would do it. But for us, it was an exercise in being able to establish our credibility and speak as a peer. It’s a chance for funders to see how we’re thinking about our work, and how our culture could influence theirs, too.”

Openness to new ideas.  Organizations exist to solve longstanding problems, and so new and varied approaches have to be explored to sustain movement towards change. But, that desire for change and approach to change happens very differently in each organization. For a funder to really sense the culture in which innovation and change happen, they themselves have to have an open mind. Over the years, Lucia was faced with internal decisions to make regarding board composition, legality of and transparency around interventions (especially in situations of repeated human rights violations), and shifting roles with talent in her organization. “Funders either understood that these were important moments for us, and supported us through general or other capacity-specific support, or didn’t.”  She also points out that a changing global context is important for funders to consider with an open mind: “To be effective in a 'liquid' world, organizations have to deal with an overload of information, multiple agendas, and changing roles of individuals organizing around protests and other movements. Organizations more than ever appreciate funders who foster and support innovation that allows them to adapt to a more complex world.”

A final note from Lucia was a word of advice for nonprofits looking to give funders better insight into their culture: always speak willingly and candidly with staff other than the executive director or your program officer. Often, it’s administrative or communications staff who might be able to perceive and voice aspects of your work that your direct contact at the foundation is not tuned into. And for funders, recognize that staff members may very well be seeing your grantees through a different lens – cultural or otherwise – so always ask them what they’re seeing, too.

About the author(s)

Former Fellow
Open Society Foundations

Director of Stakeholder Engagement