Power: Beware…

Cosmetic versus real change

Funders and nonprofit leaders alike shared how power dynamics can result in “nonprofits pursuing capacity building that they think funders want versus what the nonprofits actually need.” This disconnect can exist for a number of reasons. For example, sometimes grantees will do what foundations ask because they don’t feel they can push back with complete honesty and transparency. Or the grantee is just trying to please the funder. Sometimes grantmakers don’t really understand what capacity building is needed, or they are struggling with the line between encouraging organizations to strengthen their capacity and infringing on the rights of nonprofits to set their own course. For example: as a funder you feel the grantee needs to develop a strategic plan. You fund the grantee to create one, but based on the product, you’re not sure they were invested in the process. When funders and grantees wade into these murky capacity-building power dynamics, it makes it hard to know if change, other than something cosmetic, will occur.

On the other hand, we also heard, “Sometimes the cosmetic change is or becomes real.” Take the same strategic planning example. A grantee may produce something that seems to be lacking vision and good strategic thinking, and then the funder finds out the process provoked internal thinking that really focuses the organization’s team on a common agenda.

Bottom line: The best way to try to get to real versus cosmetic change is by building trust with grantees. That means listening to grantee wants and needs, considering how and when to communicate any of your own wants and needs, and then showing grantees that you understand capacity-building decisions ultimately rest in their hands.

The casual remark

Sometimes even the most casual comment by a funder can be misinterpreted or taken out of context or acted on in a way that you would not have envisioned. Said one grantmaker, “I remember going on a site visit early on as a funder and I was talking to the grantee about strategic planning. I don’t remember my exact words, but I said something that implied I thought the organization’s mission could be more focused on the community it serves. One week later I got a phone call that the organization had changed its mission. I’m not saying the organization didn’t need to change it. I just think it should have changed it on the basis of something other than my off-handed comment on a site visit.”

Expert syndrome

As one interviewee said, while it’s okay to use your “expert” power, here’s some harmful subtext grantmakers can broadcast: “I am the expert and I will tell you this is how it works because I have a more global view as a grantmaker and you are just one grantee and you don’t have the big picture.” While there are times when grantmakers bring valuable expertise, whether it’s because they work with multiple organizations in issue areas or because they come to foundations with significant field-based expertise, consider when and how to most constructively assert that expertise in a way that’s useful to grantees.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Supporting Grantee Capacity.