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Perhaps it is the sector that I focus my fundraising on, but I adore the funders with whom I have worked. They are, for the most part, a group of kind, uplifting and resourceful people with deeply aligned values and aspirations to make a positive difference in the world.

I recently had a conversation with one such funder where we touched on the power dynamic that naturally exists between funders and their grantees. Our conversation caused me to reflect upon the relationships that I had cultivated with funders and donors over the years, and examine what qualities they all have in common that make for a mutually empowering relationship.

Relationships require trust, and trust requires patience.

Nurturing a trust-based relationship is a grounding touchstone throughout all stages of a funder-grantee relationship, and it is something that will only unfold over time.

Open and honest communication is key.

Intentional communication that is open and honest is the root of a positive funder-grantee relationship. Encouraging a thoughtful dialogue that is authentic and transparent takes everyone much further, particularly in the volatile environment we often find ourselves in.

Share feedback, insights, and resources.

At its finest, a funder-grantee relationship is a two-way street where we collaborate, learn together and grow with one another. Asking for feedback, sharing insights and suggesting resources to one another brings so much benefit to the funder-grantee relationship far beyond the check.

Take a breath before getting defensive.

When critical funding is on the line, it can be nerve-wracking when a program officer is suddenly asking pointed questions about your programming (or, heaven forbid, your budget). It may feel like an inquisition, and a fear-based response can be a natural reaction. Take a breath.

I have found that when funders start asking questions, it likely indicates a genuine desire for clarification. They may simply need more information to move your funding up the chain of command. Frankly, it could also be that you haven’t clearly communicated what you are doing. Perhaps your programming activities are a little ambiguous, or the outcomes you hope to achieve are fuzzy. Your budget could be wildly unrealistic. When a funder has come back to me seeking an explanation on something, their questions typically only serve to tighten up the vision of our work.

Go beyond formal reporting.

Chances are, as a grantee, you only have an obligation to report to your funder once or twice a year, likely at the conclusion of the grant period. Even though that is what may only be asked of you, radio silence in the interim doesn’t cut it.

I love bringing funders on the journey with frequent, and often very informal, updates. It could be a snapshot of our programming in action along with a short note. A screenshot of some relevant engagement on our social media is nice as well. Remember, with the rapid-fire nature of social media, funders may never see the successes that you post there. Occasionally a brief call just to touch base and catch up brings everyone back into sync.

Be especially receptive and compassionate on issues of inclusion.

Conversations on diversity, inclusion, inequity and cultural sensitivity must be explored. While it can trigger anxiety and certainly expose inherent bias, it is vital that discussions around these issues have a safe space for healthy exchange.

Celebrate the wins together!

We are in this for the long haul and celebrating wins together is imperative to success. Call it mutual affirmation, and we all need it.

One more thing…

To keep it real and avoid going all Pollyanna on us here, let’s acknowledge the flip side of the coin. Though they are the minority, I have had my fair share of dealing with difficult funders that left a lot to be desired in the relationship department. However, looking back at some of the most challenging situations, each and every point above would have made a world of difference.

The relationships we cultivate with those who support and amplify our work is a long-term and continual process of connection, partnership, reflection, adaptation and understanding. It is finding common ground and moving us forward, together.

If this has been helpful to you, please consider making a donation! Your contribution is deeply appreciated and supports all of the free programming at Open Rivers.

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