One Secret to Lasting and Productive Funder-Grantee Relations (and Other Relationships, Too)

One Secret to Lasting and Productive Funder-Grantee Relations (and Other Relationships, Too)

When serving as an executive coach I get to collaborate with some truly amazing individuals. It is a privilege to work with such creative, energetic and innovative leaders and support their journey through personal challenges, career planning, and organizational restructuring.  

I humbly acknowledge that through these collaborations I often gain as much insight as I might impart. It is a reciprocal relationship for which I am deeply grateful.

During a recent session, my dear friend Catherine Parrill (brilliant leader and CEO of Creative Exchange Initiative), and I were discussing the old adage, it is better to give than to receive. We have all been taught this maxim, and it is a very worthy sentiment; it is part of our cultural liturgy for good reason. But digging in a bit, Catherine and I uncovered that beyond this basic social tenet is a deeper truth about human relations and lasting productive collaborations– one that applies directly to funder-nonprofit work.

The most sustainable and meaningful relations– and the best work– happen when we both give and receive.

I think of the insightful John Lennon song, “Love”:

         Love is real, real is love
         Love is feeling, feeling love
         Love is wanting to be loved

         Love is touch, touch is love
         Love is reaching, reaching love
         Love is asking to be loved

         Love is you
         You and me
         Love is knowing
         We can be

         Love is free, free is love
         Love is living, living love
         Love is needing to be loved

Deep, lasting meaningful love has two sides, not just one.  Part of being in love is the desire to be loved in return.  Relationships that last (and even the most meaningful, short-term relationships) are reciprocal in nature. At any moment, the one who is giving is filling the needs of their partner in addition to their own needs and this fulfillment lasts well beyond that moment on both ends. However, the “return” is not always obvious.

Those doing hands-on community development, sustainability, wellness or relief work that requires philanthropic investment or volunteerism often get most of their love in the form of satisfaction in good works, thanks, smiles, hugs, and modest remuneration. But remember, donors need to be part of this reciprocal relationship, too. I am not implying that donors need to be adored and fawned over, but there is a direct analogy here. Donors give because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves and at least one piece of the puzzle they seek to solve.  Sometimes it is results they want, sometimes it is being part of the strategy, or the implementation team, sometimes it is experiencing the community they seek to support, and sometimes it is gratitude. There are as many variations as we can imagine. 

“Donors are just people in the end…”

Regardless of resources and the outsized societal import and place of money in the work, remember that donors are just people in the end. If there is one thing that I have learned in working deeply in the funding community it is that philanthropy is personal, and people need authenticity and the feeling that they are a meaningful part of the mutual journey. Funders, as people, need to know that you are there for them in what matters to them, as much as they are there for you. To borrow an idea from Jerry Maguire: you can complete them (in the work). 

For a lasting and powerful funder partnership, that means more than the perfunctory “thank you,” or an impersonal, auto-generated email, or the receipt of the annual report. It means authentic appreciation and shared ownership of the work – an embrace that respects boundaries and time constraints, but which meets the inner needs of both parties. 

So, get to know your donors and uncover this chemistry—a synergy in what you each have to offer and in what you each need. For it is through this reciprocity that you will complete each other. Through this shared meaning and purpose you will have the lasting and transformative power to make a difference in the lives of many.

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