Humility, Listening and Connectedness: How to Build Partner Relationships Rooted in Equity

  • By Maria Azuri, February 17, 2022

In this second, follow-up piece of Humility, Listening and Connectedness: Building Partner Relationships that Drive Equitable Practice, we’ll explore how humility, listening and connectedness play key roles in building new partnerships that center equity. Three new funder partnerships in Atlanta, Georgia, model how centering values in action help clarify what can often be a nebulous and hard-to-measure systems change investment. Nonprofit organizations are calling on grantmakers to lead philanthropic practice with intentional, disruptive micro-actions to strengthen infrastructure and resilience.

Systems change does not happen overnight or with one grand philanthropic gesture or investment. Systems change needs be rooted in the small relational actions that scaffold change for long-term impact while also be rooted in short term, community-grounded listening, and values-based practice.

Infrastructure and operational investments are a key aspect of systems change that centers equity for long-term impact, especially for excluded communities and the nonprofits serving them. Systems change happens within the micro of community and is not possible through superficial measures – the (micro)actions that bring about transformational change are deeply rooted in humility, listening and connectedness.

How does relational exchange look in practice when guided by humility, listening and connectedness?

Three southern funders, based in Atlanta, Georgia, modeled just that. The early impact on process, methods, outcomes and the collective impact generated after the first pilot year, demonstrated the power of what is possible. By centering key values and equitable practice, an innovative capacity building model proved to both strengthen individual organizations and create collective impact. When precedent and power dynamics are set aside - humility, listening, and connectedness are the value cornerstones that help lead to transformation in both methods and impact.

The Annie E. Casey Atlanta Civic Site, Jesse Parker Williams and the United Way of Greater Atlanta came to the initial conversations with a strong desire to provide support that met current and relevant capacity gaps head on – and to do so quickly. Thousands of nonprofit organizations around the country were experiencing acute capacity needs due to the heightened demand for services and critical infrastructure shortages. They were also experiencing almost non-existent and chronic long-term under-investments from funders.

These grantmaker partners recognized the issue of sustainability and organizational and programmatic health beyond the grant has created a chronic gap and constant worry, despite many smaller nonprofit partners receiving an influx of general operating support to meet acute pandemic-related needs. Among the concerns, these funders were especially trying to answer two main questions:

  1. How would small-to-medium nonprofit partners be impacted by our investments beyond this crisis?
  2. How would or could our investments also help bring about greater equity and long-term organizational health?

This brings the grantmaking strategy and investment conversations to values and using them as guides - or levers - for scaffolding micro actions that lead to transformational impact.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation Atlanta Civic Site works to “support place-based efforts in several southwest Atlanta neighborhoods by building public, private, and community partnerships [and thus] ensuring access to the opportunities needed to thrive.” During mid-2020, while the height of the pandemic and social unrest was revealing undoubtedly great disparities for BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx and people of color) communities, the Atlanta Civic Site wanted to better understand grantee partner infrastructural and capacity building needs impacting their ability and resilience to serve community. They knew that capacity and access to resources were issues, but they wanted to better understand the types of capacity building challenges the nonprofit partners had and what the leaders identified as their top-most needs.

Jesse Parker Williams Foundation (JPW) supports organizations that emphasize preventative and comprehensive health opportunities. As a health services funder, their investments support multifaceted direct health care services. However, the pandemic quickly highlighted the capacity-related needs health providers had, especially those in neighborhoods experiencing greater health disparities. JPW was interested in learning about how the pandemic’s exacerbated health access disparities were impacting grantee’s infrastructure and resilience as providers on the front lines of health service providers in BILPOC communities.

Milton J. Little, Jr., president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Atlanta (UWGA) said this, “Racial equity lies at the core of our collective work. We know that our Black neighbors have been harder hit by the pandemic and that we must continue to support nonprofits working directly in these communities.”

As one of the largest in the country, the UWGA has a bold Child Wellbeing initiative at the center of its work. They know that supporting organizations on the ground level, those closest to the challenges, very often have capacity building, bandwidth, and sustainability issues. During the pandemic and for too long, so many nonprofit partners were meeting needs that far outweighed their own internal resources and bandwidth. The UWGA wanted to better understand how capacity building issues might also be related to inequities in philanthropic investments, and thus also, in outcomes.

We often complicate and over-theorize how listening, humility and connectedness look in action. Transformational change at its core is about relationships, listening and trust. The pandemic also shone a spotlight on philanthropy’s own responsibility and need to transform and invest in authentic relational dialogue; to build more equitable practice by driving collaborations and investments centering the voices of those most proximate to the issues and challenges. Philanthropy has its own mandate to build relationships with nonprofit leaders on the frontlines of service delivery– and then asking and listening to what they need, based on their realities, challenges and lived experiences. And not stopping at asking and listening, but continuing forward, to providing the support and tools identified to address them.

As grantmakers, how do we center the nonprofit leaders and practitioners in service- and partnership- with community every day? How do we deepen rapport, build proximity, relationship, trust, and connectedness with the often-excluded voices of excluded communities? How do we ensure excluded voices are centered as the go-to conduits in building transformation? This is transformational change in micro actions, but how is this achieved practically and in real time?

The three grantmakers above centered the experiences of nonprofit leaders and grantee partners by creating a unique and intentional space with a national capacity building team, where the goal was to better understand nonprofit leaders’ capacity building challenges and barriers to long-term impact and resilience and do so authentically, with transparency, and simply.

A grounding tone- and trust-setting launching step was communicated upfront- in sharing their capacity building and infrastructural challenges, especially during crisis, nonprofit leaders would not be seen as a risk to investment. The communication flow was deliberately created to name and position the nonprofit leaders and practitioners, most of whom were BILPOC, as the trusted experts in identifying their challenges and the resources and tools they needed to not only weather crisis, but also strengthen organizational- and infrastructure resilience.

These grantmakers made it clear that they wanted to fully understand the challenges to sustainability and strong infrastructure so they could better and more accurately direct their investments to meet **these needs**. The grantmakers made it clear from the onset that these conversations were about meeting the acute and long-term needs and provide support to impact those areas of need- part of the ultimate goal being to strengthen resilience and nonprofit organizational infrastructure.

Additional key elements within the communication exchanged between grantmaker and nonprofit partner were regarding availability, transparent and simple grant process information, impact sought, and the types of tools and intervention methods they needed to strengthen infrastructural. Nonprofit leaders were also asked about the time and bandwidth they (and their teams) had realistically to devote to capacity building initiatives in addition to their daily demands and asked to share insights on challenges and threats to sustainability.

Asking these questions, listening to the answers and supporting the leaders, their voices, experiences and truth by then investing in the solutions brought to the surface is the very heart of building new partnerships that center equity by leading with humility, listening and connectedness.

In our search for ‘the right grant investment’ we often lose sight of the values that drive the practices that bring about the outcomes that lead to long-term impacts. We over-think how leading with humility, listening, and connectedness drive philanthropic relationships and equitable practice.

The Annie E. Casey Atlanta Civic Site, Jesse Parker Williams Foundation and the United Way of Greater Atlanta all saw the great need facing communities and nonprofit organizations. They stepped forward to new conversations with new partners, with immediacy and the intention to lead philanthropic practice that exemplified equity through disruptive micro actions. The impact within the first 18 months of this pilot capacity building partnership is that over 25 mostly BILPOC led nonprofit organizations in metro Atlanta have received capacity building centered in their identified needs while creating collective impact. This has resulted in a fourth funder (a metro community foundation) joining in Year 2 (2022).

Let’s never underestimate the power and potential of starting - and leading with the values of humility, listening and connectedness as our guides for authentic relational practice – the grantmaker and nonprofit partner impact data tell the story.

To learn more about this partnership and methods used, please contact: Maria Azuri.

Maria Azuri

Senior Program Director, Impact & Sustainability

Maria is the Sr. Program Director of Impact & Sustainability at Network for Good and is a subject matter expert in nonprofit organizational excellence and intersecting social work/community-based organizational practice. She brings over 20 years of recognized expertise in organizational development, program effectiveness, capacity building, content development, and leadership, along with deep philanthropic partnerships and multi-partner initiatives. Maria has created and led programming within diverse social issues ranging from mental and public health, education, criminal justice, immigration, and social entrepreneurship. She is an expert in increasing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) within organizations, boards, and in diverse capacity building initiatives. She is also an adjunct instructor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, where she teaches grantwriting/fundraising at the graduate level, and also teaches multicultural communications, competency, and social justice at the School of Social Work.