Funders and nonprofit leaders need to get on the same side of the table…and share a beverage

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, June 29, 2016

By J McCray

When he declared July 8, 2016 “Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics” Day, Vu Le tapped into something really important. Many trustees, program officers and nonprofit leaders are pretty terrible at having real conversations with each other. Imagine how powerful it would be if we could sit together over a beer and discuss the real challenges at hand. GEO sees a close connection between that kind of relationship and effective grantmaking. We’ve even gotten pretty close to proving it. Our field research has shown that funders who have an ear to the ground are much more likely to give the kind of support that makes nonprofits stronger, like capacity-building grants and multiyear support.

To help undo the power dynamics, GEO will be hosting a happy hour here in DC on July 8. Some of our grantmaking members will be inviting leaders from the nonprofits they fund to just hang out. This is an opportunity for trustees, program officers and nonprofits to have frank conversations with each other, not an opportunity to pitch a program, ask how you demonstrate impact, or any of that stuff we normally talk about in fundraising meetings. (If you’re a grantmaker and you’d like to participate, please let me know.)

We encourage funders around the country to ask a grantee out for a beer (or whatever beverage suits you). If you’re struggling to figure out what to order, here is a suggested menu of beers for your consideration (you microbrew fans or homebrew artists can substitute your own obscure choices).

  • Bud Light – Your funder/grantee may not be your total bud by the end, but, hey, they can be a “bud light”
  • Foster’s Lager – For fostering authentic conversations (Australian for “Hear”)
  • Miller Genuine Draft – For inspiring genuine chats
  • Blue Moon – Order more than one. Once is not how often you should be having conversations like these with each other
  • Corona Light – The dictionary defines corona as a white light seen around a luminous body, such as a funder who asks a nonprofit about their biggest challenge, and means it.

The money is important, but it’s far from the only thing that matters.

Why is this kind of conversation so important? When I talk with other nonprofit leaders, one of my favorite things to do is to ask them to describe their favorite funder. Their answers are pretty telling. The money is important, but it’s far from the only thing that matters. It’s amazing how often they tell me about a funder who hangs out with them, who gets what makes their job hard and who is willing to say, “tell me what you really need” (side note to funders: you have to ask that question at least three times before nonprofit leaders will believe you want a real answer – I’m not kidding). Over the past several years, two conversations in particular have stood out to me. The first was from the executive director of an organization that provides capacity-building services to other nonprofits. She talked about a leader of a small foundation who really understood the challenges of running an organization, in part because she had experience running a nonprofit herself. “It feels like she and I sit on the same side of the table,” she told me. Another nonprofit leader, the head of an urban health clinic, told me that the most important thing a funder can do is to make an effort to see the work of the organization first hand. When a funder comes to her clinic, this executive director deliberately runs late to the meeting. A bold move if you’re trying to raise money, right? She does it because she knows that the more time the funder spends in the waiting area, the more they will see the work the staff at the health clinic is doing with their clients. Both of these stories get at how important it is to move beyond those surface level conversations we’ve gotten into the bad habit of having.

I think we’ve gotten into these bad habits because we believe this is how professional people are supposed to deal with each other — not to mention the fact that there is a real power imbalance between foundations and nonprofits. Money makes people act weird, on both sides of the equation, funders and nonprofits alike. But for goodness sake, we can do something about it. As Vu Le says, “I honestly think that we’d get a lot more stuff done for the world if we’d just have a beer together more often.” Kevin Starr, head of the Mulago Foundation, also gave some helpfully specific advice to nonprofits on how to avoid the dreaded pitch (funders don’t like them either, it turns out, not to mention the fact that they rarely work) and instead lay the groundwork for an authentic dialogue.

We look forward to the conversation. And we want to hear about yours. If you’ve found a way to undo the power dynamic, let me know. Cheers!