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June 28, 2018 / WRAG

Overcoming Power Dynamics and Fostering Authentic Nonprofit-Philanthropic Relationships

By Sean Herpolsheimer
WRAG’s 2018 Summer Fellow

Have you noticed recently the increased focus in the nonprofit and philanthropic fields on overcoming power dynamics and building more authentic relationships? If you’ve attended some of WRAG’s most recent events, you’ve likely noticed this topic as an overarching theme.

In June, WRAG and a number of our colleague organizations co-hosted Get a BEER* and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics Day. We also kicked off our annual Nonprofit Summer Learning Series, designed to “pull the curtain back on philanthropy” and shed light on how grantmakers think, how they approach their work, and what they look for in strong nonprofit partners.

Session 1 of the 2018 series explored “Transparency, Authenticity, and Honest Feedback: The Path to True Partnerships.” Michael Bobbitt and Leon Seemann of Adventure Theatre set the tone for the day with their opening presentation, followed by a panel discussion with Anne Gunsteens, the executive director of the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation; Naomi Smouha, the senior manager of community relations at Capital One; and Julian Haynes, the Maryland program director at the Meyer Foundation.

Below are some of the key take-aways nonprofits and funders should consider when building healthy relationships:

  • Communication – When nonprofits feel like they have a safe space and a trusting funding partner, they are free to share openly about challenges and opportunities. It’s important for funders to provide this safe space and to ensure nonprofit partners that they won’t be dinged for communicating challenges or having an issue arise. Simultaneously, it is important for nonprofits to be open with their funders and to reach out when circumstances change. Don’t avoid the tough conversations! Funders do more than write checks. They have lots of resources and connections that they can leverage on your behalf, but not if they don’t know you need help.
  • Mutual Interests – Nonprofits, it is important to find funding partners whose interests align with your mission. Don’t chase the money! If you try to be good at everything, you’ll end up being good at very little. Stick to what you know best. Funders, it’s important to be clear about your philanthropic vision and to have a way for nonprofits to determine if they would be a good fit for your priorities. This saves everyone time and sets the relationship off on the right foot. It is better for everyone when funders are clear, and nonprofits are honest when funding isn’t a good fit.
  • Face Time –Funders, get out and experience the people and programs you’re investing in! With LOTS to do and limited time and staff, it’s easy to get stuck in the office. But, when you build face-to-face relationships with your partners, it’s easier for those partners to have authentic conversations when challenges or opportunities arise. Nonprofits, don’t be shy about reaching out to your funders. A quick email or phone call with good news or to share a resource that might be of interest is a great way to give back to your funders. And, please don’t be offended if your funder doesn’t show up to your gala or other community events! Remember, there are lots of grantees and only one program officer.
  • Friends in Common – Mutual relationships are social currency. Nonprofits, having a personal introduction to a funder is a great way to begin a relationship. And, as it turns out, nonprofits and funders alike appreciate connections to other organizations doing similar or complimentary work or to dynamic leaders and thinkers in their space – Just be sure to ASK your funder if they’d like an introduction before cc’ing everyone on an email! The more connected we are as a sector, the more we can share, learn, grow, the more effectively we can affect change for our clients and community.

In the end, attendees learned that there is good reason for that dreaded “what is your biggest challenge?” question on grant proposals and reports. Funders genuinely want nonprofits to succeed. When they have the full picture – the good AND the not so good – they can bring their resources, knowledge, and connections to bear.

All of our missions can be better served by the deep, productive, and long-lasting relationships that are created through authentic and transparent dialogues. Be open. Be vulnerable. We’re all in this together for the betterment of our communities.


Designed and taught by some of the Greater Washington region’s top philanthropic leaders, WRAG’s Nonprofit Summer Learning Series “pulls the curtain back on philanthropy.” Join WRAG and our sponsor, Booz Allen Hamilton, as we shed light on how grantmakers think, how they approach their work, what they look for in strong nonprofit partners, and how you can build new and stronger relationships with the local funding community.

To ensure maximum participation, all of these events are offered in-person, via-live webinar, and are being recorded for later viewing. To receive the webinar recording, you must be registered for the event. Simply choose “webinar” as your online registration option.

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