I was in the security check-in line at the Nairobi airport, half asleep, when I realized that a director from one our funders (Ash Rogers from the Segal Family Foundation) was standing a few places ahead of me. I immediately thought of our past-due quarterly report and her unanswered emails that were still waiting for me in my inbox. There was a chance that she might not turn around and notice me, but I didn’t wait to find out. I cut the line, said hi, and was greeted with a wide smile.
As the regional director at Ashoka East Africa, I help create a network of individuals and institutions building an “everyone a changemaker” world. We work hand-in-hand with leading social entrepreneurs, young changemakers, education institutions, and philanthropists in more than 80 countries. The Segal Family Foundation (SFF) is a private donor supporting Ashoka East Africa, along with 150 organizations in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Its approach goes beyond funding; it also provides targeted capacity support and convening networks of grantee partners on the ground.
Through our partnership over the last three years, we’ve learned as much about how to work together as we have about tackling development challenges. Donor-grantee relationships are sometimes fraught with power imbalances and mutual mistrust—a dynamic that creates process stalemate. We are convinced that the best way to navigate these partnerships and deliver maximum impact is to anchor the relationship in empathy.
After getting through security and catching up on our most recent collaboration event, I promised her that report, and we boarded separate flights. At a local primary school I was visiting later that day, I came across a definition of empathy handwritten on a dimly lit blackboard. Around these powerful words, the two of us came up with the following seven tips for building more empathetic donor-doer engagement.
E: Everybody needs somebody.
The idea of “donor dependency” usually refers pejoratively to nonprofit behavior. SFF, however, believes it is equally dependent on partners like Ashoka (the “doers”). The foundation values the interdependence between funders and doers, and believes that it is essential to building strong, reciprocal relationships. Instead of pretending that organizations could ever be truly independent, SFF seeks to build a community of impact-focused organizations that are intentionally interdependent.
M: Model and mirror.
Too often entities with money engage with organizations from a place of mistrust. Funders worry about fraud and then create clunky systems to try to combat it. They administer a top-down approach with limited regard for the day-to-day operations of their grantees. These restrictions (immovable budget lines, spend-down requirements, donor-designed targets) inhibit adaptive service delivery and turn organizations into reporting contortionists. That is why SFF provides flexible funding and tracks outcomes instead of budget lines. Together with Ashoka, the foundation jointly sets clear, ambitious, and measurable milestones. SFF’s approach is effective because its grantees are still held accountable, while their programs remain top priority.
P: Put yourself in her shoes.
SFF and Ashoka understand each other’s respective partnership objectives , especially regarding capacity-building support. We’ve both been burned by situations in which the funder creates a capacity-building “opportunity” that grantees feel compelled to participate in, but ultimately isn’t a good fit. Instead, SFF works with partners to co-design networking and capacity-building projects, a collaborative model it calls “active partnerships.”
A: Ask for advice.
Donors benefit from critical feedback the same way implementers do, but grantees can’t risk offending a donor and losing funding. Ashoka has helped SFF solve for this by co-creating and facilitating in-person focus group sessions with other SFF grantees. The foundation’s absence creates a safe space, and since fellow grantees facilitate the sessions, organizations feel more comfortable sharing honest critiques. Ashoka then shares the group’s feedback with SFF, which helps the foundation shape the funding, capacity-building support, and networks it provides to grantee partners. By opening these types of feedback loops, SFF can continuously evolve its support to meet partners’ needs.
T: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
It helps that our two organizations have shared DNA. We are network builders. We like to try new things, meet new people, and learn. Rather than being possessive of our relationships, we try to bring as many people to the table as possible. Scan a list of the emails we exchange, and the most popular subject lines are “Connecting Ashoka to …” or “Introducing SFF to …”. The risk that Ashoka might find a bigger funder or that SFF might find a better local partner doesn’t go away; it just takes a back seat to advantages that come from enlarging our networks.
H: Hear to help.
People run organizations. You can’t fully understand institutional capacity and organizational management until you “get” the people who built them. Realizing this, SFF designed a new kind of capacity assessment. This two-day process helps teams take a break from the daily grind to identify the systems they need to reach the next level of impact. The trick is to avoid the feel of an audit. With activities, group-generated data, and facilitation techniques that SFF has picked up from partners like Ashoka, we think the foundation is achieving that.
Y: You feel better, and they feel better.
As true partners, we’ve shared our successes to date, and that feels great. But this isn’t just a feel-good story about one donor-doer duo that got it right. These principles apply far beyond our work and can break down even the most thorny donor-grantee relationships. Indeed, mastering and practicing empathy, this foundational skill, is our only option in the face of increasingly complex, global challenges.