Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
This multi-part series, produced in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, tells the story of why and how grantee inclusion is key to effective philanthropy, from both the funder and nonprofit perspectives.

In the popular TV show Game of Thrones, there is a giant wall made of ice. It is 300 miles long and 700 feet tall, and it is designed to keep out the Wildlings, uncivilized people who live north of the Wall. The north side of the Wall is truly awful and savage and bitterly cold, and worst of all, there’s no WiFi anywhere. South of the Wall, though, are civilized families who have nice clothes and food, and who probably bathe at least once a month. Sure, they jostle for power and scheme to murder one another all the time, but at least they’re nothing like those bloodthirsty, lawless Wildlings with their rank-smelling fur coats and gangrenous toes.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: What does this have to do with grantee inclusion? Many grantees see a huge wall of ice between funders and themselves, and from their perspectives, funders sometimes view and treat grantees like Wildlings. Every once in a while, we Wildlings try to break through the Wall, chanting, “Multi-year general operating funds!” (“Yeah, and have a common budget form, for God’s sake!”) But it seems we often encounter only flaming arrows and buckets of hot oil.

For years, this Wall—this adversarial relationship between funders and grantees—puzzled me. Why do we view each other with such suspicion? Why do we have language like “this side of the table”? The power dynamics baffled me, until recently, when my nonprofit, Seattle-based Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), started straddling the line between funder and grantee.

RVC recruits talented fellows of color, providing them with training and support and a full-time position at grassroots community-based organizations (CBOs) led by communities of color, where our fellows work to help these CBOs develop organizational capacity. We have only just completed the first year with our pilot cohort of fellows. But because organizations must apply to be a host site (“CBO partner”) and receive a fellow, some view RVC as a quasi-funding agency. As I wrote in another post, we have the best of both worlds: The difficult choices and guilt that come with being a funder, and the cashflow-related night terrors that come with being a fund-seeker.

As we grew into our uneasy role as a funding-type organization, I learned several things. For instance: The “funder halo effect,” where grantees perceive funders as especially smart and charismatic, is real. I have never felt smarter or more attractive; my graying hair now a mark of wisdom, and this involuntary twitch in my left eye, developed over several fiscal years as an executive director, a dreamy come-hither gaze.

I learned that power imbalance is pervasive, seeping into every area of interaction. I remember visiting a prospective CBO partner, and the staff there seemed visibly nervous, stuttering and tripping on their words. Their attentiveness and deference was a little unnerving and weird, especially because I’ve spent much of my career on the “other side of the table.” I used to be the one freaking out about the physical conditions of the office before a site visit; the one who ran to get a haircut that same day, convinced that no funder would support an organization whose executive director had an unkempt crow’s nest on his head.

I also learned that power dynamics and other factors make it easy to buy into the myth that we funders are generous entities doing grantees a huge favor by sending them resources. I became frustrated with many CBO partners, for example, for failing to show up for mandatory monthly group meetings, forgetting that they—all grassroots organizations led by communities of color, all with less than $500,000 in their budget—didn’t have staff time to attend these meetings and that my organization existed to help them build staffing capacity. Failing to take this imbalance into account can perpetuate the philosophy of funders as givers and grantees as takers, a philosophy that is mostly unconscious but that manifests in various ways, such as impatience with grantees for failing to be “accountable.”

As we did our work of selecting CBO partners, I became more sympathetic to program officers. Sure, it was nice to be seen as witty and ridiculously good-looking yet extremely modest. But it was often difficult to tell whether some of our applicants felt comfortable enough to be completely honest about the capacity challenges they were facing—a critical factor in determining whether they would make good host sites for our fellows.

Being a quasi-funder made me realize that my organization had to do things differently to avoid perpetuating the same dynamics that many of us grantees grumble about in the depths of local bars during happy hour (which, if there’s a rejection from a major funder, may start as early as 11 a.m.). For example, we became more cognizant of our language, both in print and in general conversation. When a funder says, “Yeah, if you have a logic model or something similar I can look at, that would be great,” they may be thinking, “Aw, it would be nice to see some outcomes articulated; that would help me convince the review team that this organization is doing great work.” The grantee, though, may be thinking, “Oh God, we don’t have a logic model. How are we going to get a logic model? They’re not going to fund us if we don’t have a logic model! Why didn’t we have a logic model before this meeting? What the hell is a logic model?! I am a terrible human being and my organization is doomed!”

As this post is the last in this article series, which I have enjoyed very much, I want to leave you with this final piece of advice and plea: We must take down the Wall that divides grantees and funders, and fundamentally change the way we see each other. Being on the other side of the Wall this year let me see first-hand how destructive it is.

In Game of Thrones, the Wall divides the Wildlings from the civilized folks. But originally, the Wall wasn’t designed with that purpose in mind. It was meant to keep out the White Walkers—ice zombies intent on killing everyone during the long winter. The Wildlings were just unlucky enough to get caught on the White Walkers’ side of the wall when it was built. As the winter ended, and the threat of White Walkers diminished, people started thinking that the Wall’s purpose was to keep out the Wildlings.

Unfortunately, this is what has happened between funders and grantees. Funders put in place practices and philosophies—such as “safe spaces,” strategic philanthropy, and the endless focus on sustainability—with good intentions. But over time, these measures became walls, gradually reinforced by the mentality that the people serving the communities—the grantees—are different.

We can effectively implement the suggestions my brilliant colleagues have posed in this article series only if we change the way funders and grant-seekers fundamentally view each other. Grantees still feel like funders see them as Wildlings on the other side of the Wall and that grantee inclusion equates to small measures of rations flung over the Wall to keep them from revolting. But winter is here, and our communities face the ice zombies of injustice, poverty, racism, gentrification, and environmental degradation. The only way we can face them is if we break down the walls between funders and grantees, and see each other as partners on the same side, addressing the same issues.