A Conversation with Stephen Minix: Navigating the Dynamics of Funder-Grantee Relationships

In preparation for our Funder-Grantee Relationship Series, we spoke to Stephen Minix from UpMetrics about his thoughts on how we can best navigate the inherent power dynamics within funder-grantee relationships. Stephen will be joining us on March 7th to lead our first session of the funder-grantee relationship series, which is all about how funders can navigate the sometimes-uncomfortable power imbalance between funders and grantees.

Keep reading to hear Stephen’s thoughts, and join us on March 7th to learn more!

Not in the mood to read? Listen to the interview here:

From your perspective, what are some common challenges or barriers in building meaningful connections between funders and grantees?

Ego, power, and lack of clarity on what shared success can look like. Because of the nature of most nonprofit organizations (nonprofit organizations (NPOs)s) needing philanthropic investment to be able to operate, there is an inherent power dynamic at play. That need for resources often drives the behaviors of the NPO. Mission drift can happen. The bending and contorting that often happens to best position oneself for philanthropic investment can drive one further from the core of what they do.

The challenge is being able to authentically communicate the need and interest in creating a partnership from both sides. As a funder, what are you interested in accomplishing with your giving? Similarly for the NPO, what are you trying to do with the resources you are seeking? The problem manifests when folks, as funders, begin to scrutinize areas of the NPO (relative to programming as an example) as it relates to cost, feasibility, etc. If funders stopped funding program initiatives only and funded NPOs to use resources they seek the best way they see fit, in conjunction with some shared space to learn and become informed, then a relationship rooted in trust, transparency, and partnership can grow.

The challenge lies in realizing that the power wielded by philanthropy can be great if done with care, candor, and empathy for those doing the work and closest to the issues. To use a TV reference, philanthropy is so used to being ‘The Bachelor’ that they easily forget what it is like to be a contestant on the other side. For example, when you are hiring you know during the interview that you, as the hiring manager, are in a different space than the prospective employee: they have nerves, they have to prepare, they have to hope they say everything right and catch you on a good day… If funders took the simple step of making it easier to do business (invite only SMH), and put grantees at ease with statements like, “We are excited to learn about your program,” “We are excited to find partners to fund and we do that by [fill in the blank],” they can create clear, welcoming environments, and show that they care.

How do you envision the ideal state of funder-grantee relationships, and what steps can be taken to move closer to that vision?

Funder-grantee relationships are a collaboration. Bartenders make drinks, chefs cook, bussers bus… there are a ton of things that go into a spirited dinner and drinks environment.  If all folks are executing well, the dinner environment and experience are greatly enhanced.  This is how I look at the impact space: if funders, operators, and other collaborators looked at social impact as a perpetual experience for communities, versus a collection of non-connected programs and resources, then the need to talk, un-silo, collaborate, and reflect, is increased. When we achieve that, we can look at each other like partners instead of cogs. Ecosystems are complex. They need constant care and attention so that true collaboration can happen. 

What advice would you offer to funders and grantees looking to enhance their partnership and maximize their collective impact?

This might sound simple, but, be human!!!! Don’t talk like a person who puts on a philanthropy or NPO avatar.  You are a person and you need to connect with someone on the other side of the table to discuss mutually beneficial collaboration. Funders should invite folks to the office for lunch without a pitch, break bread, host NPOs for lunches at the office to help demystify philanthropy, reach out to NPOs and ask if there is any pavement that needs smoothing (event space, marketing help, etc).  If you want to be seen as more than just a check writer, you must work to create that.  

For grantees – reach out beyond the asks!  If you are curious about funders and how they operate, ask them. Introduce yourself beyond the pitch. Write to foundations and tell them your interests (beyond the ask).  For example, ‘I run an NPO, I need to learn more about [insert your need].’ or ‘Do you have resources, networks, or anything that I can learn from?’ If all you do is ask folks for money, then that is all people will see when they see you. Think about the equity associated with teachers, students, and parents: if teachers and adults on campus only reach out to parents to address negative issues with a child, then, no matter the intention, friction is created.  If all you hear is the bad, you expect more of the bad. The kid feels it, the parents feel it, the teacher feels it. But, when a deposit is made, like a quick note to tell you how adorable your kid is, it goes a long way.  

When I ask funders why they are not more accessible, they always say it’s because too many people will come for resources. Well, that is to be expected, no?  Instead of being bummed for sick people who need to go to the doctor, we should think of how we can still support them without being the only doctor, or funder, in town. Got friends?  Refer someone. 

In your opinion, what role do data and metrics play in fostering transparency and accountability in funder-grantee relationships? 

Data and metrics go a long way in putting bass in your voice when speaking about the work you lead – funder, operator it doesn’t matter.  The information you collect, analyze, and leverage to inform your work will help make or break your success. However, data is not the panacea to all ills. The right data – consistently accessible with great learning questions and plans to analyze and leverage – is key. Qualitative and Quantitative data in conjunction help you speak to the head and heart of the work.  That is the destination.  People are more than spreadsheet numbers.  Qualitative information helps bring the entire picture of impact to life when married with clear objective information.  Too much data and you will lose the value.  Too little data and all you have is gut feeling.  Blend the two and you have the entire view! 

Often I do think organizations hide behind the data.  If learning is the destination then doesn’t risk and exploration need to happen?  When you do that your data story needs to match the interest in learning not just the outcome.  Learning is a process vs a finish line.  If we can switch the way folks think about data and reporting from ‘get the good grade’ from funders to ‘elevate essential learning we’ve unlocked along the way’ then we can switch the conversation, feeling, and aperture to using data and metrics to fuel collaborative partnerships (aka relationships) 

How can we move from transactional relationships into transformational relationships within the philanthropy sector?

Start by asking your potential partner (funder or grantee) if there is anything I can help you with. Be interested in what they do not just what they can do for you.  

Be clear about who you are and the work you do in that order.  Leading with your work before your ‘who’ reaks of robot not human

Remember you can always start with one relationship you have with one grantee organization. Don’t wait to boil the ocean before you get started. Do you know what your grantees will appreciate much more than a slide deck or a new statement on your foundation’s website? They will appreciate hearing you ask them how they are doing and showing that you mean that in a way beyond formalities. Rather than waiting for your grantee to ask you about what introductions you might be able to make for them, carve out 20 minutes before your next meeting with the grantee and go through your LinkedIn Rolodex to suggest to the grantee “Here are 5 people I’d be happy to introduce you or someone on your team to, and here’s how I think they could be helpful to your organization.” Concrete action builds trust more than lofty statements.

Always lead and finish with what is working vs wallowing in the areas for improvement.  Needing resources doesn’t have to be a pity party.  You are proud of your work and are looking forward to partnering sounds way different than…’ if we don’t get funding I’ll need to close the program’  There is a fine line between painting the true picture of needs and hyperfocusing on the needs.  

Google alerts are rad ways to stay dialed in on what folks are doing.  You can then ping folks beyond RFPS with relevant information on them.  ‘What a cool read… I love your point about…. Hoping all is well.’  Simple.  Easy to replicate year-round for many people you want to build with.  

Ask folks where they go to learn or share 

How can funders effectively support and empower their grantee partners beyond financial assistance?

Smooth the pavement.  Think about the hiring example I shared earlier.  You are at ease as a funder.  The grantee is not.  You can put them at ease in the conversation.  

Share about beyond the funding we have friends and can make warm referrals to 

Other potential funders 

Must understand if they don’t fund but pass you along to another they need to address this not the grantee (Happy to hop on a call and give you some backstory…) 

Resources you have access to: Marketing help, Capacity-building resources driven by the interest of npo  and aligned with your resources/interest, Meeting space, etc

What role does communication play in fostering strong relationships between funders and grantees?

Communication ties to actions!  What you say will impact how people feel, show up, and prepare. I can’t think of that last amazing fun dinner I had with my family and friends where we pulled out our financials and personal goals and defended them to each other. Yet, that’s what often happens when you only have communication through and around timed grant reports. Reports are one route to communication, but they cannot be the holy grail. They should be a supplement to genuine interest and communication, like site visits to see programs in action, stopping by with lunch to delight the staff – which can show you care, and is a small investment of time and cash, hosting NPOs, outside of just large groups, at your offices. These small gestures can go a long way in letting partners see behind the veil.  

Also, what you write about externally says a lot. Shout out your grantee partners whenever possible when you are speaking about your work – a public plug from you speaks volumes about the trust you have in your grantee partner.  Isn’t there a quote about what people say about you in rooms you are not in … that seems appropriate here.

Learn more on March 7th!

Thank you once again to Stephen for sharing his valuable insights! If you are interested in learning more, be sure to join us on March 7th for an enriching discussion as we dive deeper into navigating the complexities of funder-grantee relationships