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Beyond the Rhetoric of Partnership

Strengthening the relationship between grantmaker and grantee in an international context


A version of this post originally appeared on GMNsight, journal of Grants Managers Network, and has been re-posted with permission.

By: Katie Boswell

Partnership – it’s a word regularly used by grantmakers to describe their relationships with grantees. International funders are particularly fond of it, often referring to their grantees around the world as “partners.” My organization, San Francisco-based One World Children’s Fund, refers to our 44 grantees in more than 20 countries as “partner organizations.” But what does it really mean and how are we as grantmakers living up to the rhetoric that we preach?

To explore these questions, One World conducted research with our partner organizations and stakeholders to uncover what “authentic” partnership means to them and how we measure up.

Through a series of interviews and an anonymous online survey, we found a sense of disillusionment with the way that terms such as partnership, cooperation, empowerment, and participation are over-used by funders and international development agencies.

Nonetheless, our partners told us that there is potential to revive the terms and give them authentic meaning – but only through acknowledging the power inequalities in the grantmaking relationship and working to overcome them as best we can.

Relationships between equals?
Partnership is generally seen as a form of working together based on relationships between equals. However, the reality is that grantmakers and philanthropists command significant power, money, resources, and status. Even when grant managers strive to treat grantees as partners and equals, it is inevitable that these external hierarchies of power and resources will have some influence on the relationship. As a result, so-called partnerships “tend to be highly unequal, balanced heavily in favor of those with the funding.” Researchers from CDA’s Listening Program, which interviewed over 6,000 people, found that grantees often felt that “international organizations claim to be ‘partners’ with their beneficiaries or local organizations, but then behave as the owners/bosses.”

These unequal power dynamics typically manifest themselves in top-down grantmaking practices that undermine true partnership. In a survey by Keystone Accountability of over 1,000 Southern organizations funded by Northern NGOs, respondents complained that funders do not contribute enough to core costs, do not provide sufficient length of support, and do not allow them to make changes they need to about how to spend funds. Such restrictive and/or short-term funding practices hamper grantees’ ability to be flexible and responsive to emerging needs in their communities. The survey also found that funders rarely involve Southern grantee partners in shaping strategy, promote their work in the media, explain when they expect to stop working together, or have complaint procedures they could use.

 Toward “True Partnership”
When we interviewed our grantee partners around the world about what they understood by the word “partnership,” they recognized the difficulties in living up to the rhetoric. Acknowledging that the spirit of partnership may be constrained by power dynamics, they said that the important thing is that grantmakers strive to be as close to the ideal as possible. One organization leader told us that they wanted “a real genuine relationship as equal as you can make it.” Another explained, “I’m not saying it should be an equal relationship, but at least some kind of involvement and responsibility on [both sides].”

What does this “real genuine relationship” look like from a grantmaker’s perspective? Our grantees told us that they were looking for a funder’s commitment to the grantee’s mission, long-term involvement, trust, and respect. One partner told us that “it’s really being there for the long haul” while another mentioned the importance of “moral support” or feeling that One World is on their side when challenges arise. Our partners want to feel understood and supported by their funders. This resonates with research by other organizations. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s guide for foundation program staff points out that strong partnerships require grant managers who understand grantees and their communities. 

Grantmaking practices & improvements
Beyond personal relationships and moral support, our grantees told us that they are looking for practical measures of support. Three types of grantmaking practices were consistently highlighted as important in both our partner survey and other research:

1) Funding practices: Our partners want reliable and flexible long-term sources of funding that strengthen their ability to fulfill their mission, unrestricted if possible. General operating support makes grantee organizations stronger and more productive, and gives them the flexibility to be more responsive and innovative in meeting the needs of their communities.

One World improvement strategy: Our partners value the fact that One World provides multi-year funding and general operating support, allowing them to use funds flexibly to respond to the changing needs of their communities. However, an area of weakness that emerged from our research is that we do not guarantee the amount that a grantee receives each year. In response, we are working to strengthen our Champion fundraising model to increase the accountability toward our grantees and enable them to plan better.

 2) Transparency: Our partners want our grantmaking priorities, decision-making processes, and expectations of grantees to be clear and transparent.

One World improvement strategy: Our partners told us that they thought funder transparency was very important – particularly the transparency of decision-making processes. There was a gap between how much they valued elements of transparency and how well they thought we were doing on transparency (see graph). In the short term, we responded by publishing our Eligibility Criteria on our website and providing further details about our internal review processes. In the longer term, we are committed to improving our transparency using industry benchmarks such as the Glasspockets initiative.

How partners rated different elements of One World’s transparency and how important they thought each element was (on a scale of 1-4)

3) Communication:
Our partners told us that they desire “a continuous but balanced flow of communication” that helps them feel more involved in our work without a huge time commitment. Too much communication can be as unhelpful as too little communication. For many grantees, this means having several conversations a year and possibly a face-to-face visit as well.

 One World improvement strategy: Of our surveyed partners, 91% agreed that One World communicates in a respectful manner. However, only 59% strongly agreed that they received the information needed to partner effectively with us (see graph). As this is a clear area for improvement for us, we revamped our Partner Welcome Pack and started sharing more information with partners on a regular basis.

Partners’ opinions on different elements of One World’s communication
Partners’ opinions on different elements of One World’s communication

Implications for other grantmakers
Just like any other relationship, every funder-grantee partnership is unique. The lessons from One World’s partner survey may not transfer directly to every grantmaker. However, some common themes emerge from our unique experience and the wider field of research.

First of all, true partnership requires opening up safe spaces for open and honest dialogue. Engaging with grantees outside of the normal funding cycle is an essential first step for any grantmaker that is trying to improve the effectiveness of their partnerships. We were overwhelmed by the positive response to our online survey and interviews. Partners welcomed the opportunity to engage with us about our work and provide feedback to us both openly and anonymously. They valued the chance to be heard and they urged us to repeat the survey in future years, which we have committed to doing.

Secondly, grantmakers need to take concrete actions to improve their grantmaking practices in response to grantee feedback and sector best practices. A grantee survey without follow-up action just leads to frustration on the part of grantees who feel that they have not been listened to. Key actions that can strengthen partnership working include funding practices, transparency, and communication.

Finally, remember that relationships take time and effort. Changes in organizational cultures and grantmaking practices do not happen overnight. Trust and open communication are long-term commitments. The journey toward authentic partnerships is likely to be strewn with obstacles to be overcome – not the least of which are the power dynamics inherent in funder-grantee relationships. Despite the difficulties, grantees believe that partnership is a principle worth upholding and grantmakers must try to honor their desire for “a real genuine relationship as equal as you can make it.” Only then will our relationships with grantees truly deserve the title of partnerships.

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Katie Boswell is International Program Manager for One World Children’s Fund, where she manages a grants program with 48 community-based partner organizations serving children around the world. Before joining One World in 2010, Katie managed the Well London Program in the UK, working to improve health and well-being in 20 low-income communities. Katie also served as a consultant for three years, specializing in the design and evaluation of community grants programs for foundations, local authorities, regional development agencies and national government departments. Katie has extensive non-profit volunteer experience, including evaluating education programs in India, authoring research briefs on child poverty and health in California, and serving on the Executive Board of the London Civic Forum. She is currently the Program Chair for the Northern California Grants Managers Network. Katie has a Masters in History from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Development Management from the Open University. She has been recognized as a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum and honored as a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).

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