Funders and grantees learning from each other: how an Indonesian nonprofit and a Swiss foundation teamed up


Siddhartha Jha and Alissa Stern


What would it look like to transform traditional funder-grantee dynamics into more of a mutually beneficial relationship?

If you are a grantee, what benefits could you offer your funder aside from fulfilling the requirements of their grant? And aside from providing financial support and guidance for particular initiatives, what other support could a funder offer grantees?

Could technology have a role in enabling a collaborative relationship?

Two voices – representing a funder and a grantee – explore these questions. The Switzerland-based Fondation Botnar has been supporting BASAbali, an organization that engages young people in Indonesia to participate in civic issues through digital platforms and in local languages, since 2020.

Siddhartha Jha, from Fondation Botnar, and Alissa Stern, from BASAbali, sat down to describe what funders and grantees could each contribute to a mutually beneficial funder-grantee relationship, what they learned from the other’s perspective, and what an effective collaboration might look like.

A funder’s perspective

Siddhartha Jha, Fondation Botnar

At Fondation Botnar, our grantmaking and activities are underpinned by a systemic understanding of well-being, emphasizing relationships and social and environmental contexts beyond personal and individual factors. We see relationships with our grant partners and those among them as key to creating an impact for young people living in different parts of the world. We appreciate that many of the big problems we face in our societies need collaboration among diverse actors and interdisciplinary, multisector approaches to address them. This calls for long-term relationships with partners, patience and flexibility and opportunities to adapt, refine and learn on the part of both funders and grant partners.

Fondation Botnar funds research, advocacy and implementation initiatives which benefit young people. The foundation’s work focuses on rapidly growing urban environments that young people live in. It aims to understand the role and positive and negative impact of digitalization on various aspects of young people’s well-being while also leveraging the potential of digital technologies.

Our grant partners are the experts in the domains we fund – be it health, education, city systems, or digital environments. They are a diverse group of organizations, each bringing a different approach to ensuring well-being of young people and their communities. It is critical to tap into this distributed expertise beyond individual projects to amplify the positive change we can affect. Drawing on this collective knowledge is essential to solving our shared challenges. That needs a mindset shift from funders away from solving problems or making change towards focusing efforts on enabling problem solvers and change makers. This implies an approach where distributed competencies of grant partners are acknowledged and strengthened, and funding instruments and engagement models optimally serve to leverage these competencies.

BASAbali is a grant partner from our Fit4Future initiative. Based in Indonesia, BASAbali uses a wiki-based approach to create a space for dialogue between different stakeholder groups of the societal ecosystem. It seeks to discover how digital technology can be leveraged for greater democratic participation and civic engagement. As a relational funder, we want to create a safe space with our partners to focus on learning and allow the interventions to adapt and improve. As a result, our engagement with BASAbali as a grant partner and other similar partners has been a generative dialogue open to emergent possibilities as we collaborate and learn together to maximize impact.

It is important for us to support innovative approaches, and it is equally important to support research that accompanies the innovation to understand why things work or not and the role of different contextual factors contributing to expected and unexpected outcomes. We also see such research output as a public good allowing projects to exchange learning with local and global communities. This is critical if we want funded innovations to replicate or scale within different contexts.

At the beginning of work with BASAbali, we challenged the team to take a systemic approach and try to understand what contextual factors enable or hinder digital participation so that the learnings from the pilot could be translatable to diverse urban contexts. The team rose to the challenge and showed that a platform could indeed be a digital town square and begin to foster mindset shifts, given the right circumstances. The learnings generated from the project also inspired us at Fondation Botnar to refine and adapt our own digital strategy towards innovative engagement with all our grant partners and young people. BASAbali’s work shows that making digital discourse and dialogue accessible in local languages can be a powerful determinant of inclusion. This, in turn, spurs us to interrogate our own approaches and reflect on issues around language justice and accessibility in grantmaking.

Inspired by the potential of digital platforms and partners, such as BASAbali, we launched our own digital learning platform, where the Foundation connects its grant partners network to demand-based coaching services and to each other. The platform catalyzes connections that can develop beyond the formal reporting processes and can allow for informal interactions among our grant partners, augmenting their capacities to create collective impact. Increasingly, foundations can adopt such an approach to truly unlock the potential and expertise embedded within their grantee network. Grant partners can offer valuable advice and suggestions to improve the funding processes that better serve the philanthropic ecosystem. At Fondation Botnar, we work to regularly engage in these discussions and value the input and critical feedback to challenge us to be more effective and accessible.

There is a strong potential for bidirectional learning and dialogue with the projects we fund that we must draw upon if we truly want to achieve systemic change.

A grantee’s perspective

Alissa Stern, BASAbali

The relationship between funders and grantees has traditionally been static and unidirectional. Both partners agree on a scope of work, funds are exchanged, and the grantee implements what has been agreed to, often with periodic reports justifying the extent to which they have been able to reach prescribed milestones. Is there more that grantees can offer funders aside from fulfilling their contract and more ways that they can benefit from a funder aside from money?

Given the choice of being given money without any strings attached or funding with guidance, we’d actually prefer the latter, assuming we’re working with a funder with deep experience and insights.

As a recipient of a grant through Fondation Botnar’s Fit4Future initiative, we’ve experienced a different kind of philanthropy based on mutual learning, exploration, and partnership. It lies in the middle between traditional top-down control giving and trust-based, no reporting required philanthropy. The difference as we see it is that while traditional funders can verge on micro-managing, no-strings-attached funding can go too far the other way.

Relational or collaborative philanthropy can improve the grantee’s impact and the funder’s portfolio. Here’s how:

1. Provide insights into impact measures

Measures to evaluate a program’s impact are critical to assessing effectiveness and long-term viability of social programs, but figuring out what to measure and how to make those measurements isn’t always so easy. Fondation Botnar helped us figure that out through a dialogue which led to questioning assumptions, exchanging ideas, and reflecting on learnings.

Our goal is to improve the public participation of youth in Indonesia. One of the vehicles we use is a local-language digital platform that the community structures according to its evolving needs. Google Analytics makes it easy for us to quantify how many people are using the platform, but the foundation rightly pointed out that the numbers don’t say much about the quality of young people’s suggestions about civic issues, the frequency and manner by which policymakers seek out their feedback, the likelihood of young people engaging in dialogue with policymakers around issues that they care about and the degree to which policymakers respond to youth or incorporate their suggestions in improving public policies. Qualitative measures like these are especially challenging to assess, but even identifying these metrics helps us focus on what matters – and that leads to more targeted intervention and deeper and more sustainable impact. And they can contribute to the foundation’s understanding of what measurements make sense on the ground in order to inform their portfolios.

2. Engage a broader range of stakeholders

Systems thinking requires grantees and funders to think in terms of ecosystems and that requires thinking in multiple dimensions across multiple stakeholders. Yet expanding the reach to the grassroots level can be quite challenging for funders, especially for those which operate on an international scale. Grantees can help make collaborations more inclusive, equitable and diverse by developing the capacity of smaller or less experienced organizations to more effectively participate through microgrants, skills-training, and mentoring. At BASAbali, for example, we had to develop capacity within our team to hold one to two hour Zoom meetings, instead of what traditionally would have been a four or five hour gathering with food and storytelling. This helped us effectively work with the foundation and other national and international partners And we can now help other stakeholders do the same.

3. Share our strengths with and learn from others

When funders are searching for ways to improve the effectiveness of their portfolios, their grantees might be able to help one another with strategies, experiences, and prototypes. The next big idea might come from the funder’s diverse group of problem solvers collaborating and sharing data.

Through Fondation Botnar’s OurSpace digital platform, we could ask for or offer our skills to others in the funder’s network as peer-to-peer assistance and vice versa instead of each of us hiring independent consultants. Grantees can also share learnings with funders, contribute new learning, and see if we can see patterns or trends in our collective data. The foundation can play a key role in this respect by initiating and facilitating discussions with and between grantees. The foundation’s digital platform can provide an accessible, productive and cost-effective mechanism for these facilitated discussions on an ongoing basis.

Funder and grant partner learn from one another

Siddhartha Jha and Alissa Stern            

We’ve learned from each other as partners that we can have a relationship that focuses on relating rather than fulfilling a contract. By working toward a common goal, we can spend energy learning from our journey and gaining the insights and perspectives of one another. This change in mindset allows us both to incorporate what we learn as we progress.

By way of example, the grant from Fondation Botnar to BASAbali was to develop a culture for youth to engage more actively in civic issues via local language digital platforms in their local community of Bali, Indonesia and to replicate in another region of Indonesia as well. Through one of the foundation’s online facilitated discussions with other grantees, BASAbali realized that although they successfully engaged youth and policymakers from multiple sectors, they were insufficiently engaging with teachers, parents, the private sector, and other stakeholders. BASAbali discussed with the foundation what changes would be needed to better address a larger public participation ecosystem. The discussion was an open one, as one would have between partners, rather than as a funder insisting on the original terms of a contract and a grantee struggling to justify a change in plan. It drew on each other’s expertise, advancing toward a common goal.

What would an ideal bidirectional funder-grantee relationship look like? Here are some of the ideas to explore that have emerged from the discussions we’ve had between ourselves:

1. Reporting: Short written documentation with discussion

Rigorous reporting demands that the grantee measure their impact against the goals agreed upon with the funder. Written reports are critical to documentation. It would be more effective than just a written report to pair it with a conversation particularly targeted to exploring challenges and learnings together. The purpose of the written report and the discussion would be to learn, adapt, and iterate, not justify or defend. Going even further, discussions focused on learning could be prioritized and summarized notes from the discussions themselves could fulfil the funder’s reporting requirements. Alignment among funders on reporting requirements could also help grant partners by minimizing their reporting workload, especially for co-funded projects.

2. Financial Instrument: General category budgeting

Again, a middle road is needed. Traditional budgeting requires every euro to be accounted for against an initial budget which tries to set out, sometimes two or three years in advance, exactly how many days will be needed for what and at what price. Trust-based or core funding provides funding with little financial accountability. In between is a financial instrument where funders request broad categories of budgets (salaries, transportation, programmatic needs, administration, etc.) which can be used as a point of discussion for leveraging resources with other grantees and the foundation and making operations efficient. For example, grantee who spends x per cent of a grant on digital hosting, might benefit from learning about free hosting services for nonprofits that another grantee discovered. Training from one grantee might be more effectively swapped with training from another rather than having both pay for training from a third party.

3. Applications: Training and discussion

Fondation Botnar within the Fit4Future Initiative and through digital platforms provided training to a final group of applicants to challenge their thinking and help them describe their initiatives more effectively. Such a process does more than provide consistency for the foundation: it levels the playing field with applicants who may have less experience or come from diverse thinking cultures. Discussion between the foundation and applicants provides a way for both parties to get to know each other and another opportunity for constructive criticism and refinement. The process is resource intensive but well worth the investment in setting up a collaborative relationship as early as possible.

4. Ongoing discussion with others

Many funders publicly list the names of their grantees. But actively connecting grantees provides creative space for dialogue. Funders can play a key role in facilitating discussion by tapping into their experiences to extract wisdom and learnings. The lessons learned from the community will help the grantees and the funder adapt, refine and improve their work. Digital platforms can provide an effective space for these dialogic relationships while modelling equitable, accessible, and inclusive values. Fondation Botnar leverages the power of digital platforms to achieve its philanthropic impact. The foundation acts as a catalytic convener of one of the untapped potentials for impact in the philanthropic ecosystem: the exchange and learning among the funded projects, ambitiously even across funders. A digital platform-based approach allows opportunities for the foundation to engage with grantees beyond reports and payments. If used thoughtfully, digital platforms can potentially humanize relationships and interactions. They allow for equitable access to the communities that foundations and grantees seek to serve, going beyond language and accessibility barriers to transform our decision-making and impact measurement.

This bi-directional relationship between funder and grantee allows us to serve young people better as we learn from each other how to understand our communities (i.e., our market) and their evolving needs more deeply. It is a relationship that challenges the false dichotomy of traditional top-down control and funding without any strings or accountability. Instead, what we are proposing allows both the funder and grantee to grow and be challenged through a dynamic relationship that truly emphasizes collaboration. A relational approach is not new and has been practised by a limited number of funders or grantmakers over the years. However, there is a novel opportunity for digital platforms and tools to uniquely strengthen and support such an approach and make it more widespread.

Siddhartha Jha is AI and Digital Innovation Lead from Fondation Botnar, a Swiss philanthropic foundation that catalyzes projects that improve young people’s lives and communities. Alissa Stern is Co-Founder of BASAbali, which engages young people in Indonesia to participate in civic issues via digital platforms in local languages.

Comments (1)

Alison Harwood

This is a most enlightened approach to creating and enhancing change in any context. Drawing on cross-cutting perspectives built on practical applications and insights in trusting, dynamic partnerships is even more needed today when problems are so multidimensional, rapidly developing, often largescale with widespread implications. We must use donor funding as wisely and impactfully as possible. We can't afford to do otherwise. Hopefully other donors and grantees will follow suit and build similar partnerships to enhance their ability to address today’s challenges. Congratulations to the Botnar Foundation and BASABali!

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