Is it possible to shift philanthropy practice from the middle?


Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

Last month I attended the International Human Rights Funders Group conference in San Francisco, which began with a day-long institute on cultural competency in grantmaking titled ‘What’s Power Got To Do With It?’. The training was facilitated by Vini Bhansali of IDEX and Akaya Windwood of the Rockwood Leadership Institute.

The training itself was incredibly thoughtful and superbly organized, especially considering the rather large group of participants. In part, I think it was successful because the group of
participants was diverse and experienced in the complexities of cross-cultural grantmaking. The conversations raised two serious questions for me:

  1. How can we as donors/donor advisors improve individual and institutional capacity to share lessons with the wider field?
  2. How do we facilitate the engagement of decision-makers in discussions that affect organizational culture?

The first question comes from the feeling that very often trainings on practice and ‘soft’ issues like culture and perception are essentially preaching to the choir. If we are interested in improving our ability to positively interact with grant-seekers/recipients and other stakeholders in philanthropy, it’s usually because we already understand how difficult it can be to maintain such relationships. People who willingly acknowledge the inherent grantee/donor power dynamics and understand different interpretations and reactions to culture will look to minimize the impacts of them. However, it is unlikely that people who don’t understand or even realize that such rifts exist will seek to address this situation. To put this in the straightforward style of a co-worker: ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’

Which leads to the second question: how can we bring a more diverse audience into conversations about culture? For the most part, I am not referring to racial, ethnic or gender diversity. The social justice funders who attend the International Human Rights Funders Group gatherings are a strongly diverse crowd in that sense. Attendance is often on the part of program staff and sometimes presidents of smaller foundations. However, trustees and leaders of larger donor institutions tend not to attend. Furthermore, leaders of foundations or giving collaboratives that don’t identify as ‘social justice’ supporters per se nonetheless support similar issues and grantees, but are often not on the same page when it comes to relationship building.

As noted in the Center on Effective Philanthropy’s 2004 report Listening to Grantees, what grantees most appreciate about donors is:

  1. Fairness, approachability and responsiveness of foundation staff
  2. Clear and consistent articulation of foundation goals
  3. Understanding of the field of funding and an ability to advance knowledge

A donor’s ability to effectively respond to grantees is a product not just of listening to and understanding grantees, but also of the willingness to invest foundation resources to improving relationships with grant recipients. Increasingly in philanthropy, the key to strong partnerships (in the actual sense of the word) is a willingness by trustees and individual donors to serve as examples of ongoing learning and evolution in the donor/grantee relationship.

As the field of philanthropy grows and encounters both new donors and new tools for giving and interacting with grantees, what do you think we can do to better share lessons and encourage new stakeholders to invest in dialogue and collaboration?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Hilda Vega is senior advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd.

Tagged in: Donor relationships human rights IHRFG conference Peer learning Social justice

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