Rethinking the funder-grantee relationship


Justin Wiebe


The relationship that exists between many funders and grantees is complicated to say the least. The relationship can too often be riddled with power imbalances, saviourism, and imposed expectations. As funders we need to recognize where these concepts come from and how core they have been to western philanthropy to date. The reality of our sector is that it still tends to be older, whiter, and wealthier than the increasingly diverse communities we strive to invest in and support.

During a session at the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada (PFC) Conference and the Youth Unconference we explored the current realities of this relationship and what could be different moving forward. It is time to envision and establish a new relationship between funders, grantees, and the communities we are all a part of.

As funders, we need to start by being honest with ourselves. The typical relationship between funder and grantee isn’t a great one. The not-for-profit sector is notoriously under resourced, folks are too often underpaid and overworked, and funders like to make not-for-profits jump through hoops (e.g., shifting mandates, different application processes, obsession with innovation, evaluation expectations, eligibility criteria, and the list goes on and on) to get access to funds.

As funders, it feels good to ‘help’ community doesn’t it? Imagine if we were truly honest with ourselves about where our money comes from and recognized that the funds we are distributing to communities isn’t rightfully ours in the first place. The wealth that we control as funders, in the words of Edgar Villanueva, is ‘twice stolen.’ First tremendous wealth was accumulated through the theft of Indigenous lands and resources, and the forced relocation and enslavement of Black peoples. Secondly, by placing this wealth in tax-sheltered foundations, the money has been moved from the hands of the public to the hands of a few decision-makers within foundations.

This isn’t the best place to start from when trying to build positive, healthy relationships is it?

At the Youth Unconference and PFC Conference we discussed these realities and many others pertaining to the funder-grantee relationship. The conversations that took place illuminated the following for me:

  1. Funders don’t always know best, community usually does. We need to do a whole lot better listening and responding to what community asks of us.
  2. Relationships aren’t a bad thing. Funders need to take the time to build meaningful and sustained connections to the communities we aspire to invest in and serve. We need to be real and honest, only then can we expect grantees to do the same.
  3. A belief in unbiased grantmaking often hurts folks at the margins, and we need to be intentional about who we fund and why. We can’t just keep funding the people we know, and we need to be willing to take chances on people, grassroots groups, and organizations close to the challenges being faced on the ground.
  4. Ask for, receive, and act on feedback from grantees. The sooner we accept that we’re not perfect and have a lot of learning to do the better we’ll all be. How can we expect grantees to evaluate their programs effectiveness if we’re not evaluating our own?
  5. We need to embrace some uncertainty and be okay with giving up some power. Until we do this, I’m afraid, the imbalanced relationships between funders and grantees will continue.

Justin Wiebe is a Capacity Building Specialist at Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Youth Opportunities Fund and Director on The Circle’s Governing Circle

Comments (2)

Friso Wiersum

Agreeing too. Rethinking the relationships between funders and grantees at - amongst others - the EDGE Funders Alliance European Retreat in 2016, resulted in four foundations (Open Society Initiative for Europe, European Cultural Foundation, Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and Guerrilla Foundation) pulling funds to kickstart FundAction. This participatory grant making platform has been taken the process a step further by publicly sharing its' deliberations and lessons learned. Their blog at offers insights into these processes. It strongly makes the case for participatory grant making, a networked way of working and a care oriented approach to grant making.

Ishbel Munro

I agree. Great article. Learning to trust and build equal relationships is necessary if we want to move beyond colonial way of operating. We are a part of Righting Relations funded by the Catherine Donnelly Foundation.It has been a unique partnership and took a few years to get us there - but the power is shared. There has been deep listening and it has changed the Foundation.

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