The heartbreaker of philanthropy: donor-grantee relationships


Michael Alberg-Seberich

Michael Alberg-Seberich

Michael Alberg-Seberich

It is a story that repeats itself again and again in philanthropy: Donor meets grantee. They talk about their work and interests. They enjoy exchanging ideas. The grantee starts to write long letters to the donor describing what they should do together. If things work out, the donor responds to these letters in a very brief but enthusiastic way. They commit towards each other. A relationship begins. There is enthusiasm at the beginning. The grantee is glad that the donor becomes part of his patchwork family. The donor is a proud member. Sometimes she or he tells the relatives about the new engagement. Sometimes it is kept secret – an affair?

Time goes by. The grantee and the donor do not meet so regularly anymore. Sometimes the grantee shares his family diary or invites the donor to special events: a family reunion, a birthday party, an award ceremony or some such. The relationship more and more turns into a routine. When it ends, the grantee is surprised to find out that the donor only wanted to date him for a couple of years. The donor is irritated because the grantee already dates other potential new donors. Both are somehow heartbroken at the end.

This story simplifies the development of a donor-grantee relationship. The relationship is a crucial ingredient for an impactful grant or social investment. These days such relationships get even more complex. The partnerships have many forms: several grantees are supported by one donor, a consortium of donors supports a group of grantees and so on. An initiative is joined by other stakeholders like a municipality, a welfare agency or a school. Can you imagine how this would read in terms of family relationships?

What is it that turns a donor-grantee relationship into a successful one? There is some research on this. When I look back at my experience in the field, I have a sense some of the classic soft factors are key – even before it comes to a sound contract.

It starts out with transparency on both sides. I just experienced this week one of these situations, where a grantee asked a donor: what is your motivation for supporting us? Why are you interested in the issue? These are just a couple of questions that both sides in the relationship need to be transparent about.

These open conversations are the starting point for building a trusting relationship. A grantee will only talk about things not going well in the project if she or he trusts, and if together they have agreed on common goals. These are often the most productive situations in a relationship. Both sides face crisis and are jointly trying to find a solution.

Another prerequisite is tolerance and respect for the other side. Both sides have to get a sense for where the grantee or donor is coming from. If you do not understand the language of the other partner, ask. It does not make sense, for instance, for a grantee to turn away at the end of a meeting with a donor and rave to the colleagues about the fact that they now have to develop the fifth reporting and indicator system this year…

In the end, this is about investing time and being patient. The classic example for this is that, for instance, the turnaround of a failing school often takes longer than a year. Impact does not happen from one day to the next.

All this is not new, and maybe even for some readers trivial. But sometimes it is important to remember these issues. Things may change in philanthropy but some things do not change at all. We realized this, for instance, when reading an article in an old edition of Foundation News & Commentary from spring 2000 entitled ‘The Best of the Worst Practises’ from Bruce Sievers and Tom Layton on how donors sometimes screw up their relationships with grantees. Reading it you may understand why I suddenly write about such basic things as transparency, trust, tolerance and time. Some things just take a long time to change!

Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner at Active Philanthropy

Tagged in: Donor relationships Impact measurement Transparency

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