When the dichotomy blurs


Jen Bokoff


We often speak in philanthropy about the dichotomy of grantmakers and grantseekers. As a result, our events are segregated in this fashion as well. It’s in part because of audience segmentation – that is, meeting the unique needs of these two audiences in a more targeted way — but also out of fear that someone will cross the invisible line of solicitation. When funders or others with resources go to an event, we don’t want them to feel ‘on the spot’ to respond to meeting requests or blatant requests for support. And so, we separate them out, often resulting in gatherings where either funders are in the room talking about beneficiaries without any being present, or conversely, that are exclusive to people who are doing on-the-ground work, denying funders the unique opportunity to learn from their particular expertise.

The guest list at the recent Innovations in International Grantmaking Symposium rejected this  traditional dichotomy in favor of a more vibrant ecosystem, convening academics, nonprofits, foundations, consultants, capacity builders, communicators, individual donors, social entrepreneurs, and activists all in one place. At this event, without that separation, there was indeed the ever-feared crossing of lines. And you know what? It wasn’t a big deal at all.

In fact, this ecosystem approach helped to mitigate an entrenched power dynamic where we go to such lengths to protect funders from fielding inquiries that we don’t mix people with different roles into their spaces. In a conversation with a program officer at a large foundation last year, she said, ‘It’s our job to listen to people who are actually doing the work. That’s what we’re paid to do, and we can’t do it sitting in our own little foundation bubble.’ In several plenaries as well as informally in conversations, I noticed pointed asks for monetary support and connections, and raising questions about power and philosophy that might in other contexts be considered taboo. Each time, nobody batted an eye, and (mostly) useful responses were shared.

I’m left wondering if this is something philanthropy more broadly ought to pay attention to, and if it did, how might funding, learning, and networks shift? And, what else might we do to break down power differentials to encourage more open discourse? What do you think?

Jen Bokoff is Director of Stakeholder Engagement at Foundation Center

Tagged in: Innovations in International Philanthropy

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