From the Mouths of Funders and Nonprofits: 20 Ways to Build Better Relationships - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

From the Mouths of Funders and Nonprofits: 20 Ways to Build Better Relationships

Last week we held two “Great Funder-Nonprofit Relationships” programs generously supported by the Fund for Shared Insight. More than 200 total participants, representing both funders and nonprofits, joined us for candid conversations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

What does a great funder-nonprofit relationship look and feel like?

We asked this question during the program and gathered 30 responses that summed up the participants’ collective vision:

  1. Open
  2. Honest
  3. Comfortable
  4. Transparent
  5. Trusting
  6. Authentic
  7. Informative
  8. Aligned
  9. Transforming
  10. Personal
  11. Responsive
  12. Flexible
  13. Two-way
  14. Accountable
  15. Thoughtful
  1. Realistic
  2. Accepting
  3. Humanistic
  4. Evolving
  5. Intentional
  6. Strategic
  7. Rewarding
  8. Mutually beneficial
  9. Sustainable
  10. Curious
  11. Inspirational
  12. Patient
  13. Collaborative
  14. Relaxed not rushed
  15. Fun!

As a funder or a nonprofit, we think you’ll agree that these characteristics contribute to true partnerships. We’ve purposely not indicated if each came from a funder or a nonprofit because we found that both groups expressed interest in building relationships with the other that reflect these qualities.

How do we make these characteristics a reality? 

From participants, here are 20 ways funders and nonprofits can work together, starting today, to be more intentional about building relationships with our mission partners:

  1. Share mistakes
  2. Get to know each other like I know my friends
  3. Engage each other with radical candor
  4. Be less defensive and open to bigger pictures beyond individual programs
  5. Take risks
  6. Be strategic
  7. Listen
  8. Learn
  9. Be open to multiyear funding
  10. Be human-centered in how we design our work
  1. Connect each other to resources
  2. Be intentionally educational
  3. Have open communication
  4. Be interactive and feedback-friendly
  5. Adapt to change
  6. Don’t always be rushed; take time to be relaxed
  7. Engage for the longer term
  8. Build on common interests
  9. Keep each other informed
  10. Be easy-going



Do you agree? We look forward to hearing your responses and sharing more of what we are learning about building and maintaining great funder-nonprofit relationships.

Henry Berman

Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role.

Jenny Chandler is vice president of the National Council of Nonprofits. Jenny’s past service for charitable nonprofits includes being a legal advisor, board member, senior staff member, program volunteer, and grantmaker. Prior to joining the Council of Nonprofits in July 2009, Jenny took a deep dive into ‘what can go wrong?’ by conducting internal audits and risk assessments for charitable nonprofits while serving as Senior Counsel and Director of Special Projects for the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a national nonprofit that helps other nonprofits understand and manage risk.


  1. In the email just received from EP, the first included this question as the first item, “What are some ways for a foundation to politely decline certain grant seekers so that they don’t get the impression that they could be funded in the future?” Yet, when I looked at it in the browser, there’s no reference to it.
    What’s going on?

    • Hi Douglas-
      Thank you for letting us know, and our apologies for the inconvenience. I’m forwarding your note to my colleague Laura McHugh who manages our email updates. She can help get to the bottom of things.

  2. R Birdsell

    As a capacity builder in Southern California I am so glad you are facilitating these conversations. There are 4 things our nonprofits say they need from foundations that will also make a difference as you encourage open conversations: advance notice on changing priorities, underwriting opportunities for professional development, more standardized and efficient application and reporting requirements that take advantage of time saving technology, and resources to help organizations meet the growing need for measurement capabilities.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *