I Used To Be on the Other Side: Reducing the Power Dynamic in Philanthropy - Exponent Philanthropy
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I Used To Be on the Other Side: Reducing the Power Dynamic in Philanthropy

A Rusty Metal Faucet in Close-up Photography
Photo by Engin Akyurt

For the past 30 years, I have had the privilege of working in leadership positions at nonprofit organizations from local through international regions. I also have worked as a consultant for nonprofits doing strategic planning, staff and board development, and fundraising.

I know firsthand what it’s like to run programs, engage in advocacy, and have to raise money so that program costs and overhead are met. Now I’m on the other side, making grants to organizations that are both similar and different to the ones for which I worked.

What It’s Like in the Nonprofit Space

When thinking about fundraising from the nonprofit side, I imagine myself standing in front of a wall at a dry spigot with an empty bowl in my hands. The handle controlling that spigot is on the other side of the wall from which the spigot protrudes. There is someone on the other side of that wall who will—or will not—turn on the tap to let the water (money) flow.

What, I wonder, can I do to impress the person behind the wall enough to get them to turn the handle? Is it metrics? A good story with a happy ending? A clear, descriptive LogFrame (logical framework)? An impeccable profit and loss statement? A great proposal? A perfect budget? A colorful, online annual report?

How do I build a relationship with the person behind the wall? When running a small nonprofit, and having to do the actual work of the organization, where do I get the time to meet with the funders who might be interested? And then, how do I cultivate that relationship? To write the proposals? To do thorough reports with varying requirements from funder to funder?

How transparent can I be with this donor/foundation? Can I talk to them about what’s really going on behind the metrics, our budget, and our program? How do I explain that in a small nonprofit, staff costs are the same as program costs? Is there any flexibility in the funding, or do we need to follow the budget to the penny?

The Power Imbalance in Philanthropy

This is the reality for many nonprofits. They do the work and raise the money because they are committed to the missions of their organizations. And they are often afraid of the very people on which their organizations depend: their funders. There is a power imbalance between those with the funds and those asking for the funds, and because of the nonprofit’s commitment to the mission, the staff live with it and do the best they can. This is especially true for organizations led by African Americans; Echoing Green and Bridgespan show that

Black-led organizations are 24 percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts, and the unrestricted net assets of the same organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts.

Having moved to the “turn the handle (or not)” side of the wall for the past 3 years, I have learned a great deal from conferences, member organizations, and mainly from my peers. You have taught me what it means to run a foundation: the passion; the laws; the fiscal oversight; investing; coordinating for greater impact; and so much more. The people I have met who can “turn the handle” are deeply committed to their foundation/fund’s mission, be it thematic, population, geographic, or a combination, and to the better world set out by their mission. I think we can do even better.

Common Questions

Here are some questions that have come up for me during the past 3 years:

  • Does your foundation/fund operate internally—your ways of working, your processes, and procedures—in a way that reflects the world your mission is designed to create?
  • How does your giving reflect the idea that those within and served by the organizations you fund have the same intrinsic value as you and those within your foundation/fund?
  • Are your giving requirements—proposal writing, reporting, contacts, visits—in line with your values and the changes your fund/foundation wants to create?
  • As a lean funder, do you experience any of the same issues experienced by those you fund?

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About the Author

Lori Heninger, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Montclair Fund for Women, a foundation that supports programs that use innovative approaches to achieve educational success and social justice for women and girls of color in Montclair and North Essex, New Jersey. Lori has decades-long experience working in and leading nonprofits in the U.S. and internationally. She is author of “Managing As Mission: Nonprofit Managing for Sustainable Change.”


  1. Kristi Petrie

    Thanks for this important article. Your perspectives from both sides are helpful, especially for small-staffed foundations, and I appreciated reflecting on your questions. In case it’s helpful, here in Colorado, an ED of a nonprofit recently shared an open letter to foundations addressing all the ways we funders are unnecessarily burdening our nonprofit partners, and it’s been picked up by a few news outlets, and has been helpful in getting some of us funders to rethink how we show up, especially in times of crisis, given the power imbalance: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/an-open-letter-to-community-foundations-from-a-concerned-executive-director/. I think we also can’t talk power imbalance if we aren’t talking about how foundations invest (not just our grantmaking) and included my reflections in an op-ed here: https://www.westword.com/arts/op-ed-foundations-need-to-put-our-money-where-our-mission-is-11895133. Sharing in case it’s helpful for folks, and again, thank you for your article, Lori!

    • Lori Heninger

      Thank you so much, Kristi. I agree and I’m really looking forward to reading the articles in your comment!

  2. Lisa Downey

    Thank you for your spot-on observations and questions. I also made the jump from one side of the spigot to the other. Empathy is a powerful tool. Perhaps the path to philanthropy should always go in this direction!

  3. Lori Heninger

    Lisa, you said it perfectly. Thank you.

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