Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic - Exponent Philanthropy
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Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic

Today Exponent Philanthropy releases “Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic,” the latest video in its 9-part Philanthropy Lessons series:


It explores the dynamics of grantor/grantee relationships, and I encourage you to weigh in with your thoughts and practical ideas about managing these dynamics. You can share your comments and ideas below, at, or via social media: #MyPhilLesson. I’d love to learn from you, and I know others would too!

I’ll always remember one of my first visits to a private foundation. At the time, I was working for an inner-city nonprofit organization where I juggled grantwriting, individual donor fundraising, marketing, and a variety of other responsibilities. I was already nervous about the foundation visit, and, by the time I was escorted into the foundation’s gleaming conference room with its dark wood paneling, I was really on edge. But the program officer I met with immediately set me at ease with her friendly demeanor, well-researched and thoughtful questions, and sincere interest in the organization that I represented and the people we served.

Like the program officer I met that day, a fair number of the grantmakers I came into contact with during my years writing and managing grants were cognizant of the power dynamics inherent in grantor/grantee relationships. They treated me and the organization I worked for with respect, listening intently and making themselves available to provide guidance and support. These grantmakers recognized that developing authentic relationships with their grantees led to honest conversations and, ultimately, better outcomes.

When I transitioned from a “grant-seeking” role to a “grant-making” role, it was important to me not only to remember what I had learned from these grantmakers but also to put these lessons into action. I was fortunate to join the staff of a family foundation that is deliberate about placing a strong emphasis on grantee/grantor relationships. We see ourselves as the generalists and our grantees as the experts. We’re careful to tread lightly in issuing directives to our grantees, and we spend a lot of time serving as a listening ear. Do we get it right every time? No, we don’t. But we’re working on it!

Here are just a few practical actions our staff takes to lessen the power differential between our foundation and our grantees:

  • Creating opportunities for dialogue. Each year our foundation invites the executive directors of several grantee organizations to participate in a 9-month fellowship program. Alongside our staff, these executive directors read several books and articles on nonprofit leadership, governance, and grantmaking. We engage in open conversations about challenges inherent both in the grantmaking and grantseeking processes and learn a lot from one another along the way.
  • Meeting grantees where they are…literally! Recognizing that it can be intimidating for a grantee to approach a foundation, we make a conscious effort to meet with grantees on-site at their location or at a local coffee shop. This isn’t always feasible or appropriate, but it can help reduce some “foundation formality” and promote genuine grantee/grantor dialogue.
  • Asking for feedback. When we recently made updates to our online application process, we sought feedback from a group of grantees prior to the roll-out. We used a free online survey tool to ask 4 simple questions (primarily open-ended). Not only did we receive feedback that will improve the process for grant applicants and grant reviewers, but we also learned how much it meant to our grantees that we asked their opinions! A number of grantees have since shared with us that it was an unusual—and very welcome—experience to be asked for their insights and critiques of a funder’s process.
  • Simply opening our doors. Several years ago, our foundation decided to take a simple step to help our grantees feel welcome in our office: We hosted a small reception. We’ve continued the tradition each year since. Grantees are able to network with one another and mingle with our board and staff. It’s a powerful way to help break down barriers, whether real or perceived.

Jenna WachtmannJenna Wachtmann is a program officer with Ball Brothers Foundation, a family foundation based in Muncie, Indiana. She is a graduate of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.


  1. […] turf,” giving me a chance to see their programs and facilities in person and, I hoped, lessen the power dynamic. These meetings helped me to better understand the nonprofit landscape in our community—the […]

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