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Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic

This February, our partners at Exponent Philanthropy released “Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic,” a video in its 9-part Philanthropy Lessons video series and campaign:

Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic
Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic

Philanthropy Lessons is produced by Exponent Philanthropy to share words of wisdom from some of the industry’s most inspirational funders—including many Foundant clients—about what they’ve learned throughout their philanthropic careers.

“Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic” explored the dynamics of grantee-grantor relationships and how to mitigate the power differential. Funder Jenna Wachtmann of Ball Brothers Foundation, a former grant writer, shared her reflections in response (see below as it appeared on Exponent Philanthropy’s blog). We encourage you to watch the video, read Jenna’s post below, and share your comments at or via social media: #MyPhilLesson.

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 “grantseeking” role to a “grantmaking” 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.

Watch other videos in the Philanthropy Lessons series:

ongratulations to all of the Foundant clients who participated in this special Philanthropy Lessons series. You inspire us everyday!

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

About the Author

Jenna 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.

Profile Photo of Jenna Wachtmann