Food For Thought

Summarizing thoughts from grant maker/grant recipient dialogue series

Tech Networks of Boston recently concluded a unique dialogue program to facilitate grant maker/grant recipient dialogue on nonprofit data and evaluation. We wanted to provide post-event insights from the facilitator to benefit the attendees of the series, as well as nonprofits and grant makers who could not attend. Deborah Finn of Tech Networks of Boston has provided her insights here. In this article we address the two groups as grant makers or funders, and grant recipients, nonprofits, and grantees.

As previously mentioned, facilitation and guidance was provided by Essential Partners, with Dave Joseph serving as facilitator-in-chief. Dave and I discussed the series and I was able to ask him some questions to better understand the outcomes.

Dave has over 40 years of experience in the human services sector, and has facilitated dialogues on a broad range of topics, including diversity and inclusion, leadership, and bridging differences of values, beliefs and worldviews. He planned the series with the awareness that grant makers and grantees frequently feel mischaracterized and misunderstood by the other and hoped to create an environment that would help bridge such divides. When brainstorming techniques for a successful dialogue on data and evaluation, he anticipated that the power imbalance between grant makers and grantees would need to be addressed directly. By avoiding the typical question and answer format, a three-part series was developed to lay a foundation of trust. This was done to encourage genuine engagement for people as professionals and human beings that were deeper, more reflective, and thoughtful than what typically occurs.

The first session of the series invited participants to tell a story that would help others better understand their experiences with these issues, in order to be deeply heard and better understood than simply shooting questions back and forth. Dave says, “This seemed effective in identifying next steps including exploration of stereotypes and perceptions, and ways in which people felt they would be misunderstood or misheard by others.”

I asked Dave if there was anything unique that stood out to him after completing the dialogue series. Dave mentioned that participants felt this series offered a unique opportunity to speak first hand in a stress-free setting with participants from the other side.  The fact that there were small groups of 6-10 people allowed all participants’ voices to be heard, not just the loudest person or most opinionated (which tends to occur in a large group or panel). The equal opportunity to be heard made the atmosphere more conducive to a deeper conversation.

Dave addressed some key takeaways for both types of participants:

  • Funders can help by making an effort to recognize a nonprofit’s internal capacity for conducting evaluation processes. This includes having awareness of the costs nonprofits sustain as grantees.
  • Funders can help by realizing many nonprofits are in different stages in their capacity to conduct meaningful evaluation, and that the grant process could be collaborative to improve program services in addition to the grants.
  • Funders should recognize and be sensitive to the perceived power imbalance.
  • Nonprofits should realize that the requests of evaluation and accountability stem from a similar place for the funders, which is wanting to speak to stakeholders and report that their dollars are being well spent.
  • Nonprofits should communicate with funders that their data processes should ideally support their mission, improve effectiveness, and support their services as well as allow them to obtain funding.
  • Both groups would be well served by being able to ask questions, think about what it is that might be underlying the positions the other is taking, and inquire about the constraints and incentives of the process.
  • Both groups should practice using terminology in the same way, and ultimately share responsibility for fulfilling their mutual missions. It is important to see funding as a partnership as which both sides are contributing to shared goals.

We hope that the attendees who participated in the discussion left with the understanding of key learnings that can be applied in the various types of relationships they will encounter as grantors and grantees. By attempting to understand more deeply the context within the others are working, and to learn from each relationship, they can craft more meaningful partnerships.

Dave shared a final bit of advice for those who were unable to attend the dialogue series:

Be open to talking and listening to one another, asking questions, including questioning your own assumptions as to what the other group’s interests and motivations are. Try to be receptive and interested in hearing from one another in attempting the goals that you share.”

If you have any advice for either group on this topic, we invite you to share your thoughts below.




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