Funder relationships: feudal, market-driven or something new?

If you are part of a community organisation which seeks funding, how would you describe your relationships with funders?

I am just back from the fabulous and thought-provoking Grantmakers for Effective Organisations biennial conference in Minneapolis.  In the first of several blog posts, here’s my interpretation of an analysis of funder – grantee relationships by Deepak Bhargava from the Center for Community Change.

Deepak suggests that funder relationships tend to be either Feudal or Market-Driven.

Feudal relationships are modelled on the lord of the manor and his supplicants.  They are cultural expressions of power and prestige, a noblesse oblige that is often paternalistic and uncomfortable.

Market-driven relationships are based on the assumption that social change can be purchased from the lowest bidder – a bit like contracting out painting your house.   Remember the last time you had your house painted and felt put out that things didn’t happen your way and to your budget and timeframe? Or maybe you were the house painter, frustrated that your professional judgement and the competing demands of other contracts were not recognised.  And perhaps you were also out of pocket because the home owner paid only the original quoted price – despite the inordinate amount of rotten wood that had to be cut out and replaced…

Both these models are dysfunctional and limiting ways of relating.  And both subtly encourage funders to see themselves as the key agents of change, when in fact funders are a small player in this landscape – neither causing nor making the change themselves.

How relevant are these concepts to Aotearoa New Zealand?  Unfortunately, varying degrees of both models are evident, sometimes concurrently, in both government and philanthropic funding.  There is often mutual discomfort and distrust, but this is rarely expressed.

Giving is good, funding is necessary, so let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water and discourage philanthropy because we don’t get it quite right.    But usually there is room to improve the way we do this.

But how?  If our relationships are neither feudal nor market-driven, then what is the model?  Deepak suggested some characteristics of healthy funder relationships:

  • A shared vision of a big change in the world
  • A safe space where ideas are welcome and conflict can be expressed and worked through
  • Mutual concern for the other’s development and respectful, constructive, two-way feedback
  • Recognition of the art as well as the science of social change
  • Long term relationships, patience, honesty, trust and resolve

The bottom line is that transformative change is a collective and human endeavour, not a market intervention.  Let’s find new ways of taking this journey together.

PS If you are based in Auckland and interested in philanthropy come along to the Aotea centre this  Sunday at 1.30pm where I am on a panel with British philosopher Julian Baggini and our own Gareth Morgan talking with Wallace Chapman on philanthropy – the Moral Mixing Desk.

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  1. I strongly agree with all the characteristics noted! I’ve certainly valued ‘equality of relationships’ with many funders we’ve worked with – and noticed its absence in other cases! Also important too I think is a courageous and intentional mindset – sometimes easy to fall into default us/them settings without even realising you are. Being part of a new paradigm in the early adoption phase is certainly a result of intention rather than accident.
    Look forward to more GEO gems!! Megan

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