Relationships Do Matter

relationshipsI have, perhaps very late in the day, come to accept that interpersonal relationships are indispensable for these important collaborations, joint efforts, and initiatives to succeed, and require as much expertise and attention as the work itself.

By Richard Marker

In a recent post, we discussed the preconditions for “relationship” in the funder-grantee continuum. My main point was a cautionary message to grantseekers that simply trying to develop a relationship, by whatever means, is highly unlikely to yield funding if there is no shared funding interest with the potential funder. It does, though, matter once both sides determine that there are shared interests. This post expands on the importance of relationships after that.

Recently, I have had a number of reasons to affirm the centrality of good and trusting personal relationships in all of our work: in collaborations, in partnerships, and, most important, good professional connections of all sorts. Indeed, this post acknowledges a lacuna – both in my teaching of funders and in my own professional initiatives. In fact, I have, perhaps very late in the day, come to accept that interpersonal relationships are indispensable for these important collaborations, joint efforts, and initiatives to succeed, and require as much expertise and attention as the work itself. In reviewing with fresh eyes my very popular checklist on how to develop effective collaborations I have made widely available for several years, I see that it outlines the necessary structures and preconditions for success, but virtually nothing on the human dimensions.

A surprising source, Newt Gingrich, whose politics rarely align with my own, was a speaker at the recent annual conference of the Council on Foundations. In talking about his own unlikely ongoing collaboration with those far to his left, he mentioned that none of that could happen were it not for real trust which had long been cultivated and husbanded between himself and his team with their counterparts. He averred, unequivocally, that without that personal relationship, it simply couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened.

13 years ago, when I was in the process of gathering insights from the philanthropy field in preparation for being a philanthropy educator, there was a remarkable convergence on topics and consensus on the competences a good funder should have. One of those was “interpersonal communication.” Over the years, my seminars and teaching have had a heavy emphasis on ethics, best practices, power. I have urged funders to be very self aware as funders, the “conscious use of self” of a funder’s role, and how we behave, intentionally or unintentionally, to those who want funds. It is well documented how easy for funders to not fully perceive how we come across, how our very presence can imply power, and how easily our role allows us to receive highly filtered information. What I now realize is that I have overlooked one very important implicit component of effective funder-grantee relations: I have always focused on the roles and not the relationships, yet it has become clear to me that a relationship is the authentic implementation of the roles.

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending the National Summit on Family Philanthropy. The theme was effective collaborations. Some of the sessions focused on very successful ones; others on flawed ones; most were filled with challenges. Given my new attentiveness to the role of relationships, I was struck that every successful partnership or collaboration, whether among funders, among grantees, or in vertical combination of both, emphasized how important the development of a trusting relationship was to its success. I particularly appreciated those presenters who discussed how they had successfully facilitated those relationships, or conversely, how they had undermined their own best efforts by not anticipating them sufficiently.

There is much to be said about “relationships” and even a cursory perusal of business, human development, networking, and social bookshelves reveal that there are many experts who can teach relationship as a learned skill. I am not one of those experts and suspect that relationships are as much a cultivated art form as a technology. Yet without doubt, those who have mastered them have an enviable history of successful and gratifying collaborations in many facets of their professional lives. Some of us are still learning.

A few lessons:

  1. It is hard to fake a relationship. Short-term courtesies and niceties can ease cooperation, but won’t sustain a relationship.
  2. Are there commonalities underlying the professional relationship? Does your professional life, or organizational life, or foundation have defined values and programs that align with your collaborator? If not, a personal relationship might allow a joint project, but a longer time institutional relationship much harder.
  3. When differences arise, have you honestly tried to determine how much of it is personal and how much of it is organizational? Not every difference of opinion is personal, and not every alignment is organizational.
  4. Relationships, of any sort, require investments of listening, time, and care – over time.
  5. Personal professional relationships often transcend organizational boundaries, but in the absence of the personal component, organizational partnerships rarely last beyond a project.
  6. Broken relationships can be fixed, but it is very very very hard to do so and require a willingness on both sides.

What would you add to this list?

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.