‘Surviving’ Grantmaking: How to Build Alliances to Achieve Your Philanthropic Goals

By Adam Pollack

I have a guilty pleasure. I love watching “Survivor.” I enjoy the interplay of physical strength, mental toughness and strategy. But I love more than just that.

The underlying theme of the show is the power of relationships. Those who build the strongest relationships with other players and then leverage them to move ahead in the game tend to win. The same goes in the fundraising game (except no one gets voted off the island): Build authentic relationships with funders when common interests are identified and use those relationships to not only support your organization but to open doors to other strategic partners.

Funders can do the same: Shift the power dynamics between you and your grantees to one of partnership and cooperation and everybody wins.

Since Spring 2017, I’ve directed the Hillel Talent Grants program, a generous $38 million gift from the Marcus Foundation to Hillel International to support the recruitment, retention and training of the Hillel movement’s 1,200 local Hillel professionals. When I started, we took a traditional grant-making approach: funder shares grant guidelines, invites organizations to apply, prospective grantees submit proposals, we analyze them and then award grants to the most promising applicants.

This set up a traditional funder-grantee power dynamic, eroding trust and inhibiting cooperation. In “Survivor,” this would be like cooking rice for your team but not establishing any alliances. Rice isn’t enough to get you to the end of the game, which is your goal. We needed to go beyond awarding grants and invest more in our relationship so we could more effectively meet our respective goals. We quickly pivoted toward a relational grantmaking approach, shifting our dynamic toward partnership and making it clearer that we want to be their thought-partners and supporters, which made our grantees more effective at achieving grant outcomes.

A relational approach will help you achieve your mission more effectively, too. A relational approach sets the tone for your relationship, shifting you away from the typical power dynamic between funder and grantee and toward partnership.

When something changes or doesn’t go right with a grant, you’ll see your grant recipients contact you faster seeking a thought-partner and allowing you to come up with a solution together. Then, the grantee can shift their efforts toward their core work, the reason you are supporting them in the first place.

By using these simple tactics, you’ll transform the relationship you have with your grantees and make your grant-making more effective:

• Create an Open-Door Policy: Make sure grant recipients know your door is always open since realities change quickly. At Hillel, we’ve discovered that calls for help often result in additional non-monetary support, such as thought-partnership, mentorship and coaching. This collaborative relationship builds stronger ties, trust and often produces positive, mutually-beneficial outcomes.

Become a Transparent and Flexible Funder:

~ Publish your grants calendar, sample grant agreements and anything else that will help your current and prospective grantees plan. Sharing grant agreements help local leadership understand grant requirements before they even apply and highlight “hidden costs,” such as time spent writing reports and attending trainings. Being transparent upfront shows prospective grantees what to expect should they receive a grant while also setting expectations early about your relational, collaborative and transparent approach as a funder.

~ Build in flexibility because organizations are dynamic places where crises can arise quickly. Crises and leadership changes happen and as a funder, it is an opportunity to think first about the organization and people you’re supporting and their needs. Be nimble in giving extensions, modifying grant requirements and anything else you can to be responsive to local needs and demands.

Rightsize your Grant Requirements: This concept is a “best practice” in philanthropy. Only ask for information that is used in grant decision processes and expect organizations to spend time proportional to the size and duration of the grant they seek. Don’t compromise your need for certain information, but also don’t ask for extraneous information either.

Personalize Communications: Respond to all emails and messages within 24 work hours and be personal in all communications. This way, your grant recipients will see you as responsive and deeply invested in their success. There’s also opportunity to learn from trends in your communications. For example, don’t send grant announcements on Fridays or before major holidays. Always start by asking yourselves: How is this message going to be received? And what else is going on right now?

Evaluate and Learn: Distribute an anonymous survey to your grant recipients and to those who didn’t receive a grant annually to discover areas where you are successful in your grant-making practice and where there’s room for improvement.

Relational grant-making leads to better grant outcomes. It will change the power dynamic between funder and grantee, establishing trust and rapport. When issues arise, your grantees will know they can come to you with those issues and that you will be a partner in solving them. If you are a grant maker and haven’t done so already, run with these ideas. You’ll see results.

Adam Pollack is Hillel International’s director of Hillel grants.