Funders are used to hearing different versions of the meaning of “partnership” from nonprofits wanting to work with them (aka receive funding). All too often the proposed “partnership” involves the funder supporting the initiatives or priorities the applicant brings forward with minimal input from the funder. On the other hand, the applicant sees that the funder 1) has “a lot of money” and 2) supports [insert general category the nonprofit works in]. Therefore the funder is fair game to “partner.”
I’ve been on the receiving end of these requests. When, however, I asked, “So you’re applying to receive x dollars ... where is the partnership portion for the foundation?” I frequently didn’t get an answer. Often all the applicant did was look up our mission and the areas we funded (e.g., “Hey, they support education—let’s apply”). There were no conversations about priorities, current and past investments, the foundation’s current goals, or what we saw as needs in the areas being discussed.
Which goes to show that “partnership” may be the most overused and misused relationship regularly proposed to funders.
What Are Partnerships?
Partnerships come in many varieties. But generally, partnerships involve equal partners serving as collaborative thought leaders, working toward a solution to a common challenge. Partnerships are based on trust, common interest, and mutual respect for what each player brings to the process. Each partner recognizes that it doesn’t have all the answers and relies on the perspectives of the other partners to enhance the approach that all partners work on implementing. Strong partnerships do not develop quickly, nor do they dissolve quickly under pressure.
What partnerships are not are simple funding relationships. Those are more accurately called transactional relationships.
The Challenges of Funder Partnerships
Funder-nonprofit partnering involves incorporating different perspectives, giving up a level of control, and making compromises. Nonprofit staff members are often enamored with existing programs, having put considerable effort into developing them. Funders usually focus on outcomes, not processes. Changes may be necessary to attain the mutually desired end result.
The Payoffs of Effective Partnerships
The different perspectives partners bring to an issue can lead to new or more effective solutions. When a nonprofit is receptive to a funder’s insights—rather than just paying lip service to “partnering together”—the relationship is no longer merely transactional. A level of trust develops. Failing in order to learn better approaches is much more acceptable when partnering instead of simply funding a program. And the beauty of partnering for long-term solutions is that it is more likely to lead to funding being renewed, allowing the partnership to continue to work toward those long-term solutions.
Partnerships with funders take a commitment of time to establish and may not be easy, but they can lead to amazing long-term results.
Bill Hoffman is CEO of Bill Hoffman & Associates, LLC, a Tampa-based consulting firm with national-level independent sector expertise in educational engagement strategies, on profit leadership transitions, and organizational and board development. Bill has senior-level nonprofit management experience in education, having been the president of one of the nation’s top K-12 education foundations; functioned as interim CEO for prominent national and state education and philanthropic associations; and led national, regional and state boards of directors. He is also an adjunct professor at National University, teaching Non-profit Leadership and Board Development.