Black Fox Philanthropy and Candid (formerly Foundation Center, which recently combined with GuideStar to form a brand new organization) co-hosted a gathering for capacity building partners and NGOs at Opportunity Collaboration last October. Why? We had a burning question for the Funder and NGO attendees that could help clear a path to stronger alliances and greater impact:

“What do you wish each other knew that would make a difference in your relationships, how you do your work in the world, and the impact you are having?” 

The following is paraphrased but essentially in their own words without Candid or Black Fox Philanthropy commentary. Here’s what we learned:


What I wish NGO Grantees or Potential Grantees Knew

  1. Treat Us Like Equals. Too often, NGOs believe we have all the power in the relationship, and come to funding conversations from a place of inferiority. The truth is that most of us view our grantees as true partners in our shared pursuit to address an issue we both care about — so treat us as such. Funders need great projects to fund, and great projects need money. Both parties have something of value to offer the other, and both are essential parts of the equation.
  2. Make It A Conversation. We don’t want to listen to a monologue pitch and then be asked for money at the end. Engage us in a dialogue about the issue at hand, our interests, and about what motivates us to invest in a project or organization. On your part, it may help to stick to the Rule of Three: deliver your three most important messages and leave most everything else to a follow up conversation or written materials. Ultimately, focus on listening and engaging in a real conversation. Be open, be inspiring, invite the funder into your vision for a better tomorrow, and listen to why they care so deeply about solving the issue.
  3. “No” May Not Mean No Forever. If we decline to fund your work, it could mean the mission alignment just isn’t there and the answer really is “No.” On the other hand, it could simply mean that our funds are already allocated for the year or that we may be looking to fund different work for the time being. Don’t take a “no” as a criticism of your leadership or your work but instead explore if we would be open to your reapplying another time in the future. It could be that you get a “yes” two years down the line!
  4. Define Success Ahead of Time. Before initiating a conversation, have a very clear understanding of what you want/need as the outcome. A funder will almost never make a high-dollar investment commitment on the spot - particularly after one conversation, so your first ask should not be for funding. Instead, be realistic about your definition of success and instead consider it a win if you are asked to deepen the conversation with a follow up meeting or to submit a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) or proposal.
  5. Above all…Be Authentic! Don’t use jargon or too much industry-speak. Use your own words to explain the problem you are trying to solve, and the impact you are having in the communities you serve. Your voice, your story, your impact, your journey…these are the things most funders want to hear during your first interaction. If you capture their attention and touch their heart first, there will likely be a chance later to lay on the data!


What I wish Funding Partners or Potential Funding Partners Knew

  1. Ask Where Your Funds Are Needed Most. Before making any assumptions as to where your money is best invested, ask the organization leader where your funds will have the greatest impact and why.
  1. Fund Overhead. Funding operating expenses is a great way to help NGOs shift from being program-centric to systems-centric, which typically leads to sustainability. Keep in mind that part of those overhead costs include the person that you’re talking to!
  1. Unrestricted Funding Leads to Innovation. Unrestricted funding will fuel your NGO partners’ innovation and visioning for greater impact. For organizations that know the nuances of their individual costs well, or the partner whose vision may require creative funding solutions, allowing them to choose where the funds are invested can be transformational.
  1. Invest in Leaders, Ideas and Mentorship. As a funder, you often have a 30,000-foot view of the sector, and can help guide newer NGOs through roadblocks your current grantees have previously navigated. Further, the social sector is involved in solving complex problems that don’t always respond to traditional funding processes; investing your funding in an up-and-coming organization tells them, “I believe in you.” Don’t spend so long navel gazing about your strategic priorities-- experiment, invest in ideas and leadership, and see what works!
  1. Think Holistically. To make lasting impact, we have to work holistically if the community/context/system is not already in place to support and further our influence. Some NGO leaders work at the grassroots level, and we rely upon local leadership. We need resources to build our own capacity while the local leaders we serve work on expanding the capacity within their communities. The changes that we all seek can only happen when these smaller NGOs, local leaders, and funders make decisions that influence and support all parties in interconnected ways.

We were thrilled to see that this entreaty showed up on both sides of the conversation - from NGO to Funder and from Funder to NGO. We’ve gathered insights from our years in the sector beyond what you see here; contact either one of us for more:

Natalie Rekstad at [email protected]; and

Michele Dilworth at [email protected]

In the meantime:

Remember Your Value! 

NGOs to Funders: “Your support is absolutely necessary to do this life-changing work. Funders make up the lifeblood of NGOs’ success and can completely alter the direction of the future.”

Funders to NGOs: Re-referencing #1 in the funder section, it is worth restating here: “You are doing the deeply necessary work on the front lines. We need you as much as you need us. Own your worth in interactions with us, and treat us as your equals in solving an issue in which we both care deeply.”

For more on this topic, we recommend Unicorns Unite by Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Jane Leu, and Vu Le. The book is an inside look at how foundations and nonprofits relate today, and how to arrive at a future filled with partnerships grounded in equality, trust, and creativity — partnerships to help us think bigger, bolder, and better about social change.

About the Author(s)

Natalie Rekstad Founder & CEO Black Fox Philanthropy, LLC, B Corp

Michele Dilworth Director, Candid West

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