Power imbalance is pervasive in our sector, as ubiquitous as hummus, though not nearly as delicious. There is always asymmetry in power when one party holds resources that another party needs. This imbalance leads to all sorts of awfulness. There are endless horror stories like the above. Power differentials warp people’s minds, allowing for the internalization of toxic philosophies like strategic philanthropy, which leads to the perpetuation of crappy funding practices.

Unfortunately, people often think it’s something that only other people are guilty of, that they themselves don’t perpetuate it. There are lots of great program officers, and they are probably just as horrified by a 72-page grant proposal as the rest of us. But power dynamics can often be more subtle, to the point that we don’t recognize it, and even nice program officers are caught up in it. Here are some examples:

  • “Meet the Funder”-type events: During these events, funders would explain their priorities and provide advice on how to increase one’s chances of getting funding from their foundation.
  • Funders thinking it’s a big deal when they show up: A new foundation CEO called me up, pitching the idea of a “listening tour.” I told him that would seem like His Majesty the King of Funding will be coming down to visit the unwashed masses to hear their peasant concerns. I told him to just spend time where nonprofit people are already gathering and not to make a big fuss about his being there.
  • Funders leaving right away after dropping by: At many nonprofit conferences and summits, there are funder panels, where program officers show up to dispense advice and answer questions. Immediately after though, these funders would leave.  The signal that this often sends is “I have graced you with my presence, and now I have more important work to do.”
  • Feedback is often one-way: Nonprofits appreciate the rare times when a funder spends time giving feedback as to why a grant proposal may not be successful. But again, why is it always nonprofits that are the recipient of feedback on what they can do better? How often do funders think to solicit feedback on how to improve their processes, and then to actually act on the feedback?
  • Gratitude is expected of one party: Many development directors and EDs will send a thank-you note to program officers after getting a grant. It is rare, though much appreciated, for a nonprofit leader to receive a thank-you note or gesture from a program officer.
  • Character limits exist: If you have character limits on grants, the message you’re sending is that your time reading grant proposals is more important than that of the people writing the proposal, and because you have power, the proposal writers will just have to put up with it.

Read the full article about power dynamics in nonprofit-funder relationships by Vu Le at Nonprofit AF.