As one of the world’s most famous moral leaders, Nelson Mandela’s larger-than-life struggle against apartheid inspired many of us, but it was something he said inside a Johannesburg office in 2005 that has always stayed with me.

At the time, the organization that I had co-founded, Keystone Accountability, was less than two years old. The Nelson Mandela Foundation was a founding partner, and I was meeting with the foundation’s Executive Director John Samuel.

The phone rang in his office and he answered it, spoke for a minute, then turned to me and asked, “Would you like to move this conversation over to President Mandela’s office? He has just come into the office. We weren’t expecting him today. He likes meeting our partners.”

After taking our seats and preliminaries I remember launching into a nervous explanation of “the problem” – how so much development aid and philanthropy went wrong because the recipients of aid had no real say in it. He listened politely for a short while, then leaned forward slightly indicating a wish to speak. I went dead quiet. I know exactly what he said because I wrote it down verbatim and then later worked it up to a longer quote with John and got Mandela’s approval to use it in our promotional materials.

I have found that those who enjoy the most power and influence – even with the best of intentions – tend to over-rely on their own counsel. We see in most anti-poverty programmes, for example, a lack of accountability by donors and NGOs to the people who are meant to benefit from the programmes.

Mandela’s observation at first glance fits with a common critique that juxtaposes top-down versus bottom-up approaches to development. But I have come to believe that this way of thinking subtly misses the true driver of impact, and what Mandela was saying to me that day. In social change, as in our personal and social lives, it is relationships that determine outcomes. (And there was no one better at bringing people together and creating effective, high-trust relationships than Nelson Mandela.)

To solve tough societal problems, we need everyone. We need top-down (read science, technical expertise, money, institutional capacity) and we need bottom-up (read local ownership, initiative, and commitment).

The juxtaposition that is most helpful in getting to more successful development or social change practice is doing-to versus doing-with. As President Mandela saw, powerful actors adorned in resources like money, education, technology, and access, rarely break out of their privilege to value relationships. Rather, with their naïve “good intentions,” to paraphrase William Blake’s 18th century insight, they pave the road to hell.

As a funder, there is a simple way to avoid the doing-to trap. Just ask yourself from time to time where you are on the doing-to to doing-with spectrum. Doing-with may take more time, but it is more enriching for everyone and it generates more impact overall.

Doing-with funders have more fun! They cultivate what we call a craft of mutuality. They are attentive to how the organizations that they support or might support are doing with their own mutuality practices. Organizations that have credible mutuality craft will demonstrate how they work to get high-trust relationships. They will measure and manage those relationships with continuous, light-touch feedback loops. They will invest heavily in the soft skills of doing-with for their frontline staff – things like coaching and appreciative inquiry.

For an in-depth look at an exemplary mutuality aware foundation, I commend this profile of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust by the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community.