Giving Compass' Take:

• Vu Le explains how funder fragility can undermine valuable feedback and how funders can work to recognize and overcome their own fragility. 

• Where do you see fragility in your work? Do you or members of your organization exhibit this behavior? 

• Learn more about the power of feedback

At a group convening I attended a while back, we discussed some of the challenges facing leaders of color in the sector, including how 90% of funding still go to white-led organizations, how funders still use a very white lens in what is considered good data and effective programs, how the smallest and most burdensome grants are often the only ones accessible to marginalized-communities-led organizations, how white foundation boards are, the general lack of trust foundations have for nonprofits, and how progressive foundations spend endless amounts of time intellectualizing, which disproportionately harms marginalized communities because they cannot afford to wait months or years for funding decisions.

This was a group of all leaders of color, so it was cathartic and affirming for many attendees to hear that their frustrations were not imagined. As we started talking about potential solutions, though, the group’s conversation and energy quickly took a detour. A foundation program officer, who was of color, started talking about how the foundation she worked for was not like that, how they had been changing, how it felt like we were attacking and “vilifying” foundations, how we needed to not be “divisive,” etc. The previous momentum was cut off as several people in the group in succession started affirming this program officer and reassuring her that she and her foundation were great and helpful and generous and amazing. A conversation on systemic challenges suddenly became about one funder’s feelings.

This experience made me realize there is a “Funder Fragility” that parallels the other types of fragility we have been seeing a lot of in our sector and in society: White Fragility, Male Fragility, Heteronormative Fragility, Cisgender Fragility, Able-Bodied Fragility, etc. These fragilities all have similar patterns: A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.

If you are a foundation program officer or board trustee, please spend some time reflecting and acting on these things:

  • Acknowledge power dynamics and your privilege as a funder.
  • Be aware of when and how you get riled up.
  • Be sympathetic.
  • Understand that fragility takes on many forms.
  • Appreciate the feedback given and the risks nonprofits are taking.
  • Find areas of validity.
  • Commit to implementing changes in the spirit of true partnership.

Read the full article about funder fragility by Vu Le at GuideStar.