Balancing Great Relationships and Great Expectations

September 12, 2019 //

What makes for great relationships between funders and their nonprofit partners? We have always believed that it starts with respect, authenticity, and honesty across power differentials in ways that build trust over time. In fact, we have often written about ways to bridge power divides by being proactive, relational funders who don’t create conditions where potential partners have to “perform” or jump through burdensome hoops. We do our homework and initiate relationships with partners whom we are fairly confident that we will fund.

These trust-based practices have served us well, and we head into our final years as a spend out foundation with a strong core of long-term partners. Over the years, we have also sustained positive relationships with leaders and organizations to whom we weren’t able to commit multi-year support, but to whom we’ve made one or a few grants (we call them ‘annual grants’). These annual grants were critical in responding to emergent needs, particularly in the last few years where threats to democracy, civil rights, and human rights intensified. These annual grants have also been a vehicle for us to support creative arts and culture efforts, grassroots and power-building efforts, and participate in funder collaboratives to model followership and collaboration.

Our annual grants have also given us the opportunity to learn directly from many partners across a range of issues and approaches that enrich our learning journey as funders practitioners. It means our network is larger than the ten or so groups that comprise our multi-year grants and expansive in myriad ways. It also means we have the privilege of being in direct relationships with many brilliant and stalwart leaders who are facing the challenges of this moment with courage and clarity.

There is a shadow side to nurturing the positive learning relationships that we’ve brokered through annual funding, though. Sometimes we really do offer a “one-time” grant and ongoing relationships of learning. Sometimes a “one-time” grant actually ended up being repeated a few times over. Our practice of staying in relationships that transcend the transactional (e.g. we are happy to stay and be in community and contact, and remain supportive regardless of our ability to make a grant) has been confusing to some.

In a few instances, despite the verbal and written communication that the annual grant is a one-time grant, and because we sometimes had made more than one, one-time grant previously—an organization or two came to expect a renewal based on the relationship we have and our positive affirmation of their work. And rightfully let us know how disappointed they were when we clarified that this year we weren’t going to make an additional “one-time” grant.

The truth is our word didn’t totally match our behavior/energy. [??‍♀️ face plant!] We signaled so much affirmation to the partner, and we had funded them previously, so despite what we thought was clear communication—we created expectations that we didn’t have the capacity to deliver on. To be clear, there is so much worthy work that we do not have the capacity to fund. But we thought we had covered our bases by indicating that these were one-time grants.

Realizing that we had created great expectations that led to disappointments is a powerful moment of learning for us. No matter how intentional and transparent we think we are, the fact that we are a grantmaking institution always implies that relationships with us come with funding. It’s the great power imbalance we want to try to solve for with trust-based philanthropy, and it is certainly an invisible wire we have tripped and tripped over.

Especially as we come close to our spend out horizon, and the funds we have available overall diminish, it will more often be the case that we come across efforts that align deeply with our values but that we do not have the resources to fund. Should we steer clear of relationships with these aligned folks? Our hypothesis is that being in a relationship may bring some positive benefits if we can connect nonprofits to others in our network, but perhaps we need to rethink that? How do we balance great relationships without generating expectations that we cannot meet? These are questions about which we’d love to be in conversation with the greater community of funders who care deeply about relationships, trust, and brokering power imbalances. Please add a comment below with your thoughts!

Note: This post originally appeared on Robert Sterling Clark Foundation’s website as part of their Face Plants series about funder mistakes and lessons learned. Read more at