Building Capacity by Transforming Grantor/Grantee Relationships

We often hear that nonprofits desire a closer and more open relationship with their funders. And while many grantmakers support this idea, it’s not always clear what it actually means in practice.

The Bayview Hunters Point Community Fund offers one example of what it looks like when traditional grantor/grantee relationships are changed to foster mutual trust and a more personal relationship. We recently released a final report to share what we learned about capacity building over our 13 year initiative, during which we provided an unprecedented level of funding to 30 small youth development organizations within the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.

We didn’t set out to transform the way we worked with grantee partners. Our original goal was to help build the organizational and programmatic capacity of youth-serving organizations in this low-income, traditionally African American neighborhood. But we quickly realized that to be effective, our capacity building activities needed to be individualized and responsive.

What did this really mean in practice?

  • Making a long-term commitment. Ten years evolved into 13 so that we could achieve our capacity building goals.
  • Giving up some control by providing large grants for general operating support instead of tying grants to specific programs or activities. Grantees needed flexible funding to meet their basic organizational needs.  
  • Setting flexible grant objectives and outcomes. We made an effort to truly understand the context in which our grantees worked and the challenges that, at times, took focus off of capacity building goals.
  • Not forcing collaboration. Although supporting collaboration among grantees was one of our underlying goals, over time we realized that we had to let it grow organically.
  • Being open and vulnerable ourselves. Our relationship could not be one-sided. We needed to become genuinely receptive to grantees’ needs, ideas, and critiques.
  • Supporting the whole leader. As our work deepened, we identified grantees’ need for support around healing and well-being to strengthen their leadership and enable them to better serve youth and the wider community.

This last lesson may have been our most significant. While there is an increasing focus on the importance of funding leadership development, at times the conversation doesn’t consider the prevalent burnout and community trauma that many leaders of small nonprofits face. Over our 13 years we learned that healing and well-being are integral to leadership development, particularly when work is so personal. We began to augment our capacity building with activities for individual reflection, self-care, and healing. These included facilitated sessions to process personal grief and loss and learn about the effects of stress on mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. We also incorporated stress reduction practices into our retreats, such as massages, meditation, and other opportunities for quiet contemplation. Because of our holistic support, we believe we helped to foster individual, organizational, and community strength that will enrich the lives of Bayview Hunters Point youth for years to come. 

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