Last September, I was one of 40 participants in a two-day training session that examined structural racism in America, from the 1600s until today. One of the many ideas from the session that stuck with me was that everyone at a nonprofit organization – foundations included – serves as a gatekeeper. Everyone, from board members to the CEO to receptionists, enjoys some level of control over who has access to valuable but limited resources. And the way each person shares (or restricts) that access has a significant impact on communities.
Fast forward to December. I was participating on a panel about the next generation of philanthropy (co-sponsored by Foundation Center Cleveland) and a question was asked about the areas philanthropy needs to improve. My answer was two-fold: 1) foundations need to become better partners with nonprofit organizations, and 2) foundations need to become more diverse to more closely reflect the communities we are trying to serve. The response to my comments was mostly positive. However, concerns were raised about the dangers of funders getting too close to grantees, such as being unable to hold grantees accountable. While I understood these concerns to a certain point, I struggled with the underlying assumption that building strong relationships could be considered a “risky behavior” for philanthropy.
I think the tendency of funders is to employ a strict gatekeeper mindset, which hampers philanthropy’s opportunity to do better work. As gatekeepers, we are entrusted to use our resources as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, working from a scarcity mindset can lead to an overemphasis on resource protection, sometimes to the detriment of fulfilling the organization’s mission. Below are three examples of how being overly fixated on limited resources and formalities can hurt your effectiveness as a grantmaker.
Have you observed these or other similar behaviors? Maybe you’re guilty of one or more. There are other examples of how well-meaning philanthropic professionals can limit their effectiveness by focusing too heavily on being gatekeepers. In 2017, my hope is that philanthropy will start working to spend less time being gatekeepers and more time being gate openers.