In an Increasingly Transactional Culture, Don’t Forget the Relational

Technology is spreading at ever increasing speeds.  It took the smartphone ten years to become a cultural norm, less than a third of the time that it took other everyday technologies to hit the mainstream. Other technologies like online food delivery and automated cars are expected to account for larger shares of their respective markets. The practical applications of these technologies seem limitless and save users inordinate amounts of time and energy. 

Yet as technology is advancing, what is happening to human culture and interaction?  As more products are ordered from a computer or cellular device, and reliance on those devices is increasing to higher plateaus, there is less opportunity for meaningful human interaction. In 1995, Robert Putnam wrote his initial essay which led to the award-winning Bowling Alone.  Putnam was able to point to a 43% drop in family dinners and a 35% reduction in having friends over in the preceding 25 years.  This did not even account for the introduction of Amazon and eBay in 1994 and 1995 respectively or the progression of the more recent 23 years.

Many of the daily functions that Americans undertake are reduced to transactions. While this often improves the customer’s stated satisfaction, it is arguably inhibiting the customer experience. Sitting in one’s home and ordering clothing, a kid’s toy, or food online can be efficient. But, that experience is vastly different than going into a store, particularly a neighborhood story, and engaging with a salesperson—maybe even establishing an ongoing relationship—before making a purchase.   

There has been a treasure trove of literature on transactional vs. relational approaches to marketing, customer service, and, of most interest for our purposes, grantmaking.  “Transactional” is more professional, formal, singular, and direct.  “Relational” is more cordial, informal, multifaceted, and flexible.  Each can be useful at different times. 

In a transactional approach to grantmaking, formality reigns supreme.  Success and failure are clearly defined, and dollars are doled out for one and rescinded for the other.  There is a clear beginning and endpoint, and the negotiation of terms is in the hands of the grantmakers rather than the grantee.  In a relational approach, there is a sacrifice of control on the part of the grantmaker that often leads to a greater mutual respect and partnership.  There can still be measurable outcomes, but as circumstances oscillate, these are subject to change as well.  Failure is also not as clearly defined as formative assessments in these instances, which can allow for mid-course corrections and pivots. 

When are transactional grants appropriate?  Whenever there is a one-off approach to a particular problem with a relatively concrete solution and limited oversight, a transactional approach works. It is more efficient, clear cut, and defined.  The Jim Joseph Foundation, which fosters compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews, has made investments in this regard following natural disasters and other emergency situations (such as financial) where a grant can help people return to their daily lives, including Jewish learning for their families. 

When are relational grants appropriate?  When a funder desires to establish a longer-term interactive approach with an organization or project and has the human capital to provide meaningful feedback and oversight, a relational approach works. Moreover, when a desirable outcome is the creation of a cohesive, ongoing, system of interactions, the relational approach is more likely than a transactional one to help create this environment. Simply, “Relational” is friendlier, iterative, and lasting.  For the Jim Joseph Foundation, relational grants with grantee-partners Hillel International, BBYO, Moishe House, and Foundation for Jewish Camp, offer the right framework to share important lessons with each other and with the field over numerous initiatives and years. As a result of this approach, new initiatives are created, evaluated, and improved that advance the missions of all parties.

As technology brings new innovations at increasingly fast rates, the appeal of transactional experiences is likely to continue increasing as well. But, from a grantmaking perspective, we should not forsake the relational approach, even with its challenges and lack of immediate efficiencies. Depending on a funder and grantee’s goals and other organizational factors, both approaches should be considered as viable options that can serve both parties well.

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