How to Give Feedback to Your Funders—Especially When It’s Hard

Blue Avocado - Eleni Refu, Lisa Ranghelli

Nonprofits can empower themselves to speak out.

In 2014, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) launched an innovative initiative called Philamplify, which evolved into Power Moves. It promoted open, honest feedback to challenge the culture of deference in philanthropy. Back then, we saw how lack of truth-telling in philanthropy, compounded by nonprofits’ fear of reprisals, stood in the way of authentic, impactful relationships needed to implement systemic strategies that can advance racial equity. Today, the urgency of Covid-19, protests against police violence, climate upheaval, and other crises place heightened pressure on grantmakers to listen, learn, and engage in forthright dialogue with nonprofit partners and the communities they serve. Now, we ask ourselves, six years later is that fear still pervasive today?

Unfortunately, there is evidence that it may be. NCRP’s nonprofit members still have to rely on us to tell funders what philanthropy is doing wrong, although we try to look for every opportunity to empower them to do so directly.

This reticence should not be surprising since funders still control the resources that nonprofits need to exist and continue to hoard assets despite urgent needs. Charities are forced to compete with one another for limited resources, and most will remain reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. This is especially true for nonprofits that are already underfunded like those in majority Black communities and those working with immigrants and refugees.

Figure 1. Results of an investigation by NCRP into select community foundations’ grantmaking explicitly designated for Black communities in 2016-2018.

Our recent research, driven by requests from our nonprofit members, looked into community foundation giving explicitly designated for Black communities (see Figure 1) and local-to-local grantmaking explicitly designated for immigrant- and refugee-serving nonprofits and movement groups (see Figure 2). We found that the share of local philanthropic dollars specifically designated for these respective communities was a mere penny per dollar for service organizations and less than half that for movement groups involved in advocacy and organizing, despite their obvious disproportionate vulnerability.

Figure 2. A recent study by NCRP found that in 2017-2018, foundations in only 14 states gave more than 1% of funding to specifically benefit immigrants and refugee communities.

While these funding inequities show that nonprofits continue to have reason to fear repercussions, there have been promising signs that nonprofit and community leaders are beginning to feel more emboldened to speak out. In 2015-16, after Philamplify publicly assessed 5 major foundations with a racial equity lens, the Black Star Project led a campaign accusing the MacArthur Foundation of “redlining” by underinvesting in Chicago’s South and West side communities of color. The articles and related protests garnered local media attention. The campaign motivated MacArthur to strengthen and accelerate its new Chicago grantmaking strategy and related funding commitments to local neighborhood organizations, and to more intentionally consider the trade-offs between funding intermediaries and funding groups directly in communities. This bold campaign and its leader Phillip Jackson also inspired Edgar Villaneuva as he wrote his influential critique of the philanthropic sector, Decolonizing Wealth.

So, what is really going on below the surface?

Recent Trends

  1. Growing support. Within the sector, more leaders are advocating for honest relationships and strong feedback loops, and more resources exist to support these. Resources such as the following help normalize more open and honest funder practices and also invite nonprofit partners to give direct feedback:
    • Vu Le’s blog, Nonprofit AF
    • Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships, the book Vu Le co-authored with Jessamyn Shams-Lau and Jane Leu
    • Funder networks such as Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and Fund for Shared Insight
    • NCRP’s Power Moves funder self-assessment guide
  1. Funder interest in inclusivity. Increased funder interest in “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” participatory grantmaking, and other inclusive practices also provides an opening for nonprofits to amplify their voices. We receive frequent funder inquiries about how to solicit input equitably and how to make grantmaking more participatory. A survey we conducted in the winter of 2019 asked funders whether they had gathered honest input and feedback from grant partners in the last year and used it to inform strategies and practices.

NCRP foundations in 14 States

Figure 3. NCRP Winter 2019 survey results. Almost half (48 percent) said they had gathered honest input and feedback from grant partners in the last year and used it to inform strategies and practices, 45 percent said they were working on it, and only 7 percent said that they either didn’t know or that this wasn’t on their radar.

  1. New platforms. New platforms enable nonprofits to comment on funder practices, and a growing list of campaigns target or call out specific foundations. #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW!, org, and funderfeedback.org are some notable platforms for feedback and critique. In the last several months, we’ve observed bold actions not previously considered, such as a protest in March by immigrant rights activists in Pittsburgh against Colcom, an anti-immigrant funder, and a Facebook Live press conference in early August, in which Miami’s Black grassroots community challenged local funders over funding disparities in the area. A recent open letter from grant recipients critiquing an arts trust highlighted this growing boldness.
  2. Increased urgency. Over the last several years the changing landscape of political, economic, and social movements has created a sense of urgency for foundation leaders to step up. Let’s be frank, from the first Black Lives Matter protests in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013, to the election of 45, to the pandemic with its stark racial disparities, and yet again to the current widespread and renewed movements for racial justice, funders have realized that giving lip service to notions of equity and inclusion is just not going to cut it.

After years of being ignored or filling out funder surveys with no idea how, or even whether, the information was being used, nonprofits are left feeling skeptical of the feedback system—even when one exists. Yet if funders don’t get meaningful input and feedback from nonprofits and communities, they risk being out-of-touch or tone deaf and perpetuators of the white supremacist power structure that is harming Black communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color.

For funders to be more authentically inclusive, they will have to completely upend existing cultural norms in the philanthropic sector; specifically, norms which are rooted in white supremacist practices that were shaped when it was acceptable for power imbalances to inform funder-grantee relations. It is still the norm, even expected in some places, for nonprofits to show deference to the whims and expectations of their funders, however unnecessary or counterproductive that may be. Just look at some of the examples of “crappy funding practices” that nonprofit leaders reported to Vu Le over Twitter during this epidemic. Today, too many grantmaking processes still overburden nonprofits with arduous application and reporting requirements and place the burden of proving effectiveness not on the entity with the most power, but on the one carrying out the labor.

Giving Honest, Direct Feedback to Funders

We urge nonprofits to take advantage of this moment and empower themselves to speak out. Here are ways to do just that:

  • Reframe your sense of your own power and that of your peers by recognizing that funders need you to fulfill their mission. There is often more strength in numbers, so, whenever possible, seek to band together with other nonprofits in order to reach out to a funder collectively. There are established nonprofit member networks you can join like the National Council of Nonprofits and NCRP that have a history of advocating for nonprofits. When you approach a funder, come armed with data on gaps in funding and a set of requests or demands for improvement. Keep in mind, too, that funders hate negative publicity. They would prefer to address issues before a situation gets to that point, which, again, is easier done by a group working collectively than an individual organization going it alone.
  • Know that your power may also come from your proximity to whatever topic or issue is currently trending in the philanthropic sector. You can take advantage of any such proximity by proactively opening a channel of communication with funders who may find your knowledge and experience with the issue at hand informative. If you don’t know what those trending topics are, read Blue Avocado! You can also explore other online publications that offer some free-access articles, as well as the websites of the nearest grantmaking association (they often list the topics that they and their members are discussing in their newsletters, social media feeds, events, etc.).
  • Grow your power and access—find funder allies who can offer friendly forums for engagement. Identify funders or funder staff in your networks who are interested in mitigating the inherent power imbalance that exists between funders and grantees and in building honest relationships with their grant partners. Philanthropy-supporting organizations and networks, like the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, that are working with funders on these types of issues can also provide the appropriate platforms. Should a regional association decline to provide a forum, you may still be able to work with a funder ally who has stature and credibility in the community to host a dialogue among funders, nonprofits, and their constituents. You may also look to annual funder conferences to offer opportunities for you to host workshops or breakout sessions on topics that concern you.
  • Invest time building good relationships and rapport with program staff both at the foundations that already support you and at those that you hope to solicit soon. The staff can be important allies to understand the foundation in question, and they will be your points of leverage when it comes time to seek accountability from your funders. In addition, look through a foundation’s list of their board of directors to find points of connection that you can use to cultivate a relationship with those who have decision-making power. You can also be strategic with the timing of your feedback. Look for openings where you will have the most impact to influence funder decisions, such as during a leadership change or during their strategic planning process.

Foundation leaders are well-meaning people who want to do good in the world. And they have power and privilege that they may or may not mindfully use or seek to mitigate. The sector’s growing attention to issues of equity and inclusion, the current crises facing our nation, and the resurgence of social movements have all contributed to the gradual emboldening of those who depend on philanthropy to create community-level change. Nonprofits know how to advocate with policy makers to meet community needs. They can apply the same advocacy skills with funders and donors—finding mutual interest, building relationships, organizing in numbers, cultivating inside allies, and taking advantage of windows of opportunity to find an opening for starting a dialogue or applying pressure.


Eleni Refu is the Senior Engagement Associate responsible for leading the engagement strategies of NCRP’s Power Moves project. Having spent the last six years in the philanthropic sector as a fundraiser and then as a program evaluator, she understands how power imbalances manifest and the kinds of systemic approaches necessary to effectively address them.

Previously, Eleni was the accountability and transparency systems manager at The Ocean Foundation, a marine conservation nonprofit and grantmaker. While there, she spearheaded the organization’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative and lead an effort to introduce equitable evaluation practices while managing the organization’s internal evaluation system. Before that, she launched her career in the nonprofit sector through a Shriver AmeriCorps Vista fellowship at LIFT-DC, an anti-poverty organization.


Lisa Ranghelli is NCRP’s senior director of evaluation and learning, and primary author of Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice. She developed Power Moves from Philamplify, an innovative initiative she created that assessed a dozen major foundations with a social justice and equity lens. She also oversees NCRP’s internal learning and evaluation.

Previously, Lisa directed NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project, culminating in her report, Leveraging Limited Dollars, which documented an ROI of $115 for funder investments in advocacy and organizing. Prior to joining NCRP in 2008, Lisa spent 15 years promoting advocacy and civic engagement, both in the nonprofit and public sectors, including as deputy director of public policy at Community Change. Based in Greenfield, Massachusetts, she co-chairs the board of Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts.

 

Learn  more at https://blueavocado.org/fundraising/how-to-give-feedback-to-your-funders-especially-when-its-hard/

  • Blue Avocado - Eleni Refu, Lisa Ranghelli