Transforming the Donor-Grantee Relationship
Effective giving requires strong personal relationships and networks.
Jeffrey Walker came to the world of philanthropy from a successful career in business. For 25 years, he was CEO and co-founder of the $12 billion private equity firm, JPMorgan Partners. He has served on numerous nonprofit boards, and for the last several years, devoted most of his time to bringing his active investor skills to the philanthropy, nonprofit, and social enterprise spaces.
He recently co-authored a book with Jennifer McCrea, The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fund-Raising, which aims to energize and empower nonprofit leaders, managers, donors, board members, and other supporters. The authors illustrate how traditional donor-grantee relationships can lead to anxiety and failure, while open-spirited and personal connections lead to discovery, growth, and often amazing results. Building on the book’s themes, Jeff discusses ways individual donors and organizations need to adapt their mindsets to focus on building personal relationships and creating networks in order to be more effective with their philanthropy.
Liz London and Alex Goldmark: In your new book, you push back against transactional fundraising with dollar targets, and suggest that deep listening, curiosity, and connections of passion should guide philanthropy. Can you share an example of how this approach allowed a board to adapt?
First, I am not against setting targets, but boards should do so with a much bigger picture than just “hitting the numbers” in mind. Instead of focusing on the transaction, build long-term relationships. Transformational fundraising comes from deepening the discussion between donors and grantees. Grantees need to treat each donor as a unique resource and passionate partner, not just a bank. This shift will unlock many resources that organizations can use to accomplish goals.
As I describe in the book, at the Berklee College of Music, where I serve on the board, the membership committee interviews each board member every year. The committee asks everyone what they wanted to get out of being a board member. We hear things like, “I’m really interested in music therapy because my kids are in special learning programs,” and “I’d like to be more involved with kids who are from Latin America, since I am there a lot.” As the committee learns about each donor’s interests, resources, and desires it becomes easier to engage them as partners in implementing our strategy. Every management team wants more out of its board, and every board member wants to feel that they are uniquely contributing to the nonprofit’s goals.
Setting goals for each person really changed the way that the Berklee board operated. The board meetings are more fun, and the fundraising team works as a partner with the CEO and the board chairman to deepen each of these board relationships. Now, even though our board is comprised of 30 busy individuals, they prioritize the Berklee board meetings above all the others, because they love being there.
Are there other specific practices that could make a donor’s relationship with a nonprofit more effective?
A donor’s relationship is enhanced when the wall between the management team and the donor comes down. For example, some foundations make it a rule to never have a representative on the board of a grantee. I just reject that. I say to foundation leaders supporting our causes, “You are as committed to this as we are. If this fails, we are all at fault. You have a lot of knowledge, experience, networks, and resources you can bring to bear to help us. Be a partner and not just a funder.” Re-framing the donor-grantee relationship by appealing to shared interests, passions, and accountability can unite them in true partnership—as opposed to just one side asking the other for help.
One method you propose for cultivating partnerships is to host small gatherings. Tell us about your “Jeffersonian Dinners.”
I used to be chairman of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, where we sponsored biannual dinners in Mr. Jefferson’s dining room with amazing people and conversations and that was my inspiration.
As opposed to your typical thousand-person fundraising event, which is not an ideal venue for meaningful discussion about an organization and its impact, I think it’s more fruitful to spend two-and-a-half hours with 12 to 15 people sitting around a table, talking about an idea or a concept related to a cause they care about. The rule of what we came to call Jeffersonian Dinners is that you can’t talk to the person next to you—you have a lightly-moderated “whole table conversation.”
For example, at one dinner, we talked about education issues with Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Nick Ehrmann of the social enterprise Blue Engine. Instead of a pitch, we used a community-organizing format called the public narrative, developed by Marshall Ganz at Harvard to build linkages between those at the table. Participants share personal stories that surface common interests (the story of me). And for the personal opening question of this dinner, we asked, “Who is your favorite teacher of all time?” People cried when they heard each other’s stories. When the conversation evolved into discussion of what we all thought was needed to retain and train great teachers, everyone started to see others at the table as people they wanted to work with (the story of we). At the end, Nick asked everyone to talk about what they wanted to do to follow up on this issue (the story of now). Half said they would host another dinner for Blue Engine; the other half asked for an invitation to another dinner. The dinners are opportunities for relationships that can grow.
What do you think keeps management and CEOs from connecting with board members and donors on this personal level?
Fear stops many from connecting with each other. We do exercises where two nonprofit CEOs sit with each other. We say to one, “You pretend you’re the donor,” and the other solicits them. Then we have them switch roles. Afterward, we talk about how they felt. The CEOs say they’re afraid of not getting the money, looking dumb, and ruining a relationship. When we ask them what it felt like to be a donor, they say the donor is afraid of being used for their money, looking stupid, and making a bad decision in front of their peers. The CEOs learn that they need to listen, build relationships, and realize that it takes time for those walls of fear to fall.
When donors and CEOs understand this, it changes things. Fundraising becomes a joyous activity that connects people who have similar passions and enjoy working together; it creates a very positive, self-sustaining system.