Respecting Grantees Maximizes Impact



Natalie Grandison is the Director of Engineering Initiatives for the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation and a former Racing Upwards Fellow at The Athena Advisors. Here she makes the case for why, in fundraising, relationships should be built on respect and trust.  

When colleges and universities across the country were rapidly shutting down

in March 2020 and transitioning to virtual learning, we knew that students enrolled in our Clark Scholars Program (CSP) would need unprecedented support. We also knew that our campus partners would best know students’ needs and challenges and how to address them.

The response of the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation during this time exemplifies the value of trust-based philanthropy and cultivating respectful relationships. The Clark Scholars Program combines financial aid for promising underrepresented students to study engineering with mentorship and guidance to develop them into future engineering leaders. Clark Scholars are in cohorts across 11 universities, and in March 2020 the Clark Foundation established an emergency aid fund to support the 275 students in the program at the time.

Because I know how difficult it can be to raise funds for what’s needed most in the moment, the emergency fund did not require a long application and reports. Instead, I asked CSP partners to call or email me directly with requests to support student needs that would not be covered by university resources. I trusted the campus program leaders to tell me the best ways to adjust the CSP, including additional funding and giving them maximum flexibility in how they used it to serve students. This trust was built over time by respecting grantees long before the pandemic.

In fundraising, relationships should be built on respect and trust. This will lead to success in closing gifts. I don’t want our CSP grantees to treat me with respect because I’m a gatekeeper to their funding; I earn their respect by listening to and learning from their experiences at all levels of the organization. And because fundraisers don’t always know who the gatekeeper to their continued support might be, they would be wise to do the same.

During grantee visits I observe how grantees treat all their colleagues, no matter their titles. As we walk the halls do they wave at colleagues and students we pass along the way? Do they thank the event staff in their remarks? These little signs of respect signal to me the culture of the organization and if the grantee shares similar values to me.

When I travel to schools, I always make a point to chat with the many different people I interact with, from drivers to photographers to assistants, thanking them for whatever role they play in ensuring a meaningful visit. I think it helps our campus partners view me differently than an intimidating funder who just wants the red-carpet treatment. In fact, I often tell grantees I don’t need the red-carpet. I am happy to meet with senior leadership, but I make sure to have conversations with the people doing the day-to-day work as well to gain as much insight as possible. My partners need to trust me since I need them to tell me the challenges they face and the barriers that affect their work. Then, I can figure out how to better support them. This is only possible if they know I respect them and trust their opinions.

Natalie Grandison and members of the Clark Foundation team meet with Clark Scholars and university leaders at Georgia Tech, October 2019.

Many times, a CSP program staff person opens up to say, “I could better serve the students if X would just let me do Y.” Armed with that information, I can help them strategize, advocate for them at their university, and share that the Foundation endorses the implementation of their idea. Along the way, I give them credit for the idea.

My advice is to share with your donors what the program really needs to be successful, even if it is outside their funding buckets or original grant agreements. That could lead to more flexible funding or introductions to other prospects that may have the capacity to fund that need.

In meetings with university deans and other senior leaders, I propose they listen to CSP staff, and I use program staff names to ensure they are properly acknowledged. When I hear positive feedback about their work or I have a great experience with them, I thank them publicly in front of their supervisors or copy their supervisors on emails. These small steps, so easy to take, have an outsized impact in demonstrating respect and building a trusting relationship.

I am also open and honest with campus partners about what is within the Foundation’s purview to support and the right timing for an ask. My advice is to listen carefully to this guidance. I don’t ask fundraisers and program staff to create elaborate decks or proposals if an email or a phone call would bring about the same result and be more efficient. I know how much effort creating such documents takes. I would rather partners focus their time on what we really want them to do – supporting our Clark Scholars.

I approach grantees this way to ensure they feel valued. I want them to know that their perspective is crucial to my work and that they can speak to me honestly without funding repercussions. Trust-based philanthropy is about partnership, not power dynamics, and it ultimately enhances my role at the Foundation. With a solid relationship, I can get information on developments with the students and behind the scenes at universities, enabling me to meet my portfolio goals. 

That mutual respect leads to trust, and trust leads to the philanthropic outcomes we both seek, like supporting and stabilizing students during a frightening, uncertain time, enabling them to continue their studies, and providing them an opportunity to pay it forward.