This guest post was authored by Joy Stephan.
It’s understood that with money, comes power. But funders don’t always think about how power influences our funding relationships. As funders, we have the power to amplify the influence of money, or conscientiously diminish its influence. It’s in our best interest to neutralize the influence money brings. Here’s why:
YOU ONLY GET SO FAR WITH A SUGAR DADDY
While NGO’s may fantasize about ‘benevolent funders’, there are limitations to no-strings-attached funds. Funding without commitment is tenuous; there isn’t a foundation for trust to develop. Further, partners are quick to blame or resent rather than focus on learning and course correction when organizations fall short of projected outcomes. Ultimately, funders who don’t trust and don’t share a commitment to the partnership cannot have a transformative impact on society.
Funding relationships are ultimately human relationships- they grow through mutual understanding, learning and appreciation. Positive emotions like these build strong, trusting bonds. These relationships, while more complex, are also more satisfying – to funders, service providers, and the community at large.
THE BIRDS AND THE BEES OF DIALOGUE
Biology plays a role – dialogue triggers neurochemical and behavioral outcomes that can expand or limit relationships. Dopamine is released in the brain when people talk to others they trust. This hormone stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain that generates new ideas, empathy, creative thinking and good judgment. In contrast, conversations between people with low trust levels release cortisol and catecholamine, chemicals that shut down the prefrontal cortex and stimulate more primitive areas sensitive to conflict and threat. This prompts protective brain functions and generates fight-flight-freeze responses and negative thoughts. Trust does not develop when primitive brain functions are active.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
Power dynamics in conversation are not discussed regularly, yet they can greatly impact the quality of our outcomes. As Judith Glaser, author and organizational anthropologist, points out; “To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations.”
Have you ever spoken with a manager who asked, “Could we try it like this?” or “Did you think about doing it this way?” Depending on the relationship, you might feel they are being helpful or discouraging. Either way, you’re not engaged in finding the solution. Your role is to deliver what’s expected, not to challenge, or question their thinking or motivation. Questions like these can prompt protective behaviors. As a result, energy is absorbed or exchanged, but not generated.
What if, in the same exchange, someone in authority asked, “How could we approach this differently?” How would that influence your energy in the conversation? Would you feel more comfortable expressing your thoughts and ideas? How would you feel about being asked your opinion?
It’s often easier to think about vulnerability when put in the ‘one-down’ position. But how many of us offer suggestions to solve a problem with our partners before asking for input from them? Even when it’s with the intent of being helpful, there’s an opportunity cost in choosing to solve instead of involve. This is just one example of how power subtly emerges in conversations.
RESILIENCE- THE NEW NORMAL
The economic downturn taught us many important lessons about the importance of resilience. One key benefit of building more ‘power-neutral’ funding relationships is that these partnerships are inherently more resilient than transactional partnerships, where the funding and delivery expectations are static. Again, when partners understand that they share the same over-arching goals for their work together, there is greater trust, more flexibility and less micromanagement.
INVOLVE – DON’T SOLVE
While funding ignites a partnership, kindling keeps fires burning. Shared learning, vision, appreciation and respect are the kindling that keeps partnerships alive. When partners involve one another, learn from one another, respect one another, and unite towards a common goal/vision for success, people, partnerships and organizations can be changed in transformative ways.
Funders that understand how to discuss and manage power dynamics are best equipped to forge trusting partnerships and make a significant, positive impact, even during volatile times. Learning to neutralize power dynamics with potential and active partners is critical to achieving significant outcomes and producing the greatest results overall. Not only do these relationships benefit from diverse thinking, they will be more sustainable, as well.
So, how we can change the conversations, relationships, and culture that will shape the world of tomorrow? What would you like to see change in your funding relationships? How are you starting new conversations in your partnerships? Where are you getting stuck? Let’s scale what we’re learning- let’s talk about it!
JOY STEPHAN provides coaching and strategy services to the philanthropic community. Funding partnerships between the American Film Institute and American Express, The New York City Department of Education and The Wallace Foundation, and numerous others have benefitted from her expertise. To connect with Joy, use LinkedIn or click here.
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