Insights from “Bridging Practice to Lead Forward - An Invitation from the Leadership Transitions Funders Group”

Monday, August 7, 2023

Insights from “Bridging Practice to Lead Forward - An Invitation from the Leadership Transitions Funders Group”

Key Takeaways

Leaders discussed and shared the following insights and takeaways:  

  • The power dynamics between funders and grantee partners inherently make leadership conversations a difficult topic. Funders should be more proactive in creating space to have these conversations.
  • Supporting this moment of change is integral not just to supporting leadership transitions, but to the overall success of an organization
  • Funders should help to normalize transitions as part of the life cycle of a nonprofit

Over the past year, Philanthropy New York’s Leadership Transitions Funders Group endeavored to build a community of practice by engaging a number of funders to help normalize leadership transition conversations and identify practices that could be supportive. With a goal of strengthening funder practices in supporting nonprofits during leadership transitions, these conversations were held with various funders over the course of a year.

By adopting holistic funding practices and supporting long-term organizational capacity, the actions funders take can ultimately move from specific support of leadership transitions to strengthening the nonprofit sector as a whole.

We are excited to elevate this conversation on a national scale through the launch of Leading Forward, a national community of practice focused on more equitable leadership transitions in the nonprofit sector. You can join the Leading Forward community today to participate in joint learning and access resources for equitable leadership transitions.

Leading Forward’s Melissa Sines summed up the creation of this new national initiative: “We are ready to learn together, to help each other and shift the culture in how we approach supporting our grantee partners.”

Create space for difficult conversations

Transition and succession planning conversations are rarely had between grantee partners and their longtime funders, and when they do take place, it is late in a process that might have already been underway for months. “Unless the funder explicitly asks about [a grantee’s] succession plans, they are unlikely to bring it up or apply capacity building funds towards this purpose,” said Carrie Harlow, Director of Programs & Partnerships for the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative.

This lack of conversation speaks to a lack of trust and other power dynamic issues between funders and grantee partners, and can result in funders being told about transitions at a much later time after a transition is decided upon. Harlow notes that oftentimes, grantees know one-to-two years before the transition is to occur, yet they may not communicate this to funders until much later.

It is important for funders to proactively acknowledge the need for leadership conversations, and make it apparent that they are ready to have this conversation and create a safe space for doing so.

Amalia Brindis Delgado, Chief Strategy Officer for the Panta Rhea Foundation, discussed that the power imbalance at play may spur the hesitancy of communication, but suggested that by having a deeper relationship with your grantee partner, it lessens both this hesitancy and the delay in communication. 

She offered conversational points that include talking about what’s working and what’s not; organizational shifts and changes; and pro-active conversations about succession planning. Harlow also added to this point, saying, “There’s so much power in what you’re informally sharing with your grantees, including providing explicit examples of how your funding may be used,” in regards to not just awarding general operating grants but also naming transition planning and implementation activities among allowable expenditures. 

Brindis Delgado also provided concrete tactics that can be used to collaborate and ease anxiety owned by both parties, such as partnering to create a checklist that helps organizations find sustainability amid transition and shifting the determinants of funding; 

“Funding should not be tied to performance metrics, to ensure that it’s about the work rather than arbitrary metrics. This will lead to a deeper relationship that ensures our partners have the flexibility to do the work they want to do.”

Understand that providing support is a journey

In creating a safe space for grantee partners, Brindis Delgado made clear the importance of consistency and accountability in the philanthropic sector: ”Funders have their own expectations for grantees; however, it is just as important that we are listening to and addressing [grantees’] expectations as well. This is just one way to make sure that the values we say we all share are actually being put into practice, and that all parties are remaining on the same page.”

The journey of being an active supporter beyond metrics is just that: a journey. As mentioned in Insights from “The Path to Racial Equity: How Board Readiness Informs Organizational Readiness for Black Board Leadership”, to be someone committed to racial equity and inclusion, you have to be in a constant state of interrogation. The same is true not only in appointing BIPOC leadership internally but going the extra mile to empower the BIPOC leadership of organizations you are funding.

Aligning your values with your practices is a process that requires an entire culture shift rather than a few changes. It is about the overarching dismantling of white supremacy throughout the collective. Brindis Delgado elaborates, “It’s not just giving room for token representation, but actually creating room for other perspectives. In our general-operating four to five year funding (models), how do we support grantees in optimizing their resources and ensure they’re able to create impact for as long as they can and not have to worry about the overall sustainability of their organization?”

With this point in mind, Harlow added that funders should expect grantee partners to have diversity, equity and inclusion goals baked into their transition plans, with organizational values and intentions explicitly embedded into transition planning, recruitment, and onboarding processes.

Look to your grantee partners for what they need

It is crucial to note that not every funders’ journey looks the same, and support looks different for each grantee partner. Support may require the assistance of intermediaries, which is an option we have discussed previously, to navigate conversations between grantees and funders. Support may also require the withdrawal and reimagining of traditional models. 

Harlow noted the benefits she has experienced in having a direct relationship with grantees as an intermediary, “You’re able to be nimble, and it can be easier to be responsive and targeted with a designated pooled fund rather than through traditional philanthropy where each institution has its own process and timeline.” 

Brindis Delgado added her own positive experience with a funder collaborative as an alternative to traditional models that can sometimes create barriers to deepening the funder-grantee relationship. “The funder collaborative model has allowed us [the flexibility] to give resources through transitions. The traditional model enforces demand and control rather than keeping things conversational.”

Whether it be monetary support with the freedom and flexibility to use the support as organizations see fit, more encouragement for them to actually ask for the support, or simply more time so they can lift up the leadership already present within their organizations — it is necessary to have support on various fronts, but each organization requires different doses of all the support you can provide. 

Ultimately, as Brindis Delgado stated, “there is no one way to do it right,” and that is why it is crucial to communicate with your grantees and ask how you can best support them. She expands on this, “To do the work, folks need all the support.” 


This series was created in conversation with Philanthropy New York's Leadership Transitions Funders Group and Co-Sponsored By: 


Find More By

News type