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The New FAQ: What Do Our Nonprofit Partners REALLY want from the Funder/Grantee Relationship?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Dy Diana Loukedis Doherty

VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn is a small independent foundation with a narrow geographic focus, and we spend a lot of time trying to build, maintain and strengthen relationships with our grantees. From our perspective, there are a few levels on which our best relationships tend to function:

  • Organizational (mission alignment between foundation and nonprofit)
  • Professional (clear communication around the grant) and
  • Personal (the people involved respect and trust each other)

Recently we asked about 85 of our nonprofit partners to share their perspective on that relationship, to ensure that we were on the same page.  At our recent annual breakfast for grantees, we asked for their thoughts about “What Works/What Doesn’t in the Grantor-Grantee Relationship,” enlisting their anonymous feedback not only about their interaction with the VNA Foundation, but also with funders in general.  Like many of you, we are members of Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia because we are always looking to improve (I love that about our membership!) so we thought we’d share this honest feedback with our colleagues in the field. 

What Works- In Grantees’ Own Words
  • Multi-year funding (cited numerous times)
    • “Props for multi-year grant funding!"
    • “Grantors that are committed to providing funding AND ongoing partnership to support new and existing programs”
    • “Long-term support from foundations= sustainability”
  • General Operating funding (also cited numerous times- no surprise there!)
    • “Absolutely appreciate the opportunity to apply for general operating grants"
    • “Operating grants that allow for maintaining and growing capacity. Project-based grants tend to lead to creating projects for funding purposes and not client-need satisfaction”
    • “More operations support, including support to increase staff salary, wages and benefits”
  • Streamlined Grant Process
    • “Having an application process that is streamlined and easy to navigate really promotes inclusion”
    • “The VNAF's ease of application and flexibility in spending is invaluable in allowing us to pivot to meet the needs of the families we serve”
  • Flexibility
    • “Be flexible and easy to work with, balancing trust in, and knowledge of, your grantees”
    • “Flexibility: Needs and challenges are constantly changing.  So flexibility and understanding to rearrange and redistribute funding is very valuable”
    • “Flexibility to be agile, to learn and pivot, is needed”
  • Foster Partnerships
    • “Funders like the VNAF that foster partnerships between provider agencies, assisting people in need in addition to funding these collaborative efforts”
    • “I appreciate the opportunity for public forums where grantees can connect and network in person, as this offers additional opportunities for collaboration and building a stronger safety net”
    • “It’s more than the $$.  You provide opportunities to build relationships.”
  • Trust and Transparency
    • “I appreciate funders like VNA who enable my organization to take risks and try out new ideas”
    • “Really appreciate VNA Foundation's trust in our work and flexible reporting process”
    • “I have appreciated the transparency of the VNA in sharing both opportunities and limitations for partnering”
    • “Trust-based philanthropy is the bomb!”
Areas Where Funders Could Improve- In Grantees’ Own Words
  • “Be thoughtful about the number of questions you ask- only ask what you really need to know”
  • “Match character limits to the complexity of the question”
  • “Would like more opportunities for 1:1 conversations with funders before/during the grant cycle”
  • “Please do not go back to the same practices before COVID.  Multi-year grants, reporting conversations, less complex grantmaking process.”
  • “Please understand that 5-10% administrative costs are not enough”
  • “Invite potential grantees to events to get to know us.  Be receptive to relationship-building with the people”
  • “Enough advance notice for funding opportunities to allow our staff to discuss/decide if we want to apply and then put together a good and well-thought-out application”
  • “Accept proposals written for other foundations”
  • “Don't use PDF forms that require Adobe to fill out”
  • “Don't ask us to fill out your form for our Board list, please let us attach our own”
Some Takeaways

While we asked our grantees to comment on their relationships with funders in general, we saw that many of the comments directly addressed practices that we employ here at the VNA Foundation. We were encouraged to know that grantees appreciate our practice of convening them to share learnings and partnership ideas, and our transparent communications style.  They also favor our use of a shorter, streamlined application and our switch to “Reporting Conversations,” which are 30-minute Zoom conversations we hold with grantees in lieu of a written grant report. Additionally, our grantees were excited to learn that VNA Foundation is teaming up with HealthSpark Foundation to launch a pilot program in Fall, 2023 where nonprofits can request that our two foundations share their application information, reducing the time and effort that applicants spend submitting grants to both funders.  News of this pilot program prompted comments from out grantees such as “Amazing!” and “Wow! Thank you for working with other funders to help us!”

At the VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn, we aim to make “How Are We Serving Your Needs?” one of our Frequently Asked Questions in the grant process.  We will continue to ask our grantees for their input, listen to their suggestions, and implement changes to help foster a stronger relationship with our trusted, treasured partners. 


Diana Loukedis Doherty is the Executive Director of the VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn, a private grantmaking foundation that invests in nonprofit organizations strengthening the health and well-being of people in the Greater North Penn region of Montgomery County, PA.