A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Working with Non-profits: Funder Driven or Grantee Led?


Who sets the agenda?  If we believe in the work of our non-profits, we should just give them the damn money.

I recently read an article in which the CEO of a major foundation was complaining that funders often get in the way of their grantees’ work, that they feel that they know best and should set the agenda for their grantees. She implied that, if we truly believe in the work of our non-profits we should get out of the way and ‘just give them the damn money’ and let them do their work. Our grantees know best.

On the other hand, many funders believe they must set the agenda. After all, non-profits are often focused on a specific issue or population and may not have the time or resources to see the ‘broader picture’. And the reality is they often have to focus on their own survival, and this can sometimes get in the way of true collaboration or innovation. Funders, on the other hand, often can take a step back and see the complexity of problems facing a community. They may be able to better identify the gaps and where investment and resources are needed. This broad community understanding means that many funders feel they must be the ones to set the agenda and determine what kind of programs and activity they will fund, and ultimately the direction their grantees take.

So – which of these approaches is the correct one? Should we only listen to our grantees and simply give them the money? Or do we know best and should we set the agenda? Should we determine the goals, the direction, and the programs that are needed – and that we are willing to support - to solve difficult problems?

I would suggest that the answer to that question is very simple – and paradoxically very complex. The truth is, that if we really want to solve big issues, neither approach by itself is going to work. This has been borne out by the incredible lack of success we’ve had with either one in dealing with the many difficult issues in our country. The fact is, it isn’t an either/or - it’s a both/and. Yes, we as funders must listen to our grantees. They have invaluable first-hand knowledge, experience and often data. But, at the same time, we must also take the lead in ensuring that we use our money, our voice and our influence strategically to create systemic solutions, not just good programs or good non-profits. We need to step back, to learn about our community, to understand the bigger picture and to use our resources accordingly.

But what does that actually mean? How can we, as funders, support our grantees and work together with them so as to truly make a positive difference? How do we take a systems approach, not, on the one hand, just giving them the money, or on the other, forcing our grantees to fit our mold – but actually preventing and ending so-called intractable problems - together?

I have been fortunate to travel to various communities throughout our country, where I have seen examples of funders taking a systems approach to ending homelessness. As they embarked on this path they quickly realized that it is not a question of either funders or grantees determining the approach, but of all of them coming together to have honest – and continuous - dialogue about what needs to happen to create solutions. In this way they can create – together – not an agenda that is about their organization or their priorities – but a vision about what works to solve a community problem.

Over the next while, we will be posting a series of blogs that will discuss what funders can do to promote a systems approach while continuing to support the work of their grantees. We will look at the various elements that seem to be critical in creating an atmosphere of true collaboration and that get to solving problems, not just managing them.

We also want you to weigh in. Many of you are doing amazing work, together with your grantees, government partners, and other sectors – and are helping to prevent and solve homelessness in your community. Share your story with us.


anne.portrait.jpgAs Executive Director of Funders Together, Anne brings years of expertise in both the corporate and not-for-profit sector. She is passionate about promoting the philanthropic community’s catalytic role in ending homelessness, working with government to create public-private partnerships, and advocating for funding and policies which end, rather than manage, homelessness. Find her at @FTEHAM.


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We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

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Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

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Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

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