An Evolving Relationship: Grantees as Partners

January 16, 2024

A smiling health worker with long brown hair attends to a gray-haired patient with spectacles

Historically, there is a power imbalance in philanthropy between funders and applicants. The Neilsen Foundation needs its grantees to achieve its mission and, of course, its grantees need financial support to underwrite their programs and research projects. It is a relationship of mutual importance enabling us all to meet our goals. Applying for grants is inherently hierarchical but, over the last few years, we have worked to change our processes as well as our language to highlight that it is the beginning of a partnership. We see our grantees as partners—from application to funding and beyond—and it’s essential that our intentions and actions align.

We are thrilled when we hear that funded projects are going well. But, when they are not, we invite those discussions, so necessary changes can be made to achieve the project’s goals. We want to help our grantee partners succeed by making the best use of grant dollars. Foundation staff is open to sharing ideas, challenging assumptions, and collaborating to help support a grantee’s goals. That doesn’t mean we can be everything to everyone, but a frank conversation in both directions is critically important. These types of partnerships allow us to serve the spinal cord injury community in the best way we can, while encouraging the organizations that we support to be dedicated stewards of their funding.

In an effort to put these values into action, Neilsen Foundation staff try to remove barriers. Communication is encouraged throughout the process, from informational sessions and webinars to setting up one-on-one conversations. These give us the opportunity to clarify how our funding works, help everyone manage issues as they arise, and build better partnerships. These interactions have prompted the Foundation to make very intentional changes—rescheduling application deadlines to align with academic timelines, expanding programmatic grants to include capacity building, and making efforts to clarify or simplify our application processes.

There are also times when we hear ideas from grantees that aren’t right for the Neilsen Foundation. These may be requests that are outside our funding scope or suggestions to shift our grantmaking in directions that are not well-suited to our mission, vision, and values. People’s willingness to raise difficult questions demonstrates how important partnership is, even when, after consideration, we may not change how we make grants.

Partnership is more than just dollars in a grant. The most important thing that develops when grantees become partners is trust. Trust allows us to tackle difficult issues without the fear of impacting funding or the relationship. We acknowledge that the Foundation must take the lead in building trusting relationships, but we hope the organizations we support—and those we don’t—feel comfortable approaching us with hard facts and tough feedback. By working towards the goals we are all trying to achieve, we make ourselves better—together.