3.29 Making Site Visits More Human

When I first started raising money from institutional funders I usually found myself in a posture of nervousness, insecurity, and sometimes, even, subservience. It was too easy to forget what I knew. I wanted to be what they were looking for so there was no way I could really be “me.” This led to ineffective results which in turn created some real demoralization. The great paradox of course is that it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle and usually did not inspire excitement or result in the transfer of resources I was hoping for.

This all began to shift during a meeting with a top program officer at a major foundation. I took two key advisors with me and there were two program assistants in the room – a merry band of six. I felt a bit awkward at times describing our work to bring spiritual and reflective practice into social change work but I did well enough, and the two seasoned folks I brought with me added a lot to the larger context, not to mention gave me more confidence.

Towards the end of the meeting, one of the program assistants mentioned that he wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by “reflective practice” and he wondered if there was something we could do to close the meeting that would illustrate the concept. For a minute I cringed. Why was he putting me on the spot like this?

Thankfully I quickly saw the opportunity in it and responded. I began with a brief guided meditation that settled our attention on the breath and ended by asking everyone to name a highlight from the meeting. I didn’t know it then, of course, but that would be the beginning of a fruitful, collaborative and lengthy relationship.

As we walked outside that day, my two colleagues were incredulous. Laughing and excited, they both exclaimed at once, “We just meditated in there!” They couldn’t believe it but for me it was the first time in a setting like that where I’d felt like myself. We’d all connected more deeply and the work had come alive. It was the first time I really saw how collegial these relationships could be and how much learning was possible.

To shift the underlying dynamic to one of greater ease and possibility, it’s helpful to look at what keeps us from cultivating a relational approach. The next time you sense you are not putting your best wisdom forward ask yourself what might be going on. Have you had a previous encounter with the institution or person that didn’t feel good about? Are you going by hearsay? Is there a great deal of your organization’s financial health riding on the grant? Do you have concerns about what you’re communicating and need more preparation? Something else entirely?

Once you’ve named the discomfort, take a moment to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. Scaling is a good reality check and also allows for comparison over time. The more we can name whatever discomfort arises and actually chart its intensity, the better we can prepare and more likely we are to overcome the past conditioning.

There’s no doubt that the funder-grantee relationship is both a tricky and interesting animal. Some relationships are simply all business. Others are full of nuances. Most are somewhere in between. The pressure and the power imbalance are undeniable and occasionally it just brings out the worst in everyone.

But at the end of the day, it’s a relationship and relationships are nothing if not opportunities. Recognizing the complexity of the dynamic for what it is benefits everyone, not to mention moves the work. And in the best of all worlds, greater consciousness in this arena has the potential to shift the philanthropic sector.