Funders must build trust

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Charities will have more impact if they feel able to tell funders what they really need help with.

One of the strangest moments in my career was having to tell a Prime Minister, in the car on the way to a speech, that they had spinach in their teeth. It’s always stuck in my mind. Not just because it’s a very weird thing to happen, but because it says a lot about trust, relationships and how to be useful to people and organisations you work with. Because we all want to be told when we have spinach in our teeth, and we all want to be the kind of person that tells someone if they do, but often power can get in the way. Ultimately it comes down to trust.

Ask a charity chief executive whether they really trust their funders and you’ll usually get a ‘yes, but…’. Something along the lines of ‘Yes, of course we trust them, we consider them a partner. But… I wouldn’t tell them that I’m worried about the drop-out rate in our programme, or that a big contract renewal is looking iffy’.

That’s a big worry for me because we’re a funder who provides a lot of hands-on support and advice to our charity partners. One of my team will work shoulder-to-shoulder with a charity - spending roughly a day a week with them over many years and bringing in lots of specialist pro bono expertise on top of that, so we’re aiming for a deep, long-term partnership. But we can only be useful to our partners if their leaders feel able to tell us what they need help with. Which means we need a proper relationship of trust.

But it should be a worry for the whole sector too because the lack of trust is one reason why we’ve got ourselves stuck in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ relationship on impact. So what can funders do to build trust?

Since I started in this job I’ve asked every charity chief executive we work with when they realised that when we said ‘what are you worried about?’ we really wanted to hear the answer. At some point in our first year to 18 months working together (and yes, it does take that long) they realise that we mean it. And it’s then that the partnership is most powerful because we can work together on the really big issues affecting the organisation.

There are a few things we’ve learnt about how to build those deep, trusting relationships between partners and funders.

First, the power dynamics are a problem to be overcome. It is totally rational for charities not to believe you when you say, as a funder, that you want to hear the bad news. Because lots of funders say that and then run away if the answer isn’t to their liking.

Second, it takes a LONG time to build trust. And I mean a long time. But it takes ten times as long to build impact. Some of our longest partners, like IntoUniversity, have been on the journey with us for over ten years so investing the time and effort at the beginning to build a partnership that will last is worth the patience.

Third, it’s NOT about the relationship being comfortable. Sometimes the message you need to give as a partner is the one that is most uncomfortable. Sometimes there will be big disagreements. But it’s much easier to challenge and have tough conversations if there is deep trust.

Finally, it’s about actions more than words. It’s easy to talk the talk of partnership and openness. But you also need to walk the walk – showing proper respect to the organisations you fund, treating them as peers not recipients, and recognising that they are the experts on what they do.

I see loads of leaders who are brave enough to be the boring CEO, the one that cares about being the dull deliverer over the charismatic communicator. And I see plenty who are brave enough to open up to their funders about the questions that really keep them up at night. You know the ones, 'Do my programmes really work?', 'How can I make them work better?' 'How do I secure our financial future?'. But we need more funders who are brave enough to ask those questions and wait patiently for the honest answers.  Then, rather than making some impact on some of the people we serve, some of the time, we'll see, consistent, meaningful impact for all the people we're here to serve.

Andy Ratcliffe is the former CEO of Impetus.

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