What Funders Can Learn from Beyonce

By Edgar VillanuevaPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

This blog post first appeared on Linked-In on February 9, 2015.

In the 10 years that I’ve been working in institutional philanthropy I have had the opportunity to have many private and public conversations with nonprofit leaders about what they really want out of their relationships with funders.   Just this past weekend, I was at a national conference in Denver with activists and nonprofit leaders. Again, I heard nonprofit leaders express their wish list for funders: general operating support, long-term commitment and reasonable evaluation requirements. No big surprises. To be realistic, some of these needs are challenging for some foundations, depending on how they were initially set up (and the lack of political will at the board level to make change). The truth is that very few foundations provide this kind of financial support, which, in my opinion, is the best grantmaking strategy a foundation can practice. I commit to influencing foundations to evolve to this more progressive type of investment until my dying day. (Wish me luck!).

It was another request made of funders that agitated me all the way home from the conference. That request was to listen – yes, to simply LISTEN!? Now, listening is something that EVERY funder can do regardless of charter, asset size, issue, etc. In fact, every human deserves the dignity of being heard. Program Officers may have little influence at impacting a board or CEO’s funding strategy, but they can LISTEN to grantees with an open heart. After 10 years, I can’t believe I’m still hearing this request from nonprofit leaders!

As I returned home, I watched part of the Grammys in which Beyoncé performed. She, of course, lit up the stage and social media (for many reasons). As I was reconciling my day, my favorite Beyoncé song came to mind, “LISTEN”. “LISTEN” is a song recorded by Beyoncé for the 2006 musical film Dreamgirls, in which Knowles’ character Deena Jones sings the song in an expression of independence from her controlling husband. I lay in bed imagining a choir of nonprofit leaders in a choir passionately singing these lyrics from “LISTEN” (as they beat their chest and tears streamed down their faces):

Listen to the song here in my heart, a melody I start but can’t complete

Listen to the sound from deep within, it’s only beginning to find release

Oh, the time has come for my dreams to be heard

They will not be pushed aside and turned into your own all ’cause you won’t listen!

Listen, I am alone at a crossroads, I’m not at home in my own home

And I’ve tried and tried to say what’s on my mind

Oh, now I’m done believing you, you don’t know what I’m feeling

I’m more than what you made of me, I followed the voice you think you gave to me

But now I’ve gotta find my own!

Why is it so difficult for funders to listen?? Why are nonprofit leaders even in a position to have to request simply being heard over and over again? And why are funders so controlling? – that is really the question that nonprofits want to ask.

I read this amazing article on moving from controlling to empowering leadership – here are a few adapted thoughts as it pertains to our role as funders. [citation below].

Fact: foundations have power. This power should be used to influence, rather than control. Funders who listen before acting and use their power to influence demonstrate care about the needs and interests of their grantees as well as their own. Rather than imposing control, they create an environment that elicits motivation and commitment from partners. They seek mutually beneficial goals and inspire grantees to better levels of performance out of self-interest rather than force.

Foundation leaders really operate at their best when they understand their ability to influence is much more fruitful than their ability to control. The purpose of leadership is not to shine the spotlight on yourself, but to unlock the potential of others so they can in turn shine the spotlight on countless more. Control is about power – not leadership. Controlling funders, who do not listen, restrict potential, limit initiative and inhibit talent and impact from their grantees. Foundations that ignore priceless input from their grantees stifle creativity and leadership.

Great leaders and organizations need room to breathe, explore and take risks. When funders listen and support great nonprofit leaders, organizations will flourish and grow. Grantees with controlling funders inevitably describe that their funders dictate, demand, believe they know best, fail to listen, expect compliance and so on. The consequences are far reaching. Grantees almost universally describe the negative impact of this style of leadership causes them to feel frustrated, demoralized, and insignificant. People learn to put up with such funders by keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble (not being fully transparent with their funders). Their hearts aren’t in the relationship and they certainly don’t enjoy it. They are simply going through the motions to obtain the funding to do their “real work”.

Perhaps the fatal flaw of controlling philanthropic leaders is ego. They believe that they know more than others. They’re not open to learning or being influenced. They make positive assumptions about their own abilities and negative assumptions about the ideas, motivation, or capability of people around them.

How can we do better? Foundation leaders need to learn that no one is smarter than everyone. We need to understand that winning requires collaboration. We need to view grantees as partners who truly want to contribute. We need to change our leadership from being the “hero” to creating a context in which teams of people share accountability to make great things happen. This is what empowering leadership is all about.

Let’s start listening (seek first to understand) to our grantees, before responding with answers and solutions.

Let’s shift from solving problems to facilitating the solution of problems by asking questions such as “What are the outcomes you/we want from this situation?” “What options do you see?” “What can you do?” “What support do you need from me?” “How can you hold me, as the funder, accountable?”

By using such tactics, philanthropic leaders don’t give up power. We actually increase our power by leveraging our most important asset—the people around them us whom we depend and who are essential to realizing our goals. In the long-run, “influence-with” leadership offers far-reaching advantages over “power-over” leadership. It is this leadership that builds trust and goodwill and taps into the collective genius of all of us in the nonprofit sector.

Listen – and let nonprofits do what they do best.


Edgar Villanueva is Vice President of Programs & Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education.  He began his grantmaking career in 2005 as a Senior Program Officer at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a $600 million health equity-focused foundation in Winston-Salem, NC. Most recently, Edgar served as a Program Officer for the National and Midwest Portfolios at the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle, managing a $30 million philanthropy portfolio focused on building capacity for progressive change through multi-issue movement building.

Citation Credit: http://www.centerod.com/2014/07/controlling-leadership/