Let's Continue to Address Power Dynamics in the Social Sector

Introducing the blog series, Moving Forward Together

At SIF, we have come to see partnerships as units of change – we believe that dynamic partnerships drive sustainable social change.

At the Social Innovation Forum (SIF), we recognize the challenges leaders face in addressing power dynamics between nonprofits and funders. A critical part of our work is helping leaders build authentic connections so that they can lead social change work with more confidence and trust. SIF has been a leader in these conversations, and we have included the voice of nonprofit leader and blogger of NonprofitAF, Vu Le.  

Vu has led engaging and thought-provoking discussions on power dynamics in our community. His approach to building strong partnerships between funders and nonprofit leaders demands both transparency and a willingness to listen. In the past couple of years, SIF has organized a series of events to encourage conversations about power dynamics and offer opportunities for leaders to form stronger partnerships. 

Here is a timeline of the events that include information on the number of attendees and some key activities and learnings.  


Coffee & Donuts Sessions

May 25, 2017 – Coffee & Donuts to Decrease Nonprofit/Funder Power Dynamics
June 21, 2018 – Coffee & Donuts 2.0 

  • Attendance: 160 guests / 125 guests
  • Our Coffee & Donuts sessions (held in 2017 and 2018) are informal events where nonprofits and funders come together without any agenda to have conversations and build relationships. We were inspired by Vu Le’s 2017 blog post advocating for a new holiday called “Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics (GBUNPD)” Day. This holiday aligned with our mission and allowed us to provide space for local nonprofit and funder leaders to engage with one another in a more relaxed setting. 

Key Learnings: 

  •  In less than a week, SIF gathered a host committee of leading Boston area funders and funder collaborative/membership associations committed to building the type of relationships that lead to greater social change. (Find a list of our 2018 Boston Area supporters here)
  • The response to these events exceeded expectations in both attendance and positive feedback. 
  • People in our greater Boston social sector community were eager for more opportunities to connect and continue these conversations. 
Facilitated Discussions 

April 9, 2019 – Re-imagining the Nonprofit/Funder Relationship: A conversation with Vu Le on building EPIC partnerships 

  • Attendance: 100 guests
  • Following up on the success of the first two years of Coffee & Donuts, we wanted to have a more formal conversation with our Boston nonprofit and funder communities. An opportunity to bring Vu Le to Boston allowed us to test an event where we had an equal amount of nonprofit and funder leaders in the room. Our rsvp system was regulated so that a nonprofit leader had to bring a funder partner (vice versa). 

Key Learnings: Five key equitable practices for nonprofits and funders. 

  • We must trust one another and lead with honesty. 
  • Funding should move without being dependent on metrics.
  • We need to commit to multiyear general operating support.
  • Let us spend less time on applications and more time doing our critical work. 
  • We need to be intentional about funding organizations led by people of color. 

June 21, 2019 – Donuts & Discussion session, led by Executive Director, Susan Musinsky 

  • Attendance: 26 guests 
  • In the spirit of honest conversation inspired by our April discussion with Vu Le, SIF convened an energetic crowd of nonprofit leaders and funders for an early morning gathering on June 21 at the SIF office. We enjoyed donuts and coffee together while Susan Musinsky led the group in a facilitated discussion to revisit many of the challenges that Vu presented when we first gathered in April.

Key Learnings:

  • Nonprofit and funder leaders in the room were open to sharing with us the variety of ways in which they were addressing power dynamics.
  • Nonprofit and funders are using new approaches and having conversations in their workspaces to resolve power dynamics. 

Social Media

April 9, 2019 – April 29, 2019, Social Media “Unicorn” Challenge

  • Participants: five nonprofit leaders, five funders
  • The social media Unicorn Challenge was inspired by Vu Le's book, Unicorns Unite, which focused on how nonprofit and funders can build EPIC partnerships. This social media follow up after the April event helped us shine a spotlight on several authentic nonprofit/funder relationships. The challenge was for nonprofit/funder pairs to answer the question:  What word best describes your relationship? Their photos and chosen words are in the Facebook photo album here. We are going to highlight some pairs in our upcoming blog series, Moving Forward Together

Next Steps 

As a next step, we are excited to introduce our Moving Forward Together interview series. This interview series is an opportunity for nonprofit/funder partners to share their story in a more intimate setting. The interviews will ask nonprofits/funders five questions about their communication, prospective challenges, and progress tracking.  While we have worked with some of our interview participants; others we know less well. In all these cases, we are curious to learn from them about what they are doing to build more trust and confidence needed for strong partnerships. 

We sincerely appreciate the willingness of our community members to engage in these conversations, and we are fortunate to see changes already taking place in our marketplace. We welcome any other nonprofit/funder groups interested in sharing their story to please reach out to Kassandra at kgoncalves@socialinnovationforum.org


Interview pairs 

First Interview Pair: Leah Hong, Director of Community Impact, Letters Foundation & Tania Shabazz,  Financial Services Manager, Compass Working Capital

Second Interview Pair: Tref Borden, Executive Director of the Fish Family Foundation & David Cohen, Executive Director of Doc Wayne Youth Services 

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