Undoing Power Dynamics in the Nonprofit Sector - Two Perspectives

Coffee and Donuts Event Attendees
On May 25, SIF welcomed 160 individuals for coffee and donuts to help bridge the funder/nonprofit divide , Lauren Miller

Inspired by Vu Le's perceptive, and oft-hilarious, blog Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit with Balls), the SIF team decided join Vu in celebrating a new holiday "where foundations and nonprofits can just get a beer together, or coffee or ice cream, without an agenda, and just talk about whatever...to see each other as human beings, and help to decrease the power dynamics so present in our sector." 

Within days of us reaching out, more than a dozen partners had signed on as co-hosts of the event, reflecting the hunger (no pun intended) in the field for these kinds of opportunities. The email invitation was met with similar levels of excitement. In the end, 160 people gathered at SIF headquarters for coffee, conversation, and connection across the funder/nonprofit divide. 

We asked two of our attendees to share their perspectives on the event and the work they are doing to decrease power dynamics in the nonprofit sector.



Reggie Williams, Development Manager, Transformative Culture Project

Transformative Culture Project (TCP) was excited to come to Coffee & Donuts and have a laid-back alternative means to connect with funders and other nonprofits. Connecting with other organizations can be tough as most of us have our heads down doing the work. We were happy to be able to take part in SIF's first (of hopefully many) informal and community building event of this kind.

In our current political climate, we cannot afford to remain siloed. Open dialogue and community across the sector may help us all better advocate and work together towards our goals of improving society. 

The power dynamics in the nonprofit sector tend to create silos that diminish the momentum that groups have to create sustainable change. Organizations often face the choice of trying to match the funding priorities of philanthropy, or potentially lose the financial support. At TCP, we are working to change that paradigm and invite groups to help us, and the philanthropic community, envision deeper ways to make impact. Similar to the ways that larger foundations receive grants from national funders, perhaps local foundations can help increase opportunities/grantmaking for collaborative efforts in the sector. I think also that increasing opportunities for open dialogue on what pressures/issues the philanthropic community is facing may be helpful. In our current political climate, we cannot afford to remain siloed. Open dialogue and community across the sector may help us all better advocate and work together towards our goals of improving society. 

We are excited by the work of foundations like Hyams, Barr, the Haymarket People's Fund, and the Boston Foundation, as well as groups like EdVestors and the Social Innovation Forum, and the others who are incredible conveners and resource providers to groups looking to grow and scale their efforts. 

A few things on the wish list for more inclusive and equitable philanthropy would be: 

  • More individualized feedback on how program efforts do not align with the funding priorities or criteria
  • Recommendations on groups/funders/programs that may be better suited to support the work where applicable
  • More events like Coffee & Donuts or grantee gatherings where we can hold space and connect!


Gail Pinkham, Senior Director of Communications, Associated Grant Makers

On Thursday, May 25 I had the pleasure of attending the Social Innovation Forum’s Coffee & Donut breakfast for nonprofits and funders. The event was inspired by Vu Le’s insightful and funny blog, Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit with Balls) in which he encouraged “foundations and nonprofits to get together for coffee, beer, or ice cream, without an agenda, and just talk about whatever…to see each other as human beings, and to help decrease the power dynamics so present in our sector.”

And we did just that! Over coffee and donuts, the room filled with conversation and positive energy. From the start, the atmosphere was friendly and inviting. Those that attended wanted to make new connections and step outside of their office to meet people they may not have an opportunity to meet otherwise. There were some familiar faces in the room that made catching up easy but there were also so many new people to get to know without any planned topic of conversation. It was refreshing and invigorating to hear what local nonprofits are doing and the interests of funders during these changing times. By the end of the breakfast, I found myself wishing I had more time to talk with those I hadn’t met yet and looking to make this a regular occurrence to keep the conversations among socially-minded organizations and funders flowing. And of course the coffee and donuts!

We are looking at finding more opportunities to put nonprofit organizations in the room – both as content experts on panels and at convenings as well as in the role of participant as when strategies are being developed.

I was pleased to represent Associated Grant Makers (AGM) and demonstrate our support for bringing together funders and nonprofits to create effective and impactful relationships. This has been part of AGM’s mission for the past four decades. The perception (usually the reality) is that because funders hold the purse strings and are decision-makers on where resources are allocated, nonprofits are at the mercy of their interests/decisions. AGM aims to bring funders and nonprofits into the room together more often. Our popular Meet the Donors is an example of providing space for the two to connect, but even there, the power dynamic still exists. We are looking at finding more opportunities to put nonprofit organizations in the room – both as content experts on panels and at convenings as well as in the role of participant as when strategies are being developed. Future programming plans at AGM include an informal roundtable discussion on issues where funders and nonprofits can meet over lunch without a formal agenda – similar to the Coffee & Donut format, but on a more intimate scale. Also, working with funders to better understand the importance of openness and transparency through a series this fall sponsored by the Fund for Shared Insights. We look forward to continuing the conversations. 


At SIF, we believe that building connections between social good organizations and funders and supporters is key to sustainable social change and it is a core part of our work. We recognize that undoing deeply rooted power dynamics in the sector will take more than one morning of conversation, but we are encouraged by the excitement and interest that followed our coffee and donut celebration. We look forward to continuing to improve how we educate, engage, and convene leaders across all facets of the social sector to work together to affect change. And we hope to see you at the next one!

Share your thoughts and ideas on undoing power dynamics between nonprofits and funders by tweeting at us at @SIFBoston – we’d love to hear from you!

Special thanks to Gail and Reggie for sharing their reflections on the event. And a huge thank you to our co-hosts: 

Associated Grant Makers · The Boston Foundation · The Devonshire Foundation · DRK Foundation · EdVestors · GMA Foundations · Hestia Fund · Lenny Zakim Fund · The Miriam Fund at CJP · New England International Donors (NEID) · New Profit · The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) · The Philanthropy Connection · Social Venture Partners (SVP) Boston · TUGG · Womenade