What Makes an Authentic Philanthropic Partnership?

Written by Heidi Dusek, Former Private Foundation Executive Director

Philanthropy is a powerful tool for creating positive change in the world, and often requires collaboration and partnerships to make significant change. In the past decade, the concept of partnerships in philanthropy has gained significant momentum as more and more organizations recognize the value of working together to achieve shared goals. Partnerships in philanthropy can take many shapes and forms between nonprofits and funders, as well as for-profits and the public sector. These partnerships are rooted in principles of shared values, mutual respect, and trust and require relationship building and candid conversations.

Perceptions of Partnership

Recognizing productive partnerships are not measured by the speed at which change happens; rather authentic partnerships are measured by the depth of engagement and trust established with the people affected. With nearly 20 years in philanthropy, I have noticed this word used with various intent. Partnerships can be formal business agreements of shared service models and investments to informal network building and collective support towards a common goal. Understanding the perceptions of partnership and meaning is important. These are three common examples of philanthropic partnerships and the initial intent behind them.

To Solve a Problem

The most common partnership I experience in philanthropy is driven by the intent to solve a problem. One example was an effort the foundation I worked for referred to as Kickstart, a model designed to test and support organizations on a specific problem. The foundation served as the convener, teaching a human-centered design model while offering funding and flexibility to dream and test concepts rooted in lived experience and empathy. As a funder, we did not run programs nor have subject matter expertise by having direct service provider partners serving the community, with expertise and networks connected to the topic, we were able to move the needle further than we were independently.

To Do More

Philanthropic partnerships rooted in capacity building rely on leveraging skills, talents, and systems. By pooling resources, there is a deeper infrastructure to draw from to solve the problem. A single entity has limitations and sometimes seeks partnership to expand upon their current efforts. In one instance, a funding partnership was created to support upstream investments. By participating in this partnership, we had access to outside expertise and expanded geographical representation as well as the ability to interact with other funders with similar interests. This partnership expanded our overall giving portfolio without having to change our internal structures.

To Do Better

A partnership often underutilized in philanthropy is one rooted in support and improvement, tied specifically to a shared purpose or initiative. At my foundation, after the George Floyd murder, the regional funders partnership used their time together to share how they felt and how they were impacted. It was a deeply cathartic experience with no agenda or action items but simply a time to listen to one another. However, it was monumental in changing the nature of how we worked and engaged with one another. When individuals feel supported by one another, they work with a sense of accomplishment, as well as knowing their contribution matters. A philanthropic partnership focused on doing better increases personal and professional growth while also impacting the collective capacity of its members.

Qualities of Authentic Partnerships

In an authentic partnership, there is a willingness to listen and learn from one another also characterized by transparency and honesty, which leads to an understanding of each other’s perspectives and values. Being open and willing to learn fosters empathy and understanding, which in return strengthens the bond between the partners. Each partner must be willing to share information openly and honestly, even when it may be difficult or uncomfortable. Transparency builds trust, which is a crucial element of any successful partnership. Finally, authentic partnerships require ongoing effort and commitment. Partners must be willing to invest time and resources to maintain the relationship, keeping it strong and healthy.

Generosity Does Not Require Money

One of the uncomfortable parts of being the leader of a foundation was getting the yearly phone call to meet with organizations, only to realize there was a transaction coming up or a networking request. Later, I realized the goal was to benefit them without any offer of reciprocity. I chose to walk into these conversations with a curious mindset, true transparency, and sincerity in all intentions. If you want to move beyond the transactional nature of money in philanthropic partnerships, we must be willing to do something to help the other person or entity.

I encourage you to consider simple acts that can be done when brainstorming generous action steps. Ask yourself these simple questions…

  • Do I have contacts in my network that would be helpful resources?
  • Can I share their work on my social media?
  • Does our entity have a tool or capacity that might make their life easier?
  • Do I have another client doing similar work whom I could offer to make an introduction?
  • Can I share learning from other examples in different region?

Relationships do not require money. Some of our greatest partnerships start through simple relationship building and collective generosity, leading to a desire to work together.

Partnerships are a Two-Way Street

When considering philanthropic partnership engagement, instead of asking, “How will this partnership help me or my organization advance our goals?” I have found the most authentic and deepest partnerships are created when individuals ask, “How can I help the other organizations accomplish their goals?” Without any expectation, it is interesting to see how the receiving entity responds. It is not about outdoing each other but conversely, showing a willingness to serve rather than be served.

Partnerships can go through waves. The early stages are often exciting and filled with enthusiasm. Having the stamina to weather the long game demonstrates the authenticity each partner has, despite challenging times. We all come to the work with various demands that affect how we show up in partnerships. Demonstrating generosity shows a willingness to contribute toward the goal, building trust, and transparency behind the intent of the partnership.

Evaluating Partnerships

While evaluating partnerships, I encourage a gut check as a key data point. In the best ones, it is evident how well they work together. There is energy in the room; people can finish each other’s sentences. Partnerships that feel tense, timid, and less transparent, don’t feel as authentic. When considering your role in partnerships, listening to your gut can be a great indicator over the logical brain. For example, logically you might ask, “What value can I personally contribute towards this partnership?” Meanwhile, the heart questions are, “Do I really want to do that? Is this partnership going to be an energy boost or an energy drain?”

You might have a picture of funder-grantee or funding partnerships when reading this article. I encourage you to consider how vendors and for-profit entities you work with also contribute or hinder the success of your foundation. The operational structure of your organization can affect the capacity to engage in philanthropic partnerships. When selecting vendors, it is important to consider how they might contribute to your success beyond the transactional nature of the relationship. In return, you can demonstrate reciprocity by helping improve their services, making referrals, or serving as a reference. Authentic partnerships in philanthropy, regardless of the intent, are critical to advancement. Candid conversations create space to build trust as well as test generosity and create a strong foundation for reinforcing significant change.

About the Author
Heidi Dusek

A catalyst, innovator, healthy disruptor and unshakeable optimist, Heidi’s passion lies in challenging the status quo, driving change and delivering social impact. She is recognized as a translator between sectors whose background transcends education, health, nonprofit, university, business, philanthropy, design and podcasting. While stacking talents and lived experiences is her superpower, she continually draws on her liberal arts bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in educational technology.   

With nearly 20 years of holding various roles within foundations, most recently as Executive Director of a private family foundation, Heidi often educates on the layers of complexity and conflict embedded in philanthropy.  She has embraced the role with a lens of empathy, leveraging human centered design frameworks, strategic operational alignment, and framing how trust and curiosity are threads embedded in the fabric of giving forward. 

Heidi is currently on a gap year with her family of five. Traveling the country in an RV while consulting as a freelancer, she continuously works to support foundations and businesses grounded in community change.