Reflections on relationship funding

After six years in the role, I am about to finish being a Grant Manager with Lloyds Bank Foundation. On reflection, the most significant shift over this period has been from being a more traditional ‘assess and monitor’ funder to a ‘relationship’ funder. This means I have more time to meet, visit and listen to the charities we fund and also get to see their work in action and meet with those they support.

There are several benefits of taking a relationship approach:

  • I have a better and deeper understanding of the work we fund, and the context grant holders are working within. This means I can be more helpful in connecting them with peers and other sources of help. It also informs my decision-making.
  • The quality of reporting has improved as grant holders realise that I read and act on the information in their reports.
  • I am notified earlier of any issues affecting delivery e.g. staff changes and can then work with the charity through these, rather than finding out long after the event and spending time dealing with issues of non-compliance. 

But as more funders are moving to this relationship model, I do have some questions.

Firstly, there is the name. I don’t like ‘relationship’ in this context. I don’t think I would apply for a job as a ‘Relationship Manager’. I am not sure what it means? When would I not have a ‘relationship’ with those I work with?

Then there is the power dynamic. Having a closer relationship with those you fund might have benefits for me, but what about the grant holder? Every time I phone up or visit, it takes up their precious time. And the funder has to allocate resources to spend this time. I like to think I add value, but would the grant holder benefit more from the additional funding that is now being spent on relationship management?

And there is the thorny challenge of how you judge performance. If it is my job to manage relationships, how do you know whether I am being effective? The amount of contact is not a reliable measure, as I could spend a lot of time nurturing a poor relationship and need to spend hardly any time where the relationship is already strong. The quality and value of the relationship is the important consideration, but how reliably can that be measured?  Especially if it relies on the grant holder giving honest feedback to their funder? I have found lots of articles and tools about businesses assessing their relationships with customers and some about non-profits rating their relationships with funders and donors, but nothing the other way around.

As a Grant Manager, the opportunity to build relationships with those seeking and receiving funding has been rewarding. As I now move on, I look forward to building more and stronger relationships.