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Building Trust Through Grantee Feedback: The Story of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Strategic Philanthropy | Feb 25, 2021

Rohini Nilekani talks on the importance of feedback, speaking truth to power and trust based philanthropy.


0:00:05.4 Speaker 1: We really set up Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies only very recently, because much of my philanthropy work was done earlier through Arghyam, which is the foundation for water, and just by directly giving cheques to various organisations, and it seems to work because I don’t think we need to set up a very large foundation for the kind of work we do, which is pretty much trust-based philanthropy, so once we have identified partners, we just have a very simple system of working with them, and that’s what Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies is.

0:00:50.6 S1: I was really delighted to find from the survey that was done that we scored pretty high on trust, and that is very, very, very important to me and to my team as well, because your actions have to speak louder than your words when it comes to building trust. You have to give organisations and people time and space, because we know how complex things are on the ground, how quickly things can change. And so if you lock your partners into doing something in a particular way, then when things change, they can’t respond quickly. So as a granter, you really have to give them that freedom, and I think that’s one of the things that helps to build that trust that we’re talking about.

0:01:34.4 Speaker 2: For the last 10 years prior to joining Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, I worked with a couple of nonprofits doing work, raising money and all of that. And the tremendous struggle that I always had when working with granters, was the fact that there was an expectation of service rather than of true change. And I realised that came from their inability, perhaps to fully trust in the work that we were doing and see themselves as partners of change. Rather they saw us as being a service agent, and I struggled with that. And when I did finally join Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, the idea that a philanthropy could be a partner in change, that a philanthropy could let go of control and trust in the power of proximity that a grantee or partner organisations had to the communities they serve, was very empowering.

0:02:32.1 S1: I think in the social sector, it’s critical that if you want to end with trust, you have to begin with trust. And I have always believed that the people I work with, they know much more than me about ground realities, so I genuinely try to see them as partners and not grantees, and I think there is a kind of reciprocity of trust that happens immediately when they see that, and trust takes time to build.

0:03:05.5 S2: I think all philanthropies value trust deeply. Philanthropy comes from a place of love and trust and care for communities. The difference is in how we chose to operationalise trust. I think for us, it was important that we didn’t want to burden organisations with reporting and logframe analysis and so we said as a philanthropy, given that we have the resources, we will front-load the effort in building deep and meaningful relationships with the organisation and its teams. Over the course of the engagement with the Center for Effective Philanthropy on our Grantee Perception Report, the one thing that came out, and I was really happy that it stood out, was the low pressure grantees felt to modify their proposals to fit a “theory of change”. And I think that’s important because as a philanthropy, we don’t have a theory of change. What we have are areas of interest, and we believe that organisations working have their own theories of change, and we want to respect that.

0:04:01.8 S1: So one of our experiments in India in my portfolio, where multiple philanthropic entities have come together in a relationship of trust, is the India Climate Collaborative. Climate change is such a huge issue that’s obviously affecting all of us individually and all of us globally as well, that it was easy to find that as a common ground to bring together international foundations, who had already been doing a lot of work on this, and then build a partnership with a lot of Indian philanthropists who came together for the first time in this collaborative. And that’s what I mean, that’s what we need to do more of, so that we can trust each other and learn from each other, because we trust each other, to be much more effective and more impactful than they’re able to be today. One thing I saw from the Grantee Perception Report is that perception that Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies is not very communicative over exactly what its intent is, was an eye-opener, and we’ll have to of course work on it. It was also useful to know that partners hoped for more long-term funding, and that’s something we try to do, but because we have opened up new sectors, [chuckle] we’re all learning on the way. So, I’m very glad that we worked with CEP on this report, and we will take the feedback seriously and hope to improve year on year.

0:05:26.6 S2: The Grantee Perception Report is made all the more useful by the fact that CEP had been working on this for a long time and have experience across geographies and across different types of philanthropies. So the ability to learn from the experiences of other grant-making organisations in both similar and dissimilar areas of work and geographies, and we’ve been able to learn and understand how we can be more supportive of our partners, using the archive and the benchmarking that CEP is able to bring.

0:05:55.5 S1: Grantee Perception Report that CEP did, I think was an important milestone for us in our journey. And I hope more organisations will find a way to really listen anonymously to their partners, so that they can get the truth. The truth is hard to tell to power, okay? It’s very hard for grantees and partners to tell donors really what they think. So I really hope that culture gets established. So for me, it was something that I would like to continue doing periodically.

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