WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
EPISODE 6: The Funder Lens and How to Facilitate the Movement of Money with Dulari Gandhi
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“It is hard to expect an entire industry to change or evolve if we don’t change or evolve who is at the table to make these decisions.”
– DULARI GANDHI
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
I talked to Dulari Gandhi, a Program Officer at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the CEO of D. Gandhi Communications. Her work as a Program Officer is on poverty alleviation but also about increasing nonprofit effectiveness as a whole, plus she also does consultations as a strategic communications professional. Dulari’s background is very diverse, she faced homelessness as a youth, then went on to being a public health advisor and a communications expert.
As a money facilitator and an ambassador for organizations inside her institution, Dulari deeply believes in transparency, putting an end to the cycle of desperation, and diversifying the people sitting at nonprofit’s tables making decisions. She truly is a voice of wisdom and experience in this sector, plus she has lived assistance in the flesh. Join this conversation and listen to this amazing expert and human give you an inside look at how foundations make decisions and give us all a call to action about how we can show up for this sector more strategically.
Dulari Gandhi is a Program Officer at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation the CEO of D. Gandhi Communications. Her work is on poverty alleviation but also about increasing nonprofit effectiveness as a whole. She facilitates money and becomes an ambassador for organizations inside her institution.
I love Dulari’s honest, practical view of nonprofits. She is a centered and goal-oriented woman who won’t waste time on the wrong partner. Her ideas on the cycle of desperation and her deep understanding of the funder lenses are not to be missed!
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NON PROFIT SHOUTOUT
Dulari’s hope is that everyone listening spends 30 minutes doing local research into their city/county commissions, local school boards, and other local policymakers to get to know them better and learn how they are making decisions that are impacting us every day.
Mallory: Welcome, everyone. I am so thrilled to be here with Dulari. I’m going to have her start off by just introducing herself to all of you. And we’re going to jump right into this conversation.
Dulari: Great. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, Mallory. It’s great to be here today. My name is Dulari Gandhi. I am a Program Officer with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation working on poverty alleviation efforts in central Texas, and Boston. The Michael and Susan Dell foundation works nationally in the US and also in India and South Africa.
Our work is primarily focused on youth who are living in urban poverty. The idea in my portfolios is that we have a number of levers to lean on, to improve both the wealth of families right now, but also generationally looking forward and making sure that folks have wealth to pass down. And that is through education, family stability, workforce development, economic asset building… There’s a whole range of things that need to come together to make that possible.
My work is also in thinking about how we increase nonprofit effectiveness on the whole? And so how do we build capacity for our nonprofit organizations to do this work and these projects that we fund and we believe in, and we think are going to move the needle for folks.
I have also started my own communications consultancy D Gandhi Communications, where I am working with socially responsible businesses and nonprofit organizations. And I like to say I help them communicate clearly in a very complicated world. So I’m excited to be here today. Thank you for having me.
Mallory: Oh, yes. Thank you.
You have such a wealth of knowledge and experiences that you’re bringing to this conversation. Maybe we even just start with some background on your experience in nonprofit and social impact. What brought you and brings you to this moment in time?
Dulari: Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s funny, I think about this a lot because while my entire career in retrospect has been in social impact, I think a lot of us actually in this non-profit sector find ourselves meandering different jobs and trying to see, what’s a good fit and what’s not a good fit, but in retrospect, it does make sense hopefully for most of us. I think for me, it certainly does.
When I graduated college, I had thought that I would go to medical school and it turned out that I really hated that. I really hated the idea of doing that. I really didn’t want to, but now I had all of this science education and I had all this passion for health issues and passion for health equity.
I think my passion for community equity, for-racial equity, for-wealth equity have been the driving force for all of my career decisions. So I first went to work for the New York City Department of Health and Human Services. That was my first sort of job where I was doing as a public health advisor, thinking that I was going down this road towards public health policy, and then very quickly realized that my interests kind of span across sectors.
Health is just one part of this overall, health and wealth of the community. There are lots of things that impact physical health, and mental health and emotional health is one part of that. I also have a real passionate interest in learning about other cultures and other nations.
I’m first-generation here in American. So international health is a really big part of what I’m interested in. So I moved on to the Global Hunger Project where I was actually in a development role. And so managing some of the administrative pieces that come with fundraising: What does it mean to talk to donors? What does it mean to think about bringing in money for an organization to do good work?
That sort of got me thinking like, “Oh, interesting. We have to think about different audiences and of course, you have to make people care in order to get an organization to go, or in order to make policy to pass.” That’s how I got into communications, honestly.
It became a really important piece for me thinking about, “Oh, I really enjoy figuring out how to take really technical or really detailed things and making them plain for anyone who wants to engage with you, right?” Like how do you make it plain? How do you help people understand where you’re coming from and where you’re going?
I took that with me to a consultant role in Maryland, right outside of DC, where we were consulting for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Doing work, literally taking technical research and turning it into things that people who are dealing with substance use and dealing with mental health issues can use themselves. Content that their providers and doctors and families can engage with. Content that can be used in a number of different audiences.
This has been a while. Now I’m going to show my age, but it’s been a while. But for some time there, if you went to a doctor’s office, there would be pamphlets in the waiting room, we’re responsible for some of those. I was proud of that, but it also exposed me to a range of different issues that I wouldn’t have thought at that time belong in the category of substance use and mental health issues.
So it was around homelessness and permanent supportive housing. Thinking about co-occurring disorders, how people are sometimes dealing with both things simultaneously, and how do we work on those things? And a lot of it comes back to poverty and we think a lot about how poverty impacts us from our brain chemistry to the trauma that we deal with to the memories that we have to our future planning and our executive function.
All of that comes together under a much broader umbrella, and folks who are living in poverty, have to deal with these attacks on your nervous system on a day after day basis.
That became just the driving force for pretty much every career decision made since then. I went to work for a communications agency in DC, where we did all social impact communications and thinking about the eradication of poverty. A lot of major foundations, their grantees would work with this agency to advance their message, to talk about the issues, to create public policy briefs, to advocate on the hill.
That was really important work to me and something that I hold dear. So then when I got to Texas, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation just seemed such a great organization to move on to. I started at the foundation in a communications role because at that point I was coming up on 10 or 12 years of communications experience. And most, it seemed like the right fit.
And then two years ago, a position opened up in grantmaking. Now when I think about my career, I’ve been in and outside and around the nonprofit social sector, and the one space that I haven’t been in, or have not been exposed to was in the actual funding, was in the grantmaking.
How do these decisions get made? What are folks looking for? How do we look from a funder’s perspective at an organization and at a project and evaluate that? That to me is hugely important. And I think it’s especially important as somebody who is first-generation, does not have a master’s degree, did not go to business school, does not come from a long career in corporate and ending my career in foundation and funding and grant-making to learn that where I’m sitting right now has been an incredible privilege and has also been for me, I think a real catalyzing force in the work that I do in my business, which is really to help organizations understand how funders are thinking and how they present themselves impacts decision-making.
So for me, it is a varied background, but it comes together in a way that I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.
Mallory: Gosh, there are so many things that I want to dive into around what you said, but I just really want to highlight. You said you have a lot of privilege and coming into the role that you do, given maybe a more diverse background than the majority of people who find themselves in grantmaking positions.
And I just want to highlight what a privilege it is for your foundation to have you because I think you are bringing obviously tremendous value in so many ways, and also even in what you said, highlighting a real challenge. I hear so often from folks who are fundraising, “How could I break into the funder side of things? I’d be so interested to work for a foundation.”
And it often is this very light gate-kept community. So I just appreciate and respect everything you share with everyone about these lenses that you have this intimate understanding of the funder lens and grateful for the advocacy work that I’m sure you’re doing inside the philanthropic space for communities and for nonprofits.
Dulari: Oh, I appreciate that. Every single day, I’m like “No one’s asked me to leave yet. No one’s handed me that box and shipped me off to HR”. I think it is hugely important to talk about it. And I think it is hard to expect an entire industry to change or evolve if we don’t change or evolve who is at the table to make these decisions. And for me, I carry both the privilege and the weight of that every day. And I think that someday we will have a larger conversation about what that means for the people that are in those roles and how difficult it can be sometimes to be the one that raises the thing in the meeting or to be the one that has to be like, “Oh, I think maybe this is racist”.
You don’t always want to be that person, but there is an extra. I like to call it the invisible job description when you come into an organization, and if you happen to be one of the few people of color, if you happen to be one of the few women of color, and if you also happen to have a pretty significant lived experience.
I faced homelessness as a youth, and so a lot of what I bring to the job is both this idea and knowledge of what it means to live in poverty, true poverty. And also to come out of it and move forward in your life and what it means in the in-between. I think that’s what a lot of our non-profit organizations that work in human services are talking about. We talk about pathways and transitions and movement into the middle-class such as it exists at this moment.
But we don’t think about necessarily, do you have somebody in your organization that has been on that pathway or has transitioned through that pathway to help you understand how it could work for the people that are receiving services or the people who are the end beneficiaries of the work that you’re funding?
The more that foundations I think, invest in folks like that and invest from the position of a job description, but also invest from the perspective of really listening and implementing what you hear. For as much as it makes sense for your organization. Not every idea I have is a good one, I will say, but for the ones that are, are we lifting them up? And are we giving people the opportunity to say, “I can see the difference that I’m making, and I’m valuable as well”?
Mallory: Yeah, I appreciate you saying that. I do see and understand the bigger conversation that needs to be had around the support for folks who, as things shift inside organizations or foundations, start to diversify their staff teams or bring in new voices. That they’re really creating cultures and support systems that are prepared to nurture that environment, and the folks who are having an unfair burden on them for many reasons.
I appreciate you sharing that vulnerability with us. So you and I, when we first talked, we got really excited about this idea of funder lenses. I shared with you that inside my program, a big thing that I’m talking with folks about is “Are you putting on the lens of your different type of funder?”
A lot of times organizations and the fundraisers are talking to individuals the same way as they’re talking to companies, the same way they’re talking to foundations. And none of the funders are feeling seen in those conversations. You’re getting the same stock email over and over, but also it makes it challenging from a funder perspective to really understand if the alignment is truly there, unless the organization can come to that table with more of a lens around what the funder is looking for. So will you talk to us a little bit from your perspective, what are funder lenses from a foundation perspective in particular?
Dulari: Yeah. It’s such an interesting question because I think the reason we got so excited about it is because there’s a lot of information out there, but it’s not necessarily information that’s useful on both sides; from the funder perspective and from the grantee perspective.
I’d like to, if I may, speak first from the funder perspective because I think that a lot of the responsibility for evolving the way grantmaking is done, the onus falls on those folks who are in the seat of the funder primarily. It is our job truly to search out projects and organizations that have a mission fit to the foundation that I represent and to do an extreme amount of due diligence and research and conversation and proposal building and budget building and all of those things to then become an ambassador for that organization inside of my institution.
That is how I perceive the role. I know that not everybody perceives the role this way, but as a grantmaker, I think that my primary job is to facilitate money from the foundation to an organization that I feel will advance the mission of the foundation that I work with. And in order to do that, there is a lot of need to be equipped well with the information about the grantee, with information about their strategic vision, about how they’re going to do this work, about everything from their staffing to their future staffing, to how their board is structured.
Who is on the board? How does the board influence that decision-making? When people ask what I do every day, I’m like, “I don’t know how to tell you how much time I spend rebuilding an organization inside of my brain so that I feel like I’m an employee there to the point where I understand it deeply so that I can represent it when I speak to anybody at my foundation”.
And that takes a lot of work because again, I do not work there. I have to take what’s available to me publicly. I have to take what’s available to me from public conversation and I have to take what’s available to me by one-on-one conversations with the representatives of that organization and pull it all together in a way that makes sense.
What makes that challenging is on a couple of different fronts. The first is that oftentimes foundations are not very clear about what they’ll fund in the first place. So we’re getting approached by folks who there is not going to be a mission fit here. There is not going to be an alignment. You can almost tell at first brush, but there’s no reason for that organization who approached us to think that because they may have done their due diligence and I can see why 100%.
I think we actually do a pretty good job at this. We have a pretty extensive website that has both the projects that we have funded, they are all available publicly. Our mission and GOs and all those things are available there.
The few times that I’ve gotten sort of cold requests and have had to turn them down. Most of them turn into something, but every single time I’ve been like, “Oh, I know why they thought that this would make sense as a responsible funder. I’m going to give them a nuanced response about why it doesn’t make sense.”
And sometimes there’s a follow-up call and sometimes there’s a number of other things. But I think that the challenge is that if we as funders, don’t transparently communicate what it is that we’re about and what it is that we’re not about…It can’t just be all these things that we do fund, it has to also be, these are things that we don’t fund.
And you know that coming into the conversation, if you are a foundation that does not fund operational costs, somebody should be able to know that. If somebody is looking for operational costs, you just cross that right off your target list as a fundraiser, this is not going to work. But if that’s never explained explicitly, you’re truly spending all of this time, writing these emails and sending together these project proposals for something that it’s a no right off the bat.
So I do feel like there is some piece of this that it’s if we want to share our lens, then we first have to, as funders acknowledge what our lens is and be transparent about it. If we can’t be transparent about what our lens is, then I think it’s a different question. Like, “Why is this our lens and why do we feel this way? Why are we doing this? And why do we feel like we can’t communicate that publicly?”
And if there’s some kind of tension there, let’s talk about it. Is it because the decision might change and we don’t want to be held to it? But let’s have a real conversation about it as a funding community.
That’s something that I think about a lot when we talk about funder lenses. Everyone has a lens, everyone has a point of view in terms of what they fund and why they think it’s important. I don’t think there’s any real way to say who’s right and who’s wrong. I think lots of things need to be funded to make our society a better place, we can’t just have it on one front.
But I think transparency and I think being clear about your lens so that everybody is also in a more efficient place, which I think everybody would like their hours back in a day. It gives you increased freedom, which is what we’re all going for.
Mallory: I want to ask you a question that is maybe going to challenge my own thinking around this because one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot. I think your point is really well taken around the responsibility of funders to be more clear about what they fund and what they don’t fund and what their lens is.
And I really think what you’re talking about is showing much respect to nonprofits to say, “We really value your time, and so we don’t want you to spend it emailing us if it’s not a right fit. We want to make it clear so that your time is invested in the right things.” And I just so appreciate that.
But one of the things I’ve wondered about a lot from a foundation funding perspective is okay when you can see really clearly that there is mission alignment and goal alignment, and you can even maybe see that there’s alignment in how the foundation is measuring impact with how your organization is measuring impact, but then there is a modality issue around the implementation of the program…
So for example, the foundation primarily funds all in-person education and your nonprofit does online education, and you’re still able to demonstrate via impact metrics that there does seem to be that good alignment, but there’s no evidence of the foundation investing in that modality of achieving that impact. How much does that play a role, do you think in funder decision-making?
Dulari: I think it depends, which is everyone’s favorite answer. I think it really depends on the foundation. I think it depends on the foundation at large, but then it also depends very much on the people that you get into contact with.
One of the things that is difficult to do when you’re on the grantee side, when you’re on the nonprofit organization side of things is to carve out the time to say, “Is that the question that you want to ask?” And then ask it. If you truly have done all of your research and you said, “I looked at the foundation, I looked at what they found. I looked at where they fund. I looked at how they fund. I looked at all of their existing grant-making for as far as I could tell. I reached out to my network of folks who I think had been funded by this foundation. And I asked questions and then you’re ready to put together a package that says, “I think that we are 90% aligned and I have this 10% question”.
That to me, I will say, and I cannot speak for all of my wonderful funders out here, but that to me is a very different email, a very different phone call, a very different request than saying, “Hey, do you have 30 minutes? So I can walk you through all of our impact metrics, and then I have a question about something at the end” It’s just totally different to me. One of the things that folks hesitate on is “Oh, I almost want to bury the lead a little bit. Because I know that this is potentially a reason why I won’t get funded. And so maybe I can just slip it in here and slip it in there.”
But I actually find that is more difficult in the end. When you’re balancing a ton of different things as a program officer, and then you’re putting together this package of materials for an organization that has all of these impact metrics. You feel like you understand what they’re here to do.
Do you feel like you understand how they’ve been doing it? And then there’s just this one detail that doesn’t quite align. It is easier I think to address that early in the process, if that’s a question that nags at you and to be ready for rejection on the basis of that, or to be ready for, let me back up why I do it this way, and let me explain to you why it’s different and let me explain to you how we partner with others, so that modality is less of an issue than you think it might be.
And then how do you gauge that if a funder is ready to take that risk? And I think the only way to find out for sure is just to ask. I’ve said this before, and I think it is just an important thing to remember that at the end of the day, when we’re talking about the nonprofit sector or any sector, it’s people talking to people.
Help me understand, bring me along for the ride, right? Help me get there with you so that I can be somebody who advocates for you and somebody who represents you in front of all these other people that you want to be represented well.
Mallory: Yeah. I think something you’re hitting on there that I just think is so important, and I don’t think I fully understood this when I entered the nonprofit sector, is the way that program officers really work, I know it’s different in every foundation, but often work as your partner in advocating for your organization throughout the approval process.
And one of the things that they’re being held accountable for is that they’re putting quality organizations in front of that approval process, and that alignment is there and nobody likes surprises. So I love what you’re talking about saying the thing early on and that an earlier rejection for a nonprofit also is great. Save yourself some time.
Folks, there’s no point in hiding those things, they are going to come out. I think it shows the maturity of an organization and the confidence of a leader to say, “Hey look, I’ve noticed that you’ve never invested in digital education before. And I recognize that it’s a growing platform to achieve blank and blank. But I see your commitment around X and I would love to have a conversation about the way our model achieves that in a new and innovative way and see if you’re open to testing it”. Gosh, that’s so different than an email that just pretends like you’re in a hundred percent alignment and then 12 paragraphs later, it’s yes, but this is how we are teaching it.
Dulari: I think that’s absolutely right. And if you think about it, actually it’s money back in the nonprofits organization for every hour you didn’t spend chasing money that you’re not going to get. It costs money to get money, and I think that if we’re spending time, if you break down your development person salary into an hourly rate and they’re spending five or six hours with a funder that doesn’t end up funding because of something like that, that’s money in fact that you didn’t get and also money that you lost.
If we think about it that way, I think we start to shift a little bit in terms of, are we prioritizing the way in which we pitch our work in a way that makes sense for the funder that’s receiving it? And are we being very intentional about approaching each funder in the way that makes the most sense for them as much as you can know from the outside?
And then to your point, it is building that partnership and building a relationship and you’re right, not every foundation, not every funder works that way. I’m a big proponent of that model. I believe very strongly that the organizations that I bring into the foundation or the organizations that I facilitate their funding, their success is my success.
I don’t know that I would be fulfilled in my job if I didn’t feel that. Because at what point does it become that you’re a bystander versus an active participant? In the nonprofit sector as a funder, I think it behooves us as a foundation for us to be active participants in the nonprofit sector.
So if that just means within your job, I think it means having a much closer relationship with your grantees, understanding the struggles and challenges that they have, that you might not have thought of. Or understanding how they have to pivot because of, I don’t know, global pandemics or other things that they don’t have any control over.
But not just understanding at a surface level of “Oh, we have a global pandemic. Of course, things are shifting.” But truly, how is it shifting for the organizations that you represent? You are their representative, and to me, that really changes the conversation you have with grantees, but then it changes the conversation you have with the folks on your team and the leadership of your foundation, because you’re coming at it from a very different perspective.
It’s not them anymore. It’s us, I think is a huge thing.
Mallory: So first, I just want to thank you for the reflection for funders around their role in this lens piece and setting the stage, and creating clarity for organizations so that they are using their time. I also do want to support organizations to do the best job that they can understanding the lens through which their funder or a potential funder sees so that they can save themselves time, be transparent in the right ways and build that authentic relationship that we’re talking about that I think you and I both desire to be a part of this.
So tell me a little bit about, from your perspective, how can grantees help their funders see them using some of the same lens analogy?
Dulari: Yeah, I think there are two major buckets of what I call roadblocks that stand in the way of all of us coming to decisions, wherever that decision lands, the decision to our earlier point is a great place to be. We’ve made a decision, we can either move on in whatever way. Makes sense.
The first category I think is in the not asking. There’s this big negative space over here where I think grantees sometimes do their research and do all the things we ask them to do. And they present something that is just one small sliver of what their organization does. I think until we get to the place where we know that every funder is being transparent, where we truly believe that everything that you see out there represents what a foundation is, thinking of or what they might do. But the one small sliver actually doesn’t help you as much as we might think it is.
We think that we want to present them with something that’s super aligned. And I think it’s always great to lead from that place. But it never hurts to say, “In addition to this piece that we think is in great alignment with you and with your foundation, your portfolio dollars. Here’s what we’re doing as an organization. And here’s a list of all of our other funding needs.”
Because I think the worst that can happen is that somebody says, “No”. That’s the worst feeling, that feeling of rejection, but I think the worst outcome is actually that they say yes, and there were all these other things that you didn’t put on the table that could have gotten funded, and then didn’t because there was no way of knowing that you actually had all of these other needs. I think the other thing that folks in that lane sometimes forget is that you could even frame it as “Here are all the other things that we’re thinking about from an organizational point of view that could use support. If this does not fall in line with you and your work in your portfolio, are there other funders you can connect me with that this would fall in their land because I would love to have the support to make this come to life?”
In the name of efficiency and in the name of getting to the point, which I’m a huge fan of, we sometimes leave out the things that truly could advance your work. Because we’re either afraid we’re thinking about that fear piece. Or we’re thinking about, “I don’t want to seem like I’m misaligned”, but I think acknowledging it is what’s important. Like “Here’s the piece where I think we’re super aligned, but I also wanted to raise your attention. We have all these other things going on.”
And I think that also gives a program officer a lens into the breadth of your work, and not just the small sliver that they might be interested in funding. Because you never know what happens when you know about what a whole organization does. And it’s “Oh, I have a funder over here that I happen to have coffee with not too long ago, and they mentioned that they’re looking for more projects like this, and now I can make a connection”.
That’s important. It doesn’t happen every time, but why risk the outcome of, “Oh, we could have gotten that funded if we only knew that was part of the ask”. So that’s one bucket of roadblock I think.
The other bucket is really around consistency and accuracy. Those are two of the most important pillars of work that grantees can do in presenting to a funder. It is hugely important that the website, the annual report, the progress report, the monthly report, the note to investors, all of that hopefully says the same thing.
It may be in different ways, but hopefully, it all says the same thing around the important things: the vision of your organization, the impact numbers, your budgets, all of that stuff. And I think that when we find ourselves being like, “Oh, but I read this over here. But then I read this thing over here and now I’m not sure which of these is true.”
I don’t want to go so far as to say that it builds mistrust. I don’t think that’s what’s happening, but I think it does build questions that you don’t necessarily want a funder to have about your organization. It’s challenging and it’s very chicken and egg. So this is why I say that the onus is primarily on funders because we don’t fund the positions that would manage these things necessarily.
We don’t put the emphasis on funding communications roles, fundraising roles, all of these different roles that make it go because we want to fund direct programming, but it’s difficult to have both. So as funders, I do think the call to action there is to think more about those positions that help a nonprofit organization be strong in how they present themselves so that they can attract increased funding.
But I think on the green tea part, the big hurdle is having that funder’s email address, right? Getting access to the network of the funder, getting their attention, being in conversation with them. The easy part should hopefully be all this other stuff that is just true to your organization, and that hopefully you’ve got figured out internally so that you can speak to the great work that you’re doing and represent your staff well, represent your team. Those folks who are doing the direct service or who are doing those other things, they’re counting on you to pull the story together in a tight way.
This is why it has been such an interesting journey for me to be a consultant now too, because all of these ideas of expansion and scale, all of these ideas of moving to different fundraising or revenue models, all of that is great. There’s no need to tamp down ambition, and to tamp down vision.
But if we can’t get fundamentally tight on how we present ourselves, what we do and how we do it, to be able to tell that story so that everybody in the organization can tell that story to anyone who asks them if we’re not there. But a lot of these other things are headed for trouble, right? Because you don’t have the foundational stuff together.
I would say that those are the two major places where I feel that if non-profit organizations could get tighter and could move from fear-based to strength-based, which is a big theme of our conversation to say, “How do you move from the fear of asking for too much to how do you move from the fear of I want to make sure that I’m giving you this report that we just published, but I haven’t done my due diligence to know if it’s the most recent.”
And instead be like, “Oh, what is the way to tell the best version of my organization’s story today?” And if you’ve come from that place, I think it’s a very different conversation.
Mallory: Yes. Okay. I love that. The other thing I think you want to highlight is that I talk a lot with folks about overcoming perfectionism because I see perfectionism as a barrier to progress, but accuracy is actually something fundamentally different. And I think that what you’re talking about, what I see often is I will have discovery calls with organizations and 30 minutes and I can not understand what they do.
And what they’re afraid of, what I see is that they’re afraid of being really specific because they’re really afraid of alienating potential funders by being very specific. And so a lot of what causes, in my opinion, a lot of the murky communications around things or the different stuff is that they keep tweaking stuff to honestly make it broader.
And I’m always like “No! Because the funders for you will never be able to see themselves in you if you are not crystal clear over and over and over again”. And you’re right, your team is not going to be able to share the same story, the same narrative, the same language if you are not saying anything at all. So I love that you’re hammering that point. Huh?
Dulari: I think that’s right. You’re 12 slides into the call and I’m still not all the way sure what it is we’re talking about here today, but okay.
Mallory: I’ve been guilty of it if I think back. I think I’ve been guilty of it because I think I did have that same narrative. “If I’m too specific about this, then maybe that person won’t be interested in being involved anymore.”
I think this is around that theme of, from fear to strengths. That we need to stop thinking about the people that your specificity isn’t going to work for and start doubling down on your strengths and leading with that because that’s how you’re going to find the right partners for you.
Dulari: I think that’s right. It is just so interesting to me because I can understand from the perspective that we all have these very real bills to pay right there. They’re real. It’s not an esoteric idea that we have these things that need to get paid and people that need to get paid. I think at the same time though, the minute we shift into thinking about our organization as something that deserves funding and that should get funding and will get funding.
It is just a completely different trajectory that you’re on because you are now attracting the funding that makes sense for you versus chasing the funding that doesn’t quite fit. And now you’re changing who you are to get that funding. I think the minute you’re now beholden to those funders that weren’t quite a great fit, but now have all these expectations for you, but those expectations don’t match what your staff wants to do. Now you’ve got staff turnover and that’s costing you more money because now you’re replacing them and you’re onboarding folks.
We think about all of these issues in a silo, but it’s all the same issue around being aligned with the folks that are working for you, working with you, and providing you with money.
Those things all need to be in alignment as much as they can be for a truly strong organization to move forward.
Mallory: Yes. Yes. Okay. I love that. I think one of the themes that we want to talk about, which is the power dynamics between grantees and funders. I think even hearing you say the word us, gosh, how different it feels when you work with a foundation or a funder who even approaches it with some small changes in language that make you feel like you’re on the same team.
So just talk to me a little bit from your perspective, around being someone who has been in a development role, and now is in a funder role and also has seen the sector from, I don’t want to say an outside perspective, but the diverse perspective of the communication side of things.
Running through all of that, what have been some of your like surprises or big takeaways when you look at the power dynamic that’s there?
Dulari: Yeah. I would add to your list actually a beneficiary of services. There are lots of things that have come my way, but if I look back, there were times where I was 100% relying on the nonprofits and government services in my community to make it.
One of the things that we forget as funders potentially is that it could be any of us at any time. And I think we have noticed in this global pandemic, how thinly we are protected as a society from true devastation and literally death. When I think about the power structure and I think about hierarchies, I think a lot about how in order to have a power structure and in order to feel like you were in power, you have to feel somewhat insulated from what you think others are experiencing.
And that’s just not true. It’s just not realistic. We are all subject to whatever happens in this world; the ocean is on fire this week. When I think about things like that, we are indeed all in this sector and in this system and have different jobs within the sector and in this system, but none of us can do this work without the others.
If there were not quality organizations to provide funding to, or to facilitate funding to, I’m out of a job. We all can’t exist without each other. However, we might feel about philanthropy. And however, we might feel about the nonprofit system, like every other sector depends on all of us in order to make this whole thing go.
To me, power structures feel silly because it doesn’t advance the work and it doesn’t facilitate anything better. If we are lording over our access to money, it’s not my money. What would I then be saying exactly? That I have all this access to money, but I don’t actually have blind access to money.
There are approval processes. There are lots of things that come into this and it is very much work to make that go. Part of what I think has been surprising is one, just this idea that funders are in a position of power, which I think is odd to begin with. And I think two, just because somebody is in a nonprofit organization, that means that they need support and they need somebody to come to tell them what to do with money. And they need someone to come in and look at their budgets and explain to them where they see holes or where they have questions.
It’s a lot of gotchas. Which feels diametrically opposed to what it is that I think we all came into this sector to do. And that to me feels silly as well. When I think about power structures, those are the most surprising things because money or the absence of it does not make someone powerful and should not make someone powerful.
If we’re here trying to fight poverty, which is really access to money, then any number of hierarchical gatekeeping that we do to prevent people from getting money actually runs counterintuitive to what it is we’re here to do in my opinion. What is surprising to me is that that thought is radical.
And when I say it, it seems radical, but it truly does not make sense to me. Like I can truly be dumbfounded by it when I experience it. And when I come across it, because I don’t know how that advances anything, that line of thinking.
Mallory: This is maybe tangential but something’s coming up for me around this question of money and value, and the fact that within the ecosystem of the nonprofit sector, which I totally agree with you, the whole ecosystem needs to work together just like in other sectors.
I feel like we often create silos even within our sector in really unhealthy ways, based on power and money, and perceived value. And I’m curious, could you sense or feel a big difference in the perception of money? Thinking back from your being inside a non-profit to being in a foundation, just in terms of how money sells into how the organization even valued other things whether it’s people or it is time.
I talk a lot about scarcity mindset inside nonprofits. Are foundations dealing with the same thing or do they fundamentally have a different perception of money and value?
Dulari: I don’t know, and I’m happy to say that. I don’t know my guess is that if we didn’t anthropologic study funders and their values towards money, the individual folks who comprise the foundation, like I’m there, and their perception of money and a nonprofit organization and its perception of money. I would venture that we have very different relationships individually with money.
I think it is really interesting to think about this constant cycle of nonprofit organizations asking for money and funders being in a position to facilitate money.
And I worked really hard to say facilitate. I slipped every so often. I don’t give anyone really anything, just to be very clear, like I don’t have any money from my foundation or from our founders and what they’ve decided to provide to the community. And I facilitate that money to the community. You really see yourself as a bridge between those two things.
But I think this idea of scarcity mindset is the cyclical nature of our sector. If you are constantly thinking about the next funding cycle, in the same way a lot of our beneficiaries are constantly thinking about how they’re going to get that next meal on the table. And a lot of folks are constantly thinking about how they’re going to pay their rent next month. All of that is the same thing in my mind. All of that is just desperation, and it puts us in a place where I think we are incapable of strengths-based thinking.
I think we are incapable at that time to push aside the very real need that we have to put food on the table to pay our rent and keep a roof over our head and to keep this organization going. As a nonprofit leader with the staff that you have to pay with the rent that you have to pay for your own organization’s offices, for keeping folks employed, all of these things to me are the same exact thing.
We talked at the very beginning about how that impacts your executive function, how it impacts whether you’re able to think strategically for the future. Are you making the best decision for the community and the organization? Or are you making the decision that the funder wants you to make because that’s what they want to fund?
To me, these are all the same cycles of desperation and they’re all the same cycles of money chasing. I don’t know how to solve for that. In my piece of the puzzle, I feel very strongly that I try to make that facilitation as smooth as possible for organizations that are looking for funding.
I think we all have a role to play, to think about how can we make this process easier. If you were in a position where you were facilitating money, whatever that might be. And I say this for everybody. If you are in charge of payroll, if you are managing somebody, if you have a staff in an organization where you employ people, you are a facilitator of money whatever that looks like.
How can you make that easier for people so that you’re not in this desperation cycle? That we’re thinking about it truly as facilitation towards an end goal that we have in common? And this is just one building block towards getting there. You need the money to do it, I’m here to help you facilitate this money to this thing that I also think needs to be done.
Let’s move on from there into a true partnership to make it happen and get out of this feeling. “Oh, God, let me make sure that I have the cycles and the grants and when is the next grant funding cycle? And what is your process? and how do you fund on what calendar and keeping that all straight in a spreadsheet as a fundraising professional?”
Like it’s a little bananas to me, particularly when I think the work that we all came to do is not chasing money. I don’t think any of us in whatever time in our lives, decided to join the sector. None of us thought, “You know what I’d like to do? Desperately chase money for the next five to 10 years of my life.”
Mallory: 100%. I think what you’re saying is so critical, and so I actually want to double click on this for everyone. I think the conversation around that desperation, that scarcity mindset piece, and the way at its core inhibits nonprofits to be effective leaders in solving the problems we want them to be is a fundamental question for us to be having in this sector.
I have been reading recently science reports like abstracts on scarcity mindset, which predominantly has been studied in situations of individual poverty. What you’re talking about, what happens, and even in some of the conversations as a part of this podcast, I’ve been having, learning about metabolic energy that happens when we are feeling anxious or stressed, like a basic need of ours is not being met.
And the fact that you’re drawing this parallel between those things, the way the individuals feel in that circumstance, and how organizations feel because of the cyclical nature of the money movement.
I love that you use facilitation. I talk about money movement all the time, fundraisers are money movers. It is actually such an important conversation for us all to be having because we’re wondering why these same narratives are playing over and over, why we can’t get over this hurdle of solving some of these problems.
I actually think we know why, and I think it’s fundamentally embedded in the structure that is set up around the money movement. That means though that we have solutions and opportunities. And not that you and I are going to come up with them in the next 10 minutes, but I just want to encourage everyone that like, this is it.
This is a thing that we need to figure out as a sector. On my end, I work with organizations to stop the hustle chasing from their end, by finding aligned partners that they can be transparent, and authentic with, and real partners. And you’re the dream.
Dulari: I’m some people’s nightmare, just to be very clear on that point.
Mallory: But you know what I think the dream to me is not that you always say yes or that you don’t push back.
It’s that you are partnering with organizations to solve a problem by facilitating the movement of money in a productive way. People think because I’m an advocate for money movement into the nonprofit sector that I think every nonprofit should be able to raise more money. I don’t, I think that certain nonprofits need to close because your mode is not set up correctly or the impact of your work.
There are many reasons, and I have run an organization that 18 months after I left and they hired a new executive director and the organization went bankrupt because the model was built really poorly. And before I left, I had found another organization that wanted to absorb it.
And that’s what I had actually been really pushing as part of my exit, because I was like, “I think that the fundamental building blocks that this was built on are not going to be sustainable long-term”. And I think we are so afraid sometimes as nonprofit leaders to look at that stuff and be like, “Hey, we tried this thing and it did all of this great stuff for those five years, but we’ve also learned some really hard lessons about why it isn’t the right format for this.”
Let’s acknowledge that, let’s either close down responsibly or merge with another organization. I think we can get this tunnel vision as I’m sure you’re familiar with right inside the sector that we just want to keep driving that home. So thank you.
Dulari: Yeah, of course.
And I think that some of what we’re talking about is fear, and that’s what comes from a scarcity mindset. Is this ongoing fear. You’re always waiting for that other shoe to drop. And I think that the challenge there then becomes that you can’t see past that potential eventuality to reimagine what your work could look like.
I’m speaking on both sides here, right? Like we can’t look past we’ve always funded this way. We’ve always funded these types of organizations. Always and never for me are like red flag words. And it’s why maybe you have a very great reason, but let’s unpack it a little bit and let’s make sure from the grantee side and from the funder side, that we all understand why we’ve always done something one way or why we’ve never tried to do this other thing.
Let’s understand, was there a risk assessment made, and do we all understand the potential risks and the potential gains here? And are we acknowledging them and weighing them the same way? Or are we coming at it from this very fear-based way of thinking where the risk is never going to be worth it?And the status quo is always going to be the best answer in which case nothing ever advances.
That’s not a call to say stop funding what’s working. We all want to fund what works. But the idea is when you’re thinking from an expansion point of view, when you’re thinking about increasing your impact, when you think about how you can scale what you’ve learned, it does not just mean taking a local organization and turning it into a national one. Scale means advancing ideas, it means advancing pieces of strategy that work across sectors across communities.
I think you’re a hundred percent right. That this idea of scarcity mindset and what that creates. It feels tough, and it feels gross because we all have to then acknowledge that, “Hey, some of what we’re doing here is not quite right.”
And that’s a tough thing to swallow, but it is the first step towards increased freedom. That first step of acknowledging that something is not right here, now you have this freedom to play with what could be. That’s huge to me.
Mallory: Yeah. There’s also something you just said that I want to highlight about the learning for the future.
I’m trying to remember the exact word that you use, that when you were saying expansion, isn’t just about going from local to national, but it’s also expansion of learning and around what’s working, but also what’s not working. What if we figured out that a certain model of addressing something just doesn’t work ? At least for now, or at least a certain iteration.
And we could share that with each other in a way to say, “Okay, we’ve learned that and how important it was that we went all in and that we invested in it to really know that it wasn’t a funding issue, that it was like a fundamental structural issue that made that not achieve our goals around X.”
And I’m also not a black and white person and I get so much from curiosity and just asking those questions. Okay. Maybe that is the right way, but just tell me about it. Tell me why.
So I love that you’re challenging us all in that you’re challenging the sector in multiple ways to be asking those fundamental questions.
I know we are getting close to the end of our time together. I could talk to you forever, and I have about a million other questions, but first tell folks where they can find you, especially if they’re interested in working with you around communications. I would love for them to have access to that information. And then I’ll close out with our kind of final question that I know we’re going to do a little differently.
Dulari: Yes, you can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation’s website also has a wealth of resources to talk about the work that the foundation does. It’s social media channels, it’s grants provided. Please take the time there. I think that website and the information that I provide also gives a really great sense of some of the things if you’re interested in funding from the Dell Foundation, what it funds and what it doesn’t fund, we have been really big proponents of practicing what we preach.
And so a lot of what we talked about here today, around is that information available and transparent? I believe that it is there. For me and my business my website is dgandhicomms.com. Similarly, you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter there, and I’d love to meet all of you who are listening today.
Mallory: Awesome. Thank you.
And then I end every episode inviting folks to share a nonprofit that they love. And I know being on the funder side, we’re going to do that a little bit more globally.
Dulari: Yeah, thank you so much for asking that. I think it is such an important thing to close out and to think about what we take from the lessons of what we hear in podcasts and what we see in our headlines?
And my message continues to be, and I think something that I believe in really strongly is around local efforts and how all of that channels up to your state to your leadership. I’m speaking here in the US context, but I think that too often, it feels paralyzing. I know I feel paralyzed, I look at headlines of things and it feels a little bit like my individual action can’t really do anything.
I do believe though, that being informed about who makes the decisions on your behalf in your local community is very important. It is incredibly important to find out who is working on the many sides of any given issue. Our point earlier, not everything is black and white. You can be pro something and con something, but there’s a lot of space there in the middle.
There are lots of organizations and non-profit organizations in our communities that are working on all of these different challenges that we face. Even 30 minutes of research into what’s going on in your community makes a difference.
Do you know who sits on your city or town council? Do you know who sits on the board of education, where your kids go to school? Do you know where the organizations are and what their stance is and what they’re advocating for when they write their policy positions? And do you know what the people who are experiencing these issues think and feel about these things?
I think 30 minutes of research gets you so far. It’s something that I want to encourage folks to do. To engage more frequently in the things that are happening right outside.
Mallory: Thank you. Yeah. Thank you for saying that. And thank you for spending this time with us today. I am so grateful for you and all that you do, and just being such an incredible example for other funders, but also letting nonprofits in, in a way I think they’re not typically invited.
Dulari: Yes. Thank you. And thank you for creating such a great podcast. To create a forum for this is super important too. We are a community of givers and listeners, we try a lot to do this informally, but having formal channels to raise these conversations is incredibly important. So thank you for creating this for us.
Mallory: My pleasure. Thank you.