Blog home

The problem with everything being all about relationships

By Vu Le
February 13, 2020

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

Hi everyone, this week is Valentine’s Day, arguably the most annoying and stressed-filled day ever. I like it as much as I like infinity scarves. But at least we have #NonprofitPickupLines on Twitter. Go make that trend again. “Hey there, is your nickname Cash-Flow Issues? Because you’re constantly on my mind.”

Valentine’s Day, however, is a great time to talk about relationships. Namely, the philosophy that everything is based on relationships. Fundraising is about developing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships with donors. Hiring is often about who you are connected to. “Remember,” we are often told, and we often tell others, “it’s not about what you know, but about who you know.” In this blog post, written six years ago, I explain that “85% of 95% of grants is 90% relationship building” (Let’s just say math is not my strongest suit).

We’ve all accepted it as normal, probably even desirable. Having mutually supportive relationships is great. It makes us all feel grounded and connected, and in a world that’s more and more isolating, strengthening the bonds among one another is something we each need to spend more time and energy on. This year, I am going to be more intentional about getting dinner individually with the six families living nearest to me. I’ve lived on this street for four years and have barely interacted with them. It’s intrinsically good to do, but also, in the increasingly likely event of the zombie apocalypse, I need to know who has bunkers, canned goods, and crossbows.

Unfortunately, our reliance on relationships is also problematic, as it often creates and enhances inequity and thus undermines many of the problems we as a sector are trying to address. Here are a few reasons and examples:

Marginalized people and communities don’t have the same access to relationships: Relationships are not equitably distributed. A common criticism of philanthropy is that it’s often an old-boy’s network, where large catalytic grants are made with a conversation or two behind the scene. This network, however, is often only accessible to white folks. People of color, people with disabilities, rural area folks, just don’t have the same relationships. The Race to Lead report, for example, indicates more leaders of color say lack of funding relationships is a barrier, compared to white colleages (49% POC vs. 33% White). If your grantmaking is based on who program officers and board trustees know, and who they know are mainly white or male or urban or abled, then this helps to explain the various disparities in philanthropy, such as 10% of philanthropic dollars going to communities of color.

People are biased toward those who look, think, and act like them: Even if marginalized people somehow gain access, there are still challenges. Because of unconscious, and sometimes conscious, biases, we tend to gravitate toward and build relationships with those who are similar to us. This then disadvantages people who are of different races, cultures, languages, accents, who are neurodiverse, etc. It affects whom we hire, whom we fund, whom we listen to, whom we introduce to other people to continue the relationship-building chain.

It elevates charismatic leaders and their ideas, and their ideas are not always good: The people who are great relationship builders are often charismatic, extroverted, and good talkers. However, it does not mean their ideas and solutions are always the best. We all probably have examples of crappy ideas that get funded simply because someone charismatic has relationships with people of power and influence.

It jeopardizes important work when people in relationships are no longer there: I’ve had funders with whom I have great relationships tell me, “I like your work, but I am mainly investing in you, and that’s why I’m giving you this grant.” As flattering as that is, it creates a tenuous situation. People inevitably leave, get fired, retire, or die from infinity-scarf/windmill-related accidents, and when it happens, important and effective work that has been built over years can lose funding and support.

It reinforces the Relationship-Resource Paradox: If you don’t have strong relationships, you don’t get funding, but if you don’t get funding, it’s hard for you to build relationships. (It’s similar to the Data-Resource Paradox, which is you can’t get resources if you don’t have good data, but you can’t get good data if you don’t have resources). Again, this screws over people of color, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQIA folks, people in rural areas, older folks, neuro-diverse individuals, etc.

For the above and other reasons, our sector needs to reflect on and mitigate our reliance on relationships to make many of our decisions. This is not to say we should stop using relationships altogether. Relationships are still important, and effective work cannot be done without them, especially when they are intentionally built with people who are most affected by injustice. Currently, however, they often play a gatekeeping role that is harmful to people and communities who are already marginalized. Here are a few things we each need to do:

Analyze whom you DON’T have relationships with but should: On an institutional level, is your board missing people who reflect the community you serve? Are the organizations your foundation is funding mainly a certain type? Is there a significant population in your community that you have no connection to? Do you feel that you have strong relationships with the people who are most affected by injustice in your geographic area? On a personal level, do you know many people who aren’t similar to you? Who do you hang out with? Who do you get advice from? If you have to captain a table for a gala, are all your guests going to be white or able-bodied or cis-gender?

Put extra time and energy into building relationship with people different from you: It is harder, but very important to the work, to establish and maintain relationships with people who don’t share your race, ethnicity, cultural practices, first language, etc. When they reach out, make time to meet and get to know them. Be out in the community. Sometimes, you may have to initiate the connection, and you may find that people may be resistant, because after hundreds of years of systemic injustice, they may be reasonably wary. Be thoughtful and persistent, but respectful.

Be thoughtful about whom you make back deals with: Strong relationships often bypass bureaucracy and formal processes of decision-making. Unfortunately, again, this mainly benefits white folks, cis-gender men, and other people with privilege. If you have power and influence, be mindful of who gets access to it. Before you sign a contract based on a conversation you had at the airport or conference or golfing trip or wherever, think carefully about whether this is equitable or whether you are just furthering injustice.

Get over the idea that extroversion and charisma automatically equal competence: We are biased toward extroverts. If we weren’t, we would do things like send job interview questions out in advance so people have time to reflect and come up with answers. Instead, we favor people who can immediately answer questions like, “Name a time that you demonstrated leadership that transcended time and space and restored balance to the universe.” We build relationships with extroverts not only because they seem more approachable, but also because society ascribes a higher degree of competence and trustworthiness to extroversion.

Formalize processes, procedures, and partnerships so they are less reliant on relationships: Think about what happens if you are no longer at your organization or foundation. Who would be affected? What can you do to ensure the work continues? Formalize a contract for a multi-year grant? Ensure everyone at your organization is trained in equitable hiring?

Finally, get over the idea that people owe you a relationship: Do not place the burden on marginalized people and communities to demonstrate trustworthiness through the establishment of relationships with you. People most affected by systemic injustice do not owe you a relationship in order to for you to help them if that is your job. Even if you have no relationships with a person or a community, even if you don’t feel a “connection” or “rapport” with them, even if they don’t fit into your “organizational culture” or whatever, if your job is to help people and communities, then do not make the presence of a strong relationship a prerequisite.

Tags: Equity