This month, we are excited to announce the launch of our new Advisory Board as part of our ongoing effort to learn from our grantee partners and the communities they serve. We place great emphasis on the value of relationships and mutuality for learning and accountability, and our advisors will bring more perspectives and voices into shaping our grantmaking strategy.

Our Advisory Board is just one way we seek to center our grantees in our work. Our Impact Partner, Andrew Jones, shares his thoughts on the importance of genuine partnership and downward accountability to Imago Dei’s approach.

Institutional donors everywhere trumpet partnership as central to their approach. “Find a funding opportunity – partner with us,” per one major donor’s website. The term is ubiquitous in international development and has been for decades, all too often sapping it of any real meaning. Donors present themselves as funding partners and NGOs receiving funds, in turn, as programmatic partners to local organizations on the ground. Yet the reality is that these relationships typically bear little resemblance to partnership in the true sense of the word. Instead, they are marked by a clear hierarchy and imbalance of power, with those in control of the resources too often defining goals, setting targets, and directing the work itself.

In my international humanitarian, human rights, and development career, the funding for the work we did came from a wide range of public and private donors, from high net wealth individuals and foundations to major bilateral and multilateral government agencies. Early in my career, I was asked to spearhead a new human rights initiative at CARE, a large international relief and development NGO. The vision was to embed a commitment to human rights values and principles within the organization’s relief and development programming. One of the core principles we articulated in CARE’s emerging rights-based approach was ‘downward’ (as opposed to upward to donors) accountability, recognizing community members served by international aid projects as rights bearers and feeling at least a moral duty to be accountable to them. Far easier said than done, of course. While progress was and has been made, the aid system overall makes it extremely difficult to put into practice.

Ultimately, donors’ overly aggressive targets, timelines, and deliverables tend to suffocate efforts to put communities first in defining solutions and owning the process. The bottom line is downstream organizations in the aid system end up being contractors, not partners in any meaningful sense of the word. And, as a result, communities served by international aid are systematically neglected in key decision-making processes affecting their lives. In a system where ‘upward’ accountability still predominates, genuine local partnerships and community-driven development remain elusive.

When I joined the Imago Dei Fund last year, I was struck by how grantees were centered in our approach and by how much the quality of funder-grantee relationships was highlighted. While the foundation continuously seeks to learn and has plenty of room to grow, we are striving to genuinely partner with our grantees. What does this look like? In line with Imago Dei’s core values, the main features of what we refer to as our relational approach include:

  1. Deep respect for locally rooted partners’ knowledge of the challenges the communities they serve are facing and the most promising solutions in response.
  2. Prioritization of multi-year unrestricted funding so that partners have the space to continuously engage the communities they serve and freedom to design and redesign what they’re doing programmatically.
  3. Determination to minimize what we request, application and reporting-wise, so that partners can stay focused on their work in the communities they serve.
  4. Commitment to regular communications, and especially being available at all times, listening well, and being as responsive as possible to requests for advice and support.
  5. Willingness to gather and act on regular, honest feedback from partners.
  6. Deep desire to see our partners thriving, making resources available for self-care, mental health, and wellbeing of the soul.

When I share our trust-based, relational approach with peer funders, a concern I hear relates to ensuring that philanthropic dollars are well spent and generate their intended impact, often framed in terms of accountability to foundation leadership and boards. The desire, even obligation, to be good stewards of foundation resources is compelling. Does Imago Dei’s approach sacrifice stewardship and, by extension, accountability? Or is it, more accurately, reorienting how many of us think about accountability, shifting its locus to where it first and foremost belongs? That’s how we see it, at least. For any donor, our first accountability should be to communities served by our grantees and ensuring they’re in the lead.

One way we can shift accountability ‘downward’ is through inviting representatives of those communities to help us learn better, engage with us in strategic decision making, and hold us accountable. As part of the Imago Dei Fund’s new 3-year strategy, we have launched an Advisory Board to play exactly this role.

Another way is to allow grantee partners and communities to lead in defining, pursuing, and assessing the impact that matters most to them. A central part of my job is to frame the impact we seek to have as a foundation and set up a process for tracking our impact over time. ‘Our’ impact of course derives from the impact our grantees are having in the communities they serve, which grows with the increasing organizational resources, capacities and effectiveness that should result from our (and others’) grants and non-monetary support. We are putting in place a system for collecting relevant impact data, but we do not feel the need to be dictating to our grantee partners. Instead, we look to them to take the lead in defining the impact they want to have and the approach they want to take, at the community level, in assessing and reporting on their impact over time. At the same time, we remain actively engaged in learning from the impact they and the communities they serve are observing, what’s working and what’s not, and how they’re adapting their innovative approaches for greater impact.

A trust-based, relational approach is not merely about cutting checks and wishing the recipients of our funding well. At Imago Dei, we care deeply about the impact our amazing partners are having over time. We take pride as they test and evolve their innovative ideas in their communities toward more effective approaches and greater impact on women’s equality and sustainable community development. In doing so, we’re both enabling community-centered accountability and stewarding foundation resources responsibly. We certainly have not figured out exactly how best to do this but are wide open to learning from others’ experiences and grateful for any and all feedback. Please reach out if you have thoughts or suggestions for us!