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  • Marty Zimmerman

Relationships of Reciprocity: The Future of Philanthropy

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Houses on an empty street in New York during COVID

In the spring of 2020 New Yorkers grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic, social and public health challenges and thousands lost jobs, income, and loved ones. In response to this crisis, a nonprofit called GatherFor was launched in New York City to organize and resource teams of neighbors to provide unconditional support to one another as they journey from crisis to resilience. During a period when nearly 30 million Americans were laid off, GatherFor began wrapping teams of three to five volunteers around a single “neighbor” who had lost their job.

Through the pilot phase, an interesting phenomenon emerged: support did not just flow in one way toward a neighbor. Instead, teams began to fully support each other. Through COVID-19, everyone’s lives shifted and changed – there were break ups, breakthroughs, and breakdowns. Everyone became a neighbor.

Backed by extensive research on the effectiveness of peer support models, GatherFor is piloting projects in which teams of neighbors who are all experiencing challenges support each other. Pre-participation surveys taken by these new cohorts indicate that what they want most from their experience is to support someone else.

The takeaway from GatherFor’s Evolution is: relationships of reciprocity can be much more powerful than relationships of unequal power or one-sided giving.

GatherFor is not alone in recognizing the power of reciprocity. As ZIM consultants working with a diverse range of social impact clients, we see how across the nonprofit, philanthropic, and social impact sectors, organizations and leaders are tapping into the power of reciprocal relationships and disrupting traditional power dynamics that divide funders from the communities they invest in and program staffs from the participants they serve.

Dr. Sarah Kastelic, Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, wrote in an article for Non-Profit Quarterly that, “(r)eciprocity is about balance in relationships—between people, organizations, institutions, the environment. It isn’t necessarily a one-to-one exchange, but it is more generally about balance and harmony through attention to service and contribution. It’s about recognizing things, approaches, actions, and attitudes of value and maintaining the proper awareness and appreciation.” In this blog post, we explore a handful of best practices that are emerging in the nonprofit/philanthropy space, and provide links for further reading that our team hopes both funders and nonprofit grant writers will find useful.

Acknowledging Systems in Grant Writing

Traditionally, grant writing was framed by pulling heartstrings - portraying tragedy to provoke a charitable response. That type of writing has unrelenting consequences, disempowering communities and often excluding them from decision-making and problem-solving spaces. While funders and grant writers have worked to move away from this framing, in moments of crises - Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, and today’s global pandemic - the sector tends to revert to a victim/charity narrative. In her article, System Centered Language: Speaking Truth to Power during COVID-19 while Confronting Racism, Dr. Meagan O’Reilly writes, “Language has been wielded for all sorts of oppressive purposes. Chief among them is its ability to frame worldviews, set definitions, and thus influence the treatment of people.” In place of narratives that rely on victimization to solicit funding, ZIM works closely with our clients to develop language that accurately describes the systemic challenges facing the communities they serve, and conveys the knowledge and capacity of those communities to contribute to solutions. Resources like Dr. O’Reilly’s article are powerful tools for a team of grant writers serving diverse communities, and help us monitor our own reflexive language to better represent the communities we serve.

Responsive Philanthropy

Learning to work with communities is fundamental to program sustainability and success. A 2015 publication by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy demonstrates how The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation successfully navigated a community-centered approach to its philanthropy by incorporating Native nonprofit intermediaries (such as NB3F), including technical assistance, to ensure that investments were made in collaboration with the community. The Foundation’s philosophy, the publication says, is that of Steven Covey: “seek first to understand then to be understood.” This is not only a responsible but also more fiscally sustainable approach to philanthropy. At ZIM, we encourage foundations to partner with populations that can teach them about the goal they care most about: how to better accomplish their mission.

Equitable Research and Evaluation

Research, monitoring, and evaluation are the foundations of evidence-based programming and learning for foundations and nonprofits, and both have developed increasingly sophisticated practices for collecting information from the communities they serve. Yet time and again, the communities that participate in research, fill out surveys, and provide feedback on programming ask why they are always asked to provide input, but rarely invited to participate in the learning and decision-making processes that their input is meant to inform.

ChicagoBeyond 2020 has produced a guidebook, “Why am I always being researched?” for community organizations, researchers, and funders. This guidebook is designed to empower community organizations to lead research on their own terms, support researchers in recognizing their influence and unintended bias in shaping the questions asked, and inspire funders to ask hard questions about their agendas, unlock more meaningful knowledge, and achieve greater impact. Reciprocity plays a critical role in the flow of information and resources; the power dynamic between community organizations, researchers, and funders frequently blocks information that could drive better, more inclusive decision-making.

Embracing reciprocity requires significant change across philanthropic systems, and hard work from the leadership and staff of philanthropic organizations, grant writing consultancies, and nonprofits; existing systems rarely change themselves. By reframing the grantmaking as a reciprocal relationship, foundations have the opportunity to intentionally develop deeper, more authentic, and more effective partnerships. By using intentional language that conveys the lived experience, knowledge, and capacity of communities, grant writers can play a critical role in informing how funders frame their work, and the problems they want to solve. Funders have a powerful opportunity to shape and shift the dynamics inherent in traditional philanthropy with each RFP they issue, and nonprofits should center the contributions that their communities can make in building more sustainable solutions. At ZIM, we are committed to the idea that we can “gather for” each other in equal ways.

 Shauna Ruda ,Grant Writer

Shauna Ruda | Grant Writer

Shauna has over a decade of leadership experience in the for-impact sector focused on strategic planning, fundraising, stakeholder engagement, program development, and evaluation. Most recently, Shauna worked in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Corporate Responsibility Department and as a Migration Researcher at Columbia University. Shauna holds an MA in Migration Studies from Tel Aviv University and MSW from Columbia University.

 Sam Moody, Grant Writer

Sam Moody | Grant Writer

Sam brings nine years of experience in strategic planning, grant writing, and organizational learning to the ZIM team. He has worked with global foundations, local governments, social enterprises, and community nonprofits across North and South America. He is passionate about building the capacity of social impact organizations to make audacious plans, assemble the resources and support necessary for success, and engage stakeholders and staff in continuous learning. 


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