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"Funders need to begin the relationship with listening instead of telling": Maline Bungum '19

Maline Bungum is a History major and Anthropology minor from the class of 2019. Since graduating, she has worked for GlobalGiving, a Washington D.C.-based organisation, to support non-profit partners.

Aleithia: Hi Maline! Can you tell me more about your work with GlobalGiving?

Maline: Since graduation, I’ve been working at GlobalGiving, a non-profit based in Washington D.C. We connect donors, companies, and other funders to community-led non-profits around the world. We exist to help our non-profit partners access the funding and resources they need to support the communities they serve.

I’m part of the Program team, which facilitates most of the non-profit-facing experiences at GlobalGiving. We provide our non-profit partners with support through the onboarding process, training on how to sustainably and strategically raise funds with us, opportunities to connect with and learn from their peers, and help in all other aspects of navigating the GlobalGiving ecosystem.

My own role has evolved since I first joined GlobalGiving through the now-retired fellowship program, with an overall focus on community engagement. During my time as a fellow, I was more directly involved in our community learning programs. Today, I primarily work on non-profit communications for a corporate grant program; streamline and support our customer service strategy; and help design and run GlobalGiving’s new onboarding experience.

Right now, I’m most excited about how our team and non-profit partners are co-creating the new onboarding experience. We’re rethinking how we welcome non-profits into the GlobalGiving community, in the hope that the future experience is more inclusive and accessible for those who choose to partner with us in their fundraising journeys.

Aleithia: Could you say more about the existing imbalance in power between grantor and grantee – how do these imbalances impact non-profit partners?

Maline: In traditional, “Big P” Philanthropy, the funding entity holds significant (and sometimes complete) say in how the funds donated should be used by the implementing organisation: how and when it should and shouldn’t be spent, the mode and metrics by which impact is to be measured, and most importantly, who gets invited to the decision-making table.

Before any of that happens, the non-profit often has to first make it through a time-consuming, competitive, and onerous grant application process that inherently favours organisations already equipped with the resources and expertise needed to “play the grant-making game.”

Even with the best of intentions from all parties, you end up with a deeply uneven relationship. If you’ve ever tried fundraising, even at the smallest scale, you’ve probably felt the inclination to orient your pitch around the potential donor.

On its own, this is a solid fundraising strategy—most of us are more likely to give (financially or otherwise) to something that feels personal to us. But the problem arises when the grantor-grantee relationship becomes so funder-oriented that it de-centers the voices, priorities, and lived realities of the communities most affected by the changes that funding could bring.

The problem arises when the grantor-grantee relationship becomes so funder-oriented that it de-centers the voices, priorities, and lived realities of the communities most affected by the changes that funding could bring.

There’s also somewhat of a customer-is-always-right mindset, where the money-holding “customer” (that is, the grantor) gets to choose how and on what they spend their money, with often rigid expectations for the product or service they get in exchange (from the grantee). However, in the context of philanthropy, “customers” aren’t just putting their money towards an easily standardised product or services—they’re creating a tangible impact, good or bad, on real people’s lives. This brings up the crucial question of accountability, and how the metrics of success for grant programmes are often determined by funders and not by the people most tangibly affected by these decisions.

Ultimately, the pitfalls of this mainstream grant-making model led to GlobalGiving’s start as a crowdfunding platform for non-profits. Today, these issues continue to ground the organisation’s commitment to shift power through community-led philanthropy. A community-led approach is based on the premise that the people closest to the problems also hold the most promising solutions.

As a non-profit, GlobalGiving occupies an interesting position as both a grantor and a grantee, and also as an intermediary between fellow funders—whether that’s individual donors, foundations, or companies—and fellow non-profits, our primary stakeholders.

As funders, we have the desire and responsibility to steward our giving well. In order to combat the power imbalance inherent in most philanthropic relationships, however, funders need to have the reflexivity and humility to recognise and admit that we probably don’t know best; to begin that relationship with listening instead of telling; and to come with the intention of building mutual trust as true partners, each invested in the other’s good.

In order to combat the power imbalance inherent to most philanthropic relationships, however, funders need to have the reflexivity and humility to recognise and admit that we probably don’t know best; to begin that relationship with listening instead of telling.

So what does this actually look like?

When interacting with our non-profit partners, this means we always prioritise their voices in the decisions that affect them. This requires building real, person-to-person relationships, as well as programmatically figuring out how to prevent our own biases and limitations from elevating only the loudest voices in the room. To do this, we might hire interpreters to support our non-English-first partners during focus group sessions, or cede decision-making power to our partners, even in the context of grantmaking.

As we aim to model the value of being community-led with our non-profit partners and be transparent about our own learning process, we have invited our corporate partners to do the same, such as by giving unrestricted grants to local non-profits in the wake of a disaster, when flexibility is most needed. More generally, this openness to being flexible about how and where we give is what often enables the most transformative, sustainable impact for non-profits.

Back when I did daily customer service phone calls, I would get questions from donors (who are largely sincere, wonderful, and big-hearted folks) about justifying the fees that GlobalGiving charges, how we spend the funding, and how the money gets to our partners.

In one particularly difficult call, I was even questioned on why I deserved to be paid. Those conversations were interesting because they made me realise that many funders don’t view non-profits as a business or an organisation that needs to be viable and has to keep the lights on, that needs electricity to print paper, and things like that. It takes money to send money places.

Maline in the GlobalGiving office

Aleithia: You talked about influencing funding partners who come in with their own ideas of how money is to be used and the proof they need that their money is going where they want it. How do you balance accountability versus promoting trust-based relationships and partnerships with non-profits?

Maline: I understand and share the desire to make sure things are being done well and that money ends up where it’s intended to go. That’s why vetting and due diligence is a core and foremost part of our relationship with our non-profit partners, and an ongoing assurance to donors who choose to invest their resources into these communities.

We had a corporate partner who had seen the effectiveness and value of flexible grant-making in some of GlobalGiving’s previous corporate partnerships, and agreed to give significant, unrestricted grants with no reporting requirements to a large number of vetted non-profits who work on a few issues that aligned closely with the company’s values.

When we reached out to these selected non-profits for the first time, we essentially told them, “Hi! Our corporate partner X has selected your organisation to receive Y dollars for you to continue and expand on the incredible work your team is already doing. And FYI, you don’t have to report on it, though we’d love to hear from you.”

Most of their reactions were that of disbelief, with many asking if the grant was legitimate and really coming through. Once they realised that we were for real, there was such joy in knowing that our corporate partner was willing to trust and invest in their work in this tangible, sustaining way. These are the types of things that end up building trust—organisation-to-organisation, human-to-human.

And still, out of habit and natural reciprocity, many grantees voluntarily submitted impact reports, in addition to the regular reporting they already do on GlobalGiving. It’s astounding to see what they are able to accomplish, especially when able to report on their own time, at a point that makes sense for their team and their work. There is a lot of long-lasting joy that is not usually associated with this grant application/making/receiving process when you trust people as human beings who are committed to the cause.

It’s astounding to see what [grantees] are able to accomplish, especially when able to report on their own time, at a point that makes sense for their team and their work.

That’s another thing I want to mention: I’ve been referring to non-profit partners this whole time, but what I really mean is that we are working with individuals. For a lot of organisations that are small or locally-led (sometimes called a “staff of one”), the non-profit leader is required to wear many hats, from handling fundraising and donor management, to program evaluation, implementation, outreach and a million other things.

When funders have the context of that person beyond the larger entity they represent, they realise very quickly how unnecessarily restrictive and complicated traditional grant-making and philanthropy requirements are on people who are just trying to do good at the end of the day, often at a great cost to themselves. In sum, trust-based giving is a two-way street and an ongoing conversation, just like any relationship. It’s an exciting moment for community-led philanthropy right now, as more and more funders recognise its value.

Aleithia: You’ve talked about having conversations with these non-profit partners and individuals and having relationships with them. So given COVID-19, has it been difficult for the organisation? How does GlobalGiving maintain these relationships, given that GlobalGiving is in the US and UK, working with many partners that are not in the same region?

Maline: Given the global composition of our non-profit community, we were in some ways already leaning into a more Zoom-reliant, time-zone-crossing world. Still, at the very start of the pandemic, everyone was pivoting in all the ways, including us. Our first priority was to check in with our non-profit partners, to see how they were doing and how their teams were adapting.

For example, we had planned a topical, monthly peer learning webinar in March 2020, and we decided fairly quickly to focus that time on our non-profit partners’ COVID responses instead. Many of these partners’ work changed overnight, no matter what they were previously working on. As schools shut down, education non-profits were equipping their students with laptops so they could continue to attend school virtually, or providing them with masks and food, if they had previously relied on schools for their meals.

Unlike other webinars in that series, which were mostly expert-led, the March 2020 webinar was very much an open floor. We met both in large and small groups on Zoom, and started the conversation not with, “What are you doing programmatically?”, but “How are you doing as a person?”

Soon after that, GlobalGiving launched a microgrant program with a very simple application for vetted organisations to apply for funding for local COVID relief work. Our priority was to get much needed funds into the hands of organisations that were delivering critical services in their communities, many facing pre-existing hardships that were only exacerbated by the pandemic.

Having this vetted network of non-profits has enabled us to take on these more agile, time-sensitive initiatives. It’s also why we really believe in supporting local non-profits, because if anyone is agile, it’s them. They’re plugged into the local structures and institutions, they have a deep knowledge of their communities, and most crucially, they’re there for the long haul.

This vetted network of non-profits ... are plugged into the local structures and institutions, they have a deep knowledge of their communities, and most crucially, they’re there for the long haul.

We’re also positioned to introduce the voices of our partners to a network outside their own. Storytelling is a huge part of what we do and how we build community and trust between our non-profit and funding partners. Numbers are absolutely important and necessary, but stories are transformative, and they centre the person behind the data. So that’s something we really try to push: elevating our partners’ stories to people who might not otherwise come across them, hopefully bringing people closer, and creating more opportunities for mutual support.

A photo Maline took in Nepal, at a health camp run by Asal Chhimekee Nepal (ACN)

Aleithia: With this distance from the field/communities you work with – having worked in an organisation that lets you see the whole ecosystem – are there certain positions that you’d personally want to continue on in? Why do you feel like that’s the kind of place you want to be acting from?

Maline: I’ve thought about the ethics of this distance increasingly since my foray into the development sector back in 2016. I had shown up as a naive and clueless teenager at Asal Chhimekee Nepal (ACN), a locally-led non-profit in Nepal that empowers marginalised communities through education, healthcare, disaster resilience, and more.

Being there and learning from my coworkers was a transformative experience that’s continued to inform my work today. I’m infinitely grateful for their graciousness in welcoming me into their community and inviting me to be part of their team, when I could offer much less in return. Unexpectedly, every step in my professional journey has since taken me further away from the so-called “field.”

I remember one day in 2020 when the pandemic had just started and we were still going to the office. I was sitting at my desk in downtown Washington D.C., just a few blocks from the White House. I had this moment where I looked around and thought, “What am I doing here? Like, where am I right now? I know I’m doing work that matters to me…but I’m also in this shiny air-conditioned office building with a comfy desk and all these snacks in a literal glass/ivory tower.” I just suddenly felt so disconnected. D.C. felt as far as I could possibly get from the communities I cared about, and I hadn’t envisioned my life going this way.

I’m continuously coming to terms with this distancing, the privilege inherent in that, and what it means for what I do and why I’m doing it. If I’ve learned anything from working in this sector, it’s that I know very, very little.

When I left Nepal, I made a commitment to myself not to return in any professional capacity unless I was equipped with a skill or resource that wasn’t available or prevalent locally. To be honest, at this point, I doubt that I can or ever will be more helpful in person than from afar. There’s already so much good work being carried forward by folks entirely committed to the betterment of their own communities. And so I’ve been unintentionally stepping further and further away, at least geographically.

Working from the funding side of things has also deepened my appreciation for distance and its value. There’s a lot of immediate, personal satisfaction to be found in being the person who’s doing the work there, where you’re able to live and form relationships in a community other than your own—but I’ve learned to let go of this.

A lot of that desire feels selfish, and I don’t want my motivation in work to be predicated on me deriving this sense of direct fulfilment by inserting myself into a position that would likely be better filled by someone who has always called that community their home.

I don’t want my motivation in work to be predicated on me deriving this sense of direct fulfilment by inserting myself into a position that would likely be better filled by someone who has always called that community their home.

Part of that mindset shift has come through working and speaking with donors over the years. Many want to visit the communities they’ve donated to, and I recognise that these experiences can be extremely powerful. I myself wouldn’t be here now if not for that initial opportunity in Nepal. Six years later, I’m still reflecting on my time learning from and with the people I lived and worked with, who I’m thankful to still call my friends.

At the same time, there’s a bit of a colonial mindset in wanting to come in and sit in another’s space, without realising the resources it takes to support you being there, and how you could probably contribute at least as much, if not more, impact from afar.

I’m beginning to see the value of distanced work, or rather, having different layers of distance in the social impact space, recognising that our individual backgrounds position us to be most effective and valuable in places that are perhaps more removed than we imagined.

That’s not to say that you can’t work and serve in any place other than your home. “Home” can be a terribly complicated concept as is. But personally, I’ve found and am finding satisfaction in being a little bit more removed. If anything, that distance increases the importance of remaining connected in other ways to the people at the core of our work, especially as virtual collaboration becomes more and more globally accessible.

Aleithia: I really resonated with what you said earlier, about not going back to a local context unless there was a way I could value-add. I felt this very strongly during COVID-19, when many non-profit executives left countries like Philippines and Vietnam, which left a gap in leadership and fundraising capacity, and so was determined not to return to work "in the field" just for the sake of personal fulfilment, or wanting to live in a country out of personal preference.

Maline: Yes, a hundred percent. This realisation is so important for anyone wanting to move into the social impact/international development/philanthropy space. Part of how I’ve come to appreciate the position I have, even if it’s further away than what I once envisioned, is by recognising that just by situating myself in the sector, I’m labouring in service of something that ultimately matters to me, without relying on the waxing and waning of how personally connected I feel on any given day to the work and the larger purpose it exists for.

Relatedly, I’ve found distance to be especially important in managing compassion fatigue and the unfortunate desensitisation that sometimes feels necessary in this line of work. There are moments when I have to stop what I’m doing, like after reading a story of loss in our partner’s community or reviewing a set of especially difficult photos, because of the overwhelming sadness of it all.

Our work exists because suffering and poverty is unacceptable, and though you must confront it, you do also have to—for your own sake and for the sake of continued service—have some healthy emotional distance. So hold people close in one hand, and hold space for yourself in the other. It’s a tricky balance, but one I think worth figuring out.

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