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A Valentine's Day Consideration: A Radical Change in How We Build Mission-focused Business Relationships

02/12/2014 04:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

It's Valentine's Day and the time of year when everyone is talking about relationships. Countless doctors and love gurus are showing up on TV or in articles dispersing advice about how people can build stronger, healthier relationships.

And the recurring theme you hear in all of these is that the keys to a successful relationship are communication, trust and mutual understanding.

Over the course of history people have formalized their romantic relationships by getting married, which serves as a sort of contract between two people that they are in it for the long haul. Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau over the past decade points to a growing trend of people opting out of marriage in favor of cohabitation relationships. The debate rages on about the pros and cons to these types of situations, but this got me to thinking. If in romantic relationships we could forgo a contract between two people in favor of a relationship built on long-term trust and dependability, why couldn't this work in a business context?

What if we considered a radical shift in how nonprofits, funders and agencies working in the mission-focused space approach their relationships? Instead of contractual obligations and expectations, what if these relationships were built on a much stronger foundation, one involving mutual buy-in to a common mission and trust in each other to support that cause? Could this create deeper, more meaningful partnerships that ultimately result in greater success for everyone involved?

What if we started operating within a "gift economy," a term used in a Huffington Post article about Adrian Hoppel, who left a lucrative job to launch his own web design company. Instead of charging clients an upfront fee, Hoppel gives clients the work "as a gift" and then lets them decide what to pay him based on the value of that gift. A model he says is based on "mutual respect and fairness."

From Hoppel's Blog: "Working in the gift does not mean that I work for free, or that I give my work away without care. It means that people trust me to build them a website, and I trust them to support my work as they believe fair."

And Hoppel isn't the only person out there making this model work. Cookies for Kids' Cancer, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to pediatric cancer research, has raised more than $4 million through bake sales being hosted by supporters across the country. Gretchen Holt-Witt, who founded the organization after her 2-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with pediatric cancer, wanted to create something "irresistible" that people would want to be a part of. The bake sales are volunteer efforts and instead of setting dollar amounts on items, the organization trusts people to give what they can. They trust that the mission will inspire people to both volunteer their time and donate.

Cookies for Kids' Cancer saw incredible success, not by telling donors how much to give, but by creating strong relationships with bakers and cancer advocates across the country.

Mario Morino is co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) and author of the book Leap of Reason. Instead of thinking about it as awarding grants, VPP approaches its business as creating long-term investment partnerships with nonprofits built on trust and shared risks. VPP doesn't fund program costs, but they work with nonprofit leaders to build the strength of their organizations through large-scale, multi-year funding.

Morino claims that the current system sets nonprofits up to not be able to solve the real challenges because they are forced to be so focused on a single program instead of the overall, long-term objective. I'd compare this to a band-aide fix. Instead of getting at the root of the problem, the traditional model for awarding grants typically allows nonprofits to provide relief to a symptom. As a result, the nonprofit is only able to focus on a temporary solution instead of tackling the core issue.

What if, instead, funders worked with an organization to support leadership development and performance management therefore building a stronger foundation that in the long-term would be more effective on the whole.

"We funders should be supporting nonprofit leaders to build strong, high-performance organizations. Instead, we cause them to think incrementally--month to month and hand to mouth. We often treat them as contractors to carry out our programs. We often say we're focused on results. But really what we're doing is demanding more information on results without wanting to invest to help leaders build evidence of their work or paying enough attention to what leaders actually need to produce those results."

This creates a shift from a certain fear culture, where nonprofits are afraid to report results or setbacks for fear their funder will pull out, to a culture where the nonprofit trusts the funder to remain supportive while navigating and evolving strategies as needed.

Morino: "Leaders need funders who are willing to make large, multi-year investments in helping them rethink their models and strengthen their management muscle and rigor."

At Project Scientist, the nonprofit I founded last year to support girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), we've made it a point to seek out funders and establish relationships like Morino describes. True partnerships built on trust that, as a result, led them to invest their dollars in a new organization with a powerful and ambitious mission.

I'm grateful for these funders because we started these relationships out honestly and continue to work together to build a better product. As a result, we are able to adapt our strategy as needed and leverage our network together to create a movement for an issue that needs our attention today, girls in STEM.

In a recent email from Brain Pickings I came across an excerpt from psychologist David DeSteno's book, The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More. In the book DeSteno claims that on average the potential benefits from trusting others considerably outweigh the potential losses.

I echo DeSteno's point that oftentimes the reason we trust, especially in the nonprofit world, is because we need to increase resources -- financial, physical and social. Together we are able to achieve more.

I've been fortunate to be able to find partners with whom to create these relationships, and I know how rewarding and inspiring it has been for myself and our staff at Project Scientist to work in this environment. But I wonder if other nonprofits have experienced these same kinds of relationships? Ones that go beyond just dollars and cents and into leadership, networking, honest feedback and in the end creating a trusting relationship where both the nonprofit and funder can honestly approach the strategy, tactics, business and overall results.

The examples above provide evidence that this model can create successful results within the nonprofit space. And Hoppel claims that this gift economy model is working for him. So what if, as mission-focused agencies and nonprofit consultants, we adopted this model?

I've seen first hand the sharp contrast in results when you work with clients with whom you share a mutual trust and understanding as opposed to those who hold you to short-term, limited thinking.

When we shed ourselves of the formal contracts and programmatic thinking, and instead rely on trust, passion for the cause and dedication to building a better organizational structure, we can create a nimble environment in which everyone involved wants to work harder and more effectively.

When we are absolved of the retainer or project structure does that free us from the feeling of always having to justify our time, our intentions or execution, and allow for more creativity and innovation? In the end will this create an even stronger organization and partnership? While I haven't yet adopted this "trust" model with my own agency, it's something I'm considering because I think it could.

DeSteno challenges us to weigh the options. "Trust, then, is simply a bet, and like all bets, it contains an element of risk."

Where I'm concerned, whether it comes with providing girls greater opportunities in STEM through Project Scientist, or fueling real social impact through SMA, all bets are off.

So this Valentine's Day, when I click to view another article about the importance of trust in creating and sustaining a successful relationship, and when I'm reviewing my next contract or grant application, I'll be reminded of Hoppel, Holt-Witt and VPP, and ask myself whether this time the risk might just be worth the long-term reward.

What do you think about the gift economy or abandoning contracts in favor of relationships built on mutual trust and dedication to the mission? Leave a note in the comments below.