Generating ideas, connections, and action

Guest Blog Post: The Conversation Labs: An Experiment in Funder/Practitioner Dialogues by Cynthia Chavez with Hugh Vazquez


As a former foundation staff member and current executive director of nonprofit LeaderSpring, I am intimately familiar with how power dynamics can limit honest conversations between funders and program practitioners. Practitioners are sometimes reticent to acknowledge real challenges they face, fearing that funders will be less likely to support them. Funders, however unintentionally, sometimes withhold information in ways that can impede understanding and partnership. I am also familiar with how the pressure for immediate results can get in the way of our ability as practitioners and funders to take time for reflection and to cultivate long-term collaborations. How do these and other challenges prevent funders and grantseekers from doing our best work at solving social problems?

What might happen if philanthropic and nonprofit leaders agreed to come together with no expectations other than to engage in honest conversations about what works and what doesn’t? Could this type of dialogue lead to new understandings and ideas of how to solve social problems? Two of my funders, the S. H. Cowell Foundation and The Whitman Institute, and I decided to find out. We convened a group of San Francisco Bay Area funders and practitioners of leadership development programs to engage in open dialogue. In this article, Hugh Vasquez, the facilitator of these “Conversation Labs,” and I share the story of this rare six-month dialogue series. In essence, it is a story of how to build trust among funders and practitioners as they navigate issues of identity, privilege, and competition.

At the outset of this exploration, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Could introducing LeaderSpring’s funders to other program practitioners result in increased competition for my organization?” Ultimately, I was inspired to help with this effort based on an overriding belief that by building stronger relationships between funders and practitioners in the leadership field, we could achieve breakthroughs in our work of strengthening community leadership.

Hugh Vazquez had a similar motivation:

My interest in facilitating the Conversation Labs came from my desire to create a space where leaders could critically reflect on their work and allow for innovations to surface that would help them achieve their desired social change. Engaging in the same old conversations almost always produces the same results. If we wanted different results, we would have to do something differently. We would have to build honest, authentic relationships and agree to have conversations without knowing the outcome. If we could do this in the Labs, we might create leadership innovations that would make a difference.

Read the entire article by clicking on the following attachment:

The Conversation Labs (3).pdf438.86 KB