Season 1     EPISODE 6
November 19, 2021

A donor relationship gone wrong | Sapna Surendran

Can the power dynamic between a funder and grantee ever be equitable? Public health professional Dr Sapna Surendran tells us how a misalignment of expectations between the two led a programme to fail, and an organisation to lose a funder.

2 min read

Dr Sapna Surendran is a public health professional currently working with an international nonprofit. She works closely with the national and state health ministries to strengthen private sector engagement for tuberculosis (TB) services. Sapna is also involved in the design and development of interventions in mental health and cancer control. At the national level, she has played a key role in developing and institutionalising the national guidance note on partnerships to improve the scope and quality of TB services at the community level.


“Initially, I did not take many of these issues seriously, and felt that they were a part of the regular challenges we all face in operations and project management. I simply had to learn to take it in my stride and work better and smarter.

As the months progressed, however, our relationship—specifically my relationship with the funding agency—deteriorated. I could not shake away the thought that ultimately many projects tend to be donor-driven and top-down, without the necessary grounding in reality. It was clear I was becoming more aggressive than required, perhaps due to a disproportionate level of attachment to the project and my strong ideas against donor-driven, top-down projects with a dash of neocolonialism.”

Read more:

1. Read Sapna’s story on Failure Files.

2. Read more failure stories on Failure Files.

3. Check out some ideas and tools from Fail Forward to help your organisation take risks, learn, adapt, and fail intelligently.

4. Understand why the social sector must recognise and talk about failure.

5. Learn why talking about failure is crucial for growth.

Want to share your failure story? Learn more about what we’re looking for here, and share your pitch/story on [email protected]

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