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Fast Build Friday: Episode 16- The Role of Technology in Infrastructure

How is technology impacting your infrastructure? What have you done differently or should you be doing differently when it comes to leveraging technology to strengthen your infrastructure?

Are you certain that the way your organization views and uses technology is not weakening your infrastructure?

Today’s Fast Build Friday episode is about the role of technology in infrastructure. Nic shares her four key observations about technology that inform nonprofit needs, practice, and, ultimately, culture and policy.

Technology is about more than having the latest app. It is a critical way to share information and resources with vulnerable communities that need them most. We cannot close the digital divide (or the wealth gap or the equity gap) without leveraging technology to strengthen our infrastructure.

How are you thinking about technology and infrastructure? Let us know in the comments!

You can watch Episode 16 below.

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The Funding Infrastructure Trends to Watch in 2020 (Part 2)

I started writing about infrastructure trends to watch in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed our lives. Since then, I have provided six recommendations for both nonprofits and funders to survive COVID-19, hosted a webinar on nonprofit sustainability during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis, and created a COVID-19 Nonprofit Funding Action Plan to (i) help nonprofits determine funding and capacity needs; (ii) be better positioned to negotiate and receive funding; and (iii) build for sustainability.

Interestingly, the COVID-19 crisis highlights, if not magnifies, the current environment in which nonprofits and funders operate. Accordingly, the trends we identified that we believe will continue to surface in 2020 have not vanished because of the crisis. On the contrary, the crisis has only magnified and will likely continue to magnify these trends.

Therefore, particularly now as we search for ways to build sustainability during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis, the sector should be aware of these trends to learn of and identify innovative practices, tools, and approaches that can help organizations build towards sustainability.

Below are the remaining six infrastructure trends that we think you should watch in 2020:

Board diversity. We have seen a concerted effort around conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sector to ensure that the sector can engage with and show up as diverse as most of the communities it works with. These conversations usually center around how staff and leadership within an organization engages with each other, grantees, and partners, and the frameworks for ensuring these interactions happen consistently. What I have not heard as loudly or consistently is how many of these conversations are being raised about and with the board itself. Sustainable change in any organization begins with the board. Until the board is diversified in the same way that the organization wants its staff to be diversified, the organization will continue to struggle with diversity. And when an organization struggles with diversity, it will struggle with innovation, which will keep that organization and its impact stagnant. In other words, until the leaders that are responsible for the oversight of the organization are required to diversify and become inclusive, the organization has no model, no urgency, and no need, quite frankly, to incorporate an infrastructure or approach that requires diversity of thought and perspective. Although diversifying many boards, particularly foundation boards, is often an uphill engagement, the conversations have started, and we think they will only increase. We have seen it happening in the for-profit governance space and have even seen a state issue fines if boards are not diverse. This trend is headed for the sector. We think it is just a matter of time, and that time will be this year. Those organizations that embrace it will certainly see sustainable successes first.

This trend raises questions about intentionality. Specifically, how will organizations build sustainable infrastructures to encourage integration of values underpinning diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the entire organization, including their boards? How long should a deliberate and intentional transition be? And what do meaningful efforts in this area look like to deliberately change the board and avoid tokenism?

Place-based vision. We have observed an increased focus on supporting communities through place-based grassroots leaders and organizations. In other words, funders are more interested in directly supporting community leadership and vision. For example, we are seeing community support being evidenced through community leaders hosted within unaffiliated community-based organizations, funders working directly with place-based or community-focused intermediaries, and innovative funding that maintains the integrity of the community vision. The trend here is that although individuals or organizations are leading the vision, it is the place-based community vision and mission itself in which funders are investing. As a result, funders are interested in finding ways to sustainably fund this vision or support other community leaders to take up the place-based vision that most resonates with the needs of the community. Accordingly, we have seen a shift towards supporting a place-based ecosystem of organizations and community leaders. Similarly, when using intermediary organizations to receive and regrant funding, we are noticing funders increasingly search for intermediaries with legitimacy in and proven relationships and reputations with the communities they are serving, even if they may be otherwise unknown to the funder, instead of working with intermediaries simply because they are nationally or widely known. We believe this shift needs to continue in order to consider and include organizations led by people of color serving under-resourced communities and marginalized populations that have been historically omitted from pivotal funding conversations.

This support of place-based community leadership raises questions around the preservation of legitimacy. For example, how do you encourage grassroots leadership to show up as its authentic self, so to speak, when many funders still use traditional funding tools and vehicles that may create tensions with newer forms of leadership and organizations? How do you assess risk management in this place-based community leadership model when the traditional risk management tools are more often used to help organizations transition from this type of grassroots, non-traditional leadership to more traditional models?

People. We cannot discuss infrastructure trends without focusing directly on the people within organizations and their performance and capacity. We are seeing a growing need for organizations to better support and manage individuals, teams, and staff throughout the sector. Specifically, we have found that leadership teams are exploring and interested in learning how to (i) create leverage within organizations that already have staff with limited capacity; (ii) gain a better understanding of staff roles and responsibilities to provide staff with critical support; (iii) provide meaningful encouragement and appreciation to support staff morale; (iv) strategically use consultants to provide added capacity; and (v) engage in thoughtful and practical change management to support the organization’s growth. Addressing these issues is critical; they all impact the way people operate within organizations and thus impact how an organization itself is run and ultimately performs. We are finding that the traditional, hierarchical organizational staffing and accountability models that lack flexibility and nimbleness are, alone, ill-designed to address these issues or be fully responsive to the needs of organizations today. Moreover, these issues need more than a singular approach. We believe that people management will be one of the key considerations in 2020 and organizations should thus invest significantly in human resources and human capital management to be sustainable.

This acute focus on people raises questions about accountability. Specifically, how can leadership approach these issues consistently and thoughtfully yet take into account each staff member’s individuality when evaluating performance? How does an organization transition from a management system and culture of accountability that focuses on culpability to one that is focused more on coaching an individual towards a desired level of engagement?

Fellowships. With all of the talk about general support grants circulating throughout the sector, one might think that providing this type of support is the most significant grant-making related shift occurring in the sector in 2020. On the contrary, we have also noticed a significant increase in awards to social entrepreneurs and individuals across the sector. These awards are often in the form of fellowships where the funders providing the fellowships have a vested interest in both the individual and the fellowship itself. We are also seeing an expansion of the types of support and resources provided during fellowships, including, for example, group and individualized coaching, exposure to experts in various fields, and increased accountability check-ins for both the fellow and the funder. In essence, I am observing an incubation of people’s ideas and work in a way that I have not seen in the sector over the last decade. And we are also seeing a growing number of funders deliberately transforming themselves into supports and resources and serving as incubators, accelerators, and hubs for social entrepreneurs. Increasingly, funders are holistically supporting social entrepreneurship as a critical component of the sector.

The expansion of fellowship support raises sector-wide questions about sustained innovation. How can funders provide ongoing support to fellows beyond their fellowships to ensure their projects are sustainable and remain innovative? How can funders support the building of the sector with the work of fellows without creating additional nonprofit organizations?

Technology. We have observed an increase in organizations using technology and data to inform their initiatives and projects and an increase in organizational leaders using technology and data to address their operations and performance. We have also noticed that grant makers want to better protect the information they receive from or about their grantees. Moreover, grant makers are asking their grantees how they will keep their own information safe and exploring ways to support their grantees’ cybersecurity needs. Given the complexity of many privacy laws around the world, organizations are creating staff positions, engaging advisors, or leveraging software to address new cyber and technology practices. Namely, we are seeing the rise of the Chief Technology Officer in many organizations. And regardless of title, organizations are hiring or engaging someone to be responsible for effectively managing these practices and safeguarding data and other information for the organization.

This technology trend raises questions in the sector about capacity. How are smaller or leanly-staffed organizations that have data challenges and responsibilities safeguarding their information on much smaller budgets and following best practices? What role does the board play in helping an organization navigate its technology needs if the board is unfamiliar with emerging technology trends or is unsure of how to support staff to effectively manage technology?

Philanthropy builds. I have been an advisor within a philanthropy initially set up to be time bound that then transitioned to one built for perpetuity. To be in the midst of that transition gave me tremendous insight into how philanthropies are built for the short term, how they are built for the long term, and how infrastructure can and should be built for each. Interestingly, a meaningful conversation about building philanthropies, namely whether they should be built to go “far” or to go “fast,” so to speak, has surfaced. And we have noticed an uptick in the creation of philanthropies that are not built for perpetuity. Indeed, we are encountering philanthropies that are time bound and plan to wind down after a finite time. The way these time-bound philanthropies structure themselves, their grant making, and their operations appears to be nimbler and more flexible than philanthropies that are built for perpetuity. For example, their application and reporting requirements frequently request less information from grantees, and their grant awards are often larger and for multi-year support. At the very least, the conversations about whether philanthropists should create philanthropies for a finite period of time or perpetuity are occurring with more regularity and in more depth than they were previously.

This trend raises questions about the structural asymmetry within the sector. Is there a model for time-bound philanthropies that supports grantee diversity? How can time-bound philanthropies support the ecosystem of grassroots organizations working with marginalized communities and organizations led by people of color, particularly when time-bound philanthropies tend to award much larger grants to organizations known to them and do not often have open grant calls or invitations? How do philanthropies built for perpetuity respond nimbly and with urgency and build diversity into their grant making and operations?

I hope these trends inspire those in the sector to take action to create change around the world, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized populations. I encourage all of us within the sector to use our collective knowledge and information to act bravely, albeit imperfectly. Bravery is my hope for the sector, and I want to ensure it trends.

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Practically growing with flexible funding

In our last article, I discussed the two reasons for the hesitation, reservation, and aversion towards flexible funding.

Once those reasons are internally addressed, foundations and funders that currently provide no or a limited number of unrestricted or flexible funding awards can transition to bravely integrating this type of funding into their funding strategies.

Discussing how to transition to unrestricted or flexible funding is not novel. In fact, in funder convenings, it is often encouraged, but momentum is lost when converting that conversation into practice. I also hear it discussed in conversations with grantee organizations as a real need, but it still does not become part of their funding requests.

Trepidation certainly exists on both sides, for different reasons. Still, if the value of unrestricted or flexible funding is not regularly articulated, requested, and awarded in a funder-grantee relationship, that relationship will inhibit funders and grantees from collectively and meaningfully shaping a thoughtful flexible funding process.

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Flexible funding is the new kid on the block

Over the past few months, a buzz has been created by the fact that some of the largest philanthropies in the United States have decided to increase their general support awards to their grantee organizations.

Similarly, people have also been discussing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s award of unrestricted funding through his Day 1 Families Fund to organizations working to provide shelter and hunger support services to young families across the country. Specifically, they are in awe of the autonomy Bezos has allowed these organizations to retain over the expenditure of the funds; the minimal amount of diligence the Fund required of the organizations; the streamlined application process; that Bezos holistically invested in organizations he did not have a long-standing relationship with as a way to ensure they realized the grant purpose; and that he awarded millions of dollars to these organizations, largely based on trust.

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If you build it, they will grow

Remember the unicorn funding for infrastructure capacity building I wrote about in my last blog post? In it, I described what is needed for a catalytic conversation about funding infrastructure capacity building.

The next step is being brave enough to determine how to fund a nonprofit grantee organization and build its infrastructure capacity. To do so, both funders and grantees need the ability to identify and assess the key indicators that signal that infrastructure capacity building is needed.

Assessing infrastructure capacity building needs often requires a holistic lens. Funders develop this lens when they view grant making as holistic investing in grantees and imprint that value onto their staff and into their work. Holistic investing means that the funder’s approach to grant making depends on the strength of all of its teams, not just program teams. Consequently, the program team should not independently award a grant investment. Instead, the program team must rely on the strengths of colleagues in finance, operations, legal, and grants management, to take a holistic look into the grantee, which includes its structure and operations, to inform its grant making.

This holistic approach similarly applies to grantees when they are determining their own infrastructure capacity building needs and how these needs impact grant funding requests. The grantee should have an internal process that regularly identifies its infrastructure needs so that its proposals for project or general support each take those needs into account.

To identify, understand, and support these infrastructure capacity needs, an assessment should be performed. This assessment should have three primary components: (i) an objective set of questions to describe the organization’s infrastructure; (ii) a relevant model of organizational excellence; and (iii) an analysis of the organization’s infrastructure against the model of organizational excellence.

Below are five core areas that should be assessed to understand an organization’s infrastructure capacity needs and inform grant awards. Identifying needs in each of these areas requires expertise in that particular area. The questions raised below are examples of the kinds of questions that inform infrastructure capacity needs in each area. The assessment should not be designed to overwhelm the assessed organization or the grant process. Indeed, the assessment should significantly improve the grant investment process.

  • Governance. Questions about how an organization’s governance structure supports the organization’s work will reveal its infrastructure capacity. For example, is the organization compliant with its bylaws? Are the bylaws reflective of the work in which the organization is engaged and responsive to the organization’s needs? Are board committees created to strategically support and guide the organization’s leadership and the organization itself? Are board terms respected? Does the board even have terms? These structural questions go beyond questions about board dynamics and interactions, which, while important, can only be considered after the governance structure is deemed to be appropriate, strong, and necessary.
  • Processes. Understanding an organization’s key processes and how they work within that organization is key to understanding infrastructure capacity needs. For example, how does the organization determine whether a process is a key process? Has the organization documented all of its processes? What does creating a process entail? Who has the relevant approval authority? These questions will highlight the organization’s business continuity practices and the status of the organization’s key processes, particularly how they impact the organization’s performance, whether they are followed, how they are mapped, and their efficiency. The responses to these questions will provide insight into whether and how the organization effectively manages its processes. If the organization is unable to easily answer these questions, it will highlight the extent of the organization’s infrastructure needs.
  • Policies. The same questions raised about the organization’s processes are the same questions that should be raised about its policies. It is important to ask the questions separately, however, as they will highlight the strength of decision making in the organization. For example, what are the organization’s key policies? What is the process for adopting each of those policies? How does the organization ensure that staff are complying with its policies? These questions shed light on how the organization adopts policies, if its practices are consistently formalized, how the policies are used throughout the organization, and if policies, in fact, inform the organization’s work. The breaks and gaps exposed by these questions then inform where the organization’s infrastructure capacity should be built.
  • Organizational structure. Many organizations believe their organizational structures are in great shape because they have clear, detailed organization charts (often with different shapes and colors, sometimes shaded). They usually conflate the detail of this chart with the strength of their organizational structures. The chart alone, however, does not adequately address the strength of an organization’s structure. So, questions here should dig past the colorful shapes on the organization chart and inquire into staff roles and responsibilities. For example, what responsibilities comprise each of those roles? How do those roles and responsibilities play out in the space between roles where no one is formally tasked with certain responsibilities? Does each staff member have a job description and a work plan that are regularly reviewed? These questions will provide tremendous insight into the organization’s core strength and efficiency.
  • People. People are the core of any organization. They create and shape an organization’s work and culture, which then inform its systems and policies, and ultimately its infrastructure capacity. Without people, the infrastructure is hollow and will eventually collapse in on itself. So, these questions focus on staff competency and development. For example, how often are staff reviewed and what does accountability for reviews look like? What training is staff required to take annually? What does accountability for training look like? When new policies and processes are introduced, how are the people impacted by those policies trained on them? Understanding the capacity of people and how to build that capacity will be the lynchpin of understanding an organization’s infrastructure.

Although an organization’s infrastructure is certainly informed by its financial management, finance is intentionally not included in the list above. Finance is one of the few areas where funders and grantees invest, know they should invest, or can be more easily convinced to invest money, resources, and time when a funder or grantee believes that a grantee’s infrastructure should be strengthened (how well they do it, however, is another conversation). Moreover, finance considerations will surface throughout the areas listed above.

Grant making without an understanding of a grantee’s infrastructure capacity will not strategically create sustainable change. Grantees need holistic investment to thrive, as does the sector. Deliberately investing in infrastructure capacity allows us to accomplish both.

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Is funding “infrastructure capacity building” the new unicorn?

I have noticed an alarming trend. A nonprofit grantee organization receives funding for its work from several funders, but a cursory look into the organization’s infrastructure reveals that the organization is dangerously fragile, almost subject to collapse; its funding is inconsistent; it is seriously understaffed; its processes are undeveloped or underdeveloped; its leaders are grossly underpaid; it has critical board recruitment and engagement issues; and its organizational oversight and management are inconsistent. In short, its infrastructure desperately needs to be built.

Before providing funding to the organization, a funder may have asked some questions about the organization’s board – its composition, the number and frequency of meetings, and the number of board members who regularly attend those meetings – and finances – is it in the red? The black? The green? Has it somehow created a reserve? Lots of questions swirl around what seems to qualify as infrastructure, but few rarely get close to assessing or funding it, and no real conversation happens about the organization’s infrastructure.

If you ask about this organization in the field, however, many people will tell you how amazing its work is, how its last convening was a game changer, or how its leader is so passionate about the cause and is driving the organization’s mission forward. Coincidentally, those factors are usually the reasons funders fund the organization.

Moreover, if you examine many funders’ strategies, you will notice capacity building as a large part of their funding portfolios. Indeed, many have grant-making programs dedicated to capacity building, going so far as to call these grants “capacity building” grants instead of general support (I know; another conversation for another day). And when you talk to grantees, they say they need capacity, they need general support, and need support for the work they are doing.

So, organizations have expressed the need to build their capacity and a stated desire to fund that need exists. It seems as though the conversation about the desperate need for infrastructure capacity building funding would therefore be moot. It is not, however, because the trend I described above still exists. So, where is the disconnect? Why is funding for infrastructure capacity building not more prevalent throughout the sector? Why are so many grantees still incredibly fragile although nearly all funders say they understand the need for capacity building funding?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is that we are not having the right conversations. Namely, we fail to have productive conversations about funding infrastructure capacity building.

Infrastructure capacity building is a type of capacity building, and is often overlooked. It is focused on designing and strengthening an organization’s infrastructure in order to enable the organization to effectively deliver on its mission. Infrastructure capacity building does not focus on an organization’s external environment, such as raising development dollars, increasing community resources, or examining the ecosystem in which the organization is working or the field in which it exists. It instead refers to the internal skeletal ecosystem that both makes up the organization and supports its programmatic work.

In April of this year, I wrote an article for Philanthropy New York explaining that visionary organizations are only created when infrastructure design is paired with program strategy. The infrastructure design I reference in that article is at the core of my definition of infrastructure capacity building.

From my conversations with leaders in the sector, my own experience working in and with grantee organizations and philanthropies, and working on capacity building initiatives in nearly every region of the world, I believe we need to address several essential components before we can strengthen a grantee’s infrastructure and sustain its organizational capacity.

To that end, I suggest five fundamental elements that need to be present in order to have an effective conversation that leads to consistent provision and successful use of infrastructure capacity building funding:

  • Unambiguity about the definition of infrastructure capacity building. Many definitions of capacity building are floating around the sector. To some, the term means developing the external environment in which the organization sits; to others, it means developing the internal environment of the organization’s programmatic work; and still to others, it means leadership development both within the organization and the environment in which the organization operates. The term, infrastructure capacity building, focuses instead on building governance structures, organizational structure design and controls, and process roadmaps and efficiencies. Infrastructure capacity building focuses solely on the internal, organizational structure and aims to strengthen the interaction and design of various elements of the infrastructure holding the organization together at its seams, so to speak. It is the organization’s backbone and is the area from which some of the most critical organizational risks surface. So, having a clear definition of infrastructure capacity building, which is integral to an organization’s existence and excellence, must be at the core of the conversation about infrastructure capacity building.
  • Appreciation of the benefits of infrastructure design to program strategy. If we are unable to clearly articulate the benefits of how essential infrastructure design is to the execution and sustainability of any program strategy, we cannot have a productive conversation about infrastructure capacity building. After all, why would a funder fund infrastructure capacity building, if it believes infrastructure design has no value to the work an organization does? And an organization will spend time thinking about how to fund or improve its infrastructure capacity, only if it can articulate the value of infrastructure capacity building to its overall work. Indeed, the benefits infrastructure brings to program strategy include improved staff performance and an elevation of the quality of the organization’s work, visibility, and impact. Infrastructure design certainly impacts the way an organization works so it is critical that its value to program strategy be recognized and understood in order to move the infrastructure capacity building conversation forward.
  • Knowledge of sustainability strategies. Whether an organization intends to be around for many years or many months, it needs to know both its program and exit strategy in order to design and build its infrastructure accordingly. And a funder should be clear not only about its own sustainability, but about its grantees’ sustainability as well. With each grant a funder makes or a grantee receives, each should know how that particular grant supports its sustainability strategy. Designing a sustainability strategy is often a complex undertaking, but a necessary one, and it should be deliberate. This strategy then informs how robust an organization’s infrastructure must be to support that strategy. An organization therefore needs to know what its sustainability strategy, needs, and vision are in order to have a successful conversation about infrastructure capacity building.
  • Understanding of programmatic strength. By programmatic strength, I do not mean that the organization simply has an untested, good idea or concept; instead, an organization’s programmatic strength is measured by determining the extent to which the good idea has been tested by the community that requested it and whether the community has already benefited from implementation of the idea. When an organization has programmatic strength, infrastructure design becomes necessary to reap the full benefits of and grow this strength. This programmatic strength clarifies the need to build infrastructure capacity and identifies the type of infrastructure design needed to meet those capacity needs. Without a solid understanding of an organization’s programmatic strength by either the funder or the grantee, however, the conversation about capacity building is unfocused and fails to appreciate the value of or identify the infrastructure capacity building needed. This understanding is therefore critical to having a productive conversation about infrastructure capacity building.
  • Understanding of the human-centered design of infrastructure capacity building. Some incorrectly believe that capacity building happens solely through organizational structures and designs. On the contrary, infrastructure design occurs in both structures and in the people within those structures. In fact, successful infrastructure capacity building must also invest in and build human capacity to allow individuals and teams to successfully operate and innovate within the organization’s infrastructure to ultimately strengthen its program strategy. So, the mindset that is essential for a forward-looking conversation on infrastructure capacity building starts with a profound understanding that this capacity building is not limited to structures and must also occur with the people working in and with these organizations. Ignoring the people in the design will always result in a substandard infrastructure design. Recognizing people’s capacity as crucial to infrastructure capacity building is one of the key components to having a constructive conversation about infrastructure capacity building.

Infrastructure capacity building is critical to enable organizations, often with limited resources, to thrive. It is a huge disservice to provide thousands of dollars to a grantee for project support and fail to inquire about its capacity to adequately support both the project as well as its organizational capacity to survive beyond the project.

It is a grantee’s responsibility to notice the gaps in its infrastructure to do the work and ask for support to fill those gaps. It is a funder’s responsibility to ensure that the organizations it funds have the infrastructure capacity to do their best work.

When either of these responsibilities is absent, grantees have inconsistent impact, funders fund in blind spots, the sector underperforms, and, ultimately, the communities they serve will receive fewer resources. None of us want those results.

We clearly need to have brave, serious conversations about funding infrastructure capacity building. Are you ready?

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