Surviving COVID-19: 6 Recommendations for Nonprofits and Funders

We are in the midst of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and our lives are evolving on an almost daily basis. Industries globally are feeling the financial effects of the virus. The travel industry, for example, which is comprised of airlines, hotels, and parts of retail, restaurants, and technology is estimating that the drop in the industry’s economic activity could be as much as US$1 trillion. And the music and film industries are each projecting a US$5 billion loss. Millions in revenue are being lost daily across most industries.

And in the nonprofit sector, the revenue losses continue. Many large-scale nonprofit conferences, convenings, galas, and meetings have been canceled, and more events are expected to be canceled this month. Thousands of event registrants are being notified almost weekly of cancellations. More intimate in-person meetings are also being canceled or postponed. Many organizations have closed their physical offices and asked their staff to work remotely. The coronavirus outbreak is fast-moving and has disrupted organizations and our lives generally. We are in a novel holding pattern, and for many people and organizations, panic and uncertainty have started to set in.

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly when this pandemic will end. I do know, however, that the only thing that can carry us through this time is resilience – of people and of the organizations we build. We are built to withstand adversity.

As with any other crisis, the COVID-19 outbreak needs to be effectively managed by leaders who are supported by strong infrastructure consisting of robust systems and engaged people with sufficient capacity. In that way, this crisis is not so unique, and it may not be the last crisis we encounter. At this point, many nonprofit organizations are unable to determine whether their systems, operations, and programs can survive this or another crisis and are struggling to keep their heads above water, so to speak.

Accordingly, grant making, funding, and the evaluation of whether new grants or funding should be awarded should not be suspended in this environment; on the contrary, this funding is critical to the current stability of the sector.

I share six recommendations below that consider efforts from both funders and fundraising nonprofits so that they each have active roles in creating solutions and forging a path forward in this crisis and beyond. In this way, nonprofits are not passively waiting for funders to help them during this pandemic.

My recommendations focus primarily on benefiting marginalized communities that are most impacted when funders and nonprofits face resource restrictions and on people of color-led organizations serving these communities that tend to historically receive the least amount of funding even outside of a crisis; these communities and organizations are often the most vulnerable, particularly in times of uncertainty.

These recommendations are based on my interactions with clients and nonprofit leaders around the globe who are experiencing and responding to this pandemic in their different environments and geographies:

Meaningful conversations. It should go without saying, but funders and nonprofits should be talking with each other about nonprofit sustainability. These conversations should be occurring between funders and their grantees and funders and nonprofits that are not currently receiving funding from the funder, if those nonprofits are critical parts of the ecosystem in which the funder and its grantees operate (see the ecosystem approach recommendation below). These conversations will vary in focus based on the funder and nonprofit. Immediately, however, the focus should be on identifying immediate needs, expense increases, and revenue losses that are significantly impacting the nonprofit’s budgeting, and determining how to stop any financial hemorrhaging, so to speak, occurring within the nonprofit. This initial conversation will highlight the funding already provided and used, outstanding funding, and tracking that funding to meet the grantee’s needs, and will also allow funders and grantees to determine if current grants should be amended to meet those pressing needs. As I have stated previously, grants should be flexible, innovative, and likely for general support so in uncertain times like these, restrictions likely do not need to be removed because flexibility was built into the grant in the first instance. These conversations should also address the nonprofit’s revenue streams. Many nonprofits’ revenue is not diversified. So, when crisis hits, if that homogenous source of revenue is at risk, the nonprofit’s business and financial models and thus the nonprofit’s viability itself is at critical risk. These meaningful conversations should occur immediately and should remain a cornerstone of the grantor-grantee relationship.

Ecosystem approach. The nonprofit sector is interconnected, and COVID-19 has only reinforced this point. Instead of providing a grant to a nonprofit for its singular needs, funders and nonprofits should consider who else within a particular ecosystem may need support. This ecosystem-based funding can still be received by a singular organization, but coordinated among many organizations. This integrative approach better ensures a nonprofit’s sustainability than providing isolated funding to a nonprofit based only on its immediate needs in this crisis. For example, if a nonprofit is part of a cohort of organizations or is part of a supply chain of programming or resources for a community, supporting that singular nonprofit without regard for the ecosystem in which it sits may not effectively contribute to that nonprofit’s sustainability, if the remaining entities within the ecosystem do not receive any support and instead are left to fail. Therefore, both nonprofits and funders should consider other nonprofits that are integral to the ecosystems in which those nonprofits operate when requesting or providing funding in the current environment. The funding award can thus be structured to not only meet the nonprofit’s immediate needs during the crisis, but contribute to the overall stability of the ecosystem in which the funder and nonprofit operate.

Innovative funding tools. To the extent funders are able to do so, they should increase their funding to support emergent needs at their grantees and nonprofits in their grantees’ ecosystems. Still, unplanned, increased grant making usually means that the funding for the unplanned grants comes from another part of the funder’s budget. Having worked with philanthropies for over a decade, I have seen this decision being met afterward with cuts to existing or planned programs and initiatives because the amount of funding for grant making was determined by an independent board or by the founder. These cuts usually have serious and asymmetric consequences for marginalized communities and people of color-led organizations and thus should not always be an option. Increased nonprofit needs do exist in this current environment, however, and could be addressed by funding that goes beyond typical grant instruments, allows funders to retrieve their funding if certain circumstances materialize, and does not claw back funding from nonprofits and ultimately the communities they intend to serve. Recoverable grants, reinvestment grants, and zero or low interest “bridge” loans to cover any unexpected expenses or lost revenue are examples of such tools. This type of innovative funding makes it possible for a funder to retrieve a portion of its grant-making budget that it did not plan to expend when it supported a grantee’s immediate needs, but also takes into account the grantee’s financial position, its ability to repay, and the dynamics of the situation. At their core, these funding tools should be designed to diversify a grantee’s revenue and preserve its ability to receive additional funding even if the initial funding is not repaid. Depending on the nonprofit’s situation and the funder’s resources and capacity, innovative funding tools may work well to provide security to nonprofits during and after this crisis.

Flexible support. Providing support that is responsive to a grantee’s immediate needs, but allows the grantee to grow sustainably is the kind of flexible support that nonprofits need generally, and even more so during this time. Throughout this crisis, funders should think of ways to provide this flexible support and nonprofits should request it, based on their needs. This flexible support comes in the form of both approach and funding. For example, general support and hybrid (e.g., part project, part general) grants are ways to flexibly support nonprofits’ sustainability and not limit funding solely to a nonprofit’s immediate needs. Moreover, funders should be flexible in their interactions with grantees, including conducting diligence for the funding award and the way in which information is shared between funder and grantee or reported about the grant by the grantee. And instead of only requesting or providing cash, consider requesting or providing in-kind assistance, such as for attorneys, accountants, operations, and information technology (IT). Many nonprofits may not have access to these resources that are needed during this time as a result of canceled events and remote working environments, such as the need for contract reviews, additional software subscriptions and licenses, and cybersecurity needs, for example. By not having these resources, many organizations are creating exposure for themselves, which ultimately impacts their longer-term sustainability. This provision of in-kind resources also extends to the ultimate beneficiaries in under-resourced communities. For example, students who received free meals in schools that are now closed indefinitely, still need those meals if their families cannot afford to provide them. Finding ways to leverage funding and corporate and other relationships to provide this kind of flexible support to grantees and the communities they serve is crucial.

Cash reserves. When a nonprofit does not have a safety net for its financial ebbs and flows to maintain its operations, it puts its sustainability at tremendous risk. Cash is what often makes an organization run as it pays for the operating expenses of an organization, including salaries, facilities, and business supplies. Determining how much cash to have in reserve is based on an analysis of an organization’s plans, use of cash, stage of business, and cost to acquire additional cash. On average though, it is suggested that businesses keep at least three to six months of operating expenses as cash reserves; about 50 percent of nonprofits have no more than three months of cash reserves. In fact, many of the nonprofits that are teetering on the brink as a result of this crisis are likely the organizations that had little to no cash reserves in the first place. And it is uncommon to request or provide funding to create a cash reserve. Now is the time to create or fund one, however. Funding this reserve could be part of a general support, flexible funding, or hybrid funding award. In this environment, in order to contribute to a nonprofit’s short and longer-term sustainability, providing a nonprofit with funding to create or fund a cash reserve should be supplemental to the funding needed to address a nonprofit’s immediate needs.

Crisis/Risk management. The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the absence of crisis management teams, protocols, and plans in both nonprofits and funders. Now is the time to design and staff that team, design those protocols, and create those plans. I encourage organizations to understand what was missing in their response to this crisis, what would have been nice to have in place, and what can be done to effectively move forward in the event of another crisis. Discussing risk management and ensuring that a crisis management team and plan are in place is essential to ensuring that a nonprofit’s operations have business continuity.

These recommendations are not radical. In fact, they work well generally and especially in crises because they center around providing innovative, flexible, and responsive support to nonprofits to ensure their sustainability. Our ability to effectively come together during this time shows that we are strong. And we can only get stronger by continuing to build nonprofits that can survive this crisis and sustain their impact long after this crisis ends.

Please let us know if you have noticed ways in which nonprofits and funders are responding and collaborating well during this time.

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The Funding Infrastructure Trends to Watch in 2020

2020 presents the opportunity for a new infrastructure build for the nonprofit sector. After all, it is the beginning of a new decade. To that end, I wanted to share my thoughts about the funding infrastructure trends to watch in 2020, informed by both my experiences with and observations of the sector.

Yes, there are such things as infrastructure trends. They tend to indicate how the sector is building itself internally, organization by organization and ecosystem by ecosystem to advance its programmatic work.

As I have explained previously, infrastructure is not just processes and systems. It also takes into account the frameworks in which individuals act and engage within the sector; how organizations provide services and awards within the sector; and, of course, how these same individuals and organizations work together to effect change.

We should pay close attention to these trends because they inform the way we should build infrastructure in the sector; they highlight areas of strength and challenge and indicate areas of improvement, which provide critical information in creating a much stronger and resilient sector.

I also think trendspotting is exciting. It is the equivalent of taking a scan of the sector, if you will, from stories shared by different actors in the sector, both individuals and organizations; from their independent and collective actions in different environments; and from analyzing the effects of all of those things. It is then identifying patterns from each of those pieces that, when put together, tell a compelling story about the strengths and challenges of the sector’s infrastructure.

It is intriguing to know where we can go next by simply paying attention to what is and is not happening and listening to what is and is not said within the sector.

The trends I highlight in this article are gleaned from my engagements and work in the sector; observations of the work occurring in the sector, including the work of social impact organizations and for-profit companies engaged in social impact projects; and conversations with diverse clients who are philanthropists, leaders of philanthropies and fundraising nonprofit organizations, and operations, grants management, legal, and programmatic leaders within the sector.

These trends are based on analyzing patterns of a diverse set of individuals and organizations operating within the sector, and thus, I believe, truly represent the direction of infrastructure in 2020 and beyond.

I have identified the top twelve trends that have caught my attention, are directly impactful to infrastructure, are sector wide, and I think will be disruptive for the sector. I also identify what these trends mean for the sector at large and the questions and implications they raise for the sector.

Below are the first five infrastructure trends that we think you should watch in 2020:

Donor collaboratives. We have noticed that many donors increasingly do not want to invest or contribute individually and instead would like to pool their resources to effect change and scale their impact. In previous years, there seemed to be a larger push around individual efforts and contributions. More recently, however, donor contributions are being made collaboratively, and the “bet” is being placed on the joint impact that donors can have collectively. Interestingly, in the past, we saw funders urging their grantees doing similar work to work collaboratively; encouraging them to work together on projects and in key funding areas after noticing duplication of efforts. This sometimes forced encouragement often had varied results and seldom resulted in lasting partnerships. On the contrary, these donor collaboratives are enduring and are attracting donors that otherwise do not have prior relationships with each other. And the recipients of these collaboratives benefit with increased, sustainable funding and strategic alignment with multiple donors funding their work. This increase in donor collaboration indicates to us that donors are (i) understanding the need for strategic alignment and are acting on that need; and (ii) realizing that scaling impact for many progressive issues requires formal collaboration and sharing of ideas.

This trend raises sector-wide questions about innovation. Specifically, what is the impact on grantees’ innovation when engaging with a bloc of donors instead of individual donors that may provide more flexibility and space for creative problem solving? And is there an incentive to innovate at all for donors or grantees when the formal collaborative is created with predefined funding criteria? Finally, what impact does this collaborative infrastructure have on diverse organizations that were not initially on the radar of the various donors who joined the collaborative and are now moving together and creating greater influence in the field about decisions around issues, projects, and potential grantees?

Ecosystems. Almost gone are the days of impact being primarily seen or curated through singular, independent vehicles or entities. We have noticed that when nonprofits and philanthropies form or as they assess their ongoing operations, they are realizing that a singular vehicle does not, by itself, accomplish their often multi-dimensional missions and goals. Accordingly, we have seen a significant increase in U.S. public charities and private foundations becoming part of social-impact ecosystems that consist of other charities and advocacy-focused organizations and even for-profit companies. This ecosystem approach indicates to us that many individuals and organizations are embracing ecosystem infrastructure as a sophisticated means to achieving their overarching vision of social impact and their goals instead of fearing that infrastructure can only create unnecessary bureaucracy.

This ecosystem approach raises questions for the sector about accountability. For example, how will these ecosystems impact the transparency that the sector has grown to expect as part of a nonprofit organization’s accountability? What does it mean for ecosystems to act collectively in approach and brand, particularly when each of those entities may have its own mission, goals, and approach? Can or should each entity be able to maintain an independent identity while being part of an ecosystem?

Corporate partnerships. We have seen an increase in partnerships between corporate funders and nonprofit organizations, both in terms of resource partnerships and funding relationships. Accordingly, the gap between private and nonprofit sector interaction is gradually diminishing and collaboration is on the rise. The space between the sectors’ interactions and communication still exists, but we have noticed a concerted effort to create relationships between for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. This increase in partnerships indicates to us that nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies are increasing their alignment to better address social issues with wide-ranging impacts for global communities and thus for both the for-profit and nonprofit spheres. As a result, many nonprofit organizations are seeking or receiving funding from corporations in addition to their traditional non-corporate foundation funding. Many of these corporations have not previously engaged with the nonprofit sector and thus have different expectations than many nonprofit organizations are used to. These differences in approach and expectations then surface in the funding application process, reporting, and evaluation.

This uptick in corporate partnerships raises questions for the sector that are focused on funding frameworks. For example, will this increase in corporate partnerships and funding impact the push towards general support funding as many of these relationships will be new and the corporate partners and funders may come to the sector with expectations that may not initially align with the general support framework? Specifically, will corporate partnerships and funding result in a reduction or increase in these and other types of flexible funding awards? Will these funders and partners create new funding hybrids that the sector has not yet seen?

Risk management. Both “risk” and “risk management” are earning different reputations in the sector. Over the years, the definition of risk has evolved from a fear to consideration of a factor that impacts overall success; and the definition of risk management has evolved from restriction to supporting activity based on a dynamic understanding of the actor’s operating environment. The concepts of risk and risk management are being reframed from avoidance to become more about ensuring that key decision makers have all of the information they need to make informed decisions. We are seeing risk management surface in funders’ thinking about the ways in which the grant application and process can share information between grantee and funder; and funders’ approaches to the underlying relationships they have with grantees to ensure that information is being shared between them in a sound, consistent way to, again, inform decisions within the funding relationship. Therefore, this evolution in risk management indicates to us that risk has become much more multi-dimensional for the sector and thus the considerations involved in traditional risk management have certainly become more sophisticated. Risk management in 2020 thus requires an innovative infrastructure to incorporate different perspectives into funding decisions and create a way for diverse stakeholders to effectively receive and share those perspectives to be informed about all aspects of a funding decision.

This trend raises sector-wide questions about alignment. Specifically, how do we align the different approaches to risk management across the sector to ensure that grantees and funders are clear on how to effectively define and manage risk, particularly when the very concept of risk varies across countries, regions, and cultures?

General support. I know you are likely expecting me to say that we are seeing an increase in general support in 2020. Although that statement is true, that part of this trend is not what I want to share with you. Although the general support tide is rising, so to speak, it is not rising nearly as quickly as the conversations themselves about general support and the need for flexible funding. Now, you may see the fact that general support funding is not rising as quickly as the conversations about funding as disappointing, but, on the contrary, I find this increase reassuring primarily because of the number and quality of the conversations. In previous years, conversations about general support were rarely raised, one-sided, and clumsy. Now, these conversations are occurring within foundations, with funders, and with grantees, both individually and collectively. They are also more sophisticated and thoughtful, and there is a mutual push between funders and grantees to better understand what general support means for an organization. And the focus is on ensuring flexibility. This increase in general support conversations indicates to us that an underlying appreciation for an organization’s sustainability is emerging in the sector and both funders and grantees are thinking about how to create better flexible funding awards that recognize organizational and other costs.

This trend raises questions for the sector that focus almost entirely on traction. Specifically, when will these conversations gain more traction and translate into a sustained increase in general support funding so that the organizations that need it can be supported? How does the shift to general support and more flexible funding impact smaller and leanly staffed funders that may want to provide additional flexibility to their grantees, but may not have the resources or staff to explore how they can successfully transition from solely project-based funding to more flexible funding, particularly to new grantees?

These trends are all exciting and meaningful. They speak to a sector that is not afraid of course correcting and of innovating. And we will see just how they each unfold and evolve in 2020.

In our next article, I will share the remaining key trends we are seeing for 2020 and the near future, many of which focus on the people, who, as we know, are the core of all infrastructure.

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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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Let’s stop asking the “should I create a foundation?” question

I quite frequently get the question: “Should I create a foundation?” And whenever I do, I tell the person asking the question that by asking this question, we are already talking at the wrong level.

Needless to say, they are usually surprised by my response; after all, it seems I am avoiding answering a question repeatedly asked (and answered) by many throughout the years. After I walk them through the rationale for my response however, they always understand.

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Why “rapid response” grants concern me

When foundations want to award grant funds, well, rapidly, they often create processes that get these funds to grantees in considerably less time than their standard grant processes will. This fast-track process is usually dubbed a “rapid response” grant process. And when this process is created, many celebrate, and others write articles praising the foundation’s ingenuity and ability to quickly move grant funding. It is an all-around high five heard throughout the sector.

After all, they are thinking of how quickly the foundation can now provide financial support to people in need and are marveling at how multiple departments and teams effectively collaborated to make it all happen.

I, however, grow concerned.

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Infrastructure Design as Innovation

Here is a well-kept secret: the most innovative, transformative foundations have the most robust infrastructure. In other words, the foundations that are the bravest, the most visionary, and become trailblazers in the philanthropic sector, take great care to design the most thorough organizational infrastructures. It seems antithetical to believe that the more a foundation embraces risk management, strategically integrates compliance into its operations, and focuses on the efficiency of its policies and processes, the more innovative it will become, but, that statement is entirely accurate.

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