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.