For the Future and the Now: The Difference of Multiyear General Operating Support

Linda Thomas-Hemak

As president and CEO of The Wright Center for Community Health and its affiliated entity, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, I’ve had the great privilege of voluntarily serving alongside 600 peer nonprofit CEOs on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s nationally representative Grantee Voice Panel. As a member of the panel, I was surveyed as part of CEP’s data collection efforts that informed findings in its recent study, New Attitudes, Old Practices: The Provision of Multiyear General Operating Support.

Reading the report, I came away highly energized about new ways in which nonprofit organizations like The Wright Center can better collaborate with philanthropic foundations to increase the intentional formulation and distribution of multiyear general operating support (GOS) grants.

Without question, the study’s findings provide a wealth of helpful information about the benefits of multiyear GOS to grantees — as well as the barriers that seem to be preventing these grants from becoming more of a strategic priority for foundations. Given my position leading a community-governed nonprofit, the report’s first key finding that multiyear GOS grants can result in many benefits to the health of nonprofit organizations and, ultimately, increase the impact they can have on society, certainly resonated with me.

The Wright Center works to provide first-rate, nondiscriminatory, and comprehensive primary healthcare services to the residents of Northeast Pennsylvania, while also training the next generation of primary care physicians through The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. The Center has grown substantially during the past decade. To continue responding to national and local community health needs through services delivery and workforce development efforts, we are constantly seeking new funding sources from philanthropic partners that share our goals and align with our purpose.

Our mission is especially critical now as the scope of our daily work has grown to integrate a multidimensional response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet the current wide-scale economic uncertainty related to the pandemic has simultaneously made fundraising for healthcare and medical education organizations like ours even more challenging than usual. As a result, these twin realities have made the opportunity for stabilizing and empowering multiyear GOS grants even more necessary.

Unfortunately, multiyear GOS grants make up a depressingly low percentage of nonprofit operating budgets, as CEP’s report shares. Only 41 percent of nonprofit leaders surveyed by CEP reported receiving multiyear GOS grants in the year before COVID-19, and most of those who did said it constituted less than 25 percent of their foundation funding.

Why is that? Well, the most frequent responses of nonprofit leaders surveyed were that funding institutions lack trust in nonprofits and/or have “a desire to maintain control.” Other potential reasons cited include that foundations fear the effects multiyear GOS grants could pose to their own organizational finances, and/or they believe that multiyear GOS grants complicate outcomes assessments.

Looking at the issue from the foundation perspective, 31 percent of program officers surveyed by CEP said that a strong existing relationship between the funder and grantee was a primary factor in determining which organizations receive multiyear GOS grants. Meanwhile, 21 percent of those surveyed cited the grantee’s needs, while 20 percent noted the grantee’s alignment with the foundation’s mission as primary determining factors.

Nonetheless, it is somewhat distressing to see the study’s finding that only 28 percent of program officers receive training on how to decide which organizations should receive a GOS grant, and only 20 percent of program officers receive training on how to decide which grantees to provide with multiyear grants. Of those program officers surveyed who didn’t receive training, about half said they would welcome the opportunity, which at least is reassuring.

While The Wright Center continues to create jobs, hire new employees, and expand our care delivery and workforce development operations, I wholeheartedly agree with the other nonprofit leaders surveyed who said that multiyear GOS grants allow organizations to focus on current support needs while also strategically planning for the future. As one survey respondent put it, “These types of grants mean that we can think about our work in the long term and create programs and campaigns that address root causes and systemic issues.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further, multiyear GOS grants allow organizations to generate sustainability plans for jobs and to invest in their staff for the long term. These important efforts provide hardworking professionals with the stability and peace of mind they deserve and need in order to carry out their important work with maximum effectiveness. To paraphrase another nonprofit leader surveyed for the study, it is incredibly difficult to commit to create new positions and recruit, hire, and retain employees with only 12 months’ worth of funding guaranteed. Sometimes, organizations end up only offering temporary or part-time positions because of the uncertainty of long-term sustainability. Multiyear GOS awards provide more stability to promote thoughtful planning, experiential learning, the sustainability of jobs, and expansions of nonprofits’ services.

After reviewing the data in CEP’s report, it would be easy to feel discouraged about the apparent disconnect between foundations and the nonprofits they support when it comes to multiyear GOS. But I think there’s reason to be optimistic about the potential for change. From our perspective at The Wright Center, for one, we have more frequently been encountering a trend of increasing multiyear GOS opportunities from our most supportive national and community-based funders. My hope is that this trend continues, and that it’s shared by other organizations in different fields and communities around the country.

That said, even the best funder-grantee relationships require ongoing communication and nurturing. To both funders and nonprofit leaders alike, I would say that both sides of the funding table need to do a better job of communicating and appreciating mutual perspectives, needs, and expectations. Doing so will help optimize the impact that philanthropic support can have.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine, and addiction medicine, is CEO of The Wright Center for Community Health and serves as president of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education.

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