Going All In on Supporting Effective Organizations

Lisa Jackson

In 2008, the Center for Effective Philanthropy report, More than Money: Making a Difference with Assistance Beyond the Grant, found that “the majority of grantees of a typical large foundation receive no assistance beyond the grant, and the 44 percent that do receive assistance generally receive just two or three types.”

In a brief earlier this year titled Donors: 5 Things Nonprofits Want You to Know, CEP identifies the importance of general operating support. “Generous, unrestricted financial support best enables nonprofit leaders to strengthen their organizations,” the brief states.

And finally, in its most recent report, Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives, CEP finds that:

Both nonprofits and foundations have a role to play in closing the gap between the support nonprofits need and the support foundations provide.

Nonprofit CEOs see general operating support grants as having the greatest impact on strengthening their organizations.

Lest you think I am a paid advertiser for CEP, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) has also made this case more than once. In their 2014 publication, What is General Operating Support and Why is it Important, GEO identifies multiple reasons a foundation should offer unrestricted funding:

General operating support is the working capital nonprofits need to sustain their day-to-day operations. A lack of working capital can prevent organizations from meeting basic operational needs, like payroll and rent. There is strong case to make for grantmakers to provide general operating support. Reasons include:

  • Enabling nonprofits to build a strong and sustainable infrastructure to provide programs and services that will have the greatest impact.
  • Freeing up the time nonprofits normally spend on raising money and reporting, so they can direct their spending where it is needed and focus on running effective programs.
  • Easing fundraising pressures on nonprofit executives, reducing burnout and allowing them to focus on the mission.
  • Fostering innovation and risk-taking by providing nonprofits with resources and bandwidth to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.
  • Reducing the power imbalance between grantmaker and grantee by allowing nonprofits to devise their own solutions based on their vast experience in the community and field. This also signals greater trust between a grantmaker and grantee.

As you read these examples, you might be thinking I’m mixing apples and oranges. General operating grants are one thing, and additional support grants are another. I would argue, however, that they are both fruit from the same tree; that tree being one that grows the types of support that nonprofits need to be effective in meeting their missions. If your goal as a funder is to support organizations in meeting their missions, I would suggest you need to be all in — investing in the whole tree with every tool you have available.

At Imago Dei Fund (IDF), where I serve as managing partner, it might help that we are not a typical large foundation, but instead a lean-staffed private family foundation. Maybe it helps that we see our role as a “partner” rather than an “expert” when it comes to our relationships with grantees. Whatever the reason, I believe we are acting on CEP’s findings on how best to strengthen and support grantee organizations.

At IDF, our definition of “doing philanthropy well” is connected to the following outcomes we seek for our grantee partners:

  • Partners will become more effective at their work.
  • Partners will be able to focus more on their work than on fundraising.
  • Partners will be able to take risks to seize opportunities and respond to challenges.
  • Partners will more effectively meet their missions/visions.
  • Partners will feel seen, empowered, made better, or more effective.

One important way we support our grantee partners toward these outcomes is by providing multiyear general operating support grants. We think this is one of the most powerful ways to support an organization to meet its mission.

An additional way we act to accomplish these outcomes is by providing “additional support fund,” or ASF, grants to our partners. These grants support a grantee partner’s ability to accomplish the outcomes they seek for their organizations. We currently make three types of ASF grants to our active partners:

  • Professional development grants: to improve and increase the capabilities of individual staff through access to education and training opportunities, and therefore enhance the organization as a whole.
  • “Keep the Spark Alive” grants: to nurture the inner lives of their staff, and therefore enhance the organization as a whole. We encourage our partners to evaluate their organization and staff needs, and define what “soul care” means to them, while being intentional about creating a deeper spiritual and mental connection with self and others and committing to creating a culture of holistic self-care for all staff.
  • Event sponsorship grants: for an organization hosting an event to enhance the organization as a whole (e.g., a fundraising event, strategic planning event, communications/marketing event).

To support our grantee partners to build fundraising capacity, we have recently launched a partnership with an organization called Raising Change. Raising Change offers a master class on fundraising with a focus on developing a relational, authentic approach to fundraising among participants. IDF has fully supported eight organizations to participate in the class thus far. The feedback has been positive, including stories of grantee partners successfully making asks to newly cultivated donors. We are looking forward to sponsoring another 18 organizations to participate this fall.

Our mission statement at IDF is as follows:

Motivated by our faith and a commitment to the inherent dignity and common humanity of all people, we invest around the world in visionary and impactful organizations working to advance universal human rights, gender balance, justice and spiritual holism. Our mission is to co-create a more just and more free world in which all human beings can thrive and flourish together.

Echoing the sentiment of Anthony Richardson of the Nord Family Foundation, quoted in CEP’s recent report, the only way for us to accomplish our mission is to support our grantee partners to be able to fulfill their missions. It’s that simple. Providing support beyond the grant check; granting flexible, general operating dollars to organizations over several years; continuing to listen to requests and feedback from our grantee partners about what they need to be effective — all of these approaches help us live up to our definition of doing philanthropy well.

Lisa Jackson, Ph.D. is managing partner at the Imago Dei Fund. She is also the co-founder and former managing director of the College for Social Innovation.

Looking for more on strengthening grantees? Join CEP and a panel of foundation leaders on Monday, October 29 from 3:30-4:30pm ET for a webinar discussion of what foundations can do to best support and strengthen grantees, leaders, and networks. Register here.

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