Not Gettin’ It: Dispatch from After the Leap

“Noooo!”

That was the chorus of responses to the question I posed to the audience at the After the Leap conference in Washington yesterday. The question was “Do funders get it?” and the “it”, at least as I framed it, was the need to support nonprofits to develop the capacity to assess and improve performance. The polling technology was offline so I went old school and just called out the question to the audience, which was comprised primarily of nonprofit leaders but also included some funders.

That answer was clear. And loud.

Less clear was why, or how to persuade funders – who in CEP research say again and again they want more and better data about what works and what doesn’t – that they should support nonprofits’ efforts to collect and use that data.

I was fortunate to be joined by two CEOs of funders who clearly do get it, Denise Zeman of St. Luke’s Foundation and Carol Thompson Cole of Venture Philanthropy Partners.  They described their work to support nonprofits and the way they invest in organizations to really strengthen them – providing long-term, unrestricted, general operating support. But, as Nancy Roob of Edna McConnell Clark Foundation pointed out in a powerful talk preceding our panel, this way of supporting nonprofits remains too rare.

Roob called on funders to do five things:

  • “Make bigger, better bets.”
  • “Untie the strings” by providing flexible support.
  • “Invest in evidence building.”
  • “Scale what works with innovation.”
  • “Adopt an investor mindset.”

Her message resonated powerfully with an audience that, alas, was short on funders.

It’s not that there aren’t other funders that act on these principles: there clearly are, and they aren’t always the ones that we hear about. At CEP, we have been impressed by foundations like Wilburforce, which makes significant investments in capacity-building for the environmental organizations it supports, or Wallace, which has done the same – while also investing heavily in developing an evidence base about that works. And, in a blog post last week, I mentioned some other examples.

They are out there, but they’re too rare – much more the exception than the rule. Some of the funders most focused on their own outcomes and impact seem to believe that the best way to evaluate their work is without attention to building the capacity of the organizations they fund. In this line of thinking, the grantees are just a means to an end; it’s about the results.

But that’s short-sighted, of course, and ultimately self-defeating. It is the grantees that deliver the results. As Zeman said in our panel, “we don’t do, we support.”

What I still don’t know, at the conclusion of an outstanding conference focused on these questions, is how to influence more funders to provide what grantees really need. Typical grant sizes remain too small and whatever “capacity-building” that is provided is often of the drive-by variety, not in the intensive patterns necessary to have a positive impact on organizations. Many funders don’t seek to understand grantees goals and strategies, yet our research has shown that is crucial in order to develop strong relationships with the organizations they fund.

If we expect nonprofits to deliver real results, we need to give them what they need to do so.

We’re clearly not there yet.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.

Disclosure: Some of the foundations mentioned are grant supporters or clients of CEP.

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