Strengthening the Hearts and Lungs of Social Change

Linda Baker

As funders, we are privileged to support leaders, organizations, and networks that create movements for change. To succeed, that work must be done in partnership, moving together toward our shared goals for positive impact in the world.

One of the most powerful ways that we can support our partners is through “capacity building” — providing a responsive mixture of training, support, and engagement that extends our partners’ reach. Developing these core abilities is like strengthening a leader or organization’s hearts and lungs. While unseen by the outside world, that core strength enables the hands and feet of their work to move faster and stronger.

Over the past year, the Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team explored the landscape of support for the development and growth of leaders, organizations, and networks in the United States and abroad. As part of that effort, we listened to our grantee partners, spoke with fellow funders, connected with people who support the learning and growth of leaders and nonprofits and networks, and sponsored two reports: Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and The New Normal by Adene Sacks, Kate Wilkinson, and Heather McLeod Grant of Open Impact.

CEP’s report on strengthening grantees focuses on the kinds of support funders provide and whether nonprofits are receiving the support they need. Unfortunately, the results are mixed.

I was surprised — and pleased — to see the percentage of funders who report that they are increasing this type of funding. Almost all the foundation leaders surveyed said that their foundation cares about their partners’ organizational health and feels responsible for strengthening grantees. But in many cases, there was a mismatch between funder intentions and nonprofit experience. Less than half of nonprofit CEOs surveyed said that most of their foundation funders care about strengthening the overall health of their organization, and 58 percent said that none or few of their foundation funders ask about their organization’s overall needs beyond funding.

We are falling short of providing the customized and flexible organization-level support that our grantee partners need. We want to do the right thing — and those in positions of authority at foundations believe that we are doing the right thing — but our aspirations are not showing up in our behavior.

Why is that? One possibility is that funders are set in their ways, listening only for what has been needed in the past. As times change, needs change. When asked last summer about what keeps them up at night, a group of our U.S.-based grantee partners told us that they are concerned about self-care for their staff; physical and digital security; real-time strategy and communications; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Each of these topics falls under the rubric of “capacity building,” but most were not common themes from our partners a few years ago.

Another possibility is that we are not opening the door for conversation. As the CEP report finds, sometimes our grantee partners will ask for what they think we are most likely to support, rather than what they most need. That is not partnership. For grantees to be able to get what they need, we have to make it clear that the door is open.

For our own part, we have responded by taking care to include these emerging topics as part of our conversations with grantees seeking OE support, as well as with focused short-term support on these topics through a special initiative. Going forward, we funders must create safe spaces that allow our partners to provide their most honest assessment of their needs — and that allow for the flexibility in our approaches to meet those needs.

The other report in our exploration, The New Normal, considers strengths needed for success in our collective work beyond support for individual organizations. Based on a literature review and interviews with leaders in the thick of highly charged policy debates, the authors find that our sector is in a moment of reckoning. Especially for those in the eye of policy debates, the accelerating pace of change now requires network-centric mindsets and the development of connections that facilitate rapid collective action. As the report states, “[S]ocial sector leaders are under increasing pressure to collaborate across organizations, issues, and sectors, and build the new mindsets and skills needed for social change.” As complexity increases, no one achieves change alone.

This need for networked mindsets and connections resonated with our grantee partners. They agreed that they need to not only build their own leadership and organizations, but also forge connections with each other.

These two reports provide complementary calls to action for funders, and our team is taking them to heart. Going forward, we will work together with our partners to build strength across the individual leaders, organizations, and networks that together make up the fields and movements working toward social and environmental change today. We will listen closely to ensure that we are hearing what our grantee partners are telling us, and we will endeavor to strengthen and deepen our partnerships with them.

In the end, it comes down to trust and relationships. We will achieve our shared goals faster when we join in partnership and provide an increased range and depth of funding options that amplify our collective ability to create change together.

Linda Baker is a director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she leads the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team as they invest in grantee leaders, organizations, and networks to build their core strengths and maximize their impact. Follow her on Twitter at @Lindasbaker.

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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