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Flipping the Default Setting on Philanthropy: An Interview With Kathleen Enright

By Nell Edgington



KE1_websiteIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Kathleen Enright, founding president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a diverse community of more than 450 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results.

Prior to GEO, Kathleen was at BoardSource, where she was responsible for building public awareness of the importance of strong nonprofit boards. Prior to joining BoardSource, Kathleen was a project manager for the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation where she directed a Ford Foundation funded project to encourage collaboration between nonprofits and local governments.

Kathleen speaks and writes regularly on issues of nonprofit and grantmaker effectiveness at national and regional gatherings of executives and trustees and in various publications including Investing in Leadership: Inspiration and Ideas from Philanthropy’s Latest Frontier and Funding Effectiveness: Lessons in Building Nonprofit Capacity. She is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: GEO has been around for 15 years working to “advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to achieve better results.” In that time, has the work gotten harder or easier? Is the foundation community more effectively contributing to nonprofit results?

Kathleen: We have some new data on that exact question. GEO’s fourth national study of staffed grantmaking organizations is due out next month. The headline is that while the field is moving in the right direction on many fronts, we still have a long way to go.

We appear to have reached a “tipping point” on a few issues. At long last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US report seeking and using grantee feedback to inform their work. As good practices like this one become more common — even expected — it’ll become harder and harder for holdouts to justify the status quo. Similarly, on general operating support — one practice that has stubbornly held steady for years — we’re finally seeing movement in the right direction.

The reality is that there’s a lot of work still to be done. In our last survey we learned that during the economic downturn — when nonprofits needed flexible, reliable, long-term dollars the most — many foundations backpedaled on things like funding multiyear grants. That the new survey shows we’re back to pre-recession levels is a positive step, but we have a long way to go until we’re able to flip the default setting in philanthropy. Achieving this goal means making it so that multi-year, general operating support is the assumption and program officers and grantees need to make a specific case for why a program-restricted or short-term grant makes sense.

Nell: According to the most recent State of the Sector Survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 41% of nonprofit leaders cite long-term financial stability as a top challenge, yet only 9% of them feel they can have an open conversation with funders about operating reserves. How do we bridge that gap and make it easier for nonprofit leaders and funders to talk openly about and invest effectively in financial stability? Do you think foundations’ appetites for capacity investments are growing, or waning, and how do we make capacity investing more appealing to funders?

Kathleen: Our field study will expand on this point as well, but the perception gap is huge. Funders declare themselves willing to talk about financial health, but grantees still don’t feel safe to do so. My takeaway here is that foundations need to do much more to signal to grantees that they are open to having such a discussion. Closing this perception gap won’t happen in one go. We need to find ways to normalize these conversations, including the questions or fears a grantee might have.  We need to be conscious that sometimes our funding practices act as nonverbal cues that close down conversations about financial stability. It’s hard to believe a funder is earnest about discussing financial health if they aren’t already doing the basics, like offering flexible, long-term support. Ensuring that nonprofits feel empowered to have these conversations will only happen through word and deed.

It really comes down to a fundamental shift in how many funders think about nonprofits. When a funder thinks about grantees as merely suppliers who offer what amounts to an appealing product that leads to a bit of tunnel vision. However, when grantees are seen as crucial actors in efforts to create lasting change on the complex social challenges a funder cares about, they are much more likely to take a broader, long-term perspective.

In terms of the appetite for capacity investments, we held a series of “listening sessions” with nonprofit leaders last year to learn more about their experiences with capacity-building. Most staffed foundations in the US do provide some sort of capacity building support, so some of what we wanted to uncover is how to make the most of those investments. Based on those sessions and 15 years of experience on this question, we believe that by taking an approach that is contextual (tailored to the unique needs of the grantee), continuous (taking the long view), and collective (considering how the parts add up), grantmakers will be well positioned to provide capacity building support in ways that effectively support nonprofits to achieve lasting impact.

Nell: In recent years there have been studies and efforts aimed at getting more donors to channel donations to nonprofits that can prove results. How optimistic are you that we can change donor, particularly foundation, behavior toward funding based on results? And what will it take to get there?

Kathleen: It’s reasonable for foundations to want to make sure their funding leads to impact. And with technology making data collection easier, it’s natural that there’s a lot of buzz in the field about evidence and results. But it’s complicated terrain.

Not only do we lack a shared agreement on what proof or evidence means, most grantmakers and their nonprofit partners are focused on complex social problems with no easy answers. There was an excellent article in Forbes on the limitations of what the authors call “moneyball philanthropy,” where too great on an emphasis is placed on a clear or measurable cause and effect between the work and the impact. The bottom line is that if foundations only fund those things with “proven” results, they’ll miss opportunities to support important work on systems that has the potential to be game-changing.

Job number one in our view is to understand what’s working, what’s not and how we can continuously learn and improve. It often means taking risks and understanding what went wrong. The reality is that many nonprofits are ill-equipped to build the appropriate information infrastructure or conduct evaluations because they haven’t received the financial support to enable them to build that capacity.

So before we move too far in the direction of funding only based on results, grantmakers must consider how we can help grantees build their sophistication around evaluation. It’s a first step — and an incredibly powerful one — to help nonprofits grow their impact. This may mean providing flexible funding or tailored funding to support the development of evaluation plans, staff training or paying for third party evaluators. GEO members like the Bruner Foundation, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Mile High United Way have worked diligently over many years to strengthen nonprofit capacity for evaluation. Their work suggests that such investments often have much farther-reaching positive effects on the organizations they support. We produced a short video on the Hartford Foundation’s work to build grantee evaluation capacity (which actually draws from the Bruner Foundation’s impressive body of work) that you can find here.

Nell: Foundation money only accounts for about 2% of all the money flowing to the nonprofit sector, which is a fairly small piece of the funding pie. Is there a role, and if so what is it, for foundation leaders to lead other larger sources of funding in the sector (government, individual) toward more effective giving?

Kathleen: Institutional philanthropy has incredible insights and wisdom that could be enormously helpful to help steer other dollars intended for the public good.  One of our newest board members, Peter Long, President and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, is an advocate for creating more “open source philanthropy”. His idea is that, as a field, we’ll be able to make faster progress if we’re generous with our thinking. What if every funder interested in improving health outcomes could benefit from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s wealth of knowledge? This is especially important for newcomers, as building this open knowledge base both gives them a place to start from as well as gives them an opportunity to build our collective knowledge. Being “experts” in philanthropy is a role that foundations can — and should! — embrace.

Another way foundations can show leadership is by pooling resources to address complex issues. The Washington Families Fund is an example of just how powerful it is when foundations come together and work with public entities. As a public-private partnership, the Fund is capitalizing on the resources of foundations — including GEO members like the Campion Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medina Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Seattle Foundation — coupled with the on-the-ground capacity of government entities like the Washington State Department of Commerce to reduce homelessness in their region by 50 percent by 2020. Examples like these demonstrate just how powerful public-private partnerships can be.

Photo Credit: GEO

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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