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The Wizard was Wrong: Linking Grantmaker Strategy to What’s Behind the Curtain 

Meghan Duffy
Meghan Duffy

Since GEO’s founding, grantmakers in our community have been taking a close look at how they can more effectively reach their goals by ensuring nonprofits have the tools, training and people to succeed. GEO’s newest publication, Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity: Core Concepts in Capacity Building, dives into the key ideas that make up these efforts. While more grantmakers are offering support for nonprofits to improve, some funders struggle to make the case internally that this support is critical in achieving grantmakers’ missions. This can adversely affect nonprofits and harm relationships between grantmakers and grantees. Just like when Dorothy met the Wizard of Oz, we sometimes forget that what’s behind the curtain makes what we see possible. Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity seeks to change how grantmakers think about and approach what’s “behind the curtain” of the programs nonprofits deliver to ensure they have the support to create real results for the long term.

First, let’s talk about that curtain. Some grantmakers may believe that capacity-building support comes at a cost — that our funding is a zero-sum game and focusing on building capacity diverts us from supporting program work, from reaching goals or from the mission. Those who provide capacity-building support find that the truth is quite the opposite — supporting capacity in fact leads to better, more sustainable results. For instance, the Wilburforce Foundation actually centers their strategy on providing capacity building support. The foundation invests in relationships with grantees and other stakeholders to provide the right kind of capacity building support, which in turn leads to stronger outcomes in the areas Wilburforce cares about: conservation of lands, water and wildlife. This tailored approach to capacity building has improved the effectiveness of its grantees and allowed them to make even more progress. You can read more about Wilburforce Foundation’s work in Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation also sees a clear connection between strategy and providing capacity-building support. Packard’s Organizational Effectiveness program works closely with the foundation’s grantees to provide funding that focuses on fundamentals that they really need, like leadership, financial management and communications. OE Program Officer Jamaica Maxwell is sharing what their team has learned about network effectiveness as a 2016 GEO Capacity Building Champion. Packard’s own efforts have been informed by this work, and they periodically work with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to coordinate their grantmaking to support phases of a common grantee’s capacity-building work.

Capacity-building support takes time and continuous effort. Organizational transformations will not happen overnight, and the need for attention to capacity never goes away. Yet, we don’t need to go at it alone. To strengthen your efforts, consider working collectively and drawing upon local or regional support. The Washington Statewide Capacity Collaborative (SCC) is an example of one such model. This core group of grantmakers in Washington has aligned their investments to provide more optimal assistance to regional nonprofits. The SCC also commissioned a scan to better understand how to develop and support nonprofit and community leaders in the area. Within the GEO community, we’re hearing more and more about groups of grantmakers who are working together to maximize capacity building.

As demonstrated by these and many other foundations, capacity building can play a critical role in achieving our missions. Their work also underscores the importance of adapting grantmaker strategies to our grantees’ contexts through building trust and stronger relationships (i.e., getting to know who is behind the curtain). There is a range of ways to provide support, so consider the following questions as you evaluate your own readiness and determine the best strategy:

  • How central is capacity building to your work? What level of resources are you prepared to devote?
  • How much do you know about the challenges faced by your grantees? Are they comfortable sharing this information? Do your grantees have access to quality technical assistance?
  • What internal skills, knowledge, relationships, time, etc. will you need to effectively manage your capacity-building work? Where and how might you engage outside partners or consultants to assist?
  • How much do you know about other capacity-building programs and resources in your field or region?

Ultimately, capacity building is about assisting nonprofit leaders, staffs and boards to develop the skills and resources needed to create and sustain effective, efficient and resilient organizations. To make this concept even simpler, if grantees are more effective, grantmakers are more effective. Remember, that what’s behind the curtain—nonprofit talent and infrastructure—is what drives success. Supporting these capacity-building efforts is one of the most important things grantmakers can do to broaden impact on nonprofits and communities.


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