Thoughts on an Organizational Strengthening Program Taxonomy

For the last 18 months I’ve been part of a great learning community called the Capacity Building Champions.  Our community is made up of members of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. Champions all work at foundations who are committed to investing in strong grantee partners.

GEO has invested heavily in supporting members to increase their investments in their grantee partners.  Between 2011 and 2014 they saw a 27% increase in funders total dollars for capacity building.

Last week our Champions group had a great conversation with Kathy Reich, Director of the BUILD program at the Ford Foundation. The BUILD initiative is a 5 year $1 billion investment in 300 social justice organizations around the world.  BUILD is based on the belief that institutional strengthening, coupled with multi-year general support, will enable social justice organizations to accelerate and amplify their impact.

When introducing Kathy and the Champion’s interest in the topic I shared some initial thoughts on a taxonomy of approaches foundations and intermediaries are taking to supporting stronger and more resilient organizations.

  1. Program Grants with Organizational Strengthening support embedded
  2. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening grants
  3. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening activities
  4. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening grants + Organizational Strengthening activities
  5. Core Support grants + Organizational Strengthening activities
  6. Hybrid approaches - Combined Core Support and Organizational Strengthening grants + Organizational Strengthening activities

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the types of programs employed by foundations but instead an illustration of the range of approaches employed by foundations and intermediaries. Each approach comes with a different price tag, requires different types of resources to be successful and may work better in certain contexts or with certain foundations and partners than others.

1. Program Grants with Organizational Strengthening support embedded

In this approach a foundation or intermediary may base their decision to make a program grant on the quality of the idea and not on the capacity of the group to accomplish what they set out to do. Instead a program officer may offer an organization the support to undertake a organizational strengths assessment. After the assessment they would add additional funds to the grant for the group to address issues identified in the assessment. In some cases, grant tranches are conditional on progress on addressing the organizational issues.

Oak Foundation, a global human rights funder, takes this type of approach.  Program officers are encouraged and supported to help their grantees identify capacity gaps and develop an action plan for how to address those gaps. This approach requires a close relationship between grantee and program officer to ensure an open and honest dialogue about challenges and opportunities.

A strength of this approach is that the investment in the organization can be directly linked to what they want to accomplish with the grant. This can make it easier to better understand the impact of the organizational strengthening investment on the organization and their mission.  Depending on the openness of the relationship between the organization and the foundation this approach may make it more difficult for an organization to invest funds in a capacity or challenge less closely linked to the specific program.

2. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening grants

In this approach a foundation has separate grant programs for their program and their organizational strengthening grants. They may make their organizational strengthening grants available only to their existing programmatic grantees or they may make them available to any applicant.

Packard Foundation Organizational Effectiveness program provides organizational strengthening grants to existing grantees upon the recommendation of their program officers.  Their grants are on average up to $30k. In a twist on this type of program Packard also funds supports to cohorts of organizations who are working together on an issue of shared concern.

A strength of this approach is that a program officer and their grantee partner can draw on the expertise of an internal foundation team dedicated to organizational strengthening to design the grant. A challenge with this approach is that some program officers may not feel it is their job to gather evidence of impact of the organizational strengthening grant or make the linkages between the two grants.

3. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening activities

In this approach a foundation has a program grants program and organizes organizational strengthening activities for their grantees.  In some cases these activities are open to non grantees as well. Activities are usually based on a landscape assessment and tailored to the needs of their grantee partners.  Activities can range from roundtables to trainings to workshops to coaching to funds for attending workshops or accessing online services such as Guidestar or Foundation Center.

This is the approach of Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation. Their organizational strengthening program has a budget of about $100k per year and supports approximately 30 organizations with coaching, roundtables and workshops.

This approach can be beneficial when a foundation wants to reach beyond their grantees and make organizational strengthening resources available to a wider group of organizations in their community. To ensure impact, Foundation staff must pay special attention to ensure the activities are tailored enough to the specific needs of organizations.

4. Program grants + Organizational Strengthening grants + Organizational Strengthening activities

This approach combines the above approaches and provides both program grants and organizational strengthening grants along with foundation sponsored organizational strengthening activities. In this case the foundation often organizes activities that address issues common to a cohort of grantees.

The Organizational Effectiveness program of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) uses this approach. They conduct a range of learning activities for both individual organizations as well as using the cohort model and provide technical assistance grants. Eligible organizations do not need to be existing grantees of GNOF.

This approach can be useful when trying to reach a large number of organizations and when organizations can secure quality support from consultants and technical assistance providers in their community.  In communities with a weaker support infrastructure foundations can use this approach to bring in outside expertise but they must be careful not to drown out local knowledge and more nascent local support.

5. Core Support grants + Organizational Strengthening activities

More foundations are offering core or general support grants coupled with organizational strengthening activities.

This is the approach of Weingert Foundation.  Weingert has been in the vanguard advocating for increased investment in core support. While initially a response to the economic downturn in the mid-2000s they have seen grantees increasingly use their core support to build strengthen their capacities and build their infrastructure. Besides the core grants they have also organized a range of organizational strengthening initiatives aimed at cohorts of organizations working on a shared issue.

The strength of this approach is its alignment with the movement for increasing trust based philanthropy. It places more power in the hands of organizations and addresses the major challenge of a lack of access to core support while also recognizing the need for institutional strengthening to make the most of that core support. This approach can be a challenge for some foundations whose leadership has a specific programmatic goal in mind and wants to see direct benefit to specific communities or issues.

6. Combined Core Support and Organizational Strengthening grants + Organizational Strengthening activities

An approach which combines the above approaches is to combine core support with organizational strengthening support in one grant in addition to organizational strengthening activities.

This is the approach of the BUILD program at Ford Foundation. BUILD is on track to offer this support to 300 current grantees. After a facilitated assessment process and internal consultation a grantee decides how much of their grant they will invest in organizational strengthening efforts and how much they will invest in their programs or other needs. On average, grantees are investing approximately 40% of their grant in organizational strengthening. In addition to the grants Ford organizes and supports self organizing by grantees for cohort learning on a range of topics.

A strength of this approach is it doesn't force an organization to choose between using a grant for core support or organizational strengthening. They can do both. This type of program does rely heavily on a skilled foundation team who can support the organizations in the process and organize and convene learning opportunities.

Why we want to learn more?

Unfortunately we’ve found no evaluation data comparing the approaches or even guidance for how foundations might decide amongst approaches. While we agree investment in organizational strengthening is necessary and useful a question we are pondering is how does a foundation or intermediary decide on one of these 6 approaches? Is it based on their past experience? On what they’ve seen others do? On their own spoken or unspoken foundation values or beliefs? On the best fit for their context and grantee partners needs? What do organizations have to say about the impacts of the different approaches?

If any of our colleagues have evaluations to share that compare different approaches or intervention types please share. We are looking for learning partners willing to structure a new program in a way that we can learn more about the impacts of these different approaches.