Looking Back on 2018 and Ahead to 2019

At the Social Sector Accelerator, we're heading into the new year like


2018 has been amazing year for our team, thanks in large part to our partnerships with many of you!  As we kick off 2019, there are a couple things we’ve been thinking a lot about that I’d love your feedback on. First, in workshops we’ve run this year, we’ve introduced a module on “capacity building as a substitution for a market.” At the Accelerator, we believe strongly that grant funding is an important tool in helping us build a better world. That said, we also know that the grant model often suffers from a shortcoming that nonprofits must manage: those that fund our work are often not the same people as those we are trying to benefit. Too often, this skews the incentive structures for nonprofits, creating a breakdown in accountability when nonprofits focus more of their attention on pleasing a donor than on satisfying those they are meant to serve.

For a company, beneficiaries are customers, and companies that fail to meet customer demands either adapt to meet those demands or they go out of business. One way we can think about capacity building is that it is designed to fill a role ordinarily played by the market. We are trying to systematically identify obstacles to customer satisfaction, develop strategies for overcoming those, and build mechanisms for learning that ensure funding and impact are more closely linked. 

The second concept we’ve been talking a lot about has been risk and return in capacity building. Where are limited funds for capacity building best placed within a community? Is it with the weakest organizations for whom the risk might be greatest but the payoff in the form of a stronger organization might similarly be greatest? Or are we better off channeling capacity building funds to organizations that are stronger and may be more able to make effective use of those resources, even if additionally, funding will be less catalytic for them? When should we throw a lifeline to a failing organization and when should we let it go? Is this typology even the right way to think about whether and when to make these investments? Where do questions of diversity, equity and inclusion lead us in the risk and return discussion? We continue to draw inspiration from the team at the Open Road Alliance who are digging deep into risks and philanthropy.

Both of these are concepts that we are still workshopping, and we’d love your feedback on them. You can always write Teresa or Hugh with thoughts or, better yet, join us for one of the workshops we’ll hold in 2019 to share in the learning with us and others there! Either way, we look forward to the conversation!

Some highlights from 2018

  1. We worked with two Kenya-based organizations, Adeso and the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR). We supported NEAR to develop their Organizational Strengthening Strategy for their members based on their goals, needs of their members and past experience.

  2. Back in the U.S., with support from Methodist Healthcare Ministries, we are supporting a coalition of Texas-based health providers to improve their impact and achieve their mission to improve health along the U.S.-Mexico border.

  3. We’ve spent the year working with the team at the Resilience Initiative to better understand the types of grant maker support that help organizations improve both their organizational and staff resilience.

  4. We built and launched a new approach to grantmaking for the CIVICUS network that lessens the burdens on grantees and improves communication between CIVICUS and its partners.

  5. We continued to refine our thinking on results-based-financing, designing the world’s first development impact bond (DIB) for mangrove conservation.

Looking ahead to 2019

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For 2019, we are developing a peer learning and design workshop for domestic grantmakers looking to amplify the impact of their capacity building grantmaking. This workshop is primarily targeted at health foundations in the southern and central U.S., but the lessons we share there will be broadly applicable so don’t be shy! If you are interested in spending time with us in Austin, TX in 2019 let us know! 

Looking further ahead, let us know if you are interested in co-designing a session or workshop with us on organizational strengthening and learning, impact measurement, strategy, etc. in your area.  We need just 10 interested participants to make it work and are always happy to come to you or to host you in one of our two locations (Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon). 

We are also looking forward to the GEO Learning Conference in Seattle where we will host a learning ‘speed geeking’ session, introducing a range of approaches to improving our understanding of how to support stronger, more capable nonprofits.

What we've been reading

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  1. Want effective capacity building? Get rid of the incubation mentality – Vu Le shares his thoughts on a new way of thinking of capacity and where it can come from

  2. Monitoring organizational capacity development efforts -  Our friends at USAID put together a short brief on how to link improved organizational performance to project outcomes

  3. Reflecting on Innovations in Training Impact Assessment – RedR and the University of Sussex shared their results for improving understanding of how individuals learn and what impacts behavior change

  4. Community Wealth Partners and Center for Effective Philanthropy both released research on what makes for a successful capacity building program.  The CWP research on Five Elements for Success in Capacity Building findings mirror the early research from the Human Development Institute published back in 2000 .  The CEP research on Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives on Capacity Building echo some of the same issues.

  5. Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) on Measuring the Value for Money of Acceleration. While this report is primarily about social enterprise startups, there are some interesting lessons here for how we think about acceleration/capacity building for nonprofits and how we measure the effectiveness of those efforts.

  6. amplify ii, the latest report on INGOs and impact investing (look for a quote from Hugh about why the Accelerator has not launched a fund on page 60!)

  7. And finally, for those who want to geek out on some amazing data drawn from 1800 grants and 120 interviews, an amazing report on What Facilitates [Nonprofit] Financial Sustainability from the team at LINC. We will be experimenting with regular rounds of small amounts of unrestricted funding with partners in Dominican Republic this year and discussing their efforts towards financial sustainability

We look forward to speaking with, working with, sharing with many of you in 2019.