Today’s funders are looking to invest in solutions NOT organizations

By Sean Herpolsheimer
WRAG’s 2018 Summer Fellow

As foundations and corporations strive to have greater impact on some of society’s most difficult challenges, their philanthropic strategies have moved along a spectrum from responsive to proactive. No longer is it sufficient for grantmakers to simply support nonprofit organizations doing good work in the community. Strategic funders are now actively scanning the social sector landscape, commissioning research, becoming placed-based and issue-area experts, and building and supporting collaborative, cross-sector solutions. In July, as part of its 2018 Nonprofit Summer Learning Series, WRAG delved into this trend and explored the idea that “today’s funders are looking to invest in solutions NOT organizations.”

Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen, started the conversation with a presentation on how his organization transformed itself from a small soup kitchen into a robust “ecosystem orchestrator.” Starting with the ambitious goal of ending chronic homelessness in our nation’s capital, Miriam’s Kitchen worked backwards to design an organization best positioned to achieve that goal. Armed with a plan and the belief that “big problems require big bets,” Scott convinced his board to spend half ($1.5M) of its reserve fund over five years to launch a robust advocacy department, hire communications, development, and evaluation staff, commission research, and more. Since implementing these changes in 2014, Miriam’s Kitchen’s budget has grown from $2.2M to over $4.5M, its staff has grown to nearly 50 team members, they now serve as an organizer and backbone for DC’s homeless services and housing organizations, they’ve helped house nearly 2,500 chronically homeless individuals, and have secured more than $100M in housing vouchers for their guests. Pretty impressive results!

Following Miriam’s Kitchen’s inspiring story, Katy Moore of WRAG facilitated a panel discussion with local funders Patricia Mathews, president and CEO of Northern Virginia Health Foundation; Sari Raskin, director of grants and community leadership at Community Foundation for Northern Virginia; and Carol Thompson Cole, president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners.

The panelists shared with us their candid insights into what nonprofits can do to enact innovative systems change, and what motivates them as funders to partner with nonprofits. Here are some of the key take-aways:

  • Identifying Solutions for Upstream Interventions

Today’s funders are looking to invest in solutions, not symptoms. “It’s not enough to keep pulling people out of the river,” said Ms. Mathews. “You have to go upstream to fix the bridge.” The nonprofits who are having the most success, securing the most funding, and creating the most buzz are those looking at upstream interventions, working collaboratively with each other and across sectors, and, in many cases, advocating for systems change. Referencing the story of Miriam’s Kitchen, panelists encouraged nonprofits to start with the goal in mind and orchestrate real solutions to the problem not just the symptoms.

  • Demonstrate Results

Funders are interested in seeing how your organization is producing results. Knowing what measurements are possible and meaningful is an important responsibility of any nonprofit. But not just to satisfy their funding partners. Measuring success is important for all of your stakeholders – individual donors and volunteers, potential partners and collaborators, board and staff members, etc. And, as business writer and strategist, Peter Drucker said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

  • Authentic Communication

All the panelists  stressed how important it was for nonprofits to have authentic and transparent conversations with their philanthropic partners. Funders have a bird’s-eye view of the community and the nonprofits and other actors working on various issues. When nonprofit leaders transparently share their organization’s goals, challenges, opportunities, and future plans, funders can be financial supporters as well as allies, connectors, capacity builders, problem solvers, and much more.

  • Advocacy and Research

We heard about the power of advocacy from Miriam’s Kitchen. Scott and his team believed that ending chronic homelessness was possible. But there wasn’t enough permanent, supportive, affordable housing to go around. So, they collaborated with others to fix the system. They worked to build momentum for the issue, educated the community and elected officials about the causes and solutions to homelessness, empowered their clients to get involved in advocacy efforts, and worked to influence policies critical in the fight to end homelessness. A major component of Miriam’s Kitchen’s advocacy strategy centered on the research they commissioned about the societal costs of chronic homelessness. In fact, all the speakers and panelists highlighted research as a major component of their community investment strategies. For example, in an effort to identify potential areas for philanthropic investment, the Northern Virginia Health Foundation commissioned the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, to create an interactive map of Northern Virginia that delves into a wide range of social and economic factors that shape residents’ health. Similarly, the Northern Virginia Community Foundation worked with the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis to create The Opportunity Index, an interactive online resource that features several key indicators of our region’s economy, community health, civic life, and educational outcomes. Ms. Raski said, “Overtime, we hope this resource will shine a light on some of the societal factors that affect why some areas in Northern Virginia have more opportunity than others.”

Over the course of WRAG’s Nonprofit Summer Learning Series events, a key theme has proven true: funders genuinely want nonprofits to succeed. Funders can’t achieve their missions without the vital work that nonprofits do every day. Despite the title of this session, funders will always invest in nonprofit organizations, supporting their programs, staff, and operations. But, to have real impact on the issues we all care about, bold visions, upstream strategies, and systems-level change are what is needed to move the needle and make our region a place where opportunity exists for everyone.  How will your organization collaborate with your funders to be bold, make big bets, and advocate for REAL change in our community?

Designed and taught by some of the Greater Washington region’s top philanthropic leaders, WRAG’s Nonprofit Summer Learning Series “pulls the curtain back on philanthropy.”

To ensure maximum participation, all of these events are offered in-person, via-live webinar, and are being recorded for later viewing. To receive the webinar recording, you must be registered for the event. Simply choose “webinar” as your online registration option.