Foundation Stories: Why We Fund Infrastructure

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Editor’s note: The following foundations not only fund infrastructure activities at a number of levels but they also make active use of it to advance their own work — and to very good effect. Foundation staff and trustees will find useful ideas here as well as excellent rationales for their own infrastructure investments.

The Barr Foundation intentionally makes full use of the resources around it as well as those within it. As a locally focused grantmaker, Barr contributes primarily to Boston area groups working in education, the environment and, to a lesser extent, in arts and culture. “The interesting thing, I think, about the Barr Foundation,” says Marion Kane, the executive director, “is the way we’re organizing ourselves to do business in a networked way. We see ourselves as an extended enterprise. We have a very small staff for the amount of work that we do so we have to see all of Boston’s intellectual capital as a potential part of our staff. We have invested in a good knowledge management system to capture what we’re learning and to share it with others. This has also given us an interest in better understanding the networks that we operate in. So our work is organized around networks, knowledge and grantmaking.”

Kane describes the networks that connect organizations to one another as “leverage points” that, at their best, aggregate a combination of wisdom and clout. Barr believes that it is important to invest in them because they can amplify the value of grants to individual organizations in numerous ways.

In addition, Barr funds intermediary groups that provide essential services to grantees. Kane cites the example of two Boston-based intermediaries that provide capacity building. One is a 15-year-old fund supported by a number of local grant-makers that provides organizational assessments, grants for technical assistance and peer learning groups among other things. The other has expertise in helping organizations develop and plan large capital projects. “We refer grantees to them because we know they have the proficiency to help them conceptualize how much debt they can really take on and what their business plan should be. These are competencies both intermediaries have built up through time so they have deep technical expertise that we don’t need to have in house. My feeling is, just like a doctor, unless you do 100 procedures a year, your skills in a particular area of technical assistance probably aren’t going to be up to speed. We don’t try to manage these supports in house but take advantage of the expertise outside the foundation.”

On a larger level, Kane sees the shape of the nonprofit infrastructure shifting to be more accessible, accurate, and tailored for the user. About the Barr Foundation’s own use of nonprofit infrastructure, Kane observes, “Our needs are more nuanced now. If I want to think about smart growth, I go to the Funders for Smart Growth meeting. If I want to find out more about management issues in nonprofits, I go to the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations meeting. The networks we build through these connectors are many and very valuable because we can choose which we want to mobilize for the resource we need at the moment.”

Finally, Kane reads the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Quarterly “as digesters of information — scanners of the horizon and to identify people to talk to more deeply.”

The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation makes grants in 12 states in the Southeast. It combines a local grassroots focus with a regional focus that is meant to strengthen local efforts and address larger systems. This leads the Babcock Foundation to fund a multiplicity of small organizations individually, as well as the networks that connect them, and the intermediaries that serve them.

On page 43 of this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, Sandra Mikush talks specifically about the local, regional, and national networks that connect and support the type of grassroots work the Babcock Foundation funds. This description gives a rich sense of how a foundation in a multi-state region can best use such external networks. But the Babcock Foundation is also active nationally. Particularly because the South tends to be underserved in the area of nonprofit capacity building, the Babcock Foundation’s practice stands out as a model. Mikush talks about where they get and give advice and information. “In the region, we often encourage fellow funders to think about capacity building and try to push the field. Nationally, we are connected to other funders interested in organizational development and capacity building through Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). We have learned a lot through that network, but still we find ourselves always seeking ways to make best practices relevant for grassroots organizations, rather than larger nonprofits. We’ve also been active in the Neighborhood Funders Group, one of the affinity groups within the Council on Foundations. Funder affinity groups and our own grantee network provide us with colleagues to stretch our thinking and push our understanding of our work.” The Babcock Foundation also belongs to the Southeastern Council on Foundations and Independent Sector.

As for how they choose the networks and intermediaries with which they work, Mikush says, “As funders, we should always pay attention to where grantees are getting support: financial, technical, advocacy, whatever; it will point us to important intermediary organizations. It only follows that if those supportive mechanisms are important to the organizations we care about locally, then the health of those supportive organizations is vital to the continued success of the groups and communities we invest in.”

An example of the Babcock Foundation’s support of infrastructure groups is the Southern Empowerment Project (SEP), based in Eastern Tennessee. According to Mikush, “over the years SEP has provided excellent training and assistance to community organizing groups on the basics: how to be a community organizer, how to be an effective leader of a community organization, and how to integrate grassroots fundraising into the work of a community organization. Since we can point to many organizations that use their training, it only makes sense that we support this level of work as well.”

The Ford Foundation — an international foundation with 12 overseas offices — supports a wide range of organizations that seek to strengthen the nonprofit sector as a whole and to help individual groups carry out their missions more effectively. Two program officers, Urvashi Vaid and Christopher Harris, focus on nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure, supporting social justice and community-based organizations at both the national and local level. Vaid and Harris emphasize that additional support for infrastructure is integrated into much of Ford’s work in particular issue areas. “We invest significantly in capacity building for the groups we fund,” says Vaid, who manages the U.S. Civil Society Program at Ford. “Strategies we have used include general support grants, specific investments in development, media and fiscal capacity, support for strategic planning, and the funding of intermediaries to provide support to a wide and diverse range of nonprofits.”

At the national level, the Ford Foundation funds:

  • Independent Sector and the Council on Foundations, membership groups that work with policy makers and the media to advocate for the sector and to serve as sounding boards for its wide-ranging and changing needs.
  • The National Council of Nonprofit Associations, an association of 38 state-level organizations in 36 states that serves associations of nonprofit organizations and their members, providing technical assistance on nonprofit management, group rates on equipment purchases, research, advocacy support, and more.
  • GuideStar, a Web-based database that provides public access to IRS Form 990s and makes it easy to access the financial and governance records of nonprofits, thereby increasing nonprofit transparency and accountability.
  • The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which serves as a watchdog and conscience for the philanthropic sector.
  • The Alliance for Justice, which advises nonprofit organizations and foundation staff on the laws regulating advocacy and has developed training modules and Web capacities to reach grassroots groups in cities and states across the country.
  •  BoardSource, which works to strengthen nonprofit board governance and accountability, produces publications on board development, and provides conference call-based technical assistance.
  •, which has initiated an innovative human resources training conference to strengthen the ability of social change organizations to manage and support their employees.
  • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and other networks and philanthropic affinity groups that play an important role in helping funders share knowledge about the sector and collaborate effectively.

“We see infrastructure as central. It’s the plumbing, the grid, the underlying architecture that powers the work of nonprofits,” says Christopher Harris, who manages the program in philanthropy, “Philanthropy in general significantly underestimates the importance of this kind of core funding.”

In the face of a wide range of infrastructure needs, Harris has made it a priority to support community and regional foundations that seek to address social, economic, and racial injustice. Similarly, Urvashi Vaid focuses her grant making on strengthening the capacity of social justice networks and regional centers devoted to meeting the needs of groups working for human rights and equity. One grant, for example, provides core support to the National Organizers Alliance, which seeks to build the field of community organizing and offers a low-cost pension fund to organizers. ACORN and the Interfaith Education Fund have received grants to strengthen training within their networks of community organizers. And regional organizations, like the Western States Center and the Southern Organizing Cooperative receive Ford funding to work with a range of community groups on organizational and programmatic development.

Larry Kressley, executive director of the Public Welfare Foundation, believes the best way to promote good organizations is to give general support and let the people who know what needs to be done have the resources to do it. “This,” he says, “is consistent with what our founder Charles Marsh said in 1947 when he started the foundation. He felt that the foundation should identify people who know what to do to solve a problem particularly in their own communities — but lacked the financial resources to do it.”

On a secondary basis, the Public Welfare Foundation is also interested in supporting regional or national groups that provide infrastructure support to those grassroots groups that are the Foundation’s primary interest. These include national organizations like the Center for Community Change, which works with community groups on a broad range of issues including affordable housing and welfare reform, and regional organizations like the Highlander Center, which provides technical assistance to many of the Foundation’s grantees throughout Appalachia and the deep south.

“In every category of our funding,” says Kressley, “there are examples of infrastructure groups we’ve identified mainly through working with community-based organizations and asking them what groups have been useful to them.”

The Public Welfare Foundation has taken the unusual step of committing to making an annual grant to each of six national and regional infrastructure groups. The most recent of these grants is to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), which plays a watchdog role with respect to foundations. “Our support of NCRP is about being a good foundation citizen,” says Kressley. “The Foundation may not always agree with NCRP’s positions on issues but the board feels it is important to have a strong, independent monitor looking at the practices of philanthropy.”

The Foundation also supports, through its annual contributions, the Alston Bannerman Fellowship, which provides sabbaticals for organizers in communities of color and the National Organizers Alliance for its pension fund for staff of community-based organizations.

“The idea of putting some grants on an annual contribution list” observes Kressley, “is a step beyond multiyear grants when you clearly know what the organization does and recognize the importance of that role over time. We know what the pension fund at the National Organizers Alliance does. We know what NCRP does. We know the work of the groups we support will be stronger because of what those organizations do.”

The Skoll Foundation has an international portfolio of grants focused on social entrepreneurship and the building of a healthy civil society. Because the foundation is organized around promoting innovation, Sally Osberg, the foundation’s president and CEO, talks easily about what is needed to undergird progress in a field of endeavor. “Among other things,” Osberg says, “you need groups that create an enabling environment for those working in the field, and groups that gather, analyze, and disseminate information. This is how those out in the field can stay at the horizon, at the leading edge where innovation happens. You don’t always know ahead of time what that will look like, however.”

Osberg points to GuideStar as a good example of a much-needed innovation to make the activities of nonprofits more transparent to donors and other interested parties. “I don’t think anyone anticipated that the information contained there about foundations would be picked up in the way it has been by reporters. The existence of that database in accessible form has driven a whole wave of public scrutiny of foundations, which in turn, I believe, has already caused some seismic upheavals that are still playing out. But the basic tools that are used to promote candor and rigor will drive positive change in accountability for the whole sector. It provides the basis for a healthy regulatory environment.”

Osberg takes this point a step further, commenting, “The last thing we should be doing is looking at this increased scrutiny as a cause for rear-guard action. We should be putting energy into working through important questions raised and seeing the greater awareness of our work — positive and negative — as a beacon for the world to pay more attention to the importance of this sector overall. The intensity of our efforts is a great tribute to the role already played by various infrastructure organizations in the past decade.

“It’s also very important to have intermediaries that promote a laboratory-type environment among nonprofits in each field of endeavor. Intermediaries play a role here because they support individual nonprofits to conduct intentional and well-informed experimentation. They can help whole fields progress quickly by posing hypotheses about what they believe will work on a particular problem, to test those hypotheses, and then to do intentional sharing of results.” Osberg believes that there is a growing spirit of collaboration among nonprofits that has as its foundation an urge for the “leveraging of good to great work.”

Skoll supports a number of infrastructure organizations, with some of its largest commitments focused on international innovators such as Ashoka, GlobalGiving, and the Acumen Fund, all of which Osberg characterizes as “high-leverage experiments that are building new knowledge for the field.” The foundation’s other infrastructure investments are not as large in size, but are also important. “We are not a large foundation,” says Osberg, “but we do believe that small, well-placed investments can lead to significant social change. In the case of the national infrastructure for nonprofits, we need other foundations of all types to join us in making these kinds of investments to make sure that the sector as a whole continues to develop at a strong pace.”