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.
- Idealist.org, 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 Cooper