There's been a lot of attention lately to foundations promoting equity after decades of rising inequality. But one thread of this shift drawing less notice is how these funders are also giving more attention to capacity building. The Ford Foundation is the best example. When it rolled out its new inequality strategy in late 2015, it also vowed to provide more general operating support to grantees and to bring so-called "anchor organizations" to scale.
Some funders who've followed in Ford's footsteps, like the Chicago Community Trust and the Weingart Foundation, have said similar things, often after listening carefully to feedback from grantees.
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Such thinking also prevails among smaller funders operating locally. A good example of how equity and capacity building go hand in hand can be found in the recent evolution of the Mary Black Foundation, which is laser-focused on Spartanburg County in South Carolina.
A while back, we caught up with MBF's vice president of programs, Molly Talbot-Metz, to chat about its new equity focus. Back then, she told us, “An equity lens can sharpen a foundation’s focus on outcomes and can target limited resources to populations or areas with the greatest disparities. In fact, a focus on equity can increase organizational effectiveness at every stage in the grantmaking process.”
One part of the picture, here, for the Mary Black Foundation is emphasizing capacity building. In 2016, MBF invested over $2.5 million in grants and initiatives related to health and wellness in Spartanburg County. Before the recent holiday season got into full swing, the funder celebrated the organizations that it had funded throughout the year. But this wasn’t just a recognition event; it was also an opportunity to give additional grants for capacity building purposes.
Twenty-six nonprofits that MBF previously supported received additional $1,000 grants toward capacity building activities. More specifically, the new funds are meant to fund human resources, and legal and financial needs—the kind of stuff that many funders are reluctant to support, though any nonprofit leader will tell you that these functions are just as critical as the program work. All types of groups received these capacity-building grants. (A full list can be viewed here.)
To be sure, the dollar amounts here are very small. But we're struck by the symbolism of another funder acknowledging that the back office parts of nonprofit organizations really matter.
Bill Coker, chair of MBF's board of trustees put it this way: “Many local nonprofits would rather take every dime and invest it back into the community... We understand that desire and respect it, but we also know the importance of investing in nonprofit capacity so that they can continue to be strong and effective organizations.”
That kind of statement will be music to the ears of many nonprofit leaders, who've long attempted to illuminate funders on this front. Chalk up another small win in the long struggle to shift how grant dollars flow.