Grantmakers, We’ll Never Level the Playing Field Until We Fund Fundraising

In my role as Managing Director of Network for Good’s Jumpstart Collective Impact Program, I’m privileged to Regularly brush shoulders with our sector’s preeminent funders, all working at the forefront of progressive, next-generation grantmaking practices.

In all 50 states, from snowy Bethel, Alaska to sunny Naples, Florida, I see grantmakers hard at work seeking to level the playing field.

Have you heard this phrase before? “Level the playing field?”

If you’ve opened a newsletter, attended a conference, or listened to a nonprofit podcast in the last month, I’ll bet you’ve heard it once (or eleven times) before. It’s a necessary, past-due focus for us as grantmakers. Writing about equity, inclusion, and right-setting deeply-entrenched power imbalances between grantor and grantee rightfully dominate the headlines.

However, I feel something critical has been missing from the conversation.

First, to be clear, in driving toward our ultimate goal of equitable access to funding, we’ve been developing a solid vehicle. We’ve assembled the engine, the tires, the drivetrain, and we’ve asked the right people to come along for the ride. In other words, we’re employing tactics like asking how many people of color our nonprofits employ. We’re prioritizing meetings with marginalized communities. We’re ensuring our vendors have culture-specific competencies.

To repeat, we’re making incredible progress building the vehicle we need to drive change.

We have, however, neglected to add fuel to the gas tank.

Oh, sorry. How 2010 of me! We’ve forgotten to connect our emissions-free vehicle to the nearest EV Charging Station.

What I mean is, we fool ourselves if we do not ground our power-leveling strategies in a relentless effort to ensure each of our nonprofit partners builds the fundraising capacity they need to sustain grant funds, diversify single-source revenue streams, and raise more community-based support. If we don’t show them how to fill the tank, we can’t expect them to get anywhere for long.

To address the objection up front, yes, I have read the opinions and theories suggesting, “But Nate! There’s no such thing as nonprofit sustainability!”

But I believe this soundbite obfuscates a critically important point. There is, in fact, such thing as nonprofit stability. Pure nonprofit sustainability may be a mythical, unachievable goal. Nonprofit stability, however, is an entirely possible and necessary consideration for every grantmaker.

An organization who raises $100,000 from 500 individual donors for a particular program will be better-positioned to predictably deliver services and create impact than the organization who secures two, $50,000 grants. If you don’t believe this is the case, check your retirement portfolio. You’ll see the logic proves true. Your assets are diversified through indexed funds, not held in the common stock of two corporations.

So, for us as grantmakers, the question we’ve arrived at is this: does our power-leveling toolkit include technical fundraising assistance (a gas card)? If not, we’ll find this is among the single, greatest threats to our shared equity and inclusion goals. It hides under the camouflage of re-vamped application questions and funding priorities.

You see, if our nonprofits rely on a narrow set of equitable grantmakers for their major, general operating support, are they not still vulnerable to shifts in our board and leadership’s interests? Are they not still beholden to us, instead of the communities they serve?

While we’d like to believe that is okay (at the end of the day, we the few and brave grantors have designed our grants practices with their communities in mind, right?), if we are truly interested in doing what’s best for our nonprofits, we’ll empower each to diversify, never rely, on our funds.

I’ll give you two examples of what I mean – one to remove from and one to add to your practices.

Recently, while I was discussing the creation of a new initiative for immigrant nonprofit leaders with the staff of a prominent, West Coast foundation, one team member chimed in, “Well, we often provide challenge grants to our emerging grantees, but we don’t fund any of their requests for fundraising assistance. It’s backward, I know, but it’s just not what we do here.”

For context, this was not some foundation living in the dark ages. Their staff are card-carrying GEO and PEAK members. And yet, the staff member was essentially expressing to me, “Our leadership creates incentives to protect our assets from risk – ensuring our nonprofits raise enough money to complete the projects to which we commit funds – but we won’t actually empower them with the tools and training required to confidently raise their match.”

This is why the staff member relented, “It’s backward, I know.”

On the other hand, two of our partners through the Jumpstart Collective Impact Program, The Assisi Foundation of Memphis and Momentum Nonprofit Partners, have launched an intensive, yearlong program to equip their nonprofit leaders of color with technical fundraising assistance.

During the funding process, while reading an application from one very strong applicant who did not fit their diversity requirements, the CEO shook his head to reaffirm his commitment, “They’re a great candidate, but we have to use our privilege to uplift others – who’s the next application from?”

Where does your foundation lie on the issue of “funding fundraising?” Is it a priority? If not, why not? Are you missing an opportunity to level the playing field (for good)?


Want to learn how your foundation can create an equitable playing field for your nonprofits?

Schedule a time to meet with Nate, and learn how the Network for Good Jumpstart Collective Impact Program can help.