Earlier this month, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) held its National Conference in Minneapolis – bringing together nearly 900 foundation professionals, executives of nonprofit organizations, consultants, and other stakeholders for a stimulating and inspiring two days. The organization promoted the conference as “an event that offers participants the opportunity to explore the most relevant topics in the philanthropic field and hear new ideas for smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results.” Note the emphasis on “grow stronger and achieve better results.”
I had the privilege of attending along with four of my TCC colleagues, two of whom were leading sessions that reinforced the focus on achieving greater impact. Jared Raynor, our Director of Evaluation, demonstrated how funders can be more impactful by supporting legal advocacy; and Julie Simpson, the firm’s Director of Nonprofit Strategy and Capacity Building, shared new frameworks and tools for measuring capacity and assessing performance for organizational success.
Jared’s session highlighted the importance of funder support for legal advocacy and offered insights to some of the challenges and effective practices. The session included the premiere of a now-public video on legal advocacy, which features two cases that funders supported to immensely effective ends: “stop-and-frisk” in New York City and Medicare benefits for people with progressive illnesses.
I was struck by the conversation on ending “stop-and-frisk” practices in New York City – and the important role funders can play. The campaign that helped achieve this ruling was a strategic mix of patience and persistence – grassroots advocates held public rallies and filled the courts every day; legislative advocates pushed through supplementary policies to expand the law on discriminatory policing; and funders and nonprofits alike committed countless hours and financing to help make an impact. The key to the success of this effort – that is, having a greater impact – was the partnership between the legal services organization and the philanthropy that supported its work. While legal advocacy is often viewed as a narrow-field within the portfolio of possible philanthropic choices, GEO was the ideal venue to shed light on this strategy.
Julie’s session on measuring capacity and assessing performance was overflowing with foundation representatives, demonstrating a wide interest in the larger topic of organizational effectiveness, best accomplished through partnerships among funders, nonprofit operating organizations, and consultants. Organizational assessment tools are one resource foundations can use to engage more deeply with nonprofits. While the panel discussed some of the tools available – Universalia provides a robust search list on their Reflect & Learn website – the questions from the audience demonstrated a keen understanding that, while there are many ways to assess effectiveness and capacity, it is most important to understand the information developed and how the organization (and the funder) can learn from it.
An assessment tool calls for self-reflection, and may provide insights that are not apparent through an organization’s internal perspective. The tools can help an organization prioritize – with a key component emphasizing how best to build one’s own capacity. The success of both philanthropies and nonprofits – and all other players in the social sector – is enhanced when each organization improves both individually and in relation to the larger community, a subject which my colleagues discuss at length in our Capacity Building 3.0 piece.
The overall impression I left with, based on both the two sessions led by TCC and the numerous, well-attended sessions that occurred throughout the conference, is that both greater impact and organizational success are most effectively achieved when there is heightened collaboration among all of the actors. If you want to have a greater impact and improve society, ask yourself about the way in which you are collaborating with others. In doing so, you may very well find that legal advocacy and organizational effectiveness tools will become valuable resources for you and your organization’s mission.