Note from Beth: I’m hosting a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who are attending the GeoFunders National Conference taking place this week in Seattle. The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference shares a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers. If you’re not attending and curious what funders are learning, you’ll have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions being discussed right here on this blog.
Why Funders Need to Get Out of the Kitchen and Let the Nonprofits Cook More - Guest post by Paul Connolly
Most attention to scaling social impact has tended to focus on replicating programs to extend service delivery. During the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference session today on “What Do We Mean By Scale?,” a set of experts emphasized that other pathways must be pursued too. Sometimes just spreading a great idea or reframing a critical issue can make a big difference. Advocating for particular policies, likewise, can lead to positive systemic change. In addition, recent GEO research has revealed that the specific practices, resources, and talents that are most needed by nonprofits striving to accelerate social change vary according to developmental stage.
How can funders be most helpful in supporting these efforts? Recent TCC Group research, based on an analysis of reliable and valid organizational assessments for over 2000 nonprofit organizations nationwide, found that one of the best ways is by not meddling too much with nonprofits’ program design. A chief predictor of growth and scaling was centralized program design leadership – in other words, only letting the necessary “cooks” belong in the program development “kitchen.” Nonprofits that scale up tend to employ this sort of “R & D” approach to concoct successful program recipes and establish success measures. They keep funders outside of the kitchen by pushing back with evidence of measurable achievement. Funders can usually be most supportive by selecting the best chefs, learning about why their recipes and resulting dishes are successful, providing resources for groceries and equipment, and maybe offering – but not requiring — the use of some ingredients and knives along the way.
Too many cooks in the kitchen can indeed spoil the soup. Funders need to learn how to do a better job determining how and when to intervene in programs less. Likewise, nonprofits need to figure out how to do a better job setting some limits with grantmakers who want to interfere too much, while proactively establishing and tracking success measures. These advances would be, as Martha Stewart would say in her own kitchen, “a good thing.”
Paul Connolly is Chief Client Services Officer at TCC Group, a 34 year-old consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity building services to funders and nonprofits.