Building Capacity During a Time of Disruption – guest post by Heather McLeod Grant, Adene Sacks, & Kate Wilkinson
Let’s face it: being a nonprofit leader is hard. And in the past year, it has only gotten harder. The current political administration and U.S. Congress are undermining decades of the sector’s work on immigration; women, minority and LGBTQ rights; the environment; and the social contract with government—among other issues. Recent federal spending cuts, paired with a tax bill that may de-incentivize giving, only add further uncertainty to the mix.
Eager to understand how nonprofits are faring in this challenging environment, we recently interviewed a number of diverse leaders about their capacity-building needs. Funded by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, our research was recently published in “The New Normal: Capacity Building During a Time of Disruption.” What we learned—among other things—is that “wellbeing” has become a new capacity.
Why? Many nonprofit leaders and organizations are literally under attack in this political environment. In our interviews, we heard stories of physical attacks on clinics, on individuals being served, and on staff. Cyber-security threats have increased, as opponents leverage hacking and social media to harass, terrorize, and even shut down nonprofits. As a result, leaders are needing to keep their staff and communities safe, which increases the complexity and cost of their work, and creates greater stress. “Staff is doing work to address the attacks, AND they are targets of the attacks,” said one interviewee. “Our need to support the wellness of staff has increased drastically in this time.” This includes creating opportunities for staff to unwind, practicing mindfulness, developing sabbatical programs, and planning for succession as more staff burn out.
In addition to facing these attacks, many nonprofits are seeing a rising demand for their services and are scrambling to secure revenue in the face of impending budget cuts. Larger nonprofits like the ACLU face the opposite challenge, as they grapple with how to absorb donations driven by political headlines and aspire to step into a larger role on behalf of under-resourced communities. Meanwhile, existing gaps within the sector have grown, including: the unequal distribution of resources between large and small nonprofits, the chasm between the skills leaders possess and the ones they want to develop, and the disconnect between what funders provide and what nonprofits actually need.
Welcome to the new normal. Social change leaders are tasked with doing what they have always done and collaborating more readily, while under threat, and at the current speed of change. As one leader put it, “Since the election, people need to work harder and more efficiently. There’s no more ebb and flow in the work—it’s a constant flow. It’s taking a toll on people, and some may not be able to keep up.” This has important implications for how the sector thinks about building social change capacity, now and in the future. Indeed, the sector’s current approach to “capacity building” needs an overhaul. Even the outdated term is insufficient to describe the broad range of needs across the diversity of individuals, organizations, and networks working in the sector today.
As if these challenges weren’t enough, many of the nonprofits we interviewed shared that they don’t feel well supported by their funders. To them, institutional philanthropy seems calibrated for an era that no longer exists, and foundations seem largely insulated from the disruption facing the sector. Universally, we heard social-change leaders wanting funders to understand their realities, struggle alongside them, and trust them enough to make multi-year, unrestricted operating grants. As one leader said bluntly, “The foundation world is out of touch and too slow. Their ways of doing business and the ways that organizations are supported by foundations are archaic. Funders need to listen and follow local groups to understand what the community needs.”
If there is good news, it’s that the old social change model is breaking down, and we now have a chance to invent a new one. We think this begins with social sector leaders adopting a “both/and” mindset and navigating the following tensions. These leaders must:
Be responsive and strategic. The lines between “strategy” and “capacity building” are blurring, if not outright disintegrating. Social change leaders need more-flexible strategies, adaptive leadership, organizational wellness, unrestricted funding, and short-term feedback loops that enable them to react to a rapidly shifting environment and assess whether they are gaining traction.
Build internal and external capacity. The traditional notion of capacity building is sequential: Strengthen organizations, then catalyze networks and movements. But in a moment when organization building often follows collective action (as with #MeToo or Black Lives Matter) social-change leaders don’t have the luxury of thinking this way. They must invest in capacity at different levels of systems, and they must also build the resilience and capacity of their staff.
Think systemically and act proximately. Social change leaders need to continue to think and act at different altitudes: They must see the systems of which they are a part and understand their role, while simultaneously staying proximate to needs on the ground. And funders should recognize that nonprofits are closest to the end-user and have important knowledge and wisdom to share.
Funders must also embrace these “both/and” tenets and make a commensurate shift in their own work; they should be as nimble and adaptive as they are asking their grantees to be. Critically, they must get over the overhead myth, and fund the full cost of social change by giving nonprofits what they are most desperate for: flexible, long-term capital. As one interviewee said, “Multi-year, unrestricted, general operating support is what nonprofits need most. It’s so obvious, especially in a moment like this.” Many leaders and funders are already on this path, and we highlight several examples in our report.
Regardless of where you work in our sector, we believe this is a moment of both crisis and opportunity. The “crisis” is about protecting the values, people, and priorities that our sector holds dear. The “opportunity” is about addressing the inequities and dysfunctions in an outdated system and innovating to create a better model going forward. As one interviewee asked, “This moment has only accelerated the work and added urgency. How do we match the bigness of this moment with the bigness of our strategy?”
Heather McLeod Grant is the cofounder of Open Impact, a social impact advising firm, who has 25 years of experience working with social change leaders. She is coauthor of the bestselling Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, and numerous other reports and articles.
Adene Sacks is a senior advisor to Open Impact, and a social impact strategist with decades of experience advising entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and foundations on how networks, design, and strategy can amplify social change efforts.
Kate Wilkinson is an engagement manager at Open Impact, has spent 15 years working in nonprofits and philanthropy, and recently led the research team for The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy.