We Are In This Together: A Letter to Philanthropy

  • By Nonprofit Advisory Council, October 4, 2017

9 nonprofit leaders share what grantmakers can be doing to support grantees in the most meaningful ways.

We are a diverse group of nonprofit executives who have spent the last 18 months coming together to explore how philanthropy can better support nonprofits to create real change as members of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Nonprofit Advisory Council.

We appreciate the ways in which philanthropy has been shifting in recent years — toward longer-term grants, collective learning, and engaging us and the communities we serve in decision-making. The momentum is rolling in the right direction.

We are in this together — in this business of problem-solving.

And there is so much more we can do to create greater outcomes if grantmakers and nonprofits push the boundaries of what it means to partner.

What will this look like in practice?

First, it means that building healthy organizations — what is often called capacity building — becomes a core, essential and long-term investment strategy. Building the skills, leadership and infrastructure of our organizations is not incidental, but a central need, the central driver for the outcomes we seek, and one that takes real investment of resources and time.

Think you have checked that box? Think bigger. Think longer.

Some terrific models exist already. One foundation provides a four-year commitment of funding to support explicit capacity-building efforts on top of general support funding. This type of support recognizes that capacity building takes time and allows organizations to sequence capacity building work so that it is truly integrated into their work.

We envision a commitment to the long-term that builds success upon success, for example:

In the voter engagement space, funders invest deeply to get out the vote in critical races. But if there was steady support between election cycles, we could build a field with a robust infrastructure and strategies. Such an investment could result in deep, ongoing civic involvement from far greater swaths of our communities and nation — an engaged populace ready to organize, activate and participate.

We envision a sector in which we balance addressing immediate crises with long-term strategy. And we are best equipped to develop such strategies when we work together, in true relationship.

Strong and effective relationships build from the routine to the deep:


Whether to share news of staffing changes, strategy shifts, or just to check in, let’s just pick up the phone. Simple and regular communication — not just around grant deadlines or reporting time — helps us stay connected to each other’s successes, challenges, and needs.

Learning Together

One of us was recently invited by a grantmaker on an exploratory bus trip to a neighboring city to learn from their successes. Informal conversations and learning together, coupled with the valuable time spent as just regular people on a bus trip, made for real relationship-building. And the best evaluation may well be when grantees are asked to reflect deeply on lessons we are learning and how changing landscapes are influencing our work.

Strategy Partners

In a moment of many challenges, deep listening across our sector to one another would serve to mitigate perceived risks in exploring new strategies. Nonprofits could learn more from the bird’s eye view that funders bring to our work, and by the same token, funders could increase their risk tolerance by learning from the expertise of those on the ground. There may well be greater certainty than we think when we really listen to one another and gain from our collective expertise.

Crack Through Systemic Inequity

We are all working to fix broken systems, regardless of our foci as organizations. And we must recognize that part of this brokenness is in the ways that we perpetuate systemic inequity through our staffing and board composition.

Let’s go beyond talking the talk and get to walking the walk.

Our organizations will be stronger and more just if we raise up the voices and leadership of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, rural people, and others who have been marginalized in our world and in our work and create more representative, open, and welcoming environments for our employees, volunteers, clients, and program participants.

We encourage you to be bold — this is not a time for baby steps. Here are four key tactics to consider.

  • Look at longer time-horizons and define the grant period based upon the time it really takes to make change and build in long-term sustainability.
  • Make capacity building a core strategy, not an add-on.
  • Deepen open, honest grantor-grantee relationships to allow you to take risks with confidence.
  • Bring marginalized people and those impacted by your work into key leadership roles.

We are a country of abundance. We are vested partners in this business of problem-solving and change-making. Let us move forward boldly in relationship and trust — in the name of creating better solutions and making greater progress, together.

In partnership,

Sarita Gupta, Jobs with Justice

Steven McCullough, Communities in Schools

Donna Murray-Brown, Michigan Nonprofit Association

Rob Riley, Northern Forest Center

Cathy Tisdale, Camp Fire

Arturo Vargas, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials

Wes Ware, BreakOUT!

Melinda Wiggins, Student Action with Farmworkers

Mary Zanotti, Colorado Youth for a Change