HSF has committed to amplifying community voices and is very happy to be partnering with some wonderful thought leaders on this series of pieces addressing the need to shift the narrative of scarcity in the human service sector. It is a great honor to have Cesar Del Valle kick the series off. HSF began working with Cesar as part of an initiative to bring the Catchafire platform to Western MA through funder collaboration. He has become a tremendous resource and a valued partner.
Funding Models Aren’t Progressing as Quickly as Our Values
By Cesar Del Valle, Director of Global Partnerships at Candid
How do you feel when someone says, energetically but with indignation — “We must do something about climate change!” Reading about climate disasters throughout the years, reading about ocean acidification, desertification, deforestation, and the extreme effects of global warming, one can grow numb with the sense of powerlessness, barely being able to grasp the enormity of the problem, while struggling with the reality that many of us face — “What can I do to change something so colossal?”
Far too often I’ve come across nonprofits that feel the same sense of hopelessness when it comes to changing the institution of philanthropy and the deeply ingrained systems of inequity that have long been endemic to the sector.
Let us be truthful with ourselves: single-year programmatic grants are donor-centric. Yes, they are the lifeblood for many organizations but they are also constricting operating freedom and stifling innovation, while minimizing the ability to build multi-year strategies and focus on long-term impact and systems change.
The notion of scarcity is pervasive throughout the non-profit sector. We’ve long labeled it frugality, or even worse — effectiveness. We must come to terms with the unequal balance of power in the funder/grantee relationship. This is a fear-based dynamic where grantees are too concerned about losing funding to advocate for change.
Traditional funding models require nonprofits to meet specific goals as a cost of entry and focus on funding specific programs with set outcomes. This narrow model creates barriers to entry, especially for communities of color, and creates a system of scarcity by underfunding critical operating costs and creating needless competition rather than cooperation within already marginalized groups. This model ultimately exacerbates inequality within the sector and leads to frustrated and demoralized organizations and staff.
And then, in the blink of an eye, at the beginning of 2020, seemingly everything changes. Without minimizing the devastating effects of the pandemic, the losses we’ve had to endure, the pain we still carry, we saw rays of hope shine bright in the sector. Many foundations responded and rose to the moment by modifying programmatic grants to general operating, by decreasing reporting demands, increasing annual giving beyond the traditional 5%, and in so doing empowering organizations, extending them trust, and if at least for a moment letting go of power and choosing to have faith in organizational leadership.
As an early response to the pandemic, dozens of funders signed a pledge spearheaded by the Ford Foundation, committing to more flexible funding given the immediacy of the crises. Post emergency, post disaster, and as we gaze into 2022, how can we continue to extend nonprofits’ agency and invest in a manner that enables rather than constricts?
I have long admired the work of The Whitman Institute and the investments they have made in creating a necessary movement centering equity at the heart of grantmaking strategies through Trust Based Philanthropy. It is no surprise that TBP strongly advocates for multi-year unrestricted funding. Nevertheless, we recognize that many funders operate within institutions with set processes and protocols that may limit their ability to provide unrestricted grants. So then, what else can be done?
As a sector we should be:
- Elevating the voice of the community and extending a seat at the decision making table through models such as Participatory Grantmaking. Who better to decide where impact dollars should be directed than the community itself. With the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, we have seen the balance of power shifting and greater community participation in decisions around allocation of impact dollars. If the types of grants awarded can’t be modified, we should at minimum focus on improving the decision making structure.
- Investing in and supporting nonprofit collectives and membership organizations as they play a critical role in building community and providing support structures, especially during times of crisis. Nonprofit collectives not only provide a space for community, but are also able to advocate for policy changes whose benefits trickle down beyond their members. Collectives ensure the weight of systems change does not fall solely on individual leaders or individual organizations. I’ve seen first hand the convening power of the Human Service Forum and the ability to bring together nonprofit leaders alongside the Secretary of Health and Human Services, legislators, and senators in order to foster dialogue, elevate local needs, and collectively advocate for change.
- Moving beyond solely providing prescriptive nonprofit capacity building support through trainings and workshops. We should seek to provide responsive, nonprofit-centric, multilayered support as best illustrated in frameworks such as — Transformational Capacity Building through resources and programs such as Catchafire that provide over 150 unique capacity building projects, complement direct trainings and workshops, and ensure that nonprofits have maximum agency to decide what work they deem most critical and necessary.
These are just a few models gaining momentum in the sector today. How do we ensure that this is not just momentary but the beginning of long lasting change? Having had the privilege of working with nonprofits everyday at Catchafire, far too often I have heard the sentiment — “If the work we are doing is valued, why does it feel like I am crawling for every dollar?” We must work to end this scarcity mentality, to recognize the exhaustion that comes with frontline work, and to challenge previously established beliefs.
What would it take from the sector to have organizations and leaders feel the same level of conviction in advocating for themselves as they do when they are advocating for their community and constituents? Let us rethink, reconsider, and reimagine a structure whereby the process of grantmaking is community and nonprofit driven.
What other models are you employing that shift power? What else can we do as a sector to invest in equity-centered models and designs? Please share your thoughts by reaching out to us at email@example.com, we’re eager to learn from you all, and collectively move towards a more just and prosperous society.
This blog is part of a series published by HSF exploring the state of philanthropy and the social good sector.
Cesar Del Valle is the Director of Global Partnerships at Candid and was previously the Senior Director of Partnerships & Community Engagement at Catchafire.