April 14, 2022

Unlocking the Bounty

By Andy Davey

Andy Davey

A few years ago, when I asked the leader of nonprofit where he turns to solve programs and get help strategizing, he said “there’s a bounty of knowledge locked up in other executive director’s heads.” The comment came during a research interview conducted in the pre-pandemic bliss of hanging out in a coffee shop and engaging in deep conversation face-to-face.

The conversation was part of a larger research effort designed to understand how nonprofits build their organizational capacity to better carry out their missions. The research was a joint project of Madison Community Foundation (MCF) and UW-Madison Extension Dane County and involved staff and board members from more than 70 local organizations. You can learn more about the project and find our full findings published in the report, Toward a Stronger Nonprofit Sector.

The questions we wanted to answer were, beyond maintaining day-to-day operations, how do organizations

  • Refine their core strategies?
  • Develop the skills and deepen the knowledge of their staff?
  • Adopt innovative new methods or technologies? Build coalitions with other organizations to bring about broader social change?

More funding is certainly part of the answer to these questions but so are crucial resources that are not always as obvious, including easy access to relevant information, outside experts and wise advisors, and vibrant professional networks.

These are the kinds of resources that help sustain a thriving nonprofit ecosystem, which is an essential pillar of our society and economy. In Wisconsin, 12% of the workforce is employed at nonprofit organizations. In Dane County there are more than 3,000 501(c)3 nonprofit public charities bringing in more than $5 billion of revenue each year to carry out their work. Moreover, the nonprofit sector is a rich font of energy and creativity for tackling critical challenges from racial opportunity gaps in education and the arts, to water pollution, to lack of affordable housing, to addressing public health crises.

Despite the size and the importance of the sector here in Dane County, my research collaborator Sharon Lezberg and I discovered that nonprofit capacity building resources are still lacking. In terms of the information and wisdom “locked up” in others’ heads, why aren’t leaders just talking to each other more?

Well, some already are, quite a bit. But these opportunities aren’t necessarily equitably available to all. As several research participants told us, networks between nonprofit leaders can sometimes be “secret” and insular and operate like exclusive “clubs.”

Nonprofits can also be wary of sharing insights with other organizations with whom they are competing for funding. Moreover, while executive directors might have relationships with their counterparts, program managers and front-line staff often have fewer if any opportunities to regularly connect and learn from their peers at other organizations.

These dynamics also can exacerbate broader inequities, especially along lines of race, including the extraction of information or community connections. As one person summed up bluntly, “Many women and men of color are being used and abused in nonprofit industries.” Fortunately, funders and educational institutions – like MCF and UW-Madison Extension Dane County – can play an important role in countering some of these problematic trends within the nonprofit ecosystem. One way is to make professional development opportunities more accessible and affordable.

This past fall, Sharon Lezberg and her colleagues at Extension launched a four-month peer learning course designed for organizations that “prioritize social, economic, and environmental justice,” with a nominal participation fee of $25. Course content was partly determined by participants’ most pressing interests, and involved considerable learning not only from each other but also from several veteran nonprofit leaders of color who visited the course.

In 2022, MCF is partnering with experienced evaluators at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research to help nonprofits evaluate their work in more meaningful and useful ways. A significant portion of this work will involve a peer learning cohorts. MCF is also learning alongside our nonprofit grantees, working to better evaluate our own work and improve our evaluation processes. You can view two recently held webinars related to this effort now on our website: Culturally Responsive and Equitable Evaluation and Theories of Action and Logic Models.

MCF is also working on building an online resource library for nonprofits that will make access to information more readily available to anyone in our community about local opportunities for professional development, hiring a consultant, foundation grants. It also will include sample fundraising materials used by nonprofits here in Dane County. More info to come about this project later this year.

While there’s much more work to be done, and fostering equitable and sustainable information sharing will be a perennial project, we’re excited to be part of helping to unlock the knowledge and wisdom of many of our talented and generous nonprofit leaders and workers.

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