Dr. Susan PhillipsBy Dr. Susan Phillips.

“Our firm prefers to support ‘boots on the ground’,” the president of a major investment firm told me in turning down our funding proposal for an expanded graduate education serving the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. While disappointed, I applauded this interest in supporting service-providing organizations.

Small, grassroots charities dedicated to causes outside the ‘mainstream’ have been hit the hardest by the steady decline in the number of donors who give modest or small amounts (ONN, 2023). In particular, B3 (Black-led, -serving and -focused) organizations historically have received a minuscule amount of philanthropic funding, as revealed by the Unfunded Report (on which the MPNL program collaborated).

The Essential Contributions to the Charity Ecosystem

In a 2023 op-ed in The Globe and Mail, Lisa Wolverton (President of the Philanthropy Workshop Canada) admonished philanthropy to change: “Charitable donations must go directly to communities. . . It’s time more donors put funds directly into the hands of local leaders, giving them crucial decision-making power.”

I agree. But, with an addendum – that may not be a popular one.

Community-based, service-providing organizations are part of a larger ecosystem or, in business language, they’re part of and depend upon a ‘supply chain’ that provides a wide range of vital inputs and supports. As with an environmental ecosystem, the charitable/social purpose one has multiple niches, each of which makes distinctive contributions. But, these niche parts of the ecosystem are often invisible to those, including donors, who don’t work in this sector. To name a few of these essential contributions:

  • Umbrella and membership organizations and communities of practice facilitate information sharing, so organizations better appreciate what works and what doesn’t, and thus, organizations don’t have to ‘reinvent wheels.’
  • Universities and colleges provide professional education and training that help local leaders and employees of community-based groups be more effective in their work and build more vibrant, sustainable organizations.
  • Infrastructure organizations, such as Imagine Canada, and advocacy groups, such as Alliance to End Homelessness, lead collective action and advocacy that help local organizations bring about social change.
  • Other infrastructure organizations and coalitions are assisting small nonprofits to navigate the digital transformation and make better use of data, leading to more efficient and effective administration and service delivery.
  • Community-serving foundations, like the Foundation for Black Communities, and place-based community foundations convene and support local leadership and inform key stakeholders about community.
  • Research projects, such as Carleton University’s Charity Insights Canada Project (CICP) and the surveys conducted by national and provincial infrastructure organizations, help community nonprofits and the broader sector understand trends that directly affect their work.

The ‘Boots on the Ground’ Need a Ground, Not to Mention an Infrastructure

Canadian philanthropy tends to overlook this supporting infrastructure or doesn’t appreciate the potential return on investment in it, and thus starves it of funding. This has negative consequences for those with ‘boots on the ground’, as they miss out on sources of professional development and leadership training, learning for innovation, and collaborative efforts for social change.

My case isn’t to divert support from community-based charities and nonprofits, particularly from those focused on causes and communities that are marginalized or historically excluded. Rather, we also need to recognize the value of and direct support to the broader infrastructure for the sector – for collective action and learning, advocacy, digital transformation, and yes, for education and research. Such funding doesn’t need to detract from that which flows to local communities but can amplify its impact.

Foundations, corporations and philanthropists making major contributions are the likely investors in this infrastructure. However, many don’t like to support advocacy, networking, research or professional education (except in medicine and business). While more foundations are indicating they support sector capacity-building, it’s often not clear what this means or how deep and advanced such work is. In many cases, the impediment is a lack of knowledge of who does what in the sector ecosystem. Enhancing this understanding may take some work by the sector and by the media who report in such limited ways about it.

While it’s not popular to seek funding for a university’s part in this ecosystem, as there are so many other immediate needs and worthwhile organizations, I’ll continue to press the case for the value of investing in education and research for the sector – as well as the case for supporting other important parts of the sector’s infrastructure.

Dr. Susan Phillips is on LinkedIn. Banner photo is courtesy of Clay Banks.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2024 in , , ,
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