Strengthening nonprofits’ ability to adapt and thrive

team members during a brainstorming session

Recent years have seen an intensification of pressures for the nonprofit sector — from the global pandemic, to threats to democratic values, to increased demands for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. These challenges disproportionately affect organizations serving marginalized communities and have led to widespread staff burnout and a labor shortage crisis. In addition, the power imbalance between funders and grantees continues to further complicate effective collaboration and make it more difficult for nonprofits to invest in themselves and build strong, resilient organizations.  

The Hewlett Foundation’s, Organizational Effectiveness (OE) program, established in 2004, aims to support organizations navigating these challenges. The OE program, which is part of Hewlett’s Effective Philanthropy Group, offers supplemental funding to existing grantees for a wide array of organizational strengthening needs. Some of these areas include diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, strategic planning, communications, and wellness. Over 18 years, $76 million in OE grants have been awarded to 847 grantees, with strategic planning historically being the most requested support. However, recent years have seen a shift, with DEI grants now the most requested project type, comprising a third of all OE grants. Recognizing the changing dynamics, the foundation underwent a strategy refresh to better align with the sector’s current realities.

Our strategic refresh began by conducting a landscape scan to gain insights into sector trends, challenges, and promising practices. The findings in the scan underscored the slow evolution of funding practices, with a lack of flexible, multiyear support hindering organizational strengthening. The scan also revealed gaps in access to high quality consultants, with an oversupply in certain regions and technical areas. However, organizations faced shortages when seeking culturally competent consultants with expertise working with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations and in rural areas. Promising practices, such as grantee wellness programs, emerged as responses to the challenging conditions nonprofits are navigating. 

The next step in our refresh was to conduct an external evaluation where we sought input and feedback on the OE program from the perspective of grantees, consultants, and Hewlett program staff. While grantees overall indicated that they value OE support, the evaluation revealed that disparities exist, with survey respondents of color less likely to request or receive OE grants. Our evaluation highlighted the need for addressing power dynamics and implicit biases in grantee selection criteria.  

In response to the evolving nature of the nonprofit sector and insights from the landscape scan and evaluation, we affirmed our ultimate goal is to strengthen grantees’ ability to adapt and thrive so that they can better achieve their missions. Alongside Hewlett’s primary funding, OE support will help organizations invest in their people, culture, systems, and planning, so they will be more resilient in times of change and better-positioned to support their communities. 

The revised strategy aligns with four guiding values: advancing equity, addressing power dynamics, centering people, and embracing a culture of learning and adaptation. Acknowledging challenges, including the need for collaboration with partners and funders, navigating power dynamics, and working within internal budget and staffing constraints, we aim for our OE approach to be intentional, strategic, and equitable. 

We have identified four intermediate goals:

  1. Expanded Access: Increasing the number of grantees with access to OE support, diversifying support types, and reaching a broader range of organizations, including those who have not had access previously.
  2. Grantee Empowerment: Facilitating grantees’ ability to identify their needs and choose suitable methods for addressing them.
  3. Increased Program Staff Capacity: Enhancing program staff capabilities in making informed and equitable decisions regarding OE support.
  4. Sector-wide Impact: Collaborating with other funders to promote the value of and allocate more resources for strengthening nonprofit organizations.

In addition to regular OE grantmaking, we are piloting new approaches to test their effectiveness that we hope will help advance our goals and grantees’ priorities, including offering coaches and trainings as well as grants dedicated to wellness 

 A learning and evaluation plan will guide ongoing data collection and assess the effectiveness of our revised OE strategy. Learning questions will be used to monitor progress, and periodic assessments will provide insights for real-time adaptation. 

In a world grappling with multifaceted challenges, nonprofits stand as essential agents of positive change. By fostering collaboration, innovation, and a continuous learning mindset, we seek to not only strengthen our grantees but also catalyze a broader shift in the philanthropic sector. As nonprofits navigate the complex terrain of social change, Hewlett stands as a partner, ready to adapt, learn, and evolve in service of a more resilient and impactful nonprofit sector. 

We are grateful to our grantees, colleagues, and all the partners who are embarking with us on these renewed efforts to further organizational strengthening and ensure nonprofits have the resources they need to help people, communities, and the planet thrive. 

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