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What Nonprofit Leaders Think About
Foundation Leaders

September 30, 2013


Recently, the Center for Effective Philanthropy published a study on nonprofit leader attitudes about foundation leaders. This study was based on a survey that was sent to about 300 nonprofit leaders who agreed to serve on the Center's The Grantee Voice panel. The organizations have budgets of between $100,000 and $100 million and represent all types of charitable causes.

Somewhat surprisingly, only 52 percent of nonprofit leaders believe that their foundation funders are aware of the various challenges their organizations face, less than one third of nonprofit leaders believe that foundations take advantage of their myriad resources to help them address those challenges, and only 36 percent of nonprofit leaders think that foundations share their knowledge about what other nonprofits are doing to address challenges similar to those that their organizations face.

These are somewhat incongruous findings since presumably a foundation leader would have to be aware of nonprofit challenges in order to share them with others, but nonetheless, they do point to a fundamental lack of honest and open discourse between foundation and nonprofit leaders, which in turn points to a lack of real relationships between the two groups.

This may be always thus, but one nonprofit leader suggested that foundations should take the time to learn more about what nonprofit organizations are doing and what their challenges are, and another recommended that foundations should initiate conversations about an organization's overall organizational health and ask about their challenges – not in grant applications, but during the course of their relationship.

This is something that we try to do here at the American Express Foundation. I'm a firm believer in having discussions with organizations before we put them through the rigor of completing a formal grant application. So, we typically begin the process with an on-line "eligibility quiz" and then a very short proposal that briefly spells out what the organization is seeking to do. If it's something that we believe fits within our priorities, we contact the organization and begin a dialogue about the project and how it fits within the strategies and priorities of the organization. If we all agree on an approach, then we request a formal application, which we use primarily for compliance and check processing purposes.

For organizations where we have an ongoing relationship, we try to stay in constant contact through phone calls, meetings and email. We have formed a number of "Global Partnerships" and "National Partnerships" with organizations (e.g., Center for Creative Leadership, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Points of Light Foundation, Common Purpose, World Monuments Fund), which result in ongoing discussions and collaboration on mutually executed projects.

Getting back to the Center for Effective Philanthropy's study, nonprofit leaders also said they were looking for more help in:

  • Meeting demand for their programs and services
  • Using technology to improve their effectiveness, and
  • Developing their leadership skills.

On this last point, 73 percent of nonprofit leaders feel that they lack sufficient resources and opportunities to develop their leadership skills. One nonprofit leader said:

  • "I wish we had more opportunities for training other than what is offered locally. Unfortunately, even though local training may be good we normally interact with the same trainers and other nonprofit leaders over and over and don't get new and fresh ideas. Most of us cannot afford the travel and registration expenses connected to larger out-of-region trainings."

Developing the next generation of nonprofit leaders is one of our highest priorities here at the American Express Foundation, and we have devoted tens of millions of dollars to support hundreds of projects with nonprofit organizations around the world, including American Express Leadership Academy programs in New York, Phoenix, Tokyo, Delhi and London. At last count, over 10,000 nonprofit leaders have participated in leadership development programs funded by American Express.

But, we know that this is just a drop in the bucket. Hundreds of thousands of leaders need to be trained to meet the needs of nonprofit organizations and communities worldwide, which is why we are working with a consortium of nonprofits and foundations to develop an on-line portal for leadership development programs.

We're not ready to announce the final project yet, but this dual priority of supporting face-to-face training -- which is critically important -- and more on-line professional development programs, should assist many more nonprofit leaders with the third need noted above. In the meantime, we're working with our partners to develop interim solutions -- like this campaign page created around the American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camp where social entrepreneurs can participate in virtual conversations with Ashoka's Changemakers on topics of leadership and scaling their organizations.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these needs and attitudes, and our response to them. If you have a comment or question, please click here and let us know. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there.
 

P.S. Did you know that this is my 100th posting of CSR Now!? For the past two years, you've been loyal readers and sharers of CSR Now!, and I want to thank you for your support and active participation. We would love to receive more publishable comments from you so please share your thoughts and opinions with us!

 

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