The Nonprofit-Funder Marriage: A Committment to Scaling Impact Together

“Scale”—it’s a buzzword that appears often in funder and nonprofit circles these days. Grantmakers and nonprofits both want to improve lives and create stronger communities, and the ability to scale impact is an important component of this goal. However, there has been little concrete knowledge sharing of the precise types of funder practices and partnerships that are actually effective for scaling the impact of high-performing nonprofits.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has been exploring this question through the Scaling What Worksinitiative, as well as through research, case studies, and conversations with our members and their grantees. Many of GEO’s early findings suggest that a number of the grantmaker practices that support successful impact scaling are those same practices that GEO has long advocated as a way to better support nonprofit results: more general operating support, multiyear grants, and stakeholder engagement.

At this week’s Social Impact Exchange Symposium, Nicole Farmer Hurd from the National College Advising Corps, Lisa Jackson from New Profit Inc., and Meghan Duffy, Manager of Special Initiatives at GEO, tackled this very topic.

Hurd is the founder and Executive Director of the National College Advising Corps, a nonprofit that places recent college graduates into underserved high schools to work with low-income and first generation college students to help increase the rate of college attendance in those areas. Hurd has grown the initiative from its infancy in 2004 to a program that now serves over 100,000 students in 14 states across the country.

Jackson is a Lead Partner for the Pathways Fund at New Profit Inc., a national venture philanthropy fund that seeks to use innovation and entrepreneurship to solve the most pressing problems facing society. As a member of New Profit, she is constantly searching for ways to scale and increase the impact of high performing programs. At this year’s Symposium, both women shared what they had learned from their partnership with one another.

One lesson that Jackson and Hurd both emphasized was the importance of planning to successfully scale impact. To that end, NCAC used funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a business plan before beginning the scaling process. This helped Hurd to identify the demographic areas where NCAC would be most effective, but perhaps even more importantly, the business plan continues to help Hurd determine where NCAC does not belong, and keeps the organization from drifting off mission or wasting resources. Hurdcalled this process “getting the MBA I never got.”

Another extremely important piece of the conversation was the creation of open communication between grantees and funders. For Jackson, honest communication is essential to success, and is built into New Profit’s model. New Profit works in close coordination with the grantees in its portfolio, and expects its grantees to engage with New Profit in creating and maintaining a strong connection. “When an applicant says, I want to be a New Profit grantee,” Jackson said, “I ask them, ‘do you want to get married?’” New Profit does not seek to control the scaling process, but instead acts as a “thought partner” for their grantees. By serving as a consistent source of support and guidance, New Profit is always aware of where a grantee is in the scaling process, and can tailor their support according to those specific needs.

Hurd added that an important piece of this relationship is New Profit’s non-punitive approach to evaluations. This approach has created a learning relationship, built trust, and helped New Profit and NCAC to more accurately assess where they have succeeded, and where they have fallen short. All of these components allow them to quickly shift strategies when needed, and to move forward more effectively.

Thanks to all the participants for a great Symposium!

Emily Wexler is Project Specialist, Scaling What Works at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.