Evolving Your Organization to Sustain and Deepen Impact: Why a Clear Business Model is Important

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The events of the of the last several years—a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, administration changes and new legislation as a result—have had a dramatic influence on what nonprofits do and how they do it. In our 2020 Stanford Social Innovation Review article Three Things Nonprofits Should Prioritize in the Wake of COVID-19, we offered advice to leaders as they faced immediate concerns about sustaining their work. Four years later, we are seeing an uptick in nonprofit organizations wanting to explore what sustainability will look like going forward, leveraging the lessons learned from the pivots they made during the last few years of uncertainty and responding to recent shifts in the contexts in which they are working.  

For many nonprofit leaders the impact they want to have is clear, but the path to getting there is keeping them up at night. In some cases, leaders are now seeing new opportunities, and in other cases they are seeing issues that need to be addressed. Here are a few examples:  

  • A nonprofit with a fee-for-service model has seen a shift in buyers’ willingness to pay for what it has to offer. During the pandemic, the organization had an opportunity to secure significant philanthropic funding to support its work, but leaders are concerned that this funding isn’t sustainable. Leaders are wondering what the sustainable model is going forward and how they can leverage the best of what both revenue streams have to offer.  
  • Another organization experimented with virtual programming during the pandemic. Not only did this allow them to continue vital programming, it also inspired thinking about opportunities to reach new audiences. Leaders are wondering how the organization could deliver both in-person and virtual programming going forward and what revenue model would sustain these programs.  
  • A third organization doubled down on its racial equity commitment after the killing of George Floyd. With renewed energy around this commitment, the organization is rethinking its priority audiences, what their needs are, what they want, and how to deliver and sustain that.  

The questions these organizations are asking are all business model questions.  

What’s a business model anyway?  

In the nonprofit sector, we’re all familiar with strategic planning. Strategic planning often focuses on helping an organization clarify what it is trying to achieve—its purpose and goals. Sometimes, however, strategic planning stops short and doesn’t get to the business model that is needed to support the strategy. The business model is about how the organization works and sustains itself financially to achieve the impact it aspires to. The business model is a series of strategic choices about what an organization will deliver, to whom, and how it will create value or impact. As seen in the diagram below, it starts with being clear about the people you want to serve, what their aspirations and needs are, and designing programs, products or services that will meet those needs and/or help them achieve their aspirations. After an organization has answered these questions, it’s important to clarify the resources, structures and processes that will be needed to deliver, what they will cost, and what will drive revenue, whether contributed, earned, or a combination of both. (If you are considering earned revenue (ex., fee for services, product sales, or membership dues) as part of your business model, read our field guide for more recommendations on developing earned revenue strategies.) 

Tips for Evolving Your Business Model 

We want to offer a few tips we’ve learned from our work helping organizations navigate these moments of evolution, and in some cases, reinvention of their business models. The first step is to recognize if your business model might need to change. Is there an opportunity that you want to capture that will require shifting an aspect of your business model? Or, are you experiencing a pain point that needs to be addressed? If you decide change is needed, here are three tips: 

  1. Make sure you know what your current model is. Consider taking the business model diagram and writing down what is happening today. What is your value proposition? What are the key resources, structures and processes that are critical to your delivery of value or impact? What are the costs of these, and how will you fund these costs? (For more guidance on assessing financial health, visit Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Financial Self-Assessment.) 
  2. Alignment is key. Once you decide upon change to one aspect of the model, discuss what other aspects of the model need to change to bring everything into alignment. For example, if you decide to pursue new sources of revenue, you may need to also develop new resources, structures, or processes.
  3. Be intentional about managing the change. Start by having a compelling vision or explanation for why an aspect of your business model needs to change and identify champions inside the organization who can help you make that change. Create an action plan, outlining key milestones on the path to change, immediate next steps, and owners and deadlines for each step. Make sure you have someone who is monitoring the action plan to track progress and troubleshoot when challenges arise.  

As nonprofits evolve to stay resilient and deepen impact amid an ever-changing environment, checking in on the organization’s business model is important. If you have aspirations to evolve your nonprofit’s business model and want to explore how we might be able to help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Community Wealth Partners by emailing me at acelep(at)communitywealth.com.  

Bridging Differences to Advance Equity: Three Lessons Community Foundations Are Learning About Engaging Donors and Community

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This post originally appeared on Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ blog. View the original post here

An exciting evolution is happening among community foundations in the United States.

While community foundations have always existed to support local donors who want to give back to their community, many are now exploring how they can leverage their unique strengths to contribute to transformational change in their communities. CFLeads’ Igniting the Future of Community Foundations survey found that 98 percent of community foundations plan to deepen or expand their community leadership. Most of these foundations are also centering racial equity in their work out of recognition that, in most communities, race is the biggest driver of disparity on a range of issues that impact residents’ and communities’ ability to thrive.

Since 2020, Community Wealth Partners has facilitated peer learning cohorts for community foundations working to advance racial equity and direct more resources to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving nonprofits. (This work was made possible through funding from Fidelity Charitable Trustees Initiative.) Through these cohorts we were able to work with 18 community foundations, located all over the country, and ranging in size from less than $300,000 to more than $1 billion in assets. While these foundations had differences in terms of size, geography, and grantmaking priorities, some common themes emerged from these cohorts.

Many of these foundations are centering racial equity in their organizations’ strategies, and, as a result, are prioritizing engaging in new ways with donors and community to advance these strategies. For the most part, foundations in the cohorts were looking to deepen relationships with communities and nonprofits that historically had not had access to resources from the foundation—especially those organizations that are most proximate to the challenges the foundation seeks to address. At the same time, these foundations have also been experimenting with communicating a stronger point of view with donors. For example, foundations were educating donors about systemic inequities in their communities, having explicit conversations about racial disparities, and inviting donors to support discretionary funds aligned with the foundation’s strategic priorities.

Working in these ways requires community foundations to bridge differences in lived experience and perspective. Some foundations have had to stretch themselves to build trusting relationships with nonprofits and community leaders that perhaps the foundation has not supported before. At the same time, they are having conversations with donors that are different from how they’ve engaged donors in the past. While the community foundations we worked with would say they still have a lot to learn about how they can bridge differences to advance equity, through experimentation and iteration, some lessons are emerging. Here are three of them.

Lesson 1: Leverage and deepen relationships and trust.

As Rev. Jennifer Bailey of Faith Matters Network has said, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust, and social change happens at the speed of relationships.” Community foundations are finding ways to leverage their unique position to build relationships and bridge divides between donors and organizations working closest to the issues in communities, with the goal being donors, nonprofits, and the community foundation working toward a shared vision of a thriving community with equitable outcomes for residents. Doing this requires time and patience.

On the donor side, some community foundations are trying to engage donors differently to share a point of view about outcomes the foundation is working toward and opportunities for donors to support this vision. To do this, they are finding personal connections with donors to be an effective strategy. While mass communications and learning and networking opportunities are important tools for donor engagement, community foundations we’ve worked with are finding that one-on-one conversations are what makes a difference in helping donors understand the foundation’s goals and priorities and having a meaningful influence on donors’ giving.

“We’re working to leverage the trust in the donor services team that our donors have to create better connections and get to more robust giving,” said Lindsay Aroesty, vice president of development and donor services at the Pittsburgh Foundation. “We are trying to make more of a connection between what we’re funding through our discretionary grants and how aligning with those priorities is a value-add for donors. This speaks to the need for our donor services team to be able to communicate about the foundation’s grantmaking priorities effectively.”

On the nonprofit side, some community foundations are taking a closer look at their own history of funding and working to rectify disparities to ensure organizations closest to the issues have access to foundation resources. Reaching a more diverse range of nonprofits has required community foundations to do intentional outreach and relationship building.

One way the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia (CFNOVA) is doing this is by promoting grant opportunities to area chambers of commerce that represent diverse cultural and ethnic communities, such as the Northern Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

CFNOVA also has created a tiered funding model for one fund, offering different sized grants to organizations depending on the size of their organizational budget. This allows organizations of similar size to be reviewed and vetted alongside one another rather than alongside organizations with widely different budgets. The foundation also has leaned into its convening role to host events featuring regional data and providing opportunities for diverse stakeholders from government, private, and nonprofit sectors to come together.

“We have recognized that community leadership on part of the foundation is essential, and we are striving to provide as many entry points as possible, with the goal of creating a community that works for everyone,” said Sari Raskin, vice president of grants and community leadership.

Lesson 2: Words matter—use language that offers “grace and space.”

Community foundations have relationships with a broad swath of the community, representing diversity in identities, lived experiences, and understanding of historical drivers and current data showing inequities that exist in communities and how racial justice strategies can lead to better outcomes for all residents. “When we’re talking about why racial equity matters to us, we have to assess where people may be and what they don’t understand and give them grace and space to engage in dialogue with us,” said Judy McBride, director of strategic partnership investments at Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

In Texas, Communities Foundation of Texas has worked to stay the course living their diversity, equity, and inclusion values, charting toward a community that thrives for all. Dr. Reo Pruiett, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the foundation, says a helpful strategy has been staying focused on the issues community stakeholders and partners have an interest in—which in North Texas has been education, health, and economic workforce opportunities.

“I try to enter these conversations from my background as an educator and principal,” Dr. Pruiett said. “Healthy communities have education, health and safety, and economic workforce opportunities as their center of focus. Concentrating on these points has helped open doors with people who may be wary of language sometimes categorized as polarizing or politicized, and it’s also enabled me to further listen and learn what continues to be top of mind for the community.”

The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham learned similar lessons when they surveyed their donors and hired Frameworks Institute to offer guidance on language and messaging. Recommendations from Frameworks Institute included 1) lead with the shared values and principles of the community, 2) clearly define “equity” for your audience, 3) use stories to show local solutions to challenges and the impact of those solutions. (See more guidance from Frameworks Institute in their report Navigating Cultural Mindsets of Race and Place in the United States.)

“Words have power, and the context in which they are used matters,” said Christopher Nanni, president and CEO. “We have learned that the language we use and the audiences that receive them can determine how the message is received. We know that we need to be thoughtful in how we frame our communications around these challenging issues so that people will be open to hearing and not be alienated. It is not about watering down the message, but, rather, being more strategic in communicating the message so that it is actually received. We are learning to talk about equity-related issues in a way that distinct audiences can understand so that we can move forward together in unity as opposed to feeding into an already divisive environment.”

Some community foundations are leaning into their role as a connector and working to bridge differences in experience and perspective. The Community Foundation of Northern Virginia names community resilience as one of its strategic priorities. This includes supporting and encouraging civic engagement and helping residents bridge what divides them with civil conversations and dialogue.

The foundation recently launched a book circle, inviting donors and other members of the community to read and discuss Monica Guzmán’s book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

“Our belief is that a resilient community is a connected one, and we saw Guzmán’s book as a unique formula for civic healing,” said Gabrielle Webster, director of donor relations. “The book is challenging readers to be curious and build or maintain relationships. Over the course of the year, we were able to engage more than 425 readers in conversations across the region and learn how they were using the text in their homes, workplaces, places of worship, and beyond to enrich our collective understanding and dialogue.”

Lesson 3: Create more bridges internally between donor services and programs.

As community foundations center racial equity in their strategies and work to engage donors in their vision for a more just and equitable community, it is important for programs and donor services teams to be working in alignment. Some community foundations have recognized the need to break down silos that have been occurring across these parts of the foundation — each side focused on a unique segment of the community and with their own goals — to bring greater alignment.

“Silos between donors services and program teams aren’t going to work if the goal is racial justice,” said Aroesty of the Pittsburgh Foundation. “You need to leverage the foundation’s reputational and social capital across all areas of its work.”

One way the Pittsburgh Foundation has worked to bring stronger alignment across the donor services and program teams is through joint visioning sessions. For example, the donor services team invited members of the program team to offer advice and coaching as to how the foundation might reimagine donor events to align with the foundation’s new strategic framework and focus on racial justice.

Leaning Into Community Foundations’ Role as Bridge Builder

As community foundations work for more just and equitable communities, many are bringing more intention to their relationships, communications, and internal ways of working. For community foundations interested into leveraging their role to build bridges across differences in the community, here are some things to try.

  • Invest time in relationship building with donors with donors and nonprofits. Community foundations hold a unique opportunity to unite a community around a shared vision.
  • Create a vision for the future that will attract broad support by focusing on the issues that everyone cares about. This could include things like quality education, access to jobs and affordable housing, and the health and safety of residents.
  • Find ways to bring alignment across teams in the foundation. Possibilities include co-creating strategies and plans, cross-team peer coaching and support, or joint learning opportunities.

Using Movement-Building Strategies and Tools to Cast a Wider Net

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As education networks work to advance educational equity, many are recognizing a need to reach broader and more particular audiences. For example, NCSM is working to have a more racially diverse network and leadership to support high-quality, equitable mathematics teaching and learning. Similarly, as Benjamin Banneker Association (BBA) works to improve math outcomes for Black students, the network is working to attract more white members that effectively teach Black students. 

Efforts to center equity and inclusion have become more challenging for some educators recently, as issues and language akin to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” have become increasingly politicized. Some state legislatures have gone so far as to suggest and require removal of language (like the words gay and equity), goals (for example – teaching about the realities of slavery in the U.S.), and instruction related to equity (ex. how women and People of Color are having distinct experiences) from public education materials.

Despite these challenges, and given this urgent context, there are definitive opportunities for education networks working to advance equity to invite more and different people to join their campaigns for increased equity. Strategies and tools from social movements can help, and members of the K-12 education networks cohort learned some strategies and tools in a session with Trina Olson and Alfonso Wenker of Team Dynamics.

“Movements aren’t simply showing up for an action, they are about the long-haul work of moving people closer to living their values in a particular way,” Wenker said. “If we’re interested in broader equity in the education space, we have to be thinking together about what movements are, and specifically what are the values that motivate us?”

Logic and data alone are not enough to motivate people. Research shows that messages that lead with values are more effective. (Learn more about this in the resources below.)

“We know that identity and education have been politicized,” Olson said. “One of the things that takes the most discipline is to not get sucked into the frame of the people that are organizing on an opposing side. It’s neither strategic nor helpful. Instead of fighting their message, you need to have your own message that’s more effective.”

BBA is working to spread a message that their network is for “people who have a passion for math education for Black students.” “This can include classroom teachers, coaches, people in higher education, corporate members, or vendors,” said Shelly Jones, board president. “Most of our members are Black, but we want people to understand that this is for whoever is interested in supporting education for Black students.”   

As networks think of possible frames to craft their own message and invitation, research shows one frame that resonates with many in this moment is the notion of interdependence and collectivity. This has not always been a frame that would motivate many. As the image below shows, there have been different frames which have ebbed and flowed in popular opinion over time.

In 1969, “rights” was polling as the number one issue people cared about. During this time, the civil rights movement and women’s rights movement made significant gains, and the gay rights movement was born. On just about any social issue, “rights” were a frame that garnered support.

By the mid-1970s, “rights” were no longer polling as a compelling frame. Instead, a frame of individualism was getting growing support. By the early 2000s, a frame of interdependence and collectivity started to gain popularity, and we are in a moment where this frame is continuing to rise.

For leaders and organizations working to support a movement for education equity, there is an opportunity to lead and be consistent with frames of interconnection, interdependence and belonging.

NCSM has historically been a network of mathematics directors that work with math teachers. As the organization works to grow and diversify its membership and leadership to include more people of color, they are working to redefine what math leadership can look like so that a broader range of practitioners might feel both a sense of their leadership potential in mathematics education and a sense of belonging in this network.

“Our members include curriculum directors, instructional coaches, administrators, and classroom teachers,” said Katey Arrington, board president at NCSM. “They’re all leaders if they’re influencing what happens in math instruction in some way, whether it be at the school level or district level.”

By helping math practitioners reimagine what a “math leader” could be, NCSM is working to foster connection and belonging among a wider network than they were previously.

Try This

As you think about ways to attract broader, different, and deeper participation in your network, try this path to begin to craft a values-centered invitation to join your movement.

  1. What is the first time you remember showing up for justice, whether it be at a rally, in support of a campaign, or an action you took individually? What value felt under threat that motivated you to show up? (Examples include safety, respect, choice)
  2. Think about your work and the invitation you want to offer. What value or values might motivate people to join you?
  3. Now think about who you are trying to motivate. How might their perspective and life experience be different from yours? How might that influence what motivates them? Does that spark a different idea about values that might motivate people different than you to join this movement? What words might you use to bring along people who aren’t with you yet, but could be?
  4. Now that you’ve refined which value(s) you want to lead with, experiment with crafting values-based messages that might motivate people to join you.

Additional Resources

These resources offer more guidance, frameworks, and tools for understanding social movements and using language that can attract more people to your cause:

Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community

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Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community 

Many nonprofits and foundations are recognizing the importance of centering the voices of those closest to the issues as a key factor in designing programs and strategies that are likely to succeed. Being able to authentically engage these voices requires a level of trust between the organization and the community it serves, and some organizations have found they have work to do to build or regain trust with the community.  

We recently spoke with a group of leaders from nonprofits and foundations who shared their lessons learned in building trusting relationships with community for authentic engagement. Here are four lessons that emerged from the conversation.  

Be honest and reflective about your organization’s past, repair harm where necessary. Community members may be leery about requests for input or co-creation because they’ve seen similar requests in the past that didn’t lead to meaningful change. It is important to understand and acknowledge ways your organization has broken trust in the past and take steps to proactively rebuild trust in ways that center what the community wants. This will take time and will likely require a different way of engaging. 

Some organizations have found the need to start with some internal work to be able to engage with humility and authenticity for community. Deputizing one or a few people from an organization to engage with community is not enough. Authentic engagement will require buy-in from leadership, a culture that values and supports this type of engagement, and structures and processes that allow the organization to respond to what you are hearing from community. 

Be clear and honest about where input is wanted, how it will be used, and what other factors must be considered. A common tension that, if not managed well, can end up damaging trust is the tension between wanting to be open to community input and also having to work within some real parameters about what is possible. Sometimes organizations don’t communicate those parameters upfront, and this can cause community members to feel their input wasn’t valued or heard. Clarify and decisions that have been made and are not up for discussion so community members can offer ideas that can work within those parameters. (For example, the budget you have to work with, the goal the effort must support, the population(s) you are prioritizing, etc.) Be clear and specific about how decisions will be made.   

Lean on partners when you can. You may not yet have relationships with members of the community your organization serves, but you may have grantees or partners that do. Consider ways you can leverage their relationships, knowledge, and skills. These partners may be able to convene community members, help with or lead facilitation, or offer insights they’ve already gathered from the community to inform your work. These partners could also serve as “critical friends”, offering feedback on ways your organization might engage with authenticity and humility to build trusting relationships with community members in the future.  

Be intentional about follow up. We’ve likely all had experiences where we’ve been asked for input and then wondered what ever happened with that input. This is another common practice that can damage trust. Make a plan for how and when you will circle back to the community once you’ve engaged them. Some leaders we spoke with also recognized the need to make a plan for how the organization will maintain relationships after an initiative is over. For example, if you’ve built relationships with a group of individuals through a strategic planning process, what can you do keep those individuals connected and engaged after the process concludes?  

Read more insights and examples about building relationships with community for authentic engagement in our field guide, Sharing Power with Communities 

Telling a Different Story of Impact

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Many of the partners we work with share our commitment to racial equity. Together, we are working toward a vision of justice that we may not see in our lifetime. Given that, how can we know if we are making meaningful progress toward the goal?

We had the pleasure of discussing these questions with funders in a session at GEO’s 2023 Learning Conference in the spring. Some funders are working to build relationships with and invest in BIPOC-led organizations as one way to help correct historic, systemic inequities in funding, and this is encouraging. Yet we also have seen some resistance to changing funding practices due to concerns around how to know whether new approaches are having the desired impact. Specifically, we see some funders struggle to give the types of support BIPOC leaders say matters most—such as unrestricted funding and multiyear support—because they have concerns about measuring and communicating impact. We also see funding preference given to organizations that have capacity and resources to measure and tell the story of their impact—which can perpetuate inequities in funding.

Understanding the progress, we are making toward dismantling inequitable systems in pursuit of racial equity will require different ways of thinking about impact. Below are three tools that offer alternate approaches to understanding the impact of long-term, complex work.

A tool to help understand the impact of narrative change. Advancing racial equity often requires changing hearts and minds. Narratives are commonly held ideas about individuals and society. Measuring Narrative Change is intended to help practitioners identify key outcomes and indicators relevant to various aspects of narrative change work and offer tools, frameworks, and resources.

A tool to help assess the strength of relationships. Social change work is relational. Measuring Love on the Journey to Justice makes the case for why focusing on love in social justice work matters and offers four interconnected dimensions of emergent, transformative, catalytic love to help guide change leaders in their relationships with themselves, with others, and with community.

A tool to help assess shifts in power. Achieving equity will require shifting power and resources to people who have historically been kept farthest from power and resources. Evaluating Power Building makes the case that power building has long been overlooked by the evaluation sector and offers considerations on ways to assess power-building efforts.

Strengthening Relationships Through a Community of Practice

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How can a diverse range of organizations—each serving unique communities and each with its own goals and priorities—come together to push for systemic change? And how do these organizations align around a shared purpose and commitment to equity?

Since 2020, Community Wealth Partners has designed and facilitated the Healthy Food Community of Practice, a community of more than 50 national and regional organizations coming together for relationship building, learning, and collective action centered around a goal of helping to ensure that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) and communities kept furthest from power, can access and consume healthy food.

In a recent podcast interview with Collective Impact Forum, Carolina Ramirez and Kaylyn Williams of Community Wealth Partners and Taylor Thompson of Intertribal Agriculture Council share about the genesis and evolution of the Healthy Food Community of Practice and elements that have contributed to its success so far.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about how the community focused on building relationships as a foundation for collective action, how participants leaned into discomfort to align a diverse group of organizations around equity, and the community’s decision to shift resources directly to BIPOC communities through participatory grantmaking.

Listen here:

To learn more about the design and facilitation of the Healthy Food Community, read this blog post.


Secrets to Success in Engaging Broad, Diverse Stakeholders for Transformational Change: Insights from the Healthy Food Community of Practice

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The Healthy Food Community of Practice is a space for connection, learning, resource sharing, and action with a goal: help people experiencing food insecurity — particularly those facing systemic barriers — access and consume healthy foods. The community, funded by the Walmart Foundation and facilitated by Community Wealth Partners, is made up of nearly 50 organizations across the country focused on healthy food access and consumption. Community members come from various parts of the food system and represent diverse experience and perspectives, ranging from program delivery to benefits enrollment to policy analysis to nutrition education to community activism.  

The community kicked off in 2020, just before the start of the COVID pandemic, In the midst of stay-at-home orders, increased need in communities, and shifts in how food was safely distributed, the community of practice provided a space of connection and support for members.   

Over the past two years, community members have built relationships, taken some collective action, and begun to align around a shared vision of an equitable and just food system that is rooted in community. While we still have a long way to go to achieve that vision, we are seeing some encouraging signs of progress. Reflecting on our experiences, we see four factors that helped create the conditions for collective action across this large, diverse group.  

  • Flexibility in the Community’s Design 
  • Time and Space for Building Relationships 
  • Distributed Power and Decentralized Decision-Making 
  • Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working

Below we share more about how the community incorporated each of these factors and some recommendations to consider. 

Allow for Flexibility and Emergence in the Community’s Design
From the beginning, the community of practice has prioritized being responsive to participating organizations’ needs, and flexibility has been critical for making that happen. In fact, the Walmart Foundation decided to fund a community of practice based on feedback from grantees expressing their desire to connect with peers, share best practices and learn from each other. To ensure the community had flexibility in its design, the Foundation offered guidance and counsel as the funder, but left the shaping of the vision, purpose and design up to the community members.   

The community began with a planning phase that engaged community members in co-creating the design and theory of change. In 2020, when the country was simultaneously responding to the COVID pandemic and going through a racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we had to quickly make some adjustments to respond to immediate needs. We canceled plans for bringing participants together in person and redesigned for a fully virtual engagement. We created space for participants to come together on emerging issues such as making benefits enrollment more accessible and prioritizing racial equity in the work. Later, when the White House announced its 2022 conference on hunger, nutrition, and health, we pulled together a convening to amplify the voices of those with lived experience of hunger to help ensure those voices helped inform the White House strategy. Now, at the two-year mark, we are revisiting our vision, purpose, and outcomes with the community to align around the change we are hoping to see and how this community can help create that change. 

In addition to having the flexibility to pivot in response to emerging opportunities and needs, the Healthy Food Community also allows for flexibility for each participant’s engagement. The community is a large diverse group, and we have worked to create a space that allows individuals to contribute in different ways to help us be able to leverage the unique strengths and perspectives of each participant while also staying relevant to their needs. There are opportunities for active engagement in the community—such as serving a term on the advisory council, participating in innovation pods, and helping craft new knowledge and content. Participants who are more actively engaged report making new relationships via the community that are helpful to their work and forming partnerships to advance common goals. Some participants participate in the community primarily for learning and professional development. For these participants, the value in the community is learning what other organizations are doing to address common challenges and taking new insights back to their organizations. 

Provide Ample Time and Space for Building Relationships
A common mistake we have seen in other collaborative efforts is an expectation to move quickly to action and results. Collective action that has meaningful impact cannot happen without a strong foundation of trusting relationships. The Healthy Food Community has prioritized giving space for relationships to develop.  

A key ingredient for building trusting relationships—especially in a virtual space—has been helping participants be able to bring their full, authentic selves into the space. Recognizing the stress of working on food access and nutrition during the pandemic, we focused on the wellness of participants in addition to focusing on the work at hand. We introduced somatic practices into Zoom meetings, such as breathing and mindfulness exercises. We facilitated learning sessions on topics connected to well-being such as rest and healing. We also set clear expectations for how participants show up in the space by co-crafting partnership principles. The partnership principles address things such as how community members navigate conflict and address harm when it happens. The progress we have made to build trusting relationships has laid the groundwork for collective action the group has taken.  

Providing Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working
Engaging a broad group of diverse perspectives is important for achieving transformational change, and yet, that diversity can sometimes make it difficult for participants to find common ground and ways to move forward together. One way the Healthy Food Community addressed this was by forming “innovation pods”—small groups focused on discrete topics to engage participants on issues most relevant to them. Innovation pods have formed and disbanded as needs from the community have emerged. We have eight active innovation pods now on topics including supporting tribal communities, intergenerational food access, nutrition education, and improving benefits access.  The collective action these pods have taken have helped the community achieve some “quick wins” and build momentum for further action. Accomplishments of the innovation pods include developing a proposed community nutrition education framework, crafting guidance for organizations that want to partner with tribal communities, and gathering data to better understand the impact of the pandemic on nutrition assistance programs 

Another way the community has offered opportunity to try new ways of working has been through participatory grantmaking, where community members have come together to make collective funding decisions for grants that support the community’s vision in ways that center community and promote collaboration across organizations. One example of a grant made through the process is a partnership between the National Council on Aging and the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. After participating in participatory grantmaking through the healthy food community, some members are considering how their own organizations might use a similar process.  

Distribute Power and Decentralize Decision Making
Some collaborative efforts default to a “hub and spoke” structure where a backbone or intermediary ends up as the primary holder of decisions, communications, and relationships. While this structure often makes sense for the sake of simplicity and efficiency, the limitation is that this limits the ability to tap the power and potential of all participants. 

We have worked to distribute power and decentralize decision making in the healthy food community through a variety of ways. For example, the community is led by an advisory council of members that serve on a rotating basis. The advisory council often serves as thought partners and a sounding board after we have gotten input from the full community on things like annual priorities or group values and norms. Advisory council members serve for six months and receive a stipend in recognition of the extra time they are contributing. Another example is the innovation pods, described above, that allow small groups to make progress on areas of common interest. We also have delegated decision-making to the full community at times, through activities such as participatory grantmaking, and aligning on the community’s purpose and vision going forward.  

While we’ve made some good progress in distributing power and decision-making, we’ve encountered challenges as well. A large group of diverse stakeholders are not going to agree on everything all the time (or maybe ever!). We have learned it is important to set clear processes for how decisions will be made, as well as what will happen if the group does not reach consensus. For example, in our participatory grantmaking process, each organization in the community is allowed to vote on how the funds will be spent. If the vote results in or near a tie between two grant applications, the advisory council holds final decision-making power.  

Recommendations to Consider
Based on the experience of the Healthy Food Community so far, we offer some recommendations to funders and intermediaries that want to create the conditions for collective action across a broad, diverse group of stakeholders.  

  • Stay flexible and responsive to members’ needs. Members of the community or collaborative know best what will work in their context, and their needs may shift as the context changes. While it is certainly helpful for a funder or intermediary to hold a vision for what the collaborative could achieve to help bring people together in the beginning, it is important to hold that vision somewhat lightly and be open to evolving it based on what you hear from members. 
  • Allow time and space for building trusting relationships. Stephen Covey said “change happens at the speed of trust”, and building trust across broad, diverse groups takes intention and time. Consider how your effort is designed to build relationships and trust. Pay special attention to the experiences of the members that hold the least power and privilege in the group. Be patient, and avoid unreasonable expectations around how quickly the group should get to collective action and outcomes.  
  • Right-size and customize the experience for members. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work for a broad, diverse group, and could miss opportunities to tap individual members’ abilities to contribute. Consider how you might offer customized experiences so that each participant is able to contribute what they can and are getting the value they seek in return. Look for opportunities for “quick wins” to help build momentum for larger-scale success. Create opportunities for learning and trying new ways of working.  
  • Shift power to the community. Strive for your collaborative effort to look like a “network” rather than a “hub and spoke”. Decentralize power and decision-making and consider structures that allow individuals to step in and out of leadership roles.  

FAQs on Racial Equity and Intersectionality

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Racial equity is core to social change. Throughout our nation’s history, racial bias, discrimination, and oppression have been baked into policies, practices, and decisions of systems, organizations, and individuals. This has resulted in wide disparities on social outcomes ranging from education to health to economic well-being, with race being the biggest predictor of disparity. Having the impact we hope to have requires us and our partners to center racial equity in our work.

Doing so will better position us to advance other forms of equity as well. In our work with partners, we often get questions about prioritizing racial equity and how that intersects with other forms of equity. Below are responses to some frequently asked questions and additional resources.


If we center racial equity, are we leaving out marginalized groups that are not people of color?

No, and here’s why:

  • Racial equity does not mean investing only in communities of color; it focuses on dismantling the systems and policies that disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC).
  • Racial equity centers those experiencing the greatest disparities but does not exclude other groups pushed to the margins because systems that disproportionately impact BIPOC communities also impact other communities the system oppresses.
  • Dismantling these systems primarily benefits those experiencing the greatest systemic disparities — BIPOC communities — but will also benefit other communities experiencing these disparities: people living in poverty, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and others.
  • Our focus must be intersectional — we cannot separate race, class, and other identifiers that the system uses to oppress; we must fight for holistic justice to dismantle the whole system for the benefit of all groups oppressed by it.


How does a focus on racial equity bring better outcomes for all?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the curb-cut effect, the example of how making sidewalks accessible for people in wheelchairs benefited everyone — from people pushing strollers, to people pushing carts or wheeling luggage, to skateboarders. Similarly, focusing on racial equity brings better outcomes for all. Here are a few examples from Government Alliance on Racial Equity that illustrate how focusing on BIPOC communities in specific issue areas bring better outcomes for all.

  • Education: “Although there are a disproportionate number of youth of color who do not graduate from high school, there are many white students as well. We have seen strategies that work for youth of color also work better for white youth, a truly systemic approach.”
  • Legal: “Disproportions in the criminal justice system are devastating for communities of color, most specifically African-American men, but are financially destructive and unsustainable for all of us. Dramatically reducing incarceration and recidivism rates and re-investing funds in education can work to our collective benefit.”
  • Voting: “When voting was/is constrained for Black and brown voters, low-income white voters are also likely to be excluded. During the period of poll taxes and literacy tests, more eligible whites were prohibited from voting than Blacks.”


Why does racial equity matter in predominantly white communities?

Systemic racism is embedded in all our systems — education, health, justice, to name a few. Those systems were designed to produce unequal results. Even in predominantly white communities, race is the difference that makes the most difference across a range of different outcomes. And, as described above, systemic injustices that impact BIPOC communities impact other communities experiencing systemic disparities as well. When we do not address race, we are not getting at the root of the problems in our systems, and the same problems continue for all.


Additional Resources





Redesigning Capacity Building: How Philanthropy Must Support Leaders of Color

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This article was originally published in Nonprofit Quarterly. View it here

Over the years, in our roles as staff at Community Wealth Partners, we’ve spoken and worked with hundreds of Black, Indigenous, and other BIPOC nonprofit leaders. They’ve consistently told us that current capacity-building approaches often miss the mark—or worse, contribute to inequities in the sector.

But they’ve also shown us what it looks like—and what impact is possible—when they get the capacity-building support they need. Below, we share their insights, alongside direct quotes from focus groups and interviews we’ve facilitated on behalf of funders who want to support BIPOC-led organizations.

National data reinforce the urgent need to shift capacity-building practice. A 2022 Nonprofit Finance Fund survey shows that compared to BIPOC-led nonprofits, white-led nonprofits received more unrestricted funds (15 percent more), more federal funding (14 percent), and more corporate funding (13 percent more). Meanwhile, more BIPOC leaders bring lived experience representative of the communities they serve than white leaders (39 percent more). Although funders are increasingly trying to support these nonprofits and deepen their own focus on racial equity, a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey shows that one third of interviewed nonprofit leaders said funder actions on racial equity didn’t match their rhetoric.

It’s time to act. It’s time to adopt capacity-building approaches that leaders of color say will actually help. Below are three basic principles to guide these efforts.

Principle 1: There’s no one right way for nonprofits to be effective. Capacity building is about supporting nonprofits to choose and invest in how they want to change. 

Listen to what people say their needs are. —Nonprofit Leader

Traditional capacity building often prioritizes a narrow vision of what an effective nonprofit looks like. In an NPQ article from 2019, Sarah EchoHawk emphasizes this issue in relation to Native nonprofits, arguing that forcing nonprofits to adhere to preconceived standards of success turns capacity building into a colonialist practice. As Kathleen Enright, the former head of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, observed years ago, that vision often rewards nonprofits “most skilled at navigating the thicket of hurdles, requirements and processes put in place by philanthropy,” which disadvantages smaller, BIPOC-led organizations.

This traditional approach is reinforced by white dominant cultural norms of perfectionism (e.g., focusing on perceived inadequacies) and paternalism (e.g., assessing and defining the “weaknesses” for capacity-building support). For example, traditional capacity assessments tend to focus on deficits and reinforce the assumption that an organization needs to be strong in all areas. This assumption isn’t always realistic or helpful. There are alternative ways to think about assessments as tools that lift up different perspectives from internal and external stakeholders and help guide conversation within a nonprofit about where they want to focus their time.

Capacity building should be about resourcing nonprofits so they have the time, networks, and skills they need so they can focus on delivering their mission.

When we conduct capacity assessments, we guard against assessments becoming a punitive tool in a few ways, with the aim of designing them to provide grounding for helpful discussions with funders and nonprofits about opportunities to provide meaningful support. First, the results for individual organizations are shared only with the organizations themselves; funders see aggregate data but not individual reports. Second, we encourage nonprofits to view the assessment and the results as a tool for conversation. The findings can help illuminate where there might be differences in perspective about an organization’s strengths and challenges as well as the types of capacity support that could be most helpful. They are not intended to dictate where an organization focuses its capacity-building efforts. Many nonprofits have shared that the assessments have been a helpful tool for conversations with staff and board and have helped them make decisions about where to invest in strengthening capacity.

The bottom line is, nuance, not a one-size-fits-all approach, is required in supporting nonprofit capacity. Sometimes, the most valuable thing for a nonprofit might be building their current strengths while finding ways to outsource or collaborate around areas of need. Capacity building should be about resourcing nonprofits so they have the time, networks, and skills they need so they can focus on delivering their mission.

Principle 2: Capacity is built through unrestricted funding paired with long-term, tailored supports.

Stop inviting me to trainings. Most of the time we can do the training better. I hear that a lot of leaders go to trainings only because they are tied to funding. Give investments to Black and Brown leaders and trust them. —Nonprofit Leader

First and foremost, capacity is built through unrestricted funding. When organizations have full power to decide how to spend funds, they can invest in their priorities. There’s also data showing the power of pairing unrestricted grants with designated capacity-building grants.

When it comes to how you support designated capacity-building opportunities, one-off trainings certainly have their place but should not be the primary way to strengthen capacity. Instead, capacity-building opportunities need to be sustained over the long term. BIPOC leaders also point to the value of relationship building (connecting with and learning from peers) and individualized support (such as coaching or programs tailored to the needs of a subset of grantees).

The Southern Reconstruction Fund provides what they have coined as restorative capital to organizations and leaders that are transforming their communities, thereby helping strengthen the resilience of the American South. As the fund’s website says, “Traditional philanthropy starts and stops. Restorative Capital walks alongside communities as they rise to health, wealth, and prosperity.” The fund makes philanthropic and equity-based investments in communities of color as they decide for themselves the goals they will pursue and the mix of financial mechanisms (philanthropic grants, program-related investments, loans, etc.) that will best help them achieve their goals.

For too long philanthropy has rewarded those amongst us who tell the worst stories about our communities the best. We have to realize that Black communities in the South do not have a human capital problem, but we do have a capitalization problem,” said Dr. Dorian O. Burton, managing partner and CEO of the Fund. “These racialized barriers to capital are a result of centuries of racist behaviors and bad policies that continue to be extractive and exclude Black communities from markets, investment, and self-determined community wealth and health. Philanthropy makes decisions about communities often absent this historical context and frames communities as ‘problems’ or having problems that need to be solved.”

Principle 3: Capacity building requires change not only at the individual and organizational level, but also in the ecosystem as a whole.

There is a notion that capacity building needs to happen for people and organizations, but I personally don’t like the term. I would prefer to use “cultural transformation.” If we’re talking about supporting organizations and individuals, we have to think about how we are going to change the systems that have oppressed us. —Nonprofit Leader

Current capacity building often focuses on individuals and organizations as the units of change. Those are critical, yet we know sustainable change relies on the strength of an ecosystem. Capacity building that focuses only on individuals and organizations fails to address the broader ecosystem of funders, service providers, community groups, movement leaders, government, businesses, networks, and groups not formalized into 501c3s.

In Southeast Michigan, a network of local partners came together to create a new definition of capacity building—one that emphasizes the connectivity between individuals and organizations in the nonprofit sector and that also recognizes the racial, social, and economic barriers nonprofits face. In 2019, these partners came together to launch a hub for nonprofits called Co.act Detroit. Co.act’s mission is to accelerate collaborative action among nonprofits and community organizations in Southeast Michigan. The hub works to leverage capacity supports that already exist and fill the gaps that remain so that nonprofits have access to a broad range of services to support their capacity. Since its launch, Co.act has become an essential resource for nonprofits, a trusted partner to intermediaries and a convener of cross-sector partners. Through equitable grantmaking, collaborative networks and expanding nonprofit access to innovative resources Co.act Detroit is addressing systemic barriers that impeded nonprofit success and equitable outcomes for communities.

The ability to help strengthen the collective capacity of organizations within an ecosystem relies on having access to intermediary organizations with the knowledge, skills, and capacity to provide the services organizations need. When the Kresge Foundation designed a program to help develop leadership capacity through a racial equity lens among its grantees, the program included an explicit focus on the intermediary organizations that provide leadership development services to nonprofits. In addition to providing funding, training, and peer support to grantees, Kresge’s Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program also provides funding and peer support to a set of service providers. Investing in the capacity of these providers has led to outcomes such as 1) increased effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery, 2) strengthened capacity of capacity builders, and 3) greater collaboration and coordination among service providers.

“Being in work that is fee-for-service or grant dependent means that you’re often isolated,” said Jessica Vazquez Torres of Crossroads Antiracism and Training. “The FUEL program provided a place of collaboration, learning, and camaraderie across a set of shared commitments to notions of equity from organizations that normally would compete with each other for the same RFPs or who would be passing each other because we exist in this parallel world.”

Funders’ actions can also impact the strength of an ecosystem. One way that funders can contribute to a strong nonprofit ecosystem is by convening grantees to learn from and support one another. In capacity-building cohorts we have facilitated, time and again grantees find tremendous value in being able to connect with and learn from their peers. Busy nonprofit leaders don’t always have the time to prioritize networking, and the structures and supports funders provide for peer connection are often appreciated.

In addition to fostering connection among grantees, funders can connect and coordinate with one another to help strengthen the ecosystem. Coming together to share strategies and plans can illuminate which areas in an ecosystem are well supported and where there are gaps. Being aware of one another’s timelines and processes might surface opportunities to streamline grant application and reporting requirements, thereby minimizing the fundraising burden on grantees so they have more time to focus on their missions.

What Can Philanthropy Do?

The philanthropic sector is awash with recommendations for practice. At Community Wealth Partners, we have created our own resources including an equitable capacity building field guide and a set of five recommendations for leadership programs.

How might foundations shift their capacity-building practices? It starts with a willingness to shift power.

But fundamentally, there is no data problem. Most people in the field know what should be done. Even so, debate continues on whether to trust nonprofits with unrestricted funding—or wait until smaller organizations are “ready.”

The results are evident: leaders burn out, harmful public policies continue to become law, and inequities are deepening. A sea change in philanthropic practice is overdue.

How might foundations shift their capacity-building practices? It starts with a willingness to shift power. Philanthropic leaders can begin to shift power by asking the nonprofits they support what they think and then changing practice to match what the nonprofits they survey say they need.

Of course, it is not enough for philanthropy to survey nonprofits. Foundations should also survey themselves. Here are three sets of starter questions:

  • What level of investment is our foundation making in nonprofits’ capacity? Is that sufficient for the outcomes they hope to achieve? Is the level of investment equitable between our white-led and BIPOC-led grantees?
  • How else is our foundation supporting BIPOC-led organizations? In what ways are we providing helpful support to them? How might our funding practices present barriers to BIPOC-led organizations? What changes should we consider?
  • Do grantees receive multi-year, unrestricted funding? If no, why not? If yes, what share of our grants budget does this represent, and is that enough? What justifications are used to provide restricted support rather than unrestricted?

A New Way Forward

What’s possible when you fund and trust BIPOC leaders and capacity builders to do their work the ways they know it needs to be done?

 —Nonprofit Leader

If philanthropy wants to contribute to thriving, equitable communities, there need to be changes in who receives funding and how funding flows.

BIPOC-led organizations are more likely to be proximate to the communities they serve and have deep, trusting relationships with community members. As a result, they’re more likely to be able to drive change in communities and should receive more support from funders.

Nonprofits pushing for long-term, systemic changes need long-term, flexible support. Offer multiyear, unrestricted grants. Funders must support opportunities for connection, peer support, and collaboration. And, most importantly, they must give nonprofits the type of support they say they need.

Carla Taylor, Megan Coolidge, and Lauri Valerio are vice president, senior consultant, and affiliate consultant, respectively at Community Wealth Partners. Collectively, they have worked with dozens of funders to design and deliver capacity-building programs for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. The authors are grateful to Maria A. Fernandez for review and feedback on this article.

Q&A: Kresge REED partners share the power in holding space for rest, healing, collective learning

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This blog post was originally published on the Kresge Foundation’s website and describes work Community Wealth Partners facilitated with grantees working in community development, arts, and culture. Read the original post here. Images created by Brandon Black of Drawnversation

For six months throughout 2022, a group of more than 50 nonprofit representatives and grantee partners working in community development, arts and culture came together to learn, dream, heal and be in community with one another. In the process, they created a space grounded in joy, liberation, rest and healing.

In the Q&A below, a few members of the group – also known as The Kresge Foundation’s Racial Equity Exploration and Discovery (REED) community – share tips to help funders create learning spaces ripe for this kind of engagement.

The REED community was first convened in late 2020 by Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program to connect leaders of community development and arts and culture organizations. Together they exchanged ideas about ways to advance racial justice, identifying new practices to adopt and the systems support their organizations need to thrive.

“These groups harness the creativity and imaginative power of artists and residents to envision and build a more inclusive future,” said Michelle Johnson, senior program officer with Kresge’s Arts and Culture Program. “Lessons learned from their work can be of use to everyone who seeks a more equitable, prosperous and healthy America.”

What did you most appreciate about the space that was created through REED?

  • “I really appreciated this learning series. Particularly during these collectively turbulent and uncertain times, not only is holding space for rest and healing needed – it is a revolutionary act.”
  • “What I appreciated about the space was that I realized that I was not alone. I wanted to just be angry about how artists of color have been treated and I didn’t feel there was anything that I could do to change the systemic racism in my country.  But we were not allowed to languish in that helplessness.  The focus on joy and personal health took a while for me to embrace, but when I did it was liberating.  I also grew to enjoy reading the objectives each time we gathered because I began to ponder what those objectives truly met.  I now use that process in my class because my students need to see where they are in the process. I have a new appreciation and joy for the persons I have met and hopefully will meet them again in person.”
  • “I most appreciated having an opportunity to hear from my peers in the field – the learnings + validation I receive is inspiring and grounding. I get a lot of ideas from folks across the country that include perspectives I would not necessarily get from my region of the country.”
  • “I appreciated the intentionality in planning the sessions, the topics and the follow-up emails with additional resources. I also appreciated the compensation to participate in the sessions.”
  • “[The spaces created through REED were] such a welcomed change for how professionals can meet and gather. It invited me to reimagine how online meetings can feel and ways to make connections with like-minded individuals and organizations.”

What from REED would you recommend to other funders in the field who are doing other similar convenings or capacity-support efforts?

  • “I would recommend providing stipends to participants and facilitators, asking for recommendations for speakers from grantees, and including participants in shaping the content for each session.”
  • “I would recommend Reed – I think communication has been great, the stipends have been helpful in being able to ensure I can participate.”
  • “The stipends did help a great deal because I don’t know about others, but many times I am asked to participate on panels, but no money is offered because it is my social responsibility to participate. There is a saying that all African American artists that came up in the 60’s and 70’s are social workers at heart.  We feel responsible.  I would have participated without the stipend, but the stipend said what I had to say was important, my time was important, and my presence was important.”
  • “My hope is that these spaces will become common practice and that funders continue to provide participants with stipends to honor the time and intention they bring into these spaces.”

For more from the REED community, read two previous articles:
Kresge partners share 8 ways to advance racial justice through culture and creative practices
Advancing Racial Justice: 5 Practices to Adopt from Arts and Culture Organizations

 REED Resources
Throughout the sessions, the group and guest speakers shared the following resources related to the learning topics the group chose.

Changing Organizational Practices to Confront Anti-Black Racism

 Prioritizing Rest and Healing

Divesting from Oppressive Systems and Creating a New Reality

REED Principles
The REED group co-created these principles and grounded each gathering in a group-led reading of each principle.

  • Why race: We lead with race because race is the greatest predictor of how one fares in areas such as health, wealth, career, education, and civic participation.
  • Why focus on anti-Black racism: Anti-Blackness is at the root of racism. Therefore, we make explicit anti-Black racism, which both voids Blackness of value, while systematically marginalizing Black people and their issues.
  • Why racial justice: We seek to advance racial justice where there is the systemic fair treatment of people from all races through proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts, and outcomes.
  • Why liberation: We seek to transform the conditions of our society so that we all can live into our full abundance and self-worth.
  • Why not white-centered: We actively center the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in our conversations and use intentional racial identity-based spaces to do our respective work.
  • Why joy: We refrain from reducing experiences into singular narratives of victimhood and intentionally lift up joy and resilience in who we are, in our stories, and in how we connect with others.
  • Why arts and culture: We see culture and creativity as core drivers of more just communities.