Investing in Nonprofit Talent to Build Capacity

When you think about nonprofits and their work, what comes to mind? Some immediately think about mission, programs, services, outcomes, impact, resources, and funding. Others think about the capacity of nonprofits to effectively and efficiently deliver programs and services to youth, families, adults, seniors, and communities. Given the chaotic political and social time we’re living in, all of these perspectives are reasonable and valid. However, one perspective is conspicuously absent -- investment in nonprofit people.

When thinking about nonprofits and their work, we also think about the professionals who fuel this work each day.

The National Association of Nonprofits defines capacity building as “whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, so it may more effectively and efficiently advance its mission into the future.” This framework does not explicitly and clearly address the issue of investing in staff. But in reality, operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational development is not possible without the people who make it happen.

We can no longer afford a disembodied approach to capacity building. Rather, we should see the capacity to support and develop people as the foundation upon which organizations can develop most—if not all—other capacities. At Fund the People we talk about this as "people-systems"—the array of organizational practices, policies, habits, and structures that support and strengthen the morale, ability, and advancement of employees and volunteers so they perform at the highest levels of excellence.

We believe it’s important to bring together talent-investing and capacity building to demonstrate the key aspects of how nonprofits can advance their missions. Nonprofit professionals are the glue holding these two frameworks together. Without attention to the human element of nonprofit organizations, it will be difficult for capacity building efforts to gain momentum and achieve their intended results. It’s critical for funders who support capacity building to broaden their perspectives to holistically support their grantee partners by including talent-investing. The sector can’t afford to overlook investing in nonprofit talent if we want to achieve significant change and impact. People walking across bridge being drawn with chalk by a hand.

For many years, my work in philanthropy included roles as program staff at a community foundation, a private foundation, and a health foundation. My work focused on helping to build the capacity and leadership of nonprofit organizations so they could deliver much-needed programs and services and advocate for social change. I was laser-focused on specific functional capacities to ensure organizations had the support they needed to be effective.

But I was only seeing part of the picture. I wasn’t as in tune with the human capacity of grantee organizations. I interacted with board members, executive directors, senior managers, and fund development staff about their funding requests. However, I wasn’t talking to them about what they needed in terms of staff support.

And I was not interacting as closely with frontline staff who deliver programs and services in their communities. Hearing from frontline staff regarding their professional development, leadership development, and compensation needs would have helped me better understand what I, as a funder, could have offered to ensure that our grantee partners were able to do their best work. While the functional aspects of nonprofits are necessary for organizations to operate, it’s also necessary to intentionally allocate resources to support and develop the nonprofit workforce.

Without having a well-supported, trained, and equipped staff of nonprofit professionals, organizations won’t be able to advance their missions.  

The Michigan-based Community Foundation Holland/Zeeland Area (CFHZ) is part of a growing group of funders across the U.S. who are providing talent-investing support for their grantee partners. They are a big believer in investing in their grantee partners’ talent, particularly in the area of staff leadership. After assessing the needs of nonprofit professionals and leaders in their community, they set two goals for the impact of this talent-investment. First, to have the best local nonprofit leaders possible. Second, to build a community where nonprofit staff leadership is valued as a key driver of nonprofit organizational effectiveness.

In CFHZ’s Retaining Top Leaders program they strive to support a local nonprofit sector where top leaders have opportunities for renewal and enrichment to improve the quality and length of time they remain with their current organizations. They provide funding support to leaders in the Holland/Zeeland community who’ve been in their current role for at least eight years, have a proven track record of strong leadership, and play a major role in one or more of the focus areas for their foundation. CFHZ provides $5,000 in funding for leaders to use for executive coaching, sabbaticals, retreats, or other beneficial opportunities.

It all begins with investing in nonprofit professionals. As nonprofits continue to evolve and be nimble in this ever-complicated environment, it is critical for funders to devote attention and resources to support talent-investing. If nonprofits are to effectively advance their missions we must invest in the staff that make programs, services, and advocacy happen.

Want to learn more about talent-investing? Join GrantSpace for a free Foundation Center webinar,  Making the Case for Investing in Your Greatest Asset: Non-Profit People, on Tuesday, August 14, 2:00-3:30 pm (EST) to learn more about the theory and practice of investing in the nonprofit workforce. Also, hear more about the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland Area’s story and how they are supporting the talent of their grantee partner, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

This blog was originally published to GrantSpace.

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