Unrestricted Core Support: Strengthening the Capacity of our Nonprofit Sector

In late 2008, our Board agreed to prioritize unrestricted, multi-year core operating support.  Core support funding, also known as general operating support, has now become the predominant focus of the Weingart Foundation’s grant program. Since 2009, the Foundation has made over $60 million in core support grants, primarily to human service organizations.

This was a big decision for a foundation that was probably best known for its support of capital projects and new program development.  As a responsive grantmaker, however, our Board’s adoption of core support was both an appropriate response to the needs of our grantees in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, and a natural evolution in our grantmaking process.

Core support is aligned with the Core Values and Grant Practices of our foundation.  We are a responsive grantmaker that has deep respect for the work of our grantees.  We are also a “learning organization” that regularly engages in an ongoing process of listening to our customers - our nonprofit partners -  and then responding to their needs so that they may sustain effective programs and build both capacity and sustainability.

Our grantmaking practice has convinced us that core support funding provides nonprofit organizations with the working capital necessary to sustain day-to-day operations and to build a well-managed and fully operational infrastructure. Since most private and government funding is restricted to programs and services, many organizations are financially starved to the point of being unable to maintain and strengthen their infrastructure. Now, $60 million later, we remain committed to the proposition that when combined with effective leadership and management, providing unrestricted multi-year core operating support is one of the best ways to build nonprofit capacity and sustainability.

What have we learned that might be helpful for funders considering adopting a general operating support strategy?

There is no question that how we review grant applications has changed since introducing core support.  We have always taken a comprehensive approach to grant review, focused on understanding governance, leadership, management, program effectiveness, funding model, and financial position.  From an organizational perspective, this holistic approach no doubt made the transition to core support funding a bit easier.

What is different now, however, is that we begin each review with a much more intentional and candid conversation – focused on understanding the organization’s challenges, frustrations, priorities, and strategies – at the organizational level. With that perspective, we then turn to how unrestricted funding will allow the organization to meet their goals.  We stress, however, that our core support grants are truly unrestricted.  The organization will not be held to a predetermined line-item budget, and they will be free to deploy our resources as best fits their challenges and opportunities. Over time, conversations and commitments like this allow us to build trust, which in our judgment is the key to effective grantmaking.

Without trust between funder and applicant, core support, or for that matter, any other form of grantmaking won’t work. If our goal is to help organizations become stronger and, therefore, more effective, we need nonprofits to tell us what they need - not what they think we want to hear.  And then we must have the willingness to be responsive and provide the flexible and long-term funding needed to build strong organizations and deliver effective programs.

For more information on our approach to and the results of our core support program, go to http://www.weingartfnd.org/files/core-support-report.pdf

The Weingart Foundation supports nonprofit organizations in the areas of health, human services and education, across seven Southern California counties including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego.

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