18: Enhancing the Capacity of Grantees

Many of the foundation’s grantees are relatively small organizations, passionately dedicated to the work, but not always fully equipped for it. As a result, the foundation focused on building their capacity, within their limited financial resources, to raise funds, to structure their boards of directors, and to perform other vital functions necessary for a nonprofit’s sustainability.

“We’ve always been very intent on capacity building,” said Liz Axelrod, the foundation’s grants manager and resident poet. Before joining Hagedorn, she had worked for an architecture firm, then saw an ad in Craig’s List and joined the foundation at its start, playing a large role in setting up its systems. “So we were thinking about how we could help our grantees, how we could help them better utilize their resources, make better outcomes for themselves, help them become sustainable.”

The person they turned to was Ann Marie Thigpen. She had worked with Sandow and Parmely at the Long Island Community Foundation, where she ran LITAC, the Long Island Technical Assistance Center. LITAC provided workshops on a variety of subjects, such as developing boards of directors and fundraising. She and Parmely used to laugh about Thigpen’s description of what they were doing. “I would call them drive-by trainings,” Thigpen recalled. “People would come for three hours, and then they’d leave, inspired for two hours afterwards, but, for the most part, that was it. Then they’d attend another workshop the next month. I thought that, as a capacity builder, these workshops had limited effectiveness beyond the opportunity to network. We all knew that one-on-one engagement was the best way to build capacity, but we had to work within a limited budget.”

Thigpen left the community foundation when her husband’s career took them to Vancouver, British Columbia. As she was leaving, though, a group of leaders in the nonprofit community got together and agreed on the need for some sort of center to help nonprofits, especially at a time when many executive directors were preparing to retire.

“If you look at publications from 2006 and 2007, the primary nonprofit issue was the looming leadership deficit, because the baby boomers were coming of age and retiring,’ ” Thigpen said. “As I was preparing to leave New York, these concerned nonprofit leaders and educators convened to identify a resource to prepare for the potential leadership crisis. I helped write a plan for a center before I left.”

Over the next few months, the nonprofit center that they had discussed came into being. “They got some base funding from JP Morgan Chase and a grant from the Long Island Community Foundation, along with space in the School of Social Work at Adelphi University in Garden City, to start the Center for Nonprofit Leadership,” Thigpen said. “They asked if I would come back from Canada to be the director.” Her husband was ready to return, and so was she. In 2006, she became the director of the center, based at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work in Garden City.

“The center focused on leadership issues, holding monthly executive director roundtables, writing and posting resources on the center’s website, communicating monthly with an e-newsletter, consulting and delivering training to boards, and convening the sector around critical issues,” Thigpen said. “The challenge was funding: Every penny we needed to run the center, including salaries, I had to raise.”

Meanwhile, early in the Hagedorn Foundation’s life, Sandow had been thinking about a program to help its grantees become better able to do their work. He learned of one way of doing that from Diane Feeney of the French American Charitable Trust. The two of them had worked together in creating a national group of spend-down foundations, and they were frequently on conference calls—always the first two online. As they waited for others to join the call, they’d chat. One subject was the capacity-building program at French American Charitable Trust, which he had heard about from others.

“I just asked her some questions, and I said, ‘Do you think the model is replicable?’ ” Sandow recalled. “And she said, ‘Absolutely.’ ” So he invited Feeney and some colleagues to a meeting at the foundation’s offices in Port Washington. He also invited Thigpen, his former colleague at the Long Island Community Foundation. “She had heard about the model, but this was the first time that she actually spoke with them,” Sandow said. “I said, ‘If you think this is something that’s worth exploring, show me a model.’ ”

Thigpen took a deeper look at the French American Charitable Trust approach and redesigned it. The trust had been doing capacity building in-house, but a founding principle of the approach that Thigpen and Hagedorn adopted was a firewall between the foundation itself and the consultants who would advise its grantees. “That was the key difference between our program and theirs,” Sandow said.

As the program they called Building for Change unfolded, Thigpen knew the strengths and weaknesses of the nonprofits they were helping, but the foundation’s staff did not seek to learn any of the specifics of the nonprofit-consultant interaction.

Every year, the foundation would make a large grant, to cover the costs for six to 12 grantees. The foundation staff intentionally avoided knowing what the grantees were telling the consultants. They didn’t want organizations to worry that any weaknesses that surfaced in those conversations might endanger future funding. “We wanted the grantees to feel free to do whatever they needed to do, to help them become sustainable, based upon the professional advice,” Axelrod said.

This worked, because the foundation staff knew and trusted Thigpen. “We were comfortable in the knowledge that there was someone there who understood what was needed and would work carefully with our grantees, someone who knew the particulars of working on Long Island,” Axelrod said, “because Long Island is a different kind of place from anywhere else in the world.”

The premise of Building for Change was simple: The foundation would suggest grantees who might profit from working with Thigpen’s center. The grantees would submit an application to Thigpen and a committee of reviewers for the kinds of help necessary to build their capacity. If selected, the organizations would then begin the process of selecting consultants.

“The whole premise was—and this was a critical distinction—the organizations interviewed at least two consultants,” Thigpen said. “They weren’t just assigned a consultant. Organizations chose who they wanted to work with.” Thigpen’s familiarity with the players helped make this arrangement work. “I knew many of these organizations pretty well, had a pretty good sense of the capacity they would need from their consultants. And, simultaneously, I started building a pool of consultants who I thought would work well with these organizations.”

That application process required the nonprofits to engage in some serious self-scouting. “They had to identify what they thought their needs were in their application,” Thigpen said. “After they submitted the application, I also interviewed them. Often what they thought their needs were, were not necessarily really what their needs were. After I met with the organizations, I identified at least two consultants I thought would be a good fit with the organization, both in terms of skills and personality. The organizations interviewed and selected their consultants, and then the work began.”

During the time that the nonprofits worked with their consultants, over four iterations of the Building for Change program, Thigpen monitored the progress that they were making, using a “team consultancy” approach to compare notes about what the organizations in the program needed and how they were doing. “I would meet with the consultants every three months,” she said. “It was a way to build a community of consultants for peer support, and it was really very valuable in adding a depth to the work with the organizations.”

In the foundation’s closing months, Thigpen kept working with the nonprofits and consultants. As grantees had to think more urgently about what they needed to continue their work after the foundation closed, the firewall was no longer necessary or helpful. “At this point, it’s a different ballgame,” Dunn said. “It’s really important that there be openness all around. If we see that there’s a need for a merger, for example, we need to know what the consultants are seeing and what their opinions are.”

The altered shape of Building for Change was just one element among many in the closing phase in the foundation’s years-long effort to ease the transition for its grantees to a future without Hagedorn Foundation funding. The foundation supported capacity building in other ways beyond Building for Change during the last two years. Thigpen oversaw intensive work with many grantees on evaluation and technology, as well as fundraising. All were key areas in helping grantees to move forward after Hagedorn.

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