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Community Foundations: Building Knowledge to Facilitate Successful Organizational Impact, Part 1

This blog is the first in a series of conversations with executives from leading community foundations who are stepping out of their traditional, risk-averse roles and stepping up to affect positive social change by increasing the dollars and impact of effective philanthropy in their communities. Click here to read Part 2. For more articles on how organizational change results in positive community change, click here and here.

On July 9th at 2pm ET, please join us for an interactive GuideStar webinar with these community foundation leaders! Click here to register.

The below conversation was between Lori Larson, senior director community philanthropy, GuideStar, and Christina Ciociola, Senior Vice President for Grantmaking & Strategy, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

Context and History:

A few years ago, the leadership at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven decided that the value proposition for the Foundation was not only about the asset base and investment of charitable dollars in the local nonprofit community but also The Community Foundation’s knowledge about the issues facing the region. This more deliberate, strategic direction consisted of a focus on community knowledge work (rather than traditional, charitably-driven financial transactions) being one of the core areas of business for the Foundation.

The Environment:

Lori: How did you come to recognize the need for organizational change and strategy at The Community Foundation?

Christina: At the very end of 2008 there seemed to be a perfect storm brewing with the onset of the economic downturn and The Community Foundation CEO’s long held desire to focus more on community knowledge as a critical tool in our tool box. We wanted to explore ways The Foundation could extract all of the existing information we had about the community, as well as how we could collect more information and share it in a way to promote our mission of increasing the amount of and enhancing the impact of community philanthropy.

We knew that in order to increase local giving and create enhanced impact from that giving, we needed:

  • More ways to strengthen nonprofits;
  • More knowledge of local challenges, opportunities and organizations in the hands of donors and the community-at-large; and
  • Better informed, institutional grantmaking and individual giving.

During this perfect storm we started by publishing a report on the impact of the economic downturn on nonprofits and giving in the region. At the time we were not in the practice of publishing reports to the public with the exception of our annual report. To gather data for the report we convened nonprofits, as well as donors, to discuss what was happening and what the immediate needs would be. We also collected data for our region through the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Annual State of the Sector Report in addition to our own survey. Based on what we learned from the report, we increased our grantmaking for general operation support which would provide much needed flexible funding during a time of crisis in the sector. We also learned that this flexible support is not only important during a crisis but as a constant so we became more deliberate and strategic about awarding multi-year, general operating support grants as a permanent part of our grantmaking portfolio. It was an interesting experience because we had always provided general operating support grants, but nonprofits would be reluctant to ask for this kind of support being accustomed to living under the strain of restricted state and federal grants. This is when we first began paying attention to the phenomenon which is now known as the “overhead .” The sector itself was perpetuating the overhead myth by not asking for general operating support or by assuming that these types of requests would not be appealing to The Foundation. And honestly, these types of requests probably were less appealing than specific project support requests. However, we needed to better educate ourselves on the importance of flexible funding, as well as educate our Board and our donors.

Now seven years later we continue to look for ways to build and strengthen (and measure) what we have accomplished so far with a more deliberate focus on our role as a community knowledge resource.

Lori: Were there stakeholders inside or outside of the Foundation that believed this organizational change was too risky? If so, what were there objections and how did you overcome them?

Christina: At the time I don’t think anyone disagreed with the value proposition that local knowledge was our unique niche as a Community Foundation, especially given all the industry buzz around “On the Brink of a New Promise,” but our stakeholders may have grappled with different aspects of how we decided to express this proposition--at least at first. For example, one of our first public assertions of this proposition was the launch of giveGreater.org in 2010. Launching this new resource was a risk for this foundation; it was unlike anything we had done before. giveGreater .org is our online knowledge and giving resource. It is a website that houses comprehensive information on nonprofit organizations serving the region. This resource is available 24/7 and it is “the” place to go to learn about and give to an organization serving Greater New Haven. We realized that our local nonprofits were competing in a world where local donors have real time access to information on global causes with very sophisticated online presence. We wanted to level the playing field for our local nonprofits and give them access to the same level of visibility with donors in the region. This was one of the primary drivers behind our launch of giveGreater.org. Our donors had been telling us they wanted transparency and reliable, actionable data on nonprofits from The Foundation while nonprofits were telling us that one of the greatest needs was finding ways to connect with and identify new donors. giveGreater.org seemed like the perfect solution for our constituents and it would meet The Foundation’s desire to position ourselves as a knowledgeable resource.

Internally, we were concerned with issues of liability around compiling, sharing and promoting a website with comprehensive information on individual nonprofits and whether or not this was an appropriate role for The Community Foundation. Ultimately, after much due diligence and deliberation, The Foundation decided it was an appropriate role but we kept the branding separate from our own so it appeared more independent and not necessarily as a “seal of approval” from The Foundation for organizations with profiles on giveGreater.org. One thing we learned was that we were overthinking the liability issue based on a very few and rare cases of fraud in the nonprofit sector. Furthermore, the level of transparency this resource promoted actually worked to debunk common myths about nonprofits. Now as a result of the great success, we have integrated the branding of giveGreater.org with The Foundation’s overall brand.

The level of transparency and accountability that this new tool promoted was met by some in the nonprofit sector with great caution and trepidation but it was an opportunity for us to partner with the sector and learn together. The Community Foundation published our own profile on giveGreater.org to demonstrate our own commitment to transparency, and we invited 100 nonprofits to learn with us as early adopters of this tool. This approach was much better received by the sector than coming out of the gate requiring that organizations complete profiles to get a grant. Of course now we have evolved to have requirements for grantmaking and grant monitoring, but we only implemented these requirements after getting buy-in from the nonprofit sector.

Please check back on May 11th for Part 2 of Lori's conversation with Christina Ciociola!

Lori Larson Lori Larson

Lori Larson is senior director of community philanthropy and responsible for GuideStar’s market and product strategy, business development and customer relations for community philanthropy products. Prior to joining GuideStar, Lori worked for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, leading teams including knowledge development, nonprofit outreach, and donor relations. Previous to her foundation work, Lori was the operations manager of a multi-entity oil and gas corporation in Houston, Texas, and was assistant publisher of a software company in Shreveport, Louisiana. Lori holds a B.A. in Economics, With Distinction, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and an MBA in Finance from Baker College Center for Graduate Studies. Lori holds a Ph.D. (ABD) in Leadership and Organizational Change from Walden University. Her dissertation, “Adaptive Business Models for Community Foundation Resilience,” is in progress with anticipated full doctorate graduation in 2015. You may reach Lori directly at llarson@guidestar.org.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice