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An Unexpected Career: Building Plumbing for Philanthropy

An Unexpected Career: Building Plumbing for PhilanthropyI’ve spent a decade as plumber.  It was the spring of 2006 when I joined the Hewlett Foundation, my professional home before GuideStar.  These last 10 years I’ve been driven by a common purpose: building plumbing for smart philanthropy.  At Hewlett and at GuideStar I’ve been working to support those that pipe good information—about organizations and grants; about practices and insights—to help drive effectiveness in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

I found myself as a plumber of the abstract because of two concrete experiences in my life.  While I was growing up, my parents worked at small community-based nonprofits in North Carolina on issues ranging from AIDS to refugees to prisoner reentry.  I watched the impact they made and the struggles they faced.  I wanted to support the good work of people like them. 

Then, after college I worked in the environmental movement on the great challenge of our time: climate change.  And I saw organizations of stunning effectiveness, wresting immense impact out of every dollar.  I also saw organizations struggling to form a coherent strategy and with only minimal impact.  And yet learning did not flow from one to the other; and donor dollars did not follow quality.  The plumbing was not in place. 

So my choice to focus on infrastructure was unexpected but not accidental.  And I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve found.  There is an entire ecosystem of organizations working to build that plumbing: training programs and associations and data platforms.  And the broader nonprofit community acknowledges and appreciates that infrastructure.  

But there is a simple challenge: plumbing is expensive.  Many foundations have stepped up to support the costs of this infrastructure.  But infrastructure is a collective responsibility.  It cannot rely solely on a few funders, however generous.  We need broad and deep support to build plumbing worthy of the extraordinary work of modern civil society. 

An Unexpected Career: Building Plumbing for PhilanthropyThat’s why I joined with the leaders of 21 other infrastructure nonprofits to write a letter to foundations asking for support for nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure.  In it we suggest a simple benchmark: foundations should invest 1 percent of their grants budget in infrastructure.  We in the infrastructure pledge to step up to the challenge at hand.  The nonprofits and foundations we serve deserve nothing less.

Read the letter

An Unexpected Career: Building Plumbing for PhilanthropyThe preceding post is by Jacob Harold, GuideStar's president and CEO. Jacob is a social change strategist, grantmaker, and author. Jacob came to GuideStar from the Hewlett Foundation, where he led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. Between 2006 and 2012, he oversaw $30 million in grants that, together, aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving. Jacob was named to the NonProfit Times (NPT) 2014 and 2015 Power and Influence Top 50 list, and currently serves as a term member for the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written extensively on climate change and philanthropic strategy. His essays have been used as course materials at Stanford, Duke, Wharton, Harvard, and Oxford.

Topics: nonprofit infrastructure investing in infrastructure
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