Building Capacity: Philanthropy's Role in Supporting Nonprofit-Assistance Services

October 8, 2019

Have you ever had a question or need for assistance that prevented you from makingMatt Fikejs Headshot progress at work?  Now, imagine you also work for a budget-constrained nonprofit, and maybe you’re the only employee or one of just a handful of people running the organization. What do you do when you’re stumped or at an impasse?

Assessing Nonprofits’ Access to Help

Ten years ago, this was one of the central questions that seven Northwest funders hired The Giving Practice, the national consulting partner of Philanthropy Northwest, to answer. Essentially: “When nonprofits have questions or need direction, where do they turn?” The resulting study focused on Washington state, but the query could have been posed to any of the states in the Pacific Northwest – each with its mix of urban, rural, and tribal communities as well as nonprofits and foundations.

Titled “An Assessment of Capacity Building in Washington State,” the 2009 study’s conclusion proved to be both insightful and concerning. After stating that “one of the essential [nonprofit] ecosystem elements is a trusted source of information and referral (I&R) to capacity-building services,” the report noted that “none of the community hubs we looked at had such a system...” In other words, besides your friend across town who also works at a nonprofit, there was no one you could chat with or run ideas by if you needed help beyond an internet search. There was also no clear person or place to email to ask about nonprofit “best practices” or a referral to an experienced and well-regarded consultant.

Acting on Findings to Strengthen the Sector

The report’s conclusion didn’t sit well with many funders. But the question remained: “What can be done?” It was around that time that 501 Commons executive director Nancy Long presented a vision to several funders for a “first stop” for nonprofit-management questions. And of the funders who were asked, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Social Venture Partners and The Seattle Foundation stepped forward to help launch (and in some cases, provide multi-year funding for) this essential new service: free I&R help to any area nonprofit, on any nonprofit topic, through personalized assistance and online resources.

When I first started at 501 Commons nine years ago, I recall sitting in a room adjacent to Nancy and overhearing the calls she’d patiently take from nonprofits (most of whom weren’t clients) who had management questions of all kinds. It felt strange listening in. Yet, as the newly hired information and referral program manager who didn’t consider myself a “nonprofit expert,” I also knew that – very soon – it would be my turn to answer those calls. Soon, I’d be the unofficial “nonprofit helpline” for Washington state, and I was ready to learn any way I could.

The Results Are in…and Continue on

Much has changed since then, not the least of which is my knowledge of nonprofit issues and the daily challenges they face. I’m proof that there’s nothing like learning on the job, especially when it includes researching, reading, writing and facilitating conversations about nonprofit management. While I remain the primary “resource navigator,” many of my 501 Commons colleagues – using their own areas of expertise – have also started providing information and referral help. Plus, our “intake and triage” process for incoming requests is more streamlined than ever. The result has been that, 501 Commons has assisted more than 400 Northwest nonprofits (and aspiring ones) – during each of the last two years – through I&R services alone.

Is this “Q&A service” that’s free to nonprofits making a difference? Judging from the positive feedback and number of users, including repeat ones, I’m confident it is. And with continued funding from philanthropy, we will continue serving Pacific Northwest nonprofits – in this way – for years to come. So on the 10th anniversary of The Giving Practice’s insightful study, 501 Commons and nonprofits throughout the region have philanthropy to thank for believing in and helping to launch this valued service.

Matt Fikejs is the information & referral program manager for 501 Commons. Aside from advising on nonprofit management, he manages 501 Commons’ Nonprofit Resource Directory, which includes vetted consultants and other nonprofit specialists. He can be reached at matt@501commons.org.