We Need a New Definition of Effectiveness

12/04/2017 12:09 pm ET

This fall I attended CHANGE Philanthropy’s Unity Summit: Investing in Movements for Equity in New Orleans, the largest convening to-date of funders and advocates focused on an intersectional approach to advancing racial equity and social justice. This inspiring and unprecedented gathering was yet another sign that the coalition of foundations and nonprofit organizations that see equity as an imperative is widening and broadening, with growing interest in working in partnership as part of a national movement for change. The summit had a powerful effect on me and affirmed the need for my organization, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, to interrogate our core beliefs: can an organization be effective if it doesn’t embrace racial equity?

In addition to CHANGE Philanthropy, many organizations and leaders, including the D5 Coalition, ABFE: A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, have made a compelling case for why racial equity — and diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly — are critical issues for philanthropy. The vision and persistence of these organizations and others have laid the groundwork for an expanded movement, one that Grantmakers for Effective Organizations is pleased to join.

Over the past year, I’ve shared parts of our journey here — including our recognition of the need to embrace discomfort to create the space for conversations that are long overdue in philanthropy, and how the blind spots that come with privilege can create roadblocks as we move forward in this work.

With encouragement from many of our members and counsel from our Equity Advisory Group led by GEO board member Starsky Wilson, GEO has been working for much of 2017 to deepen our commitment to racial equity and to create a blueprint for supporting and amplifying the work of key partners and incorporating racial equity into every aspect of our work.

That work culminated at our most recent board meeting in late October when GEO’s board determined that racial equity is essential to our mission. In a few weeks we will share more details about the role we hope to play, but we recognize that this decision will have profound implications for everything we do, and that we will need to continue to change and evolve as we fully embrace this commitment.

Part of that evolution includes revisiting core beliefs about effectiveness. GEO was founded nearly 20 years ago as a learning community of grantmakers committed to helping nonprofits be more effective. The early GEO community was a combination of those most committed to capacity building and evaluation in philanthropy. Early on, at the urging of some of our members, GEO defined nonprofit effectiveness as the ability of an organization to fulfill its mission by measurably achieving its objectives through a blend of sound management, strong governance, and a persistent rededication to assessing and achieving results.

Even as we developed that definition, I had misgivings. My biggest concern was that we had over-simplified a complex and nuanced concept. But a definition seemed to be the thing that would move us forward at the time, so we drafted one.

As our commitment to racial equity deepens, we’ve recognized problems with most ways effectiveness is defined for nonprofits. I’ll use GEO’s definition to illustrate, but the points are similar for other prominent models and definitions. First of all, “sound management” and “strong governance” are entirely subjective, and perceptions of what is strong and sound are subject to implicit bias. Also, the ability to assess and achieve results does not mean that an organization is inherently effective – especially if program models and theories of change are rooted in false narratives about the causes of inequity, or if the results are not those most desired by the people and communities being served.

Probably most importantly, work to define effectiveness has typically come from white organizations – prominent consulting firms, think tanks, universities, philanthropy and management support organizations. These institutions – and I count GEO among them – have advanced ideas about effectiveness that have unwittingly perpetuated or even exacerbated inequity in the nonprofit sector.

Here’s how that plays out. Philanthropy has not typically prioritized those groups that have developed inclusive leadership and prioritized community-led or at least community informed decision-making. Nonprofits deemed “effective” are often those most skilled at navigating the thicket of hurdles, requirements and processes put in place by philanthropy. This perpetuates a cycle in which large, well-resourced organizations amass capital while smaller ones – including many working at the community level and led by people of color – struggle for resources. And consequently are often deemed less “effective”.

Acknowledging this dynamic, some dominant culture foundations are recognizing the need to correct course and invite grantees and community members to define effectiveness. The NoVo Foundation, founded by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, took a different approach in 2016 as it was planning a $90-million initiative to invest in girls and women of color. To inform their work, NoVo conducted a year-long national listening tour with girls of color, movement leaders and organizers. In announcing the initiative earlier this year, NoVo’s executive director noted: “A vibrant movement to build power with and for girls of color already exists, and it is time for philanthropy to follow its lead.”

In a recent conversation with GEO’s board, Bob Hughes, president and CEO of Missouri Foundation for Health, offered candid reflections about his foundation’s early efforts to fund black-led advocacy and organizing in response to the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission Report released in 2015. “We learned that our internal way of working was a hindrance that shaped external perceptions, such as that we only fund 501(c)(3) organizations. Many of the organizations we hoped to fund are not set up to receive our funds – and they’re not really interested in being set up to receive our funds. We’re figuring out how to work on that.”

In New Orleans at the Unity Summit, amazing and effective leaders who have been working for racial equity for many years – often at considerable personal risk and sacrifice – told us from the podium that they are not getting the support they need from philanthropy. Like all nonprofit leaders, they need more general operating support, more multi-year support and dedicated resources for capacity building. They’re not getting those things.

GEO has been advocating for these strategies for our entire existence as part of our framework for smarter grantmaking, and it’s frustrating to think that so few grantmakers have heeded the call in a significant way. But even where our calls to action are gaining traction, the way that effectiveness is defined in our sector is likely still perpetuating inequity.

In the years ahead, we are committed to supporting racial equity in philanthropy in ways that are aligned with the GEO community’s identity. That’s why we are committed to helping develop a new concept of effectiveness, one that integrates racial equity. And we invite you and all of those who have led the call for racial equity in philanthropy to contribute wisdom to the effort. I hope you will join us in that conversation by tweeting to me @EnrightGEO what you think needs to change about the current definitions of effectiveness.

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