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Small Capacity Grants –> Large Impact

Author: Chuck Colston

In the most recent blog, Megan MacDavey explained how the Small Grants Program will now fit into the Foundation’s “Strengthening Partner Capacity” portfolio. This was done in a continuing effort to streamline our grantmaking. Please refer to Megan’s blog for more information on this change. Today, I really want to focus on the impact that we have seen through small capacity grants.

The Foundation has provided small capacity grants since 2007. These grants have served as great way for the Foundation to learn about new organizations and develop or deepen relationships with community partners. Small capacity grants provide short-term support for projects that fall outside of our Program & Services portfolio. Since 2012, the Foundation has made 151 small capacity awards totaling $1.7 million. That works out to an average award of approximately $11,000. Some of the requests that we typically receive include professional development, strategic planning, needs assessments, equipment, and smaller-scale capital projects.

During a September trip to Massachusetts, I started to think about the impact of the small capacity grants. I had several conversations with organizations that spoke about how these grants were a key piece in helping them leverage resources. They each shared with me how instrumental the small capacity grants were in helping them think differently about how they provide services to clients and families. Furthermore, this blog will discuss what two organizations were able to achieve with their small capacity grants.

The first organization that I will focus on is Lynn Shelter Association (LSA). LSA serves 1,000 individuals and families in Lynn, Massachusetts through its shelter supportive services, case management, and housing solutions. In 2017, LSA was awarded a small capacity grant for strategic planning. The timing of this request coincided with a period of organizational growth and new leadership. LSA’s board president had been in her role less than two years and executive director Mark Evans had been on the job for only four months. LSA saw this as the perfect opportunity to work with a consultant on a strategic roadmap to chart a clear course for the organization.

In speaking with Mark Evans and LSA interim development director Tracie Hines, they mentioned that the strategic plan was a real game changer. Tracie stated that the “strategic plan lit the match.” The consultant asked staff and board tough questions and pushed them to prioritize resources based on desired goals. While this was not always an easy process, it helped the organization think clearly about success. LSA realized that there were some areas that they could do a better job. The organization decided to really place a strong emphasis on how it values its staff and clients. One of the core competencies of the strategic plan is treating staff and clients with dignity and kindness. The emphasis on these core competencies required a shift in resources that helped to further boost staff morale and engagement.

The strategic plan also helped inform LSA’s recruitment strategies for board members. Mark mentioned how the board has evolved over the last two years. There is now a client that sits on LSA’s board who brings a different perspective to the table. Mark also spoke about the board’s willingness to listen to direct care staff.

Other takeaways from meeting with LSA is their commitment to professional development. Professional development is now a core competency of their strategic plan. LSA understands that staff attrition is likely; however, they recognize the importance of investing in staff and keeping the lines of communication open.

In the case of LSA, the small capacity grant helped lead the way in the organization embracing change. Of course, while Tower funds spearheaded this process, it was LSA’s commitment and awareness that made the biggest difference.

The second organization that I will highlight is Fidelity House. Fidelity House provides services and programming for individuals and families with intellectual disabilities in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I first became aware of Fidelity House in 2013, when the organization submitted a small capacity application. That request involved outfitting its Family Support Center with audio visual equipment.

Three years later, Fidelity House received Tower funding for leadership development. This award allowed the organization to provide professional development to senior executives. The intent of this project was to help management learn various ways to enhance service delivery. One of the project’s primary goals was to empower Fidelity House leaders to develop new service models that are not totally reliant on government funding. The application mentioned that it will take new and different leadership skills to support Fidelity House’s continued growth.

Fidelity House found that the business model training really opened up their eyes to the many possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, here was an organization that for over 40 years had been working with individuals with disabilities with the purpose of empowering them to live a rich and meaningful life. This was also an organization that had a very good reputation in the community. I was impressed by the way they sought feedback from community stakeholders and donors during their strategic planning process. Fidelity House was clearly thinking about how they could address gaps in services, better serve clients, pay competitive salaries to direct care workers, and adjust to trends.

The business model training helped Fidelity House employ non-traditional thinking and testing of new ideas. The project fostered greater collaboration among agency department heads. CEO Yvonne Allard stated that “we always had plenty of good ideas but did not have the business skills to move forward.”

Fidelity House continues to use the business model for testing its value proposition for expanding respite services for families with intellectual and developmental disabilities. While Fidelity House’s core mission involves providing good services to clients, leadership also sees a need to help the agency improve its revenue stream. All too often there is the notion that nonprofits should not profit from their work. This myth can get in the way of nonprofits adding further value to their mission-critical programming. A 2015 Social Velocity blog says “the best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.” Fidelity House has a vision that nonprofits must change in order to grow and be strong.

Yvonne further added that “the training on business model generation was fun and got the group excited. We came back with a new skillset and tools that help us evaluate new ideas quickly. Beyond using the business model canvas, the training has influenced our thinking in general, our approach to problems. It’s given us the confidence to attempt things that haven’t been done before.” Quite frankly, Fidelity House accomplished more than we anticipated with this training. They have been able to turn this business model training into a force multiplier.

We realize that investing in capacity further strengthens the effectiveness of nonprofits. This effectiveness will enable nonprofits to have an even greater impact on individuals and families.

Edgington, N. (2015, January 15). 5 Myths The Nonprofit Sector Must Overcome [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.socialvelocity.net/2015/01/15/5-myths-the-nonprofit-sector-must-overcome/