A handful of foundations offering general operating support to nonprofits is not even close to being enough.   We need many more funders — a critical mass — to provide general operating support grants and recognize the full cost of running an organization. Only then can nonprofits have enough unrestricted dollars to truly use those funds flexibly, prioritize organizational capacity needs, and strengthen organizational health.

So how do we close this wide gap between funders and nonprofits? First off, foundations need to take a hard look at their giving practices and consider what it would take to move toward more flexible funding for their grantees.

Short of shifting to general operating support, which may take a long time for change to occur, foundation staff can start laying the groundwork for more open and candid conversations with grantees. Program officers can set the tone by creating dialogue that invites grantees’ honest input and feedback. While the inherent power dynamic often makes nonprofits hesitant to share their challenges for fear of comprising funding, it’s important for nonprofit leaders to feel safe communicating the full cost of their organization’s work, including all the resources and costs it takes to run an organization effectively.

One way for program officers to cultivate and guide candid conversations with grantees is to ask big picture, open-ended questions in a way that indicates a genuine interest in the organization’s health and well-being. Some examples of guiding questions include:

  • What are key organizational factors that lead to your organization’s success?
  • What would it take to move your organization from good to great, or from great to excellent?
  • What has worked, or not worked, in past attempts to strengthen your organization?
  • What has worked, or not worked, in the past to strengthen your organization?
  • What organizational issues keep you awake at night?
  • What issues take up the most time or give you the biggest headache?

Read the full article about strengthening nonprofits at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.