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Naming the Elephant in the Room: Funder Capacity and Funder Effectiveness

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Chris CardonaDirector of Philanthropy, TCC Group

As expected, the 2014 GEO conference was stimulating, the right blend of visionary and pragmatic. But on one topic, I was reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One touched the trunk and said, “this must be a snake.” One touched the ear and said, “it’s a palm tree.” One touched the tail and said, “it’s a vine.” Each saw the part they touched with their own frame of reference, but they all missed the frame of reference of an elephant that could be snake and palm tree and vine at once.

Parts of the Elephant 
The elephant in the room at the GEO conference was funder capacity. Different panels and plenaries, filled with people who are far from blind, touched on a different part of the elephant. Tuesday morning’s plenary talked about values, which evolved into a discussion about the role of trustees and staff as stewards or fiduciaries of those values, and what happens when one gets out ahead of the other. Governance, board-staff relationships, achieving alignment and clarity – all issues of internal funder capacity. Breakout sessions looked at adaptive capacity (“simplifying complex learning techniques for small-staff grantmakers”), leadership capacity (“considering the connection between values and practice”), management capacity (“did I make a bad grant, or did I make a grant badly?”), technical capacity (“leveraging social media to strengthen foundation strategy”), and organizational culture (“building a culture of learning and innovation”).

Seeing the Whole
What all these topics have in common is that they’re about funder capacity – the skills, abilities, knowledge, tools, and resources that funders need to play the range of grantmaking and non-grantmaking roles they have chosen to fulfill their mission. This is a topic on which we’re woefully short on frameworks that connect the dots, that show us what the elephant looks like.

But such a framework is possible. (Here’s a building block.) Indeed, a key component of the future of capacity building is how we understand and support the capacity of all actors in a social-impact ecosystem, not just individual nonprofits, but networks, coalitions, campaigns, movements, as well as companies, government – and funders.

Why it Matters
GEO Board Chair Albert Ruesga had a great tweet on the last day of the conference: “New grantee cloaking device prevents funders from seeing their eyes roll when being lectured about effectiveness.” There are many reasons for such eye rolling, but one is that funders tend not to be very good about understanding the conditions of their own effectiveness. This flows from a lack of attention to what funder capacity is and how it can be built. So funder capacity matters because it is, for lack of a better word, the foundation of funder effectiveness.

An elephant is sturdy, and can hold a lot on its back. If we name the elephant of funder capacity, and make sure it is strong and well (but not extravagantly) nourished, there’s a lot of effectiveness it can help carry on the path to social impact.

What are the most important elements of funder capacity? Which contribute the most to funder effectiveness? How have you seen funders build their own capacity in an effective and responsible way?

Chris Cardona is director of philanthropy at TCC Group, a national consulting firm that helps funders and nonprofits build strategies, capacity, and learning to achieve social impact.


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