Funders, nonprofits work together

Todd Cohen

A decade ago, consultant Rick Reed found that groups of foundations focusing on a common problem in a common geographic area typically did not talk to one another or have a shared idea about the forces driving the problem or about how to define success in taking it on.

That fragmentation made it tough both for foundations to make the most effective grants and for nonprofits working on the issue to secure funding that would have the greatest impact, says Reed, now a senior adviser to the Garfield Foundation in New Bedford, Mass.

Several years later, the foundation found that one of its grantees was using “systems mapping” to help big corporations like Bank of America and Kinko’s apply sustainability principles to their work, an approach Reed says philanthropy typically did not use.

Building on both observations, the foundation helped spearhead formation in 2004 of RE-AMP, a network that now includes 11 foundations and 197 nonprofits and advocacy groups and aims to reduce global-warming pollution in the electricity sector in eight Midwest states by 2030.

Key to the effort, Reed says, are collaboration, systems mapping and the sharing of ideas, information and results.

“Learning together is a key element,” he says. “It’s not one person or one group learning or having an idea and trying to sell it to everyone else. We’re in this together. We’re a learning community.”

New approach

RE-AMP represents a departure from the way foundations commonly do business, Reed says.

Funders and nonprofits that receive grants often see themselves on “two different sides of the street,” he says. “When something goes wrong, there’s often a lot of finger pointing.”

That traditional approach “of seeing ourselves as two teams is not taking us forward fast enough,” he says.

Nonprofits, for example, often must seek funding from multiple foundations with differing priorities, grantmaking guidelines, and information about social and environmental problems and the work of other foundations on those problems.

“Nonprofits have to contort themselves to look right for particular funders,” Reed says.

The largest foundations that can afford the staff can do the groundwork that gives them the big picture.

But because small and medium foundations get a fragmented picture about the problems they want to address, and about the work of nonprofits seeking funding, they are “not sure how separate proposals fit with each other,” he says. “It’s hard to get a holistic sense of what the picture looks like that you’re trying to reform.”

What’s more, he says, key questions for foundations often are “not how to reform the system, but what’s our niche, where do we fit, how can our grantmaking add value?”

So the Garfield Foundation decided to experiment, and RE-AMP was the result.

Holistic strategies

The idea for the RE-AMP network was to enable the participating foundations and their grantees in the region “to understand the nature of the electric energy system, how were the parts interconnected, what forces were animating it,” Reed says. “When you would go to reform the system, what forces would push back against your reform, and which would put wind in your sails?”

A systems analysis helped the network identify just four objectives it needed to achieve its goal.

Those included stopping 30 proposed new coal-fired plants in the region; retiring 70 percent of existing coal plants that together generated 70 percent of the region’s electricity; and ramping up energy efficiency and clean energy in the region.

“Those four things were completely interrelated,” Reed says. “You couldn’t achieve the big goal without achieving all four.”

The implication for foundations, he says, is that, as a grantmaker, “you can’t just focus on one thing. You’ll never succeed.”

Until the systems analysis, Reed says, no funder in the region had been willing to take on the 30 proposed new coal plants.

Instead, they were focusing their climate-protection grants on spurring the development of more renewable energy.

But the analysis showed “you could never ramp up renewable energy to scale without stopping the new plants,” he says.

Within six months of completion of the analysis, three of the six participating foundations had reallocated a total of $2 million from energy efficiency and renewable energy to fighting the proposed plants.

Collaborative process

RE-AMP, which in recent years has expanded the number of issues it is trying to address, has developed a “chaordic” process — a system of governance that mixes elements of chaos and order — to communicate, make grants, and share and make sense of their impact.

“It’s a network,” Reed says. “It’s not a top-down organization. No one party is in charge.”

Coordinating and overseeing the shared assets of the network is a steering committee supported by six working groups.

Each of five working groups focuses on one of the five objectives the network set, with a sixth working group consisting of the network’s participating foundations.

Each issue-based working group elects a leader who, with the chair of the foundation working group, serves on the steering committee, which also includes three foundation members and additional at-large members the network elects.

“On the steering committee are both foundations and nonprofits by design, not either-or,” Reed says. “We’re on the same team. When there’s a problem, we all roll up our sleeves and figure it out together.”

Each working group develops a 25-year goal or target for its issue, as well as a menu of goals for the next five years.

On the issue of renewable or clean energy, for example, the goal is, by 2030, to have 57 times the installed capacity than in 2004.

One of the shared assets of the network, in addition to staff and technology, is a pooled fund created by some of the participating foundations.

While the working groups set 25-year targets for their issues for the entire eight-state region, decisions on funding are made on a state-by-state basis by a group that includes the heads of each working group plus representatives of foundations that contribute to the pool.

In the same way that a foundation’s program staff typically makes funding recommendations to the foundation’s board, all advocates working on all the issues in each state work together to complete a survey to determine which issues in their state are “ready for prime time,” Reed says.

The grantmaking committee of the network’s steering committee then reviews the surveys from all the states to determine which of the states focusing on similar issues are “best placed to do that work,” Reed says.

“It gives us a panoramic view of all opportunities across the region,” he says. “We’ve got a holistic analysis that tells us, ‘These are the things that need to move. We have the whole picture, not fragmented. We can see from the states what they’re doing, and then see across all the states who’s best positioned. And we’re trying to make progress on all issues.”

While advocates in no single state are working on every issue, he says, the surveys allow the steering committee and the funding group to see where progress is being made on every issue.

“Once you make progress in one state on a given thing,” Reed says, “it’s easier to make it in the next state and the next one after that.”

The participating foundations spent roughly $1.5 million to get the network and its infrastructure up and running, and then spent roughly $500,000 a year for the first two years to support that infrastructure, which now costs about $800,000 a year.

The funders also allocated $1.5 million in 2007, $4 million a year in 2008 and 2009 and $3.4 million in 1010 for the pooled grantmaking fund.

Lessons learned

If a range of funders are concentrating on the same issue but do not formally share what they know and have learned about the issue, Reed says, systems mapping offers a great tool to explore.

And if those funders want to build on the insight they gain from systems mapping, a “commitment to align your program work and grantmaking with the insight gained from systems mapping is essential,” he says.

“You need that as a precondition to engaging in this process,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s just an academic process that everyone will go away from and feel frustrated.”

RE-AMP operates with a model Reed describes as “think systemically, act collaboratively.”

While mapping allows for systemic thinking, “acting collaboratively is really hard,” he says. “You have to invest in the infrastructure that makes that possible.”

Also required, he says, is a commitment to learning together.

Rather than the traditional system of grantees simply filing reports on their progress with the individual foundations that fund them, RE-AMP operates with a common online reporting system that shares information from and with all network members.

The reporting form aims not only to determine if a grantee is accountable for the funds it received, but also to find out what the grantee is learning that could be valuable to other network members.

The form, for example, asks what messages the grantee is using that are working and seem to catch on with the news media; how the opposition’s messaging is working; and which allies the grantee has enlisted and hopes to enlist.

A network staff analyst reads all the forms, looking for those with high value and sharing them with the network.

“What that means in practice is that people are less likely to repeat mistakes, and it will be faster for people to amplify success,” Reed says. “People in one part of the network can see what people in another part have learned.”

When advocates in Michigan, for example, learned that certain types of messaging were effective on the issue of advancing low-carbon fuel standards, Reed says, the analyst immediately passed that on to advocates working on the same issue in Minnesota and Illinois.

A key to making the network work, is to determine the “infrastructure you can put in place to help facilitate collaboration,” Reed says. “A learning system is one part of that infrastructure.”

And an indispensable element of RE-AMP, Reed says, is that it is almost entirely a volunteer organization.

“All of our success,” he says, “is attributable to the commitment, leadership, energy, enthusiasm and ideas that have emerged from members of the network. Everyone deserves a large share of the credit.”

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