Lifecycling: O Canada!

September, 2016
by Susan Kenny Stevens, Ph.D.

Truth be told, I have always had a secret wish to sing the Canadian National Anthem at a sports event.  O Canada! Our home and native land.  You don’t have to be Canadian to appreciate the majesty of that melody or the power of those lyrics.  My appreciation comes from many years of watching hockey with my Minnesota-born husband and sons.  For me that Anthem was often the best part of the game (sorry hockey fans). O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

I was reminded of the strength of Canada’s National Anthem last month on an exploratory trip to Vancouver BC for the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute. The Institute is about strength too.  Our anthem is strong communities need strong nonprofits.

We believe that nonprofits play an important role in delivering essential services — and that these services will be more effective and efficient if they are delivered from a position of strength.

To be strong and capable, it’s time to replace the sector’s “culture of inadequacy,” (a term so perfectly coined by Mark Kramer), with a culture of capacityWhile we’re at it, let’s also start thinking about our communities’ capacity ecosystem.

What happens when a group of early childhood nonprofits works together to address breaking the cycle of generational poverty, as is happening under the leadership of Denver’s Rose Community Foundation?  Or when foundations cluster mission-important grantees to address self-identified capacity gaps?

The Institute is working intensely now in two metro areas on capacity programs that benefit nonprofits individually and, by extension, the greater community.  Over the past 9 years, The Gifford Foundation in Central New York has brought nearly 30 nonprofits together in their lifecycle capacity program, ADVANS.  Last year this foundation also launched POWER for fire-in-the-belly, grassroots neighborhood organizations in the Start-up lifecycle stage..  Each of these programs meets the grantee “where they are” and, through a lifecycle diagnostic assessment, provides targeted support for the infrastructural issues (management, governance, financial resource, administrative systems) that hold them back.  In Phoenix, the Virginia G Piper Charitable Trust’s ATLAS program is in its sixth year of a similar program.

Each of these capacity initiatives has a double upshot: They strengthen individual participant’s mission capability, and by extension, strengthen the community.

In the last cohort of Gifford’s ADVANS program, I asked the six nonprofits involved how many individual lives their programs touched in a given year.  The answer was 68,000 …  in a metro area of roughly 600,000.  Think about it.  Six nonprofits impacting 68,000 lives a year.   If you were one of those 68,000, would you want to be served by an agency that’s strong and capable, or one operating from a place of inadequacy and disempowerment?

Nobody will argue about the need to sharpen the nonprofit sector’s focus on outcomes and impact. But as one who has worked in and around nonprofits and foundations for the better part of 30 years, I know this.  There is no impact without capacity.  It’s the means to the end.

Strong nonprofits make strong communities.  Strong communities need strong nonprofits.