Karen Brown, Fairfield County Community Foundation

Karen Brown, Fairfield County Community Foundation

Karen Brown is vice president of programs at the Fairfield County Community Foundation, where she is responsible for overseeing grantmaking and providing philanthropic advisory services to donor-advised fundholders. Laura Cronin, a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, interviewed Brown recently.

Laura Cronin: Nonprofit executives have been managing against a backdrop of economic turmoil for three years years now. What have the most successful Fairfield County groups been doing to keep it together during these difficult times?

Karen Brown: One key element of navigating this economic climate is transparency. Funders need information from grantees in order to make the case internally for all the grants in their portfolio. One exemplary executive director in our area has done something very simple and smart along these lines. After each of his board meetings, he sends a synopsis to us and to his other funders. It doesn't include every single detail of the meeting, but it gives a full picture of what transpired, and when I read it I feel as if I was there. It keeps me in the loop, and it's probably a document he needs to create anyway, so it's efficient. It's just an example of how communicating with funders and donors can be managed in a cost-effective way that gives them the information they need to make informed decisions.

LC: While great management is no substitute for a robust economy and a healthy fundraising environment, what kind of strategies should nonprofits pursue to ensure that they have the capacity to manage through tough times?

KB: We've been urging grantees to continue to invest in staff and professional development and not to look at those kinds of investments as frills. Employee morale and team building are crucial in a difficult economic climate. And funders need to consider supporting these programs in order to help organizations hold the line on their budgets without sacrificing effectiveness.

Other groups we fund are asking for support for short-term strategic planning — looking two years out instead of the traditional five. This gives them something to focus on and a set of near-term goals that can keep them on track.

Funders can also be helpful by providing support for organizational assessments. We've assisted several grantees in hiring outside experts to come in and take a thorough look at all aspects of their operation, from leadership to fundraising to their business systems. That kind of thorough organizational assessment can help a grantee focus more attention on its key strengths andidentify areas in need of improvement. The key is finding the right third-party help.

LC: The Fairfield County Community Foundation has been very involved in promoting capacity building for its grantees. Can you descibe what that looks like? And what kind of results are you seeing?

KB: We give our grantees access to our Center for Nonprofit Excellence, which provides nonprofit executive directors, senior staff, and board members with high-quality, affordable professional development workshops tailored to their experience level. In addition to training, we also fund capacity building, which some foundations regard as outside the scope of their grantmaking but we build in to ours. For example, we provide grants for technical assistance and technology development, as well as financial management assistance for nonprofits with operating budgets under $1 million. And we connect grantees to local organizations that provide pro bono legal services, professional development opportunities, and management expertise.

Last spring, as part of our response to the challenges of the current climate, we offered a workshop on planned giving with one of the best experts on the subject in the state. Planned giving is an important development tool that many nonprofits need to learn more about, especially as their loyal donors age. With that in mind, CNE offered an intensive half-day workshop on the topic and then offered follow-up consulting to a group of our grantees. We did that because we've found that complex workshop topics work best when paired with follow-up consulting, preferably from the same workshop trainer. That kind of approach can make capacity building work a bit more expensive, but we feel it helps our grantees' have greater impact and is well worth doing.

LC: Based on the results you've seen, what advice do you have for funders interested in boosting the capacity of their grantees to meet the demands of the current environment?

KB: There are several things they can do. First, they can set aside a portion of their grantmaking budgets for technical assistance grants to mission-critical grantees. Those monies in turn can be used by grantees to purchase high-quality consulting from experts in any number of areas. It's also helpful for the funder to learn who the quality, experienced consultants in their region are, so they can offer referrals when needed.

Second, funders can design and/or fund cohort learning for their grantees on priority topics. By cohort learning, I mean bringing a group of nonprofit leaders together for a series of sequenced workshops, with required work between the workshops. It helps, of course, if the nonprofits are invited to set the agenda for the workshops.

Last but not least, funders can survey their grantees directly about how they can help them navigate the current environment. Surveying grantees always surfaces ideas that foundation staffers may not have considered, and often many of these ideas are no- or pretty low-cost.

LC: One of the great things about the nonprofit sector is the fact that there are so many people out there in the field doing terrific work to improve the lives of others. In times likes these, it's important to to share those stories. Do you have one you can share with us?

KB: One really exciting project we launched in response to the current economic climate was a new electronic giving circle. We focused it on a very specific community need: to double the number of poor children in Bridgeport, the biggest city in the county and state, who receive nutritious food through the Connecticut Food Bank's Kids' Backpack program. We worked closely with fifteen donors to create the online campaign, with a goal of raising $125,000 for the program, and in one week we were able to more than double, to nine hundred, the number of students receiving food through the program. The giving circle concept made sense to our donor base, and by choosing a concrete goal in terms of how much we wanted to raise and by clearly outlining the need so that donors knew their gifts would help the food bank scale the program to serve more students, we were able to quickly galvanize support for the effort. At the same time, we were able to create a stronger sense of community among donors, which we believe will lead to additional gifts for other community needs in the future.

Laura Cronin