As I write this at the tail end of 2020, the year of a global pandemic punctuated by eruptions of social unrest, I’m in awe of the non-profits in the US and NGOs around the world that not only made the proverbial ‘pivot’ to ‘meet the moment,’ but performed aerial gymnastics to get through to December. For all intents and purposes, workplans and financial projections went out the window, while resilience and readiness factors busted through the door.

How can philanthropy help organizations stay the course through a tidal wave year?

Victoria DunningProgram Officer, Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD)

Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative posits that multiyear, unrestricted grants, including dedicated support for institutional strengthening will foster stronger, more durable, more resilient, and more impactful organizations and networks—the kind of organizations that can punch back at 2020 and continue undeterred on the road to social justice.

A developmental evaluation conducted by our external evaluation partner, NIRAS, will help illustrate whether (or not) BUILD’s grantmaking approach is achieving its goals. And while it is too early to draw evaluative conclusions, the recently released Interim Report shares early promising findings.

Some answers and lingering questions

The Interim Report provides in-depth early findings and recommendations that can be found here along with methodological summaries and additional data. The big headlines are worth highlighting. (Quotes from BUILD grantees are anonymized and excerpted from the evaluation Interim Report.)

  • The BUILD model works. The three aspects of a BUILD grant—long-term commitment, flexible funding, and institutional strengthening support—working together is what helps BUILD grantees be stronger, more resilient, and more effective. It’s not a single one of these grant components that makes the real difference. The synergistic effect of the three factors provides strategic latitude and adaptability for organizations to develop response capabilities and create conditions for success.
  • Success is not one size fits all. The early findings suggest that the BUILD approach works for organizations of various sizes, structures, and stages in the Global North and the Global South. However, success looks different for each organization depending on their operating context. BUILD enabled the grantee to identify institutional strengthening priorities, and make investments that would position it to achieve its purpose. As one BUILD grantee noted, “BUILD’s focus on strengthening institutional capacity for the long term, in a way that is most appropriate for our organization at this particular point in time (i.e., recognition that there is no “one size fits all” approach to institutional strengthening), has been invaluable.”
  • Space for DEI. In many cases, the BUILD grant allowed for critical and overdue attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion—an area of significant importance for any organization and one that is often under-resourced.

Some questions remain unanswered until the final phase of the evaluation. For example, NIRAS will seek to more clearly understand the link between the BUILD grantmaking approach and grantees’ ability to achieve mission impact. We will also look at the long-term resiliency of BUILD grantees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest of 2020.

We hope that the deeper understanding we gain from this evaluation will help fine tune our decision-making on right-sizing a BUILD grant and providing optimal opportunities for learning, exchange, technical assistance, and creating organic synergies between and among our social justice partners.

Now what?

The final phase of the BUILD evaluation will continue through 2021, and will provide further evidence of BUILD’s impact. However, the early evidence base from the evaluation, the powerful testimonials of BUILD grantees, and the current transformative moment provide a compelling case for the Ford Foundation and other funders to double down on this grantmaking approach.

Nonprofit leaders speak with power and conviction about the ways in which a BUILD-like grant can provide both the stability and the courage to invest for the long haul; to strategically innovate and implement; and to bend and rebound to countervailing conditions. Across sectors, there are louder and stronger demands for transparency, accountability, equity, inclusion, agency, and power-sharing. The Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, economic justice and climate justice are calling for social transformation, and that extends to philanthropy. BUILD’s approach to grantmaking puts the grantee in the driver’s seat, expands trust within the funding relationship, and reframes the role of the funder as supportive, responsive accompaniment.

Many program staff and grantees have remarked on how their relationships have been completely reimagined because of BUILD. “The ongoing, substantive, strategic conversations with BUILD staff and other Ford colleagues have been immensely valuable,” noted one BUILD grantee partner.

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I better not make any predictions for 2021—but that I will have to be ready for anything. I wish the same for social justice nonprofits and NGOs everywhere: that they have the long-term, flexible funding, and institutional strengthening support they need to help them to thrive and succeed whatever the future brings.