Foundations and Nonprofits: What Does it Mean to “Speak the Same Language”?

August 15, 2016 Hal Williams

At bbcon 2015, some of the top minds in the nonprofit industry came together to present Big Idea sessions. These high-level discussions focused on key thought leadership topics and trends shaping the industry. In this npENGAGE blog series, top Big Idea presenters recap the topics they presented on so you can use their insight to build your next Big Idea.

Like most big ideas, this one is both ahead of the times and behind them.

Nonprofits for years have made a discipline of speaking the same words as their funders. They raise money by crafting documents that reflect the terms of those who give it. If the funder calls it a benchmark, so will we. Or an indicator. Or a milestone. If you give us a logic model or a theory of change format, we work hard to not only embrace your words but to put them in the right rows and columns. For their part, foundations have tuned in well to nonprofits’ focus on being mission-driven. The fit between mission and program is among the most frequent topics on applications.

At the level of words, there is already great congruence. At the level of language, there is not.

Linguists teach us that we think in frames that tie words together. In my experience, two dominant frames are now shared by foundations and nonprofits. The first is compliance. Nonprofits are preoccupied with writing what the funder wants to read or hear, and foundations are compliant with proposal templates that change little over years or even decades. The second is the equation of funding or delivering services with achieving results. The home webpages of nonprofits proclaim how many were served. The annual reports of foundations celebrate how much money they have spent in a given area. Neither tell us how many participants stopped smoking, moved to grade level, secured or kept a job, or anything else.

The big idea as I see it is to speak the language of results together. Literally, put results first, whether in grant discussions and decisions, program design and analysis, or anything else.

Four reasons to speak the language of results together:

  1. The writings are much simpler and shorter. Over many years, my colleagues and I at The Rensselaerville Institute have learned that proposals based on process, structure, and beliefs are needlessly long. There is no end to the detail that can be provided on activity. In contrast, it does not take long to say that of the 200 persons in our program, 160 of them achieved the following specific gain. Brevity gathers energy. This is one reason the lengthy and often arcane outcome frameworks available have gained so little traction on the ground of program delivery.
  1. Achievement lets both foundations and nonprofits stand out. Nonprofits are generally equal at the level of what they do. They don’t rise to the top because they say how much they care. Foundations are generally equal in terms of the domains in which they award money, and certainly in similarities in the groups that receive their grants. The annual reports blend together in the same way as do nonprofit descriptions. Where both foundations and nonprofits are different is at the level of accomplishment, where I find surprising variation—not only among organizations but within them. Financial investors share a language built on differentiation. Foundations and nonprofits share words that fail to distinguish much of anything.
  1. Collaboration is essential. The current words and such fashionable pursuits as redressing the power differential between foundations and their supplicants emphasize the line between these groups. When “results first” is the frame, funders and implementers are in the same boat. They must move heaven and earth to get to the human gain promised. In reality, foundations are dependent on their grantees when it comes to return on investment.
  1. Verification is in real time. At present, the consequences of activity are made separate from the acts presumed to produce them. They are packaged and placed in periodic reports that come in well after the fact. In a “results first” frame, there is actually no need for a final report. Investors and implementers share data in real time. Analytics are built to show trends, patterns, successes, and shortfalls as they unfold. The important element of privacy is fully respected by unique identifiers and cohort groups as the unit of data and analysis.

So how do we get there?

There is good news when it comes to putting a big idea into full expression. We do not need to change our values. We just have to change our habits.

  • We start every conversation between a foundation and its grantees with a question or thought about some result.
  • We stop penalizing nonprofits more for getting their annual reports in late than for having low results contained therein.
  • We share at least some data as programs unfold rather than purposefully shielding information from each other.
  • We create learning communities that significantly improve the practices of both grant givers and getters by looking at what explains variation.
  • We create collaborations which outperform what foundations can get with other grantees or what nonprofits can get with other funders. The act moves from cooperating to creating.

As we do these things, we come together in the frame of accomplishment for people and settings in need. When that happens, the words will fall into place in different and more zestful ways.

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