First You Build Your Scaffold…
To build a sturdy house, a builder typically uses a scaffold to save time, ensure efficiency, and guarantee a solid job. Scaffolds are platforms or supports, and they can be useful in building almost anything, be it a structure, an organization or an individual. In some ways I prefer the term “scaffold” to the term “infrastructure”, a term much in vogue these days whether as a description of the physical components of a community such as roads and bridges, or as a description of the social components of a community, such as parks, cultural spaces and community hubs. The reason I prefer scaffolding, particularly in the context of community is that it can also be applied, as a term for “support”, to things such as training, research, technology platforms, and advocacy work. All of these are arguably as important to the effective building of philanthropic and non-profit organizations as are physical spaces. But this type of scaffolding doesn’t receive much attention, and certainly not much investment.
This subject is being discussed in the nonprofit community in the United States, provoked by an open letter released in the middle of May by twenty-two so-called “infrastructure” organizations. This letter was addressed to foundations, and it asked them to consider committing up to 1% of their grants to support non-profit infrastructure. The way the twenty-two organizations define infrastructure is the way in which I define scaffolding: “Nonprofit infrastructure organizations run the training programs that support the growth of our staff and volunteers. They do the research to help us understand what works, and what doesn’t. They build the technology platforms that make communication and learning possible. They hold the conferences that gather nonprofit leaders together and provide them the resources and connections to improve their work. They advocate for new levels of excellence to push us all to do better — and for policies that create the legal environment in which we work.”
All of these elements of scaffolding – training, connecting, researching, advocating – are equally important in Canada. While we couldn’t possibly assemble twenty-two infrastructure organizations working at national level, we do have a thin web of national organizations supporting effective practice in philanthropy and charities, such as Imagine Canada, PFC, Community Foundations of Canada, some grantmaker affinity groups, Volunteer Canada, CanadaHelps and umbrella organizations representing specific sub-sectors, such as the Canadian Council for international Cooperation, the AFP, United Way/Centraide Canada and others. Notable for their relative absence in Canada are organizations supporting charity data collection and evaluation such as Guidestar and the Foundation Center, or charity and philanthropy-focused publications such as the NonProfit Quarterly and the Stanford Social Innovation Review (although we are lucky to have The Philanthropist), or organizations supporting governance for nonprofits such as BoardSource. There is still relatively little available to support the development of charity capacity to measure and report on impact, although kudos to CanadaHelps for recently introducing a new Impact Tool for charities. And we have no philanthropy strategy advisory firms as of yet in Canada on the scale of Arabella Advisors or Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors or The Philanthropic Initiative.
Frankly, our scaffolding is weak…and it is as much of a struggle to finance it in Canada as it appears to be in the United States. Canada doesn’t have many very large foundations (certainly not too many making over $2.5 million in grants annually, which are the foundations solicited by the open letter). It is probably unfair to call on those foundations exclusively to consider funding more infrastructure, although a growing number are willing to invest in it. Even in the United States, with many large foundations, it seems that funding for philanthropy infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the growth in giving, according to a Foundation Center data study of infrastructure. And in Canada, as in the United States, public funding for non-profit infrastructure has decreased considerably over the last few years.
What to do? Clearly, it is necessary for organizations dedicated to providing philanthropic scaffolding to make and prove our case for support. We need to demonstrate that we are targeting the right needs, doing it efficiently, collaborating as much as we can and not adding to duplication or wasting very scarce resources. We certainly have the opportunity to collaborate in Canada, and to offer joint funding opportunities to interested funders. As even the hyper-competitive American infrastructure organizations are realizing, the case is better made together than apart. This joint call to foundations in the United States is important. Why? Because, as they have put it well, “with the right investments in civil society’s supporting institutions — across the local, state, national, and global levels — we can reach new levels of efficiency, ethics, and excellence.” A compelling case for more Canadian funders too?