Charities working to make collective impact

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Facing increasingly complex social and environmental problems, a growing number of nonprofits and donors are finding they can make a greater impact by working together than on their own.

Consider Tom Gipson, CEO of Thomas Gipson Homes, a Raleigh custom homebuilder.

Modeled on Gipson’s effort to enlist local homebuilders who then recruited their subcontractors and suppliers to build houses for Habitat for Humanity of Wake County,  homebuilders throughout the U.S. now have built over 1,300 houses worth $65 million for local Habitat affiliates and will build 210 more and rehab another 50 in June.

 “By leveraging my acquaintances and friends, we were able to get a great deal,” Gipson told a work session at What Matters, an event at the Raleigh Convention Center on April 2 hosted by Triangle Community Foundation that focused on the role of innovation and collaboration in making a difference on critical community issues.

Strategic partnerships

The conference, attended by over 500 business, government and nonprofit leaders, highlighted the “collective impact” that nonprofits and donors can have on pressing community needs through strategic partnerships.

“Great nonprofits build movements, not just organizations,” said keynote speaker Leslie Crutchfield, a consultant who has co-authored books on “catalytic” donors and “high-impact” nonprofits.

What ultimately drives nonprofits “isn’t profits, it’s impact,” she said. “Great nonprofits find points of leverage around them so they can amplify their impact, and it’s all about how they work collaboratively.”

Time of change

It has been just over 100 years since the creation of the first organized philanthropic foundations by industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Crutchfield said.

Today, she said, philanthropy looks much different and works much differently than it did then.

There are many more nonprofits in the U.S., an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million, giving donors more choices in what to support, and creating more competition for nonprofits, she said.

And there are a lot more foundations, including 75,000 in the U.S. alone.

Donors can use digital technology to learn more about nonprofits before supporting them, and are making not just donations but also loans and equity investments. And nonprofits are using the power of technology to raise money and awareness through “crowdsourcing.”

Donors are demanding and expecting more accountability from nonprofits, and asking them to use metrics to show the outcome of their work.

Changes in the law have resulted in big changes in the way philanthropy and government are interrelated, and philanthropy and businesses are working together more closely, with “capitalism and market forces” driving innovation and collaboration.

“Because of these changes, opportunities for philanthropists and for nonprofit leaders also look very different,” Crutchfield said.

And the problems that nonprofits and philanthropy address have grown much more complex, she said.

Community conversation

In the two years leading up to its 30th anniversary this year, Triangle Community Foundation has studied community needs in partnership with donors, nonprofits and community leaders to find collaborative strategies to fix them, Foundation CEO Lori O’Keefe said at the conference.

“So what we’ve really been doing is having a community conversation,” she said.

As a result of that work, the Foundation has decided to focus on four key areas — community development, environmental conservation, regional cultural arts, and youth literacy.

Collaborative strategies

In partnership with 22 nonprofits that already have been collaborating with other organizations and with one another, and showing success in addressing pressing needs in the region, the Foundation has launched new initiatives in two of those areas — youth literacy and community development.

The Foundation’s investment in youth literacy aims to encourage youth success by improving early childhood reading proficiency, while the investment in community development aims to help expand access to opportunity through comprehensive housing, health and employment.

Later this year, O’Keefe said, the Foundation will be investing in two more new areas.

One will focus on building a regional identity by strengthening the capacity of artistic and cultural organizations through leadership and training, while finding ways to build the Triangle’s cultural offerings, she said.

The other will focus on the conservation of natural resources by investing in strategies that protect and develop land and green space in the Triangle.

Fund for the Triangle

The investment in those four initiatives, O’Keefe said, are being made with discretionary dollars that have been gifted by donors over the Foundation’s 30 years — the Foundation’s Fund for the Triangle.

With those dollars, she said, “we are working to strengthen the organizational capacity of our nonprofit partners so they can build on their success and in turn have a greater impact on our community.”


Crutchfield also said that, in addition to delivering services, many “great nonprofits” also move into advocacy work because they find that’s the only way they can make an impact.

Durham-based Self-Help, for example, was created to make “fair loans to low-income borrowers” to help “poor people bootstrap themselves out of poverty,” Crutchfield said.

But recognizing that many of its clients already were burdened with debt from “predatory lenders,” she said, Self-Help created the Center for Responsible Lending, which has built state and local coalitions and successfully pushed for laws protecting consumers.

Nonprofit networks

Effective nonprofits also build networks to make a greater impact than they could make by themselves, she said.

The CEO of the Heritage Foundation, for example, took the highly unusual step of sharing its donor list with like-minded think-tanks, Crutchfield said, because it would help advance their common goal of free markets.

Collective performance

In an interview, Gipson said he now is spearheading a new partnership involving Wake Habitat, Lutheran Services Carolinas and The Serving Cup, a ministry of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh.

With funds the groups are raising, Habitat will build three houses in Raleigh, each for three individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, or both, who will pay a monthly fee for housing and services Lutheran Services will provide.

Nonprofits have “moved from isolated impact to collective performance,” Crutchfield said at the conference.

“It means lifting up from worrying about the day to day at your organization,” she said, “while also driving toward larger goals, keeping in mind how you work with those around you.”

[Note: I am working as senior communications adviser for Triangle Community Foundation.]

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