Strengthening Our Foundations


Strengthening Our Foundations

By Tom Dente

President and CEO

July marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry Thoreau, the American author, naturalist, and activist. In his most famous work, Walden, he observed: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Our important and diverse visions, missions, and program strategies within the Humentum membership have this same combination of permanence (castle) and aspiration (in the air) and also require ongoing work to put the foundations under them. 

As Humentum celebrates its 40th year and looks ahead in our changing sector, the importance of the work of our community dedicated to operational excellence has perhaps never been higher. The efforts that expert practitioners, global teams, and leaders conduct each day strengthen international development and humanitarian organizations and ensure that program successes can be expanded and sustained.

Each day, it seems, additional insights emerge that highlight the critical role that operational capabilities play to enable program scale and mission success. Just last month, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, an article jointly authored by Bridgespan and the Ford Foundation and based upon their collective work introduced a framework they called the Grantmaking Pyramid. This pyramid highlights that increases in program impact rest on organizational resilience and foundational operational capabilities.

The article, Time To Reboot Grantmaking, by Michael Etzel and Hilary Pennington, introduces this framework as part of advocating for a productive dialogue between grantees and funders to gain agreement on the elements of healthy and successful nonprofits, both domestically and internationally. Given our community’s dedication to operational excellence, many of the observations ring true. “First, nonprofits need to build strong foundational capabilities” the article notes. These capabilities include core operational functions and “strategic planning, information technology, and staff development” in addition to the differentiating capabilities essential for organizations “to [fulfill] their missions (for example, an advocacy organization requires excellence in strategic communications).”

Securing appropriate and full funding for these essential operational capabilities is key. In addition, the article notes it is not just securing funds to cover these costs, but “ongoing organizational commitment to devote the time and energy to ensure that organizations address these issues.” This commitment recognizes that the definition of operations and operational excellence continues to evolve within HR, finance, IT, compliance, and global operations to name a few areas, as well as incorporating new skills and expertise in areas such as risk management, knowledge management, and digital literacy. These foundations need to grow even stronger to support the complexity of funders, programs, and geographies that our organizations serve.

But this foundation is often hidden or undervalued. The article notes that “this combination of foundational and differentiating capabilities is the hidden strength or weakness of any nonprofit, and provides the platform for deploying effective programs.” Our community exists not only to strengthen these areas through collaborative communities of practice, resource and insight sharing, and learning, but also to communicate their strategic importance.

We are pleased that one of the co-authors of this article, Michael Etzel, will be speaking at our upcoming Annual Conference later this month, in a session called “Full Cost Recovery: Where Is The ‘Progress Needle’ Pointing?” We look forward to welcoming you and recognizing and celebrating the essential work that you do.

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