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The Importance of Nonprofit Infrastructure

Recently, I read an excellent article in Nonprofit Quarterly by Cynthia Gibson about the benefits of the nonprofit infrastructure. I had never heard this phrase, but it resonated immediately. After reading more, I realized that this is an invisible but indispensable layer of connecting tissue that can create major value.

So, how does a nonprofit infrastructure work?

Developing Common Agendas. Communities exist when there is a sharing of common attitudes, interests and goals. The infrastructure layer of the community provides the foundation for independent citizens to work, live and play. Similarly, nonprofit community infrastructure lays down the frameworks, channels and opportunities for individual nonprofits to build skill sets, develop strategies and refine service delivery solutions.

Sharing Lessons Learned. In the nonprofit world, infrastructure organizations can provide the scaffolding for staff to network and share information. Hearing about best practices in program management, policy formulation and relationship building are some of the ways that nonprofits can learn from each other. Shared knowledge is a powerful thing. Why should every organization reinvent the wheel? Listening to stories from other community members speeds up the rate of adoption of new processes and promotes more efficient methods of mission fulfillment.

Establishing Data Collection. Infrastructure organizations gather data from their local groups about the dimensions and needs of populations served. This lens can bring a social problem into focus and suggest actions for solutions. Even better, through community discussion and participation, it’s possible to design strategic programs that leverage the specialty of each nonprofit. Then the community truly becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Encouraging Voluntarism and Philanthropy. Many infrastructure organizations carry out marketing campaigns and organized initiatives around a particular theme or topic. The attention and momentum gained helps individual groups increase participation by volunteers and encourages giving by donors. Remember that ALS ice bucket challenge that became insanely popular last summer? When a particular cause hits a tipping point in the public consciousness, serious progress can be achieved in a short time span.

So who are some of the organizations that work at this critical but sometimes invisible juncture? I live in Oregon and I am still new to the nonprofit arena, but some of the state groups I know of are the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and the Center for Nonprofit Stewardship. One of my favorite infrastructure organizations is NTEN which assists nonprofits who are struggling with technology issues. TechSoup and 501cTech are other groups supporting effective social impact through IT for nonprofits.

Investment in nonprofit infrastructure groups brings major rewards for funders who invest in them. More support is needed, especially as we fully enter an era when technology is the predominant channel for donor and volunteer communications. In a time when government funding has fallen and needs have risen, nonprofits are being asked to do more than ever before.

What Can Funders Do To Help?

  • Join nonprofit sector associations that advocate for and deliver services for groups of nonprofits.

  • Provide memberships for funders’ nonprofit grantees in these organizations.

  • Provide funding for organizations that deliver management, fundraising, technology, communications or other capacity-building training to funders’ grantees and other nonprofits that use and need these services.

  • Provide funding for research about the nonprofit sector so that their nonprofit grantees are better able to demonstrate their impact on society and, in turn, advocate more effectively for the interests of their constituents.

  • Provide funding for publications, educational materials and other information that nonprofits, including their grantees, can use to strengthen their organizations and their work.

  • Provide funding for local, state, or regional efforts to build the capacity of individual nonprofits.

  • Offer opportunities for grantees and others to engage in community building across activity areas, geographic regions, and populations so that they can learn from one another and work collaboratively to achieve common goals.

  • Set aside a percentage of all annual grant funding specifically for infrastructure awards.

Every funder that offers grants to nonprofits has a responsibility to strengthen the infrastructure. Doing so is smart business and smart management. In this case, a rising tide really does lift all boats.

Jayne Dutra is a new member of the nonprofit community and is dedicated to social advocacy for underserved populations and the community at large. She believes in building public engagement to improve conditions for all citizens. She can contribute help with social media, digital content strategy, graphic design, grant writing or data analytics.

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