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Expanding Our View of Pathways to Grow Impact

March 21, 2013

(Kathleen P. Enright is president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a community of more than four hundred funders committed to improving their own practices in ways that are critical to nonprofit success. GEO does this by facilitating connections between its members so that they can learn from each other and make more progress more quickly.)

Headshot_kathleen_enrightOnly a few short decades ago, smoking was both widespread and socially acceptable. To those who grew up in the 1990s, a show like Mad Men, where characters smoke in every imaginable context, might seem more like fantasy than a portrayal of a time gone by. It's a visible reminder of how effective advocates have been in challenging social norms and changing the public’s perception of smoking.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is one of those advocates. Recognizing that 90 percent of adult smokers picked up the habit as teenagers, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation set out to counter the harmful impact of the tobacco industry's promotion of its products to teens. In 1996, RWJF launched the campaign to educate teens and the public about the health risks and social downsides of tobacco and promote policies designed to keep kids from smoking.

The campaign employed a variety of strategies, and its online resource center quickly became a hub for sharing information and ideas, including news about tobacco-related policies and reports and opportunities to get involved. Through its work, the campaign connected with other organizations that shared the same mission in order to spread the idea that smoking wasn't cool and supported policy reforms that reduced the appeal of smoking and made it harder for teens to pick up the habit.

Although traditional notions of scale in the nonprofit sector tend to focus on program replication and organizational growth, a closer look reveals that, like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, most successful nonprofits pursue multiple strategies. After all, the results an organization achieves are far more important than its size.

To gain a deeper understanding of the various pathways to greater impact and the grantmaker practices that best support it, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations engaged in a collaborative project with Ashoka, Social Impact Exchange, the Taproot Foundation, and the TCC Group to answer the question: What is the grantmaker's role in supporting high-performing nonprofits looking to grow their impact? The resulting report, Pathways to Grow Impact (40 pages, PDF), includes a framework that details four distinct pathways adapted from one developed by Julia Coffman for a publication of the Harvard Family Research Project. They include:

  • Increasing the reach of a program that has demonstrated reliable results for a specific population over a period of time.
  • Spreading a new idea or innovative way of doing something among individuals or organizations within a system.
  • Increasing the number of people or places that use a technology or apply a specific skill, practice, or approach.
  • Advocating for policy change as a means of transforming behavior.

The report offers recommendations for grantmakers seeking better ways to support nonprofits as they look to grow their impact. Indeed, our work identified four grantmaker practices that are critical to amplifying grantee impact:

  • Providing flexible funding in appropriate amounts over the long term enables high-performing nonprofits to invest in the infrastructure and human capital that will keep them strong.
  • Supporting an organization's ability to collect and use data and develop an approach to performance management enables it to continuously learn, grow, and concentrate its resources where it is having the greatest impact.
  • Providing capacity building and leadership development that is responsive to a nonprofit's context enables an organization to build critical skills and shift gears when appropriate.
  • Supporting movements in addition to individual organizations can nurture relationships and help build the momentum required to achieve broad-scale change.

To access the full Pathways to Grow Impact report and read more stories about pioneering organizations and initiatives that have found creative ways to achieve big results, visit www.geofunders.org.

-- Kathleen Enright

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