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We're There When You Need Us

July 21, 2015

Money-treeDo you expect your street to be plowed after a big storm? Yep. Do you expect that bridge to remain standing as you drive over it? Of course. Do you expect the folks at the 911 hotline number to pick up every time you call? Without question. Do you take the existence of all this publicly-supported infrastructure for granted? Most likely.

The same is true for the infrastructure serving the social sector. Philanthropists and nonprofits depend every day on hundreds of organizations around the globe that serve the needs of the field. Organizations such as Independent Sector, Grantmakers in Health, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and the European Foundation Centre are there to make connections, answer questions, and, in myriad other ways, facilitate the work of the sector.

So, how do they keep their doors open? Up to now there was no comprehensive picture of what support for "infrastructure organizations" looked like and how that funding was faring relative to other grantmaker priorities. But thanks to a new Foundation Center analysis (22 pages, PDF) prepared at the request of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we now know more.

In 2012, for instance, a set of the largest U.S. foundations provided $134 million in support for nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure organizations, networks, and services in this country and around the world; since 2004, the same group of funders has provided support totaling more than $1 billion. Roughly 41 percent of that giving funded philanthropy-specific organizations and networks — from the Mexican Center for Philanthropy to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. The other 59 percent targeted a range of organizations and activities — from funding for nonprofit-related research at major universities and think tanks to operating and project support for Foundation Center.

Our analysis also found that giving for nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure grew at roughly half the pace of overall foundation giving between 2004 and 2012 (up 30 percent versus 63 percent), a period split by the Great Recession. If you separate out philanthropy-specific organizations from other nonprofit infrastructure organizations, networks, and services, however, the former actually fared much better in the immediate aftermath of the downturn and during the period overall (up 79 percent versus 9 percent).

This suggests that infrastructure funders were focused on shoring up the organizations with which they are most directly engaged — i.e., grantmaker networks. Still, among the various types of grantmaker networks, general-, issue-, and population-focused organizations showed much stronger growth in foundation funding from 2004 to 2012 than did regional associations of grantmakers.

Does this analysis tell us everything we need to know about the relative value of these organizations? Not necessarily; the organizations themselves are probably the best source for that perspective. But this first-ever portrait does provide a means to assess how infrastructure organizations have fared and how the priorities of the funders of that infrastructure are evolving. And it was made possible by funders who believe the social sector needs an infrastructure it, and others, can absolutely rely on to make connections and provide answers.

Steven Lawrence is director of research at Foundation Center.

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