“Why do we do that?”

“Well … that’s the way it’s always been done.”

Unfortunately, this is a common conversation among staff members of a nonprofit organization.

In a community with infinite needs and finite resources, few nonprofits enjoy the liberty to break the daily grind to address long-term innovation and operational improvement.

However, nonprofits interested in developing a more thoughtful, systematic approach to realizing their mission can now turn to the ever-evolving San Antonio Area Foundation.

Three years ago, the Area Foundation began investigating new approaches for its grant initiatives to ensure that donors’ dollars generated the greatest impact. During this process, Area Foundation staff identified a serious gap in funding for nonprofits: No local grant-making organization provided support for internal critique of strengths and weaknesses of day-to-day operations. The Area Foundation decided to launch an innovative new grant program called Strengthening Nonprofits.

“A grant to help nonprofits increase their good work by strengthening their capacity was a natural fit for the Area Foundation,” said Sandie Palomo-Gonzalez, assistant vice president of Grants and Programs. She oversees the Strengthening Nonprofits grant process. The next deadline for applications is June 3.

One of many new meeting spaces available to non-profits at the San Antonio Area Foundation's new location.
One of many new meeting spaces available to non-profits at the San Antonio Area Foundation. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

The Area Foundation’s Nonprofit Support Services Department has long provided community organizations access to workshops and trainings, but the Foundation’s expansive new location in the Pearl Brewery complex has enabled the organization to move beyond its role as a grantmaking and scholarship organization and become a comprehensive resource for nonprofits. The foundation’s large, modern office space allows nonprofits to fully utilize support programs in multiple conference rooms – intended to increase collaboration and discussion among nonprofit staff and administration.

In 1964, Mannie Goldsmith founded the Area Foundation when he and his son created the Nat Goldsmith Memorial Trust to honor Mannie’s brother, a philanthropist and local businessman. Since the formative years, the Area Foundation has grown exponentially, managing $220 million worth of assets last year. The Foundation has distributed more than $200 million in scholarships and grants through its outreach and community initiatives.

With substantial resources and a welcoming facility, the Area Foundation is now poised to intensify its impact in the local non-profit world, and addressing non-profit inadequacies through Strengthening Nonprofits grants is at the heart of that work.

Strength in Action: The Brighton Center

The Brighton Center, for two years now a Strengthening Nonprofits recipient, serves as a prime example of an organization on the move.  It provides family and community education and developmental services to children (birth to age 22) with disabilities, and works to help these special needs children achieve their maximum potential. The center hosts therapy, childcare, and special education classes and training for adults, as well as fundraising events.

Brighton Center hosted The Queen’s Ball - The Culmination event for the 11th Annual Queen of the Vine Campaign. The campaign raised more than $184,000 in February 2013 for the children with disabilities that Brighton serves. Photo courtesy of the Brighton Center.
Brighton Center hosted The Queen’s Ball – The Culmination event for the 11th Annual Queen of the Vine Campaign. The campaign raised more than $184,000 in February 2013 for the children with disabilities that Brighton serves. Photo courtesy of the Brighton Center.
Kim Jefferies, executive director of the Brighton Center. Courtesy photo.
Kim Jefferies, executive director of the Brighton Center. Courtesy photo.

Recently, the Brighton Center experienced significant staff and budget growth which required Kim Jeffries, executive director, and her board of trustees to take a critical look at the need for internal change.The Area Foundation provided the tools to measure strengths and weaknesses. (See details in the sections below.)

“It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations,” said Jefferies, “and the Strengthening Nonprofit grant enabled us to have high level conversations about how to overcome weaknesses. The first year the Brighton Center found sustainability and leadership were key weaknesses. The organization relied too heavily on the executive director. Jefferies, the leadership staff, and board members took a hard look at what would happen were Jefferies to leave. Succession planning often falls by the wayside at non-profits, which often struggle with inadequate staff, funding and training.

As Jefferies put it, “No one wants my job. As a leader, the buck stops with you, and expectations of a leader are higher than anyone else.”

Jefferies brought in an outside consultant who led the executive team through succession planning, and the Center is now developing leaders at all levels internally.

Brighton Center leadership team performing for the staff at "All Staff Day," an appreciation event. Photo courtesy of the Brighton Center.
Brighton Center leadership team performing for the staff at “All Staff Day,” an appreciation event. Photo courtesy of the Brighton Center.

How the Grant Works: Phase I and the CCAT Catalyst

“The process,” Palomo-Gonzalez said, “is complex work and can be time consuming and challenging. But investing in the organization now benefits the organization and the families they serve in the long run.”

The complexity of the grant is rooted in the candid conversations Phase I and the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT) provoke.

During Phase I, organizations receive funding to complete the assessment tool: 146 questions evaluate organizational effectiveness and areas of improvement along four “core capacities:” leadership, adaptability, management and technical. Based on the results, the nonprofit is given recommendations and tools to implement them.

The library at the Area Foundation offers nonprofits access to foundation databases so they can more easily identify donor who support their mission
The library at the Area Foundation offers nonprofits access to foundation databases so they can more easily identify donors who support their mission. Photo by Melanie Call.

Once the CCAT is completed, the program brings together leadership staff and board members for frank discussions. This is where the process can get difficult.

Internal tensions surface when staff or organizational weaknesses become the focus of a shared conversation. People feel singled out, even threatened, and often respond defensively. Fostering a safe environment for such conversations is an important part of the process.

After the initial grant cycles, Palomo-Gonzalez noticed nonprofits required a buffer if constructive solutions were going to be identified and implemented. In response, the Strengthening Nonprofit grant staff created a discussion tool – a guided conversation akin to a mini office retreat – to help staff and board members ask uncompromising questions that challenge the status quo.

Phase II Grants: Strategic Planning and Beyond

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Phase II grants provide funding to support specific projects that address a group’s deficiencies. Projects funded during the previous two grant cycles ranged from supporting strategic planning processes, to strengthening marketing and fundraising to leadership training for staff and board members.

Palomo-Gonzalez recalled a site visit to an arts organization just prior to making a decision whether or not to award a Phase II grant. The CCAT identified an opportunity to strengthen the organization by increasing the internal visibility of its mission statement. In an effort to reignite the passion that drew the staff and board members to the organization in the first place, they had painted the mission on the wall. Everyone saw it and were reminded of their calling. Every day.

For Palomo-Gonzalez, it was a “goose-bump moment,” providing a tangible testament to the effectiveness of the Strengthening Nonprofit grant. “The grant ensures we have vibrant and healthy nonprofits addressing community needs. It’s exciting because no other funder in San Antonio is working towards this impact,” said Palomo-Gonzalez.

*Featured/top image: San Antonio Area Foundation employees Joel Williams and Cassaundra Edwards make use of the foundation’s cohesive new office at the Pearl. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Melanie Call

Melanie Call

Melanie Call is a skater with the Alamo City Roller Girls.