April 23, 2018

Emma Spalti, graduate fellow, Fund the People

What happens when funders invest in nonprofit staff, and can it go beyond the individual to improve organizational performance and programmatic outcomes? Foundations that have taken the plunge into talent-investing – and measured the results along the way – can offer some insights. In this post, I share my findings from studying 16 of these evaluations from funders including the Bill and Melinda Gates, Annie E. Casey, Robert Wood Johnson, and Blue Shield of California foundations.

Over the last several months, as a graduate fellow with Fund the People, I have gathered and analyzed evaluations of talent-investments by foundations to look for common outcomes. The results of this research establish baseline data based on some of the existing information in the field. In addition to reviewing reports, I conducted interviews with foundation staff, evaluators, and industry leaders to better understand the results of these evaluations. Throughout this exploration, I observed the meaningful impact that talent-investing can have on strengthening individual leaders, nonprofit organizations, and fields of work and social movements across different methodologies, interventions, and locations. These findings ought to be shared widely, discussed, and tested further to improve philanthropic practices.

Here are four results of talent-investing supported by my research:

1. Bringing Skills Back to Organizations
The skills nonprofit staff learn can ripple through their organizations. Developing nonprofit staff to be better professionals, managers, and leaders may impact a team, a department, and – ideally – organizations as a whole. While directly measuring organizational impact is a challenge, these investments have a demonstrated value.

The Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Clinic Institute Emerging Leaders Program developed skilled, mid-career leaders to step up as long-serving leaders retired, and to respond to dramatic changes in healthcare policy. Forty-seven percent of participants reported a significant contribution to organizational improvements from the program. One year later, 48 percent of participants reported earning a more senior role. Other programs reported tangible organizational benefits such as improved board governance, new strategic plans, and improved fundraising.

Changing an organization can start with empowering its staff. By offering effective skill-building services that are tailored to the specific needs of organizations, foundations can target specific outcomes. Programs like the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Award understood the vital relationship between nonprofit success and leadership skills and worked with organizations to develop specific leadership and mission-related goals.

[bctt tweet=”By offering effective skill-building services that are tailored to the specific needs of organizations, #foundations can target specific outcomes. ~Emma Spalti, #fundthepeople” username=”fundthepeople”]

2. Creating Networks of Nonprofit Professionals and Field Leaders to Build the Sector
The results of talent-investing are driven by the purpose of the grant. Many of the programs explored sought to support grantees or to develop a field. Fellowships and workshop-based programs like Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Ladder to Leadership and the Schusterman Fellowship work to create networks among participants. By funding professional development or leadership training for grantees, staff can learn from consultants and trainers, and also from each other. A strong network can bring new resources and staff to a nonprofit, and new ideas and collaboration to communities and movements.

[bctt tweet=”A strong network can bring new resources & staff to a #nonprofit, and new ideas & collaboration to communities & movements. ~Emma Spalti, #fundthepeople” username=”fundthepeople”]

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report, Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders discusses the results of their 16-month training program, which grew networks of emerging nonprofit health leaders across several regions. They found that one year after the program, 71 percent of fellows continued to leverage these new networks to address community health challenges. Across a number of programs, participants valued these programs and the individuals who shared their experiences. The networks were used to bring resources to organizations, share ideas, and work beyond a single institution.

Several months ago on this blog, Fund the People’s Rusty Stahl explored the question, “What if I Invest in Them, and Then They Leave?” One of the main conclusions was “When most people leave nonprofits – especially those who have been well-supported and developed – they are very likely to remain with the cause, continuing their mission work from a different perch.” A network of well-supported program alumni who share learning, resources, and ideals can build or strengthen a movement in a way that goes far beyond any single organization.

3. Creating a Shared Vision to Drive Change
One of the ways to drive results across an organization, or an entire field, is through leadership development. To meet a desired goal, several leadership development programs created shared language, frameworks, and practices among participants. A program like this can help to establish a set of values and skills by which a field works.

The Annie E Casey Foundation’s Leadership in Action program worked to increase school readiness in Maryland. To achieve this, the foundation conducted leadership training for nonprofit and field stakeholders, offering the Results-Based Accountability framework and tools for addressing racial inequality and advancing collaborative leadership. A major conclusion was “Collaborative relationships changed by focusing on a single result. This provided a means for letting go of individual goals and accepting a collaborative commitment to a result.” This training allowed mid- and senior-level leaders to refocus on and work towards a single goal. While a number of factors led to this outcome, and a single leadership program cannot be directly tied to the change, school readiness increased by 13 percent by the end of the first year. By creating a shared way of understanding a problem, nonprofits can strategize and cooperate more effectively on a solution.

[bctt tweet=”By creating a shared way of understanding a problem, #nonprofits can strategize & cooperate more effectively on a solution. ~Emma Spalti, #fundthepeople” username=”fundthepeople”]

4. Building Relationships with Funders to Improve Philanthropy
Foundations can learn a great deal when they become deeply involved in strengthening staff and understanding the needs of grantee organizations. When programs are tailored for specific organizations, foundations’ and grantees’ relationships improve through building goodwill and fostering trust. When foundations and nonprofits develop more trusting relationships, they can address organizational and field challenges in a candid way. One anonymously submitted evaluation explained that partnering with grantees enabled the foundation to quickly respond to capacity-building needs and strengthen individual organizations and the local nonprofit sector. Working closely with grantees can help funders develop responsive practices, improve their capacity-building efforts, and access new insights about the communities that they serve.

[bctt tweet=”Working closely with grantees can help #funders develop responsive practices, improve their capacity-building efforts & access new insights about the communities they serve. ~Emma Spalti, #fundthepeople” username=”fundthepeople”]


The 16 evaluations of investments in nonprofit staff that I studied offer important evidence that talent-investing can bring new skills back to organizations, build or strengthen networks, create shared visions across fields, and improve funder-grantee relationships. Foundations should take this evidence and use these programs as models to create their own investments in nonprofit staff that strengthen the sector and create social change. There is much to be learned, and even more to be gained, by valuing nonprofit staff in grantmaking.


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