From "Possibilities" to "Strategic Initiatives"

From day 1, the grants program has been the centerpiece of the Nonprofit Management Fund. This focal point has fulfilled multiple purposes —developing nonprofit organizations, strengthening grant-making opportunities for the Fund’s investment partners, and informing the Committee about organizational needs and nonprofit trends. Yet, as important as this successful program has been, it didn’t necessarily build Milwaukee’s nonprofit infrastructure or create additional local resources.

So, why did we divide our attention between making grants and designing initiatives?

Although we had only 10 grant cycles under our proverbial belt, the applications pinpointed a short list of management challenges plaguing local nonprofits. The funding partners recognized an opportunity to address the second part of the Fund’s mission—refer to Blog #2—and launched several initiatives in 1998. These initiatives were determined through a lengthy discussion of the results from three data-gathering activities: a survey completed by more than 50 organizations that identified their management needs; an environmental scan, which detected gaps in services provided by intermediaries;  and mini-feasibility studies on six possible areas of concentration:

  • organizational assessments

  • earned income strategies

  • training for Boards

  • university degree or certificate programs in nonprofit management

  • collaboration

  • organizational mentorship


Finally, the oversight committee of the Fund narrowed the “Possibilities” and established three “Strategic Initiatives”.  “The three initiatives were designed to have a significant impact on nonprofit organizations of varying types, sizes, and structures in Milwaukee County over the next three years. The greatest emphasis will be placed on those organizations that qualify for a grant from the Nonprofit Management Fund.”

The nonprofit sector’s ability to function depends in part on access to various resources, despite the myriad challenges that exist in the operating environments. Resources may be financial or in-kind, but assistance is helpful only if it matches the challenge. Hence, the assessment or diagnosis of a problem is critical to resolution. Therefore, the diagnostic clinic service was offered to local nonprofits as an alternative to a technical assistance grant.   

            GOAL: To implement a range of diagnostic services as part of the Nonprofit Management Fund’s repertoire of approaches to enhancing the Milwaukee area’s nonprofit sector.

The long-term viability of many nonprofit organizations is dependent on the group’s ability to attract resources using a broad spectrum of financial strategies. The need for a diverse income base will be addressed by several earned income projects to be implemented by nonprofits throughout the County.

GOAL: To develop and implement a demonstration project, which will provide technical assistance to a group of six Milwaukee nonprofit organizations and create a body of knowledge to build the local sector’s capacity.

The differences between a nonprofit and for-profit corporation are many. One critical advantage to the nonprofit status can be its Board of Directors, representing financial, programmatic, and personal resources. Governing Boards are often the untapped resource in organizations. The recommendation to create a B.O.A.R.D. Institute was an effort to have a demonstrable impact on Milwaukee-area Boards of Directors through a variety of placement and training services.

            GOAL: To strengthen the involvement and capability of governing Boards of nonprofit organizations in Milwaukee County through the Board Orientation And Resource Development Institute.  The B.O.A.R.D. Institute will offer recruitment and placement services; governance training; and, publications.

These were the inaugural initiatives of the Fund and they continually evolved into programs that were eventually spun-off to another host in the community. Over the next 15 years, the Fund designed, launched, and supported six major, multi-year initiatives and about a dozen minor ones. The six extensive initiatives encompassed many years, phenomenal numbers of people and organizations, copious investments, as well as an extraordinary number of hours of hard work.

Diagnostic clinics conducted by 2 Fund advisors magnified into over 100 comprehensive organizational assessments conducted by 8 certified consultants.

Earned income projects with 6 groups expanded to become a social entrepreneurship network engaging 15 organizations.

The B.O.A.R.D. Institute morphed into BoardStar.

Y2K fears eased into a technology initiative that grew to become ENTECH.

Professional development activities multiplied into three multi-year Consultant Institutes, graduating 30 consultants.

Hispanics in Philanthropy’s interest in developing Latino-led organizations was magnified into the Funders’ Initiative for Strong Latino Communities with a multi-million dollar investment.

Numerous debates and painful discussions were held during many policy meetings over the years about the need for community-wide resources, diversion of funds into projects instead of organizations, and the Fund’s role as project manager rather than grant-maker.


  • Should the Fund have ignored the potential of creating initiatives and just focused on building the capacity of individual organizations? 
  • Do you think it was a good investment of the Fund’s finite resources to have invested in establishing initiatives that served the nonprofit community at large?

2 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Kathy Gale | March 30, 2014 at 09:19 PM EDT

Our organization benefitted greatly from one of the initiatives, the Diagnostic Clinic. The Clinic was a unique offering that utilized an already developed tool to focus solely on the needs of our organization. The Clinic brought an objective look at our agency and identified strengths, and weaknesses and future challenges.

Yes, it was a good investment for the Fund to establish initiatives that serve the sector at large. The initiatives offered a way to focus on issues unique to the sector, and had a local focus as well.

2. Jean Butzen | April 01, 2014 at 02:23 PM EDT

I think it's rather brilliant to create the initiatives. You could see the patterns and trends in the industry and thus shape funding initiatives to meet those needs. You could have remained passive, funding a handful of groups each year to strengthen board governance, or you could, as you did, say that this was a sector-wide issue and create a means for addressing the issue throughout the sector. By doing this, you were addressing systemic problems for the whole nonprofit sector, rather than helping a few forward-thinking nonprofit agencies each year who requested funding for a specific need. I congratulate you for doing the hard choice to fix systems as well as grant making.

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