Nonprofits seeking grants to improve

Foundations: Long on enthusiasm, short on expertise, nonprofit groups are finding help in building their organizational skills.

February 23, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Energy? Enthusiasm? The Friends of Patterson Park had them in spades.

They put on water ballets and Halloween parades. They got people to adopt trash cans to keep the park clean, an event celebrated with can-shaped cakes on Valentine's Day.

But when it came to a budget, they didn't have one. They'd never written an annual report. And they acknowledged that they needed help raising money for the future.

To everyone, from the $25 donor to a large foundation, such needs might sound a lot less inspiring than the spectacles in the park. But helping the Friends evolve attracted the Morris Goldseker Foundation, which gave the group $12,500 simply to learn how to be better at what it does.

In Maryland and around the country, foundations are addressing a longtime problem few have wanted to talk about - finding organizations that are strong enough to be worthy of major investments.

To solve it, they're opening their pocketbooks to give grants that strengthen groups, as Goldseker did, or to establish the kind of training programs they hope will deepen the skills of nonprofit leaders.

The Marion I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation is spending $89,500 to create a fellowship in "nonprofit leadership" for 20 local nonprofit leaders at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, which recently started a new degree program in nonprofit management.

The Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation will start a similar fellowship in Baltimore this year, after running one for the last nine years in Hawaii, where the foundation also is active.

On the Eastern Shore, Frank and Mitzi Perdue and a Michigan foundation have given $6 million to match money raised for the endowments of local nonprofits. The idea is to generate income for the organizations to use for their operations in years to come - while having a firmer base of support.

"You'll see something you'd like to do, that needs to be done ... and if you're having trouble finding the right organization or leadership to invest in, it suggests that's something we ought to spend our time doing," said Timothy D. Armbruster, president of the Goldseker Foundation, whose board decided a year ago to devote part of its grant-making to strengthening nonprofit groups.

Foundation problem

In creating such programs, foundations are acknowledging they have been part of the problem. Nonprofit leaders frequently complain that philanthropists often are interested only in funding particular programs, and only for a limited time.

Meanwhile, the underpinnings of the organization - its endowment, its management - may languish, ultimately making the programs less effective.

"There isn't a single funder or giver that really likes to give money to the basics - the heat and light," said Paul C. Light, vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, who has done research on strengthening nonprofits. "Individual donors and funders like to see their money get right into the hands of people in need."

That problem came to the fore after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Light said. Donors were angry when the American Red Cross wanted to divert part of the millions of dollars it raised for blood storage and preparation to use for future attacks - needs that typically attract much less attention.

Other charities raised plenty of money, but found their infrastructure - including check-processing equipment and computers - overwhelmed by the number of people seeking help.

Greg Cantori, the Knott Foundation's executive director, says the investment in basics has been needed for years. But it's particularly critical now, he says, when the economic downtown means foundations must be more selective about the organizations they fund.

Applications double

"The number of serious inquiries and applications we've gotten in the last 18 months has almost doubled, while our corpus has been hit," he said.

Those trends, along with the stresses of fund raising, serving needy people and dealing with government budget cuts, have taken their toll on the people at the helm - and on the services that nonprofits provide.

In a recent national survey, management firm CompassPoint found that nearly two-thirds of the 1,072 executive directors it queried were in the role for the first time. And fewer than half said they'd be willing to take another job as executive director.

To that end, Goldseker and Knott have underwritten a "transition" program with Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, a group that offers workshops and resources to 1,200 member agencies statewide. The program will train a pool of interim executive directors who can step in when a leader leaves an organization.

Then there are organizations like the 4-year-old Friends of Patterson Park, which doesn't even have an executive director. Its two staff members are paid for by other nonprofits.

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