President's Perspective

Building Highways to Stronger Nonprofits

March 01, 2017

by Carol Thompson Cole

My commute to Norfolk is my time for reflection. And I’ve had a lot to reflect on lately, but one interesting question recently came to mind.  What does it take to build a highway with its intricate winding roads and detailed structure? Building a highway is one of the most involved processes known to man, but with a lot of planning and effort the work always gets done. Though the work is often complex and takes years for plans to come into fruition, the result is always a highway that impacts communities, gives people a new pathway, and opens access to places they could never reach before or makes it an easier trip.

Strengthening a nonprofit is like building a highway in a lot of ways. To build the capacity and advance the work of a nonprofit in a way that leads to future success requires three major components—a solid foundation, sustainable development and continuous measurement of effectiveness.

Investing in Capacity 

What does it mean to build capacity for a nonprofit? At VPP, we talk a lot about capacity—helping our investment partners address challenges and find solutions in order to deliver higher-quality service to more vulnerable children and youth. This kind of support is most effective when it is specifically designed for the needs of the nonprofit’s goals and mission, and our partners have a strong sense of both.

When identifying a winning nonprofit that has the potential to become stronger, we look at an organization’s entire infrastructure. We start by having a laser focus on the organization’s leadership.  Focusing on leadership is such an important piece of building capacity because if you have strong leaders, that flows down to each and every other part of the organization. Our goal is to empower leaders with strategy, vision and action to move the organization forward.

In addition, we carry out a rigorous process of analyzing other parts of the organization like financial stability, the services offered, organizational structure. As we dive deep and engage with nonprofits, we look for the greatest needs and discover areas for enrichment. But essentially the potential to grow has to be there, and there has to be a solid foundation to build upon.  We are there to ask the hard questions and push the organization beyond its limits.

We invest in the potential that organizations have to serve more youth, and we do this by committing resources and expertise over an extended period of time. Our investment process is characteristic of building a highway, and the longest-standing are not built over night.

Engineering a Sustainable Organization

When engineers design and build a highway, they always think ahead to ensure that the structure is one that is durable and can stand strong through various weather conditions and pressure of everyday traffic.  In the same way, a sustainable organization is one that can withstand constant challenges, changes in the landscape and uncertainties of the future, but can continue to thrive and grow to serve more people.

Many times we partner with an organization at a time when it is poised to expand. It is a perfect time for us to collaborate. When the organization is at a period of growth, it is always necessary to steer development in a way that is sustainable.  That’s what makes our rigorous due diligence process invaluable.  It makes a difference in an organization losing steam or continuing to grow over the next 10 to 20 years. One of the key areas that we emphasize in our engagement with our partners is looking at measuring effectiveness as an ongoing process. Evaluation is important in building and sustaining because it helps to set priorities, adjust direction when necessary and meet goals.

Assessing the Construction

It’s not enough to measure success through outputs. Outputs tell you about whether your program delivered services as intended, but they can’t tell you if participants benefited from your program.

Outcomes, on the other hand, tell you if participants benefited from your program and can serve as indicators of program success or effectiveness. However, outcomes cannot tell you about whether your program was implemented well. Effectiveness and outcomes of programs along with timely and appropriate interventions matter a great deal.

Surely, increasing the number of individuals served—whether that is through workforce development programs, after school classes, or college tutoring—creates a tremendous benefit for the individuals served and for a region. But focusing exclusively on numbers of people served can constrain and limit a nonprofit’s goals and strategies and miss some important elements of creating lasting change in a community. The value lies in a change in the individual, their story of how the organization made a difference, and that is the piece that is connected to the mission.

Outputs measure and assess what you do and who you serve. Examples include:

  • Served 100 youth during summer camp
  • Provided 2,250 hours of tutoring during the academic year
  • 9 out of 10 youth attended at least 75 percent of available art instruction classes offered

Outcomes measure and assess changes in your target population. Examples include:

  • 75 percent of youth increased their knowledge of local history during summer camp
  • 50 percent of youth increased math grades by one grade level during the academic year
  • 25 percent fewer youth reported being involved in bullying over the last year

VPP sees and encourages a focus on outcomes. The most recent example of outcomes-focused investing has been our partnership with Urban Alliance, an organization that empowers under-resourced youth to aspire, work and succeed through paid internships, formal training and mentorship.

We completed our 4-year investment and are very pleased with the results. Urban Alliance has made some significant strides towards increasing the number of youth served, but the most notable accomplishments have been made in other areas of the investment related to outcomes.

Urban Alliance advanced towards their goals by reaching the following milestones during our investment:

  • Expanded further into the Greater Washington region by replicating programs in Northern Virginia
  • Built internal capacity to serve more youth and meet organizational needs
  • Increased external presence and became a strong voice in youth employment policy

This increased capacity has resulted in a stronger organization and better outcomes for youth. We were able to help equip Urban Alliance with all the components—a solid foundation, sustainable development and continuous measurement of effectiveness—to reach milestones and strengthen the organization.

We’re proud of what Urban Alliance has been able to accomplish and foresee a great future of further expansion and providing more youth with internship experiences.  And again, our desire is for each of our investment partners to be able to reach more youth. Building capacity is a huge part of what we do, but being able to build highways that create more opportunities for our young people to succeed in a world full of roadblocks and obstacles makes the all of the work worthwhile.