Marjorie Menestres, who has led the child abuse prevention agency SAFEchild for 22 years, isn’t nervous about what will happen to the organization when she retires in June.
Two years ago, SAFEchild began planning for her departure, even though Menestres, the organization’s founding executive director, didn’t know when exactly she would leave.
With a grant from the John Rex Endowment, the Raleigh-based organization crafted a succession plan that would ensure everything went smoothly when Menestres reached her decision, a move that made all the difference for a small nonprofit that looks to its executive director as the organization’s rock.
“When it came time for me to share my news, people could hear it and feel confident, because we had a road map,” Menestres said.
The grant was part of a capacity-building program the John Rex Endowment rolled out several years ago to ensure local nonprofits have a strong foundation.
The grants support projects such as succession planning, strengthening an organization’s board and crafting new fundraising plans, essential work that doesn’t always get attention when a nonprofit is trying to deliver much-needed services.
“If you’re running a nonprofit, you’re pretty busy,” said Kevin Cain, executive director of the endowment. “You’re stretched thin already.”
The John Rex Endowment, which supports groups that help children in Wake County live healthier lives, has made capacity-building grants of more than $1.7 million to 36 local organizations since 2009.
The move by the endowment is part of a trend across the country that looks to capacity building as a way to address the root causes of whether a nonprofit limps along or thrives.
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a D.C.-based membership group, last year surveyed 637 grantmaking foundations and found 77 percent offered some kind of capacity building grants. The survey also found 27 percent of those surveyed had increased their support for such grants.
“Capacity building doesn’t seem like a foreign term any more,” said Lori Bartczak, vice president of programs at GEO.
Cain said the group asks all nonprofits to complete an organizational assessment for their first foray into capacity building, then target the areas that need work. He said the endowment has learned to stress how much time a nonprofit likely will devote to the grant, to ensure no group ends up in over its head.
They’ve also begun tracking the results, asking organizations to self-report on how the grant has helped in areas such as leadership, management and technical abilities.
The results have shown modest progress, which Cain said sounds about right. The capacity grants are intended as a way to make steady improvements, not wonder cures.
Other local funders have embraced capacity-building grants. Triangle Community Foundation is in its second year of awarding the grants.
Lori O’Keefe, president and CEO of Triangle Community Foundation, said the grants have been valuable. The key now is to convince donors that a stronger nonprofit can better fulfill its mission.
“It’s going to translate to an expanded, better delivered service,” she said.