Grantmakers for Resilient Organizations

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Darin McKeever of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Darin McKeever

image I’ve just returned from the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Pittsburgh, and I’m thinking about starting a new philanthropic affinity group.  I think I’ll call it Grantmakers for Resilient Organizations.

I’m all for effective organizations.  Innovative and socially enterprising ones too. 

I just think resilience may be an underappreciated quality of organizations in the social sector.  So I’m starting a club for those of us who want to champion and support them.

Resilience, of course, is "the ability of matter to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched, or deformed."  And in Pittsburgh I was reminded again of all the ways charities get bent, stretched, and deformed – and yet continue to spring back: delivering meals, tutoring children, caring for the sick, or bringing the arts to life in our neighborhoods. 

In conference sessions this week, we heard again about the everyday challenges and risks.  Limited operating reserves.  Inscrutable RFPs and NOFAs.  Reporting requirements not proportionate to the size of the grant.  And those are just some of the ones for which grantmakers are (at least partly) to blame. 

As a former executive director and co-founder of a nonprofit, I’m also still viscerally aware of the pain, anxiety, and instability induced by unpredictable government payment lag times, inflexible funding requirements, churn in a superintendent’s office, and high-stakes city budget negotiations. 

Many of those risks simply can’t be modeled.  So in these times, charities must rely not simply on their business models or strategic plans, their innovations or even their demonstrable impact — but on something else.  I’ll call it resilience. 

Resilience is not something charities simply rely on for their own survival.  Our communities must also rely on charities’ resilience.  Those whom charities involve or support often endure far less stable, predictable lives.  Frankly, they count on charities and governments to ensure that the safety net on which they might one day depend is more stable and more predictable.

The question is — how can grantmakers promote this resilience?  Is it simply the same practices the GEO members embrace and sometimes struggle to implement — to encourage leadership, good governance, financial competence?  Or is there a whole different toolbox to consider?

p.s. I’m certainly not the first to explore how the term "resilience" applies to the charitable community.  Dr. Lester Salamon named his great book, The Resilient Sector – The State of Nonprofit America for a good reason.  With any luck, maybe he’ll be the second member of my new club.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


  1. Darin, what a wonderfully thoughtful and provocative post. I hope it will help philanthropists and nonprofit leaders open up a new dialogue about what communities need.

  2. Laura Pierce says:

    I firmly believe that resilience is the new sustainability–a key concept for nonprofit leadership. Successful organizations are paying attention to what it takes to build their resilience (the ability to bounce back in the face of difficulties).

    Building resiliency is both a survival tactic for organizations and a way of being responsible to the people you serve. I first got interested in the concept of resilience while serving on a United Way committee that oversaw allocations for emergency preparedness, response and recovery. Interestingly, the same actions that an organization needs to take to prepare for disaster also strengthen it generally:
    • Establish a network of resourceful people that you can call on (and who will take your call) during a difficult time.
    • Focus on the positive– Lead in a hopeful, optimistic manner and believe in yourself and those around you. This builds self-efficacy—if you believe you can, you will.
    • Encourage creativity. Creativity is what will help you generate solutions in new, unfamiliar situations and get through the “adaptive challenge” you face in a crisis.

    The prospect of grantmakers engaging more actively in building resilient organizations is exciting. I hope the club takes off!