Nonprofits are in the Hard Work Business, not the Miracle Business

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Carrie Avery of the Durfee Foundation.

By Carrie Avery

image The two exemplary nonprofit leaders who spoke at the breakfast plenary reminded us of the importance of being patient as funders. Speaking about his ambitious plans to replicate Manchester Bidwell Corporation’s model in dozens of cities internationally, Bill Strickland reminded us, “We’re not in the miracle business, we’re in the hard work business.” If we want to see the results of that hard work, we need to stick with our grantees and not expect them to deliver miracles.

Similarly, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles observed that if funders asked for a budget of her organization’s time that used line items such as Collaboration, Coalition Building and Networking, CHIRLA would have a healthy balance sheet. Of course, all of those strategies require large investments of time and relationship building that don’t always show results immediately.

What’s your timeline? When do you expect to see results? The longer I remain in this field, the more I know grantees for three, five, ten years, the more often I see how what we do as funders (which are not always grants) can produce long-term, often unexpected results. At the Durfee Foundation, we have been bringing together our Sabbatical grantees (outstanding Los Angeles leaders) together for lunches and retreats for ten years. Over those years, relationships between these nonprofits leaders have developed at deepened. They have created partnerships, joined one another’s boards, and found colleagues outside of their organizations to call to bounce ideas off of. The longer we host these gatherings, the more the relationships deepen. Patience pays off.


  1. Hi Carrie,

    The title of your blog made me think back to a session I did at Grantmakers in Health in 2005, the title was Organizational Learning and Evaluation. As the group, mostly comprised of foundation staff, was discussing the trials and tribulations of balancing learning with demonstration of impact, an older man raised his hand. He was a foundation trustee who had come from the for-profit world and had served on several Fortune 500 companies. His comment was this: “A for-profit would never hold itself to the standards that you all hold yourselves to. Our expectations of profit are marginal and over time. You (those working in the social and philanthropic sector) are working with the most challening populations addressing the most complex needs and yet you expect miracles.”

    My immediate response to his comment was, what a lucky ED/President to have him as a board member. My next response was and remains…. how did we get here and how can we re-tweak our thinking?

    Still working on it.

  2. Carrie Avery says:

    Dear Jara,

    Thanks for offering such thoughtful comments to my posts! You have excellent observations and reflections on past work.

    The trustee from the for-profit world is wise indeed. Why do you think we are so hard on ourselves? My theory is that we in the foundation world tend to be a little insecure about our work, and feel the need to prove to the world that it is in fact rigorous, has high standards for performance and isn’t the mushy, feel-good stuff that some people think it is. But, listening to the trustee you describe, it seems that we have gone overboard with this.

  3. Morning Carrie,

    Yes, perhaps we should tip the see-saw towards a more balanced approach. As for the trustee, he was from the for-profit but now (or did then) serve on non profit board. So, they do exist.