St. John's Well Child & Family Center


Unrestricted Operating Support: Q&A with Joyce Ybarra, Director of Learning

Joyce Ybarra

The Weingart Foundation’s core grantmaking strategy is to provide unrestricted funding to organizations advancing racial, social and economic equity. We consistently hear from nonprofits that unrestricted support is vital to achieving their missions. In order to deepen our understanding of the impact of our Unrestricted Operating Support, in 2017 and 2018 we worked with our evaluation partner, Harder+Company Community Research, to develop a series of case profiles that detail the work of four grantee partners: R.E.D.F., Central American Resource Center (C.A.R.E.C.E.N.), Step Up on Second (Step Up), and Center for the Pacific Asian Family (C.P.A.F.). The case profiles are small-scale qualitative assessments of the accomplishments and challenges of grantees. They also provide us with important insights into how Unrestricted Operating Support can strengthen organizational capacity and effectiveness.

The following Q&A with Joyce Ybarra, director of learning, highlights her main takeaways from this research.

What was the Foundation hoping to learn with these case profiles?

The Weingart Foundation’s Learning and Assessment (L&A) framework is focused on measuring the organizational capacity of our grantees across seven areas of effectiveness. This was designed around our central belief that unrestricted support is an effective capacity building mechanism, and that if given the flexibility, nonprofits will invest in their greatest core infrastructure needs to strengthen their ability to deliver their missions.

We conducted these profiles to complement data we are collecting through our L&A system, focused primarily on changes at the organizational level. We wanted to dive deeper on a selective basis with a cross section of grantees that have received multiple Unrestricted Operating Support (U.O.S.) grants and that demonstrate strong alignment with our equity framework. Our goal was to explore whether our funding strengthened their effectiveness, and if so, whether that led to stronger programmatic or community-level outcomes.

Based on the case profiles, does unrestricted funding strengthen organizational effectiveness and if so, how?

Overall, the profiles provide good information that confirms the value of our U.O.S. dollars in building the capacity and effectiveness of nonprofits. As was noted across the profiles, it is clear that our unrestricted support allowed organizations to invest in mission-critical infrastructure needs on a variety of levels. To highlight a few:

  • Increased investments in staffing structure and talent management. The flexibility of U.O.S. funding allowed grantees to develop staffing and internal management structures based on their actual needs rather than as dictated by restricted funding sources. It also allowed them to hire qualified, culturally competent and representative staff, and provide that staff with training and support to facilitate their growth and success within their institutions. Staff recruitment, development, and retention are some of the most prominent issues we consistently hear about in our work, and U.O.S. appears to be a critical resource that enables organizations to invest in their talent appropriately.
  • Greater ability to be responsive and adapt. The flexibility of our U.O.S. grants empowered nonprofits to develop culturally responsive, client-centered programmatic solutions to meet the holistic needs of their clients and pay for things not supported by other funding sources. This was particularly true for those organizations that rely heavily on government funding. The multi-year and unrestricted nature of the grants also helped leaders respond to emerging and unforeseen circumstances and opportunities, as well as take the necessary time to plan for the long-term.
  • Greater confidence and ability to take risks, innovate, and scale and expand. This allowed organizations to enhance and extend their impact in multiple ways, both big and small. We saw this in the R.E.D.F. and Step Up examples as they moved into new geographic regions and significantly scaled up operations accordingly.

We view these as positive outcomes of our U.O.S. funding, indicating that unrestricted dollars strengthened the organizational effectiveness of these grantees. To some degree, we also saw how that increased capacity has in some cases led to better programmatic outcomes as it relates to improvement and expansion of services.

Are there other factors that led these organizations to be particularly effective?

It is evident that there is strong value in the support we provide beyond the grant – and in each of these cases, we were able to provide additional tools and resources that offered tailored supports to the grantees (targeted capacity building, P.R.I. funding, rapid response grants, strategic restructuring, etc.). While this is not the norm for all of our U.O.S. grantees, it is certainly the case with many of our nonprofit partners that we consider to be key anchor organizations working in priority issue or geographic areas of focus for us.

It should also be noted that all of these grantees have received multiple U.O.S. grants and/or large, multi-year investments, along with additional tailored supports. It is apparent that long-term funding and multi-layered support is necessary to build organizational capacity effectively and sustainably.

Finally, trust between the funder and the nonprofit is key. It was clear that our grantees value their relationship with us, and in particular, the approachable nature, openness, and thought-partnership we strive to provide. These organizations reported that they feel they can be more candid in sharing their needs and engaging in deep conversations about how to effectively use our flexible dollars to address those challenges.

Did you find a link between unrestricted funding and community-level outcomes?

As context, our broad assessment tools aim to undestand impact at the organizational level and not at the community level. In these case studies, we did want to dig a little into community-level data. However, most of the organizations we profiled had a limited ability to help us understand their impact on long-term, community-level outcomes. This isn’t a surprise, since many nonprofits aren’t adequately funded to evaluate their work beyond what is required for reporting purposes to their various funders. While they all use data to some extent for their own learning and planning, they recognize the limitations of their systems to look beyond the short term and a few noted the need for additional support in this area.

This is a good reminder for us—and for other funders. To really measure community level impact would require a different approach and significantly more resources, both in terms of dollars as well as support to grantees to develop the right performance management systems and infrastructure.

What other lessons did you learn that might guide the Foundation’s work moving forward?

As critical as U.O.S. and has been for these organizations, it is clearly not enough. Nonprofits face significant competing priorities, and investing in areas such as evaluation and learning, or even in maintaining adequate liquidity, continue to be ongoing challenges. Given that, it is all the more critical for the Foundation to continue our advocacy for sector-wide systems change on issues such as full cost funding and multi-year Unrestricted Operating Support.

We found a wealth of information in these case profiles and will continue to use this data as well as the findings from our Learning and Assessment framework to explore ways to strengthen our grantmaking practice.

To read a summary of our findings as well as the individual case studies, click here.