Building long-term partnerships with nonprofits to scale impact: Lessons from sustained funding relationships
By: Susan Olivo, Executive Director, Lavelle Fund for the Blind, and Brad Turner, Vice President & General Manager of Global Education and Literacy, Benetech. This piece was originally published by Philanthropy News Digest on October 25, 2021.
Every foundation wants a nonprofit partner that shares in and will deliver on its mission. Every nonprofit wants to engage a funder that is willing to collaborate and help them grow. But while shared vision and mission are important, they are not everything. What are the elements of a strong and sustainable funder-grantee relationship that drive meaningful change and impact?
The Lavelle Fund for the Blind has long worked in partnership with its grantees to empower people who are blind and visually impaired to lead independent and productive lives. The fund pursues this impact by supporting direct services, such as vision screenings and larger-scale, systems-focused work. While funding direct services provides immediate and measurable benefit, focusing on systems change is more of a long-term investment.
The fund's work with the nonprofit software organization Benetech falls squarely into the "systems-focused" category. When Benetech launched its Bookshare initiative in 2001 to help blind and visually impaired people access the printed word, the fund recognized the huge impact this technology could have if brought to scale and became one of Benetech's earliest supporters. This support ultimately helped Benetech earn a U.S. government grant to scale Bookshare nationally. Today, Bookshare provides nearly a million individuals who are blind or have other reading barriers with the accessible materials they need to read, learn, and build independent lives.
Long-term vision and patience
The Lavelle Fund took a series of calculated risks to fund Benetech's international expansion to India. India is home to sixty-two million people living with a visual impairment, the largest population of blind and visually impaired people in the world. The potential for impact is huge, but programs that work in the United States may not necessarily work in a different context. We understood that we had to have the patience to build a proof of concept for adapting to local context and then incrementally grow the investment and wait for results.
The fund first helped Benetech launch its work in India in 2008 as a small portion of a larger grant designed to support content creation for U.S. readers. This essentially enabled Benetech to prove that Bookshare was a viable solution in India and build the core relationships needed to get the program operational. However, with that grant alone, Bookshare was not poised to make a significant impact in India, as the proliferation of technology was not yet where it needed to be. Moreover, Benetech needed to build a staff in India to manage operations, a locally relevant book collection, and a network of strong relationships within the education and disability rights spaces.
Recognizing that, Benetech applied to the fund for a grant focused specifically on capacity building in India. By 2013, smartphones had begun to take off, providing a new low-cost method of accessing books. Benetech brought on a full-time team that connected with key organizations in India, including the DAISY Forum of India, EnABLE India, and state education leaders. The team also focused on adding key educational and cultural texts in many local Indian languages and developed systems for outreach and training that boosted membership from 350 to 9,000 in just a few years. Fund-supported outreach efforts have doubled that user base to more than 20,000 members today.
Making an impact takes time. Expanding Bookshare's services to people in India requires long-term support — not only to build relationships but also to address barriers, provide software training and advice on devices for reading content, and offer resources for digital literacy.
A strong organizational culture
When evaluating nonprofits, it is important to evaluate the overall strength of the culture and structure that the organization has built. People are important, but placing too much trust in the main program contact, CEO, or even the entire team leading a funded project is risky, because people come and go over the course of long-term programs. So we need to ask: Is the organization inherently strong enough to weather those changes? Can they assess, learn, and pivot as needed to meet the goals and combined missions?
The Lavelle Fund works with several grantees that effectively export their strong organizational expertise to strengthen systems around the globe. Perkins School for the Blind's international division has used sustained and long-term funding from the fund to help make education accessible to blind children and those with multiple disabilities in Latin America. Perkins expands the impact of its own organizational culture by developing educational leaders from across the globe, who then work in-country to strengthen internal systems.
A strong organizational culture also is critical on the funder side. The Lavelle Fund is particularly fortunate to have a board that is passionate about the mission and stands behind the executive director and staff, trusting them to do the due diligence, especially for projects overseas, where there are additional complexities.
The Lavelle Fund takes pride in its willingness to work with nonprofits to test out the viability of new ideas before implementing them at scale, but that work requires honest communication about successes and failures alike. The fund has many grantees working on similar issues and, as such, its staff reads the reports with an eye toward building connections, sharing knowledge, and offering help. We want to learn from grantees about unexpected problems they encountered: Were they insurmountable, or could they be resolved? Did they pivot, and how?
Creativity in the face of challenges
The COVID-19 pandemic posed an enormous challenge for all sectors. For the Benetech outreach team, lockdown restrictions meant that in-person training and outreach programs came to a grinding halt. In the face of this challenge, the India team took a creative approach, pivoting to online outreach and providing essential digital skills to blind and visually impaired people. The team ultimately provided comprehensive digital literacy skills training to more than fifteen thousand attendees.
The pandemic also revealed the greater need for digital literacy as a whole. This led to the creation of the latest Lavelle Fund-supported project, which focuses on a digital-forward educational approach in schools for the blind.
Another long-time grantee of the fund, Helen Keller International, faced a daunting challenge, as its school-based ChildSight program, which provides vision screenings and eyeglasses to schoolchildren, was no longer able to do so in a school-based environment. Building on a long-term and trust-based relationship, the fund and HKI worked together to develop viable alternatives, such as working through community-based services to reach vulnerable populations in public housing and shelter settings.
Working together with Benetech, the Lavelle Fund has empowered more than twenty thousand people in India to read and learn, enabling them to pursue higher education, build successful careers at major multinational companies, and live joyful, independent lives. This impact would not have been possible without a sustained partnership between the fund and Benetech to implement Bookshare in India, build the partnerships necessary to succeed, and pilot new practices for outreach and growth. We will continue to learn and adapt our approach as we go.
With patience, honest communication, adaptability, and alignment on a common vision, nonprofits and foundations can build lasting relationships to make an impact that will be felt by families and communities for generations.