President's Corner

More Thoughts on Building a 21st-Century Organization

April 16, 2010

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

We are seeing the impact of our approach in the advocacy victories and systemic changes achieved by our grantees and by the families with which they work.

In my last report to you, I shared some reflections on what it means to be a 21st-century organization. My thoughts were inspired by the publication Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector (hereafter, Convergence), which identifies and discusses the trends expected to have the most significant impact on nonprofits and Foundations in the near future.

Many of you asked for the chance to continue this conversation and to push it further, particularly as a point of reflection about how we are positioning Marguerite Casey Foundation and our grantees as 21st-century organizations: That is, how did we get to the point of being a 21st-century organization, how can we sustain this position, and what more can we do? I am pleased to share more thoughts with you on this important topic, and I look forward to discussing it as a group during the next board meeting.

As you may recall, the authors of Convergence state that five key trends – demographic shifts, advances in technology, networking, an increased interest in civic engagement, and the blurring of sector boundaries – demand that nonprofits demonstrate the following core aptitudes:

  • Willingness to address and leverage demographic shifts: Going beyond representational diversity by leveraging diverse ideas, approaches and talents in support of an organization’s mission and strategy.
  • Ability to use new technology and social media: Using technology as part of an overall communication plan.
  • Supporting networks, coalitions and collaboration: Expanding organizational reach through networks and coalitions, and organizing work as a collaborative, evolving process rather than as something that can be controlled internally.
  • Encouraging civic engagement: Creating opportunities that maximize and leverage contributions from an ever-wider range of individuals.
  • Creating and supporting cross-sector partnerships: Pursuing cross-sector partnership opportunities and leveraging collaborative and competitive strategies to fulfill the mission, including initiating and participating in advocacy and public debates to influence public discourse.

As I see it, Marguerite Casey Foundation was founded with a brand promise – Ask. Listen. Act. – that positioned the organization ahead of these five trends. At the outset, the board of directors institutionalized a culture of soliciting and listening to a broad range of ideas, absorbing the ideas and responding with thoughtful strategies designed to engage people to build a better society for low-income families. We recognized as an organization that to promote family leadership, our work would have to be a collaborative, evolving process that would allow us to respond to opportunities for engaging an ever-wider range of families and communities.

Policies instituted by the board of directors set forth practices that, in their own right, positioned Marguerite Casey Foundation lor the future. Those practices have defined and refined the way we execute our programmatic work and have affected relationship building between the Foundation and its grantees, and among the grantees as well. Consider some of the evidence – from our grantmaking approach, our complementary non-grantmaking strategies and our internal operations – that places Marguerite Casey Foundation and its grantees in line with, and often ahead of, current trends in the social sector.


Our grantmaking is designed to spark innovation in tackling the roots of poverty and promoting the voices of low-income families: We provide general operating support grants in carefully constructed portfolios – portfolios created not by accepting unsolicited proposals but by initiating partnerships with organizations that have credibility in their communities. That approach optimizes the potential that Marguerite Casey Foundation funding offers, and allows grantees to take risks and to explore innovative solutions to the issues in their communities. We consistently examine whether we are engaging strategic organizations and constituencies, and we make changes, such as the recent addition of the Appalachian region, to expand the diversity of families who realize that their futures are linked.

Non-grantmaking Strategies

Our non-grantmaking strategies amplify our grantmaking, push fresh ideas forward and provide a model of innovation and risk-taking for our grantees and our colleagues. Our efforts to build the capacity of Rio Grande Valley and Mississippi Delta organizations, our convenings that foster collaborations and coalitions among grantees, and our online tools and resources are examples of the support the Foundation provides to its grantees, support that helps them maximize the impact of Marguerite Casey Foundation grants. At the same time, our non-grantmaking strategies deepen our knowledge of our grantee partners and grantmaking regions and keep us open to emerging strategies and ideas for improving the way we do our work.


We have built a program staff that has the experience, commitment and expertise to provide collegial support to our grantee partners; we have a communications team that crafts compelling messages and uses technology to disperse them widely; and we have evaluation expertise and processes that help us refine how we set and measure impact goals, and collect data to measure our progress and adjust our strategies.

And, of course, the Equal Voice campaign embodied the trends cited in Convergence: using networks to organize in new ways, employing cutting-edge technology and communications, promoting diverse voices and views, advancing family leadership and promoting civic engagement, and reaching across traditional divisions, all while providing tools and learning and network-building opportunities to promote those same trends and skills among our grantees.

What evidence can we point to that indicates we are successfully promoting such trends among our grantees? In the 2009 grantee survey, we learned that, as a result of Marguerite Casey Foundation funding, grantees are building networks and partnerships, engaging more community members at significant levels, and leveraging ideas and strategies from a range of sources:

  • Eighty-one percent reported that Marguerite Casey Foundation funding allowed them to reach more community members.
  • Eighty percent reported that the funding helped them deepen relationships with existing partners; 73 percent were able to increase in the number of their partners.
  • Eighty-eight percent of grantees belong to at least one formally structured network or coalition that focuses on advocacy issues.
  • Eighty-three percent reported that the Equal Voice campaign affected families’ abilities to advocate in their own behalf; the most common effect was a deepening of families’ understanding of issues and how those issues are connected (30 percent).
  • Fifty-nine percent of the grantees recruited representative community members to serve on the board.
  • Seventy-five percent of the grantees worked on at least one major policy issue campaign.

Those indicators suggest that the way our grantees are doing their business reflects strategies – networks, engagement, advocacy and an ever widening reach – likely to lead to significant impacts in the future. To deepen our understanding, we could ask grantees in the 20i0 survey about their cross-sector work, strategies for promoting deep diversity, and use of technology.

Funders have a unique role to play in preparing nonprofits for the future, and from its beginning, Marguerite Casey Foundation has made the most of that role. We employ a general-operating support funding model that provides nonprofits with the stability they need to pursue innovations, and we back up our funding with opportunities for learning and for building relationships and networks. We provide resources and platforms for organizations to explore new ways of doing their work, new partnerships and new strategies for engaging families as leaders in their communities.

We are seeing the impact of our approach in the advocacy victories and systemic changes achieved by our grantees and by the families with which they work. We are confident that this is just the beginning and that we have the persistence and patience to pursue and craft the strategies that will achieve long-term change.

Equal Voices Listening Tour

The way in which our approach influences how the grantees work together is evident in the legacy of the Equal Voice campaign. Since January 201 0, we have visited grantees and their communities across our funding regions. We have come away from those visits with the following observations:

  1. Grantees are developing strong relationships across constituencies, issues, race and egos, and they want to incorporate that framework into their day-to-day operations through board and staff trainings.
  2. Using the Equal Voice framework, grantees are developing and executing new ways of working collaboratively and have told us, unequivocally, that they want a formal structure for working together.
  3. They want to learn from the best thinkers and to adopt the best practices.
  4. They want regional autonomy to determine priorities.
  5. They want to keep the message simple.

Conclusion and Questions

As always, I am grateful for your interest in exploring the complex questions that will lead us to increasingly more effective ways of doing our work. The Convergence authors conclude their report by asserting “to adopt the role of futurist also demands that we ask ourselves and our organizations some difficult questions.” I am pleased to share those questions with you:

  1. Are we effectively engaging the right individuals, communities and networks in our work?
  2. What are we positioned to do better than anyone else?
  3. How do we keep on top of the ways in which our environment is changing?

More Thoughts on Building a 21st-Century Organization