We all have causes we care about that deserve our attention. However, unless we dedicate some percentage of our funding toward building the engines of the future, all our efforts may be compromised. We’ve learned from Covid-19 — from threats of future pandemics, global warming and more — that we must invest in long-lasting, far-reaching solutions. We need to build the connective tissue — the solid, robust infrastructure to move philanthropy and related sectors from half-throttle to full speed ahead.
It is understandable that we also feel excited about specific issues. We know how critical it is to combat global warming, save democracy, or increase equity and inclusion. However, we don’t experience the same — or perhaps any — enthusiasm around building a solid foundation today to address the challenges we will need to face tomorrow. As I have been told countless times, most people find supporting infrastructure building to be unsexy and downright boring.
For me, the need to build infrastructure is urgent and exciting because doing so can accelerate progress on many fronts. If I, and those I work with, can convince more funders to explore this topic more seriously, then we could very well find that the opportunity loss we are incurring is far greater than we realized. We might also find that the prospects for making progress are quite promising.
What do I mean by building infrastructure? I’m referring to supporting initiatives and organizations that accelerate progress far and wide and could do more with additional funding. Four well known examples include GivingTuesday, VolunteerMatch, TechSoup, and the National Council of Nonprofits. When I write about the opportunity loss, I’m not referring to building roads and bridges — images that rarely conjure feelings of urgency. I’m talking about the enormous amount of resources that go unrealized that, when added together, exceed what we can comprehend in terms of cost.
To scratch the surface, think about the wealth transfer of trillions of dollars expected to take place over the next 10–15 years, and how little is being done to ensure that a reasonable portion of this windfall gets well spent. Think about the hundreds of billions of dollars sitting in donor-advised funds and how little of it goes toward unlocking charitable, social impact, and human resource capital.
Across America and around the world, there are millions of people with the means but who know nothing about how to give as efficiently, effectively, equitably, and ethically as possible. They don’t know what is meant by giving through an equity or gender lens. In fact, almost the entire public knows very little about such topics or about trust-based philanthropy, capacity-building, co-creating solutions with communities, strengthening grassroots organizations, impact investing, leadership development, or building partnerships — and they should!
There are millions of nonprofit, civil society, and social impact organizations that are working at half throttle when they could be accomplishing much more. Many work in silos, not collaborating, and not efficiently tied to “learning and resource grids” focused on fueling them to achieve maximum good. Every day, week, month, year, and decade, inefficiencies and duplication of efforts run rampant. Every day, organizations around the world are wasting inordinate amounts of time and money reinventing the wheel.
Right now, there are innovations that stand head and shoulders above others, but too few people know they exist. Fortunately, there are great initiatives and organizations working to capture and scale such innovations, such as MacArthur Foundation’s 100&change, Leverforchange.org, Co-Impact, and others. However, even with their resources, they can only begin to unlock the potential of what this exciting area could lead to. We need to invest, not only in discovering better solutions, but also in building cooperative communities of funders prepared to take collective action when exceptional opportunities to scale innovations are identified.
Spend just a moment trying to do the impossible: Take everything just mentioned, multiply it together, and try to wrap your head around what this means. Ask yourself if you don’t agree that the opportunity loss we are incurring every day, week, month, year, and decade is not staggering beyond comprehension.
One great reason to care about building infrastructure is because you are most likely being affected. The organizations you fund might struggle because most of the wealth available to advance causes you value and care about is not being unlocked. Some of the organizations serving your most worthy causes might be able to use additional human resources and expertise, particularly in the areas where they’re lacking.
Another reason to care about building infrastructure is because it not only helps you, it helps everyone around you who is also trying to achieve social progress. If we join forces to unlock charitable, social-impact, and human resource capital far and wide, we create a bigger pie for everyone to benefit from. If we invest in strengthening the connective tissue between us, we enable more giving circles, collaborations, and partnerships to take place. If we make needed data more accessible, more of us will be able to make better-informed decisions.
Let’s dream together — something that does not happen nearly enough — of a future when nonprofit umbrella organizations are sufficiently resourced to help millions of nonprofits around the globe consolidate, reduce redundancy, collaborate, increase resources, and birth the next generation of leaders. Let’s imagine a future when millions of retired people are reached and encouraged to volunteer their time to preserve democracy, fight climate change, increase equity and inclusion, and more. Let’s envision a time when seminars on impact investing are held and attended far more frequently — when diverse sectors convene more often to harness their collective abilities — and when we can say we achieved the SDGs on time. Let’s accomplish more because we were willing to slow down to speed up and embrace a broader lens with some portion of our giving. The final reason why you should care about infrastructure is because you can help bring about this whole new level of change! You can help move sectors working on increasing social impact away from a staggering opportunity loss to harnessing sizable resource gains.