Organizational Health Funding Matters:

Building Resilient Organizations and Better Grantmakers

We’re pleased to share this article by Ernesto Espin, a HIP Líder, as the first in a series sharing lessons from our members, partners, and Líderes in practice. From grantmaking to capacity building and more, we’ll be publishing experiences from our network that align with HIP’s own goals of transforming traditional grantmaking models and making grantmaking more impactful by centering frontline leaders and the needs of grassroots organizations in our processes and protocols.

January 31, 2022

Ernesto Alejandro Espin, Open Society Foundations

I’ve been a grantmaker at the Open Society Foundations for three years and during this time I’ve been struck by the fact that grantees continue to face a near impossible choice. It is in many ways a choice between doing and being: do they invest in programming at the expense of their longer-term organizational health, or do they sacrifice programmatic funding to be self-sustaining and accomplish their organizational mission in the long run? As one Open Society Foundations grantee put it, “we struggle with the idea to focus either on organizational health or on keeping the organization alive through grants destined for programming.” But should this be a choice at all? Or is there a scenario in which grantees can do both?

An intentional tool for grantees

From 2018 to 2021, and under the leadership of our director of strategy and impact, Megan Colnar, I was one of the five committee members, selecting, refining and making grants under our newly created Organizational Health Fund within the Open Society Foundation’s Economic Justice Program. The fund provided additional grants of between $15,000 and $50,000 to 14 existing grantees with specific, unexpected or short-term needs that when met would help to improve their organizational health. The fund committee was composed of three junior staff members (like myself) and two program officers/directors. As committee members, we were in charge of reviewing grantee applications, and to work with them to develop their draft proposals. 

The fund was demand-driven, with grantees identifying their own organizational health priorities and OHF committee members offering advice on different strategies to fill any gaps or provide a sense-check on goals. Grants could be used on various things—from strategic planning to board governance, fundraising to security, and more—but they had to contribute to organizational health. This intentionality was built into the fund from the start; combined with more flexible budgeting, having earmarked funds helped grantees to dedicate resources to the things that were critical to organizational health without them being eroded by other demands and meant that even small grants could make a real contribution.

The Organizational Health Fund aimed “to improve the resilience and health of economic justice fields, especially the capacity and leadership of our grantees in their domains” 

An unintentional resource for the program

The OHF pilot ended in 2021, due to changes and a restructuration happening within the wider organization. I’d seen first-hand that an intentional fund focused on organizational health could really benefit grantees—and help shift away from the “doing” or “being” dichotomy. But what also became clear was how the OHF became an unintentional tool for program officers. I realized how our program officers are responsible for dozens of grants and have limited bandwidth to analyze in detail what each grantee needs. The OHF Committee served as an extra pair of eyes and hands for these program officers and their grantees. Through the application and selection process, we would meet with grantees to explore what organizational health support might benefit them. The Committee applied a monitoring, evaluation and learning framework, to help grantees measure their results and were on hand for technical assistance, advice, or connections to other experts if needed. For our colleagues, this was an “extra valuable support,” as one program officer described.

Better grantmaking for social change

The Organizational Health Fund as designed helped us to be a better grantmaking team and to really live by our grantmaking principles. By providing additional support to grantees, managed by a separate fund, we were boosting the potential influence of existing grants, reinforcing the work of EJP’s program officers, and taking forward ideas for good grantmaking that might not otherwise be pursued. When grantees and donors don’t have to choose between “doing” or “being,” they can co-create resilient organizations that could eventually create resilient spaces for lasting social change. After working these past three years in this project, this is why organizational health funding matters.

About Ernesto

Ernesto came to the United States at the age of 15—a Dreamer and a DACA recipient. Alongside his family, Ernesto has been part of cultural, and community well-being initiatives, from providing guitar classes to low-income communities, to facilitating meditation, reiki and well-being practices to youth, adult and elders through New Jersey and New York. Between 2012 and 2017, he was part of Juventud Ecuatoriana (JUVE), a non-profit organization based in New York designed to raise funds, elevate voices, advocate and channel resources to traditional and undocumented Ecuadorian Latinx students in the Tri-State area.

In 2015, he joined the DC office of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and worked as a Planning Coordinator for the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In 2019, he became a fellow in Hispanics in Philanthropy’s Líderes program and in 2020, he was selected to be part of the Social Sector Leadership Diversity Fellowship at NYU. Currently, Ernesto is finishing his masters degree in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance at New York University, working for the Economic Justice Program at the Open Society Foundations, and continuing with his volunteer and community work.