The Pompidou in Paris makes the invisible visible so that we can appreciate the infrastructure it requires. It’s time to make vital philanthropic and nonprofit infrastructure just as visible and support its effective functioning. (Photo by Steve Cadman)

Recently, we were talking with a philanthropist who sits on the board of her local community foundation. She was expressing frustration at the difficult relationships the community foundation had with its grantees and was especially upset that the foundation’s leaders seemed unaware of how dysfunctional some of the relationships were. As we spoke, we shared some suggestions for where she might get help; surveying the foundation’s grantees in an anonymous fashion, for example, could bring fresh, candid perspective to the foundation’s leadership.

In the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group, we regularly get inquiries from new philanthropists. Questions range from broad to specific, across topics such as strategy, evaluation, monitoring, learning, specific issue-areas of work, approaches to collaboration, foundation administrative spending—you name it! Sometimes they come from new donors themselves, other times from new staff members working with donors.

We are always pleased to receive these inquiries. Every donor is on a journey of learning and experimenting, and we want to be as helpful as we can. We can often provide perspective on particular questions, based on our own experience and expertise. We also suggest other people who could be helpful, and provide references to articles, research reports, and conferences. In other words, a big part of our ability to be helpful rests on the strength of the philanthropic and nonprofit infrastructure—the supports that help us all do our work better, including training, guides, networks, convenings, technology platforms, and data .

Recently, 22 infrastructure organizations that support the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors released a joint call-to-action for funders that give $2.5 million or more a year: to support infrastructure with at least 1 percent of their grantmaking budgets. Together, they wrote, “We ask you to invest out of hope. A hope that we can build a civil society capable of tackling the great challenges of our time. A hope that foundations and nonprofits alike can be more effective in pursuit of their goals.”

This is exactly why we have a philanthropy grantmaking program at the Hewlett Foundation—to support and strengthen the sector we’re all a part of. Our approach to supporting effective philanthropy takes three forms:

  1. We helped launch and are actively involved in the Fund for Shared Insight to bring more funding and a brighter spotlight to the critical role that infrastructure plays in a growing and maturing sector. In particular, Fund for Shared Insight seeks to increase foundation openness—both what we share out about our work, and what we’re open to hearing and learning from others, most importantly those we seek to help.
  2. We have a longstanding strategy called Knowledge for Better Philanthropy, in which we fund a diverse set of organizations that produce independent, high-quality knowledge about how to practice and improve philanthropy. We don’t fund this knowledge work with a set definition or belief about the best way to be philanthropic or the most important issues to address. We understand that philanthropy can usefully take many forms and that we need knowledge resources on all approaches.
  3. We fund a portfolio of memberships to many infrastructure organizations—relatively small grants to support diverse and essential infrastructure.

These are our strategies, but we don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to approach infrastructure funding. We do think, however, that funders who believe in learning to improve have some obligation to invest at least a small portion of their grantmaking to infrastructure support. Supporting infrastructure doesn’t take away from other giving; it amplifies it. It unites all of us as funders—whether you fund in your local community, focus on a particular issue or multiple issues, or take a policy or research approach. Givers of all stripes can use and benefit from the infrastructure that supports us all.

Funders interested in this can take a variety of approaches. If your funding is very local or regionally focused, for example, you might fund your regional grantmaking association and other groups focused on relevant topics such as neighborhood giving or family giving. If you care about diversity among foundation staff and leaders, think about supporting organizations such as the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Hispanics in Philanthropy, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. If your grantmaking is issue-focused, there is likely an issue-specific group; Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers for Education, or Grantmakers in Aging are just a few possibilities. Invest in the organizations that are most crucial for your foundation and/or your grantees to be effective. Invest in those you think the sector as a whole needs to be strong and healthy. Say no to requests that aren’t a fit for your work. Invest in one deeply or many lightly, and evolve your approach over time so that it continues to help you achieve your goals.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are growing, and the landscape in which we all operate is dynamic and changing. Indeed, the challenges that many nonprofits and funders are working to address are substantial. To be effective, we have to be open to learning and evolving how we do our work, and infrastructure is one of our most important assets for doing that. If we each give a little, we all get a lot.