Co-authored by Jane Leu, Founder/CEO of Smarter Good and Kriss Deiglmeier, CEO of Tides

Dear Funders,

January 2017 is here and the world has returned to work. Typically, this time of year the nonprofit sector shifts into high gear digging into annual action plans, setting up board meeting schedules, and depositing checks written the final days of December. Looking forward with a proactive approach to progress is front and center.

This is not a usual year.

This month a new administration will take office in Washington, advancing new policies that will reverberate throughout the world. We are heading into a new world order, one marked by a level of uncertainty and volatility that we have not seen in decades.

From climate change to health care to women’s rights to human rights and immigration, the new administration has called for drastic measures that have the potential to severely erode past gains and successes. The mixed messages and absence of clear policy plans make the environment in which we operate highly unpredictable. In this unusual year, it is impossible to adequately “plan” for 2017 and beyond within the current model of nonprofit funding. All bets are off, and all assumptions are up for question.

In this year of the unknowable, everyone working for social good, justice, and the environment must be ready to bend to changing rules of the game. Nonprofit and philanthropic leaders must learn to pivot quickly, mobilize collectively, and get comfortable operating within ambiguity, or we will all lose. We must adapt, and fast. We must shift from traditional planning processes and goal setting — what we’ll call “offense” — to strategies that put defense front and center.

As a sector, playing offense is embedded in our DNA. For most nonprofits and funders, business as usual is an optimistic pursuit, ever working to propel things to be better. With the changing tenor in Washington progress has no guarantee, and it will be our jobs to hold the line and prevent things from getting worse.

Within the nonprofit sector, existing funding dynamics will become our own worst enemy if we don’t do something about them. Sadly, the nonprofit funding ecosystem doesn’t operate with agility to support adaptive organizations needing to switch to ready defense. The established funding models, mindsets, and tools award grants for offense — for scoring points in the favor of positive change, of lives improved, of policies passed and quantifiable results, often executing plans laid out months ahead of time.

Existing funding dynamics will become our own worst enemy if we don’t do something about them.

But today’s climate requires us to change our game and actively protect the gains of the past. We need defense, not just offense. However, so far, funders have not stepped up to provide agile and flexible funding for this work. Nonprofit leaders are plowing ahead, doing what they can to anticipate changes and take on this work without a corresponding commitment from funders.

But without money to play defense, we have so much to lose. Funders, you need to change. Get aggressive, take some risks, and get on the team. You need to feel the same pressure to act as those on the frontlines. Step out of your comfort zone, put down your multi-year plans, and get on the field to provide crucial resources to your grantees. This needs to happen today. This isn’t something to deliberate over in prolonged discussions that delay action until it’s too late.

Funders, the signs we’ve seen so far indicate that you are still playing by the old rules. You are talking a lot in your e-news, but we’ve seen no visible changes in your funding or ways of operating. Most nonprofit leaders are hearing from you, but your messages lack the responsiveness and urgency that this situation demands. It’s not enough to huddle with your teams on new strategic plans. It won’t work to promise that you will revisit requests in Q2, when the political landscape is clearer. Q2 may be too late and moreover, how do you know it will get clearer? So far, the arc of reality since November almost guarantees that instead of getting clearer, everything will just get messier.

Funders, you need to speed up, not slow down timelines. Give more, not less. Expand general operating and rapid response support, don’t restrict funding to narrow offensive strategies. We need you to drive change in this new reality with new partnerships, new ways of operating, and unprecedented agility that supports the people and organizations working to uphold decades of social and environmental work. This defensive work may not be as sexy as flashy offensive plays, but it’s vital to holding the line.

Let’s put aside the usual ways of operating that involve annual grant cycles, five-year strategic plans, and project-based funding. Instead, let’s collaborate more. Let’s package less. Let’s show each other our scribbles on whiteboards and try to figure out what these defensive plays are, and how they can best uphold our position until the time is right to push for our next big wins. Let’s put our muscle behind big causes, not branded campaigns or narrow project plans in limited geographies. Let’s pull in allies across sectors, companies, governments, universities, and citizens of our nation and across the world. Let’s be true partners.

You like to talk about risk. Now let’s see you put that talk into action at your own organizations and in how you engage with the people and work that you fund. The world needs the entire nonprofit sector — the changemakers as well as the funders — to adapt, respond, and act, now more than ever.


Kriss Deiglmeier, CEO, Tides
Jane Leu, CEO, Smarter Good

JANE LEU is a serial social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow with more than 20 years of experience in founding and leading numerous social enterprises. Her latest venture is Smarter Good, a global services firm with a mission to improve the efficiency and impact of the nonprofit sector.