by Doug Waddill

“I know, I know, I know…oooh oooh, call on me, I know…”  We have all been in classes with THAT guy or girl.  The “know it all.”  As a former teacher, I was always amazed at that stereotypical kid that had to be first and had to know it all.  Usually when they were called upon they were off base, wrong, or said something along the lines of “Never mind, I forgot.”  Their drive to be first outweighed their drive have a quality response.

At MMI, we work in a population of great need. A population that needs answers and needs them quickly.  That need could drive an organization to be a self-proclaimed rescuer or expert with all the answers, like that “know it all” kid.  But that could fall into a dangerous trap of moving too quickly and not providing a quality response. There has to be a better way to learn from those around us, take time in finding the best answers, and being okay with not being first.  This helps responses to issues be quality and effective, not simply quick.

At MMI, we admittedly aren’t the experts.  We are advocates that are seeking the best options to serve black and brown youth in Memphis.  We are luckily not alone in the fight to bring equity to the youth services community.  To that end, we continuously explore what resources, knowledge, best practices, and examples we can learn from.  We want to learn from others doing aspects of the work and promote those example among local youth serving music organizations.

In many ways, MMI is a pioneer, so we cannot simply “copy and paste” endeavors that have worked in other locations — but rarely (if ever) does that work in practice anyway.  We are committed to taking cues from national research and applying those practices to the specific Memphis fabric to create positive movement for the non-profits that we support.

National research strongly implies that funding alone isn’t the solution.  The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) discussed the process of creating relationships, not simply giving money to a cause in their article “Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success.”  Programming inside of a community needs to have direct support from inside the community.  That strongly suggests that “savior funding” or “savior organizations” are not contributing to lasting change within communities of need.  MMI seeks to walk alongside organizations to personalize the approach to the specifics needs of those being served.   Many organizations fall into a trap of trying to find an approach that is successful and simply recreating it in other venues.  That trap treats all organizations the same, as well as the communities in which they are serving.  It does not adequately address the equity gap cycle or the varying needs from community to community.  MMI seeks to partner with the grassroots organization to find the specific needs and tailor a combination of funding, technical assistance support, and consultant expertise to best meet those needs while matching existing community providers to the communities of need whenever possible.  Funding can’t stand isolated from the “work,” and our Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (INE) seeks to daily find supports that exist alongside of funding.  That allows for funding embedded in the work to have a greater chance of success in implementation through its authenticity.

Funders often use an assumed definition of “capacity building” when determining the level of funding needed for an organization.  Funding organizations also use a singular definition of “capacity building” as well that does not account for the multi-faceted nature of non-profits.  For MMI, we seek to help organizations build capacity in a wide range of ways.  They each have a “next step,” and understanding that is an essential part of our “meeting them where they are” philosophy.  What helps an organization grow as well as what indicators show growth varies greatly, and MMI is flexible in being able to approach agencies by looking at their true needs and their true growth, not what is stereotypical.  This approach also takes a real look at the difference between “program capacity” and “organizational capacity” which is often seen as the same thing from a funding perspective.  Both of those need support in varying ways, and both are important to the work within community; however, it is vital for funders to know the difference in their funding initiatives.

In like manner, the word “strength” is often misused by funding organizations.  Stereotypically this word is used to measure the health of an organization.  If they are growing in the numbers served or in their revenue, they must be healthy and doing good.  Many funders use that criteria to determine funding.  At MMI, we look for a deeper view of “health,” “strength,” and “growth” within organizations.  As we continue to grow, we are seeking ways to measure an organization progress against themselves or against their own mission.  Are they able to do what they hope to do as an organization with the youth they are currently serving?  If so, that is a “strong” program, in my opinion.

Also, national research is unclear about the bar of “readiness” for an organization to cross before receiving substantial funding, but it is clear that most funders put that line way too far out.  Meaning that they require much more readiness from organizations than needs to be there to make a positive impact in communities and organizations.  At MMI, we seek to serve those youth that are in traditionally “overlooked” communities, and we need to be very aware that could mean finding organizations that have been “overlooked.”  Readiness is difficult to quantify as there are multiple variables in that soup.  Our goal is to help them grow and find footing to continue impacting youth for years to come.

We understand “readiness” because we seek to develop strong relationships of trust which are key ingredients for MMI when entering funding partnerships.  We seek to build a two-way path of trust that allows for the work to be done authentically and practically, not superficially and with strings attached.  That takes time, patience, and energy in developing systems to measure needs, resources, and growth.  That takes taking time to learn from others and being reflexive to do well when we are “put to the test.”  The Institute for Nonprofit Excellence is a growing cohort of now eight Memphis based music nonprofits that work in a year-long funding cycle that involves technical assistance, leadership training, funding, and a deep commitment to collaboration.  This technical assistance is highlighted in CEP’s article “More than Money:  Making a Difference with Assistance beyond the Grant” as they highlight the importance of transformational relationships over transactions from grantors to grantees.  As we embed ourselves in the work alongside our grantee organizations, we can see the impact of the energy and resources being used to assist them in creating opportunities for underserved youth.  That sure makes more of an impact, than waving our hand around saying “call on me, I know…I know.”

Doug Waddill is a program manager for the Institute for Non-Profit Excellence for the Memphis Music Initiative. He worked as the Director of Education for the Greater Houston YMCA as well as a former elementary school principal. He loves seeing how all non-profits can find ways to work together to create opportunities for youth leadership, learning, and development.