Nesting to Achieve Impact: Lessons for Family Funders from a National Foundation

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Family funders are regularly seeking opportunities to amplify their impact in the communities in which they live, work, and serve. Although they may not always have the scale or scope of larger national foundations, all family funders can still draw many lessons from larger funders about how to anchor their giving at the community level.

TCC Group evaluated the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Family-Centered Community Change™ (FCCC) initiative, a long-term effort to support local partnerships in high-poverty neighborhoods across the country. This work was intended to shift local anti-poverty programming from working with adults and youth separately to focusing specifically on families. FCCC aimed to create a family-centric lens across organizations working in a given community, so that any organization that worked with a given family could share data and understand what was happening with the family as a unit. Our findings are summarized in a recent report, “Innovating Place-Based Grantmaking: An Evaluation of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Strategic Co-Investor Approach.”

TCC Group’s collaboration with the Casey Foundation builds on years of place-based learning we’ve undertaken both internally and on behalf of the social sector. Our assessment elicited important lessons about how a large foundation like Casey can nurture genuine community partnerships by taking an approach it calls “strategic co-investing.” Although Casey’s scope is national, the lessons we learned about this approach—and specifically, about “nesting” investments within existing community infrastructure—are valuable for any family funder seeking to amplify the impact of their giving.

Strategic Co-Investing and Nesting

Fundamentally, strategic co-investing refers to a deeper kind of collaboration between a funder and the organizations and communities with which they partner. It entails more than just a financial commitment, or a commitment to long-term and flexible funding—practices that are important to consider regardless of context. It presumes funder willingness to provide technical assistance to their partners, including helping them to assess their needs, identify expert sources of non-financial assistance, and support the provision of such support.

As practiced by the Casey Foundation, strategic co-investing entails a range of interconnected practices, all intended to lead to a deeper relationship between the Foundation and its grantees. One component of strategic co-investing that family funders can easily implement is something called “nesting.” Nesting refers to the process of embedding any new investment in a community within a pre-existing infrastructure, which could include existing systems, organizational collaborations, or organic structures that are connected to the community. Nesting often requires a significant amount of planning and research into a community, its needs, and its existing infrastructure before any funding can even be seriously considered. At its core, nesting an investment within existing infrastructure reflects a respect and appreciation for the community being served. It provides the potential to amplify the impact of the investment by linking it explicitly to ongoing work.

Nesting one’s investments, however, is hard—it requires patience, trust, and above all, humility. So how did the Casey Foundation employ nesting, and what did it learn from its experience?

Nesting in Practice

In each of the three communities working to move towards this family-centered work, nesting was approached differently. This allowed the Foundation’s supported work to find a natural fit within pre-existing infrastructure.

  • In Columbus, FCCC was nested into a neighborhood collaborative comprised of local funders, organizations, and residents. This collaborative was created organically by community members who felt there should be a greater focus on neighborhood development. The collaborative itself applied for FCCC funding, used a local funder in the collaborative as a fiscal sponsor, and began the planning process with organizations already involved in this neighborhood group.
  • In San Antonio, FCCC investment fit within two preexisting federal investments – one via a Promise Zone grant and the other via a Choice Neighborhood grant. FCCC approached these other, more formal, neighborhood efforts by focusing on helping pre-existing programming to better serve the whole family. Connecting to these efforts allowed FCCC to build on visibility and credibility that already existed in its community.
  • In Buffalo, FCCC was initially grounded in a federal investment, which helped to accelerate the planning process. The main neighborhood partners already had an existing infrastructure in place that allowed them to identify, meet, and discuss ideas to improve the local community.

From the experiences of FCCC in these three cities, TCC Group and the Casey Foundation drew several important lessons. Specifically, we found that any funder interested in adopting a nesting approach should:

  1. Do their homework: Funders need to conduct research and consult expert and community sources to deepen their baseline understanding of a community and its real needs, as well as their understanding of the preexisting community infrastructure (if any) into which new grant-supported work can integrated
  2. Be flexible: To nest an investment within an existing community infrastructure—with its own assets and opportunities—may require a significant shift in how funds are deployed, in what is funded, and how community organizations are best supported.
  3. Find a balance: Although nesting requires a funder to place a deep level of trust in existing community infrastructure, deferring too much to the community may dilute the emphasis on the desired outcomes. On the other hand, if a funder is too directive, then nesting becomes a superficial exercise that does not truly draw upon community assets and experience.

Building Your Nest

Family funders don’t need the breadth or scale of the Casey Foundation to employ the practices of nesting in their own work. Instead, they just need to keep a few core lessons in mind:

  1. Consider non-financial forms of support: The best way to support your grantee may not always be through dollars alone. Elevating the work of the existing infrastructure within a community may require technical assistance or convening support in addition to grant funding.
  2. Forge partnerships: By definition, adopting a nesting approach cannot be done in isolation. Get help to do the hard work of identifying and building opportunities to nest your investments by talking to local partners in the communities in which you work to ensure you understand the pre-existing landscape.
  3. Take a deep breath: Nesting—and strategic co-investing in general—is hard and complex work that really does require a deep reservoir of patience, humility, and a willingness to be flexible. It’s unlikely any funder (family or otherwise) will get it perfect on the first try, but it is worth the effort.

It is also important to consider nesting as part of a broader strategy and note that it is just one way to apply a strategic co-investing approach. To explore other opportunities to take a strategic co-investing approach—and to learn more about how to employ them—see the TCC report.

Daniel Widome is an associate director, philanthropy practice lead at TCC Group

Deepti Sood is a senior consultant of evaluation and learning at TCC Group

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.