Recap: Satterberg's 2015 Listening Sessions

Throughout the month of August, Satterberg Foundation Board, staff, and family conducted a series of four listening sessions with current Seattle-area Capacity Building grantees. In each session, Foundation representatives listened to and participated in a guided conversation among executive directors and other staff from several nonprofit organizations. These sessions served two major purposes: (1) building open relationships with organizations beyond a simple transactional exchange between foundation and grantee and (2) gaining insight from the perspectives of grantees regarding what trends they’re seeing socially, organizationally, and throughout the nonprofit sector. Below are some of the key takeaways, ideas, and affirmations gleaned from our listening sessions.

Social Trends:

The rising cost of living in the city of Seattle is making it difficult for small nonprofits to attract and retain talented staff given their relatively flat ability to pay. This can apply at every level of the organization, from management level to entry level. Overall, the metro area is tipping towards being a very segregated place to live, with the wealthy in the city core and the non-affluent pushed further from the largest employment centers.

Funding Trends:

Nonprofits perceive an increase in funders’ emphasis on the importance of collaboration. While in principle it is a good idea to break down silos between different organizations, there are a couple main problems with how collaboration is implemented in the nonprofit sector:

  • Funders express an interest and sometimes even require collaboration among grantees, but frequently without addressing the time, cost, and staffing needs that go into working in this fashion.
  • “Big Ideas” for cross-sector, public-private collaboration tend to be implemented with larger nonprofits and then roll downhill to smaller, grassroots organizations that aren’t adequately supported to take on the work.

Risk aversion among funders sends a signal to nonprofits that they should not be taking risks, either. There are instances of foundations looking specifically to fund “new, innovative projects” and then asking for the proof that an idea will work before it’s even been tried.

Nonprofit and Capacity Building Trends:

Funding opportunities for capacity building and general operating support are difficult to find; many funders are more interested in supporting specific projects and outcomes rather than the overall process of building a functional organization.

The lack of availability of unrestricted funding sometimes means that nonprofits get locked into a certain model and can find it difficult to scale or adapt. As a result, staff at small nonprofits are stretched beyond their skills and a reasonable work-life balance.

There is a need to combine streams of capacity building and unrestricted support; it is not uncommon for a small nonprofit to go through a planning process but then not be able to actually implement the plan since the capacity building support they’ve tapped does not include room for hiring additional staff to take on the added work.

For nonprofits working on social issues, measurement and long-term impact are difficult to show. Advances in social statistics occur more at the academic and government level, and are less accessible for smaller nonprofits looking to speak the language of policymakers.

Nascent nonprofit organizations are usually formed around a specific opportunity or idea, but that passion can be drowned out by the administrative burden of operations. There is a gap in the Seattle area that doesn’t exist in many other metros: an umbrella nonprofit that serves as an incubator and fiscal sponsor for new organizations until they are scaled to go off on their own.

Ideas around Reporting:

Most foundation reporting processes are not especially cumbersome; the problem lies in the fact that they differ greatly and the aggregation of compiling multiple reports.

Report forms tend to ask for questions around specific metrics and outcomes, but the narrative of nonprofit work is much more compelling than the statistics.


Reporting via conversation can be much more useful than the traditional model of a simple form. The ability to have a back-and-forth chat knowing that the funder is participating presents a real learning opportunity for both parties.

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