The Nonprofit Builder: a story of co-creation

The inspiration

High-quality organizational development support is transformational and can help a nonprofit multiply its results and impact

The Nonprofit Builder story started when Daniel D'Esposito was still executive director at HURIDOCS, a small international human rights organization in Geneva. Like many first-time leaders, he has learned his job the hard way, with limited support, burning the midnight oil, and making all the mistakes in the book. But luckily the organization also benefited from organizational development support from its funders, and he came away from this experience wanting to make this kind of support available to other leaders and organizations.

What was this support? Well, let's look at two examples. The first support was to its financial systems. Open Society Foundations, a HURIDOCS funder, sent a capacity building auditor to visit for two days onsite, to review all the organization's financial systems and policies. This led to a 25-point to-do list that put into place all the necessary checks and balances, and put the organization on a better footing to attract other funders. Later, Adriana Craciun the organizational development lead at Oak Foundation, another funder, seeing Daniel's struggles with leading a rapidly growing team, sent him off for a week of leadership training organized by Geraldine Kilbride for Resource Alliance, which included a 360 leadership assessment and two hours of coaching. From the 360, he learned that he needed to delegate more, so over the next year put into place a management team who took most decisions collegially. And from those (only) two hours of coaching (thanks Dena Michelli!), he learned that his character and personality was that of an early-stage entrepreneur, and that the mature organization that HURIDOCS had become now needed a new leader.

This gave him the encouragement to move on, early 2017, and jump into the void to start the Nonprofit Builder. Looking at his experience at HURIDOCS, he realized that there were a number of problems that were holding back nonprofits from receiving the same kind of quality capacity building support they desperately needed, despite its very obvious benefits. These hindrances are:

  • Not knowing what support is available, or what they really need. Symptoms were often misunderstood as the problem itself, for example the solution to a lack of funding is not necessarily better fundraising, but better financial management, or a sharper strategy.
  • Not knowing which consultants to trust: few nonprofits or foundations have a wide network of service provided, meaning they’ll often reach for the same go-to person, and miss out on amazing support providers.
  • Reluctance to pay for consultants and experts: nonprofits are often thrifty when it comes to investing into their own capacity, or simply don’t have the means, preferring to spend limited funds on salaries or programmes.

All this is a pity, because it holds nonprofit enterprises back from the growth and impact that a highly skilled consultant could bring them! And in the end, everybody loses: the nonprofit, the funders, and the beneficiaries!

This was our key insight: what if we can connect the most innovative nonprofits, funded by the most visionary foundations, with the best nonprofits consultants, coaches, mentors? Then we could multiply the impact and provide many times more value for the philanthropic investment.

This led to the idea of the Nonprofit Builder: a marketplace where grantees would choose consultants based on reviews, hire them through a web platform, and their funders would pay for the support.

Daniel wrote up the idea in this very first concept note, and asked Vlado Lepusina to create a design of the platform, which you see below, and which is surprisingly close to what we have today!

First graphic design of the Nonprofit Builder consultant directory, 2017

The early years: Nonprofit Builder as a shared directory

To make this happen, we would source the best consultants from all over the world, to find the best channels and formats to connect them with nonprofits. We would remove all the hindrances mentioned above so that it would be frictionless for everybody. And we would be fair brokers, offering a marketplace that would offer competition on quality and relevance and not on price, attracting the world’s most talented consultants to serve nonprofits.

Oak Foundation was the first to invest in the Nonprofit Builder. In 2017, Adriana Craciun, their organizational development lead, contributed a seed grant that allowed Daniel and Mike Romig of Purpose and Motion, to do a pilot study. The outcome was a first online directory, with the profiles of the consultants trusted by Oak Foundation.

Nonprofit Builder existed very much as a shared directory only for the next three years. Packard Foundation joined, bringing their Indonesian and Ethiopian consultants and helping us source consultants in Mexico with the help of James McCaul, Maria Tourtchaninova, and Ana Aguilar. Laudes Foundation joined, bringing its network of consultants mostly from Brazil. But Laudes had few consultants in the rest of the world, and was able to instantly grow its network thanks to the Nonprofit Builder, demonstrating the value of a platform based on sharing trusted resources. Peacenexus contributed consultants from the Balkans (Vladica Jovanovic and Besart Lumi) and Womenstrong helped us to appreciate the value of peer learning (thanks Chisina Kapungu).

Key ideas

At around the same time, angel investor David Keast contributed a key concept, that of the network effect. The idea was that the platform's value would increase with the number of consultants, grantees and foundations using it.

We later discovered the Jim Collins flywheel effect, which is essentially a theory of change presented as a virtuous loop, with each cycle increasing the momentum. We used as the basis for our theory of change: the increased numbers of consultants and services would lead to demand from foundations and grantees, in which would give us more reputation and more success stories, creating more demand, attracting more foundations, giving us more funding to improve our process and build the team, and the positive cycle repeats, but with greater and greater value as the network gains more size.

From directory to offering managed capacity building services for a foundations grantees

In 2019 we met Caitlin Stanton, a consultant working for Informing Change in Berkeley, who gave us another key idea: to start an Ask-an-Expert service. Her insight was that sometimes a call or two with the right expert would be enough to orient the nonprofit as to the next steps of its development.

We presented the support service idea to Fabio Almeida at Laudes. He loved it, and we piloted it for the Laudes grantees without delay. First we offered one hour consultations, these quickly followed followed with short support interventions of up to 10 hours, then 20 hours. A first step towards a marketplace!

The next stage of growth came with Growald Climate Fund, who fund the transition to clean energy. Together with their organizational development team, Kabir Bavikatte and Siddharth Thakur we designed a more comprehensive system for the grantees in their network of climate change funders including Tara Climate Foundation, Climate Breakthrough, Energy Transition Fund. In particular Rahul Kanvinde and Daniel King helped expand our relevance accross Asia. This format allowed us to introduce needs assessment calls, a webinar program which was later replaced by a full training series, and a wider range of consulting formats, up to 6 days of consultant time.

Each foundation helped us develop the platform and community, bringing ideas for new services, contacts, and investments, in a true co-creation.

And this pattern continued Negar Tayyar who leads the Global Whole Being Fund (GWBF) and funds migrant-serving initiatives. She introduced us to Choose Love foundation, for whom we developed a very large program offering support to a cohort of 50 grantees supporting refugees and internally displaced from Ukraine, in Poland, Romania, Moldova and of course Ukraine (thanks Josie Naughton, Nico Sanders, Sejal Wilson). And we are also collaborating with GWBF to support other groups of grantees in Africa, Latin America and the USA.

The Choose Love program also gave us the opportunity to partner with a local partner, Jana Ledinova and Jan Kroupa, from the Czech Fundraising Center, who coordinate the activities and have a network of consultants from the region that we didn't have. This form of complementary partnership is proving to be a successful model to extend the network and offer local support globally. 

We were also approached by the Segal Family Foundation. Segal had great grantees, they had great consultants, but they needed a partner to organize the capacity building activities on their behalf. And so Gladys Onyango introduced us to 40 amazing consultants from East Africa, who are now also benefiting the grantees of other foundations active in Africa.

Our growth as a team

Since 2017, we have grown from a volunteer initiative into a small and dynamic team. Anna Kondratyuk joined as first full time employee in 2021 and became executive director in 2022, bringing a decade of experience managing executive education (she now co-owns the Nonprofit Builder along with Daniel!). After working on a volunteer basis for five years, Daniel D’Esposito was finally hired early 2023 to focus on partnerships, communications and technology. Nataliia Sharnina leads our monitoring and evaluation and quality assurance, and Nassir Katuramu coordinates our work for the Segal Family Foundation and our work in Africa more generally.

Technology is also a key enabler for us. We started off with a simple Wordpress website from which we fashioned a consultant directory. We quickly outgrew that and now we are developing our custom CRM to managed all aspects of the capacity building support: browsing, matching, contract approval, payments, feedback. We work with a tech company called Misija in Sarajevo, in particular, Ajla Bazdar, an amazing developer who we consider part of our team, and Dino Hajric, the founder, who generously provides his best insights to our project. 

The Nonprofit Builder team working with our software developer from Misija, January 2023

Our own consultants have also contributed to our development. Coach Peter Bailey helped Daniel to manage his ADHD. Jo Richings helped us put into place better cash flow management and coached Anna as a new leader. Paulina Rasi helped us develop communications materials, and Rose Odengo helped us sharpen our communications strategy. And Tayeb Nurbhai and Nassir Katuramu, two strategy consultants, advised us brilliantly on our service fee model.

We have also learned a lot over the last years, and we are now confident in the following skills:

  • Sourcing new consultants, from all over the world, creatively leveraging our network of foundations, nonprofits and consultants to fill gaps and find amazing new talent.
  • Vetting them, appreciating their potential, matching them to missions where they play to their best strengths.
  • Listening to grantees, helping them identify their organizational development needs, and matching them to the most relevant consultants.
  • Designing and experimenting with new formats for delivering
  • Managing multiple organizational development projects
  • Building long lasting partnerships with the foundations, adapting to their specific needs.
This graph shows what are the most common priorioties of the grantees we serve

And this is where we are now: a unique global and diverse network with about 300 consultants, 300 grantees served, 300 completed projects and consultations. We now have 15 foundations who use our platform, with a further 5 foundations are in the process of joining in 2023.

And last but not least, why the name Nonprofit Builder?

Because we are all nonprofit builders! Building impactful nonprofit organizations is what we all have in common, and which brings us all together, whether we fund nonprofits, work in one, or whether we are consultants and coaches who serve nonprofits.

We all work towards building wonderful organizations that will deliver the social and environmental impact that humanity needs. And the Nonprofit Builder platform and its diverse community, is our common good!

Last updated in May 2023