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COVID Conversation: Fiscal Sponsorship

On March 15, Community Initiatives (CI) Legal Director Brandy Shah and Senior Client Services Manager Audrey Roderick joined Angela Schreffler, COO, and Nicki Leszman (former Senior Client Services Manager at Community Initiatives), Senior Programming Manager, of the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center (CNDC) for a “COVID Conversation”, a series of Tuesday hour-long panel discussions hosted and moderated by the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors (NNFS) Steering Committee. Each “COVID Conversation” has a different topic, and the topic of that week’s panel discussion was how both fiscal sponsors have grown over the last twenty-five years. Both organizations shared some of the strategic decisions that have been made over the years and discussed how their fiscal sponsorship programs function today. The engaging conversation explored the evolutions technology and the pandemic have driven in fiscal sponsorship agencies, and their focus on adaptation and customer service.

After panelist introductions, the first question posed by the NNSF moderator, Sarah McCann, was, “Can you tell us about your organizations and how the work has evolved?”

Shah began by acknowledging that Community Initiatives started serving local projects in San Francisco and the Bay Area as part of the San Francisco Foundation, then talked about how they’ve scaled their capacities and efficiencies to serve projects with a national presence and a few with an international footprint. She stated, “the changes to our staffing and our technology and the types of projects that are in our portfolio really have to do with (that) breadth and diversity.” She also explained that the project portfolio has shifted to include more professional services and advocacy organizations from direct service organizations, which now make up a minority of the portfolio.

Schreffler countered that CNDC was established by a group of individuals from foundations, so from an early date they had the support of the foundation community within Colorado. CNDC differs from Community Initiatives in that they have chosen to maintain their geographic (Colorado-based) focus since their inception in 1999. However, over the past ten years, they have shifted their project portfolio to include an increasing number of projects from outside the Denver Metro area. The CNDC portfolio has also expanded to house more art-focused projects. Leszman chimed in that CNDC has, “evolved over time as far as the risk we’re willing to take.” She also added that individual grant making has become an increasing part of their business model.

Another topic that McCann posed to the panelists was, “Tell us how your administrative staff supports your projects.”

Roderick began by explaining that, except for a few large projects, the CI client services team has adopted a team-based approach to servicing projects once the projects have made it through an initial onboarding period. She also explained that with the team-based model “we’re able to really focus on professional development skills with our team.” Shah pointed out that projects have emphasized the importance of CI’s financial services year after year in our annual project survey. For that reason, each project is paired with a project accountant for the life of their sponsorship. Shah also pointed out that the team service model helps minimize the impact of staff turnover.

Leszman, having previously worked at CI, agrees that a team model is beneficial regarding turnover because (when someone leaves) “it’s less work than having to reteach somebody about all of those individual pieces of their programmatic work.” She also explained that CNDC’s programmatic team has implemented the practice of regular check-in calls. Leszman stated they are “to really learn more about what’s going on.” In other words, they’re a preventative measure; they help the programmatic team anticipate needed support ahead of time, which is helpful to their service model. Schreffler added, different from CI, most of the staff at CNDC are task specific. The individuals on their programmatic team are dedicated to a cohort of projects. She explained, “they (projects) can go to either their finance person or their programmatic person to get more individualized attention.” Though, Schreffler acknowledges, that there is a downside to this individualized approach, which often confuses clients when one of their key staff contacts leaves.

The next questions McCann posed to the panelists were, “What role has technology played in your evolution? Where are you in your technology journey today and where are you going?”

Both fiscal sponsors were quick to acknowledge that the pandemic has expedited the adoption of new technologies. Both organizations’ finance teams have adopted Intacct (a well-known accounting software). Using Intacct gives projects virtual access and greater visibility to their project financial statements. A desire for operational efficiency and systems security were mentioned as key drivers of recent technology enhancements for both organizations. An audience member asked, “Has the cost of the technology investments been absorbed internally or passed on to the projects?” In both cases, the cost of technology investment has not caused the organizations to increase their projects’ fees. Also,  CI and CNDC have both eliminated their internal servers in favor of cloud-based systems.

Beyond that, Roderick jumped in to explain that CI has also adopted Salesforce which is currently “a massive undertaking”,, donation platforms, tech management, and DocuSign. She said, “(We’re) really trying to figure out how we can silo that so we can see a more 360 view of the interactions we’re having with our projects to be able to track the cycle of a contact with us…where we can make sure that the right people are getting tapped in and tagged in appropriately, and we can respond.” Shah offered an example of the digitization of waivers. She said, “We do 1,000 waivers…so we’ve integrated a waiver, on an online platform that is more friendly to communities of color.” As far as the future is concerned, Roderick articulated CI’s desire to update the project portal, “so our folks can get information.” She summed up the desire for the future portal to be both more interactive and intuitive. Shah added that in the future state, a portion of Salesforce will be project facing.

For CNDC, Schreffler reminisced that when she began with the organization in 2013, they were still tracking everything in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. They didn’t even have Office 365, so “people couldn’t work in the same document at the same time.” She recognizes that it also was not great from a security standpoint. Since then, CNDC has adopted Salesforce and then added onto their initial buildout. Like, CI, CNDC would like to establish a project-facing Salesforce interface. Their goal is to make this happen within the next three years. Lezsman chimed in that CNDC is searching for a payment platform with great customer service. She calls this a “unicorn” and questions if one exists. (Please contact her if you know of one!)

McCann concluded the discussion with the prompt, “Any advice to stay productive and sane as we do this work?”

Shah affirmed that maintaining a sense of humor is imperative. Roderick agreed that humor is important and offered that “we are able to get some joy.” She also added, “really remembering the work of the projects as well as focusing on that piece of it.”

Leszman summed up her motivation in three terms: “continued learning, fun, and impact.” Schreffler agreed with all the responses and had nothing more to add.

For the sake of the length of this article, some audience questions and discussion points were not included. If you would like more detailed information about this “COVID Discussion”, you can access the transcript here.