Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Strong City’s New ‘Cohort Track’ Better Serves Beginning Fiscally Sponsored Projects

Serving as a fiscal sponsor to more than 120 community-led initiatives is a primary way Strong City carries out its mission of building and strengthening neighborhoods and people. We are about to introduce significant changes to how we integrate new fiscally sponsored projects, which will benefit both the projects and Strong City as a whole.

These changes are designed to better serve fiscally sponsored projects that are newer and have less experience with fundraising and nonprofit operations. Under this new Cohort Track, these projects will be brought into Strong City as a group, twice a year, in spring and fall. We sat down with Samantha Solomon, Strong City’s Business Development Associate, to get a better understanding of this very important aspect of Strong City’s work and why these changes were felt to be necessary.

Q: Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship program has been growing very rapidly in recent years. Why have you decided to change how new projects become part of the Strong City family?

A: We used to have this sense of urgency, that when we had a potential new project we had to get them in the door right now. What we’ve discovered is that projects that are new to the nonprofit world, if they don’t have any guaranteed funding when they first come to Strong City, they generally didn’t bring in any revenue at all for the first six months – and after that, it was generally around $1,000 to $5,000. It turns out that just bringing in projects constantly doesn’t mean those projects are bringing in revenue.

Q: How does inviting in new projects twice a year, in larger groups, address that concern?

A: We were getting feedback from projects that they needed more help – things like fundraising workshops, financial sustainability planning, information about how to apply for specific grants. We didn’t have the staff capacity to do that on an individual basis, with new projects rolling in all the time. So Grants and Development Manager Josh Clement and I developed a business plan that broke the intake process into two tracks. If you basically have no funding, have never done a budget before, and expect under $50,000 in annual revenue, then we bring you in as part of a Cohort Track, twice a year. For the other projects, with more experience and revenue, we will still have the Rolling Track, where they can join us at any time.

Q: How many projects will be included in a Cohort?

A: We anticipate 10 to 15, which is based on how many we can realistically accept at one time.

Q: Is there a significance to the time of year when Cohorts will be formed?

A: Yes, the timing is pretty intentional. We bring on projects in spring and winter, and those two time periods were picked so the spring Cohort will be on board in time for them to apply to the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, and the winter Cohort will be able to apply for the Summer Funding Collaborative.

Q: What specific supports or benefits will Cohort Track projects receive?

A: We are going to provide the nonprofit management education that projects have been asking for. How do you think about financial sustainability and fundraising? What’s the difference between being funded by donors versus grants, the plusses and minuses – things like that. Every incoming Cohort Track project will receive a six-month curriculum including in-person sessions, workshops, and webinars. (Projects in the Rolling Track are welcome to take part in these too.) Another benefit of coming in together as a group is that project leaders get to meet other people who are being fiscally sponsored, and maybe some of them are doing complementary work and they can form partnerships. Also, the application process is not quite as strenuous – we’re not necessarily asking you to complete a draft budget, because that’s something we’re going to teach you how to do.

Q: How will this affect how Strong City staff who work with projects do their jobs?

A: For one thing, it streamlines training. These projects are all going to need the same things: learn how to be trained on our system, how to read monthly statements, set up contracts, etc., and now we can train all of them on those things all at once. Currently, if you’re a Portfolio Manager and you get two new projects a month, you have to do individual training on everything for those projects, which takes your time away from serving other projects in a way that’s more efficient. And this in turn improves efficiency for the Finance Office staff.

Q: You just used the phrase “Portfolio Manager.” What’s that?

A: Every fiscally sponsored project at Strong City is assigned to one of our four Portfolio Managers. They are every project’s first point of contact inside Strong City – the No. 1 go-to person to help manage your project, and also there to help you think about strategy around fundraising and partnership. They make sure things are properly submitted, help handle grant reporting, help set up contracts with vendors, and help project leaders think strategically if they want to expand.

Q: There’s a lot of talk these days about increasing equity in the nonprofit sector, and Strong City has given quite a bit of thought to this issue. Can you explain the equity implications of having a Cohort Track?

A: Being an expert in what your community needs doesn’t mean you know how to run a nonprofit – nor should it mean that. The basics of being a fiscal sponsor are fairly cut and dried: access to our 501(c)3 status, accounting and insurance support, donor acknowledgement. But not everyone has access to the ins and outs of fundraising and sustainability, and that’s unfair. So it’s important to us that nonprofit management education is something that we should provide. If we’re going to properly support the projects, we need to provide access to these things, so we are empowering community leaders with all the information they need so they can lead their projects with wisdom and understanding of the sector in which they’re working.