Serving as a fiscal sponsor to more than 130 community-led initiatives is a primary way Strong City carries out its mission of building and strengthening neighborhoods and people. Fiscal Sponsorship is a new, burgeoning sector of the nonprofit world, so we spend a lot of time reflecting and exploring how we can better structure our operations. In 2019, we introduced a two-track intake process, meaning there are now two ways we invite in new fiscally sponsored projects. We believe this will benefit both the projects and Strong City as a whole.
The track one takes depends on which one will best support them. The Start Up Track will better serve fiscally sponsored projects that are newer and have less experience with fundraising and nonprofit operations. Under this new Start Up Track, these projects will be brought into Strong City as a group, twice a year, in spring and fall. Applications are now open (through April 22) for the first Start Up Track.
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 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 so the project could start their work. But we’ve discovered something about many of the projects that are brand new ideas, led by founders that are new to the nonprofit world or don’t have any committed funding when they first come to Strong City. These projects tend to spend the first six months planning, piloting programming, or getting other foundational things in place before they raise their first dollar. (Managing funds under a charitable status is the main benefit of being fiscally sponsored.) Meanwhile, during those six months, our staff were working very inefficiently, training new project leaders, one at a time, in the basics of working with us.
Q: How does inviting in new projects twice a year, in larger groups, address that concern?
A: We were getting feedback from all projects that they wanted more support – things like fundraising workshops, financial sustainability planning, information about how to apply for specific grants. We don’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 are starting out with no funding, have never done your programming before, and expect you will raise less than $50,000 to do your project over one year, then you can access fiscal sponsorship as part of the Start Up Track, twice a year. For the other projects, with leaders that are more experienced and have some committed funding, we still have the Propel Track, through which they can join us at any time.
Q: How many projects will be included in a Start Up Track?
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 these groups 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 Track will be on board in time for them to apply to the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, and the winter Track will be able to apply for the Summer Funding Collaborative. Historically, these two grants have been very popular among our projects.
Q: What specific supports or benefits will Start Up 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 Propel 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 to learn many of the same things: how to be trained on our accounts payable system, reading monthly statements, setting up contracts, etc. 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 trainings on everything for those projects, which also takes your time away from serving projects already in your portfolio. This structure also 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 dry: 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 to provide that nonprofit management education. If we’re going to properly support the projects, we need to provide access to these things to empower 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.