Collaborating for a Healthier Sector

Reflections from a Social Sector Infrastructure Convening

In July, three team members from The Social Innovation Forum (SIF) had the opportunity to attend a convening hosted by the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation to discuss the state of the social sector in Massachusetts. Strategy Matters, a nonprofit consulting firm, facilitated a conversation with key actors representing organizations including the Lenny Zakim Fund, New England Blacks in Philanthropy, Philanthropy Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, Third Sector New England, and SIF.

The common thread between these organizations: all of us are part of the Barr Foundation’s Sector Effectiveness – Infrastructure portfolio, and all of us are, in some way, working toward building necessary infrastructure to strengthen the social sector, engaging both philanthropic institutions and nonprofit organizations along the way. As a point of context, the Urban Institute defined the social sector infrastructure as the following: “ ecosystem of providers that offer services focused on sustainability, learning, relationships, and influence to social sector organizations, groups, and individuals.”

The overarching goal of the session was to consider ways in which these organizations might collaborate with each other to further this infrastructure-building work, and to think about how philanthropic institutions can continue to support the sector overall. 

Strategy Matters began by facilitating a SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats – of the social sector in Massachusetts as it stands today. This discussion was based on a survey that everyone filled out in advance of the session. Participants all agreed that an overall strength is that the social sector is becoming more diverse, with a wide variety of communities, backgrounds, and perspectives represented. 

The agreed-upon weaknesses were higher in number. Although folks have seen philanthropy increasingly diversifying staff in recent years, the flip side of that is recognizing the ways in which BIPOC and other staff from historically marginalized communities are tokenized in the workspace. Folks also noted that there is often a checkerboard effect in terms of coverage, with philanthropy focusing on narrow criteria like geography or social issue area, thus excluding many nonprofit organizations. Lastly, there continue to be inequities in support from both public and private funders toward BIPOC-serving nonprofits. 

Emerging Themes from the Conversation

Numerous themes emerged from the conversation. Overall, participants agreed that there is a stark difference in the way BIPOC-led and -serving organizations receive and experience capacity building support, as compared to White-led organizations. The concepts of staff diversity and retention, cultural competency, and equitable resource allocation were prevalent throughout the conversation.

Staff diversity and retention

Many folks highlighted a sense of urgency about the future and sustainability of this sector, particularly when it comes to staffing, growth, and development. The social sector plays a vital, nigh upon irreplaceable role in helping vulnerable communities survive and thrive, bridging gaps created and/or left by the private and public sectors. Our economy, our communities, our systems cannot exist without support from the social sector. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.7% of the Massachusetts workforce works in the nonprofit sector. That’s almost 1/5th of the Commonwealth’s entire workforce – more than both manufacturing and financial services, combined. And yet, as the overall cost of living continues to increase, and communities continue to feel the strain of inflation while still reeling from the pandemic, wages and other resources and benefits remain unable to keep up. 

The conversation further highlighted that while the pandemic created new opportunities to hire remote workers not necessarily based in Massachusetts, it also raised questions and challenges about how connected folks feel to the communities they are serving. Moreover, many called attention to the idea that people are at the heart of this work, and that capacity building doesn’t often (but certainly should) include staff wellness as a key component. 

Equitable Resource Allocation

Another point raised in the conversation spoke to how the movement of money and other resources during the pandemic was exponentially accelerated, particularly in 2020 and 2021. Grants from philanthropic institutions, corporations, and the government were allocated with urgency to meet emergent needs within communities. With this additional monetary support, nonprofits were able to carry out vital services and pivot to fill new and existing gaps as they arose. 

The fear now, more than three years after the start of the pandemic, is that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, with serious implications for the health and sustainability of the sector. So-called relief funding appears to be drying out in increasing amounts, though the needs in communities have not lessened. 

Culturally Competent Capacity Building

The final salient point from the conversation focused on where the disparity really lies when it comes to accessing capacity building services. According to two different reports by the Urban Institute and Building Movement respectively, there is (surprisingly) not a gap in access to capacity building services between BIPOC-led and White-led organizations. Rather, the data shows that there is a distinct disparity in access to culturally competent capacity building services, as well as services and programs offered for folks of color by their peers (other folks of color). 

Where do we go from here?

It is apparent that, based on this conversation and the ongoing work of the organizations present at this convening, the sustainability of the social sector in Massachusetts is at an unprecedented inflection point. It is our hope that we can continue to partner with our fellow Sector Effectiveness - Infrastructure grantees toward devising innovative solutions to further strengthen the social sector, and build infrastructure to support this work on an ongoing basis. 

We are proud to have the support of the Barr Foundation in this work, and hope that other funders and philanthropic institutions engage in conversations about how to better support the social sector. Given the systems in place, and the ever-changing nature of society, this sector will only continue to grow. Join us in our efforts to ensure the work can happen sustainably and effectively, to better serve our communities for years to come. 

To learn more about our Funder Education Program, or to inquire about how to get involved with any of SIF’s programs, reach out to Aditi Dholakia, Funder Education Program Manager, at

It is apparent that, based on this conversation and the ongoing work of the organizations present at this convening, the sustainability of the social sector in Massachusetts is at an unprecedented inflection point.

Aditi Dholakia