The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a guiding framework for Multiplier. Photo: Susie Hedberg/shutterstock
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a guiding framework for Multiplier. Photo: Susie Hedberg/shutterstock

When COVID-19 forced organizations around the world to shift their operations online last spring, the team at National Science Policy Network felt luckier than most.

As a group of far-flung graduate students, video calls and online gatherings were already standard procedure for them. But as the pandemic dragged on, the organization decided to launch a virtual fellowship program. Suddenly, they faced a bevy of thorny questions about liability, payment contracts, partnership agreements and rules for international students.

Fortunately, they were able to turn to Multiplier, a nonprofit accelerator that is also the network’s fiscal sponsor. The two organizations had teamed up the prior May, just as the network got its first big investment, a one-year $250,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Multiplier had already helped them refine their strategy and vision. Now, its team helped them prepare for the fellowship program’s launch in a few months.

“We certainly would not be doing what we’re doing without their help. All of us are graduate students and we have no experience running a nonprofit,” said Michaela Rikard, the network’s director of development and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia. “They’ve helped us scale in a way that we didn’t think was possible.”

Multiplier is one of a number of organizations across the country that are going beyond the traditional confines of fiscal sponsorship, which often includes little beyond basic human resources support, to provide wide-ranging capacity building support. Amid a public health crisis that has forced many nonprofits to reshape their operations, Multiplier offers an example of how much nonprofits—fledgling organizations in particular—can benefit from such services.

The story of Multiplier

Founded in 2001 as the Trust for Conservation Innovation, Multiplier began with a sole conservation focus and offered only a limited set of nonprofit services—things like fiscal sponsorship, administrative support and help with navigating 501(c)(3) formation.

But beginning in 2013, the team decided to take a closer look at projects in its portfolio that were not succeeding. “Hey, why aren’t these folks growing? Let’s see what we can do to fuel that,” said Laura Deaton, Multiplier’s executive director, who joined the organization that year.

The team found that beyond innovative ideas and sufficient funding, successful projects often benefited from a team of advisors who could guide strategic decisions as they grew. Rather than acting as a back-office service provider, helping them create that growth became Multiplier’s mission, Deaton said. “Projects loved it, funders loved it. It was pretty popular.”

In mid-2018, the organization rebranded as Multiplier to reflect its increasingly intersectional approach and the accelerator model it had developed over the preceding years. Around the same time, the team broadened its focus, adopting the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a guiding framework.

“You can’t just focus on saving and protecting the land and the oceans. You need to focus on saving and protecting the people who are the protectors,” Deaton said.

It’s been a successful transition. The organization grew from $5 million in revenue in 2013 to $23 million in 2019, doubling its staff along the way. Multiplier takes a 9% cut from the organizations it works with (rising to 14% for government institutions and certain international funds), including any new funding it secures.

“It’s kind of a virtuous cycle. When we invest in our projects, they bring in more money,” Deaton said. “It’s a win-win model.”

Multiplier’s projects now range from efforts directly aligned with its conservation roots, such as Junglekeepers, which sets up locally managed land conservation areas in Peru, to more broadly focused initiatives like Project Equity, an effort to convert local baby-boomer-owned businesses to worker cooperatives amid the coming “silver tsunami” of retirements.

There are, of course, limits to what Multiplier will take on. “We wouldn’t take a symphony orchestra, for instance,” Deaton told me, though she quickly added, “Unless they’re doing something with recycled instruments that are made out of…”

Most of the organizations in Multiplier’s portfolio focus on the United States, California in particular. Others work in places as diverse as Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Pacific Islands. “We’re pretty committed to projects that are in our own backyard,” Deaton said. “I don’t think our portfolio is complete unless we’re serving our own community.”

The model has proved particularly popular with what Deaton calls “rogue researchers”: scientists who want to leave the umbrella of a university, which can absorb around 50% of funding in overhead, and strike out on their own. At least three Multiplier projects—The Marhaver Lab, Cassava Virus Action Project, and Working Lands Conservation, two of which are run by TED fellows—fall into this category.

Multiplier has also been a hit with some of the country’s biggest funders, particularly those focused on environmental issues. Major supporters include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

A win-win

Another of Multiplier’s frequent supporters is the Walton Family Foundation. The Arkansas-based grantmaker doesn’t require grantees to use fiscal sponsorship, and those that need a sponsor typically choose one themselves. But Teresa Ish, a senior program officer in the foundation’s environment program, had good things to say about Multiplier’s services.

“They just provide great support,” she said. “They understand what the organizations they’re working with need to be successful, and they really provide that guidance in capacity building in order to be successful—whether it’s in terms of operations, or even staffing and HR, and how… you help to grow a leader in an organization or project.”

One partnership between Multiplier and the Walton Family Foundation reflects the varied projects Deaton’s organization takes on. After many years of watching Multiplier work with its grantees, Walton partnered with the organization in early 2019 to launch the Sustainable Seafood Impact Fund, which offered partially forgivable loans to for-profit businesses to help them make conservation-oriented changes to their supply chains.

It was an early foray for Walton into nontraditional grantmaking, and it proved to be a win-win. Multiplier’s involvement as an intermediary helped smooth the financial process and allowed the team to easily combine funds from multiple foundations under an advisory board. “For the foundation, it’s like we just got half our loan back. And the company is like, we just got half our loan forgiven,” Ish said.

Ish has found that working with capacity building organizations takes work off her plate, especially the organizational effectiveness support such groups are much better equipped to provide. “That’s the value of these types of organizations, and Multiplier does it particularly well,” Ish said.

“It’s something that’s needed all across the country”

Before April Nishimura joined RVC, formerly Rainier Valley Corps, which provides leadership and organizational support to groups led by and serving people of color, she ran a grassroots organization on a shoestring budget. At one point, a grants manager told her, “We’re not sure you exist because you don’t have a website.”

Now, as director of capacity building at RVC, Nishimura helps such organizations develop capacity in human resources, accounting and other infrastructure they need to operate, not to mention helping them surmount the “funding paradox” her former organization encountered: not enough funding to grow (and build a website, in her case), yet not big enough to attract more funding.

“To run a small grassroots organization is really hard,” said Nishimura. “There’s so many different skillsets you need to run a small organization.”

Capacity building organizations can play a particularly vital role in fundraising, Nishimura said. Most wealth in the U.S. is held by white people, and studies suggest people are insular in their social circles—and by extension, their giving. The result? A Somali immigrant starting a community doula program, for instance, is much less likely to have deep-pocketed social connections to help fund their idea. A capacity building organization’s reputational backing and network can be a substitute.

There is room for many more organizations like RVC and Multiplier, Nishimura said. For example, though RVC is well-known because of the popular blog of its founding executive director, Vu Le, it only serves the Seattle area—and is still oversubscribed.

“It’s definitely a need. We cannot serve the amount of people who want to work with us—and we also only work in a small geographic area,” she said. “It’s something that’s needed all across the country.