Strengthening Hawaii's Communities
Nonprofit Excellence

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Nonprofits need strong infrastructure, leadership and governance to achieve their best results for the community.

Nonprofit Excellence Initiative

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To strengthen the state’s nonprofit sector, HCF provides training and support in the areas of governance and leadership for high-performing organizations.

The work of nonprofits impacts the quality of life for everyone in Hawaii. Starting in 2000, the Hawaii Community Foundation made focused investments totaling more than $14 million in grants, technical assistance and leadership development programs to strengthen the nonprofit sector in the state.

Early in this effort, HCF’s Organizational Capacity Building Program was designed to strengthen some aspect of a nonprofit’s management or governance. Some of the grants provided support to help nonprofits successfully navigate organizational change, including the transition from one executive director to the next. Others helped to support strategic restructuring and partnerships between nonprofits.

In 2014, HCF redesigned the way it would continue to strengthen nonprofits in Hawaii, targeting high-performing nonprofit organizations and those that are striving to be high performing. The following attributes characterize nonprofits that are having the greatest impact in their communities:

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS – Continually learning about the needs of those they serve and the issue they are working on

HEALTHY FINANCES – Having a realistic business model that provides ongoing financial support for their organization

ACCOUNTABLE RESULTS – Collecting data that helps them understand the results and impact of their work to make improvements over time

NETWORKED RELATIONSHIPS – Working with networks of organizations that share similar goals

GREAT GOVERNANCE AND LEADERSHIP – Being led by committed and skilled boards of directors and executives

EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS – Capable of demonstrating the importance of their programs and having a clear connection between these programs and the results they seek to achieve

Multiple elements of HCF’s Nonprofit Excellence Initiative include: FLEX grants that award high-performing nonprofit organizations with unrestricted funding; the resources of HCF’s Knowledge Center which provides valuable information on the leadership and best practices of nonprofits; grants to aid nonprofits in executive transition; and the hosting in 2015 of the first Advancing Nonprofit Excellence Conference for nonprofit executive and board leadership.


FLEX – High Performing Nonprofits

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Through FLEX grants, high-performing nonprofits can receive unrestricted operating support.

In just the past 20 years, the Hawaii Community Foundation has worked with and funded more than 3,600 nonprofit organizations across the state. Starting in 2000, HCF made more than $14 million in focused investments through grants, technical assistance and leadership development programs to help strengthen the nonprofit sector in the state.

Recognizing that high-performing nonprofits achieve results and have greater impact in their community or on their issue, HCF created a Nonprofit Excellence Initiative that benefits high-performing organizations and those that are striving to be high performing.

HCF’s FLEX Grants Program is an important part of its Nonprofit Excellence Initiative. Nonprofits rate unrestricted funding as one of the most valuable ways to provide them support. Through FLEX Grants, nonprofits are able to submit a single application and be reviewed for multiple grant opportunities from more than 40 HCF funds. Many of HCFs donors and funding partners are interested in supporting the high-performing nonprofits that work on issues they care about as a way of maximizing the impact of their gifts.

In 2015, HCF awarded nearly $4.3 million in grants. Since the program’s inception, 314 Hawai‘i nonprofits were awarded FLEX grants based on organizational practices that demonstrate high performance.

Primary mission areas of the FLEX Grant recipients include:

Arts, Culture and Humanities
Civil Rights, Social Action and Advocacy
Community Development
Crime and Legal-Related
Food, Agriculture and Nutrition
Health Care
Housing and Shelter
Human Services
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Philanthropy, Vounteerism and Grantmaking
Public Safety, Disaster Preparedness and Relief
Recreation and Sports
Youth Development


Hookele Awards

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This award recognizes nonprofit leaders in Hawaii with a stipend to be used for their professional development and personal renewal.

The Hookele Award pays tribute to leaders from the nonprofit sector—the guiding forces in the community who strive to make Hawaii a better place. For many nonprofit leaders, commitment to their jobs and their causes far outweighs the challenges of working long hours with limited resources and support.

Just as the hookele, or steersman, is key to guiding a canoe successfully to its destination, this award recognizes the significant role that a nonprofit leader plays in improving the quality of life for Hawaii’s people.

The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the Hawaii Community Foundation created this annual program in 2002. Nonprofit leaders in Hawaii who are chosen each receive $10,000 to be used for their professional development and personal renewal.

Recipients are selected based on nominations from the community and assessed on the following leadership characteristics:

  • Thinks strategically and gets results
  • Brings different groups of people together
  • Inspires others
  • Makes a difference in Hawaii
  • Enthusiastically shares knowledge

Awardees are asked to share their reflections on how they used the honor and what it meant to them. One measure of the award’s impact is the continued dedication to the nonprofit sector by Hookele Award recipients.


Strategic Restructuring Partnership

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HCF was the first Hawaii funder to offer grants to two or more nonprofits planning to merge or restructure in a strategic way.


Island Innovation Fund

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This fund was created to serve as a catalyst for innovation within Hawaii’s nonprofit sector.

The Island Innovation Fund was created in 2010 as part of the historic $50 million commitment to Hawaii from Pierre and Pam Omidyar. With the economy forcing nonprofits to do more with less while facing complex issues, it had become increasingly important to create a culture for innovation that allowed organizations to think out of the box and find creative solutions to challenges in the community. The Island Innovation Fund was designed to foster new ways to solve the various problems by working together and building on the ideas of others.

An online application process was specifically created to allow all applicants to see each other’s ideas, encouraging them to look for opportunities to scale their innovations by collaborating with other local nonprofits.

In its first round of grants, $461,119 was awarded to five recipients for innovative projects that addressed issues ranging from conservation of native forests to technology solutions that connected consumers to Hawaii farm products.

In the second round, $480,591 was awarded to five recipients for projects intended to increase energy awareness through real-time monitoring web and mobile application tools; allow residents statewide to actively follow and monitor the Hawaii legislative process; distribute a replicable exercise and fall prevention program to Hawaii’s seniors; deploy a new access control mechanism to maintain public access to trails and pathways on Hawaii Island; and encourage schools to eliminate its waste to create green schools.


Promoting Outstanding Nonprofit Organizations

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HCF’s efforts to strengthen nonprofit organizations led to the launch in 2004 of the PONO (Promoting Outstanding Nonprofit Organizations) Leadership Program.

The nonprofit sector needs to be nimble and vigilant to respond to whatever community issues arise. The impetus for the PONO (Promoting Outstanding Nonprofit Organizations) program was a gained appreciation of the importance of leadership and the ability to lead change as a factor in an organization’s capacity to innovate and deliver results.

The Hawaii Community Foundation’s efforts to strengthen nonprofit organizations led to the launch in 2004 of the PONO Leadership Program, which brought together mid-career nonprofit executives for a yearlong program of collective learning. Originally co-sponsored by the Case Foundation, the program also emphasized contextualized learning by requiring participants to design and implement a capacity-building project that focused on a critical issue or entrepreneurial opportunity facing their organizations.