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Overcoming the Bias Against Nonprofit Capacity

By Nell Edgington



It amazes me how much the funder, government, and even sometimes nonprofit leadership, bias against nonprofit capacity building holds the sector back. It seems like such a simple thing: in order to get more results you need to devote time, energy and resources to organization building.  In order to find the resources required to deliver programs, you need to invest in fantastic fundraisers.  In order to track program results, you need a system which includes technology and staff. In order to have a fantastically talented staff, you need a human resources function that takes the time to vet great candidates. A nonprofit cannot exist on direct program dollars alone.

The idea that the vast majority of nonprofit funding should go to direct program expenses is ludicrous.  Why is there even a distinction between program and non-program expenses?  Doesn’t a nonprofit exist to deliver programs?  And doesn’t that mean that everything they do helps to make those programs better, stronger, bigger, more effective?  Why is capacity such a dirty word?

I met with a nonprofit Development Director earlier this month who has had a really hard time convincing their CEO and board to let them spend money on a donor database and some fundraising materials. Yet, at the same time the Development Director is expected to raise millions of dollars in revenue. That sounds completely crazy, doesn’t it?  But in the world in which I work that is often the rule rather than the exception. Infrastructure, capacity, fundraising, marketing, and operations dollars are somehow bad, dirty, not necessary, dismissed.

Which is why the recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Bridgespan Group’s Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard was such a breath of sanity-infested fresh air. If you are nonprofit staffer, board member, donor, or volunteer, I really encourage you to read the whole article.  They have studied what they call the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle”–nonprofit organizations’ continual drive to do more and more with less and less– and come up with a path out of the insanity.

What seems like such an obvious statement, its almost a truism–“Organizations that build robust infrastructure—which includes sturdy information technology systems, financial systems, skills training, fundraising processes, and other essential overhead—are more likely to succeed than those that do not”–is so often overlooked by nonprofit organizations.   But I think most nonprofit leaders would tell you that they would love to spend money on infrastructure, that they absolutely understand the return on investment, but funders and board members have a hard time allocating money to those projects.

In their work with nonprofits at Bridgespan Group, Gregory and Howard uncovered three reasons for this inability to build capacity in the nonprofit world:

  • Funders have unrealistic expectations about how much it costs to run a nonprofit
  • Nonprofits need to conform to these unrealistic expectations in order to receive funding
  • Nonprofits underreport infrastructure expenditures on tax forms and in fundraising materials

The end result is a vicious circle where few fund or spend money on infrastructure in the nonprofit space: “This underspending and underreporting in turn perpetuates funders’ unrealistic expectations. Over time, funders expect grantees to do more and more with less and less—a cycle that slowly starves nonprofits.”

The solution, Gregory and Howard argue, is to begin at the source of this vicious cycle: the funders.  They argue if funders can be educated about the true costs and infrastructure necessary to build organizations to solve social problems, then we can break out of this destructive cycle. I strongly agree with that. It is difficult for nonprofits to turn to the hand that feeds them and tell them that they need more in order to do more, but such conversations are absolutely critical if we are to get beyond the starvation cycle.

But funders aren’t the sole impediment. Gregory and Howard argue that nonprofits play a part in this dysfunctional view of capacity, and there are a number of things that they can do to turn things around.  Nonprofit leaders should analyze their real overhead costs and infrastructure needs, educate their boards about these real needs and then engage their board in communicating these needs with funders.  And board members are just as culpable. They must encourage nonprofit leaders to develop strategies to address their true infrastructure needs and then take responsibility for encouraging funders (often board members’ friends and colleagues) to be realistic about what is required to make the nonprofit highly functioning.

I actually think that funders are much more receptive to these capacity conversations than some nonprofits give them credit for.  My work at Social Velocity is all about organization building, and I often encourage nonprofit leaders to tell their board members and their closest donors what they really need to succeed.  I have found that those donors who really believe in an organization will understand when a compelling case that it takes resources to take an organization to the next level is put before them.

I think the bottomline is that we have to stop playing games. Stop underreporting infrastructure costs, stop telling funders its ok to ask nonprofits to do more with less, stop telling the public that direct program costs are better than indirect program costs, stop telling boards of directors that its ok to ignore infrastructure needs. It’s a difficult conversation, there is no doubt, but what’s the alternative? We all know how a starvation cycle ends.


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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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11 Comments to Overcoming the Bias Against Nonprofit Capacity

[…] Overcoming the Bias Against Nonprofit Capacity | Social Velocity http://www.socialvelocity.net/2009/08/overcoming-the-bias-against-nonprofit-capacity – view page – cached Ideas, analysis, updates on social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, education reform, nonprofits, fundraising, venture philanthropy and growth capital — From the page […]

[…] at Social Velocity, Nell Edgington raises a good point: I met with a nonprofit Development Director earlier this month […]

[…] are to the effectiveness of the nonprofit sector. But I think they are particularly critical to overcoming the bias against nonprofit capacity.  Boards of directors are a largely untapped resource available to nonprofits.  If nonprofits […]

[…] to read this post about nonprofit capacity building. The author Julio Gonzalez Altamirano cites this entry from another cool Austin blog, Social Velocity, where the author Nell Edgington […]

[…] capacity within the nonprofit sector.  I have talked at length about the need for greater capital to fund organization building in the sector.  Philanthropists are often hesitant to see their money go anywhere other than […]

[…] “starvation cycle” of nonprofit organizations doing more and more with less and less has to end.  But how can […]

[…] “starvation cycle” of nonprofit organizations doing more and more with less and less has to end.  But how can […]

[…] or growth of a successful nonprofit.  That is to say that donors will increasingly realize the power of BUILDING organizations rather than BUYING services.  I don’t think donors will move away from buying services, there will still be a majority […]

[…] or growth of a successful nonprofit.  That is to say that donors will increasingly realize the power of BUILDING organizations rather than BUYING services.  I don’t think donors will move away from buying services, there will still be a majority […]

[…] to read this post about nonprofit capacity building. The author Julio Gonzalez Altamirano cites this entry from another cool Austin blog, Social Velocity, where the author Nell Edgington […]

[…] spent on the support of programs. Donors need to understand, and you need to explain to them, that “overhead” is not a dirty word. A nonprofit exists to deliver programs. Andeverything the organization does helps to make those […]

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