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We Need an Ecosystem for The Bottom 80%

By Nell Edgington

In response to my post last week on the blog about the Social Innovation Fund, Sean Stannard-Stockton, of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, wrote a comment that really got me thinking.

My post argued that the $50 million federal Social Innovation Fund is only one small piece of the capital the nonprofit sector needs. The fund will help the top nonprofit organizations, but will not remedy the lack of capital available to the smaller, less sophisticated nonprofits that make up the majority (80%) of the sector. Sean rightly pointed out that like the business sector, the vast majority of nonprofits are small, and as we have done with businesses, we need to create different expectations for different kinds of nonprofits.  I would take Sean’s comments even further and argue that we actually need to create a similar ecosystem of funding and expertise for the nonprofit sector, as we have done for businesses.

Sean writes:

One thing I think that people need to keep in mind when they point to how many nonprofits are small is that the same is true in business. While good revenue numbers are hard to find, did you know that 73% of for-profits have less than 10 employees and 54% have less than 4 employees? It seems to me that as a field we need to do a better job of segmenting the nonprofit market and having very different expectations for nonprofits which are “small businesses” vs those that are “public companies.”

Sean makes a critical point. The vast nonprofit sector is often lumped together as one. When in reality, the sector is incredibly diverse. And although over the past 10 years there have been some innovative strides made in providing capital, expertise, and other resources to the top 20% of the nonprofit sector (such as venture philanthropy funds like New Profit and Venture Philanthropy Partners and management expertise from consulting companies like Monitor and Bridgespan) the fact remains that the “bottom” 80% of the nonprofit sector is still very much alone.

This is one of the reasons I started Social Velocity. I saw a real hole in the marketplace in terms of capital and management expertise to the bottom 80% of the nonprofit market. A $500,000 nonprofit organization can’t engage a Monitor or Bridgespan group, and a venture philanthropy fund wouldn’t be interested in scaling them since no one will fund evaluation to prove their results.  These organizations are stuck within the vicious starvation cycle and cannot get out.

We need to do a better job, as Sean says, of segmenting the nonprofit sector and creating appropriate expectations for those different segments, but we need to go much further. We have to create an ecosystem of expertise and funding for the smaller, less sophisticated segments of the sector, which includes:

  • Educating smaller, less sophisticated philanthropists that creating solutions requires funding for less sexy things like capacity, organization building, evaluation
  • Providing significant capacity capital to build out revenue functions, attract and retain top talent, articulate a value add, message effectively
  • Supplying growth capital to nonprofits who have a great solution and the desire to scale
  • Creating realistic and cost-effective evaluation tools so that smaller organizations can prove their impact along with the big guys
  • Securing management expertise to help smaller nonprofits create strategic and growth plans, articulate their impact and value add to potential investors, develop comprehensive financial strategies, etc.

I think it’s fabulous that there is a growing understanding that nonprofits can’t do it alone anymore. And I’m so pleased to see new funding vehicles like the Social Innovation Fund that are helping to take social innovation to the next level. But let’s not forget that there are many other innovative nonprofit organizations that will never catch the eye of the Social Innovation Fund, or their funding and consulting counterparts.

Over the past 200+ years America has established a fairly advanced ecosystem that supports (albeit not perfectly) the growth and success of entrepreneurs at every stage of the game.  We are starting to recognize the need for a similar ecosystem in the nonprofit sector.  But there is still much work to be done. Let’s not forget the smaller, less sophisticated nonprofits that may have tremendous solutions to contribute, but who just can’t get past the many hurdles in their way.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, 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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1 Comment to We Need an Ecosystem for The Bottom 80%

Mary Fifield
December 20, 2011

I really appreciate this thoughtful discussion and would add that the need for an ecosystem for small non-profits is particularly necessary for those working internationally. Many organizations achieving real results by working at the grassroots in the developing world struggle to get the attention of donors. Donations for international grassroots work can result in excellent ROI, and the sector would benefit from more infrastructure to attract funding.

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