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Financing Nonprofit Growth: An Interview with Susan Comfort

By Nell Edgington



In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Susan Comfort from KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play and building community engagement. KaBOOM! helps communities across the country build playgrounds for their neighborhoods. As the VP for Philanthropy at KaBOOM!, Susan has a unique perspective on the next generation of sustainable philanthropic support for nonprofits. Before KaBOOM! Susan worked for environmental groups like EWG and 1% for the Planet. KaBOOM! is a darling of the social innovation world because they have figured out how to scale their idea (a playground within walking distance of every kid) in a financially sustainable way.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: How is it fundraising two years into a recession? Have you found that your approach has had to change because of the recession? If so, in what ways?

Susan: The recession brings good and bad news for fundraising. The good news is, if you are a nonprofit that delivers results, you will stand out to donors for getting great bang for their limited bucks.  KaBOOM! has made its reputation this way, not only delivering a tangible, needed asset to an underserved community, but doing it efficiently, in a way that brings people together in the short- and long-term.

The bad news is, as we work to diversify our revenues beyond corporate-funded-playgrounds, breaking into the foundation community during a recession is challenging. Foundations, coping with reduced payouts, can’t fund all their previous grantees, much less new ones. Plus, “play” is regrettably not yet understood by foundations as something that fits their guidelines, even though lack of play is harming kids intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally, and is linked to so many other pressing issues.

KaBOOM! launched its “Going to Scale” plan just before the bottom dropped out of the market, so our approach continues to be developing our organization and program offerings beyond building playgrounds. We aim to achieve our vision of a great place to play for every child in America, but we can’t build every play space ourselves!

Nell: KaBOOM! has grown tremendously since it was founded in 1995. What do you think enables some nonprofits to grow their solution significantly while others can’t? What are the characteristics, if there are any, of a growth-oriented nonprofit?

Susan: One characteristic is strategy. If you engage in direct service, you can always find more people to serve…then organizational growth is about funding and efficiency.  If you engage in lobbying Members of Congress, however, you will have a limited number of people to lobby, with a limited number of opportunities…so your organizational growth is about the message (did it resonate? And who was the messenger?), or effectiveness (did you win?) or scope (where does this get addressed next—in state houses or internationally?).

Another characteristic of growth is your Theory of Change. First you have to define the problem, so you can rally around a collective cause. The problem we aim to address is the declining health of both children AND communities. At KaBOOM! we structure programs that lead to Achievable Wins, which in turn lead to what we call “Cascading Steps of Leadership”. The KaBOOM! model of community-built playgrounds allows our project managers to match up funders and nonprofits, then facilitate a 10-week process starting with a kid-led Design Day and ending with Build Day. But it doesn’t end there…

Our project managers keep in touch after the big Build Day with 1-week, 1-month and 6-month follow-up calls, each designed to propel the planning committee to take on another defined problem in their community, and take steps to achieve more “wins” for themselves. In essence, this model allows us to work in any part of the country, so KaBOOM! can grow and serve any number of communities. If your Theory of Change is focused on one community, as a traditional community organizer’s would be, you might not grow beyond that community – nor should you – but your roots there will be much deeper than ours, by design, ever will be.

Nell: You have raised a good bit of growth capital to achieve this growth. Beyond the capital you’ve raised from venture philanthropy funds, that are all about growth capital, how have you convinced other funders, who were maybe not as versed in the ideas of growth capital, to fund growth as opposed to just direct programs?

Susan: The only venture philanthropy funding that KaBOOM! has received is from the Omidyar Network, and we are incredibly grateful for their $12 million investment over 7 years.  It gave us a long runway to get our engine revved up for take-off, in this case open-sourcing over a decade’s worth of playground-building expertise so that Do-It-Yourself activists could freely download what we’ve figured out and apply it to their own communities (per our Going To Scale plan).

At the same time, we started educating our closest friends in the corporate community about our other organizational needs, and some were willing (even in a recession!) to fund us beyond playground builds. So we started a “National Partner” program where we asked companies to build multiple playgrounds annually, plus contribute six figures in general support. Today, our national partners are Dr Pepper Snapple, Foresters, Kraft and MetLife.

And of course — near and dear to my heart — we also started a Philanthropy program (which I direct). Our goal is to engage foundations and individuals to invest in KaBOOM!, both its online programs and its organizational growth. With regional foundations, for example, we show what playgrounds we’ve built in their area thus far, and request support for our Playful City USA program. If play can be institutionalized in mayor’s offices and with local activists, so much more will be accomplished than we could have done on our own.

With individuals, it’s human nature to want to fund something very specific and/or tangible, so the growth fundraising is certainly a challenge. But it’s also human nature to extrapolate meaning from a single story, so when a donor sees how one child’s family benefits from a fantastic play space, they understand how millions of children and families would benefit just the same. We’ve had individuals support playground builds…we even have a wedding build lined up in Connecticut in June 2012…but we are also asking people to support the broader cause of play.

Nell: KaBOOM! recently took a fascinating spin on growing to scale by realizing the only way they were going to get to every area that needed a playground was to make playground plans downloadable on your website. That has the potential to undermine your financial model since you won’t receive any money for those playgrounds built. How do you balance the desire to reach everyone with the need to sustain a large organization?

Susan: Well, it’s a challenge, and honestly, we haven’t figured out the answer yet. But we have a few irons in the fire in addition to some of the foundation efforts I described.

We are hoping individuals will “Play it forward” to KaBOOM! after they’ve served as playground build volunteers, or Do-It-Yourselfers, or recess advocates. We are also figuring out the best way to help others raise money for their playground projects using a platform similar to Donors Choose or GlobalGiving, where donors give a small percentage “tip” to help with operating costs. Of course, we are also reaching out to high-net-worth individuals who have the potential to underwrite our mission.

In addition to our individual and foundation outreach, we are developing less-traditional revenue streams. Imagination Playground is a unique LLC, formed between KaBOOM! and the non-profit arm of David Rockwell’s architecture firm. Once that enterprise begins making money (we’re not there yet) KaBOOM! will get half of the proceeds. Another new revenue streams is KaBOOM! founder Darell Hammond, who is contributing all author proceeds from his new book, (an Amazon best-seller) How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play, to the organization. Back in the day, we also used to scoop ice cream down at the Ben & Jerry’s on Free Cone Day, which eventually got us a limited-run ice cream flavor featuring white-chocolate-coated pop rocks…called KaBerry KaBOOM! Too bad that’s in the Flavor Graveyard now.

Nell: What is your sense of how philanthropy is evolving in terms of the distinction between buying services and building organizations? Do you think more philanthropists are understanding this distinction and stepping up to fund building organizations? And what will encourage more to do so?

Susan: Some of the forward-thinking philanthropists are certainly making this distinction. Venture Philanthropy Partners. The Social Innovation Fund. Omidyar Network. Skoll Foundation. These tend to fund “social entrepreneurs” which are not just business-like non-profits. Jim Collins says “We must reject the idea.. well-intentioned, but dead wrong.. that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses…like most of anything else in life…fall somewhere between mediocre and good.”

Jim Collins has many fans at KaBOOM! – in fact, every staff member receives on their first day his Good to Great in the Social Sector so that we can embrace the universal principles of being GREAT.

But the reality is, the traditional KaBOOM! funding model sits squarely in the fee-for-service column, and corporate-funded playgrounds still dominate our budget. To fund everything else, we are making the transition away from venture philanthropy (Omidyar) toward a diversified organizational funding model (foundations + individuals).

Both entities are still tempted to fund a particular geographic area, or program area. And that’s okay—it’s good work.

But so many organizations are running around chasing 1-year grants for a program, for which quarterly reports are due, that you need a permanent development staff to keep track of all those proposals and reports and such. Which keeps people like me employed, but it’s not great for all of our social change movements who are spending time chasing money when they could be growing their organizations and serving the public more efficiently.

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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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