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What Nonprofit Sustainability Looks Like: An Interview with Hilda Polanco

By Nell Edgington



In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Hilda Polanco. Hilda is the founder and CEO of FMA – Fiscal Strength for Nonprofits, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits and foundations develop the fiscal capacity they need to fulfill their missions, including stronger operations and fiscal management, improved foundation grant-making capacity, and increased staff financial knowledge.

In addition to leading FMA, Hilda serves on the NYC Human Services Coalition’s special commission to study the closure of high-profile human services organizations. She was a founding member of the selection committee of the New York Nonprofit Excellence Awards and has served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Department of Health Policy and Management, as well as on the faculty of the Donor’s Forum of Chicago.

Nell: Your career has been about strengthening the financial capacity of the nonprofit sector. Why do you think nonprofits struggle so much with financial sustainability?

Hilda: All businesses struggle with sustainability, as it turns out, but in the case of nonprofits, there are several additional challenges: I think of these challenges as follows:

  • Missions that compete with the business model for attention, creating an unclear vision of what it costs to deliver services and what the revenue and expense drivers are to delivering these services.
  • A lack of focus on the balance sheet, and instead a focus only on annual operating results
  • An insufficient focus on longterm financial planning
  • A lack of common understanding of the meaning of sustainability, among nonprofits and the funders that support them

Mission-driven leaders who are so important to the nonprofit sector are not often motivated by the “business” of delivering services. They care about the issues, the causes, the communities. As a result, they may not understand what a nonprofit’s business model is, or they may have absorbed a popular mistaken notion about nonprofits — that they should not strive to preserve surpluses. In order to be sustainable, an organization needs to understand its revenue and expense drivers and strive to strengthen its financial position over time.

An additional challenge is pricing. This is commonly subsumed under a discussion of “overhead,” but that term conceals some of the details of the problem. Organizations will face challenges to their sustainability if they are pursuing work or lines of business without fully understanding the cost when compared with what funds they are raising. Where there is a gap between what they raise and what it costs to perform the work, a “structural deficit” takes hold. A structural deficit is not one you can cure with a targeted fundraising appeal –as you could, say, to replace your roof or buy a new school bus. A structural deficit is one that persistently drains resources from the organization until the underlying problem is corrected. It’s a roof that, by design, will collapse every single year.

Having a focus on the balance sheet means having a focus on establishing healthy reserves. We drill our clients constantly on their Liquid Unrestricted Net Assets (or LUNA, for short). LUNA describes an organization’s available reserves for addressing strategic opportunities or unexpected expenses. They appear on the balance sheet. Too many organizations reckon their financial standing by simply comparing income and expenses for a given year. They need to look at a balance sheet. A strong balance sheet allows a leader to address the organization’s future needs. A weak balance sheet creates uncertainty. And this raises the issue of capital. There are several ‘kinds’ of capital—funding that is raised or preserved for different uses, for growth or innovation, for example.

It’s not just nonprofit leaders who need to understand this. Foundation program officers, major donors, and all buyers of nonprofit services need to share in this viewpoint, to arrive at a common understanding of what nonprofit sustainability looks like. The market for nonprofit services is sort of unusual in that we expect the funders, as much as the nonprofit leaders—to be self-reflective about their role in the transaction.

Funders should not expect their grantees to deliver quality services without understanding the full cost of the enterprise. And sometimes, they need to engage in a substantive discussion about business models so they can come to a shared understanding. Funders can have a different conversation with grantees, even if they are only funding a project. The conversation should not be just about what they are “buying”, but also about the organization’s overall capacity. Rather than focusing exclusively on this moment, the question should be “How can we be sure that you will have the capacity to achieve your target outcomes over time?”

What should they be doing to remedy the situation? This isn’t easy to solve. In many ways, it goes against how we think about our roles in a buying and selling relationship. Think about how strange this is: If you value the service your local coffee shop provides, it would be like prodding its owner to charge you more for your coffee so they could stay in business and serve the community who counts on that coffee each and every day!

Of course, the future is unknown. Sustainable nonprofits need to be planning for at least a two year horizon. Decisions made this year will have an impact on future years and preparing for those future years is much more effective with a longer horizon to strategize, rather than pretending that life happens in one year increments in isolation from the following year. For example, new hires, raises, multi-year grants that may come to an end in the coming year. These are all examples of business assumptions that should be taken in the context of their impact on future operations. More broadly, an organization must revisit its financial model over time, understanding what may have changed in the funding ecosystem or what competing organizations are doing.

Nell: There are two parts to financial sustainability: bringing money in the door and then using that money effectively. There have been some strides toward changing cultural norms around how nonprofits use money (with the Real Costs project and the Overhead Myth campaign), but what about on the bringing money in the door side? How do we get smarter about that?

Hilda: Efforts to raise funds for “services” have created a tendency to raise money for particular programmatic activities, rather than for the mission and outcomes of the organization as a whole. When an organization can articulate its target outcomes, and know what financial resources will be required to achieve these, the conversation can shift to an investment in the organization’s vision, rather than the purchase of specific activities. These are requests for investments of capital.

We see a growing trend in capital campaigns lead by a “funder prospectus” – a vision for the organization’s outcomes, with a request for investment in these outcomes; a way to focus the conversation differently. And with a funder prospectus, multiple funders can come to the table to support a common strategy – rather than create parallel strategies to suit the goals of the funder, rather than the goals of the organization. These campaigns can be for the sustainability of current operating levels, or the funding for growth.

Another issue to keep in mind is the concentration vs. diversification strategic conversation. There are a lot of consultants advising nonprofits to diversify their revenue sources, and not put “all their eggs in one basket.” This can be good advice under some circumstances, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Diversification sometimes means building a much more complex—and potentially fragile—business model. For many organizations, concentrating on one revenue source can help focus, strengthen, and build the business model. For example, the skills and capacity to successfully raise funds from foundations and corporations is different from special events, major donors, or government grants. Without sufficient activity in each, the business model may not be able to support the required levels of diverse skill sets. It is somewhat of a balance – a diverse revenue strategy means a diverse skill set and capacity to succeed; often not found in a common staff position or limited organizational infrastructure.

And lastly, there is the need to balance between raising funds for current operations, vs. raising funds for new and “innovative” programming. Here’s where the “shiny object syndrome” can undermine an organization’s sustainability. The Development Director is excited about new programs, but the organization isn’t raising the necessary funds to cover core programming. Years ago, an Executive Director I know lamented to me: “If I hear ‘innovation’ one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. What happened to tried and true?” This notion of balance need not be confined to the leadership of an organization. Indeed, in healthy and sustainable organizations, this sense of balance is shared across the organization. The development team and program leaders should, effectively, understand the organization’s financial model just as much as the finance team. It is particularly important for development leaders to be able to articulate a coherent and compelling financial story of the organization as a whole, not just respond to the new ideas a funder may be focused on.

Nell: What role does research to understand what works and what doesn’t play? There seems to be a dearth of research in the sector about effective financing models. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, how do we change that?

Hilda: I agree that there’s not much research, and there should be more.

And the first step toward research is sharing knowledge and lessons learned as these are happening rather than waiting for longer term research and evaluation. We need to build more of a shared understanding of the universe of possibilities. For example, what are Program Related Investments (PRI’s)? We hear about PRIs from time to time, but what are some early lessons learned? Who is making them effectively? More esoteric investments like Social Impact Bonds have made a splash, but there’s little understanding of the risks organizations take on by accepting this type of investment and the lessons learned in getting them off the ground.

Funders who are funding in a more holistic way can help the sector by educating other funders about it. Can a foundation make an investment in an organization’s operating reserves rather than operations? What does that look like?

Funders who are willing to experiment and share their experiences can play an important role here.

Photo Credit: FMA

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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.

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017 Innovators

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