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Why Nonprofit Leaders Should Play Big

By Nell Edgington



One of the many books I read on my social media hiatus last Fall, was Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead. Her argument is that there are countless women out there who could be contributing so much more to society but are holding themselves back for various reasons. I think the same could be said for nonprofit leaders, many of whom are women.

Mohr argues that as our country faces increasing challenges we need more women who have solutions to offer to step up and lead:

“The past was a world defined, designed and led by men. The future – we hope – will be a world defined, designed and led by women and men. The present is the transition. Those of us born into this time were born into a unique and remarkable historical moment, a moment of in between…When we understand our moment as one of a major transition that will take decades to enact, and when we see ourselves as forgers of that transition, things shift. We can focus on how we want to help move the transition forward, and we can feel less wounded and frustrated by the myriad ways the transition is not yet complete. We can also feel honored and grateful to be alive at this transition moment and to be stewards of it.”

I would argue that those in the nonprofit sector are also leaders of a critical transition. At this historic moment when it feels like so many daunting problems face us (growing wealth inequality, political divisiveness, crumbling institutions), we need nonprofit leaders — those who envision a better, more inclusive, more equitable society — to speak up, create and lead us to a better place.

So I read Mohr’s book, yes as a woman of course, but also as a social change leader, and I would encourage you to do the same. Nonprofit leaders have tremendous ideas for how to improve systems, change lives, strengthen communities — all things we so desperately need right now. But often those nonprofit leaders are held back — by dysfunctions in the system to be sure, but also by hurdles they place in their own way, like scarcity thinking.

Mohr’s book holds tremendous lessons for nonprofit leaders. Because just as our society tends to place less value on the work and voices of women, we also put less value on the nonprofit sector. Her lessons can easily apply to nonprofit leaders, like:

  • Ignore your inner critic that whispers you are failing or unworthy
  • Connect to your inner wisdom that knows the right way forward in challenging situations
  • Overcome crippling fear that holds you back
  • Unhook from praise and criticism which are so often heaped on nonprofit leaders by boards and funders
  • Stop hiding from having a bigger, bolder role and take some big leaps forward, and
  • Communicate with power by infusing your oral and written language with confidence

I would love to see nonprofit leaders, who have something incredibly valuable to contribute to society, start playing much bigger.  Indeed I believe these times require it.

Photo Credit: Jose Murillo


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Is This 21st Century Philanthropy’s Defining Moment?

By Nell Edgington



The Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) conference wrapped up last week leaving participants with much to ponder. (If you missed the three guest posts in the GEO conference blog series, you can still read Kathy Reich’s post, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld’s post, and Pia Infante’s post.)

Over the course of the three days of the conference, I often wondered whether this might be the moment at which our generation of philanthropy recognizes and begins to address the fact that it is born from — and thus must consciously address —  inequity. Philanthropy, by definition, is the result of wealth inequality: those who have achieved enormous wealth decide to give some of that wealth away. While wealth inequality is on the rise, so is racial inequality, according to an update to the landmark 1968 Kerner report, which was released this past February.

This situation is quite similar to that at the end of the 19th century. The Gilded Age brought enormous wealth to “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie who then gave to philanthropic endeavors, like the Carnegie libraries that cropped up across the country and can still be seen in many cities today. But Carnegie’s philanthropy was sometimes seen as perpetuating a system of wealth inequality, as The Los Angeles Herald warned at the time: “[Andrew Carnegie and other philanthropists] have aimed to betray, and succeeded in betraying, the American laborer. It has been the old and only too true story of the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer, year by year.”

The parallels to today are fascinating. The technology boom brought untold wealth to some (like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) who have then made large philanthropic investments.  But several speakers at the GEO conference asked philanthropists to take a hard look at how much their philanthropy has truly sought to disrupt the system of inequality from which it was born. As Kathleen Enright, President of GEO, said in her opening keynote remarks: “If you aren’t recognizing the racial disparities in the solution you are attempting to solve, then you aren’t solving it.”

And many other speakers seemed to agree. Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that many philanthropy-backed education reforms of recent years (like charter schools) have focused on fixing surface problems instead of the root cause: “What would our public schools look like if we stopped spending money on trying to make separate equal, and instead integrated our schools?” And Brian Barnes of TandemEd similarly argued that “Philanthropy’s blindspot is that it will only push for change so far as change doesn’t challenge its own interests, positions and reputations.”

In fact many of the speakers and panelists at the GEO conference were asking philanthropists to take a hard look at whether their philanthropy was disrupting or perpetuating the system of inequality from which it was born. Which begs the question: could this be the moment in which philanthropy moves from a band-aid for society’s growing wealth inequality, to a beacon leading society toward a more equitable path?

Certainly GEO is not representative of philanthropy as a whole. By definition GEO members are philanthropists who are seeking to do more with their philanthropy — they are striving to become more “effective” philanthropists. But perhaps this group of philanthropic leaders can start to move philanthropy to become more — to truly remedy the disparities that caused its birth in the first place. That would be transformative.

Photo Credit: Puck magazine cartoon of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy by Louis Dalrymple, 1903


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GEO Guest Post: From Uncomfortable Truths to Courageous Action

By Nell Edgington



Note: The third guest blogger in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute. Her post is below.

The 2018 GEO National Conference came to a close yesterday, and 950 of us headed back to our respective cities, families, teams, and desks with fresh connections, conversations, and challenges to integrate back into our daily lives.  I’ll admit that there are times when I come home from a conference and go right back to business without much thought. This is not one of those times.

Kudos to the 2018 GEO Conference Planning Committee and Staff for weaving together an explicit focus on racial equity with thought provoking content and design.  GEO’s focus and commitment to racial equity could be felt and seen in multiple dimensions – from the big questions being posed on the big stage, to the content found in many of the breakout sessions and auxiliary events, to the lineup of plenary presenters.  No two plenaries were alike, except in the distinct choice to elevate the leadership of women and people of color.

On Monday, I was struck by the number of times — in both plenary and breakout sessions — that uncomfortable truths emerged about philanthropy’s complicity in maintaining structural and economic racism.  Many speakers pointed out that despite the philanthropic and the nonprofit sectors, inequities for black and brown communities continue to rise at every marker — wealth, housing, education, incarceration, technology.

Judy Belk kicked off a first uncomfortable truth by asking us not to look away from the signs of distress evidenced by unresolved homelessness and displacement on the picturesque streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Another tough pill to swallow rang out during Brian Barnes’ opening comments:

Our commitment to enacting equity and justice is valid solely and only to the point that it does not tamper with the safety and security we have for our families, ourselves, and our professional roles.  In other words, at the very point that our sincere belief in the morality and value of our efforts actually begins to threaten our reputation, our resources, or our relationships, almost all of us will abandon ship.”

On Tuesday, among a number of uncomfortable truths that Nikole Hannah-Jones delivered, was the failure of funder-driven education reforms in making her case that separate but equal is deeply unequal — and that integrating schools is the only way to ensure that black and brown students are guaranteed a quality education.  Nikole noted dryly that philanthropy “cares about data-driven results until it points to an uncomfortable result [action], then we’re looking for the find the next best data-driven result.” This observation of the way our sector may simply pick and choose self-reinforcing data was not lost on me, especially when so many efforts to solicit and act on feedback seem to be embraced more widely of late.  It brings up the question: “Whose feedback are we listening to?  Whose data informs our strategies and decisions?”

On Wednesday, Fred Blackwell seemed to speak directly to this when he said:

I’m a believer in results, a believer in using data to drive strategy and decision making.  But [if you are] using data that isn’t disaggregated by race, I don’t know how you are setting strategy, don’t know how you are responding, don’t know how you are measuring impact.”

In that same conversation, Christina Livingston posed a question, “What can funders really do differently to hear from communities – what are tangible practices and mechanisms that not only provide information but substantively form strategy?” While on the surface, this is not a question that appears to make our sector uncomfortable (because we embrace feedback loops, right?), the discomfort may come when community and nonprofit partners challenge us to take actions that fall outside our comfort zones.

In that vein, I’ve been taking note — from The Whitman Institute’s stellar network of partners and from the powerful sessions and speakers at the GEO conference the past few days — of concrete ways that we can move from uncomfortable truths to courageous action.  It’s not rocket science, but for those of us inspired to continue to move our institutions in these ways will require us to lean into vulnerability, collaboration, and courage.

Pass the (Decision and Strategy Making) Ball to Community
Instead of trying to get a slam dunk based on our own top-down strategies, what if we passed some of that strategy- and decision-making to community leadership who have direct experience with the issues we seek to address? We’ve heard in various forms that we need to be a sector that listens more closely and becomes willing to follow the direction and recommendations of communities bearing the brunt of generations old structural inequities.

Change the Lineup
I wasn’t intending these recommendations to be totally referential to basketball, but it is playoff season.  While we can and should strive to educate those in power about racial (in)equities, we will not achieve true equity until we diversify the lineup of who sits at the decision-making table.  Remember the graph that Kathy Reich showed us that in philanthropy: 89% of chief executive identified themselves as white, 85% of board members identified themselves as white, and 40% of foundation boards identified themselves as entirely white.  Given that the inequities of our time (economic, environmental, social, political, technological) all fall disproportionately on black and brown communities, our rosters should show a drastically different executive and board makeup by 2038.

Change Up the Plays
The breakfast panel on affordable housing noted that a half million dollar investment in a policy and advocacy strategy resulted in the passing of a measure that would go on to produce 2 billion dollars of new affordable housing.  If we haven’t considered the role of advocacy when funding for complex social change and social benefit, perhaps it’s time we did. If we have only looked at single issues with singular solutions, it might be time to study up on how interrelated our one issue is to many others.

Let Go of Habitual Structures of Distrust
If we really examine our funding protocols, we may find they are based on the premise that we should be inherently suspicious of nonprofits and communities, and that they need to prove their trustworthiness before we enter into relationship with them.  By adopting a trust-based approach — which includes rigorous listening, inquiry, relationship building, and thorough research as due diligence — we can reverse this distrustful paradigm while saving tons of time and trouble.  Before that long climb to the top of our inbox, let us reflect and revisit the underlying values and premises of our grantmaking structures and be willing permanently to bench those habits that don’t align with our values and missions.

Play the Long Game
In terms of relationships and resources, we hear repeatedly that philanthropy’s fickleness and attention deficit disorder wreaks havoc on the health and sustainability of our nonprofit partners and communities they serve.  While we still talk on plenaries and read in GEO reports that multi-year, unrestricted, flexible funding is ideal — the actual practice is still relatively rare in the sector. Why? We know better, when shall we comprehensively and collectively do better?

Put Resources, Reputation, and Relationship on the Line for Equity
A handful of the uncomfortable truths that we heard on the big stage and in many sessions is that philanthropy is too self-preserving.  What would it look like to take more personal and institutional risks in order to address inequities? Perhaps it means having tough conversations with our boards. Perhaps it means taking a long reflective look at our own self preserving mechanisms and see if it is time to step aside and share power.  Perhaps it means getting more proximate to those experiencing the problems of poverty, criminalization, deportation, homelessness — and being in the uncomfortable position of outsider in a room full of those who do not benefit from our privileges. Perhaps it means getting out from behind our bureaucratic processes and having direct conversations about money and time commitment.  Whatever it looks like, I hope we are each willing to take some kind of vulnerable action in this direction.

Pass the Wealth, Too
Lastly, I do wonder what it would look like to put ourselves out of business as a sector in 20 years?  Often we hear from communities who have suffered from structural racism like redlining and upon whose lands and backs the wealth in this country has been built — that the ultimate goal is self determination.  As a sector, what would it look like to transfer self-generating and wealth-building mechanisms to our communities? This could look like resourcing long term reserves, providing land trusts, offering loan signatories, funding capital campaigns, or endowing community led organizations.  Many of us fear building a dependency on our grant dollars, so if we are brave and willing to risk our own comforts, it may make the most sense to figure out how to invest our endowments in ways that ensure self sufficiency for those to whom we should be most accountable — the intended beneficiaries of our organizational missions.

It seems appropriate to close with the uncomfortable truth, voiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., which Janine Lee lifted up as we began these three days of celebrating GEO’s last 20 years and visioning philanthropy 20 years into the future: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Photo Credit: The Whitman Institute


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GEO Guest Post: Confronting Our Complicity in Racial Inequity

By Nell Edgington



Note: The second guest blogger in this week’s Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of Building Movement Project. His post is below. And don’t forget to follow the conference via #2018GEO.

If Monday’s plenary inspired us to dream about GEO’s 2038 vision, the discussion during Tuesday’s lunch snapped us back to the fierce urgency of now. When John Funabiki – a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University and Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism and Storytelling Center – interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones – the award-winning investigative journalist who was named a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow – their conversation challenged all of us to confront our complicity in maintaining racial inequity in these troubling times.

Nikole’s 2016 article about choosing a school for her daughter in New York City’s segregated school district highlighted the systemic factors that keep our nation’s schools separate and unequal. But the article also zeroed in on how the personal choices made by middle-class parents – like Nikole and her husband – reveal that even though people may say they want “equality for all,” their choices indicate that what they really want is advantage for their own children.

Nikole warned that her job was to hold a mirror up and make people uncomfortable, and I wondered how much discomfort people were feeling as she spoke critically about funder-driven education reforms over the past decade. She said that too often funding decisions failed to deal with the root of the problem with public schools: segregation.

With school districts across the country abandoning desegregation initiatives – in the form of bussing programs to take kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods – many schools are just as segregated as they were before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. In arguing for integration, Nikole said that the goal is not to have white kids and kids of color sitting next to each other in class, as if proximity magically makes kids smarter or better. Integration is a pragmatic strategy for ensuring that white parents and the government invest the same level of resources in schools with kids of color as they do in majority white schools. She reminded us of the lesson learned six decades ago: “separate but equal is not equal.” So for schools to be equal, we can’t keep them separated by race.

Earlier this year, my organization analyzed data from our survey of over 4,000 nonprofit staff about the nonprofit racial leadership gap, paying special attention to the respondents from California in this third report in our Race to Lead series. When we looked at the CEOs in our sample, we realized that half of the leaders of color were running organizations that they categorized as identity-based groups focused on communities of color, whereas two-thirds of white leaders didn’t categorize their organizations as identity-based groups at all. This data suggests that we have segregation in the nonprofit sector too.

While we certainly need to take steps to diversify historically white nonprofit institutions, I also want to affirm the critical role of people of color identity-based organizations. As someone who worked most of my career in identity-based advocacy and organizing groups, I know that those organizations are great places to work, support the leadership development of staff of color, and make critical change in the communities most impacted by systemic and structural racism.

The problem is not that leaders of color work in identity-based organizations, the problem is that those organizations don’t get the same level of investment. Roughly three-quarters of CEOs of color in our sample agreed that organizations led by people of color have a harder time fundraising than similar organizations with white leaders, only a third of white leaders indicated that they were aware of this phenomenon. Separate but equal is not equal.

Photo Credit: Building Movement Project


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GEO Guest Post: A Bold Vision for Philanthropy in 2038

By Nell Edgington



Note: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s (GEO) conference this week curating a group of fantastic bloggers. First up is Kathy Reich. Kathy directs the BUILD initiative at the Ford Foundation and is vice-chair of the GEO board of directors. Below is her post. And you can follow the conference via Twitter #2018GEO.

GEO turns 20 this year, and it’s come a long way since 12 people decided they needed a space for grantmakers who geek out on the art and science of their trade.

Today more than 600 foundations belong to GEO, and 950 people have gathered this week in San Francisco for the group’s biannual conference. Thanks in part to GEO’s tireless efforts, practices that once were outside the mainstream of organized philanthropy — general operating support, evaluation for improvement, funder collaboration, use of grantee feedback, and investments in nonprofit capacity building — are now widely recognized as essential in our field.

And yet, the mood doesn’t exactly feel celebratory. GEO isn’t commemorating its birthday by kicking off its shoes and dancing on the tables. (Or at least, not yet—I’m writing this before the opening reception).

Instead, the organization and its members are having one of those reflective birthdays. You know, the kind where you assess whether you’re living up to your values and maximizing your potential. GEO started off the conference by challenging all of us to craft our own visions for the philanthropy field in 2038. (Of course, since we’re in 2018, we’re supposed to tweet them #GEOMagic.)

For GEO, that means adding a commitment to racial equity to their short list of practices that are essential to grantmaker effectiveness. In other words, GEO has come to believe that racial equity is not just something that is nice for foundations to embrace, but something that they must embrace to be truly effective in their work. GEO envisions a sector where foundations lead the way in fostering racial equity in their workplaces, as well as in their funding strategies.

That’s a big step for GEO, and it’s not without controversy. But as GEO’s longtime CEO Kathleen Enright explained in the opening plenary:

“Our sector is dedicated to work that improves lives and strengthens communities. We try to do this based on evidence, data, and facts. And on one point, the data is crystal clear: in just about any community in the United States, and across nearly every issue—from economic opportunity, to education, to health—the most durable predictor of outcomes is race. We cannot expect to see the results we want to see on social challenges without taking into account the profound and pervasive influence of racial inequality in our nation.”

Enright pointed out that nearly two thirds of GEO members already consider racial equity either essential or central to their missions. And she offered powerful examples of how foundations like the Missouri Health Foundation have committed to racial equity in their work.

A commitment to racial equity is now at the center of GEO’s 2038 vision. That vision includes other transformative practices as well. Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute, Brian Barnes of Tandem ED, and I fleshed out a vision for a philanthropic sector that has transformed its approach to social and environmental challenges. In our 2038 vision, philanthropy has embraced:

Courage, by supporting new, non-traditional, and bold leaders, organizations, networks and ideas.

Inclusion, by actively engaging people of color, low-income people, and others least heard in our society as we develop grantmaking strategies and make our funding decisions.

Complexity, by investing in multiple players for the long-term rather than focusing on short-term, linear outcomes.

Learning, by using data to assess progress, challenge our own assumptions, and improve our work as well as the work of our partners.

Collaboration, by working in partnership, and on an equal playing field, with other funders as well as with communities, rather than insisting that “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.”

Flexibility, by making multi-year, general operating support and nonprofit capacity building the norm rather than the exception.

Ambition, by focusing on systems change at the community, regional, national or global level.

“Progress in the field begins with change inside foundations,” Enright said today. “And every single improvement starts with an act of individual courage and leadership.” Over the next three days, 950 people at the GEO conference will listen, learn, and hopefully commit to individual acts of courage that together will advance a bolder vision of philanthropy.

It’ll be hard work. But I anticipate a little celebration will creep in as well. And hopefully, a slice of birthday cake.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation 


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Philanthropy in Troubled Times: Blogging the 2018 GEO Conference

By Nell Edgington



Next week, as part of the 2018 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Conference, I’m excited to host some exceptional guest bloggers here on the blog. GEO’s biennial conference is where the most engaged philanthropists gather to talk about how they can more effectively support nonprofit leaders. GEO has asked me to host a blog series about the conference this year (as I did at the 2016 GEO Conference), and I was more than happy to oblige.

I’m particularly interested this year to see how the GEO Conference plays out amid these troubling times. Certainly the world is a very different place than it was at GEO’s last conference, and this gathering of the most engaged and thoughtful philanthropists could be, I hope, an opportunity for philanthropy to find a way to lead in a time that is arguably dismantling the progressive causes many of these philanthropists have been championing for decades. Indeed, leading philanthropic leaders like Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments has argued that philanthropy “can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding,” and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation has described his hope that philanthropy will “realize the urgency of now.”

The GEO Conference, held this year from Monday, April 30  to Wednesday, May 2 in San Francisco, is a first-in-class display of philanthropists thinking long and hard about their role in social change. Particularly now, when there is a real opportunity for philanthropy to stand up and have a stronger voice about where our country is headed, this conference provides a real opportunity. I’m looking forward to some open, honest and challenging conversations about how philanthropy can and should do more to lead in these challenging times.

I am particularly excited about several of the planned sessions, including “Supporting Advocacy during Turbulent Times,” “Strengthening Nonprofits as a Social Justice Strategy,” “Philanthropy’s Role in Closing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” and “Power and the Future of Philanthropy.”

And starting next Tuesday, May 1st you’ll be hearing from this great group of guest bloggers:

Kathy Reich, Director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation  
Kathy guides Ford’’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to support the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements. Before joining Ford, Kathy worked for 15 years at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, most recently as organizational effectiveness and philanthropy director. Prior to that, she was policy director at the Social Policy Action Network, served as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, and worked for state and local elected officials in California. Kathy currently serves on the boards of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and co-chairs the Fund for Shared Insight. She was named a Schusterman Fellow in 2016. She has also been featured on the Social Velocity blog several times in the past, as an interviewee twice (here and here) and a guest blogger.

 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project
Prior to joining BMP, Sean spent a decade working in various roles at the Center for Community Change, developing training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinating online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbying on a range of issues, including immigration reform, transportation equity and anti-poverty programs. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), where he focused on employment and income security issues. Sean received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School, where he now serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service. You can read my past interview with Sean here.

 

Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute
Pia speaks and teaches on radically embodied leadership and trust based practice in many settings including Harvard Kennedy School: Center for Public Leadership, Ashoka Future Forum, Opportunity Collaboration, Net Impact, Council on Foundations, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, International Human Rights Funders Group, and the Skoll World Forum. She also proudly serves as the Board Chair for the Center for Media Justice and is on faculty for the M.A. in Leadership Sustainability at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources as well as Thousand Currents Academy. She is an I.C.F. certified executive leadership coach and holds an M.A. in Education from the New School for Social Research.

 

After the conference is over I’ll do a wrap-up post that will bring the blog series to a close.  If you plan to be at the GEO Conference, please let me know, I’d love to see you there!

Photo Credits: GEO, Ford Foundation, Building Movement Project, The Whitman Institute


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Will There Be a #MeToo Moment for the Nonprofit Sector?

By Nell Edgington



In light of the recent #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender disparity in Hollywood and other industries, the Chronicle of Philanthropy/AFP study released earlier this month showed that 25% of nonprofit fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their job, most often from donors.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to uncover and reckon with gender disparity.

And I wonder if this reckoning will also include a recognition that the nonprofit sector itself suffers from a larger gender-based disparity between those who have money and those who seek that money for their cause.

The nonprofit sector is predominantly female — 70% of workers in the nonprofit sector are women. And the leadership of the private sector (from which much of the money to fund nonprofits comes) is predominantly male — 96% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male, and 80% of all C-Suite roles belong to men.

Kristen Joiner pointed out this discrepancy a couple of years ago in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, arguing that the gender power imbalance between those who have money to invest in nonprofit solutions and those running those solutions is based on the larger gender disparity of our society:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

The nonprofit sector is mainly run by women, the private sector is mainly run by men. Is it possible that the power imbalance we talk about between nonprofits and funders has its roots in good old fashioned sexism?  And if we acknowledge and discuss that, could we at long last perhaps find a way through it?

If we were to rectify the gender disparities at play in the nonprofit sector, it might look like this:

More Nonprofit Advocacy
Regulators, board members and funders ask nonprofit leaders to keep their political voices silent, sometimes even on issues that directly impact their ability to achieve their mission. While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and support of political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive. Nonprofit leaders need to be allowed to raise their voices, whenever and wherever it will help their mission.

More Access to Unrestricted Money
Money given with strings attached is a signal that the funder doesn’t fully trust the skills and abilities of those he is giving the money. More unrestricted dollars means nonprofit leaders are freed up to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their organization’s goals.

More Support of the Fundraising Function
Robust marketing and sales operations are a given in the business world. But “fundraising” (the nonprofit equivalent of “sales”) remains a dirty word. Nonprofit leaders need to be emboldened to build robust, sophisticated fundraising functions, and they need sufficient financial investment to be able to do that.

Rejection of the Overhead Distinction
Nonprofit leaders are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses). But overhead is a meaningless distinction made in the nonprofit sector, and one that is not made in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit leaders need to remove the overhead shackles so that they can create strong, effective, well-supported organizations.

Development of Strong Leaders
Business leaders often invest in professional development, training, and coaching, but a nonprofit leader must figure it all out on her own. We need to recognize that strong nonprofit leaders are every bit as important and necessary as strong for-profit leaders, and we should invest in nonprofit leadership development accordingly.

I say Time’s Up for the debilitating restrictions placed on nonprofit leaders around securing unrestricted money; investing in organizations, fundraising and leadership; and pursuing political activity. We must recognize and rectify practices born from a history of gender disparity if we want to truly benefit from the solutions nonprofit leaders have to offer.

Photo Credit: numb3r


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What Are The Key Strategic Questions Facing Your Nonprofit?

By Nell Edgington



At the beginning of any strategic planning process I lead, this is the question I pose to the nonprofit’s leadership: “What are the key strategic questions facing your nonprofit?”

Nonprofit leaders who want to plan for the future must first articulate what it is they need to decide about that future. A strategic question is a big picture, two roads diverged in the woods kind of question. Shall we go this way, or shall we go that way? They are not the tactical “How do we get this done?” questions, but rather the “What should we be doing?” kinds of questions.

So my first step in strategic planning is to lead the board and staff to create a laundry list of the big picture questions they want to be able to answer by the end of the strategic planning process.

These are questions like:

What people or groups are we seeking to benefit or influence?
It is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create social change. Your target populations are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so will move you closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clear about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, money, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal. The clearer and more specific you can get about exactly who your target population(s) are, the more effective you will be at creating change for them.

Which programs or activities should we cut?
Often nonprofit leaders are so big hearted that over the years they take on more and more programs and services, regardless of whether those additional programs make strategic sense or fit with the core competencies of their organization. So if you run a nonprofit with a long list of programs that don’t necessarily align with each other or with what you do best, you may want (during your strategic planning process) to ask which programs should stay and which should go.

What social issues are we working to address?
Sometimes a nonprofit’s board and staff are at odds about (or at least have never really decided) the exact list of social problems their nonprofit wants to address. A nonprofit is typically created because its founder recognizes some injustice or disparity and she wants to address that problem. But over time, a nonprofit’s leadership might take on additional issues, or the issues they were formed to address might change or grow, or other competing groups might launch to address similar issues.  So to chart a future direction, board and staff together must become crystal clear about exactly which social problems they believe are in their nonprofit’s purview.

Given what others working on the same issues are doing, where should we be focusing our efforts?
You cannot create a long-term strategy in a vacuum. Therefore you must get outside your walls and understand what other people and groups working on similar social issues are doing. And then you may need to determine what impact those efforts have on your nonprofit’s future direction and where can you have the most effective results.

What changed conditions should result from our work?
This is the ultimate strategic question because it forces everyone to articulate why your nonprofit exists. The changed social conditions that you desire (in other words, your desired outcomes) help you articulate what you ultimately hope your nonprofit will accomplish. And by articulating that, you can then work backwards to determine how you will operate, what programs you will run, who you will work with, how you will be funded, etc. Your desired outcomes serve as your nonprofit’s guiding light. And they hold your nonprofit accountable both internally and externally.

What is the most sustainable financial model for the outcomes we want to achieve?
All money is not equal and in order to create sustainable social change you have to figure out how to attract enough and the right kinds of money to achieve your outcome goals. So as part of your strategic planning process, you may need to figure out what your financial model should look like given the answers to all of your other strategic questions.

These are just a sampling of potential key strategic questions. Your unique mission and operating model will necessitate that you create your own custom list of key strategic questions.

Once you have that list, the purpose of a good strategic planning process then is to set about answering those questions in an evidence-based, decisive way. And once you have answers to all of your key strategic questions, you can craft a compelling, effective strategic plan that board, staff and supporters will be excited to bring to fruition.

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I use with my clients, check out my Strategic Planning page.

Photo Credit: Nick Page

 

 


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