Amid all of the uncertainty in the wake of the election, one thing is sure. In order to survive and thrive, nonprofit leaders cannot stick their heads in the sand. As others have already enumerated, there is much to be done to prepare for the road ahead — from ensuring your board is actively engaged, to bolstering your partnership with funders, to growing (or launching) your advocacy efforts.
As part of all of this, it is critical that nonprofit leaders not go it alone. They must understand and harness the power of networks in order to grow their ability to influence the future.
As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano put it, networked nonprofits
“see themselves as nodes within a constellation of equal, interconnected partners, rather than as hubs at the center of their nonprofit universes. Because of the unrestricted and frequent communication between their different nodes, networked nonprofits are better positioned to develop more holistic, coordinated, and realistic solutions to social issues than are traditional nonprofit hubs.”
And now — more than ever — we need a social change sector that is coordinated and offers real solutions to the many social challenges we face.
But what does that look like? How does a single nonprofit leader analyze and begin to grow her organization’s networks?
She must work with board and staff to analyze their current and potential networks and create a plan for growth, by asking these questions:
Who Else Is Working on Similar Social Issues?
What other entities are working on similar issue areas? Are you connected to them? In a significant way? If not, make a list and start getting your board and staff to forge alliances, where possible. And ask each of these entities where else you should be connected.
Who Are the Leaders in Other Sectors?
Beyond just the nonprofit space, are there key for-profit industries or local, state or federal government entities that impact your set of social issues? Are you connected to these networks in a significant way? If not, get busy.
Who Are the Policymakers Impacting Your Issue Area?
To the earlier point about moving into the advocacy space (which more and more social change experts are encouraging nonprofits to do), think about local, state or federal policies that might impact your work. Who are the policymakers you should be talking to in order to make sure they fully understand the issues and their impact? Do your networks include these policymakers? If not, get to work.
What Expertise Do We Lack?
A single organization has only a very limited list of core competencies, but you will need a lot of varied expertise to create the social change you seek. So where are you lacking? And who out there (people, organizations) have that expertise? Find them and figure out how you can partner in a significant way to move forward.
Who Are the Influencers?
What about people who are not represented above, but who have the ear of those who are? Who are the key influencers, and are you connected to them? If not, again make a list and start attacking it.
Once you know all of the people and groups to which you want your organization connected, start assigning parts out to your board and staff. Set up meetings to explore how you can start partnering towards bigger social change.
Because we need social change leaders who are not frightened by the looming future, but rather aligned and empowered to face it together.
If you want to learn more about building networks for social change, read my interviews with network experts Anna Muoio, Jane Wei-Skillern, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and check out the New Network Leader website.
Photo Credit: Martin Grandjean
These are difficult days. This past week I have felt incredibly lost. I have been thinking a lot, trying to understand what is happening in our country, in our communities, to and with our people. And I have been grappling, as I know you all have been, with how we move forward from here.
I have struggled with how to write the blog, doubting whether I can shed any light on something that none of us really understands. But then a colleague said to me, “It’s even more important now that you write. You have followers, and thus you have a responsibility to lead them toward hope.” That is a heavy lift, and I doubt that I can really hope to fulfill it, but I will reluctantly stand up and play my role as a leader.
But I ask the same of each of you.
Because the only way forward for our country is if each one of you, as our country’s social change leaders, stands up as true leaders in your work, your communities, our country.
And in my mind here’s how we start to make that happen.
Build community inside and out.
This week I attended a conference of social sector leaders and one of the speakers described how a sense of community is the backbone of resilience. If we are going to get through this, we cannot isolate ourselves. We must find and forge community. And we must go beyond our own comfortable spheres. Our country is really struggling right now. We must find ways, big and small, to connect communities, tap into new ones, and stretch our networks. We cannot let the red/blue, rural/urban, middle/working class divides that this election highlighted define us as a country. We are better than that. So wherever you are, break down those walls and connect — really connect — with people inside and outside of your circles.
And in order to do that, you must embrace empathy. Another colleague said to me this week, “Do you know how we can move forward from this? Empathy.” And that is absolutely right. Start here. Yes this election brought out the worst in us, but perhaps it did so because of some pretty stark failings of our economic and political systems. So let’s stop blaming and instead work to understand the realities that people are living and figure out solutions.
Be a real leader.
Which brings me back to where I started. We are suffering a crisis of leadership in our country. I truly believe that the majority of people who voted for Trump were not casting a vote for hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia, but were instead casting a vote against a deeply flawed economic and political system. We need real leaders — big and small, and in every corner of this country — to stand up, speak up, and do the hard, right thing. We have to stop waiting for someone else to come forward. We are each responsible for whatever corner of influence we hold, and we must use that influence for good. So dig deep and figure out how you can help, not hurt, your communities and your country. Step away from the despair and the fear and instead move whomever you can, however you can, toward the light.
I am choosing to find the opportunity in this darkness. And yes, that is a choice I have made today, and a choice I will have to continue to make every single day after.
And the opportunity I see is that these times can force each one of us to take a hard look at ourselves and emerge as empathetic leaders willing to bridge divides, build communities and help our country, our democracy, ALL of our people, find a way forward together.
If you have felt (and continue to feel) like giving up — as I have many times over the past week — please hear me when I say that you simply cannot. Now more than ever our country needs you social change leaders to point the way toward the future. We must resist — at all costs — the urge to stick our heads in the sand, curse those who didn’t vote the way we wanted, or slink away in fear of the future.
Now more than ever we must all, every single one of us, step up as leaders for these new challenges we face. Whether that’s inspiring your staff, or marshaling your colleagues, or getting outside your own walls to find common ground. We all have at least one way in which we can be a true leader.
So find it, embrace it, and get to work.
Photo Credit:Wilson Lam
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ruth McCambridge.
Ruth is Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her background includes forty-five years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Ruth spent a decade at The Boston Foundation, developing and implementing capacity building programs and advocating for grantmaking attention to constituent involvement.
If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.
Nell: The Nonprofit Quarterly sometimes serves as a watchdog for the nonprofit sector. For example, shortly before his death last year, Rick Cohen took the nonprofit sector to task for not standing up against anti-refugee legislation. But in some ways the sector’s hands are tied because of real or perceived rules against too much political activity. What is (or should be) the nonprofit sector’s role amid an increasingly polarized, gridlocked political system?
Ruth: The nonprofit sector’s hands are by no means tied and pretty much everyone knows that. We who work in 501(c) 3s do have to avoid partisan political activity and be a little careful when it comes to direct lobbying, but this leaves a whole world of political activity in which nonprofits can be and are involved, and there are plenty of powerful examples of political activism by nonprofits.
Look at the way that planned Planned Parenthood Action (a 501(c)4) has mobilized around this election season. Four years ago, in fact, the Sunlight Foundation found it had the highest ROI of any electorally focused PAC.
This response you speak of, of not being allowed to be political is, it seems to me, a convenient and patently obvious cop-out. It’s not that nonprofits do not know they can be involved in these kinds of issues, it is that they are employing a facile excuse for not doing what is right.
What is perhaps most disturbing about this dynamic – what most exposes the true nature of the excuse – is the tendency of some nonprofit infrastructure groups to mobilize nonprofits only on the most institutionally self-interested causes, resisting any limitations on fundraising, for instance. The fact that these campaigns are launched in favor of refugee rights to a safe harbor is not attractive to those who expect integrity from the sector.
Of course, there are issues that combine long term institutional self-interest with the interests of communities – for instance, recently a few statewide nonprofit networks have stood up for a living wage requirement and have accompanied that with work on rate adjustments, but in general, nonprofits, specifically those which are not expressly organized around advocacy, need to consider how to use their institutional power for what is right and stop playing coy in the face of current intense political scrums around issues of basic human and civil rights.
But let’s get back to the NPQ as watchdog idea. We have been hearing this increasingly over the past few years, but we have always tried to afflict the comfortable so maybe our voice has just become louder. We have many more readers than this time last year – I know that!
Nell: The mainstream media is sometimes criticized for holding the nonprofit sector to an unfair standard compared to the private sector. Do you agree with that criticism, or is the nonprofit sector not analyzed enough?
Ruth: That unfair standard coin has two sides. The nonprofit sector is more trusted by the public than government or business and that means that people expect more from us in terms of consistency of ethics. When we violate those higher expectations – yes – we may look like we are being held to a higher standard because the contrast between what they want and expect to see from us and what we give them is sometimes so starkly disappointing. This, by the way, causes some of the obsession with executive salaries that are seen as overly high. There is a sensitivity to wage justice in the context of mission and other compensation of staff that is easy to play on because people just expect us to act from the highest possible ethical position.
Nell: As a journalist, what is your take on the state of journalism and its role in democracy given the 30% decline in the number of journalists over the last decade. What will become of journalism and its role in democracy? And what do you make of the emerging breed of nonprofit newsrooms?
Ruth: Journalism is a changing form, and I would be talking far above my pay grade to suggest that I knew exactly what it was evolving toward, but it has always been clear to me that the role of journalism is central to democracy – to the ability of a populace to act in an informed manner and thus it is as important to democracy as the right to associate, which is at the basis of our nonprofit sector.
In a way, this commonality of purpose links the two, and so it is no surprise that there are now more nonprofit journalism outlets springing up – entities that are not placing profit above mission. That makes sense.
Just as interesting are the conversations around how people choose who can be trusted to inform them and on what basis, and who is going to pay for the long term investigative journalism that always has to be central to the mix, and what part open data plays in breaking stories. Other interesting trends are the evolution of citizen journalism, collaborative journalism and niche journalism. It is unendingly interesting.
Nell: In your interview last Spring with Douglas Rushkoff he had some very interesting things to say, one of which was that the nonprofit business model is superior because it more equitably distributes wealth than the for-profit model. Do you agree with his assessment, or what is your take?
If we do not want to encourage the pillaging of the earth and its peoples by the few – I guess I do agree.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Quarterly
Like many of you, Tuesday night cut me to the core. It felt like an enormous step backward toward hate, bigotry, xenophobia, economic uncertainty.
When I woke Wednesday morning after less than 2 hours of sleep I could not comprehend how I was going to get through the day. I wanted to hide under the covers and melt into oblivion.
But instead my calendar dictated that I would have to endure a full day of meetings. I didn’t know how I was going to be my usual, optimistic self cheering on nonprofit leaders. Instead of my normal perspective of hope and opportunity, I could now only see the seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in their way.
But to my complete surprise I found solace in those very nonprofit leaders.
My first call was with an amazing woman who is working to revamp journalism and make it more responsive, accessible, and sustainable. We started the call commiserating about the state of the country. But she quickly pivoted to her work. She described her plans, the networks she has formed, the vision she has for stronger, more effective local journalism. As she continued to talk I could feel — to my complete disbelief — my heart start to soar.
As the day went on, I had similar conversations with social changemakers who were disappointed and frustrated certainly, but full of ideas and new energy for moving forward.
And the drumbeat continued on throughout the day. The thing I kept hearing from nonprofit leaders over and over — via social media, phone calls, blog posts, or emails — was a steely resolve to work harder. As one of my clients put it, “I look forward to working with you in this new era. Our work is more difficult, but more critical.”
Far from being defeated, perhaps this election will have the opposite effect on nonprofit leaders. To me they seem emboldened.
And as I thought about it more, that makes complete sense.
Nonprofit leaders are nothing if not resilient and tenacious. Over many decades they have weathered deep funding cuts, changing political winds, chilly regulatory environments, dramatically growing demand for services. And they just keep getting back up.
Every. Single. Time.
Nonprofit leaders and the critical work they do aren’t going anywhere. And thank God for that. Because now — more than ever — we need nonprofit leaders to lead us toward greater inclusion, greater tolerance, greater economic equity, a greater democracy.
Perhaps, instead of being the final blow, this election will serve as a lightning rod to galvanize our social change sector to lead us all, amid this very dark night, toward the light.
And there is a tremendous amount to be done.
So, let’s get to work.
Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy
October was a bit of a whirlwind in the world of social change. Continued concerns that philanthropy is not positioned to truly impact wealth inequality, a confusing pivot by Charity Navigator in the Overhead Myth movement, some case studies of networked approaches to social change, and a great blog series on nonprofit financial health all made for some interesting reads.
Below is my pick of the top 10 social change reads in October. But, please add what I missed in the comments.
- There seems to be a growing discussion around whether philanthropy, which results from wealth inequality, can actually be effective at remedying that inequality. Writing on the openDemocracy blog, Michael Edwards takes the Ford Foundation and other foundations working on wealth inequality to task for not seeking to reform the underlying systems that feed that inequality. As he puts it, “Imagine what would happen if we re-configured the supply of money for social change…It would mean the wholesale transformation of institutional philanthropy, since for Ford and others like it an assault on privilege is essentially an assault upon themselves.” And in an interesting and related development, this month head of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker joined the corporate board of Pepsico, which some argue contributes to the obesity epidemic and ultimately economic inequality. But David Callahan argues that Walker could serve as a positive force to push Pepsico to “do better.”
- For only the second time in its 26 years The Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s annual Philanthropy 400 list ranks a nonprofit other than the United Way Worldwide as the biggest fundraiser. This year Fidelity Charitable, which houses donor advised funds, took the #1 spot. And some think this is a bellwether for philanthropy. But Jim Schaffer has some issues with the list and how it ignores the deeper complexities of philanthropy.
- If you are looking for data about where the social sector is going, this month provided lots of it. From Fidelity Charitable’s report on the future of philanthropy, to a new study from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management on nonprofit board chairs, to new data from the Urban Institute on the nonprofit workforce.
- In a head-scratching move, Charity Navigator, one of the proponents of the campaign to overcome the Overhead Myth wrote a blog post arguing that nonprofits that keep their overhead percentage to 15% or less are “excellent.” Many, took them to task.
- On the eve of the presidential election, Kiersten Marek from Inside Philanthropy offers some predictions about how philanthropy focused on women’s and children’s issues might fare under a Clinton presidency.
- In what has become an incessant drumbeat, ProPublica again criticizes the American Red Cross, this time for a botched response to the Louisiana flooding this summer.
- As I mentioned earlier, I’m a huge fan of Twitter, but it’s struggling. NPR tech writer Laura Sydell wonders if becoming a nonprofit might be the answer for this social network that is playing a growing role in social change efforts.
- Using networks for social change is a hot topic lately. Talia Milgrom-Elcott provides a case study for a networked approach to growing STEM education, and R. Patrick Bixler, Clare Zutz, and Ashley Lovell provide a case study on using networks for regional conservation. But Jake Hayman, writing in Forbes argues that philanthropy actually dis-incentivizes nonprofits to pursue a networked approach.
- In a not-to-be-missed blog series, the Nonprofit Finance Fund provides a great tutorial on “Best Practices for Nonprofit Financial Health” (part one, part two, and part three).
- And if you wonder why you are here and what your role is, look no further than Steven Pressfield who writes: “I believe that life exists on at least two levels. The lower level is the material plane…The higher level is the home of…the Muse. The higher level is a lot smarter than the lower level. The higher level understands in a far, far deeper way. It understands who we are. It understands why we are here. It understands the past and the future and our roles within both. My job, as I understand it, is to make myself open to this higher level. My job is to keep myself alert and receptive. My job is to be ready, in the fullest professional sense, when the alarm bell goes off and I have to slide down the pole and jump into the fire engine.”
Photo Credit: Peter Griffin
Today is Halloween, which means it’s time for another monster list. In keeping with my Halloween tradition on the blog, today I’d like to add to past monster lists (of social change blogs, conferences, books, and resources) with a monster list of social changemakers to follow on Twitter.
I know, I know, Twitter is struggling. Maybe it will never become the profit powerhouse that Facebook is, but Twitter has become a unique and powerful social change tool, through hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ArabSpring and its ability to connect like-minded people.
In my mind, Twitter is infinitely more thought-provoking and gamechanging than other social networks. So I hope it finds its way and continues to play an important role in the social change space.
Below is my monster list (in no particular order) of interesting social change people to follow on Twitter. These are people who have fascinating things to say about the world of social change. They are nonprofit, philanthropic, government leaders; journalists; thought leaders and more who use Twitter as a way to spark conversation, spread ideas and make social change a reality.
I have let them describe themselves via their Twitter “Bio”:
- @knightfdn The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.
- @pndblog Opinion and commentary on the changing world of philanthropy. Brought to you by Philanthropy News Digest and the Foundation Center.
- @vppartners Venture Philanthropy Partners brings people together to support children and youth.
- @RockefellerFdn The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission—unchanged since 1913—is to improve the well-being of humanity throughout the world.
- @carolinefiennes Director of Giving Evidence: encouraging /enabling charitable *giving* based on sound *evidence*. Wrote acclaimed book, It Ain’t What You Give. FT columnist.
- @ClaraGMiller President, F. B. Heron Foundation
- @MarketsForGood #Information to drive #socimp. Movement seeking ways to increase the social sector’s capacity to generate, share & use #data to improve decision making.
- @Cingib Strategist/writer for foundations/NPs on civic engagement, capacity-building, democracy, philanthropy, nonprofit sector, and education
- @kanter Let’s talk about networks, data, self-care, & social media for nonprofit learning & impact. #nptech Instructional designer, trainer, walker, & magic markers!
- @ajscholz Chief Everything Officer @SphaeraInc / Learning to collaborate to survive the 21st century / We now have the technological, legal and financial tools for it!
- @Philanthropy News, resources, advice, and commentary about the nonprofit world from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
- @KateSBarr Believes that working at & leading nonprofits calls upon the best in people. Executive director at @NAFund
- @NTENorg Serving our members in the nonprofit community to better use technology to further their mission. We promote nonprofit tech (#nptech) & training (#NTENlearn).
- @Daniel_Stid Skeptical optimist, Madisonian, partisan of representative democracy, fan of Sparty and the Flying Dutchmen.
- @IUPhilanthropy Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy—Improving Philanthropy to Improve the World.
@EnrightGEO President/CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. Committed to helping our sector exceed expectations.
@FayDTwersky Director for Effective Philanthropy at the Hewlett Foundation.
@philCEP Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
- @CEPData The Center for Effective Philanthropy focuses on the development of comparative data to enable higher-performing funders.
@kdreich BUILD Director at the Ford Foundation. Passionate about the social sector, addressing inequality in all its forms, & Jane Austen.
@nff_news We make millions of dollars in loans to nonprofits and push for fundamental improvement in how money is given and used in the sector.
@NatlCouncilNPs The National Council of Nonprofits is a trusted resource and advocate for America’s charitable nonprofits.
- @PackardOE We’re the Packard Foundation Organizational Effectiveness Team. We’re here to share and learn about organizational effectiveness, philanthropy and supporting the social sector.
@NicoleCOP Reporter at The Chronicle of Philanthropy ~ I cover nonprofit innovation, social enterprise, data, and technology. (I am so not the political pundit.)
I know I have missed many thought-provoking social changemakers. So, who would you add to the list?
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jane Wei-Skillern.
Jane is the co-author of the groundbreaking 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Networked Nonprofit,” and a leading researcher on networks for social change. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and has also served on the faculties of the London, Harvard, and Stanford Business Schools. For the past 15 years, her research has focused on high impact nonprofit networks, network leadership and network cultures.
You can read other interviews with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.
Nell: Jane, you and Sonia Marciano arguably coined the term “networked nonprofit” with your 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article of the same name. But is the idea of creating and using networks to create social change necessarily new to the space? How is a networked nonprofit different now than in the past, or what has changed?
Jane: In our article, we were most interested in the ways in which leaders and organizations catalyzed and engaged in collaborations successfully. Thus, the focus in the article was much more on the culture, or the norms and values, of what makes collaborations succeed, rather than a strict definition or structure of what collaborations should look like.
The concept of partnerships, collaboration, alliances, networks, or any number of other terms we could use, are of course nothing new in the nonprofit sector. In fact, we are not particular about the terminology that is used to describe collaborative efforts or whether they choose to use the term “networked nonprofit” at all. These lessons were drawn from detailed case studies of successful networks, many of which had been operating for years or decades before we studied them as researchers.
At the same time, we used the term “networked nonprofit” to describe a particular approach to collaboration, one that was oriented around social impact above all else, that emerged from the bottom up by community members in the field, as a way to address problems more effectively, rather than collaboration for collaboration’s sake. The networks were unique in that while they might have been catalyzed by a few instrumental actors initially, all participants worked in true partnership, as peers and equals to drive toward field level impact.
Consequently, they were able to achieve significant commitment, investment and support from participants, and generate leverage on resources and capacity, to achieve mission impact much more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. It is this experience and wisdom about what was working well in the field that we wanted to bring attention to, especially at a time when so many in the field were struggling to scale impact through individual social entrepreneurs/social enterprises by proliferating program/organization innovations, building organizational capacity, scale, and brands.
Nell: How is the concept of a network different than or related to the concept of a social movement, like BlackLivesMatter? Are social movements the same or different than networks?
Jane: I believe that the concepts that enable social movements to succeed are very similar to those that would enable networked nonprofits to succeed. Social Movement scholars and analysts have highlighted four stages of successful social movements which were succinctly described in this article. These four stages are:
- A community forms around a common goal
- The community mobilizes resources
- The community finds solutions (what I call “fourth options”)
- The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment
In this respect, networked nonprofits are very similar. The network emerges around a common goal, rather than a particular program or organizational model. The community mobilizes the resources from throughout the network, and based on existing relationships in the community. The solution is emergent and comes from the community members themselves, rather than being pushed from the top down. And finally, once a network is up and running and proves itself to be effective, it becomes the primary vehicle for change, rather than the individual organizations themselves.
Nell: You recently launched a new site offering resources to those interested in becoming a networked leader. What is your goal with this new site?
Jane: The stated mission of the website is: “To champion network leaders, and the networks that they serve, to nurture change on the challenges that dwarf us all.” It’s an interesting story about how we came to create this website together.
In early 2016, I had the opportunity to work with Children and Nature Network to share my research on network leadership through a series of webinars with their network members. Through this project I got to know Amy Pertschuk, co-founder of Children and Nature Network, who found the ideas so compelling that she offered her services pro bono to help develop a web site to share resources.
Initially, Amy asked if we should create a domain name focused on me and my research. I immediately realized that that would be too limiting. In order to achieve leveraged and scalable impact through this website, I absolutely needed to practice what I preach and make the site much less about me and much more about championing network leaders and the networks of which they are a part.
It also made sense to reach out to some of my most inspiring and trusted colleagues who have deep experience leading, developing, and writing about networks themselves to develop the website jointly. We have all worked to build this site to support experienced and aspiring network leaders. The resources on the site have been collected and curated by a community of practitioners and network supporters working to increase the impact of social sector leaders and organizations by promoting the principles of successful networks.
Nell: Is the networked approach right for every nonprofit, or does it apply better to certain types of leaders or organizations? And how can a nonprofit leader interested in this approach move forward with it?
Jane: I like that you emphasize that it is an approach rather than a structure or model. Sometimes people think that they need to reorganize or restructure in order to be a network. Instead, I view it as a mindset and leadership approach that can be used by people in all types of organizations, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors. Though I do believe that it is particularly relevant in the social sectors where the primary objective is, or should be, to generate social value that is not owned or captured by any single entity, in contrast to private sector organizations whose objective is to generate shareholder value.
The network leadership principles focus on: mission before organization; governance through trust-based relationships, rather than top down controls; promotion of others rather than oneself; and building of constellations rather than stars. These can be applied at all levels of an organization, from the executive suite to leaders out in the field. It is a shift from traditional leadership approaches that focus on the charismatic individual who has formal authority to get things done, to a more open-sourced approach to addressing social problems.
Network leaders start with the mission and engage others (especially those they seek to serve) to mobilize resources to support them doing what they would have wanted to do for themselves. It is a significant departure from doing ‘to’ and instead working with others as peers, equals, and true partners.
Photo Credit: Harvard Business School
I was in a meeting with a group of nonprofit leaders the other day, and one of them voiced an often-heard complaint: “There just aren’t many foundations funding nonprofit capacity building.”
I was instantly reminded of my mother’s admonishment when I would come home from school with complaints about a classroom rule or a frustrating teacher. She would say, “Well, you have a mouth on you, don’t you?” Her quip was intended to encourage me to stop complaining about an inadequacy (however small, in my case) and do something to change it.
While I am the first to bemoan the lack of adequate resources in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders themselves do have some agency to turn the tide and find funding to create more effective and sustainable organizations.
Rather than searching for donors who already express an interest in funding nonprofit capacity (like fundraising staff and systems, program evaluation, technology), it is actually more effective if a nonprofit leader takes it upon herself to create her own capacity funders.
But that requires a process, like this:
Move From Scarcity to Abundance Thinking
You can’t hope to solve your capacity challenges without thinking that they are, in fact, solvable. Many nonprofit leaders are so used to going without that they don’t allow themselves and their staffs to envision what could make things better. So start by brainstorming with your staff the hurdles standing in your way (lack of fundraising staff, inadequate technology, poor long-term planning, disengaged board of directors). Then list the kinds of investments you could make to solve those challenges (new staff positions, new technology and systems, strategic planning, board training) without constraining those potential solutions due to their costs.
Create a Capacity Building Plan
Once you have articulated what is standing in your way and the potential solutions to those hurdles, create a plan for overcoming your nonprofit’s challenges. Because funders often see capacity funding as more “risky” than traditional programming support, a nonprofit leader interested in securing capacity building funds must put together a clear plan for the need, solutions, costs and execution plan for capacity support. Clearly articulate what capacity changes you need to make, why, what those changes will help you accomplish, and over what timeframe.
Create a Capacity Building Budget
Attached to your capacity building plan must be the dollars necessary to implement the plan. What would it cost for a new donor database, a program evaluation, or your other needed capacity investments? Do the research and then create the capital requirements, over an adequate timeframe (2-3 years), for the capacity building needs you have. Now you know how much capacity capital you need to raise.
Brainstorm Capacity Donors
Just as you would with a traditional capital campaign, create a list of potential donors to whom you will pitch this “capacity capital campaign.” This is where the real magic happens — when you turn traditional donors into capacity building donors, perhaps without them even knowing it. A good capacity building donor is someone (a major individual donor, board member, or foundation funder) who is already a donor to your nonprofit and can be convinced (through your excellent persuasion skills) that an investment in your capacity building plan (above) will actually help your organization do even more of the things they love.
Work the Prospect List
Just as you would in a major donor campaign, begin meeting one-on-one with these prospective capacity building donors to share your capacity building plan and articulate how critically important these capacity building investments are to the future of your work together. Make a clear, compelling argument about how greater organizational capacity will help you further the mission that these donors love. Connect greater effectiveness and sustainability directly to more programming, more people served, more outcomes achieved.
Demonstrate the Return on Their Investment
Once you’ve secured them, provide those donors who become capacity builders a regular update on the progress of your capacity building efforts. And I have seen tremendous results that nonprofits can report on these types of capacity investments. One of my clients was able to translate $65,000 worth of capacity building investments in strategic planning, board development, fundraising training and leader coaching into 300% growth in the number of people they reached with their services. Another client turned $350,000 worth of capacity building investments in a new donor database, fundraising staff and training, and donor research into a $1.4 million annual increase in fundraising. If you make enough and the right kind of capacity investments, you can see gains in programming, efficiency, and fundraising effectiveness, so share those wins with those who invested in them. And believe me, your capacity donors will be hungry for more.
Instead of continuing to complain about a lack of capacity funding in the nonprofit sector, let’s fix it. A big part of the solution lies in nonprofit leaders planning for and initiating capacity building conversations with their current donors. And in so doing, nonprofit leaders themselves can change philanthropy for the better.
To learn more about turning your donors into capacity funders, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.
Photo Credit: taxcredits.net