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The Debate: Should Boards Raise 10% of a Nonprofit’s Budget?

By Nell Edgington



nonprofit debateIt seems I raised controversy with my recent post, “Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?”. The hot button issue, not surprisingly, was my assertion that boards should be charged with raising 10% of a nonprofit’s budget.

As I put it:

I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list…of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so?

Several people disagreed, and consultant Gayle Gifford (who very respectfully argued with me in the past about my take on nonprofit events) took real issue, commenting (in part):

In my 30 years of experience, the most sustainable organizations financially are those that rely little on their board of directors for their financial success. I just wonder why it is that these governing volunteers, who are charged with so many more weighty responsibilities for sustainability, are held to such a double standard when it comes to revenue development. Imagine the absurdity of you pronouncing: The Board of Directors must be responsible for managing at least 10% of the organization’s programs.

I argued back that we must define board contribution to the financial model of a nonprofit much more broadly:

The point is that board members should not be allowed to ignore the financial realities of the organization, and it is impossible to ignore something when you have a responsibility for a piece of it. In the examples you give, I would wager that if you calculated board involvement in a much broader way, you would find that at least 10% of that money could be attributed to board involvement. And if not, yikes! Because that means it is all resting on the shoulders of the staff, and that simply is not sustainable. The board must be much more supportive of the nonprofits they serve, and in my mind that means they need to show up, and show up in a significant way, to the financial engine of their organization.

But Gayle was not having it. She responded that just as the board should not be expected to deliver on programs, they should also not be expected to contribute to the financial model:

In very brief, the role of the board as governors is to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support. This is the absolutely best fundraising work that they can do. Boards are totally within their governing role to decide that the way to meet the organization’s revenue needs is hire professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do. I would hypothesize that organizations that do that are more likely to successfully achieve their revenue goals (actually, there is research data to back this us -see “Nonprofit Fundraising Study” of Nonprofit Research Collaborative 2012 ) than the wishful and largely unmeasurable objective of 10% standards pulled out of a hat. BTW, I don’t understand why it is unimaginable to say that the board is responsible for delivering 10% of programs, or 10% of operations, if you set up a standard of attributing 10% of revenues? What makes one different from the other in terms of sustainability or professional expertise?

But in my mind, there is a critical role for the board in both mission and money, and you cannot have one without the other, as I replied to Gayle:

I completely agree with how you characterize the role of the board (“to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support”). However, the missing link (so very, very often) in nonprofit organizations is that the board thinks that showing up to meetings and hearing the development report is enough. Raising money requires that the board take an active role. And that active role means opening doors, making connections, providing intelligence, offering insight. This can actually also be true in delivering programs — the board should not only help provide the overall program strategy and theory of change for the organization, but also help to open doors and make connections to key decisionmakers, advocates, or others outside the organization walls who are critical to effective delivery of the organization’s mission. In all of this, I am simply asking that the board step up and take an ACTIVE role, as opposed to a passive role of “hiring professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do.” There must be an effective partnership between the board and staff in developing and executing on a robust financial model, just as this partnership between board and staff must exist in delivery on mission, because at the end of the day there is no mission without money. Maybe 10% isn’t the right number, but I believe you have to set a significant goal if you truly want the board to take notice and actually step up.

You can read the full debate here.

To me, this is such an important topic because it helps uncover our underlying assumptions about the role of the board versus the role of staff. In my mind, we must elevate the expectations we have for the nonprofit board of directors, and one way to do this is to set clear, specific, and lofty goals for them.

What are your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Ron Cogswell


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Using Digital to Win the Freedom to Marry: An Interview with Michael Crawford

By Nell Edgington



MichaelCrawford_headshot

In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Crawford, Director of Digital and Creative at Freedom to Marry, one of the organizations instrumental in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Michael Crawford led Freedom to Marry’s in-house creative team and directed its award-winning digital program. He led the Freedom to Marry’s shift to a storytelling-centered content strategy and worked with a team of content creators and digital organizers to build an online supporter base of 1.5 million people, produce award-winning video content, and revolutionize the national conversation about gay people and marriage.

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry’s work is now done. However, they have turned their website into a repository of tools, case studies and examples from which other movements seeking social change can learn.

You can read past interviews in the Social Velocity social changemaker interview series here.

Nell: The June Supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage was a huge victory to organizations like Freedom to Marry that had been working on this issue for decades. How did multiple organizations and entities collaborate to make this victory a reality? Who were some of your collaborators and what did you learn about forging effective collaborations to create social change?

Michael: Freedom to Marry was one of many organizations who worked to win marriage nationwide for same-sex couples. Our organizational partners included national, state and local groups, and we advised groups working in other countries on marriage campaigns.

Our national partners included organizations like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, ACLU, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Human Rights Campaign. At the state level, we worked with dozens of groups in states across every region of the country.

Our work was especially intensive at the state level. In dozens of states, we worked with national and state partners to create coalition campaigns to advance marriage in the respective state. Depending on the state and its anticipated path to marriage — legislative, ballot or legal — that work included creating effective public education campaigns, growing grassroots support, engaging elected officials, getting out the vote for ballot campaigns, earned media, and digital work.

Our Digital Action Center, which became the central hub for digital organizing in the marriage movement, is one example of how Freedom to Marry worked with state campaigns to win marriage. Through the Digital Action Center, Freedom to Marry established a full-service digital shop that built winning campaigns from the ground up, led digital strategy day in and day out, and delivered concrete results to help secure game-changing victories at the ballot box and state legislatures nationwide.

What made our coalition work successful was that throughout we were not hands-off or operating at arms-length. Freedom to Marry was deeply involved as a partner in the work and campaigns, apart from our role as fiscal sponsor or funding engine. We actively looked for opportunities where we could add value without duplicating existing efforts.

Nell: How big a role did technology play in this victory? Obviously it was a multi-pronged approach (legal, political, public awareness, etc.) but how did technology contribute and what do you think other social movements can learn from what you did?

Michael: Freedom to Marry’s use of digital played a critical role in the organization’s work and the implementation of its national strategy, the Roadmap to Victory. The digital team supported the campaign’s focus on rapidly accelerating the growth in public support for marriage, mobilizing supporters into an effective movement, and making the case for marriage in the court of public opinion.

Telling emotionally powerful, authentic stories in compelling ways was a key tactic in achieving a crucial element of our strategy, building a critical mass of public support for the freedom to marry (ultimately, we grew support from 27% in 1996 to 63% in 2015).

Much of Freedom to Marry’s storytelling work was concentrated, or originated, online. Through written online profiles, videos and advertisements, placements in traditional media outlets, and social media, Freedom to Marry consistently and authentically showcased the faces of people from all across the country who needed to be able to say “I do,” marry in any state they chose, and be sure their marriages would be respected by the all states and the federal government. Our central goal was to spark and frame the millions of conversations needed to change hearts and minds and build momentum and a critical mass of support.

The focus on storytelling was at the core of our digital program. We made extensive use of online video, social media and email.

The digital team was its own department within the organization, and we collaborated with all of the programming areas to achieve our joint goals and to amplify the work of the respective programming areas. For example, we partnered closely with our communications team to find and elevate the best stories of couples, supporters and unlikely messengers. The digital team built a database of couples and other potential messengers with compelling stories that we widely shared on our website, through social media and in videos. We worked with the communications team to pitch the best of these stories to news outlets, and then we used social media to push out those earned media stories.

Here are a few takeaways for other movements:

  • Integrate digital into the fabric of the organization’s work: Your digital staff should be included when all critical decisions are being made for the organization regarding messaging, strategy and campaigning.

  • Place storytelling at the center of your digital work: People are hard-wired to connect to stories and stories can help others to better understand the how and why of your work.

  • Prepare content in advance for big decisions: This will enable you to move quickly once the decisions like court rulings or legislative outcomes are announced giving you the best possible chance to shape the narrative around those decisions.

  • Leverage social media to scale your outreach and advance your narrative: People are increasingly getting their news via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Developing and executing smart strategies for disseminating your perspective on the news helps you to be seen as a trusted news source, and it gets your message out more widely.

Nell: One of the reasons this victory happened was because it was a state-by-state strategy, instead of a nationwide strategy. How and why was the decision to go state-by-state made and what can other social change efforts learn from that approach? Why does it work and why now?

Michael: Our Roadmap to Victory was the national strategy to win the freedom to marry. The three tracks of the Roadmap included winning marriage in more states, growing public support and ending federal marriage discrimination all with an eye towards creating the climate for a Supreme Court decision. The state-by-state tactic was in service to the national strategy of winning at the Supreme Court.

The idea was not to focus just on one court case or one legislative battle or lurch from crisis to crisis. Rather, like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy, and needed to build momentum, foster collaboration, enlist new allies, identify new resources, fill in the gaps, and stay the course to victory.

It’s crucial to first identify the overarching goal, then develop a strategy or roadmap to achieve that, then develop the right programs or tactics to implement the strategy and then to provide supporters clear and effective ways that they can help implement the strategy to achieve the goal.

Nell: What’s next for Freedom to Marry and other organizations that won this victory? Where do your efforts go now? Is there other social change you all would like to see?

Michael: Freedom to Marry is in the process of winding down. Most of our staff has moved on to other causes, and we will soon be shutting our doors. The next big fight for the LGBT community is advancing effective legislation to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. One of the organizations leading that effort is Freedom For All Americans.

Over the last year especially, we have been talking with leaders in other movements sharing what we have learned working on the freedom to marry. We hope that our experiences will benefit others seeking to make the world a better place.


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What Are You Meant to Create?

By Nell Edgington



createI don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, but I do think that the beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on where your life is going and what course corrections you’d like to make. For me, as I reflected at the beginning of this new year, I realized that I was getting lost in the noise.

And by lost, I mean that I was losing sight of my core. I really believe that the path toward happiness, meaningful contribution to the world, connection to others, and making the most of the life you are given is by staying connected to who you are and what you are meant to do. I call this my “core.”

Steven Pressfield describes it like this:

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

But I find it really hard sometimes, as I know everyone does, to pay attention to my core when there is so much noise. We live in such a loud culture that seems to grow louder every day. Sometimes I get exhausted by the constant glut of information, ideas, opinions. And I particularly get tired of the noise when I feel like it is an artifice or it lacks true meaning (like Facebook humble brags or BuzzFeed click bait).

So the challenge I have given myself in this new year is to stay connected to my core — to not allow the noise and the fluff and the flashing lights that constantly swirl around us to move me off my path. And when the swirl starts to escalate and I begin to feel lost, I take a deep breath and remind myself of what, for me, is true and meaningful.

And perhaps Phil Buchanan from CEP would agree, given his recent post about quiet leadership. He suggests that perhaps it is the quiet, centered leaders (as opposed to the loud, hero leaders) who actually make the most progress toward social change:

There is a kind of quiet and collaborative leader who ultimately often gets results, in part because she (and sometimes he) recognizes that there is no miracle cure — that progress will be a slog and will need to involve and engage many diverse participants. Yes, to be sure, sometimes a high profile leader (or leaders) is necessary for success — and, very occasionally, leaders emerge who are both larger than life and elevate and amplify the voices of those around them (like Martin Luther King, Jr.). But often, paradoxically, high visibility for individual leaders makes meaningful progress tougher. It emphasizes the individual (or individuals) over the collective engagement of the many, including the intended beneficiaries. So it’s time for us to stop pretending there are easy answers that will be delivered by hero-leaders. And it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and do the tough work that effectiveness requires.

I would take Phil’s thoughts even further and argue that perhaps these quiet leaders he describes have been more successful because they eschew the hype and the noise and instead connect with their core, with what they are supposed to be doing, what they were put here to accomplish. By focusing on what is true, instead of the hype, they make a much greater contribution.

And perhaps there is something here for all of us to learn. Perhaps paying attention to the noise, following meaningless links on social media, or chasing the latest fad only serves to get us further away from our core, from what we are supposed to be doing and creating. As Callie Oettinger wrote recently:

While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.

So for me at least — and perhaps for you as well — it’s time to turn away from the noise and reconnect with our core. It’s time to get back to becoming what we were meant to be and creating what we were meant to create.

Photo Credit: Lorraine Santana


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Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?

By Nell Edgington



nonprofit boardI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders in Pittsburgh last month about how to Move From Fundraising to Financing and there were some parts of the presentation that raised eyebrows and (sometimes) controversy. And it usually happened around the topic of the nonprofit board.

I strongly believe that the board of directors is a nonprofit’s most critical financial asset. A board that is actively engaged and has the specific skills, experience, and networks required to deliver on the organization’s strategy can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is truly creating social change. And money is an inextricable part of that. Therefore, a nonprofit’s board cannot avoid its money role, or the organization and its mission will suffer.

Is your board avoiding their money role? Here’s what it looks like when they are:

The Board Isn’t Raising 10% of the Budget
I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list (here and here) of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so? There are really so many reasons why your board should take on more money responsibilities.

The Board Doesn’t Enforce a Give/Get
So to reinforce the idea of complete board involvement in the financial engine, you need to make it a practice. And that’s where the give/get comes in. A give/get requirement is a minimum dollar amount at which each individual board member must either “give” themselves, and/or “get” from somewhere else. Every single member of the board must understand and contribute to how money flows to the organization. They cannot argue that money is the purview only of the staff or a subset of board members. Money has to be part of the ENTIRE board’s job. Until you force the board to really participate in creating and maintaining an effective financial engine, you won’t be able to have substantive conversations about or get real engagement in raising or spending money.

New Program Decisions Ignore Money
It is not enough for a board to approve new programs or program expansion by only analyzing the potential impact on the mission. The board must also understand how a new program will or will not contribute to the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. The board needs to analyze all of the costs (including set up, opportunity costs, and ongoing operating costs) of the program and whether the program can attract enough money to at least cover those costs. And if not, whether the new program can be subsidized by other activities already in the mix. But the board cannot blind themselves to the financial downfalls of a sexy new program.

Real Conversations About Money Happen Only in Crisis 
Most board meetings include an update on a nonprofit’s budget, which is the extent of any money conversation. If there is a problem (expenses are too high, or revenue is not flowing as budgeted) a long conversation will ensue about the crisis. But bigger, regular discussions about the overall financial strategy of the organization are scarce. If the board is to be the financial steward of the organization, they have to spend time analyzing and developing their nonprofit’s financial model — where revenue should flow and how money should be employed to meet the mission. Money is a tool. But to effectively wield that tool, the board needs to think, talk, and act strategically about it.

For a nonprofit to be truly effective and sustainable, its board — the entire board — must embrace its money role. Because their is no mission without money. And no successful board turns a blind eye to the financial engine of their organization.

If you want to find out more about developing a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit, download the Develop a Financial Model Bundle. And if you want to learn how to create a more effective board, download the Build an Engaged Board Bundle.

Photo Credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez


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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Dec 2015

By Nell Edgington



social changeDespite being the run up to the holiday season, December was a busy month in the world of social change. From arguing about new philanthropy, to looking back at 2015, to exploring America’s history of philanthropy, to analyzing the leadership of the Pope and the Red Cross’ Gail McGovern, to inspiration in grim times, there was lots to read.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in December. But please add to the list in the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also see 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Arguably the biggest news in December was Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) and his wife Priscilla Chan creating a limited liability corporation (not a foundation or nonprofit) focused on social solutions. Many, many, many people had something to say about it. Some liked it, others despised it, others found serious implications for the future of philanthropy, others were terrified by it. Amid all the hubub, the Zuckerberg/Chan’s chief of staff further clarified their plans. Perhaps we should just wait a bit and see what the actual effect is.

  2. And beyond the Zuckerberg/Chan investment, there was debate about new forms of philanthropy in general. Michael Edwards thinks the idea of blending social and profit motives has jumped the shark. And Andrew Means of Data Analysts for Social Good thinks Effective Altruism, the idea that you can use data to determine where to most effectively invest in social change, is flawed because it doesn’t account for different philanthropists having different preferences.

  3. Since December is the last month of the year, there was the traditional glut of posts looking back at 2015. My favorite among them were: The National Council of Nonprofit’s “5 Firsts” for the Nonprofit Sector in 2015,” Inside Philanthropy’s “Hot Topics and Trends for Women and Philanthropy, 2015,” The Nonprofit Quarterly’s “9 Important Nonprofit Stories of 2015 (And What They Can Teach Us),”  Pew Research’s “15 Striking Findings From 2015,” Mashable’s “26 Incredible Innovations that Improved the World in 2015, and Lucy’ Bernholz’s “Philanthropy’s 2015 Buzzwords.” Whew!

  4. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History previewed an upcoming permanent exhibit on American philanthropic history. Fascinating.

  5. David Callahan provided some really interesting theories for why the percent of charitable giving in America has yet to climb beyond 2% of GDP. His proposed causes include: liberals, corporations, and even Ronald Reagan.

  6. Emmett Carson, head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, put forth an interesting idea for two of the most influential organizations advocating for the nonprofit sector: Independent Sector and The Council on Foundations. He thinks they should merge, as he explained: “The new entity could harness our entire sector to meet old and new social and economic challenges. Such a new organization could meet our sector’s higher collective purpose — to influence how this country meets its obligations to our most marginalized citizens, whether they are poor, sick, homeless, immigrants, disabled, or victims of systemic discrimination.”

  7. Writing in Forbes, Mike Perlis, argued that The Pope is an illustrative example of how leadership should operate in the 21st century.

  8. ProPublica’s ongoing series investigating the American Red Cross continued with an article about CEO Gail McGovern’s leadership and where she may have gone wrong. And Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly found the problems at the Red Cross to be reminiscent of other nonprofits that have fallen victim to troubled leadership, like the founder’s syndrome that plagued the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

  9. Nonprofit blogger Vu Le argued that if we want nonprofits to act more like businesses, nonprofits should enjoy more of the benefits that businesses do: “Society needs to provide nonprofits with the same level of funding, speed of investment, flexibility, autonomy, and acceptance of risk and failure, or else stop trying to get us nonprofits to be more like for-profits. You can’t have your nonprofit cake and yet withhold your for-profit icing.” Amen to that.

  10. And finally, to restore your faith in humanity, new Canadian president Justin Trudeau created a tremendous welcome for incoming Syrian refugees. And Barbara Bush and Jessica Mack from Global Health Corps would probably consider Trudeau just the kind of leader we need right now, for as they wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “At times like these, when the news is an endless litany of upsetting events, it is far too easy to let rage slide into violence, or allow fear to shut us down to the humanity of others. We have examples of that all around us. But leadership doesn’t entail taking the easy option. Instead, the most courageous stand we can take is against fear itself, by resisting the instinct to close up and push others away…It is within each of our abilities to decide how to parlay these grave moments into opportunities for resilience, inspiration, and hope.” Yes!

Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm


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10 Most Popular Posts of 2015

By Nell Edgington



10 most popular postsIt’s that time of year again — to put work away, enjoy friends and family, and give yourself a chance to take a breath. I will be taking the next two weeks off from writing the blog. But before I go, as is my tradition, I wanted to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular blog posts from this past year, in case you missed any of them.

And if you are feeling ambitious, you can also see the 10 most popular posts from 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

I hope that you all will find some space over the next couple of weeks to relax, to get away, to regroup, and to ready yourselves for the next chapter. We need you social changemakers now more than ever, so please find some time to take care of yourself before you get back to taking care of the rest of the world.

Thank you for being part of the Social Velocity community and for all of your hard work making the world a better place. I wish you all a very happy New Year. I’ll see you in 2016!

  1. The Problem with Nonprofit Events
  2. How Scarcity Thinking Holds Nonprofits Back
  3. 7 Questions to Guide Your Nonprofit Strategy
  4. 5 Myths the Nonprofit Sector Must Overcome
  5. How to Build a Stellar Nonprofit Staff
  6. How to Create a Compelling Fundraising Ask
  7. 3 Signs of a Bad Nonprofit Strategic Plan
  8. 5 Fundraising Delusions Nonprofits Suffer
  9. What Do Your Programs Really Cost?
  10. The Network Approach to Social Change

Photo Credit: Ethan R


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Strategic and Sustainable Nonprofit Growth: A Case Study

By Nell Edgington



AppleMark

I talk a lot about the many challenges of leading a nonprofit. But sometimes even success itself can be a challenge for a nonprofit. This was particularly true for one of my clients, Breakthrough Austin.

Breakthrough is a very successful nonprofit that identifies cohorts of 6th grade students who want to be the first in their families to graduate from college. The nonprofit then supports those students over the next 12 years so that they reach that goal. Over their 10+ year history, Breakthrough has achieved impressive student outcomes and the support of a deep donor base.

In fact, Breakthrough has been so successful that other schools and school districts have asked to add the Breakthrough program. But that’s not always a good thing, especially when a nonprofit doesn’t know where they can grow most sustainably and with the greatest results.

In the Spring of 2015, Breakthrough board and staff wanted to grow to reach more students, but they didn’t know how to determine when and where. They needed a strategic plan that could help them chart a growth trajectory to reach more students in a sustainable way. And baked into that strategic plan they needed strategic growth filters that helped them assess how to know if new locations were a good fit with their model and their long-term plans.

Breakthrough hired Social Velocity to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, Breakthrough created an advisory committee of board, staff and key external stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which Breakthrough operates, develop Breakthrough’s theory of change, refine their vision and mission statements, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization.

Together we created the various elements of their strategic plan:

  • A Marketplace Map, to understand how their core competencies fit with a set of community needs, apart from their competitors and collaborators
  • A Theory of Change, to articulate the value they hope to create
  • Strategic Growth Filters, to analyze where they should grow
  • Revised Vision and Mission Statements
  • 3-Year Strategic Plan and Budget
  • Year 1 Operational Plan, to execute on the strategic plan
  • System for Monitoring the Plan, to make sure it is coming to fruition

Over the course of the 6-month planning period, Breakthrough board and staff became increasingly excited about their new strategic plan and the clarity it gives them about how and when to grow. They are already putting the pieces in place for expansion and are beginning to build the additional capacity necessary to get there.

Creating a strategic plan helped Breakthrough become crystal clear about how to grow strategically and sustainably, as Michael Griffith, Breakthrough Executive Director put it:

“Nell helped us chart a course for the future that meets the needs of our current students and allows us to expand to serve even more. She was skilled at developing a framework that allowed us to grapple with the tough questions of strategy and sustainability. We are thrilled we made this investment and look forward to the coming years with a plan firmly in place!”

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, check out the Strategic Planning page, or if you want to read more client case studies, check out the Clients page.

Photo Credit: Breakthrough Austin


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5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2016

By Nell Edgington



Poster_of_Alexander_Crystal_SeerThis is my favorite time of year. Despite the darkness of the last few months, December is often about reflecting on the year that is drawing to a close and hopes for the new one coming.

And as is my tradition on this blog, I like to look ahead at the trends that may affect the nonprofit sector in the coming year. I have never claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I am an admitted optimist, so my predictions are less about telling the future and more about wishful thinking. This year, more than ever, I want to see opportunity amid the uncertainty and the challenges we face.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about for the nonprofit sector as we head into 2016.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

  1. New Opportunities for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead
    A growing recognition of the value of the nonprofit sector paired with a rising confidence among nonprofit leaders will create opportunities for nonprofits to step up and create opportunity out of the seemingly mounting pile of challenges (like terrorism, natural disasters, political gridlock). The nonprofit sector’s natural place — its core competency — is in righting imbalances and it often coalesces in times of trouble. We are already seeing really exciting collaborations and innovations aimed at increasing civic engagement and winning equal rights, to name a few. Call me an optimist, but I think the challenges we face are merely a precursor to the emergence of a stronger social sector ready to find new solutions.

  2. Increased Use of Protests 
    And as evidence of social movements emerging from challenges, we are seeing an uptick in social protests. This year we’ve seen some impressive organized demands for social change. From Black Lives Matter, to student protests on college campuses, to Chicago protests demanding the mayor’s resignation, people are rising up to demand change. While their methods somewhat mirror the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, their access to and use of technology is quite new. It will be interesting to see how these movements evolve and how much change they will be able to accomplish.

  3. Greater Emphasis on Networks 
    And these protests, like any social change effort, will be more successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can and then figure out who the influencers are in their space and how to connect their work with those others. Because the network approach requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding, I think (hope) we’ll see more nonprofit leaders move to an abundance mentality that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder, more networked path.

  4. More State-by-State Strategies 
    The stunning victory this year legalizing same-sex marriage demonstrated the tremendous success that a state-by-state (as opposed to a national) approach to social and political change can have. Indeed, because of political gridlock at the federal level, other social change efforts (like Represent.us and the legalization of marijuana) have found success at the state level where changing minds and changing policy is sometimes easier and more efficient. But this isn’t a new idea. In fact according to research compiled by Bloomberg Business, social and political change in America follows a pattern: “A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.” Though the idea isn’t a new one, I think it may gain traction as more social movements find a state-by-state approach increasingly attractive.

  5. Smarter Funding
    But to pursue more successful models, like the use of networks and state-by-state strategies, nonprofits must have the necessary funding runway to get there.  So I’m hopeful that funders will increasingly recognize that nonprofits need more flexible and effective funding (like unrestricted dollars and capacity capital). There are already encouraging signs. The Ford Foundation has moved to provide more unrestricted support (and encouraged other funders to build the capacity of nonprofits) and the federal government released new guidelines this year providing more indirect funding to nonprofits. So let’s hope we see more foundation, individual and government funders providing nonprofits more of the kind of money they really need to create solutions.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress


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