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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2016

By Nell Edgington

social changeWhat is it about June and social change? Last June was the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage, a huge victory after decades of social change work. This June, while perhaps not as pivotal, offered some clear glimpses of impending social change.

The horrible tragedy in Orlando stirred Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate to stage protests calling for votes on gun legislation. And the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union sent shockwaves around the world. Add to that some fascinating data (about civil rights and education, charitable giving, and the refugee crisis), some strong words about tech philanthropists, and a distaste for the term “nonprofit,” and it made for an interesting month in the world of social change.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads, but if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

And if you want to see past months’ great reads lists go here.

  1. In the wake of the brutal killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the U.S. Congress temporarily ground to a halt with a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and then a Democratic sit-in in the House, all in the name of forcing Republicans to take a vote on gun control legislation. While neither effort was successful in passing gun legislation, change may be coming, due in part to a new and growing gun control group.

  2. June also saw the shocking vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), a move that many argue will have a huge impact on the global economy. Much was written about the implications of the vote, but most interesting (and most related to social change) were Spencer Wells’ fascinating look at the fundamental economic, demographic and political shifts behind the vote, and Jake Hayman’s view on what philanthropy can learn from it. As he put it: “The future of philanthropy and the future of politics have to lie in something beyond the economic. Indeed it will be the ones that invite those they wish to serve into the heart of decision-making and dedicate themselves to reforming systems – rather than propping them up – that will come to thrive.”

  3. One of the reasons some in the United Kingdom voted for Brexit may be fear about the refugee crisis. Ever relevant to the issues of the day, Pew Research offers some key facts about the world’s refugees.

  4. And speaking of votes, in the November U.S. presidential election Millennials (because of their sheer numbers) stand to have a real impact. Derrick Feldmann from Achieve discusses some new research about Millennials’ particular approaches to civic engagement and how they might play out in the presidential election.

  5. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Lewis B. Cullman and Ray Madoff express “grave concern” about a fundamental shift they see in the funding of the nonprofit sector due to the increasing popularity of donor advised funds (DAFs). Donors receive an immediate tax benefit when setting up a DAF, but the donation may not find its way to the nonprofit sector for years to come. As they put it, “Donor-advised funds have been a bad deal for American society. They have produced too many private benefits for the financial services industry, at too great a cost to the taxpaying public, and they have provided too few benefits for society at large. When we consider their overall effect, we see that rather than supporting working charities and the beneficiaries they serve, they have undermined them.”

  6. One of the smartest philanthropic thinkers, by far, is Clara Miller president of the F.B. Heron Foundation. She offers a two part treatise (part 1 and part 2) on what the foundation of the 21st century should look like. She writes that foundations must learn to adapt their approach and business model: “While permanence may be a key mission requirement for some…fossilized thinking cannot be. We simply can’t succeed in a vacuum, especially when the pace and nature of the gaps we are called upon to fill have become larger and more frequent, the problems more intertwined and the needs more urgent.” Amen!

  7. Never one to pull punches, blogger Vu Le has some strong words for a particular type of philanthropist, those coming from tech companies thinking they know how to fix nonprofits. As he tells them, “Don’t think for a moment that just because you’re great at one thing, it means you have the legitimacy to give advice in an area that you have little experience and training in. I don’t go around telling you how to design apps or wifi-enabled smart light switches. If you want to truly partner to solve entrenched issues our community members are facing, then great. But first, get rid of your assumptions and ego. Otherwise, let’s agree to swipe left.”

  8. Another favorite truth teller, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy clearly articulates why the term “nonprofit” is critical and necessary: “Sometimes, nonprofits need to be the voice of opposition to those whose motivation is profit.” Yep.

  9. Giving USA released their annual data on giving in the nonprofit sector. And if you are hungry for even more data about the nonprofit sector, thanks to a a federal court order the IRS is now providing machine-readable nonprofit Form 990s from 2011 to the present.

  10. And speaking of fascinating data, the Department of Education released their annual civil rights data, which has been gathered every year since 1968 in order to assess enforcement of civil rights laws. NPR highlights some jaw-dropping findings.

Photo Credit: Kyle Pearce

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Improving Philanthropy: An Interview with Melinda Tuan

By Nell Edgington

Melinda TuanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Melinda Tuan, project manager for Fund for Shared Insight (Shared Insight), a collaborative effort among funders to make grants that improve philanthropy. In that capacity, Melinda plays a key role in guiding and facilitating Shared Insight’s activities including operations, communication, grantmaking, and evaluation.

Melinda is an independent consultant who works with the senior leadership of philanthropic organizations to develop strategies for effective philanthropy. Prior to starting her consulting practice in 2003, Melinda was managing director of REDF (formerly The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) – a social venture capital fund she co-founded.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: One of the reasons the Fund for Shared Insight was established was to encourage more foundation transparency. Recent research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) demonstrated that there is still much work to do to make foundations more transparent, particularly about their strategies and impact. How do you think we get more foundations to be more open about these things?

Melinda: We would offer an amendment to the question, as we at the Fund for Shared Insight don’t use the word “transparency” in reference to our overall work. Rather, we prefer to talk about increasing foundation “openness.” Here’s why.

To us, transparency, while important, describes a one-way sharing out of information. As indicated in the CEP research, foundations need to be more open to sharing information – particularly about how they assess their own work, and what they’ve learned about what is and is not successful. However, in addition to sharing more information out, we believe foundations need to be more open to listening and taking in information from grantees and the people we all seek to help, and acting on what we learn to inform our own practices to be more effective.

This very question of how to encourage foundation openness and increase the two-way exchange of information is what we are trying to address throughout our work. The good news is, based on the CEP research which we had the privilege of funding in our first year, foundation CEOs believe being more transparent – sharing more information out – will help them be more effective. Additionally, both foundations and nonprofits agree on the definition of and importance of transparency. This is welcomed news because transparency is an important part of increasing openness.

Building on that, our next phase of work will focus on enabling and inspiring foundations to adopt a variety of approaches to be more open in service of effectiveness. We issued an open request for proposals in May for increasing foundation openness and are currently reviewing 31 proposals for various initiatives such as building networks, providing training, and creating technology platforms among others. We are excited to announce which projects we’ll be funding by the end of July.

Nell: One of the hurdles to more openness among both nonprofits and foundations is the power imbalance between nonprofits and their funders. How do you think we work to overcome that imbalance, or can we? And how do you deal with these power dynamics in the work of the Fund for Shared Insight?

Melinda: While there is no quick fix solution, we believe building trust between foundations and nonprofit partners is a key way to diffuse this power dynamic. There are so many ways we can build – and break – trust, and much of this comes down to how we relate to each other as people. We build trust when we follow-through with what we say we will do in a timely manner, offer support in times of challenge and crisis, listen before speaking, ask good questions, and are curious learners. We break trust when we do the opposite – when we don’t follow through on our commitments, dole out punishment when we hear bad news, talk first and too often, and don’t enter into this work with a spirit of inquiry and wanting to learn for improvement. If foundations are as open with nonprofits as they would like their grantees to be with them, we believe we can work together and make great progress towards building the trusting relationships that can lead to greater overall effectiveness.

At Shared Insight we try to be mindful of the power dynamics in our own interactions and communications with the nonprofits we fund in both formal and informal ways. On the formal side, we have commissioned the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) and are looking forward to sharing what we’ve learned from our nonprofit partners who provided feedback via the GPR in the fall of 2016. On the informal side, we find simply making time to check in with individuals at the beginning of every meeting or call helps to build our personal relationships and establish a baseline of genuine interest in each other’s lives in addition to the work we are doing together. We also try to uphold a high standard of responsiveness and clarity about how we make and communicate our funding decisions – we have to walk our own talk.

As a funder collaborative now 35 foundations strong, we are in the unique position of being both a grantor and a grantee. It’s been fascinating to on one hand have conversations with our nonprofit partners and try to minimize the power imbalance in our interactions, and on the other hand experience the supplicant perspective as we seek funds from our core funders, additional funders and Listen for Good co-funders. We think this dual role helps us be extra-aware of the power dynamic and informs our understanding of helpful practices as the giver and receiver of grant dollars. We’ve learned a lot of useful lessons about these dynamics and relationships since our launch. Chris Cardona from the Ford Foundation, one of our eight core funders, highlighted many of these important lessons in a blog post for Transparency Talk. We know that we’ll continue to learn and grow as we move forward and these relationships progress.

Nell: Your approach somewhat assumes a desire among philanthropists to move to a more evidence-based approach to giving. But some research, like the Money for Good reports, has found that donors as a whole are not that interested in results and impact. Do you believe that much of philanthropy can move toward an evidence-based approach? And if so, how do we get there?

Melinda: The Money for Good research you reference was focused on individual donor decision-making, and found that individual donors are less interested in results and impact. In contrast, our work at the Fund for Shared Insight focuses on staffed foundations in the U.S. Research, at least on the larger foundations, has shown that many foundations are interested in results and impact. For example, the number of foundations belonging to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) reporting that they conducted evaluations of their work went from around 20% in 2008 to more than 70% in 2011, and has only continued to grow.

One of our primary research questions regarding feedback loops is whether perceptual feedback from program participants today can serve as leading indicators of future outcomes for those same participants. In education, for example, students who answer in the affirmative to the question “I feel there is a teacher at school who cares about me” have been shown to achieve more positive educational outcomes. We are hoping our grant to Innovations for Poverty Action will help us analyze the relationship, if any, between perceptual feedback and outcomes in randomized controlled trials of programs in developing countries, and we hope to fund a similar project here in the U.S. If we are able to find these linkages between perceptual feedback and ultimate outcomes, this information will go a long way toward helping nonprofits and foundations improve programs in real-time without having to wait 2-3 years for the evidence of outcomes to be demonstrated.

We at Shared Insight are committed to measuring the results of our own work and sharing what we learn, and have devoted an entire section of our website to sharing how we are evaluating our progress toward improving philanthropy. All of our work is focused on learning for improvement, whether through evidence-based approaches to giving, feedback loops, or other ways to understanding the effectiveness of philanthropic investments.

Nell: Recently 22 philanthropic infrastructure organizations (like Guidestar, Nonprofit Finance Fund, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) signed a letter asking foundations to commit 1% of their grantmaking budgets to supporting the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector as a whole. The Fund for Shared Insight is arguably a piece of this infrastructure, so what do you make of their argument and can you see foundations agreeing to this goal?

Melinda: The Fund for Shared Insight emerged out of a desire among a number of funders to improve the philanthropic sector, especially by strengthening infrastructure and the process of collecting and sharing feedback.

One of the great things about the Fund for Shared Insight is that we are a collaborative. Each of the foundations involved with Shared Insight supports infrastructure in different ways. For instance, Fay Twersky and Lindsay Louie of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (a core funder) recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in support of this letter, noting:

“Funders who believe in learning to improve have some obligation to invest at least a small portion of their grantmaking to infrastructure support. Supporting infrastructure doesn’t take away from other giving; it amplifies it. It unites all of us as funders—whether you fund in your local community, focus on a particular issue or multiple issues, or take a policy or research approach. Givers of all stripes can use and benefit from the infrastructure that supports us all.”

Photo Credit: Fund for Shared Insight

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How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

By Nell Edgington

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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We Must Rise

By Nell Edgington

leadersIt has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.

But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.

We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”

I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster  to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.

As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:

“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”

A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.

As Martin Luther King said:

The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).

Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.

At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”

And so we must rise.

Photo Credit: pixabay

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2016

By Nell Edgington

social change

May offered some interesting insights into the world of social change. From a plea by nonprofit infrastructure groups for more funding, to some criticisms of philanthropy’s unwillingness to invest in rural economies or provide a realistic runway to nonprofits, to digital’s impact on journalism, to the evolving sharing economy, to a call for more nonprofit board resignations, to a way to break the nonprofit starvation cycle, there was a lot to read.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in May. But you can always follow me on Twitter (@nedgington) for a longer list.

And if you are interested in past months’ 10 Great Reads lists, go here.

  1. Perhaps the biggest news of the month was the letter written by 22 groups, which provide support to the entire sector (like the National Council of Nonprofits, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and GuideStar), asking foundations to provide more funding for the nonprofit ecosystem. GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold (here) and National Council of Nonprofits CEO Tim Delaney (here and here) explain why this issue is so important.  But Pablo Eisenberg disagrees.

  2. National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Executive Director Aaron Dorfman takes philanthropy to task for not investing enough in rural communities, where change is needed most. As he puts it: “The philanthropic sector continues to neglect rural communities. A changing national economy, entrenched racial inequity and foundations’ reliance on a strict interpretation of strategic philanthropy has meant philanthropic resources for rural communities are few and far between, just when the opportunities for change are most urgent. This has to change if we want to see progress on the issues we all care about.”

  3. Piling on to the criticism of philanthropy, Laurie Michaels and Maya Winkelstein from Open Road Alliance, encourage their fellow philanthropists to help nonprofits deal with risk and disruption. As they put it: “Most grant budgets are designed with zero cushion even when the nonprofit is working in tough conditions that can turn the simplest obstacle into an unmanageable issue…any unexpected but inevitable change or deviation in the budget is potentially catastrophic. The nonprofit’s inability to fluidly adapt the budget to manage these roadblocks, however minor, can jeopardize even the largest of undertakings…Risks alone are threatening, but when the concept of risk goes unacknowledged, undiscussed, and unaddressed, those risks are more likely to become realities. All this adds up to lower impact, turning manageable events into liabilities.”

  4. Maybe female philanthropists can turn the tide. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released some fascinating new research about how women are changing philanthropy. And Megan O’Neil, writing in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains how nonprofits must adapt in order to tap into this growing philanthropic force.

  5. Journalism is changing rapidly, due in part to the growth of digital. Research shows that different social media platforms connect people to news in different ways, and long-form journalism is seeing a resurgence thanks to mobile.

  6. And it’s not just journalism that digital is changing. The Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offers 16 Must-Know Stats About Online Fundraising and Social Media and 5 Ways the Internet of Things Will Transform Fundraising.

  7. The growth of the “sharing economy”, where consumers rent or borrow goods and services rather than buy them, has huge implications for the social change sector. Pew Research outlines 8 key findings about how Americans relate to the sharing economy and interviews NYU professor Arun Sundararajan about how the sharing economy is evolving.

  8. Nonprofit Law blogger Gene Takagi pulls no punches in offering 12 Reasons Why You Should Gracefully Resign from a Nonprofit Board. Yes, yes, yes, to more accountability, honest conversations, and clear expectations on nonprofit boards.

  9. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  Jeri Eckhart-Queenan, Michael Etzel, and Sridhar Prasad discuss the findings of a new Bridgespan Group study that analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations. What they found, not surprisingly, is that indirect rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).  The authors argue that if more nonprofits understand and report their true costs, nonprofits could break the starvation cycle: “It’s clear that philanthropy’s prevailing 15 percent indirect cost reimbursement policy does not take into account the wide variation in costs from segment to segment. Doing so would have far-reaching effects on philanthropy and grantees. If nonprofits committed to understanding their true cost of operations and funders shifted to paying grantees what it takes to get the job done, the starvation cycle would end.”

  10. A nonprofit dashboard is a good way to monitor and report on a nonprofit’s effectiveness and sustainability over time. Hilda Polanco, CEO of FMA, explains how to create a great one.

Photo Credit: Omarfaruquepro

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Is Your Frustrating Board a Symptom of a Larger Problem?

By Nell Edgington

nonprofit board frustrationOne of the biggest complaints I hear from nonprofit leaders is that their board is not working well enough for them — most often around fundraising. From board members who are largely in name only, to others who refuse to fundraise, to those who meddle or micromanage, to those who don’t understand the organization or its programs, there can be a large list of grievances that nonprofit leaders have about their board. So nonprofit leaders often look for a magic bullet to get their board in gear.

Just last week a nonprofit leader approached me seeking help getting her board engaged. She thought that if she hired a consultant to rewrite their board by-laws and rework the board committee structure, all would be well.

But it just isn’t that simple.

An ineffective board is often just a symptom of a larger problem at your nonprofit. And while nonprofit boards can be incredibly frustrating, it is often not their fault that they aren’t working harder for you.

If you are frustrated with your board, ask these questions to uncover the larger issues at play:

Do We Have a Compelling Case?
You simply cannot get people excited to help further your nonprofit’s cause if they don’t fully understand and embrace that cause. Have you had a conversation with your board about why your nonprofit does the work it does? Have you articulated together your nonprofit’s Theory of Change? Have you involved your board in creating your nonprofit’s Case for Investment? It surprises me how often I see nonprofit leaders leaving these critical and investing conversations at the staff level. The number one way to get your board excited about your work is to get them involved in articulating to others why that work is so critical.

Do We Have a Long-Term Strategy?
But it’s not enough to articulate what you hope to accomplish as a nonprofit, you also need to create a strategy for bringing those goals to fruition. You must involve your full board in your nonprofit’s overall strategy. They must buy in at the ground level to the goals of your strategic plan. And then the board must be in charge, as is their true leadership role, in  monitoring in their ongoing board meetings whether those goals are actually being realized. Give your board the opportunity to create and then drive the overall organizational strategy, and then see how they start to come alive.

Do We Have Clear Board Responsibilities?
And they will truly come to life when they understand how each of them individually can and must contribute to bringing that larger strategy to fruition. You simply cannot expect a board to engage when they don’t understand how and where they can be helpful. Give the overall board specific goals and responsibilities and then talk one-on-one with each individual board member to determine together where their unique skills and experience can be brought to bear on the larger strategy. With a clear roadmap for how they can help, you will see your board start to pick up the pace.  

Do We Have the Wrong Board Members?
However, you may find that some of your board members are simply taking up space. It may be that some are disengaged because they simply don’t have the skills, experience and networks necessary to achieve your goals. That’s why you have to do the analysis and look at every single board member against the skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your strategic plan. Please, please, please don’t fall for the temptation of filling your board with warm bodies. Make sure that you are recruiting the type of board members that you truly need to deliver on your organization’s strategy.

Are We Afraid of Asking For What We Really Need?
Nonprofit leaders sometimes fear their board members as much as they fear their donors. Rather than insisting their board members step up to the plate and effectively contribute their time, energy, and resources, nonprofit leaders may be overly grateful for ineffective board members. But when you operate under that dysfunctional power imbalance, you are setting the bar incredibly low for your board. And when a person is confronted with a low bar, there is nothing compelling him to get engaged and get working. So be very clear with your board members about what you want from them, and then be equally clear when they aren’t delivering. There is a nice way to tell a board member that you need more from her. And if she isn’t willing, then it is probably best that she walk away and leave room for more effective board members.

If you are fed up with your board, use frustration as an opportunity to dig deeper to figure out what is really causing their uselessness. And if you need some help to get there, check out the nonprofit leader coaching I provide.

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

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Where Does Your Nonprofit Fit In the Market?

By Nell Edgington

nonprofit puzzleAs much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, which means that nonprofits, like everything else, must compete for customers and resources. Therefore it is critical that you understand where your nonprofit fits in the market.

While a business has one customer, a nonprofit has at least two distinct customer groups:

  1. Those who benefit from a nonprofit’s work (clients), and

  2. Those who fund that work (donors, government contractors, etc).

So it is absolutely critical that nonprofit leaders understand what unique value their work brings to these customers. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

A nonprofit organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a community need (or set of social problems) apart from their competitors or collaborators, like this:

Marketplace Map


But don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that a nonprofit shouldn’t collaborate.

On the contrary, nonprofit leaders must forge strategic alliances that help move the social change they envision forward. However, when they create those alliances, they must be crystal clear about what their organization brings to the table, versus what a potential ally brings to the table. Thus, a marketplace mapping exercise is absolutely critical to charting a way forward.

In order to create their marketplace map, a nonprofit’s board and staff must answer these three key questions:

  1. Core Competencies: What superior assets (expertise, relationships, etc.) do we possess as an organization that are not easily replicable?

  2. Community Needs: What community needs/social problems are we attempting to address?

  3. Competitors/Collaborators: What other entities are working on some/all of those same problems?

The social change sector has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to understand this external marketplace of competitors/collaborators against their own core competencies in order to understand the unique value that their nonprofit can contribute.

From this marketplace mapping exercise, some key strategic questions will emerge for the nonprofit, such as:

  • Where do our core competencies and activities end, and where do others’ begin?
  • Is our nonprofit better positioned than other entities to conduct all of the activities (from our Theory of Change) that we currently do? Should some activities be left to those who do it better?
  • Are there core competencies that we must develop in order to better address the community needs we’ve identified?
  • Are there collaborators/competitors that we should be more strategic about aligning with?

Creating a Marketplace Map, much like creating a Theory of Change, is an incredibly useful exercise that gets your board and staff thinking in bigger, more strategic ways about your work. And those more strategic conversations can help lead to a more effective and sustainable path forward.

If you want to learn more about how I work with clients to develop their strategic plan, download the Strategic Plan benefit sheet.

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A Summer To Do List for Nonprofit Leaders

By Nell Edgington

nonprofit summerMemorial Day is almost here, and in my mind that means so is the beginning of summer. While work surely carries on over the summer months, for many of us there tends to be more space to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with your core.

But you have to make time for it.

Sometimes nonprofit leaders will tell me that they love the slower pace of summer because it means they can catch up on their to do list, move paperwork off their desk, make progress on their filing, get more organized.


Let me tell you right now that your to do list will never be complete, so instead, make better use of the space summer provides by taking a big step back and getting inspired for the work ahead.

Here are some tasks I suggest you put at the top of your to do list this summer:

Get Quiet
Before you can do anything else, you need to step out of the rat race for a bit and listen to the silence. There you can reconnect with your core, ponder some bigger questions, figure out what you are meant to do. Maybe you need to take a trip away from your normal routine and the many demands on your time. Maybe you need to find a space to just be. Maybe you need to find activities that are outside of your job, because remember that you are so much more than the leader of a nonprofit organization. However and wherever you do it, you have to make some time to journey inside.

Find Inspiration Again
I know as a nonprofit leader you are (or at least once were) inspired by the work you do. Passion and commitment to mission are often what define a social change leader. But that source of inspiration is not endless. And the day-to-day drudgery of trying to move mountains can wear you down and make that light grow dim. When that happens you have to seek inspiration elsewhere. The world we live in is endlessly inspiring, so when you are feeling that your vision is impossibly narrow, get outside your walls. We must give ourselves permission to reconnect with what makes us human, not machine. But if you simply cannot figure out what will inspire you, go back to the first item and get quiet enough, long enough to figure it out.

Ask Some Big Questions
Once you have found quiet and inspiration you will then have the capacity to figure out what’s next. Nonprofit leaders are so busy with the day-to-day that they often find themselves disconnected from the big picture. Why are you doing this work? What are your ultimate goals? Who is your target audience? Take advantage of the mental space summer provides to ask yourself and your board some of the big questions that can help you recommit to the work and more easily attract the other people and resources necessary for the next chapter.

Figure Out What’s In Your Way
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you are so accustomed to scraping by without the necessary tools, staff, systems to do your job that you rarely take a big step back and ask, “What do we really need to accomplish our goals?” Take some time to figure out the things that drive you and your staff crazy. What are the hurdles standing in your way of doing more? An ineffective board? A lack of strategy? Not enough money? The wrong technology? Not enough staff? Create a list of what you really need to do the work, put it in front of your board and ask them to help put together a capacity building plan.

Forgive Yourself
Man, are social change leaders hard on themselves. Apparently it’s not enough to work on saving the world, but you have to continually berate yourself for not doing it quickly enough, or well enough. So get over it. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Give yourself a break and you will find that without a bully constantly breathing down your neck you can accomplish much more. Take that knowledge with you into the fall, and you may just be transformed.

This summer, step outside the routine and commit to a real break that allows you the physical, mental and spiritual space that you as a social change leader so desperately need. Happy Summer!

Photo Credit: Unsplash 

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