In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?
Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.
As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.
It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.
Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?
Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.
Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?
Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.
Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?
Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?
Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.
If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.
From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.
Photo Credit: Youth Villages
I came across a great article the other day, Rules for Brilliant Women, and as a female entrepreneur I found it really inspiring and affirming. But I realized nonprofit leaders need a similar list. Because just as women often sell themselves short, so too do nonprofit leaders. In fact, there are some interesting parallels between the place of women and the place of nonprofits in society, but that’s a post for another day.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, here are 7 rules for brilliant nonprofit leaders:
- Find and Keep Your True North
As a nonprofit leader you probably receive advice all day, every day. From board members, to donors, to staff members, to colleagues, to bloggers and consultants (ha!), everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and find your true north. Don’t do what you think you “should” do, or what someone else tells you to do. Follow what you know deep down is the right path.
- Remember the Dream
The daily grind can wear a nonprofit leader to the bone. It is often an exhausting, thankless job. But you have to remember what got you here in the first place. And I bet that was some huge vision for how the world could be a very different place. Don’t lose sight of your overarching goal. And don’t lose heart that you may never get there. It’s the big honking dream that propels great leaders forward.
- Admit When You Don’t Know
Leaders don’t have to know it all. And in fact the best leaders are those who recognize their weaknesses and figure out how to address them. The first step is openly admitting when you don’t know (to your board, your donors, your staff). Only then will you find the freedom and power to scale that wall.
- Ask for What You Really Need
And once you freely admit what you lack, you must ask for it. Whether you need more staff, better technology, greater knowledge – demand it. Create a detailed list of what will make you more effective as a leader, put a price to those items, and then make the pitch to your board, to funders, to anyone who can help you get what you need.
- Don’t Wait for Permission
How many times do nonprofit leaders wait for their board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow them to do something? True leaders find permission internally and then show those around them why their path was the right one. I get that there are times when forging ahead without consent would be politically unwise, but those times are less often than many nonprofit leaders think. Don’t shut yourself and your staff down because you fear making someone else mad.
- Stop Being So Nice
The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who can’t cut it may work for that individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
- Hit Pause on Saving the World Once in Awhile
I don’t care how fast-paced and “always on” our world becomes, we always need time and space to breathe, reflect, regenerate. Because you are in the business of improving lives, as a nonprofit leader you are particularly prone to the martyr syndrome of equating taking a break with fewer lives saved. But you will actually be more productive if you regularly focus on things outside the realm of saving the world.
Oh nonprofit leaders, I love you so. You are brilliant, beautiful human beings doing truly amazing things. Own it.
Photo Credit: Shyamal
I am amazed by the reaction of some nonprofit leaders when faced with a budget shortfall. Some simply shake their head in innocent confusion, some blame an “inexperienced” development director or a “checked-out” board, and others throw together a knee-jerk fundraising event in order to stem the tide.
But a much better approach, when you don’t have the money your nonprofit needs, is to step back and assess the viability of your nonprofit’s overall money function, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
If you want greater, more reliable funding for your nonprofit, you must get strategic. And the first step to any real strategy is analysis.
Instead of viewing the money that flows to your nonprofit as a side note, or worse, a completely uncontrollable force, you must view money as a very necessary and integrated function that is just as important as your nonprofit’s programmatic function. And in order to determine how well your money function operates and how to transform it, you must assess it.
A transformative financial model assessment uncovers how all aspects of the organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through the doors. It analyzes the financial impact of 7 areas of the organization, like this:
Does your nonprofit have a long-term strategy that integrates money, programs and operations? Does your strategy help articulate the value your nonprofit provides the community in order to compel outsiders to invest? Does your strategy include measures for whether that value is actually being created?
- Mission and Vision
Does your nonprofit have clear, compelling vision and mission statements? The two statements are not “nice to have” marketing language, rather they articulate the very essence of why your nonprofit exists. Does your vision paint a bold description of the social change you seek? Does your mission describe the day-to-day work towards that vision?
- Board and Staff Leadership
Does your board have the skills, experience and networks necessary to execute on your strategic plan? Are they engaged and invested? Are they actively connecting the organization to people, resources, partnerships? Does your staff have the knowledge and experience necessary to make money flow? And are they structured and managed effectively?
- Program Delivery and Impact
As a nonprofit you have two sets of “customers.” Those you serve (or your “clients”), and those who fund those services (or your “donors”). Without a compelling and effective delivery of services to clients, donors won’t fund those services. Is your nonprofit strategic about which programs to grow and which to cut? Do you measure the effect of your programs on clients? Are your programs financially viable, or are too many of your programs mission-rich, but cash-poor?
- Marketing and Communications
Do you make a compelling case for your work and for support of it? Once you’ve made the case, are you using the right marketing channels (website, social media, events, email, etc.) to attract and engage your target funders, volunteers, advocates, board members and other supporters?
- External Partnerships
In order to move the mission forward and in order to attract funders, volunteers, advocates you must be strategic about building alliances that make sense. Do you have the necessary external relationships to execute on your strategy? Are you constantly working to strengthen or grow the right partnerships in the right ways?
- Financial Model
And only now do we look specifically at money. Because without all the previous elements (thoughtful strategy, compelling vision and mission, strong leadership) money simply will not follow. Does your funding mix fit well with your mission and core competencies? Are there other revenue streams that make sense to pursue? Are there fundraising activities that are actually costly rather than profitable?
When money isn’t working the way you want it to, don’t stick your head in the sand. Wrest the money sword from the beast of chance by taking a hard look at your nonprofit’s money function.
If you want to learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I provide clients, click here. And if you want to learn more about the Financing Not Fundraising approach, download the newest e-book in the Financing Not Fundraising series, Financing Not Fundraising volume 3.
Photo Credit: Pen Waggener
Ever since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.
More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.
But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.
Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?
I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.
For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.
And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:
- Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
- Engage a more invested board of directors
- Use money and other limited resources more strategically
- Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
- More effectively manage to outcomes
- Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit
So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.
At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.
Photo Credit: liquidnight
“Here’s my problem…It’s obvious these people have money, they just don’t want to share it with us.”
What this executive director fails to realize is that the burden to connect the dots for donors lies squarely on her shoulders. It is up to nonprofit leaders to articulate – in a compelling, inspiring way – how their nonprofit is creating a solution to an important social problem, and why donors should care about and invest in that solution.
A Case for Investment can help you do just that.
Now more than ever, nonprofits are struggling for funding amid growing competition and diminishing available dollars. At the same time, burgeoning interest in performance management and impact investing have focused more donors on the outcomes their investment in a nonprofit will bring.
Donors, especially major donors, are less likely to give to a nonprofit because the organization “does good work” and more likely to give because a nonprofit demonstrates how it creates a solution to a social problem the donor cares about.
Those nonprofits that want to continue to attract and grow philanthropic investment must create a compelling, thoughtful argument for why a donor should give to their organization. This argument is called a “Case for Investment.” Driven by a thoughtful combination of data and emotion, a good Case for Investment can help a nonprofit communicate and connect with their target donors much more effectively.
The Case for Investment Step-by-Step Guide can help you create your nonprofit’s case.
“I am using it as a catalyst to create a branding campaign with my Marketing Committee. Of course, this will be used for fundraising and grant writing as well. We really needed the framework to build value for our donors, volunteers, and clients.”
A good case for investment is the fundamental building block from which all donor communications, marketing materials, grant proposals, website language, and more is born.
The Case for Investment Step-by-Step Guide is broken down into ten sections:
- Why Create a Case for Investment?
- How to Use This Guide
- The Need
- Financial Model
- Strategic Direction
- Resources Required
- Social Return on Investment
- Next Steps
In each section there is a series of questions, which you will answer. Your answers to these questions become the basis for your final Case for Investment. Examples of other nonprofit’s cases for investment are highlighted in each section, allowing you to see how others have made their arguments.
Photo Credit: JHall159
I’ve been working with several clients lately to create a strategic plan, and I love the moment when the real value of the strategic plan and the process of creating one becomes blatantly obvious.
It’s the point at which board, staff, funders start to see the possibility that the plan holds for the nonprofit and the social change they seek. They get really excited about bringing that future to fruition.
But that only happens when you create a really smart, thoughtful strategy — a good strategic plan, instead of a poor one.
Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform an organization, in at least 5 fundamental ways. It will:
- Create Momentum
It’s not the final plan that energizes people, rather it’s the process of analyzing the external environment in which a nonprofit operates, making some hard decisions about where to focus resources, articulating the value the nonprofit provides, connecting the dots between individual actors and the larger vision. If done well, the work done during the strategic planning process really energizes board and staff. And when they start talking with people outside the organization (funders, volunteers, stakeholders) about the plan, those outsiders become energized too. To really tap into people’s potential you must inspire them to larger heights and help them understand their role in reaching those heights. A great strategic planning process does that.
- Attract Deeper Funding
The difference between a nonprofit just scraping by and a nonprofit with a sustainable future is strategy. If you want to attract larger, longer-term funding, particularly from major donors, you simply must have a future strategy in place. People and organizations that make large gifts to a nonprofit are in effect investing in the future of that organization. And if you can’t articulate your future plans in a thoughtful, compelling way, funders won’t make that larger investment.
- Filter Future Decisions
If you create your strategic plan correctly it becomes a tool for analyzing and making decisions about future opportunities. Most nonprofits are regularly fielding new opportunities (new funding streams, new programs to develop, new alliances to forge), but without an overall strategy it’s difficult to know which opportunities to pursue. A great strategic plan doesn’t tie an organization’s hands, rather it becomes a tool — a lens — through which you can thoughtfully analyze future decisions and make the best moves for your organization. One of my clients uses growth criteria we developed during their strategic planning process to determine when and where to add new sites. These criteria ensure that they are growing in a strategic, not reactive, way.
- Become a Management Tool
When done right, a strategic plan can drive the operations of the organization and the activities of the board and staff. At the board level, you can regularly track progress on the goals and objectives of the strategic plan through a dashboard (like the one at top of this post). At the staff level, you can monitor the activities and deliverables of the plan through an operational plan. An effective strategic plan doesn’t sit on the shelf, but rather is a living, breathing guide to the daily work and decisions of the organization. It’s not a final product, it’s a way of life.
- Realize More Change
At the end of the day you operate your nonprofit in order to address a social issue, to see some sort of change to a social problem. But the only way you will truly create that change is if you have a strategy that puts all of your limited resources (money, staff, board, volunteers) to their highest, best, most focused use. A great strategic planning process forces you to do the analysis, conduct the research, make the hard decisions, and track your progress so that at the end of the day you actually are making a difference.
Honestly, I don’t know how you operate a nonprofit without a strategy in place. In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world great strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity.
If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page.
Although the definition of a “startup” is an organization that has been around for only a few years, there are many nonprofits that are still in startup mode despite their 20+ years of existence.
But the good news is that you don’t have to wait around for a knight in shining armor to save you from the endless startup existence, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
The power to begin scaling the startup wall is actually in your hands. Here are the steps to begin:
- Create Your Business Plan
Probably a big part of the reason that you are still struggling as a startup (more than) several years in is that you haven’t strategically connected operations and financing to your mission. A business plan that answers questions like “How will you finance the business?” and “Who are your target customers (clients AND funders)?” and “What’s the right staffing structure?” and “What are the goals of the business?” and much more. Just because the profits from your business enterprise go back into the organization (nonprofit) instead of into the pockets of the owner or stakeholders (for-profit) doesn’t mean you don’t need a business plan. Figuring out how to align money, mission and operations is the first step to a stronger future.
- Grow Your List of Champions
If your nonprofit’s inner circle consists of a founder and a few friends you will never grow. You have to convince people beyond those who already love you to internalize the work of the organization and become actively involved as board members, advisors, fundraisers. But you cannot target anyone and everyone. You have to identify people whose values connect with your work and your mission. And they have to have some specific skills, experience and networks that will help your organization move forward. But if you’ve only ever had your friends behind you, how do you convince outsiders to become champions and board members? Keep reading…
- Develop a Value Proposition
If you are unable to articulate among internal board and staff what your nonprofit is hoping to accomplish and the value it provides the community, how can you possibly convince others to become involved? The first step in really taking things to the next level is to develop that value position, or a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change is basically an argument for why your nonprofit exists — how you take community resources (inputs) and create changes to program participants’ lives (outcomes). To move from merely getting by to really making strides, you must create this argument.
- Convince Others to Give
Once you have your Theory of Change in place you need to make a compelling argument for how more inputs (funding) will help you create more outcomes. A case for investment is a logical, reasoned argument that helps you to make this case convincingly. Once completed, pieces of your case for investment can be used in fundraising appeals, on your website, in thank you letters, in marketing campaigns and much more. It is the fundamental building block to attracting more dollars to your nonprofit.
It doesn’t have to be a rule that the vast majority of nonprofits subsist in an endless startup mode. If you need some help finding your way out of startup mode, download the Nonprofit Startup Tool Bundle.
Photo Credit: Chad K
I’ve recently witnessed some behavior from nonprofit leaders that made my jaw drop:
- A board chairman convinced the rest of his board to turn away a donor who wanted to give the nonprofit a significant amount of money to fund organizational capacity (strategic planning, coaching, fundraising training) because he felt the nonprofit already knew how to do the work internally for free.
- An executive director who was really struggling with wrangling her board and developing a strong financial model bravely asked a close foundation donor for advice and support. When the foundation offered to fund some leadership coaching, the executive director rejected the offer for fear her board would think she didn’t know how to do her job.
- A board charged their nonprofit’s Development Director with increasing revenue in a single year by 30%. When she asked for a donor database to help more effectively recruit new and renew current donors the board said “No” because they felt she should already be able to do that without the aid of new technology.
More often than not it is nonprofit donors who hold back efforts to build stronger, more sustainable nonprofits by not providing enough capacity capital. I talk about that all the time (like here, here and here).
But sometimes, and more shockingly, nonprofit staffs and boards stand in their own way.
It takes courage for a nonprofit leader to admit that she doesn’t know how to do something and needs help. I am reminded of a fascinating interview I heard on NPR earlier this fall with Leah Hager Cohen who recently wrote the book, In Praise of Admitting Ignorance. She describes the freedom that comes from admitting when you simply don’t know how to do something. That moment of honesty can lead to transformation, as she says, “I think those words can be so incredibly liberating…They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don’t know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.”
I would love to see nonprofit leaders take this advice to heart. Once you have the courage to admit (to your board, to your donors, to your staff) that you don’t know how to do everything, you just might finally get the help you so desperately need.
Nonprofit leaders have been given the Herculean task of: developing and managing effective programs, managing a diverse and underpaid staff, crafting a bold strategic direction, creating a sustainable financial model, wrangling a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruiting and appeasing a disparate donor base. All with little support along the way. It is easy to see why the position of nonprofit leader is such a lonely one.
So instead of continuing to bear that enormous burden, take a step back and admit that you simply don’t know how to do it all. You need help, guidance, advice, support, organization building. If you are lucky enough to have funders, board members or others outside the organization that want to help, admit (to yourself, to your board, to your donors) that you need that help. And don’t let anyone (including, and especially, yourself) stand in your way.
If you’d like to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staff click here, and if you’d like to schedule a time to talk about how I might help move your organization forward, let me know.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
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