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Capacity Building

Nonprofit Scarcity Thinking Will Get You Nowhere

Scarcity thinking is incredibly pervasive in the nonprofit sector. And it makes sense that it would be. Nonprofit leaders have been told for so long that they must scrape by, are not worthy of real investment, and deserve only the leftovers. No wonder the belief that resources are scarce is baked into their DNA.

This scarcity thinking is the starvation cycle in which nonprofit leaders often exist – we can’t attract enough money so we skimp on staff and systems, becoming less effective, forcing us to serve fewer clients, resulting in less social change. It is a vicious downward cycle. And one that funders certainly play a key role in as well.

But when a nonprofit leader chooses instead to come from an abundance mindset – the idea that there are an abundance of resources and you need only to get crystal clear about what you want to achieve and those resources will come to you – it is amazing to see what she can accomplish.

Most recently I saw this with a national membership organization that had spent years either just barely scraping by or having to cut staff and budgets because they simply could not attract enough support. But once they got crystal clear on their goals for the future and what it was going to take to make those goals happen, they attracted some significant new and long-term investments from funders.

Moving from the pervasive scarcity mindset to the incredibly powerful abundance mindset can be a game changer.

And we can start by flipping some of the most common conversations happening each day in nonprofit boardrooms around the country, crossing out the typical scarcity mindset and fully embracing an abundance mindset, like this:

Scarcity Mindset: “How much money are we able to raise?
Abundance Mindset: “How much money will it take to accomplish our goals?”

Rather than thinking of money as an extremely scarce resource, figure out what social change your organization truly wants to accomplish. Chart your future course, figure out what it will take (in terms of staff, systems, technology, dollars) and then use that strategic plan to engage donors and others to invest in bigger ways. The excitement you generate from board, staff, and funders when you think big and long-term will translate into the money you need to accomplish your future goals. This is the cornerstone of moving from a fundraising approach to a financing approach.

Scarcity Mindset: “Let’s not add fundraising staff until we have the money”
Abundance Mindset: “Let’s fully invest in our fundraising infrastructure”

So many nonprofit leaders are unwilling to take the risk of hiring a top-notch fundraiser (or securing the best donor database, or revamping their online presence, or investing in other critical fundraising infrastructure) because they don’t have the money. But without making improvements to how you raise money, you will never raise more money. So figure out what it will take to upgrade your fundraising infrastructure and how much those improvements will cost and then convince a couple of close donors to provide the capacity capital necessary to get you there. And keep in mind, the right improvements to your fundraising infrastructure will pay for themselves (many times over) after 12-18 months, so it is really just a short term investment you need to take your financial model to the next level.

Scarcity: “We can only breakeven”
Abundance: “We will create a healthy reserve fund”

It amazes me that there are still nonprofit leaders who believe (and funders who insist) that the ideal nonprofit income statement show only a slight net income. On the contrary, a healthy, effective, and sustainable nonprofit organization should have a robust (at least 3-6 months of operating) reserve fund. This reserve allows a nonprofit leader to feel secure about cash flow, invest in program development, and engage in other normal and necessary activities as a successfully functioning organization. And donors tend to be more attracted to organizations that demonstrate sustainability (like having a reserve fund), than organizations that can barely breakeven.

 Scarcity: “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get the work done”
Abundance: “Let’s engage more people and organizations in our work.”

Because of their perception of resource constraints, often nonprofit leaders isolate themselves and their organizations from others with similar social change goals – those entities who may be competing with them for limited funds. But instead of thinking that you must go it alone, break down your walls and connect with other people, organizations and networks that have similar visions for the future. Figure out how you can combine efforts for much larger gains. Because a networked nonprofit is far better positioned to create sustainable social change than an isolated, solitary organization is.

Scarcity: “Given the difficult political climate, we must limit our goals.”
Abundance: “How can we seize the opportunity of this challenging political climate to engage new people in new ways?”

Since the 2016 election and the resulting and ongoing blows to progressive social change agendas, I have seen some nonprofit leaders bury their heads in the sand, figuring they will wait out these punishing political winds until something better comes along. But if you have a compelling social change vision, there is an abundance of outrage and activity that you can tap into now — in fact some argue that nonprofit advocacy is enjoying a rebirth. And while the federal government may be outside your current purview, there is opportunity for policy change happening at the state and local levels. In fact, research suggests that a state-by-state strategy is often the way real social change happens in this country anyway. So stop seeing what isn’t possible and instead embrace what may be.

Certainly there are real challenges facing every nonprofit leader. But you do have agency. You can choose to see the limits in front of you, or the opportunities. And in seeing the opportunities, and the abundance, you can accomplish so much more.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

Let’s be honest, nonprofit leaders tend to be a pretty reactive bunch. Instead of creating or controlling a situation, they tend to simply react to it. And it makes sense.

A foundation suddenly changes their funding strategy, and a nonprofit leader must scramble to find a new revenue source. A shift in how or where the government provides social services and a nonprofit leader suddenly sees a dramatic spike in the number of her clients. A board chair finds a job in a new city and a nonprofit leader finds his board leaderless. Nonprofit leaders are incentivized and learn quickly to react to ever-changing internal and external circumstances.

But I worry that in the face of the relentless shocks that 2017 brought, many nonprofit leaders have gone from a mode of normal reactive to super reactive. And the problem is that when you are operating from a point of reacting to circumstances instead of creating circumstances, you are much less effective at achieving your ultimate goals.

Lately I have seen some nonprofit leaders swept up into the chaos wrought by our divisive political and social climate and thus become less effective than they could otherwise be.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit leader who runs a national nonprofit recently became understandably concerned about a proposed federal policy change that would dramatically affect her mission. She became obsessed with emailing, calling, texting everyone and anyone in her network and encouraging them to call, write, email their members of Congress. She became so controlled by this need to react to this policy change — a change, by the way, that was ultimately outside of her control because the political will simply did not exist in the current Congress — that it made her sick. She became wild-eyed, exhausted, and ill and ultimately of little use to her staff, board or social change mission. If she had instead taken a step back, become quiet, and analyzed what was within her ability to change and what was not, she could have then developed a way forward from that knowledge. And I think she would have been much more successful.

If our actions come from a place of anger, frustration, or despair in reaction to the behavior of others, then we are only exacerbating the problem. This has become even more obvious since the 2016 election. The Trump Administration will take an action or make a statement that is so egregious, that goes so completely against what we as social change leaders have worked our whole lives to promote, and our initial response is to react, to fight, to bend in despair.

But we are only making it worse. We are feeding the demons of division, anger, and hatred.

I think Brene Brown would likely agree.  In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone she argues that in feeding into the anger and hatred that swirls around us, we are only hurting our efforts for larger social change and a better, more just world:

If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics and social media, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations…Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it…Holding on to [anger] will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

I wonder how the tide might shift if each one of us stepped away from the noise and the hatred and instead came from a place of courage, love, change, compassion, and justice, as Brene suggests. Instead of reacting to the noise, we became silent and sought to truly listen, to understand, to find common ground with those around us.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and although I no longer practice, I’m sometimes reminded of the beautiful prayers of that faith. One of my favorites is the Prayer of St. Francis. I wonder if in these historic words there is something for those of us who want to see a more just, inclusive, loving world. Perhaps as true leaders we must do what sometimes feels impossible and instead of reacting to hatred and anger, offer love and hope, as the prayer suggests:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy…

I am not suggesting that we pardon behavior or comments that we find objectionable. But rather, that we refuse to add fuel to them by stirring up the anger, frustration, and despair of our friends, our family, our employees, our donors, our board members, our fellow social change leaders.

What if instead of spending time forwarding, commenting or re-Tweeting depressing news or comments; obsessively refreshing our news feeds for the latest dose of adrenaline; or worrying over what the next outrage will be, we build effective organizations and work across organizations, we develop smart strategies and deep networks, we instill social change leaders with confidence and ample resources, we focus on what brings us joy and peace so that we are refreshed each day to start anew, we take good care of our families and friends so that we all have the energy and the optimism necessary to see our goals realized.

There is no doubt that these are incredibly challenging times. But what if the social change leaders who dream of a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive world work towards that goal from a place of calm and confidence, rather than a place of anger and fear. Indeed, I wonder if that is truly the only way forward.

Photo Credit: sarowen

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Creating Honest Conversations Between Nonprofits and Funders: An Interview With Eric Weinheimer

Eric WeinheimerIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of Forefront, the only regional association that represents grantmakers, nonprofits, advisors, and social entrepreneurs. With 1,100 members in Illinois, Forefront provides education, advocacy, and research, and mobilizes its members around issues that are important to the nonprofit sector.

Prior to his current role, Eric was the CEO of The Cara Program, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive training, job placement, and support services to individuals who are homeless and struggling in poverty. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. He was also appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Nell: Forefront is the only statewide association that has both nonprofit and funder members. How does Forefront deal with the power dynamic that is so often present between grantors and grantees?

Eric: Forefront talks explicitly about the power dynamic in much of our programming and classes, specifically our annual Grantmakers Institute for new program officers. We have candid conversations with these grantmakers and present actual case studies to give them a better understanding of their power and unique position. We also discuss how others perceive them and their roles, and how those perceptions can impact their effectiveness.

Forefront also has a non-solicitation policy that prevents nonprofits and grantmakers from discussing specific requests or proposals with each other when they gather at Forefront. The spirit of that policy also extends to how we bring grantmakers and nonprofits together. When nonprofits and grantmakers meet at Forefront, there is an explicit goal or purpose related to an issue in their fields or in the sector. While the power dynamic still exists, putting the focus on a larger purpose rather than on money helps our members build trust, leading to more genuine and balanced relationships. We also make sure that grantmakers and nonprofits co-chair some of our affinity groups to ensure balanced perspectives.

Nell: One of Forefront’s biggest initiatives is Real Talk about Real Costs, a series of funder and nonprofit convenings (the first in the nation) to talk about funding the full costs of nonprofit organizations. What have you learned through this series both about how to encourage more effective conversations between nonprofits and funders and about how to better support strong nonprofit organizations?

Eric: In the conversation on Real Costs we’ve learned that it’s not about creating another resource or a toolkit. Its not about what grantmakers or nonprofits should or should not do. Rather, it’s about starting an honest conversation. There are so many grantmakers and nonprofits that haven’t had the opportunity to dig in and engage with this work, either independently or with feedback from their counterparts. Our value-add is to catalyze these conversations. Forefront’s role is to create the space for honest dialogue, mobilize our members around this issue, promote best practices, and curate and share the newest research. It’s a slow and gradual process, but it ultimately leads to change in awareness, understanding and behavior.

Nell: How far do you think the national social sector has come in terms of more effectively supporting strong nonprofits and building more transparent and effective funder/nonprofit relationships?

Eric: We’ve certainly made some progress in the last 15 years, but we have a long way to go. It’s encouraging to see more funders express interest in general operating support and capacity building. However, too often, funders’ still feel the need to be in control and prescribe certain solutions rather than engage communities for their feedback and ideas.

Likewise, nonprofits have become more transparent, but they are still too reluctant to admit to challenges or failures because of possible consequences to their funding. Funders could model this practice for the nonprofits much more than they currently do. Funder transparency is only in its infancy.

Nell: Your national counterpart, Independent Sector — a national membership association of nonprofits and funders — had a recent change in leadership with Dan Cardinali taking the helm. What would you like to see Independent Sector doing to move this work forward on the national stage?

Eric: Dan is terrific – smart, experienced, strategic and passionate. He will do a great job. Under his leadership, Independent Sector (IS) has a real opportunity to be the connective tissue for our sector and elevate the good work that is happening around the country. I would encourage Dan to focus on a few of the critical issues facing our sector, both internal and external. Whether it be real costs, transparency, the power dynamic, or policy and advocacy, IS can highlight and amplify where real progress is being achieved and help to transport those examples to other locations. Once new practices take hold in certain geographic locations, other regions will follow suit. Organizations are eager for strong leadership that informs, inspires and mobilizes them to action.

Photo Credit: Forefront

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The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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3 Questions To Regularly Ask Your Development Director

Beyond the mistakes nonprofit leaders often make in staffing their fundraising function, the relationship itself between a nonprofit executive director and the development director (or whatever you call the staff person in charge of bringing money in the door) can often be fraught.

In an ideal world, the executive director and development director have a symbiotic relationship: the development director creates the overall annual financial strategy and regularly updates the executive director on where the organization is on achieving that plan, while the executive director works with higher level money prospects and marshals the board to achieve their fundraising responsibilities.

But we don’t always live in an ideal world. And sometimes, as was the case in a recent coaching session I had with a client, an executive director is in the dark about how the organization is progressing on their money raising efforts.

If that is the case in your nonprofit, here are some key questions to ask your head money raiser:

  1. How does the money we’ve brought in to date compare along each revenue line goal? 
    When you create an annual financing plan for your nonprofit (and if you don’t, get on it), you know how much of each type of revenue (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) you want to come in this year. Then, at any point during the year (and at the very least monthly) you should be asking your chief money raiser, what the organization has actually raised to date for each of those categories. For example, if you are 25% through your fiscal year, but you’ve only raised 5% of your individual revenue goal for the year, that may be a red flag. At the very least it’s cause for conversation with your development director. Perhaps it’s a timing issue (you have a big fundraising campaign closer to the end of the year), and that’s fine. But as the nonprofit leader, you should be able to ask (and get a clear answer to) where the organization’s revenue raising efforts are at any point in time.

  2. How do the numbers and types of gifts we projected compare to what’s actually happening? 
    It’s not enough for a money raiser to have an overall revenue goal for each type of revenue, he also needs to break each of those revenue types down into the number and level of contributed gifts (from individuals), grants (from foundations), or contracts (from government), etc. that will contribute to each revenue line’s overall goal. For example, if your nonprofit has a $250,000 individual donor revenue goal, your development director needs to break that down into the various levels of donors that will make up that $250,000 over the course of the year. You may have both major (one-to-one relationships) and smaller (many-to-one relationships) individual donors. He should project how many donors at each level he will need to hit each part of the individual donor goal. Then he can report to you (again, on at least a monthly basis) how that is progressing. A simple example of such a report (he would fill in the pink areas prior to each update) might look like this:
    And he should create a similar report for the other revenue lines (corporations, government, foundations, etc.) that your nonprofit pursues. The actuals will never completely match what you projected, but this exercise gives you a way to uncover and deal with surprises as they come.

  3. What keeps you up at night?
    Finally, the raw data is not enough. You also want to understand where your development director sees real problems. When you regularly ask this question she may reveal that the board  is not opening enough doors, or her database is inadequate, or the website is not where it needs to be, or her grantwriter needs more help. Then you can strategize together how to overcome those hurdles.

A regular, honest, and data-driven conversation between executive director and development director is the best route to fewer money surprises. And without it, a nonprofit has little hope of achieving financial sustainability .

Photo Credit: Images

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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