The year is winding down, and I will be taking some time off to enjoy friends and family (as I hope you are too). But before I go, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular posts on the blog this year, in case you missed any of them.
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with you amazing social change leaders. I am grateful for the amazing work you are doing to create a better world. And I appreciate you being part of the Social Velocity community.
I wish you all a happy, relaxing holiday season, and a wonderful new year. I’ll see you in 2015!
- Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?
- 7 Rules For Brilliant Nonprofit Leaders
- How to Move Your Nonprofit Board From Fundraising to Financing
- Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful
- 5 Questions Every Nonprofit Leader Should Ask
- Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get In Their Own Way?
- 3 Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged
- 5 Ways Great Strategy Can Transform a Nonprofit
- Does Your Nonprofit Know How To Attract Big Donors?
- It’s Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo
I love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.
And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.
- Growth of the Sharing Economy
The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.
- More Focus on Crowdfunding
One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.
- Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.
- Growing Emphasis on High Performance
Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.
- Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.
Photo Credit: slorenlaboy
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview I’m talking with Albert Ruesga. Albert is the President and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, known for its leadership in the region after Hurricane Katrina. He serves as chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and sits on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace steering committee. He earned his Ph.D. at MIT and taught philosophy at Gettysburg College before entering the world of philanthropy. An accomplished writer, his articles have appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, Social Theory and Practice, and other publications.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: As President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation you were deeply involved with the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Katrina and the attempts to use Katrina as an opportunity to kickstart social innovation. Looking back, how successful do you think efforts were to use the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to create social change?
Albert: I came to New Orleans at the beginning of 2009, three years after New Orleanians had cleared their streets of rubble and buried and mourned their dead. It was also two years after the Greater New Orleans Foundation had launched its very successful Community Revitalization Fund that helped rehabilitate and construct affordable housing for 9,500 families. Certainly some good things have happened under my watch–at least I hope other people will judge this to be true–but it’s worth remembering the substantial good that came before, thanks to the sacrifices of so many.
The term “social change” is as slippery as a fresh Louisiana oyster. How do we measure it? One model that springs immediately to mind is the New Testament story of the sheep and the goats in which God says to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed … ; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ You may recall that God had some very choice words for those on his left.
There are many good people in New Orleans who understand and abide by these words. These people–and there are many–continue to be the hope of our city. As individuals or through their foundations, they give generously to help the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.
We need to remember also that what drew the attention of the world to New Orleans was not a powerful hurricane–powerful storms are by now a commonplace. What drew their attention was the fact that so many people needed to be rescued from their rooftops. What shocked the world were the appalling disparities between New Orleans’s poor, largely black, population and those who were better off. If you judge social change in these terms, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, metaphorically at least, many New Orleanians are still running for their attics. While there has been progress in some domains, we have not adequately addressed the cultural, structural, and spiritual causes of these disparities.
And before we start pointing fingers at New Orleans, let’s not forget that these same kinds of disparities exist in every metropolitan area in the United States.
Nell: On the White Courtesy Telephone blog you sometimes take philanthropy to task (for being too theoretical, for chasing shiny objects, etc.). Is there something fundamentally wrong with philanthropy? Does the power imbalance between funder and recipient create a dysfunctional relationship that stands in the way of social change?
Albert: There is nothing fundamentally wrong about philanthropy when understood as generosity, as the giving of time and treasure to help others, as giving for the sake of the common good. On the contrary, philanthropy is hands down our greatest achievement as a species.
As for “organized philanthropy,” “professionalized philanthropy,” the philanthropy practiced by foundations large and small — that’s another matter. The problems with organized philanthropy, in my view, go far beyond power imbalances. Several years ago, I tried to summarize philanthropy’s shortcomings in “Twenty-Five Theses”. I still believe these are essentially accurate.
I’m constantly amazed at what our field marginalizes and what it deems important. There’s currently a good deal of discussion about the differences between strategic and emergent models of philanthropy. Highly compensated consultants will make fortunes helping befuddled foundation CEOs like me sort out the differences. But it’s not the model that will make or break our efforts at social change: it’s us; in most cases, we will be the reason our best models will not work. We simply cannot make good omelets out of bad eggs.
We philanthropoids chase the new model, the new technology, the new structure — the “shiny object,” as you call it — because we’re a deeply insecure tribe, lacking the self-awareness we need to admit to ourselves and others that affecting the dynamics of social change is beyond our powers, and that, as a consequence, we really don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Either that, or we do in fact understand how social change works — at least intuitively — and we fear that a frank discussion of the subject will cost us our jobs. Both of these possibilities constitute what I’ve called “philanthropy in bad faith.” I’m not immune to these criticisms; I too am guilty as charged. If my understanding of the field’s shortcomings is at all accurate, it’s because I embody so many of them. Every morning my next blog post stares at me from the bathroom mirror.
Nell: You have written about your hope that the next generation of philanthropists will make some significant changes to philanthropy. And studies have claimed that Millennial philanthropists will be different (although some disagree). How much do you think Millennial philanthropists will actually change philanthropy and in what ways?
Albert: My generation has left a terrible mess for the Millennials to clean up: a huge gap between the haves and have-nots; unthinkable gender and racial inequality; an insecure world; a despoiled environment; the illusion of democracy in our own country; and much more besides. My great hope is that the Millennials will realize that philanthropy-as-usual simply will not get the job done. We need to discourage them as much as possible from thinking and behaving like their predecessors.
If I could give the Millennials one piece of advice it would be this: pay close attention to the frame. While you’re focusing on the content (hunger, homelessness, global warming), the frame you’ve internalized — the frame we’ve all internalized — is keeping us from seeing and understanding the larger picture. What happens locally, pretty much everywhere in the world, is shaped by simple rules of human behavior that have over time led to a global economic order that needs to be made transparent. This awareness, I hope, will be the legacy of the Millennials and their successors.
Nell: One of the areas that the Greater New Orleans Foundation funds is capacity building. Is it possible to convince a critical mass of funders to start investing in nonprofit capacity building?
It’s certainly worth a try, isn’t it? Short of launching a capacity building program, as we did, grantmakers can start by providing general operating support whenever possible (although multi-year support is better), providing grants for capacity building, providing capital for operating reserves, and awarding larger grants. Foundations can teach their program officers to look and listen for cues that a nonprofit needs special assistance. There are so many ways in to the capacity building “space,” ways that cost so very little. The payoffs, in our experience, are substantial.
Photo Credit: Greater New Orleans Foundation
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Ann Goggins Gregory, Chief Operating Officer at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she oversees programs, the social enterprise called the ReStore, HR and Operations.
Previously, Ann was a Senior Director at the Bridgespan Group, where she led the organization’s work on organizational learning; managed consulting engagements with human services, education, and youth-serving nonprofits; and spearheaded research efforts on a variety of nonprofit management topics. She remains a Senior Advisor to Bridgespan on issues related to the starvation cycle.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You and your colleague Don Howard are in some ways the catalysts behind the Overhead Myth campaign because of your seminal article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2009. How far have we come since that article? How prevalent is the starvation cycle today and what can we do to move beyond it?
Ann: “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” names what I consider to be a fundamental truth: “Organizations that build robust infrastructure…are more likely to succeed than those that do not. This is not news, and nonprofits are no exception to the rule.” For decades, researchers and practitioners have argued that low overhead does not equate with efficiency and efficiency, in turn, does not equate with effectiveness.
We are seeing (productive) focus and movement now versus five or ten years ago, yet that starvation cycle is still an entrenched issue. On a positive note, the Overhead Myth campaign has been critical in communicating with donors directly and empowering nonprofits to communicate with “back up.” Though I have mixed feelings about some of the messages in Dan Pallotta’s video, it elevated paradoxes of how costs are treated in the social sector. We’ve also seen targeted efforts to help funders and nonprofits address cost-related issues together. Even the federal government is trying to shift practice: the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance requiring that nonprofits receiving federal funding receive a minimum of 10% indirect rate, or they can negotiate a rate. If this guidance is followed, it will be a major policy win.
Yet we have a long way to go. Talking about terminology isn’t scintillating, but it’s critical to breaking the starvation cycle. Overhead costs aren’t the same as indirect, yet we conflate them. General operating support and capacity building—often seen as ways to help break the cycle—aren’t the same thing. Many nonprofits do not know the full costs associated with their programs, and many funders don’t understand nonprofit finance. Bridging the skill gap on both sides of the equation is critical.
Moreover, a single figure like the overhead rate is appealing because it makes comparison easy. Until nonprofits have better ways to communicate outcomes, we will continue to battle against the simplicity of a ratio. Finally, power dynamics between funders and nonprofits inhibit change; candidly, there aren’t strong forces pushing on philanthropy and government to change their practice. In the absence of such change, nonprofits are understandably worried about shifting their stance on overhead if their competitors do not (I do think there are steps that any nonprofit can take, though).
Nell: Part of what keeps the starvation cycle alive is that it is being fed, as you so clearly point out in your SSIR article, by both funders and nonprofit leaders. One of the things you were working on at Bridgespan was the Real Talk About Real Costs series of nonprofit leader and funder conversations. How effective was it to bring nonprofits and funders together to talk about these issues? And is that potential solution to the starvation cycle scalable?
Ann: Real Talk about Real Costs, sponsored by the Donors Forum with Bridgespan as a partner, brought together 300 leaders from nonprofits and philanthropy to wrestle with what good outcomes really cost. The event built upon a nine-month Community of Practice focused on “tackling the overhead challenge.” This interview has more about how Donors Forum decided to put the cost issue front and center. Another such effort is slated to begin in California in 2015.
In watching funder-nonprofit “mixed company” interactions, I was struck by how many funders expressed dissatisfaction with the grant-making status quo, yet frustrated that foundation trustees did not feel the same way. And I noticed how uncomfortable both funders and nonprofits were about having a tough conversation about full costs. At the event, we gave participants a role-reversal case study where a fictitious grantee and grant-maker had to discuss the terms of a grant; nonprofit attendees acted the part of the program officer and vice versa. In feedback surveys, the majority of comments focused on the discomfort and lack of knowledge they felt in talking about costs. Finding more ways for nonprofits and funders to wrestle with cost issues together would go a long way to building empathy and skills.
I don’t see a single scalable solution, but what feels most scalable as a starting point is a fundamentally different approach to communicating about costs: on websites, in collateral, and in conversations between nonprofit and funder. I believe that most funders can still make restricted grants without making unrealistic demands about how the funds are spent. For instance, what if funders asked “what type of capacity will you need to deliver on this grant?” vs. “what is the overhead for this project?” What if funders moved away from prescribed budget templates that don’t align with how nonprofits think about their resources? Even these seemingly small steps would go a long way to empowering nonprofits to communicate differently. Below I share a few specific ways I think nonprofits can help break the cycle.
Nell: The starvation cycle is just one example of the many ways we hold the nonprofit sector to a higher standard than we do the for-profit sector (costs for R&D, marketing, infrastructure, technology are taken as a given in the business world). Why does that discrepancy exist and how do we overcome it?
Ann: Overhead in the for-profit world—sales, general and administrative costs as a percentage of total sales—is 25% across all industries and 34% for service industries. The cruel irony of holding nonprofits to a much tougher standard is that donors often say that they do this because nonprofits ought to “run more efficiently, like a business.” Most people don’t know the overhead of businesses because profitability matters more.
Unlike businesses, nonprofits can’t report results in a single figure that makes apples-to-apples comparisons easy. One way to overcome this challenge is to move toward highlighting outcomes. I don’t mean standardizing outcomes (although efforts like Perform Well are very powerful), and I don’t mean doing away with financial indicators entirely. I mean moving from touting our overhead to sharing our program results. In an ideal world, nonprofits would be able to share not only their outcomes but also the costs associated with producing them.
I know this doesn’t happen overnight. Starting immediately, I would love to see more funders speak out in support of—and actually fund—these investments. And nonprofits have a role to play in shifting the conversation: by sharing for-profit overhead as a way to challenge assumptions; by taking down the overhead pie chart and other “we’re lean!” messaging from websites; and using systems like the Guidestar Exchange to share our goals and strategies in our own words.
Nell: You recently left the consulting/thought leader side of the sector (as a senior director at The Bridgespan Group) to work in the nonprofit trenches as COO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. What are you learning as you work to turn theory about overcoming the starvation cycle into action inside a nonprofit organization?
Ann: I am learning that it is doable and reminded that it is hard. In the last few months, we have taken down the efficiency statement on our website (“87 cents of every dollar goes to helping families…”) and will soon to replace it with statements of outcomes we see for Habitat homeowners. We walked away from a $100K+ funding opportunity because the grant would have allowed a maximum of 10% for indirect costs, and we estimated that the compliance costs alone would have been 2-3 times that. The grant’s focus aligned well with a nascent program, so it was a tough decision.
Under our finance team’s leadership, we also implemented a time tracking system. We now have better information on how people spend their time and can compare actual versus what was allocated in the budget. We learned, for instance, that in the last quarter we spent more time on G&A than we’d projected. This makes sense: this summer a small team of board and staff, including myself, negotiated a lease for a new office space, then transitioned to managing the move out- and move-in process. I don’t think anyone would say that was a waste of time; finding a space that met our budget in the San Francisco real estate market has been a challenging but important task.
Next on the list is an internal conversation about Charity Navigator and the way we promote our four-star rating on our website. It will be a healthy debate. On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on accountability and transparency, and I’d be naïve if I thought we hadn’t received donations from donors who use these ratings. On the other hand, I have deep reservations about Charity Navigator’s financial health methodology, particularly in that it penalizes nonprofits with higher overhead regardless of context. If we invest to support our growth—spending time finding a new office in a tough market, or upgrading our HR systems to find and retrain the best staff—we ought not to feel embarrassed about that, nor be penalized for it.
I am fortunate to work with a board and staff who are open to these changes and debates. My hope is that our experiences can serve to keep my perspective about the starvation cycle grounded and productive.
Photo Credit: Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco
A couple of board members approached her to ask what she needed to continue to move forward. They wanted her to be blunt about the obstacles in her way. She was equally honest, telling them she could really benefit from leadership coaching on how to manage a staff, grow an organization, continue to develop the board, build financial sustainability. The board didn’t bat an eye. They told her to figure out how much it would cost so they could foot the bill.
How amazing is that?
A group of board members not only recognized that their executive director might have challenges that she wasn’t expressing, but also listened to those challenges and invested in their solutions. What a dream scenario!
How great would it be if more board members, and even some donors, did that?
There is some hope. A small subset of funders are recognizing and investing in the tremendous need for leadership development in the nonprofit sector.
But a nonprofit leader who is really struggling doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for her board (or donors) to wise up and ask her about the challenges she is facing. So in lieu of a truly enlightened board of directors, here is what you can do to encourage your board (and close donors) to become capacity builders:
Identify a Few Allies
As executive director you probably have at least one or two board members, and perhaps a couple of donors, who are very supportive of what you do. They strongly believe in the work of your organization and your ability to effectively lead that work. Meet with them one-on-one to discuss the challenges you are facing – not in order to vent your frustrations, but rather to explore proactive solutions.
Describe the Capacity Challenges
Really analyze what is holding you and your organization back. Where do you struggle? Why are you hitting your head against the wall? Describe in an honest (but not whining) way the capacity constraints (lack of adequate staff, effective technology, long-term planning, verified program results) and how those issues keep you from delivering more social change.
Quantify the Capacity Building Solutions
Figure out what it would take to clear those hurdles. How much would a Development Director cost? Or an evaluation program? Or a strategic plan? Then break those costs into investable amounts. A single board member or donor may not be able to fully fund a $50,000 evaluation program or a $75,000 Development Director. But if 3-5 board members made their own investments and then identified a couple of other people who could also invest, you would quickly get there. Show your allies how achievable, with their (capacity capital) support, the solution is.
Create Champions in the Cause
But don’t let them off the hook when they write that check. Enlist their help in convincing others inside and outside the organization why you need to invest in capacity building. Have them articulate to others how important this next step is and the potential return on investment to the organization, and the social change you all seek. Create an army of champions who will advocate for your capacity building cause.
The challenges you face as a nonprofit leader are very real. But they won’t get any better unless you become proactive. Find partners among your board and donors to help you remove those obstacles standing in your way.
If you want to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit leaders, click here, and if you want to learn more about raising capacity capital, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign guide.
Photo Credit: Paul Keheler
There is an article in Forbes this month that bothered me. Carrie Rich, co-founder and CEO of The Global Good Fund, argues that more nonprofits should move from a “donor-driven organization” to a “revenue-producing social enterprise.” Instead of “relying on donor funding” more organizations should “create revenue-producing services.” In essence she is encouraging more nonprofits to figure out how to sell their services.
The problem with her argument, though, is that it encourages nonprofits to think one-dimensionally about funding sources instead of developing an overall financial strategy that may or may not include earned income.
Rich’s argument is that earned income, or what she calls “revenue-producing social enterprise” is a more sustainable and impactful way to create social change. She goes on to list all sorts of reasons (10 actually) that revenue generation (or earned income) is better than contributed income. These reasons include that revenue generation allows nonprofits to be “more responsive to change,” “attract employees who seek growth,” “accelerate growth and impact,” “become more financially sustainable and mature,” and the list goes on.
Rich is echoing a repeated dichotomy in the social change space between traditional, broken nonprofit approaches, and new, more sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship approaches. Her line of argument stems from a distaste for fundraising done badly.
Believe me, I get it. Fundraising is broken. But just because traditional fundraising is flawed doesn’t mean we should eschew all contributed income.Yes there is deep dysfunction within the nonprofit sector – I talk about it all the time. But the answer is not to simply dismiss the sector and all of its trappings (and revenue sources).
Let’s remember that a nonprofit organization is often created to provide a public good that is not offered by the market. In other words, nonprofits are selling what someone is unable to purchase.
Thus, nonprofits typically have two customers:
- Those who benefit from the services (“Clients”), and
- Those who buy the services (“Donors”)
When social change organizations are able to conflate the two – when the client becomes the buyer – a social enterprise is born. And while that is great, it is rarely the case. Therefore, market-based solutions will never provide all the social change we need.
Every social change organization must analyze their overall strategy and develop a financial model that best delivers on that strategy. That financial model may have earned income elements, contributed income (individual, corporate and foundation grants) elements, government funding or, most likely, some combination of all of these. And every nonprofit should at least analyze whether earned income is right for their financial model. But social enterprise will never be right for all nonprofits, or even a majority of them.
Instead of completely throwing out “traditional charity models,” let’s make them better. Rich argues that one of the many reasons earned income is better is that it allows organizations to “afford the best technologies to help them succeed.” If social change organizations need more capital investments for technology (which they definitely do) then let’s make capacity capital ubiquitous in the sector. But let’s not erroneously assume that more earned income equates to more capital investment.
Let’s move past these social enterprise vs. charity debates and instead focus on helping social change organizations develop smart, sustainable financial engines that include the right revenue (and capital) mix.
Photo Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Kathleen Enright, founding president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a diverse community of more than 450 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results.
Prior to GEO, Kathleen was at BoardSource, where she was responsible for building public awareness of the importance of strong nonprofit boards. Prior to joining BoardSource, Kathleen was a project manager for the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation where she directed a Ford Foundation funded project to encourage collaboration between nonprofits and local governments.
Kathleen speaks and writes regularly on issues of nonprofit and grantmaker effectiveness at national and regional gatherings of executives and trustees and in various publications including Investing in Leadership: Inspiration and Ideas from Philanthropy’s Latest Frontier and Funding Effectiveness: Lessons in Building Nonprofit Capacity. She is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: GEO has been around for 15 years working to “advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to achieve better results.” In that time, has the work gotten harder or easier? Is the foundation community more effectively contributing to nonprofit results?
Kathleen: We have some new data on that exact question. GEO’s fourth national study of staffed grantmaking organizations is due out next month. The headline is that while the field is moving in the right direction on many fronts, we still have a long way to go.
We appear to have reached a “tipping point” on a few issues. At long last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US report seeking and using grantee feedback to inform their work. As good practices like this one become more common — even expected — it’ll become harder and harder for holdouts to justify the status quo. Similarly, on general operating support — one practice that has stubbornly held steady for years — we’re finally seeing movement in the right direction.
The reality is that there’s a lot of work still to be done. In our last survey we learned that during the economic downturn — when nonprofits needed flexible, reliable, long-term dollars the most — many foundations backpedaled on things like funding multiyear grants. That the new survey shows we’re back to pre-recession levels is a positive step, but we have a long way to go until we’re able to flip the default setting in philanthropy. Achieving this goal means making it so that multi-year, general operating support is the assumption and program officers and grantees need to make a specific case for why a program-restricted or short-term grant makes sense.
Nell: According to the most recent State of the Sector Survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 41% of nonprofit leaders cite long-term financial stability as a top challenge, yet only 9% of them feel they can have an open conversation with funders about operating reserves. How do we bridge that gap and make it easier for nonprofit leaders and funders to talk openly about and invest effectively in financial stability? Do you think foundations’ appetites for capacity investments are growing, or waning, and how do we make capacity investing more appealing to funders?
Kathleen: Our field study will expand on this point as well, but the perception gap is huge. Funders declare themselves willing to talk about financial health, but grantees still don’t feel safe to do so. My takeaway here is that foundations need to do much more to signal to grantees that they are open to having such a discussion. Closing this perception gap won’t happen in one go. We need to find ways to normalize these conversations, including the questions or fears a grantee might have. We need to be conscious that sometimes our funding practices act as nonverbal cues that close down conversations about financial stability. It’s hard to believe a funder is earnest about discussing financial health if they aren’t already doing the basics, like offering flexible, long-term support. Ensuring that nonprofits feel empowered to have these conversations will only happen through word and deed.
It really comes down to a fundamental shift in how many funders think about nonprofits. When a funder thinks about grantees as merely suppliers who offer what amounts to an appealing product that leads to a bit of tunnel vision. However, when grantees are seen as crucial actors in efforts to create lasting change on the complex social challenges a funder cares about, they are much more likely to take a broader, long-term perspective.
In terms of the appetite for capacity investments, we held a series of “listening sessions” with nonprofit leaders last year to learn more about their experiences with capacity-building. Most staffed foundations in the US do provide some sort of capacity building support, so some of what we wanted to uncover is how to make the most of those investments. Based on those sessions and 15 years of experience on this question, we believe that by taking an approach that is contextual (tailored to the unique needs of the grantee), continuous (taking the long view), and collective (considering how the parts add up), grantmakers will be well positioned to provide capacity building support in ways that effectively support nonprofits to achieve lasting impact.
Nell: In recent years there have been studies and efforts aimed at getting more donors to channel donations to nonprofits that can prove results. How optimistic are you that we can change donor, particularly foundation, behavior toward funding based on results? And what will it take to get there?
Kathleen: It’s reasonable for foundations to want to make sure their funding leads to impact. And with technology making data collection easier, it’s natural that there’s a lot of buzz in the field about evidence and results. But it’s complicated terrain.
Not only do we lack a shared agreement on what proof or evidence means, most grantmakers and their nonprofit partners are focused on complex social problems with no easy answers. There was an excellent article in Forbes on the limitations of what the authors call “moneyball philanthropy,” where too great on an emphasis is placed on a clear or measurable cause and effect between the work and the impact. The bottom line is that if foundations only fund those things with “proven” results, they’ll miss opportunities to support important work on systems that has the potential to be game-changing.
Job number one in our view is to understand what’s working, what’s not and how we can continuously learn and improve. It often means taking risks and understanding what went wrong. The reality is that many nonprofits are ill-equipped to build the appropriate information infrastructure or conduct evaluations because they haven’t received the financial support to enable them to build that capacity.
So before we move too far in the direction of funding only based on results, grantmakers must consider how we can help grantees build their sophistication around evaluation. It’s a first step — and an incredibly powerful one — to help nonprofits grow their impact. This may mean providing flexible funding or tailored funding to support the development of evaluation plans, staff training or paying for third party evaluators. GEO members like the Bruner Foundation, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Mile High United Way have worked diligently over many years to strengthen nonprofit capacity for evaluation. Their work suggests that such investments often have much farther-reaching positive effects on the organizations they support. We produced a short video on the Hartford Foundation’s work to build grantee evaluation capacity (which actually draws from the Bruner Foundation’s impressive body of work) that you can find here.
Nell: Foundation money only accounts for about 2% of all the money flowing to the nonprofit sector, which is a fairly small piece of the funding pie. Is there a role, and if so what is it, for foundation leaders to lead other larger sources of funding in the sector (government, individual) toward more effective giving?
Kathleen: Institutional philanthropy has incredible insights and wisdom that could be enormously helpful to help steer other dollars intended for the public good. One of our newest board members, Peter Long, President and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, is an advocate for creating more “open source philanthropy”. His idea is that, as a field, we’ll be able to make faster progress if we’re generous with our thinking. What if every funder interested in improving health outcomes could benefit from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s wealth of knowledge? This is especially important for newcomers, as building this open knowledge base both gives them a place to start from as well as gives them an opportunity to build our collective knowledge. Being “experts” in philanthropy is a role that foundations can — and should! — embrace.
Another way foundations can show leadership is by pooling resources to address complex issues. The Washington Families Fund is an example of just how powerful it is when foundations come together and work with public entities. As a public-private partnership, the Fund is capitalizing on the resources of foundations — including GEO members like the Campion Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medina Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Seattle Foundation — coupled with the on-the-ground capacity of government entities like the Washington State Department of Commerce to reduce homelessness in their region by 50 percent by 2020. Examples like these demonstrate just how powerful public-private partnerships can be.
Photo Credit: GEO
My hope in creating the growing library of Social Velocity videos is that nonprofit leaders will use the topics as a jumping off point for honest discussions with boards and donors. It can often be intimidating for a nonprofit leader to raise a controversial question like:
- “Should all board members be required to fundraise?”
- “Should we stop worrying about program vs. overhead expenses?”
- “How do we get our board more engaged?“
A nonprofit leader could set aside 30 minutes in a board meeting agenda for a discussion kicked off by a 2-minute video. Play a video, and then simply ask “What do you think?” Or you could show a video to a donor when you meet and ask for their opinion.
Some will disagree vehemently with what I have to say, but others might agree, or at least be open to thinking in new ways. An interesting, thought-provoking conversation might ensue. From that discussion you might start to plant seeds for change.
So to add to the library of conversation starters, today I offer this video on What Nonprofits Really Need From Their Donors. And if you want to see other videos in the series go to the Social Velocity YouTube channel. Good luck!
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