One of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”
While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.
We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.
When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:
What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.
How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.
Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.
I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.
If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar
Today I am continuing my on-going blog series on the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative. The Performance Imperative was released last year as a north star for the nonprofit sector by the Leap Ambassadors, of which I am a member. Pillar 4, about sustainable financing, is obviously my favorite since I am arguably obsessed with nonprofit financial sustainability.
You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management, and Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs.
I believe it is absolutely critical that a high-performing nonprofit organization have a smart strategy for attracting and employing money effectively. Because without a sustainable financial model there is nothing else — no mission, no performance, no social change.
You can download the detailed Performance Imperative here, but here are the highlights of Pillar 4: Financial Health and Sustainability. In a nonprofit that exhibits financial health and sustainability, the board and staff:
- Take charge of their organization’s financial destiny. They articulate the value they deliver and develop overall financing strategies, tightly aligned with their mission, to support and sustain it.
- Establish strong systems for financial stewardship and accountability throughout their organization.
- Build and participate in budget processes that are oriented toward achieving results.
- Share their financial results transparently with key stakeholders regularly.
- Treat fund development as a strategic function that requires focus, management, capital, and specialized skill sets.
- Operate with margins that allow them to build their balance sheet.
- Understand their organization’s cost structure.
- Use financial models to make clear and transparent the organization’s financial condition and predict how it will end the year.
In other words, high performing nonprofit leaders understand, embrace and use money as a tool to achieve social change. They create a robust financial model that articulates true costs and creates a strategy to attract enough and the right kinds of money, engage board and staff in making that model a reality, is transparent with outsiders about the model, and above all uses money strategically. In short, a high-performing nonprofit finances, instead of fundraises for, the social change they want to create.
I want to be very clear, however, that financial sustainability does not mean, as some people sometimes confuse it, that a nonprofit moves away from philanthropy and toward earned income, which is somehow more sustainable. This is a fallacy in thinking that nonprofits can somehow be market-driven. Because nonprofits exist to remedy a disequilibrium in the market economy they will always have to be at least somewhat subsidized, by government, philanthropy, or both. Therefore, financial sustainability in the nonprofit world means creating and executing on an overall financial strategy that allows a nonprofit to effectively deliver on outcomes.
FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), a nonprofit that works with teens in the juvenile justice system to break the cycle of violence, crime, and incarceration, is an example of Pillar 4.
Here is their story, as Christa Gannon, FLY’s Chief Executive Officer & Founder explained it to me:
Three years ago we were extremely fortunate to be a grantee of Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s PropelNext initiative to help organizations prepare for growth and scale. At the same time as a grantee of our local and sophisticated foundation funder Tipping Point we participated in a comprehensive training on ensuring that our financial and development practices were aligned and consistent with best practices.
Through these two initiatives we had the privilege of learning a great deal and working with outstanding consultants who created the space for us to step back and productively ask ourselves what was working and what could work better for us as we grew. We brought these findings to our board, worked with the consultants to update and refine our practices, created new dashboards, and brought consultants to board meetings and committee meetings to help us elevate our line of sight and institute new ways of being.
We began these efforts with the help of a long-time employee who helped lead our financial efforts for over 7 years (now going on 10 years!). We elevated his role (creating a position for a Director of Finance and Operations), had our consultants provide some coaching and guidance and invested in his capacity to learn, grow, and lead. Additionally, during this time we brought on a new COO with a great deal of financial acumen who helped this process a great deal. It allowed me to take a critical step back from finance to allow new approaches to take hold and grow.
We revamped our monthly financials, our CEO dashboard, and our dashboard for the board. Additionally we created a new budget-building process which includes a multi-year budget (expense and revenue) forecast and straw budgets. We also changed our internal practices for how we managed temporarily restricted net assets. In previous years when we received grants/gifts off fiscal year cycle (and many are) we would hold those funds and spend them down in the latter half of their cycle, which often meant the grants spanned two fiscal years. This created a great deal of extra work and challenges for our team. We modified this process, which has resulted in an increase in net unrestricted assets available to us as we grow and scale.
One challenge we’ve realized in this process is that we have been so extremely cost conscious and frugal that we have unintentionally built a financial model that relies on staffing structures that cannot be maintained as we grow and scale while ensuring the highest quality services that our clients and community deserve.
As these challenges became apparent to us, we have taken critical steps such as reducing case-load ratios for line staff, adding critical positions to support talent recruitment and development, finance, fundraising, evaluation and learning, etc.. To support this capacity building we are investing in our fundraising ability, engaging our board even more in their role to help garner financial resources, and allocating more of my time to strategy, fundraising, and board development.
We have always felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to help steward the generosity and strategic thinking of our investors, foundation and corporate supporters, and government partners into the world. As our systems for how we tackle financial management have changed and improved that attitude of gratitude has remained.
What has changed for us, however, is a desire and intention to simplify how we think about and manage our funds such that our processes are clear, straight forward, and understandable by all involved without undue explanation or re-education in meeting after meeting (both board and staff). Our efforts to be cost-conscious, thoughtful, and prudent inadvertently led to systems and processes that made our work more complicated and time consuming than it needed to be. In part this reflected my mindset and efforts as founder. It required me to let go and not white-knuckle our financial approach; trust the team, systems, and consultants; and realize that the approach that got us to this point in the organization’s history would not be the best approach to get us to the next milestone.
We are very mindful that the work we do and the population of young people we serve is not a top priority for many philanthropists. As a result, we take every investment very seriously and are very clear that it means a kid gets a chance to become so much more than their past mistakes.
For us, financial investments are life changing for our clients. We may be the only chance they get, so we want to ensure we deploy each resource to its highest and best use.
Photo Credit: FLY
Lest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.
The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.
The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.
There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).
So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.
But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:
- “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.
- “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.
- “Reward Innovation”
The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.
- “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.
- “Invest in Community Leaders”
The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?
Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.
Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.
Photo Credit: Adrian
May offered some interesting insights into the world of social change. From a plea by nonprofit infrastructure groups for more funding, to some criticisms of philanthropy’s unwillingness to invest in rural economies or provide a realistic runway to nonprofits, to digital’s impact on journalism, to the evolving sharing economy, to a call for more nonprofit board resignations, to a way to break the nonprofit starvation cycle, there was a lot to read.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in May. But you can always follow me on Twitter (@nedgington) for a longer list.
And if you are interested in past months’ 10 Great Reads lists, go here.
- Perhaps the biggest news of the month was the letter written by 22 groups, which provide support to the entire sector (like the National Council of Nonprofits, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and GuideStar), asking foundations to provide more funding for the nonprofit ecosystem. GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold (here) and National Council of Nonprofits CEO Tim Delaney (here and here) explain why this issue is so important. But Pablo Eisenberg disagrees.
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Executive Director Aaron Dorfman takes philanthropy to task for not investing enough in rural communities, where change is needed most. As he puts it: “The philanthropic sector continues to neglect rural communities. A changing national economy, entrenched racial inequity and foundations’ reliance on a strict interpretation of strategic philanthropy has meant philanthropic resources for rural communities are few and far between, just when the opportunities for change are most urgent. This has to change if we want to see progress on the issues we all care about.”
- Piling on to the criticism of philanthropy, Laurie Michaels and Maya Winkelstein from Open Road Alliance, encourage their fellow philanthropists to help nonprofits deal with risk and disruption. As they put it: “Most grant budgets are designed with zero cushion even when the nonprofit is working in tough conditions that can turn the simplest obstacle into an unmanageable issue…any unexpected but inevitable change or deviation in the budget is potentially catastrophic. The nonprofit’s inability to fluidly adapt the budget to manage these roadblocks, however minor, can jeopardize even the largest of undertakings…Risks alone are threatening, but when the concept of risk goes unacknowledged, undiscussed, and unaddressed, those risks are more likely to become realities. All this adds up to lower impact, turning manageable events into liabilities.”
- Maybe female philanthropists can turn the tide. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released some fascinating new research about how women are changing philanthropy. And Megan O’Neil, writing in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains how nonprofits must adapt in order to tap into this growing philanthropic force.
- Journalism is changing rapidly, due in part to the growth of digital. Research shows that different social media platforms connect people to news in different ways, and long-form journalism is seeing a resurgence thanks to mobile.
- And it’s not just journalism that digital is changing. The Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offers 16 Must-Know Stats About Online Fundraising and Social Media and 5 Ways the Internet of Things Will Transform Fundraising.
- The growth of the “sharing economy”, where consumers rent or borrow goods and services rather than buy them, has huge implications for the social change sector. Pew Research outlines 8 key findings about how Americans relate to the sharing economy and interviews NYU professor Arun Sundararajan about how the sharing economy is evolving.
- Nonprofit Law blogger Gene Takagi pulls no punches in offering 12 Reasons Why You Should Gracefully Resign from a Nonprofit Board. Yes, yes, yes, to more accountability, honest conversations, and clear expectations on nonprofit boards.
- Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jeri Eckhart-Queenan, Michael Etzel, and Sridhar Prasad discuss the findings of a new Bridgespan Group study that analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations. What they found, not surprisingly, is that indirect rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector). The authors argue that if more nonprofits understand and report their true costs, nonprofits could break the starvation cycle: “It’s clear that philanthropy’s prevailing 15 percent indirect cost reimbursement policy does not take into account the wide variation in costs from segment to segment. Doing so would have far-reaching effects on philanthropy and grantees. If nonprofits committed to understanding their true cost of operations and funders shifted to paying grantees what it takes to get the job done, the starvation cycle would end.”
- A nonprofit dashboard is a good way to monitor and report on a nonprofit’s effectiveness and sustainability over time. Hilda Polanco, CEO of FMA, explains how to create a great one.
Photo Credit: Omarfaruquepro
Memorial Day is almost here, and in my mind that means so is the beginning of summer. While work surely carries on over the summer months, for many of us there tends to be more space to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with your core.
But you have to make time for it.
Sometimes nonprofit leaders will tell me that they love the slower pace of summer because it means they can catch up on their to do list, move paperwork off their desk, make progress on their filing, get more organized.
Let me tell you right now that your to do list will never be complete, so instead, make better use of the space summer provides by taking a big step back and getting inspired for the work ahead.
Here are some tasks I suggest you put at the top of your to do list this summer:
Before you can do anything else, you need to step out of the rat race for a bit and listen to the silence. There you can reconnect with your core, ponder some bigger questions, figure out what you are meant to do. Maybe you need to take a trip away from your normal routine and the many demands on your time. Maybe you need to find a space to just be. Maybe you need to find activities that are outside of your job, because remember that you are so much more than the leader of a nonprofit organization. However and wherever you do it, you have to make some time to journey inside.
Find Inspiration Again
I know as a nonprofit leader you are (or at least once were) inspired by the work you do. Passion and commitment to mission are often what define a social change leader. But that source of inspiration is not endless. And the day-to-day drudgery of trying to move mountains can wear you down and make that light grow dim. When that happens you have to seek inspiration elsewhere. The world we live in is endlessly inspiring, so when you are feeling that your vision is impossibly narrow, get outside your walls. We must give ourselves permission to reconnect with what makes us human, not machine. But if you simply cannot figure out what will inspire you, go back to the first item and get quiet enough, long enough to figure it out.
Ask Some Big Questions
Once you have found quiet and inspiration you will then have the capacity to figure out what’s next. Nonprofit leaders are so busy with the day-to-day that they often find themselves disconnected from the big picture. Why are you doing this work? What are your ultimate goals? Who is your target audience? Take advantage of the mental space summer provides to ask yourself and your board some of the big questions that can help you recommit to the work and more easily attract the other people and resources necessary for the next chapter.
Figure Out What’s In Your Way
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you are so accustomed to scraping by without the necessary tools, staff, systems to do your job that you rarely take a big step back and ask, “What do we really need to accomplish our goals?” Take some time to figure out the things that drive you and your staff crazy. What are the hurdles standing in your way of doing more? An ineffective board? A lack of strategy? Not enough money? The wrong technology? Not enough staff? Create a list of what you really need to do the work, put it in front of your board and ask them to help put together a capacity building plan.
Man, are social change leaders hard on themselves. Apparently it’s not enough to work on saving the world, but you have to continually berate yourself for not doing it quickly enough, or well enough. So get over it. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Give yourself a break and you will find that without a bully constantly breathing down your neck you can accomplish much more. Take that knowledge with you into the fall, and you may just be transformed.
This summer, step outside the routine and commit to a real break that allows you the physical, mental and spiritual space that you as a social change leader so desperately need. Happy Summer!
Photo Credit: Unsplash
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Isaac Castillo, Director of Outcomes, Assessment, and Learning at Venture Philanthropy Partners, where he leads VPP’s approach to data collection, data reporting, and outcome measurement.
Prior to coming to VPP, Isaac served as the Deputy Director for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI). At DCPNI, Isaac led efforts to improve outcomes in the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Ward 7 of the District of Columbia through the strategic coordination of programmatic solutions and research-based strategies. Prior to his time at DCPNI, Isaac served as a Senior Research Scientist at Child Trends where he worked with nonprofits throughout the United States on the development and modification of performance management systems and evaluation designs. In addition, Isaac was also the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) where he led the organization’s evaluation and performance management work.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: You have spent your career using data to improve the performance of the nonprofits for which you worked. Why do you think performance management is so important for nonprofits? Do you think all nonprofits should pursue performance management? When does it make sense and when doesn’t it?
Isaac: I believe that every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management because they owe it to the clients they serve. Most nonprofits will assume that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives, but in the vast majority of cases they are just guessing. Using some form of performance management will allow every nonprofit organization to confirm this thinking and to identify areas that can and should be improved so that the next cohort of participants can get better services than the last.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges preventing a nonprofit from implementing some form of performance management isn’t a lack of resources, expertise, or time. It is fear. The fear that they will find out that their work isn’t having a positive effect. This fear is what nonprofit leaders need to overcome, not for the benefit of themselves or their organization, but because they owe it to the clients they serve today and the clients they will serve in the future. I believe that every nonprofit should strive to serve tomorrow’s clients better than today’s clients, and one of the only ways to ensure that this happens is the sustained use of performance management.
The type of performance management that each nonprofit should pursue should vary by the size and scope of their work. At a minimum, small nonprofits should be tracking basic demographic and attendance information on their participants, and hopefully at least one meaningful output or outcome. Whether this occurs in a computerized system or in a spiral paper notebook is up to the nonprofit. But it doesn’t have to be costly, and it doesn’t take expertise. It only takes the will and desire to improve as a nonprofit.
Nell: In the nonprofits in which you’ve worked how have you been able to secure resources to fund performance management? What is the case you and your colleagues have made to funders and what do you think it will take to get more funders investing in performance management?
Isaac: Raising funding for performance management work usually takes a mix of several different strategies and approaches for potential and existing funders.
First, I strongly encourage nonprofits to include some percentage (1 to 5 percent – possibly more) of funding in each grant submission or proposal dedicated to supporting performance management and outcome measurement work. By placing this small percentage into each proposal, a nonprofit can begin to raise funds for internal evaluation and performance management activities. It may not seem like a lot, but it can add up, and eventually generate enough funds for a half-time or full-time position to support in-house performance management work.
Second, I also strongly encourage nonprofits to engage in regular ‘funder education’ – where a nonprofit proactively meets with their funders to have ongoing conversations about outcome measurement and evaluation. This allows both the funder and the nonprofit to come to agreement on measurement expectations and to ensure that both groups are focused on the same concepts. I often suggest that the first of these types of meetings focuses on each group’s definitions of three commonly misunderstood terms: outputs, outcomes, and impact.
Finally, I would recommend that the nonprofit and funder have an honest discussion regarding expectations of results and the funding necessary to support the related evaluation work. If a funder is expecting an random control trial (RCT) to be completed to determine ‘impact,’ then the nonprofit should be willing to push the funder to support a large investment to pay for a high quality evaluation. If the funder is only willing to support a small amount for outcome measurement, then the nonprofit should clearly articulate what is possible.
Nell: Ken Berger and Caroline Fiennes recently argued that we may have gone too far by asking nonprofits to produce research about their own outcomes. What’s your response to that argument?
Isaac: I fully support Ken and Caroline in their argument that most nonprofits should stay away from trying to produce impact research. The desire for ‘impact’ is something that has been (and continues to be) pushed unfairly (and without financial support) by the funding community.
I honestly think a lot of confusion in this space comes from inconsistent use and understanding of the term ‘impact’. The term ‘impact’ has a precise definition among researchers but is often used in a much broader context among funders, nonprofits, and the general public. In the research and evaluation world, impact is used to describe the effectiveness of a program while eliminating as many potential confounding factors as possible. That is why the use of random control trials (RCTs) is usually the cornerstone of impact research – RCTs are the easiest way to control for and eliminate confounding factors.
When most non-researchers use the term ‘impact’ however, they are usually just asking if the program or organization works and if it is making a difference for its intended service population. That is a much lower bar to set, and yet it is a critical distinction in this discussion. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ as a researcher, you will need a large amount of resources and expertise to determine ‘impact,’ which usually means completing one or more formal evaluations. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ in the more general sense and less strict way, then pursuing some form of performance management system will allow a nonprofit to determine if their efforts have been successful.
I do think every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management to ensure that their work is having a positive effect as a complement to existing research that others have done. Relying only on the use of others’ research does not guarantee that a nonprofit will provide effective services and achieve positive outcomes. This type of research is a like a recipe – it shows what has worked in the past and provides a guide for the nonprofit – but a recipe can still be ruined with poor implementation or planning.
Every nonprofit has an obligation to the people they serve (and not to their funders) to ensure that their programming is having a positive effect (or at the very least not causing harm). Without some form of performance management system in place (even one that just uses paper and pencil), a nonprofit will never know if they have strayed too far from the recipe provided by previous research.
I also think there are a growing number of very sophisticated nonprofits that should be using AND producing research on effective programs. Every year, I see more and more nonprofits that hire talented and unbiased researchers dedicated to internal evaluation and outcome measurement work. These individuals are just as talented and unbiased as their colleagues working in traditional research and evaluation organizations. They can, and should, produce original research that can help inform the nonprofit field. The real challenge comes in nonprofit organizations finding the resources to support the hiring and retention of these individuals. Not every nonprofit will have the resources or capacity to hire one or more of these individuals – but those that do should absolutely be trying to produce original outcome and impact research to provide ‘recipes’ for effective programming that nonprofits with fewer resources can use in the future.
Nell: Your former organization, DC Promise Neighborhoods, is part of the national Promise Neighborhoods Initiative launched by the US Department of Education in 2010 and modeled after the famous Harlem Children’s Zone. How successful has this national replication of a successful local model been? Have you been able to replicate outcomes? And what hurdles, if any, have you and other replication sites found?
Isaac: I think that there has been some initial success among the Promise Neighborhoods. Part of the challenge that all the Promise Neighborhoods face is that the Harlem Children’s Zone did not achieve their success overnight. They have been working in Harlem for decades, so it would be unrealistic to believe that the Promise Neighborhoods would be able to create large scale change in a matter of a few years.
However, there are signs of progress across all of the Promise Neighborhoods. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods started to address a few outcomes with the initial round of funding, and these outcomes varied. Some focused on math and reading proficiency for students, some focused on obtaining medical homes for young children, and others sought to increase the amount of healthy food consumed by residents. In DC, we focused on improving school attendance.
I do think that most of the 12 Promise Neighborhood Implementation grantees were able to make progress on the outcomes they identified as initial focus areas. However, the very nature of the work (creating community level change) doesn’t lend itself to the rapid accomplishment of multiple outcomes in a short period of time. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods had to prioritize certain outcomes for their respective communities, and only several years later are they able to claim success and begin to identify the next set of outcomes to be addressed. So while certain outcomes haven’t necessarily been replicated across all the Promise Neighborhoods, that is due to the differences in priorities and community conditions rather than any problem with the model itself.
Photo Credit: Venture Philanthropy Partners
I am often asked by nonprofit leaders, “Where are the funders who understand what nonprofits really need?” Well, they were at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference (#2016GEO) last week in Minneapolis.
After attending the conference and curating a great group of bloggers who recapped each day (you can read Phil Buchanan’s Day 1 post here, Trista Harris’ Day 2 post here, and Mae Hong’s Day 3 post here), I have lots of my own thoughts percolating and wanted to share my takeaways from a great conference.
GEO is made up of 500+ member foundations that strive to be better philanthropists. They are a thoughtful bunch who seek to invest better in the nonprofits leading social change. As Linda Baker from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation said in her session on Real Costs for Real Outcomes, “We want to have authentic, trusting relationships with our grantees. We want them to have the impact they want to have in the world because that’s the only way we will have impact. It’s critical to our success.”
And that, in essence, is what GEO and its member foundations are all about. They view themselves and their money in service to those nonprofits creating social change. It is a different model than the traditional philanthropic model of nonprofits in supplication to those who hold the purse strings.
And because GEO is on the cutting edge of where philanthropy is and should be going, the conference this week encouraged philanthropists to push their work in some exciting new directions.
Here is what I saw emerging at the conference:
Philanthropy Must Embrace the National Call for Equity
From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to student protests on college campuses, there is a growing demand across the country for equity — a level playing field — for all. And philanthropy has to get better at responding to this in the moment. As Alicia Garza founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement said in her session, “Philanthropy is missing the opportunity to support the very change they are set up to resource.”
And the plenary panelists Peggy Flanagan, Michael McAfee, Doug Stamm and Starsky Wilson would perhaps agree and take it even further, encouraging philanthropist to re-examine the institutional racism inherent in the system. As Michael McAfee said, “I am deeply frustrated at our leadership. At the moment where consciousness about equity is elevated, we shift our priorities, our initiative, we do something to avoid the real work for this moment. We could do something if we could be more courageous.” In this moment where our country is grappling with issues of equity, philanthropy must step up and invest in the hard work of change.
Philanthropy Must Invest in Stronger Organizations
GEO members have always been on the forefront of understanding that it takes strong organizations to create real outcomes, but this conference took that to another level. From a session on unrestricted operating support, to one on supporting fundraising capacity, to one on funding nonprofits’ real costs, GEO was pushing its members, and philanthropy as a whole, to recognize that real change will only come when we support organizations, not just programs.
As one attendee put it, “The project funding paradigm ignores the health of the nonprofit organization in which the project lives.” Yes, absolutely. GEO members are recognizing–and perhaps leading the rest of philanthropy to begin recognizing–that you cannot have effective programs, strong outcomes, and ultimately social change without strong, effective organizations behind them.
And that means that philanthropy can and should lead the way in funding the full costs, including program AND operating costs, along with working capital, fixed assets, reserves, and debt. And at the same time, philanthropy must be a partner with nonprofits in figuring out how to overcome their capacity constraints, like lack of fundraising expertise, lack of management knowledge, and lack of adequate systems and infrastructure.
Philanthropy Must Humble Itself
There is no doubt that GEO members are a humble bunch; they view their role as supportive to the real work of social change, which is different than traditional philanthropy that viewed itself as all knowing. But, perhaps there is still work to be done.
Vu Lee, blogger from Nonprofit With Balls and Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, spoke eloquently of philanthropy’s “trickle down” approach to working with communities of color and encouraged philanthropists to take a better approach: “We have to start changing philanthropy’s perception of what communities of color are. Instead of infantalizing communities of color, recognize that communities have the solution, they are the solution, they are the light.”
And Deepak Bhargava from Center for Community Change spoke of the typical grantor/grantee relationship being similar to a feudal relationship, where the philanthropist is the Lord and the nonprofit is the serf. Instead, he encouraged the social sector to move to a place of “public friendship” between grantor/grantee where both sides are:
- United by a vision of big change
- Accountable to each other
- Thinking of themselves as custodians of organizations leading to a better place
- Engaging in creative, generative conflict
He spoke of this ideal as something that we must “persuade a new generation of philanthropists is possible.”
And perhaps this new philanthropy is possible. GEO certainly seems to think so. So let’s hope that this new vision for philanthropy is embraced by the growing GEO membership and that that membership in turn leads philanthropy as a whole to a more effective way of investing in social change.
As Alicia Garza put it, “Effective grantmaking is moving resources to change agents AS change is happening and getting out of the way.” Amen!
March was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.
Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.
- SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
- Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.
- Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”
- On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.
- But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.
- So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
- And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.
- Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”
- Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.
- And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?
Photo Credit: David McSpadden