I was in a meeting with a group of nonprofit leaders the other day, and one of them voiced an often-heard complaint: “There just aren’t many foundations funding nonprofit capacity building.”
I was instantly reminded of my mother’s admonishment when I would come home from school with complaints about a classroom rule or a frustrating teacher. She would say, “Well, you have a mouth on you, don’t you?” Her quip was intended to encourage me to stop complaining about an inadequacy (however small, in my case) and do something to change it.
While I am the first to bemoan the lack of adequate resources in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders themselves do have some agency to turn the tide and find funding to create more effective and sustainable organizations.
Rather than searching for donors who already express an interest in funding nonprofit capacity (like fundraising staff and systems, program evaluation, technology), it is actually more effective if a nonprofit leader takes it upon herself to create her own capacity funders.
But that requires a process, like this:
Move From Scarcity to Abundance Thinking
You can’t hope to solve your capacity challenges without thinking that they are, in fact, solvable. Many nonprofit leaders are so used to going without that they don’t allow themselves and their staffs to envision what could make things better. So start by brainstorming with your staff the hurdles standing in your way (lack of fundraising staff, inadequate technology, poor long-term planning, disengaged board of directors). Then list the kinds of investments you could make to solve those challenges (new staff positions, new technology and systems, strategic planning, board training) without constraining those potential solutions due to their costs.
Create a Capacity Building Plan
Once you have articulated what is standing in your way and the potential solutions to those hurdles, create a plan for overcoming your nonprofit’s challenges. Because funders often see capacity funding as more “risky” than traditional programming support, a nonprofit leader interested in securing capacity building funds must put together a clear plan for the need, solutions, costs and execution plan for capacity support. Clearly articulate what capacity changes you need to make, why, what those changes will help you accomplish, and over what timeframe.
Create a Capacity Building Budget
Attached to your capacity building plan must be the dollars necessary to implement the plan. What would it cost for a new donor database, a program evaluation, or your other needed capacity investments? Do the research and then create the capital requirements, over an adequate timeframe (2-3 years), for the capacity building needs you have. Now you know how much capacity capital you need to raise.
Brainstorm Capacity Donors
Just as you would with a traditional capital campaign, create a list of potential donors to whom you will pitch this “capacity capital campaign.” This is where the real magic happens — when you turn traditional donors into capacity building donors, perhaps without them even knowing it. A good capacity building donor is someone (a major individual donor, board member, or foundation funder) who is already a donor to your nonprofit and can be convinced (through your excellent persuasion skills) that an investment in your capacity building plan (above) will actually help your organization do even more of the things they love.
Work the Prospect List
Just as you would in a major donor campaign, begin meeting one-on-one with these prospective capacity building donors to share your capacity building plan and articulate how critically important these capacity building investments are to the future of your work together. Make a clear, compelling argument about how greater organizational capacity will help you further the mission that these donors love. Connect greater effectiveness and sustainability directly to more programming, more people served, more outcomes achieved.
Demonstrate the Return on Their Investment
Once you’ve secured them, provide those donors who become capacity builders a regular update on the progress of your capacity building efforts. And I have seen tremendous results that nonprofits can report on these types of capacity investments. One of my clients was able to translate $65,000 worth of capacity building investments in strategic planning, board development, fundraising training and leader coaching into 300% growth in the number of people they reached with their services. Another client turned $350,000 worth of capacity building investments in a new donor database, fundraising staff and training, and donor research into a $1.4 million annual increase in fundraising. If you make enough and the right kind of capacity investments, you can see gains in programming, efficiency, and fundraising effectiveness, so share those wins with those who invested in them. And believe me, your capacity donors will be hungry for more.
Instead of continuing to complain about a lack of capacity funding in the nonprofit sector, let’s fix it. A big part of the solution lies in nonprofit leaders planning for and initiating capacity building conversations with their current donors. And in so doing, nonprofit leaders themselves can change philanthropy for the better.
To learn more about turning your donors into capacity funders, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.
Photo Credit: taxcredits.net
A lot of the conversation in September centered around inequality, philanthropy and data. When do data and philanthropy address inequality and when do they actually reinforce it? And if you add to that discussion about whether donors really care about impact; concern about the distracting, addicting influence of social media; and a call for philanthropists to be more supportive of nonprofit organizations, September was a very interesting month in the world of social change.
- Equity has certainly become the new buzzword in philanthropy. But some are skeptical that philanthropy, as it currently operates, can actually impact it. Writing in The Guardian, Courtney Martin argues that in order to truly achieve equity, philanthropy must fundamentally change: “If we really want to reinvent philanthropy then we are going to have to look at the underlying historic and structural causes of poverty and work to dismantle them and put new systems in their place. It’s also about culture – intentionally creating boundary-bashing friendships, learning to ask better, more generous questions, taking up less space. It’s about what we are willing to acknowledge about the origins of our own wealth and privilege. It’s about reclaiming values that privilege often robs us of: first and foremost, humility. But also trust in the ingenuity and goodness of other people, particularly those without financial wealth.”
- Marjorie Kelly argues that the key to addressing wealth inequality is to return to the old model of worker ownership.
- And speaking of wealth inequality, The New York Times slices and dices U.S. income data over the last couple of decades to understand how inequality varies by state over time.
- According to Cathy O’Neil’s new book, Weapons of Math Destruction, the increased availability of data may actually be worsening wealth inequality. Journalist Aimee Rawlins reviews O’Neil’s book, which paints a very unsettling picture of how data is being used to lengthen prison sentences for people with a family history of crime, raise interest rates on a loan because of the borrower’s zip code, and otherwise reinforce our broken system. But perhaps data can also help address wealth inequality. The Salvation Army and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy have released a new tool for mapping poverty in the U.S. The Human Needs Index (HNI) uses Salvation Army service data from communities across the country to track human need across seven areas. The idea is that with an improved ability to map need, philanthropy can more effectively address that need.
- One of the biggest uses of data in philanthropy is to prove the impact an intervention has, but Matthew Gerken argues that donors aren’t actually interested in impact. New research from Penelope Burk’s Cygnus Applied Research might disagree.
- Andrew Sullivan, the formerly prolific blogger, has had an epiphany about our addiction to social media and writes an amazing long-form piece about our “distraction sickness.” If you worry that our always on culture is leaving something to be desired, read this.
- Last month many were bemoaning philanthropy’s slow and weak response to the devastating summer flooding in Lousiana. Well, it looks like crowdfunding has come to the rescue.
- Long-time funder Elspeth Revere, retired from the MacArthur Foundation, writes a scathing critique of philanthropy’s unwillingness to fund nonprofits effectively and sustainably. As she puts it, “The challenges facing America and, indeed, the world require philanthropy to be as effective as possible. Nonprofit organizations are philanthropy’s partners in addressing these challenges. They have unusual flexibility to take risks and pursue solutions to our most pressing problems. As grant makers, we need to focus our attention and philanthropic resources on building strong leadership and solid, sustainable, and diverse institutions that address the problems and opportunities we care most about.” Amen!
- Jyoti Sharma, president of the Indian water and sanitation nonprofit FORCE, worries that a current focus on social entrepreneurship as the solution to world ills leaves much behind. As she argues, “Do we need to see social entrepreneurship as a “non”-nonprofit? Should we instead promote hybrid models that plan the social change effort with both charity and revenue streams? Should we encourage community entrepreneur networks where charity funds are used to support entrepreneurial efforts from within a beneficiary community that help solve their social problem? Should we advocate for governments and corporates to join hands with nonprofits in planning, delivering, and monitoring welfare services? Equally, should we set ethical and social responsibility standards for entrepreneurships and applaud them for their contribution to society?”
- And finally, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog pulls back the curtain on social media with their “12 Not-So-Great Realities About Nonprofits and Social Media.”
Photo Credit: Ixtlilto
I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.
In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:
- Increasing competition in the space
- A greater demand for results and social change
- An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
- A move to more “networked” approaches
- Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
- And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing
These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.
Since I was on vacation in late July and early August, I’m combining the last two months of great reads into one. The summer of 2016 certainly was a dark one. From continuing police violence against black men, to the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it seemed we were becoming a nation truly divided. And tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana that was largely ignored by the media was heartbreaking to watch.
But, there were also moments of hope. From new research showing that donors are increasingly interested in investing in what works; to philanthropic leaders calling for better partnerships among the public, private and nonprofit sectors; to a way to move the conversation away from “overhead,” the summer months made for some very interesting reads.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in July and August. But let me know in the comments what else I missed while I was out.
- More police violence against black men and the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge arguably broke the country’s heart in July. Ira David Socol traced Americans’ growing fear of “the other” over the past few decades and how it has contributed to where we are today. And Pew Research offered some data about how Americans see the Black Lives Matter movement. While Heinz Endowment President Grant Oliphant called for an end to the violence, in an incredibly moving series of blog posts where he wrote: “We are called — by everything our diverse faiths teach us, by everything we believe about ourselves and our country — to come together as one people, whether we bravely wear the blue or have come to fear those who do. We are called by all that is good in our hearts to see ourselves in all the fallen, all the lives lost, all the families grieving, all the communities struggling to make sense of their brokenness. We are better than this violence. Deep down in our souls we know this. We are so, so much better than this.” And President Obama gave an incredibly moving speech at the funerals for the Dallas police officers, where he encouraged us all to, “With an open heart…worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.”
- But the Black Lives Matter Movement is not just aimed at addressing police violence, the Movement recently released a K-12 education platform designed to fix “a U.S. public-school system…so broken that college is never an option for many young people of color.”
- Amid these deepening divides and a growing wealth inequality, Andy Carroll from Exponent Philanthropy argues that philanthropy can no longer be expected to solve everything. Rather, we need partnerships among the public, business and nonprofit sectors to address our growing challenges.
- And then there was the tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana. Despite the fact that it was the largest natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the media and philanthropy largely ignored the disaster.
- Curtis Klotz from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund offers a phenomenal graphic to use in changing the conversation from “nonprofit overhead” to “core mission support” at your nonprofit.
- And speaking of how nonprofits use money, FASB (the Financial Accounting Standards Board) just released some significant updates to their standards for nonprofit accounting. The changes impact net asset classes, investment returns, expenses, liquidity and availability of resources, and presentation of operating cash flows. Every nonprofit leader should understand these important changes.
- Founder of Family Independence Initiative, Mauricio Lim Miller argues that just as businesses constantly use technology to understand consumer behavior, nonprofits should tap into technology to “let the people they serve dictate what works best.” And Melissa Chadburn might agree with Mauricio’s premise that fighting poverty requires a better understanding of the causes of that poverty given her scathing piece, “How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty.”
- Penelope Burk’s annual fundraising study revealed that more donors are interested in results than ever before. Five years ago, only 16% of donors surveyed gave based on a nonprofit’s results vs. a whopping 41% this year. And research from MobileCause shows that Millennials and GenXers are now the vast majority of the U.S. workforce so if you want to reach them as donors you better be online and mobile.
- Ever the trailblazers in foundations interested in building nonprofit capacity, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation unveiled a fabulous new online Knowledge Center with tons of resources for improving nonprofit organizational effectiveness.
- Jim Schaffer questions how “philanthropic” the digital giants Amazon, Facebook and Google actually are. And Lucy Bernholz warns nonprofits of the dangers of trusting Facebook’s new fundraising offerings.
Photo Credit: radness.com.au
Something really interesting could emerge out of new federal rules about overtime pay. My hope is these new rules force a better conversation between nonprofits and their funders about the real costs of creating social change.
This coming December new Department of Labor rules will go into effect doubling the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476 so that employees (in any sector) who make less than that threshold will be guaranteed overtime pay whenever they work over 40 hours a week.
This new rule has a potentially enormous impact on nonprofits, which (because of their resource-constrained nature) often underpay and overwork their employees. Many have pointed out what a burden this will place on an already strapped nonprofit sector, which often tries to squeeze ever more productivity out of staffs that are already working well over capacity.
As the National Council of Nonprofits argues, nonprofits receiving government contracts signed prior to this new ruling will be forced to deliver the same services at a higher cost:
“Nonprofits with government grants and contracts at any level of government (local, state, tribal, or federal) will now be put in the position of having to comply with new federal requirements that impose new costs not known when those grants and contracts were signed. Unlike businesses that can raise prices, or governments that can raise taxes or curtail public services, nonprofits with government grants and contracts may find themselves contractually bound to maintain services at increased costs that may not be expressly covered by existing written agreements.”
Certainly in the short-term this new overtime rule puts nonprofits in a really difficult position.
But I wonder if in the long-term this new rule could shine a light on the impossible situation in which many funders put nonprofits. With a new ceiling on just how many staff hours a nonprofit can get out of a dollar, I wonder if nonprofit leaders will be forced to stand up and say “Enough is enough!”
Writing in The Atlantic about the potential impact of the overtime rule change on nonprofits, Jonathan Timm seems to think the solution is for nonprofits to simply charge funders more for their services, as he put it:
“If nonprofits truly care about the well-being of their staffs, one easy place to start is simply to write higher salaries into budget proposals. Likewise, government and philanthropic funders could be a lot wiser in how they dole out money: Scarce public-service dollars can impose a state of financial stress on the people who put them to use.”
Ahhhh, if only it were that easy…
But at its core, that is the problem. Nonprofit leaders are wary of calculating and articulating the full costs (including all staff costs) of their programs, and government and philanthropic funders are unaware of and unwilling to pay those full costs. But with growing demands on a nonprofit sector already stretched to the brink, something has to give. Perhaps this new reality will force a conversation about what it really costs to address the social challenges we face, and how we must effectively and adequately support the nonprofit sector we have charged with addressing many of those challenges.
The problem has always been that nonprofit leaders are so committed to the work they do and so empathetic towards their clients that when budgets and staff are tight, those leaders simply work longer and harder and ask their employees to do the same. But with these new rules that can no longer be the case.
Program budgets will have to grow to reflect the real costs of those programs (including all of the countless staff hours previously hidden by free overtime). And funders who want more and more services at lower and lower costs will be forced to reckon with the actual costs of the programs in which they want to invest. These new overtime rules will force the “real costs” conversation that many in the nonprofit sector have been encouraging, where nonprofits calculate and report the full costs (including the actual cost of staff time to deliver the work) of the work that they do.
So instead of being a negative change, perhaps these new overtime rules could actually serve to propel nonprofits and their funders toward calculating, articulating and investing in what it really takes to create social change. Call me an optimist.
Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale
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