In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?
Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.
As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.
It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.
Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?
Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.
Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?
Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.
Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?
Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?
Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.
If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.
From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.
Photo Credit: Youth Villages
Ever since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.
More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.
But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.
Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?
I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.
For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.
And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:
- Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
- Engage a more invested board of directors
- Use money and other limited resources more strategically
- Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
- More effectively manage to outcomes
- Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit
So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.
At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.
Photo Credit: liquidnight
I’ve recently witnessed some behavior from nonprofit leaders that made my jaw drop:
- A board chairman convinced the rest of his board to turn away a donor who wanted to give the nonprofit a significant amount of money to fund organizational capacity (strategic planning, coaching, fundraising training) because he felt the nonprofit already knew how to do the work internally for free.
- An executive director who was really struggling with wrangling her board and developing a strong financial model bravely asked a close foundation donor for advice and support. When the foundation offered to fund some leadership coaching, the executive director rejected the offer for fear her board would think she didn’t know how to do her job.
- A board charged their nonprofit’s Development Director with increasing revenue in a single year by 30%. When she asked for a donor database to help more effectively recruit new and renew current donors the board said “No” because they felt she should already be able to do that without the aid of new technology.
More often than not it is nonprofit donors who hold back efforts to build stronger, more sustainable nonprofits by not providing enough capacity capital. I talk about that all the time (like here, here and here).
But sometimes, and more shockingly, nonprofit staffs and boards stand in their own way.
It takes courage for a nonprofit leader to admit that she doesn’t know how to do something and needs help. I am reminded of a fascinating interview I heard on NPR earlier this fall with Leah Hager Cohen who recently wrote the book, In Praise of Admitting Ignorance. She describes the freedom that comes from admitting when you simply don’t know how to do something. That moment of honesty can lead to transformation, as she says, “I think those words can be so incredibly liberating…They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don’t know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.”
I would love to see nonprofit leaders take this advice to heart. Once you have the courage to admit (to your board, to your donors, to your staff) that you don’t know how to do everything, you just might finally get the help you so desperately need.
Nonprofit leaders have been given the Herculean task of: developing and managing effective programs, managing a diverse and underpaid staff, crafting a bold strategic direction, creating a sustainable financial model, wrangling a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruiting and appeasing a disparate donor base. All with little support along the way. It is easy to see why the position of nonprofit leader is such a lonely one.
So instead of continuing to bear that enormous burden, take a step back and admit that you simply don’t know how to do it all. You need help, guidance, advice, support, organization building. If you are lucky enough to have funders, board members or others outside the organization that want to help, admit (to yourself, to your board, to your donors) that you need that help. And don’t let anyone (including, and especially, yourself) stand in your way.
If you’d like to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staff click here, and if you’d like to schedule a time to talk about how I might help move your organization forward, let me know.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
It’s that time of year again – the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s annual State of the Sector Survey of nonprofit leaders.
If you are a nonprofit leader struggling with increasing demand for services amid diminishing funding, if you are frustrated with funders’ lack of understanding of the challenges you face, if you want the sector to recognize the hurdles and get better at addressing them, you need to voice your perspective by taking the survey.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund is one of the country’s leading community development financial institutions (CDFI) making millions of dollars in loans to nonprofits and pushing for fundamental improvement in how money is given and used in the sector.
They started the annual State of the Sector survey when the recession hit in 2008. Collective efforts to understand the extent of the challenges the economic restructuring was having on the nonprofit sector were decentralized and largely anecdotal. NFF’s survey is an effort to bring information about the nonprofit community together so that it can be used to address these challenges. You can view the results from past surveys here.
The anonymous survey takes 10-15 minutes to complete and asks about your organization’s recent financial and management challenges. The knowledge gathered through the annual survey is shared with funders, government officials, nonprofits, media, lending institutions, and many others through conferences, policy recommendations, and other efforts. And now with more than 5 years of Sector Survey data, we can analyze and understand trends and begin to make a larger argument about what nonprofits need and what funders and policymakers must do differently to support their work.
The survey really is the only effort of its kind to take the pulse of the sector. And I am excited to see how the results are increasingly used to advocate for some significant improvements to the state of the sector.
This year’s Sector Survey will be open to responses until February 17th, so if you are a nonprofit leader, click here to take the survey and let your voice be heard. The results of this year’s survey will be available in early April.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund
If I had one wish for the nonprofit sector in this new year it would be for nonprofits to get much smarter about money and finally start using it as a robust, strategic tool for creating more social change.
But you can’t get smarter about something that you fear, or don’t understand, or avoid, or can’t access.
Which is why I’m really excited about one of the new tool bundles I’m offering in the newly revamped Tools section of my website. The Develop a Financial Model Tool Bundle provides the guidance you need to create a financing plan for your nonprofit in this new year.
A financing plan (as opposed to a fundraising plan) is a long-term strategy for bringing enough money in the door to achieve your mission, ultimately bringing you closer to creating sustainable social change.
The Develop a Financial Model Tool Bundle will help move your board, staff and donors to truly understand a financing approach and give you the roadmap for developing your nonprofit’s own financing plan. It will help move your nonprofit from the exhausting hamster wheel of fundraising to a robust, sustainable financial model.
The tool bundle includes 4 components:
- The Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 1 E-book that describes the theory behind moving from fundraising to financing, why financing is a much more sustainable and effective approach, and how to begin moving your organization to a much more sustainable way of thinking about and securing money.
- The Financing Not Fundraisng, vol. 2 E-book expands on the ideas behind a financing approach, gives concrete examples of this new approach, and describes how to change your, and your board and donors’ thinking in order to fully make the switch to this new approach of financing your work.
- The 60-minute Create a Financing Plan On-Demand Webinar moves you from embracing the theory of a financing approach to fully understanding what a financing plan is, how it differs from a fundraising plan, the framework for a plan, and the steps necessary to create one. This webinar can be watched whenever you want and however many times you need.
- The Build a Nonprofit Financing Plan Step-by-Step Guide is the final piece of the puzzle. This guide helps you create your nonprofit’s own financing plan. The guide walks you, step-by-step, through the questions, calculations and frameworks you need to build your nonprofit’s financing plan.
This Develop a Financial Model Tool Bundle takes you from understanding the theory behind a financing approach all the way to creating your nonprofit’s own financing plan. As a bundle, the cost is 15% less than the cost of purchasing the e-books, guide and webinar separately. Download the Develop a Financial Model Tool Bundle Now.
This tool bundle, along with all of the other guides, e-books, webinars and bundles available on the Tools page, is designed for smaller and younger nonprofits that may not have the resources to seek customized consulting help, or just need some initial guidance to find a new way on their own.
But if you would rather find out about the customized consulting I provide for creating a financing plan and/or coaching your board and staff to adopt this new approach, let me know.
Among other obvious things, December is a time for reflection on the past year and predictions for the coming year. There have already been some great forecasts about what 2014 will bring the social change sector (here, here, and here). And as is my tradition, I want to add my thoughts about the trends to watch in the coming year. (If you want to see how I did in past years, you can read my nonprofit trends posts for 2011, 2012 and 2013.)
Here’s what I think we should watch for in 2014:
- Growing Wealth Disparity
Evidence increasingly reveals that despite our best efforts the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, not shrinking. This growing disparity means that the work nonprofits do to address the ramifications of these inequities is in growing demand. The problems are simply too big and getting bigger every minute. At the same time government resources are shrinking so the greater burden for solutions is increasingly placed on the shoulders of the nonprofit sector. As problems get worse and money gets tighter the social change sector will take center stage.
- Greater Nonprofit Sector Confidence
As the nonprofit sector is asked to do more and more, nonprofits will no longer be a “nice to have” but an absolute essential component of any way forward. We will move squarely away from the idea of “charity” and toward an economy and a mindset that fully integrates the social. No longer sidelined as a small piece of the pie, the nonprofit sector will be recognized for the undeniable and pivotal role it plays in our economy, our institutions, our systems. As such, the nonprofit sector will stop apologizing for the resources it needs to do the job. The sector will rise up and take its rightful place as a critical force in shaping a sustainable future.
- Increased Movement Toward High Performance
As resources become tighter and we look to the nonprofit sector to solve mounting problems, public and private funders will increasingly want to see the return on their investments. And that can only be done by understanding what results a nonprofit is achieving. The growing push this year away from financial metrics and toward outcome metrics will continue to grow. Nonprofits will have to learn not only how to articulate the outcomes they are working toward, but more importantly, how to manage their operations towards those outcomes.
- More Capacity Investments
And if we are going to get smarter about achieving results in the social change space, more donors will start to recognize that they have to build the capacity of that space. There is no end to the list of capacity-building needs of the sector. From investing in more sustainable financial engines, to funding evaluation and performance management systems, to financing nonprofit leader coaching, philanthropists will increasingly recognize that if we are going to expect more from the nonprofit sector we must make sure they have the tools to do the job. A handful of savvy foundations and individual donors have already made capacity investments, and as those investments pay off, more donors will follow suit.
- Accelerated Effort to Enlarge the 2% Pie
For the past four decades private contributions to the nonprofit sector have not risen above 2% of the U.S. gross domestic product. In recent years there have been attempts to grow that pie. And the big question whenever a new funding vehicle enters the space (like crowdfunding most recently) is whether it will be the magic bullet to shatter that glass ceiling. But we are not there yet. As social challenges continue to grow, the wealth gap continues to widen, and a new generation of donors comes of age, there will be increasing pressure to channel more money (not just the same money through a new vehicle) toward social change.
Photo Credit: John William Waterhouse
I am delighted to announce today’s release of the newest volume in the Financing Not Fundraising e-book series, Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3.
The idea behind Financing Not Fundraising is that the traditional way nonprofit leaders, boards and donors have approached funding the work of nonprofits doesn’t work anymore. Traditional nonprofit fundraising forces nonprofits to work harder and harder for a smaller and smaller return. Nonprofits must break free from this vicious cycle and take a much more strategic approach to securing the overall financing necessary to achieve their goals.
The first step in this process is to fully integrate money with the mission and core competencies of the organization. In creating such a strategic financial model for her organization, a nonprofit leader will be setting her organization on a path towards financial sustainability, growth, and ultimately change to the social problem her nonprofit attempts to address.
The Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book expands on the basic elements of the Financing Not Fundraising model and helps those nonprofit leaders who are ready to start moving away from fundraising to really dive into this new approach.
Contained in this e-book are new ways of thinking, new tools of analysis, new questions to ask. All with the intent of pushing your staff, your board, even your donors, to fund your work in a more effective and sustainable way.
Here are the chapters in the Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book:
- Overcome Nonprofit Taboos
- Remove Money Hurdles
- Find and Keep a Great Fundraiser
- Recruit a Money Raising Board
- Set a High Board Fundraising Bar
- Enlighten Your Donors
- Break Free From the Starvation Cycle
- Create Donor Personas
- Calculate Opportunity Costs
- Stop Apologizing
- Get Started
If you are tired of hitting your head against the unmovable fundraising wall, I invite you to explore a new way of sustainably financing the critical work you do.
This week I attended the After the Leap conference in Washington D.C. and was blown away. As I mentioned in a post earlier this year, the conference was organized by Social Solutions and PerformWell partners Child Trends and Urban Institute and builds on the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011, and the companion book Working Hard & Working Well by David Hunter published this year.
This first-ever conference was an attempt to bring the nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders who are on the cutting edge of the movement to create a higher-performing social sector together to, as Mario put it “grow a critical mass who can mobilize for greater change.”
What’s Government’s Role in Nonprofit Performance?
Day 1 focused on government’s role in driving social sector performance management. A fascinating panel of government agency leaders, moderated by Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation, discussed various efforts at the federal, state and local government levels to drive evidence-based policy and practice. But some in the audience and Twitter-verse wondered whether government could really be the impetus for a greater push towards measuring and managing outcomes in the nonprofit sector.
How Do You Get Buy-In For Change?
From the big, systemic view, the day quickly shifted for me to the organization-level with the fantastic panel on “Getting Buy-In” from staff, board and funders for a shift towards performance management. Isaac Castillo from DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, Bridget Laird from Wings for Kids, and Sotun Krouch from Roca explained how they had moved their nonprofits toward articulating and measuring outcomes. The most effective approach seemed to be to ask “Don’t you want to know whether the work we are doing is helping rather than hurting?” Isaac made the urgency to move toward performance management clear, “If you haven’t started doing performance management yet, in 12-18 months you will start losing funding to those who are.”
Can We Convince Funders to Invest?
Day 2 of the conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote address by Nancy Roob from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that really served as a call to action for the foundation world. Nancy painted a pretty stark picture of the disconnect she saw between how much money we’ve spent on solving social problems in the last decades and how much actual progress we’ve made. She blamed this disconnect on “our piecemeal approach to solutions.” As she bluntly put it, “We are woefully under-invested in what we already know works.” She laid out 5 steps funders can take to move away from piecemeal and toward transformational social change:
- Make bigger, multi-year investments
- Provide more upfront, unrestricted, flexible capital
- Invest in nonprofit evidence building
- Scale what works with innovation, and
- Adopt an investor mindset
But for Nancy, it’s not just up to funders, nonprofits also need to change. She urged nonprofits to:
- Shed the charity mindset
- Focus on the larger context
- Create a performance management culture, and
- Ask for help to achieve performance
From there, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy led a panel with Carol Thompson Cole from Venture Philanthropy Partners and Denise Zeman from Saint Luke’s Foundation asking “Do Funders Get it?” While a few funders are willing to invest in helping nonprofits articulate, measure and manage to outcomes, most are not. The panel suggested that some of this reluctance stems from funder’s lack of humility and fear of what they might find. Audience members suggested that it might also be funders’ lack of performance expertise. (You can read Phil Buchanan’s blog post giving more detail on this panel here.)
From there I attended a breakout session “Funder Investment Strategies to Strengthen Nonprofit Performance Management Capacity” where Victoria Vrana from the Gates Foundation and Lissette Rodriguez from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and two of their grantees discussed how they worked together to fund and create performance management systems.
The final panel of the day brought an impressive group of nonprofit CEOs together (Mindy Tarlow from Center for Employment Opportunities, Sam Cobbs from First Place for Youth, Cynthia Figueroa from Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Bill McCarthy from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and Thomas Jenkins from Nurse-Family Partnership) to talk about how they each had built a performance management system at their organizations, the hurdles they encountered, how they funded it, and where they are now.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Mario Morino rounded out the conference with an inspiring call for us to build momentum. He outlined some new ideas coming out of the conference that he’d like to see developed by 2020, including:
- A “Manhattan Project” of social sector evidence
- A National Commission on Nonprofit High Performance
- An Aggregated Growth Capital Fund to deploy billions to solve entrenched national problems
- A Performance Academy for Social Impact
- Presidential Performance-to-Impact Awards
- Social Sector Center for Quality Improvement
- A Solutions Journalism Network to “lift up the hope spots” in the country
- Leap Learning Communities in local settings connected in a national web
This was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in years. The caliber of the presenters and audience was amazing. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of the next generation of the social sector. Buoyed by the ability to see the writing on the wall, this group is determined to lead the fundamental, and critical, shift towards a more effective sector.
The urgency of this movement became increasingly clear through the course of the two days. Our country is witnessing mounting disparity and crippling social challenges. It is increasingly up to the social sector to turn the tide. And the time is now. As Mario charged at the end of the conference “If we don’t figure out how to build high performing nonprofits, nothing else matters. This is the last mile. Our nation depends on it.”
Photo Credit: tableatny
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