May was another busy month in the world of social change. For a start there was: a behavioral economics approach to social change, continued focus on civic tech, a tool for calculating a nonprofit’s true costs, new definitions of membership in the digital age, the evolving public library, digital sabbaticals, and much more.
Below are my 10 favorite reads in the world of social change in May, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook.
You can also read 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Perhaps some solutions to social problems lie in behavioral economics. Writing in The New York Times, economists Erez Yoeli and Syon Bhanot and psychologists Gordon Kraft-Todd and David Rand argue that the opinion of others, in this case regarding the preservation of natural resources, is a strong social change motivator.
- Civic tech, (the use of new technology to better engage citizens in democracy) has become quite the buzzword lately. But how do we know which civic tech solutions are actually creating change? Anne Whatley from Network Impact offers some tools for assessment in that arena.
- And another nonprofit tool comes from Kate Barr of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. She provides a great tool to help nonprofits calculate and then articulate to funders the full costs of their work.
- Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation writes a thoughtful piece on what separates good strategic planning from bad, because as he puts it “The real benefit of planning is not the final document but rather the discipline the process imposes, the new information it generates, the working relationships it fosters, and the conversations, insights, and commitments it sparks.” Amen to that!
- In this age of social media and technological connectedness, how do we create more formal structures for belonging to institutions? Melody Kramer, formerly of National Public Radio, is a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow working on that very question, and she offers some beginning thoughts on the project, including, “Imagine if public radio stations functioned as Main Streets…or in the same way that local public libraries do? It would transform the way people could interact — and participate — in the local news process, and would enhance the stories stations put out on air.” Fascinating.
- Speaking of libraries, NPR writer Linton Weeks provides a history of the public library and how it continues to (and must) evolve in the digital age.
- Great philanthropic futurist Lucy Bernholz has been offline for a bit, and it turns out she took a digital sabbatical. She reports that “without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.” What a great (and necessary) idea!
- Writing on the UnSectored blog, Marie Mainil describes the importance of building and supporting social movements to create global social change. As she puts it “Collecting data on the dynamics of local, regional, national, and international social change campaigns is the next frontier of organizing for social change. With a visual multi-level collection of ladders of engagement from across the world, social change actors would be able to better plan and coordinate tactics and actions at scale, thereby increasing their chances of success.”
- In May the Center for Effective Philanthropy held their biennial conference. Ethan McCoy provides great roundups of day one and day two. I almost feel like I was there!
- Never one to put things lightly, William Schambra cautions against what he sees as the hubris of tech philanthropists and his fear that they desire to “fundamentally…reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology.”
Photo Credit: Erin Kelly
Earlier this week the Nonprofit Finance Fund released the results of their 7th annual State of the Sector survey about the financial health of the American nonprofit sector. This on-going survey, now in its 7th year, has become a fascinating marker to gauge how the nonprofit sector is evolving amid a changing economic climate.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund launched the survey in 2008, when the economic crisis was just beginning. This year results from 5,451 respondents show some positive signs of adaptation and growth, but also recurring challenges that continue to face the sector.
Nonprofits are unable to meet a growing demand for their services:
- 76% of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for services – the 7th year that a majority have reported increases.
- 52% couldn’t meet demand, the third year in a row that more than half of nonprofits couldn’t meet demand.
- Of those who reported that they could not meet demand, 71% said that client needs go unmet when they can’t provide services.
Nonprofits still (not surprisingly) struggle to make ends meet. While some nonprofits are achieving financial sustainability (47% ended 2014 with a surplus, the highest in the history of the survey), many still face real challenges:
- 53% report three months or less of cash-on-hand.
- 32% find achieving long-term sustainability a top challenge.
- 25% struggle to be able to offer competitive pay and/or retain staff.
- 19% can’t raise funding to cover their full costs.
And these financial challenges are due in large part to the catch-22 funders place nonprofits in by routinely covering only a portion of the full costs of the programs they intend to support:
- 70% of survey respondents receiving Federal funding report that the government never or rarely pays for the full costs of delivering services.
- 68% of respondents who receive state funding say the state government never or rarely pays for the full costs of delivering services.
- 47% of respondents who secure foundation funding report that foundations never or rarely cover their full costs.
- While 89% of nonprofits are asked to collect data to capture the effectiveness of programming, 68% of funders rarely or never cover the costs associated with measuring program outputs or outcomes.
So we still have a long way to go.
But those nonprofits who are faring well in this environment are those being strategic. As one human services nonprofit leader put it:
“Sustainable funding continues to be our greatest challenge. Our actions to address this challenge include developing and adhering to a strong and dynamic strategic plan; diversifying our program funding streams as much as possible; developing and communicating a strong community impact statement for our programs; and focusing on increased donor engagement in order to increase fundraising dollars.”
You can dig further into the data from this and past years’ surveys here.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund
I’ve gotten a few requests lately to participate in social change podcast series (see my podcast with Panvisio). I love discussing the many issues in social change work, so I’ve really enjoyed being part of these discussions.
In the podcast, among many topics, we discuss:
- How leadership is the best ingredient for social change effectiveness.
- What true leadership means.
- What a Theory of Change is and why it’s crucial to any social change organization.
- How to develop a Message of Impact and create a Case For Investment.
- The importance of moving from fundraising to financing and what that shift looks like.
- Debunking the “overhead myth.”
- And much more…
Below is the podcast, or you can click here to listen to it.
Photo Credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono
I sometimes wonder how many of the nonprofit sector’s challenges stem from a fundamental lack of confidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep structural dysfunctions at play in the nonprofit sector. The sector is held back by a lack of adequate financial resources and an on-going grantor/grantee power imbalance, to name just two.
But how much is a lack of nonprofit leader confidence also to blame? How much further could we go in the sector if more nonprofit leaders confidently stood up for what they believe, what they need, and the value of the work they do.
I am a huge believer in confidence. In fact, I think that those who exude confidence, even when they don’t necessarily feel it, are far more likely than those who don’t to be taken seriously and get what they want.
But often in the nonprofit sector that confidence is absent.
I think this lack of confidence stems from a fundamental feeling of inadequacy that pervades the sector. Nonprofit leaders are subjected to a recurring litany of false beliefs that include, nonprofits: “live beside the economy“, “aren’t as capable as business“, only “do good work,” and “should be grateful” for whatever they get.
But nonprofit leaders must free themselves from those crippling shackles. You must stand up and demand (nicely if you’d like) what you truly need. And you start by articulating the value your organization provides.
Let me give you an example.
A nonprofit leader whose organization had long provided critical services for a school district was fed up with not being paid for those services (they had to privately fundraise for the costs of the program). The nonprofit leader did her research on how much money her organization was saving the district (in increased student attendance, additional staff and instruction time, etc.) and how much the district was investing in other inferior solutions.
She put together a confident, thoughtful and decisive presentation, secured a meeting with the superintendent, and made her case for increased investment. The end result was a superintendent blown away by the evidence and the nonprofit leader’s presentation. For the first time ever the superintendent included significant, multi-year support for the program in the district budget.
This nonprofit leader could have simply swallowed the fact that the school district didn’t value the services her organization provided. But instead she pointed out the disconnect between value provided and money invested and stood up for her organization.
I would guess that most nonprofit leaders lack that kind of confidence. And in fact, for many years even the nonprofit leader above didn’t have it.
But there is so much to be gained from a confident approach. Aside from the potential of securing more resources, when you become a confident player you start to identify strategic partners (like the school superintendent above) who can be your equal in the work of social change.
Because partnerships are infinitely more successful when they are forged by two equal entities coming together to create value. This is true for partnerships between your organization and your vendors (like the school district) but also your funders, board members, advocates, policymakers — anyone that you need on board in order to get the work done.
Confidence isn’t just about getting more of what your nonprofit needs. It’s ultimately about effectively creating social change. And you can’t create social change with your head down and your voice low.
So stop living in the shadows. Arm yourself with data, a compelling argument, an army of advocates and, most importantly, confidence to forge what you need in order to create change.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
We talked about:
- How broken fundraising is
- A more effective financing approach
- Nonprofit fear of money
- The passion of nonprofit leaders
- The need to articulate a nonprofit’s message
- Capacity capital
- Social entrepreneurship
- Nonprofit boards
- And much, much more…
I really enjoyed the conversation and hope you will too.
You can listen to the podcast below, or click here to listen to it on the Panvisio site.
Photo Credit: Makingster
We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.
I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”
Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.
First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.
Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.
And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.
We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”
Photo Credit: Roy Miller
Recent studies of nonprofit donors have found that the majority aren’t interested in impact. But what if that current reality isn’t also future reality but rather an opportunity? What if just as Apple created a market for smartphones where one didn’t exist, we could create a market for social change funding where one currently doesn’t exist?
As I mentioned in my 10 Great Reads list for January, data wonk Caroline Fiennes reviewed recent studies on donor behavior and found that donors don’t increase their donations when shown nonprofit performance data. And Caroline is not alone, others have also argued that donors just don’t care about performance.
This could be depressing because if donors aren’t interested in the effectiveness of a nonprofit they won’t shift their money to the nonprofits more effective at creating social change. In other words, we have no hope of solving social problems if we can’t channel money to those entities that are actually solving those problems.
Apple is probably the most obvious example of a market maker, creating consumer demand where there was none. They have continually created innovative products for swooning consumers who previously had no idea they needed those products. Before creating the first iPhone prototype in 2006 Steve Jobs didn’t survey consumers to ask if they wanted their phone to surf the web, send emails, and take pictures. A majority of consumers would probably have said no. Rather, Apple saw a need that consumers didn’t yet know they had (what marketers call a “latent need”) and built a huge consumer base from scratch.
They were market makers, as Fred Vogelstein described in the New York Times Magazine:
Apple’s innovations have set off an entire rethinking of how humans interact with machines. It’s not simply that we use our fingers now instead of a mouse. Smartphones, in particular, have become extensions of our brains…Its technology is changing the way we learn in school, the way doctors treat patients, the way we travel and explore. Entertainment and media are accessed and experienced in entirely new ways.
Jobs and his team created a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of interacting with the world around us.
In the world of social change we need a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of channeling money. So we need to create the market.
We need to show funders that the current flow of money to social change efforts is not sufficient or efficient. If we truly want solutions to our social challenges, we must create an effective financial market for those solutions.
I believe that funders can be inspired to change their behavior. They have a latent desire to see their dollars actually achieve something. They have been so used to the lowest common denominator of giving based solely on reciprocity or emotion, but that can change.
As Harvard Business Review blogger Umair Haque explains, Apple’s success comes from their ability to rise above the common denominator and create something people love and truly (though they may not yet know it) want:
Most companies…don’t care about what they make. They merely care about what they sell. And so they…offer the people they call consumers the lowest common denominator designed by focus-group led committees at the everyday low price in malls full of stores full of shelves full of…other lowest common denominators designed by committee at the everyday low price. Nobody ever loved anybody who was merely trying to sell them something. Especially not the lowest common denominator. People love people—and organizations—that make their lives better. Even when those things are as simple as phones.
The data and the focus groups may say that donors don’t want impact. Yet. So its up to us to create the market. It is up to us to get donors to love the impact that makes clients’ lives, donors’ lives, and ultimately our communities better. It’s up to us to create demand for funding real social change.
Photo Credit: Matthew Yohe
January was a busy month. From more trends and predictions for the new year, to new ways of thinking about scale, to nonprofit performance measures and whether donors really care about them, to a return to farming, and a new giving app, there was lots to read in the world of social change.
You can see past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- Since it was the first month of a new year, there were several prediction posts for the nonprofit sector. Rich Cohen’s predictions are very thoughtful, including declining slacktivism, an IRS crisis, continuing financial collapse of local governments and much more. The National Council of Nonprofits pulled together their list of 2015 trends facing the sector. And Kivi Leroux Miller created this nice infographic summarizing her 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report.
- Because a “social capital chasm” exists in the nonprofit sector it may not be possible for nonprofits to truly achieve organizational scale says Alice Gugelev and Andrew Stern writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They urge social change leaders to look at scaling impact instead of organization. As they put it, “It’s time for nonprofit leaders to ask a more fundamental question than ‘How do you scale up?’ Instead, we urge them to consider…’What’s your endgame?'”
- Writing on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Phil Buchanan reminds us that it is not enough to move beyond overhead as a way to evaluate nonprofits: “What we need to focus on, of course, is not just de-emphasizing overhead ratios as a performance metric. We also need improvements in approaches to performance measurement. The reality is that donors often gravitate to overhead ratios when they can’t get their hands around anything else.”
- But nonprofit evaluation wonk Caroline Fiennes might disagree. She takes a look at recent studies on how information about a nonprofit’s performance affects donor giving behavior. She rather depressingly finds that performance data doesn’t improve donations. In her review of three recent studies, Caroline finds “Donors appeared to use evidence of effectiveness as they would a hygiene factor: they seemed to expect all charities to have four-star ratings, and reduced donations when they were disappointed – but never increased them because they were never positively surprised.”
- With elections behind him, President Obama’s January State of the Union address laid out his plans for his last two years in office. But he didn’t once mention the nonprofit sector even though the sector is key to the success of those plans, as Rick Cohen points out.
- The new app, Charity Match that was developed by Intuit and the Gates Foundation, prompts people to make charitable donations based on their spending habits while they do their online banking.
- While the family farm was once a thing of the past some Millennials are returning to farming, wanting “to find a way to live high-quality, sustainable lives, and help others do the same.”
- The Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offers 15 Must-Know Fundraising and Social Media Stats.
- As is their tradition, every year Bill and Melinda Gates release an annual letter about their philanthropy. And every year social change thinkers tear it apart. This year Chris Blattman from The Monkey Cage takes issue with the Gates’ assumption “that a few new technologies can make unprecedented and fundamental changes in poverty in 15 years.”
- And finally, Michel Bachmann and Roshan Paul caution social changemakers to slow down and go deep in order to avoid burning out altogether. “The social entrepreneurship sector in many parts of the world is rife with accelerators…These organizations play an important role—there are good reasons for their existence. However, in this era where everything is accelerating, we’d like to put our hands up for the importance of deceleration. As the poet Tess Gallagher said: ‘You can’t go deep until you slow down.'” Amen!
Photo Credit: Jonathan Cohen