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Guest Post: Nonprofits Must Be Able to Adapt

antony bugg-levineNote: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post… 

When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.

What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.

In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.

So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?

Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.

Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.

Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.

Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:

  • “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
  • “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
  • “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
  • “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”

Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.

New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.

Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”

Measure outcomes.
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.

Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.

Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.

Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.

There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.

It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.

It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.


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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2015

social innovationJune was an amazing month in the world of social change.

Most notably, the long fight for marriage equality was won with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. It is moments like these where the long, arduous road towards social change makes sense. But that wasn’t all that was going on in the busy month of June. From “new” tech philanthropy, to the orthodoxies of philanthropy, to the oversight of philanthropy, it was all up for debate. Add to that some fascinating new ideas for museums, new data on how Millennials get their news, and a fabulous new blog about the history of philanthropy. It was a whirlwind.

Below are my picks on the 10 best reads in the world of social change in June. But let me know what I missed. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

And if you want to see past 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. The biggest news by far in June was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal. In the ruling opinion Justice Kennedy writes: “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death…Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” While this is a huge win for equality, I think the two really interesting parts of the story are 1) how relatively quickly gay marriage went from banned to law and 2) the various actors that made that social change happen. Some argue that Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 landmark essay in New Republic started the intellectual case for gay marriage. This New York Times interactive map shows how gay marriage went from banned to legalized state by state over time. And Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, describes the decades long struggle of nonprofit reformers and their donors, including the Haas Fund in San Francisco, to make marriage equality happen.

  3. A new blog, the HistPhil blog, launched in June to much acclaim. There is an enormous need for a historical perspective as we work to make nonprofits and the philanthropy that funds them more effective. HistPhil has already begun to provide that in spades with excellent posts on the Supreme Court ruling, among many other topics you will see below.

  5. Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and founding president of Facebook, launched a new foundation and wrote a controversial piece in the Wall Street Journal about his “new” vision for philanthropy.  Some found his ideas full of hubris, while others found him to be “an articulate evangelist for tech philanthropy.

  7. And if that wasn’t enough philanthropic controversy for you, there were two other debates waging in June. First was the response to David Callahan’s New York Times piece, “Who Will Watch the Charities?” where he argued that we need greater oversight on nonprofits and their funders. Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy quickly shot back that while Callahan raised some important questions, he ignored the complexity of the sector and reform efforts already under way. And then the two got into an interesting back and forth. Finally, Callahan wrote a follow up piece for Inside Philanthropy. Good stuff!

  9. Along the same lines, the other point of debate in June centered around a Stanford Social Innovation Review article where Gabriel Kasper & Jess Ausinheiler attempted to challenge the underlying assumptions in philanthropy.  But now that we have a new expert on the history of philanthropy on the block, Benjamin Soskis from the HistPhil blog gave us a more accurate historical perspective about just what is and isn’t philanthropic orthodoxy.

  11. Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, wrote a great long form piece in the Democracy Journal arguing that museums could become much more relevant and financially sustainable if, among other things, they began selling their stored artwork. Crazy controversial, but fascinating, ideas.

  13. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Scharpnick cofounder of Elefint Designs, argued that recent ProPublica investigations of the American Red Cross uncovered our double standard for nonprofits. As he writes: “We are asking organizations to meet competing demands—many of which are at odds with how they are funded. We want nonprofits and NGOs to solve problems as effectively as private-sector organizations, and we want them to do it without any of the advantages and with far more constraints.”

  15. The Ford Foundation announced a sweeping overhaul in their grantmaking strategy. They will now focus solely on financial, gender, racial and other inequalities, and double their unrestricted giving. Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, described how he is closely watching this historic move. And Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, offered a view of how philanthropy has approached inequality.

  16. The Hewlett Foundation’s Kelly Born provided some interesting thoughts about what a new Pew Research Center report about how Millennials get their news means for civic engagement.

  18. And finally, on an inspirational note, Steven Pressfield articulated how “artists,” or really anyone hoping to bring something new into the world (a painting, a novel, a solution to a social challenge), should think:  “As artists, [we believe]…that the universe has a gift that it is holding specifically for us (and specifically for us to pass on to others) and that, if we can learn to make ourselves available to it, it will deliver this gift into our hands.” Yes.

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Social Velocity Summer 2015 Guest Bloggers

As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.

And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).

I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.

Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!


antony bugg-levineAntony Bugg-Levine
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.

UPDATE: Here is Antony’s guest post.



Kelly Born
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.

UPDATE: Here is Kelly’s guest post.


phil buchananPhil Buchanan
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does.  He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.

UPDATE: Here is Phil’s guest post.


kathy reichKathy Reich
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.

UPDATE: Here is Kathy’s guest post.


david hendersonDavid Henderson
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.

UPDATE: Here is David’s guest post.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2015

social change readingMay 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.”

  9. 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!

  10. 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

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The State of the Nonprofit Sector in 2015

nonprofit sector surveyEarlier 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.

You can see the full results of the survey here and slice and dice the data yourself with their Survey Analyzer Tool here. But here are some of the key findings of this year’s survey.

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

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The Strategy of Social Change [Podcast]

nonprofit podcastI’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.

This month Greg Cherry of The Philanthropy Hour asked me to participate in a podcast conversation with him as part of his ongoing podcast series with social change leaders.

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

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The Nonprofit Sector’s Crisis of Confidence

rosieI 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


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The Changing Nonprofit Landscape [Podcast]

nonprofit podcastEarlier this month I participated in a podcast conversation with Joed Lopez of Panvisio as part of their on-going Q2 Podcast series with social sector leaders.

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

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