As I mentioned last month, the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am a member) recently released the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit. Because I think the Performance Imperative is so important and every nonprofit leader should understand it and begin to use it, today I am kicking off a series to describe, one-by-one, each of the seven pillars of the Performance Imperative.
I think the Performance Imperative is so exciting because it can serve as a north star to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations analyze their own performance and create a clear roadmap for improvement.
As Lowell Weiss, one of the leading architects of the Performance Imperative, explained in my interview with him last month:
High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The Performance Imperative is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.
So, first up in this series on the Performance Imperative is Pillar #1: Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership.
Without true leadership, at both the board and staff level, you will achieve little as a nonprofit. This pillar is about asking hard questions, pushing the organization toward excellence, continuously improving and taking nothing for granted.
You can read the full description of Pillar #1 in the Performance Imperative, but here are a few key elements present in nonprofits that exhibit this pillar:
- Boards “ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.”
- Executives and boards “know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.”
- Executives and boards “know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
- Executives and boards “are constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing…redirecting scarce resources to the highest opportunity areas.”
In other words, nonprofit leaders who embody Pillar 1 of the Performance Imperative, ask hard questions, build a stellar staff, seek continuous improvement, and put resources to their highest and best use.
There is no doubt that there are many examples of this courageous, adaptive leadership in the nonprofit sector. One of those, I believe, is Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca.
Molly founded Roca in 1988, and by 2004 it was a multi-million dollar teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program. But that year, Molly began asking some hard questions about the results Roca was achieving. She forced board and staff to take a huge step back and examine what they were doing and the ultimate effect that work had. She led her board and staff through a rigorous refocusing and pruning effort to limit their target populations and use data to drive their interventions. Instead of continuing a laundry list of services to many different populations that had limited effect, she helped her organization refocus resources on where they could create real change — transforming the lives of young men in the criminal justice system.
It was a challenging transition to lead, but the results are impressive. An internal study overseen by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013 found that Roca reduced recidivism 65% and increased employment by 100% for the men in the program. And Roca was chosen as the lead provider in Masschusetts’ first pay for success effort.
Ten years ago Molly could have continued on Roca’s then current path, continuing to do “good work,” but failing to ask hard questions about whether that work was really resulting in change. But instead, Molly brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.
That’s the kind of social change leadership we need.
If you want to learn more, download the Performance Imperative and read additional case studies here.
Photo Credit: William B. T. Trego painting depicting George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.
What a great month March was. Just as the weather started to turn to Spring (I hope it did where you are too), there was a whole host of great reading to digest. From analysis of the new breed of philanthropists, to controversy about contest grantmaking, to mission investing progress, to tips and guides on nonprofit finance, leadership and financial advocacy, there was lots to read.
Below are my picks of the 10 most interesting reads in the world of social change in March, but as always, please add to the list in the comments.
You can also see the 10 Great Reads lists from previous months here.
- Call me biased, but I think the biggest social change news in March was the launch of the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performance nonprofit, by the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am one). Many reviewed the new tool, including Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy who wrote that nonprofit performance is a “moral imperative.” And if you want to learn more, there is a webinar drilling down on the PI later this month.
- Who says online debate never results in change? There was a big discussion on the Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s site this month over the Council on Foundation’s plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like contest for nonprofits. Many felt this contest would be a step backward, forcing nonprofits to perform for money, so the Council scrapped the contest and created instead a panel discussing the positives and negatives of contest-style grantmaking.
- F.B. Heron Foundation CEO, Clara Miller (formerly of the Nonprofit Finance Fund) is a true nonprofit finance visionary, and this month the Foundation passed the halfway mark on their goal of putting ALL of their capital toward mission. And writing in The Guardian, Tim Smedley would seem to agree with their goal when he makes the case for mission investing.
- Chris Gates (from the Sunlight Foundation) and Matt Leighninger (from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) wrote a fascinating letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy taking issue with Diana Aviv’s comments on recent Independent Sector research about technology and nonprofit institutions. Gates and Leighninger argue that there is great opportunity in technology if nonprofits embrace it effectively, as they put it, “It is true that the rise of the Internet is forcing institutions like governments, foundations, nonprofits, and professional associations to rethink how they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and goals of 21st-century citizens or perish. But ultimately, people want the same things they always have: to belong to a community, to have a voice, and to make an impact…if institutions can provide those things in this interconnected time, they will thrive.”
- American educators and education funders have focused in recent years on science and math to create a more effective and competitive American education. But Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, thinks that’s a big mistake, “As we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” Amen!
- The fourth installment of Tom Watson’s on-going series about the changing face of American philanthropy focuses on the class of new, entrepreneurial philanthropists, those young, tech wealthy donors who are pushing for data-based social change. And Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry takes it even further arguing that “effective altruism,” what he calls this data-centered approach to philanthropy, is only one potential method of investing in social change, not the only or best approach. As he puts it, “making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we’d have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one.” And as one of these new philanthropists, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in Newark public schools continues to come under fire.
- The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a fantastic report on the need for more philanthropic investment in nonprofit leadership development. This should be required reading for every philanthropic and nonprofit leader in the country.
- The National Council of Nonprofits developed a guide for nonprofit leaders to advocate for their funding rights, particularly around indirect rates, with government funders.
- And there were lots of great tips and tools this month for becoming an effective financial leader. The Nonprofit Finance Fund released a list of tips to help “keep business and finance an integral part of decision-making.” And Kate Barr offered 6 Takeaways from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s annual Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference.
- Finally, Jocelyn Wyatt from IDEA.org argues that general funding for nonprofits is the “future of innovation”. Yes please!
Photo Credit: BibBornem
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Lowell Weiss, President of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, which provides personalized guidance to foundations and individual donors seeking to deepen their impact. Previously, he served in leadership roles at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Morino Institute, and in the Clinton White House.
You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.
Nell: Why do the Leap Ambassadors believe now is the right time to introduce the Performance Imperative (PI) to the nonprofit sector? There have been past attempts to move the sector toward outcomes and performance. What makes this effort and this timing different?
Lowell: We don’t know if we’ll break through with this effort. But the 70+ members of the Ambassadors Community are committed to giving it our all, because we believe that performance matters more than ever. The social and public sectors are increasingly steering resources toward efforts that are based on a sound analysis of the problem, grounded assumptions about how an organization’s activities can lead to the desired change, and leadership that embraces continuous improvement.
High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The PI is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.
We’re not aware of any other effort devoted to this mission-critical topic that has engaged so many top nonprofit executives, funders, and thought leaders as co-creators. Perhaps even more important, the PI goes beyond the typical focus on helping nonprofit leaders do things right. When leaders do things right, they can achieve strong operational performance but not necessarily meaningful results for beneficiaries. To achieve the results embodied in their mission statements, leaders must go the extra mile, through diligent internal monitoring and external evaluation, to ensure they’re also doing the right things.
Nell: Does the PI apply to any and all nonprofit organizations? Is it a measuring stick that any size and domain area nonprofit should use, or are there certain types of nonprofits for which this really works?
Lowell: We believe the insights in this document are most immediately applicable to nonprofit organizations with budgets of $3 million or more. But many of the basic management principles apply to organizations of any size, just in less-intensive ways. Some of the details have a special focus on organizations that provide direct services. We believe the overarching framework is relevant for organizations of almost any type.
Nell: What will keep the Performance Imperative from becoming a dusty document rather than a movement? What does success look like for this movement and how will you measure whether that happens?
Lowell: Let’s face it: The topic of high performance is not a lightning-fast meme that will spread like a left shark or right-wing conspiracy theory. It’s a slow, complex idea that will require patient, methodical work to advance. Hence the importance of the Leap Ambassadors Community, a group of leaders who care deeply about high performance and are willing to share the gospel with trusted colleagues and peers.
We believe that when leaders with strong beliefs and passion coalesce around a common purpose, they can build a collective power and influence to drive positive change. They can create an infectious enthusiasm to pull other like-minded players into a growing community of action. That can only happen when you take the time to build relationships, trust, quality work, and collective pride in that work. Overall, we’ll judge our success based on a) to what extent the PI becomes an established framework for increasing the understanding and expectation of high performance as a critical pathway to greater societal impact; and b) to what extent the Leap Ambassadors Community demonstrates itself as a thoughtful, knowledgeable, aligned community of leaders and earns respect, collaboration, and support from prominent players in the field.
To be more concrete about how we will know if we’re on the right track, we’ve established metrics for the growth and engagement of the Ambassadors Community as well as for the value of the PI itself. Here a few of the milestones we hope to achieve over the next year:
- 100‐150 ambassadors have jelled as a community and are truly aligned with the community’s purpose.
- At least 25 nonprofits commit to using the PI to assess their strengths and needs; increase the board’s focus on mission effectiveness; improve their professional-development and organization-building efforts; or otherwise use the PI as a North Star to guide their journey toward high performance.
- Three to five foundations adopt the PI for themselves and their grantees, and they begin to apply the PI in their grant decisions and grantee support.
- Three charity ratings or information providers build the PI into their offerings.
- At least two vendors prominently use the PI in their suites of products and services.
- At least two prominent nonprofit management and leadership programs incorporate the PI as a core staple in their products and services.
- At least one institution creates a prominent award aligned with the PI or adapts an existing award.
Nell: Where do funders and regulators fit into this push for higher performance in the sector? One of the things that holds nonprofits back from high performance is an inability to spend the money it takes to achieve high performance (money for infrastructure, evaluation, staff, etc.). How do we fix that and where does fixing that fit into the movement’s plans?
Lowell: Funders and regulators can and must play a role. Right now, I’m helping a multiservice agency transition from providing compassionate care to ensuring that its clients achieve meaningful, measurable, sustainable life outcomes. The agency is trying to live the PI. But here’s the sad reality: The journey toward high performance is making the organization’s development challenges harder, on net. That’s because there are so few funders who understand the value of high performance—and even fewer who reward it.
To make the leap to high performance, nonprofits need creative funders willing to think big with them—not just ask for more information on results. They need funders who understand that making the leap requires more than program funding and more than the typical “capacity-building” grant. They need funders who make multi-year investments in helping nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
That’s why we’re so supportive of the work of Results for America and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, organizations that are helping governments to base funding decisions on evidence and results. And that’s why the Ambassadors Community is developing the case for high performance that we can start bringing directly to funders. Bridgespan Group Co-Founder and former Social Innovation Fund Director Paul Carttar and Center for Effective Philanthropy President Phil Buchanan are co-leading a working group of ambassadors to build the case for funders. They are planning to convene a dozen+ foundation leaders to help flesh out the most effective arguments and evidence we can assemble to persuade funders that they have a better chance of accomplishing their missions if they support their grantees’ pursuit of performance.
Photo Credit: Cascade Philanthropy Advisors
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
I love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.
And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.
- Growth of the Sharing Economy
The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.
- More Focus on Crowdfunding
One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.
- Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.
- Growing Emphasis on High Performance
Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.
- Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.
Photo Credit: slorenlaboy
Note: In October I interviewed Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), on the blog. In the course of that interview, she mentioned GEO’s upcoming study of staffed grantmaking institutions. That study was released a few weeks ago, and I asked Kathleen to provide some perspective here on what the results mean. Her guest post is below.
A few weeks ago GEO released our latest field study, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? We conduct this national study of staffed foundations in the United States every three years to better understand how and whether grantmaker attitudes and practices are changing in ways that help nonprofits make faster progress on their missions. In our 2014 survey, we endeavored to understand how funders support and engage in collaboration.
We were anxious to make meaning of the results related to collaboration in part because it was a key theme across the nonprofit listening sessions we conducted last year. Leaders touted the value of funders connecting them with each other and building peer networks. They recommended funders create more opportunities for nonprofit leaders to share ideas and allow collaboration to be an organic outcome of these peer exchanges. In addition, they made a strong case for funding collaborative work. As one listening session participant noted about collaborating, “It is expensive to undertake and not really fully funded.” Hopefully these results will provide an opportunity for funders to look carefully at their own practices to make sure that they are doing what they can to help productive collaboration flourish.
Collaboration in the context of philanthropy has many dimensions (you can find a description of the many forms and uses for collaboration here). In this survey we attempted to learn more about the extent to which grantmakers:
- Fund nonprofit collaboration
- Collaborate with one another
- Create an enabling environment that supports collaboration
The findings in Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? were mixed on this issue.
Fund nonprofit collaboration. Anyone who has participated in collaborative initiatives knows the truism that they take longer and cost more than you think at the beginning. It follows that successful collaborative initiatives hinge on nonprofits having sufficient bandwidth to meaningfully engage in them. This is why it’s encouraging that multiyear support has rebounded to pre-recession levels and general operating support is on the rise. General operating support increased in terms of share of total grantmaking dollars from 20% to 25%.
Our past two surveys also sought to understand if grantmakers directly support the costs necessary for nonprofits to collaborate. The 2014 findings suggest that grantmakers are now less likely than in 2011 to fund the costs of collaboration or managing strategic relationships among grantees. In 2011, 38% of respondents reported never or rarely funding the costs of collaboration or managing strategic relationship among grantees. In 2014, it got even worse—53% said they never or rarely provide this kind of support.
As the drum beat for collaboration has grown louder, it’s surprising (and a bit worrisome) that direct philanthropic support for collaboration appears to be in decline. Our research partners at Harder+Company hypothesized that improving economic conditions may play a role. Foundations may have seen collaboration as a way to make limited resources go farther in order to withstand the tough economic conditions. Given the rebounding economy, maybe funders see this kind of support as less important.
It is also interesting that general operating and multiyear support are going up at the same time that support for collaboration is going down. Might funders be increasingly providing organizations with flexible, long-term grants as a strategy to support the collaborative work they need to do? If so, that’s a positive instinct. Regardless, if funders expect their grantees to collaborate, they have to be willing to underwrite the costs of doing so. Otherwise it’s an unfunded mandate that is unlikely to succeed.
For the first time this year, we asked a question about what kinds of support funders were providing to enable collaboration. The most common approach is to organize collaborative meetings or events for grantees. Nonprofits who participated in our listening sessions appreciated when grantmakers do this work well.
Collaborate with one another. Most grantmakers (69%, which was the same in 2011) reported developing strategic relationships with other grantmakers. Those who are cultivating such relationships are overwhelmingly motived by achieving greater impact, followed by an interest in tapping the expertise of other grantmakers. The least common reason for collaborating with fellow grantmakers was to minimize burden on grantees.
That such a strong percentage of grantmakers recognize both the importance of and motivations for collaborating with one another is a promising result. However, this further highlights the divide between what grantmakers are willing to support for themselves and what they are willing to fund for their grantees. As more grantmakers engage in collaborative partnerships hopefully the case for supporting similar work for their grantees will grow stronger.
Create an enabling environment for collaboration. In addition to directly supporting nonprofit collaboration and engaging in collaboration themselves, we were also curious about whether grantmakers are doing what they can to create an environment conducive to successful collaboration.
- By seeking and using input. Asking for and using feedback from key stakeholders lays the foundation for collaboration. At last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US are asking for grantee feedback. Additionally, grantmakers have become more likely over time to engage external voices in decision-making and strategy setting. They were most likely to seek external perspectives on foundation strategy (63% do so sometimes, often or always) and the majority of respondents now seek advice from a grantee advisory committee about policies, practices and program areas (52% up from 42% in 2011). This is good news.
- In how they engage with grantees. Survey participants were asked how important certain funding practices were to their success. Fully 92% of respondents indicated that it is important that staff build relationships with grantees so that grantees can be open about their challenges. A slightly lower but still substantial percentage (89%) indicated that it’s important to provide opportunities for staff members to spend time outside the office with representatives of recipient communities or grantees. Given that strong and trusting relationships are an important ingredient to successful collaboration, this sense of priority is encouraging. However only 63% thought it was important to their success to have staff with experience working at nonprofits like those they fund. Nothing really beats having walked in someone else’s shoes, so it is my hope that more and more foundations will recognize the importance of hiring program officers with nonprofit leadership experience in the years ahead.
I’m curious what you make of these survey findings, so please let us know what you think:
- Do you have ideas for why philanthropic support for collaboration might be declining? Do you think there’s any relationship to the increases in multiyear and general operating support?
- For grantmakers: To what extent are you creating an environment that enables collaboration inside your organization? How are your practices smoothing the way for your grantees to collaborate more effectively?
- For nonprofits: Are you talking with funders about what it takes to collaborate and what your real needs are?
Photo Credit: GEO
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Ann Goggins Gregory, Chief Operating Officer at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she oversees programs, the social enterprise called the ReStore, HR and Operations.
Previously, Ann was a Senior Director at the Bridgespan Group, where she led the organization’s work on organizational learning; managed consulting engagements with human services, education, and youth-serving nonprofits; and spearheaded research efforts on a variety of nonprofit management topics. She remains a Senior Advisor to Bridgespan on issues related to the starvation cycle.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You and your colleague Don Howard are in some ways the catalysts behind the Overhead Myth campaign because of your seminal article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2009. How far have we come since that article? How prevalent is the starvation cycle today and what can we do to move beyond it?
Ann: “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” names what I consider to be a fundamental truth: “Organizations that build robust infrastructure…are more likely to succeed than those that do not. This is not news, and nonprofits are no exception to the rule.” For decades, researchers and practitioners have argued that low overhead does not equate with efficiency and efficiency, in turn, does not equate with effectiveness.
We are seeing (productive) focus and movement now versus five or ten years ago, yet that starvation cycle is still an entrenched issue. On a positive note, the Overhead Myth campaign has been critical in communicating with donors directly and empowering nonprofits to communicate with “back up.” Though I have mixed feelings about some of the messages in Dan Pallotta’s video, it elevated paradoxes of how costs are treated in the social sector. We’ve also seen targeted efforts to help funders and nonprofits address cost-related issues together. Even the federal government is trying to shift practice: the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance requiring that nonprofits receiving federal funding receive a minimum of 10% indirect rate, or they can negotiate a rate. If this guidance is followed, it will be a major policy win.
Yet we have a long way to go. Talking about terminology isn’t scintillating, but it’s critical to breaking the starvation cycle. Overhead costs aren’t the same as indirect, yet we conflate them. General operating support and capacity building—often seen as ways to help break the cycle—aren’t the same thing. Many nonprofits do not know the full costs associated with their programs, and many funders don’t understand nonprofit finance. Bridging the skill gap on both sides of the equation is critical.
Moreover, a single figure like the overhead rate is appealing because it makes comparison easy. Until nonprofits have better ways to communicate outcomes, we will continue to battle against the simplicity of a ratio. Finally, power dynamics between funders and nonprofits inhibit change; candidly, there aren’t strong forces pushing on philanthropy and government to change their practice. In the absence of such change, nonprofits are understandably worried about shifting their stance on overhead if their competitors do not (I do think there are steps that any nonprofit can take, though).
Nell: Part of what keeps the starvation cycle alive is that it is being fed, as you so clearly point out in your SSIR article, by both funders and nonprofit leaders. One of the things you were working on at Bridgespan was the Real Talk About Real Costs series of nonprofit leader and funder conversations. How effective was it to bring nonprofits and funders together to talk about these issues? And is that potential solution to the starvation cycle scalable?
Ann: Real Talk about Real Costs, sponsored by the Donors Forum with Bridgespan as a partner, brought together 300 leaders from nonprofits and philanthropy to wrestle with what good outcomes really cost. The event built upon a nine-month Community of Practice focused on “tackling the overhead challenge.” This interview has more about how Donors Forum decided to put the cost issue front and center. Another such effort is slated to begin in California in 2015.
In watching funder-nonprofit “mixed company” interactions, I was struck by how many funders expressed dissatisfaction with the grant-making status quo, yet frustrated that foundation trustees did not feel the same way. And I noticed how uncomfortable both funders and nonprofits were about having a tough conversation about full costs. At the event, we gave participants a role-reversal case study where a fictitious grantee and grant-maker had to discuss the terms of a grant; nonprofit attendees acted the part of the program officer and vice versa. In feedback surveys, the majority of comments focused on the discomfort and lack of knowledge they felt in talking about costs. Finding more ways for nonprofits and funders to wrestle with cost issues together would go a long way to building empathy and skills.
I don’t see a single scalable solution, but what feels most scalable as a starting point is a fundamentally different approach to communicating about costs: on websites, in collateral, and in conversations between nonprofit and funder. I believe that most funders can still make restricted grants without making unrealistic demands about how the funds are spent. For instance, what if funders asked “what type of capacity will you need to deliver on this grant?” vs. “what is the overhead for this project?” What if funders moved away from prescribed budget templates that don’t align with how nonprofits think about their resources? Even these seemingly small steps would go a long way to empowering nonprofits to communicate differently. Below I share a few specific ways I think nonprofits can help break the cycle.
Nell: The starvation cycle is just one example of the many ways we hold the nonprofit sector to a higher standard than we do the for-profit sector (costs for R&D, marketing, infrastructure, technology are taken as a given in the business world). Why does that discrepancy exist and how do we overcome it?
Ann: Overhead in the for-profit world—sales, general and administrative costs as a percentage of total sales—is 25% across all industries and 34% for service industries. The cruel irony of holding nonprofits to a much tougher standard is that donors often say that they do this because nonprofits ought to “run more efficiently, like a business.” Most people don’t know the overhead of businesses because profitability matters more.
Unlike businesses, nonprofits can’t report results in a single figure that makes apples-to-apples comparisons easy. One way to overcome this challenge is to move toward highlighting outcomes. I don’t mean standardizing outcomes (although efforts like Perform Well are very powerful), and I don’t mean doing away with financial indicators entirely. I mean moving from touting our overhead to sharing our program results. In an ideal world, nonprofits would be able to share not only their outcomes but also the costs associated with producing them.
I know this doesn’t happen overnight. Starting immediately, I would love to see more funders speak out in support of—and actually fund—these investments. And nonprofits have a role to play in shifting the conversation: by sharing for-profit overhead as a way to challenge assumptions; by taking down the overhead pie chart and other “we’re lean!” messaging from websites; and using systems like the Guidestar Exchange to share our goals and strategies in our own words.
Nell: You recently left the consulting/thought leader side of the sector (as a senior director at The Bridgespan Group) to work in the nonprofit trenches as COO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. What are you learning as you work to turn theory about overcoming the starvation cycle into action inside a nonprofit organization?
Ann: I am learning that it is doable and reminded that it is hard. In the last few months, we have taken down the efficiency statement on our website (“87 cents of every dollar goes to helping families…”) and will soon to replace it with statements of outcomes we see for Habitat homeowners. We walked away from a $100K+ funding opportunity because the grant would have allowed a maximum of 10% for indirect costs, and we estimated that the compliance costs alone would have been 2-3 times that. The grant’s focus aligned well with a nascent program, so it was a tough decision.
Under our finance team’s leadership, we also implemented a time tracking system. We now have better information on how people spend their time and can compare actual versus what was allocated in the budget. We learned, for instance, that in the last quarter we spent more time on G&A than we’d projected. This makes sense: this summer a small team of board and staff, including myself, negotiated a lease for a new office space, then transitioned to managing the move out- and move-in process. I don’t think anyone would say that was a waste of time; finding a space that met our budget in the San Francisco real estate market has been a challenging but important task.
Next on the list is an internal conversation about Charity Navigator and the way we promote our four-star rating on our website. It will be a healthy debate. On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on accountability and transparency, and I’d be naïve if I thought we hadn’t received donations from donors who use these ratings. On the other hand, I have deep reservations about Charity Navigator’s financial health methodology, particularly in that it penalizes nonprofits with higher overhead regardless of context. If we invest to support our growth—spending time finding a new office in a tough market, or upgrading our HR systems to find and retrain the best staff—we ought not to feel embarrassed about that, nor be penalized for it.
I am fortunate to work with a board and staff who are open to these changes and debates. My hope is that our experiences can serve to keep my perspective about the starvation cycle grounded and productive.
Photo Credit: Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco
October was another interesting month in the world of social change. Continued efforts to make the nonprofit overhead myth history, a troubling report about the beloved American Red Cross, a dire prediction about Millennial philanthropy, some new models for scaling social change and connecting people to solutions in their community, and a call for funding for nonprofit performance management all combined to make a great month of reading.
You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- The three writers of last year’s Letter to the Donors of America, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, have penned a new Letter to the Nonprofits of America in order to encourage nonprofit leaders to do their part to convince donors that financial overhead is a poor way to evaluate nonprofit performance.
- New York Times columnist David Brooks takes a really interesting position on the difference between networks and institutions. He equates the recent government failures to effectively fight ISIS and stop the spread of Ebola with the death of institutions and our overwhelming focus on innovation and disruption as opposed to systematization and execution. As he puts it, “We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] when the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.”
- The American Red Cross came under fire for the disaster response to hurricane Sandy in 2012. NPR and ProPublica created a two-part story (here and here) uncovering serious issues with how the response was handled. But the American Red Cross, typically a model of effective communications, went largely radio silent. Perhaps they will have a more effective response this month?
- Writing at The Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin gives a (perhaps too) chilling prediction for how Millennial philanthropists could impact our world. As he sees it, “Schooled in political correctness, and not needing to engage in the mundane work of business, this large cadre of heirs to great fortunes will almost surely seek to shape what we think, how we live, and how we vote. They may consider themselves progressives, but they may more likely help shape a future that looks ever less like the egalitarian American of our imaginings, and ever more like a less elegant version of Downton Abbey.”
- Sam McAfee takes philanthropy to task for not being truly innovative, and he looks to technology disruptors for a better model. As he puts it, “The vast majority of the social sector is still trying to tackle social problems with program and funding models that were pioneered early in the last century…The philanthropic community should be interested in the agile and lean methods produced by the technology sector, not the money produced by it, and start reorganizing project teams and resource allocation strategies and timelines in line with this proven innovation model.”
- Amy Celep and Sara Brenner describe the “Intentional Influence Strategy” that nonprofits, like playground creator KaBOOM!, use to create social change at scale. As they describe it, intentional influence is “moving likely and unlikely stakeholders within an ecosystem to take the actions required to solve a problem at the magnitude it exists.”
- Writing on the UnSectored blog, Patrick Davis from the Calvert Foundation describes their new initiative, “Ours to Own” which takes a “radical inclusion” approach to getting local community members to invest in solutions to the challenges their cities face.
- We cannot expect nonprofits to measure performance without providing the funding necessary to do so. Laura Quinn makes this quite clear, writing “If we demand more data without more funding, it logically follows that what we’ll get is simply data that’s more made up.”
- Mark Rosenman, writing on the PhilaTopic blog, describes the particular role nonprofits must play in a world suffering from the “failures of political leaders and the self-serving nature of the corporate world.”
- And finally, the Ford Foundation launched a new online forum kicked off by eight changemakers that asks the question “Where Markets Lead Will Justice Follow?” The articles will get you thinking.
Photo Credit: Joanna Penn
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