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The Fundamental Flaws in How We Finance the Nonprofit Sector

NFF SurveyToday the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) released the results of their sixth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey and the data underlines a growing crisis in the financial sustainability of our nonprofit sector.

56% of nonprofit leader respondents reported that they were unable to meet demand for their services in 2013, this is the highest rate since the survey’s inception six years ago. And the scary part is that this inability to meet demand is not because of a temporary down period in the economy, but rather because of deeper dysfunctions in how we funnel money to the sector. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of NFF put it, “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle, they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”

The survey gathered responses from more than 5,000 leaders from U.S. nonprofits of all sizes, domain areas, and geographies.

The top challenge by far for nonprofit leaders, with 41% of them reporting it, is “achieving long-term financial stability.” And this is evidenced in several ways:

  • More than half of nonprofits (55%) have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
  • 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
  • Only 9% can have an open dialogue with funders about developing reserves for operating

These struggles with financial sustainability stem in large part from a lack of understanding among funders of the true costs of social change work. Roughly 53% of nonprofit respondents’ funders rarely or never fund the full costs of the programs they support. And for approximately 24% of respondents their government indirect cost rate (the amount government allows for indirect, or “overhead” expenses) declined over the last 5 years, while about 47% of respondents are subject to a government indirect rate of 9% or less. That is nearly impossible.

For the first time, the survey included questions about impact measurement, a growing interest among funders, ratings agencies and others in the sector. But these questions just further underline the financial Catch-22 in which nonprofit leaders find themselves. 70% of nonprofit leaders report that half to all of their funders want to see proof of the impact of their programs, but 71% of nonprofit leaders also report that funders rarely or never fund the costs of impact measurement.

At the end of the day, government and private funders are putting greater demands on nonprofits whose services are increasingly needed, all while funding is becoming more difficult to secure. It’s a vicious downward spiral.

More than ever this survey demonstrates a need for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it to take a hard look at how the social sector is financed. We are not sustainably financing the social change work we so desperately need. And if we don’t address that, the downward spiral will simply continue.

Here are some fundamental changes to the financing of the nonprofit sector that I’d like to see:

  • Government must move to a more reasonable indirect rate. No one can deliver an effective program with only 9% allocated to administration and other “overhead” costs.
  • Funders who want to see impact measures need to step up and fund the work and systems necessary to make it happen.
  • Nonprofit leaders and funders need to have more open and honest conversations about the hurdles standing in the way of the work.
  • Nonprofit leaders need help figuring out sustainable financial models.

In the six years of NFF’s comprehensive and unparalleled view into the world of nonprofit leaders the story is not getting better. Let’s hope this data serves as a wake up call for the social sector. We must collectively realize that if we really want social change we have to figure out how to finance it effectively and sustainably.

 

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Leading a High Performing Nonprofit: An Interview with Pat Lawler

In today’s SPat Lawlerocial Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?

Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.

As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.

It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.

Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?

Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.

Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?

Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.

Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?

Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?

Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.

If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.

From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.

Photo Credit: Youth Villages

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: February 2014

readingFebruary witnessed some dissatisfaction with the current state of funding for social change, but also some trailblazers playing with new financial vehicles. I always wonder whether true change to money for social good will come with the next generation. Do Millennials hold the key to fundamental shifts in how we finance social change efforts? We shall see.

Below is my list of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in February. But, as usual, please add what I missed in the comments. If you’d like to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also find the list of past months’ 10 Great Reads here.

  1. As we work toward social change, its important to embrace the gray areas. Writing in the New York Times Simon Critchley takes us back to the 1970s BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man” to make a point about the importance of uncertainty in our search for solutions. As he puts it, “Insisting on certainty…leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.” And Fay Twersky seems to agree when it comes to strategic philanthropy, arguing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “we need to challenge the certainty creeping into [philanthropy].”

  2. And speaking of changing philanthropy yet another study of Millennial philanthropists claims that this new generation of donors will be quite different than their predecessors. As Phil DeMuth writing in Forbes puts it, these new donors “are no longer interested in providing an annuity to some tax-deductible charity organization.” They want to see results, and they want to get in and get out.

  3. But Lucy Bernholz is frustrated by the pace of change, at least in how little the financial vehicles philanthropists use are changing. She argues that in this year’s list of the top 50 philanthropists  “the financial vehicles for philanthropy…look not unlike [those] in 1954 or 1914.”

  4. Tris Lumley from New Philanthropy Capital voices frustration as well, but with the general state of nonprofit finance. He puts forward a new model for the social sector that removes the “funder-centricity” of the “anti-social sector.”  Because, as he argues, “the result of this funder-centricity at its worst is that the social sector exists not for those it’s supposed to help, but in fact for those who work in it, volunteer in it, and give money to it.”

  5. There are some bright spots, at least in the United Kingdom. The country leads the way in the social impact bond trend.  Emma Tomkinson provides a map of social impact bond activity in the UK versus the rest of the world and the UK Centre for Social Impact Bonds provides a great site of resources on the new tool.

  6. And even here at home there are some trend setters, particularly the F.B. Heron Foundation, led by the visionary Clara Miller who also founded and led the trailblazing Nonprofit Finance Fund for 25 years. Clara has announced the F.B. Heron Foundation will account for the mission return of 100% of its assets. Unheard of and definitely interesting to watch.

  7. There is a constant tension in the nonprofit sector between funding new ideas and funding the growth of proven ideas.  Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Alex Neuhoff, Laura Burkhauser, and Bradley Seeman fall squarely on the side of growing proven solutions, arguing that in order to reach a higher performing nonprofit sector we must “follow the “recipes” that earned proven programs their stellar ratings.”

  8. There was much for Millennial changemakers to chew on this month. First, there is a growing drumbeat questioning the relevance and value of college. Does the higher education model really work anymore? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate. And Naomi Schaefer Riley does so in the “College Tuition Bubble.

  9. I’ve been on a real Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) kick lately. His worldview is that each individual was put on earth to create some specific greater good, but Resistance constantly fights to keep us from achieving it. If you need inspiration to overcome Resistance, read his post “How Resistance Proves the Existence of God.” Love it.

  10. And for those who are pursuing a life of social change despite the lure of a more traditional path, look to Thoreau for inspiration. For as Maureen Corrigan explains in her NPR review of a new biography of the man, “Thoreau’s youth seemed aimless to himself and others because there were no available roadmaps for what he was drawn to be…If Thoreau had committed to a professional career right after Harvard, his parents might have rested easier, but the world would have been poorer.”

Photo Credit: beggs

 

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Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?

mythEver since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStarCharity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.

More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.

But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.

Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?

I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.

For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:

  • Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
  • Engage a more invested board of directors
  • Use money and other limited resources more strategically
  • Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
  • More effectively manage to outcomes
  • Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit

So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.

At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.

If you want to learn more about funding nonprofit organization building, download the Power of Capacity Capital E-book or the Raising Capacity Capital Webinar.

Photo Credit: liquidnight

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Financing Not Fundraising: Stop Apologizing for Needing Money

sorry gameIt becomes increasingly obvious to me that the nonprofit sector suffers from a lack of confidence. Centuries of being sidelined as “charities” while the real work of the world (business) took center stage has made the nonprofit sector continually apologize for the work they do and how they do it.

Nowhere is this more true than in the financing of their work.

But for the nonprofit sector to start to demand a seat at the big money table, nonprofits must stop apologizing for needing money. To truly begin to use money as a tool, nonprofit leaders have to stop regretting their need of it and start demanding that they receive enough and the right kinds of money to successfully accomplish their work, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.

Note that this post is included in the recently released Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book.

You can’t simply decide to stop feeling bad about asking for money. Instead you have to find the confidence to identify and secure the right financing for your work.

Here’s how:

Ask for Change, Not Your Organization
You shouldn’t be asking for money for your organizational needs, rather you should be asking for money as a vehicle to help your organization create social change. Everyone is uncomfortable when asking for a handout. If instead you are asking for resources to make positive social change, which a donor cares about, it is much more powerful, compelling and confidence-inspiring.

Find the Right People
It surely can be awkward asking for money if you are asking the wrong person. Don’t fall into the trap that many nonprofits do by thinking that anyone with money is a potential donor to your nonprofit. People give based on values, therefore you only want to target people for whom your mission and your work resonate deeply. No matter who your target is (an individual, a foundation, a corporation) think about whether they have the Capacity to give at the level you need, have a Connection to someone at your nonprofit, and have a Concern for your nonprofit’s mission. Being strategic about who you are targeting makes you much more confident when you finally make the ask.

Tie Money to Your Goals
If you know as an organization what you are trying to accomplish and how much that will cost, you will have much more confidence asking for money. Instead of just asking for money, you will be asking for the financing necessary to accomplish your strategic goals. If you have a smart organizational strategy you can confidently ask a potential donor to invest in a solid, well-thought out plan for creating change to a problem they care about. And that’s much less awkward than asking someone to just give, right?

Take Out the Middle Man (or Event)
So many nonprofits sidestep the awkwardness of asking for money for their mission by holding a big gala event instead. The thinking is that if they camouflage the ask inside twinkly lights, great music and food, and a loud band that people won’t mind opening their wallets. Aside from the very real fact that you are leaving money on the table, events simply enable the lack of confidence I am describing. Instead of feeling so guilty about asking for money that you run your board and staff ragged by staging a huge event, take out the middle man and identify, cultivate and solicit donors who truly care about your work and will give more significantly through a major donor campaign.

Share Your Results
If your nonprofit is truly creating social change, then you can very confidently ask others to join you as partners in making that change continue to happen. Collect, analyze and share the results of your nonprofit’s programs. Demonstrate the change that you are creating and that donors care about. With solid results to point to, you can confidently ask other people to invest in your successful work. At the end of the day, if your nonprofit is creating positive community value then you should confidently be asking for the money necessary to make that value grow.

Stop apologizing for needing the financing necessary to do the work and start finding and confidently inviting interested investors to partner with you. In so doing you will be moving your nonprofit from fundraising to financing.

To learn more about the Financing Not Fundraising approach, download the Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-bo0k, or any of the Financing Not Fundraising books in the series.

Photo Credit: myguitarzz

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Starting a Movement Toward Higher Performing Nonprofits

Athlete_at_starting_blockThis week I attended the After the Leap conference in Washington D.C. and was blown away. As I mentioned in a post earlier this year, the conference was organized by Social Solutions and PerformWell partners Child Trends and Urban Institute and builds on the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011, and the companion book Working Hard & Working Well by David Hunter published this year.

This first-ever conference was an attempt to bring the nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders who are on the cutting edge of the movement to create a higher-performing social sector together to, as Mario put it “grow a critical mass who can mobilize for greater change.”

What’s Government’s Role in Nonprofit Performance?
Day 1 focused on government’s role in driving social sector performance management. A fascinating panel of government agency leaders, moderated by Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation, discussed various efforts at the federal, state and local government levels to drive evidence-based policy and practice. But some in the audience and Twitter-verse wondered whether government could really be the impetus for a greater push towards measuring and managing outcomes in the nonprofit sector.

How Do You Get Buy-In For Change?
From the big, systemic view, the day quickly shifted for me to the organization-level with the fantastic panel on “Getting Buy-In” from staff, board and funders for a shift towards performance management. Isaac Castillo from DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, Bridget Laird from Wings for Kids, and Sotun Krouch from Roca explained how they had moved their nonprofits toward articulating and measuring outcomes. The most effective approach seemed to be to ask “Don’t you want to know whether the work we are doing is helping rather than hurting?” Isaac made the urgency to move toward performance management clear, “If you haven’t started doing performance management yet, in 12-18 months you will start losing funding to those who are.”

Can We Convince Funders to Invest?
Day 2 of the conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote address by Nancy Roob from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that really served as a call to action for the foundation world. Nancy painted a pretty stark picture of the disconnect she saw between how much money we’ve spent on solving social problems in the last decades and how much actual progress we’ve made. She blamed this disconnect on “our piecemeal approach to solutions.” As she bluntly put it, “We are woefully under-invested in what we already know works.” She laid out 5 steps funders can take to move away from piecemeal and toward transformational social change:

  1. Make bigger, multi-year investments
  2. Provide more upfront, unrestricted, flexible capital
  3. Invest in nonprofit evidence building
  4. Scale what works with innovation, and
  5. Adopt an investor mindset

But for Nancy, it’s not just up to funders, nonprofits also need to change. She urged nonprofits to:

  1. Shed the charity mindset
  2. Focus on the larger context
  3. Create a performance management culture, and
  4. Ask for help to achieve performance

From there, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy led a panel with Carol Thompson Cole from Venture Philanthropy Partners and Denise Zeman from Saint Luke’s Foundation asking “Do Funders Get it?” While a few funders are willing to invest in helping nonprofits articulate, measure and manage to outcomes, most are not. The panel suggested that some of this reluctance stems from funder’s lack of humility and fear of what they might find. Audience members suggested that it might also be funders’ lack of performance expertise. (You can read Phil Buchanan’s blog post giving more detail on this panel here.)

From there I attended a breakout session “Funder Investment Strategies to Strengthen Nonprofit Performance Management Capacity” where Victoria Vrana from the Gates Foundation and Lissette Rodriguez from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and two of their grantees discussed how they worked together to fund and create performance management systems.

The final panel of the day brought an impressive group of nonprofit CEOs together (Mindy Tarlow from Center for Employment Opportunities, Sam Cobbs from First Place for Youth, Cynthia Figueroa from Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Bill McCarthy from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and Thomas Jenkins from Nurse-Family Partnership) to talk about how they each had built a performance management system at their organizations, the hurdles they encountered, how they funded it, and where they are now.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Mario Morino rounded out the conference with an inspiring call for us to build momentum. He outlined some new ideas coming out of the conference that he’d like to see developed by 2020, including:

  1. A “Manhattan Project” of social sector evidence
  2. A National Commission on Nonprofit High Performance
  3. An Aggregated Growth Capital Fund to deploy billions to solve entrenched national problems
  4. A Performance Academy for Social Impact
  5. Presidential Performance-to-Impact Awards
  6. Social Sector Center for Quality Improvement
  7. A Solutions Journalism Network to “lift up the hope spots” in the country
  8. Leap Learning Communities in local settings connected in a national web

This was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in years. The caliber of the presenters and audience was amazing. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of the next generation of the social sector. Buoyed by the ability to see the writing on the wall, this group is determined to lead the fundamental, and critical, shift towards a more effective sector.

You can read the Twitter feed from the conference here and learn more about the movement here.

The urgency of this movement became increasingly clear through the course of the two days. Our country is witnessing mounting disparity and crippling social challenges. It is increasingly up to the social sector to turn the tide. And the time is now. As Mario charged at the end of the conference “If we don’t figure out how to build high performing nonprofits, nothing else matters. This is the last mile. Our nation depends on it.”

Photo Credit: tableatny

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The Long View on the Nonprofit Sector: An Interview with Bill Shore

Bill ShoreIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?

Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.

Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?

Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.

Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?

Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.

Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?

Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.

Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?

Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.

Photo Credit: Share Our Strength

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: October 2013

10 Great Social Innovation Read Oct 2013It was really hard to narrow down to 10 great reads this month. People wrote some really compelling (even more than usual) things in October. And some longer pieces in particular were quite thought-provoking. Some asked searing questions like “Is arts innovation really innovative?” and “Is  increasing income disparity making us less empathetic?” and “Can philanthropy fix our broken democracy?” And that’s just a start. Lots to think about.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in October. But please add what I missed in the comments.

And if you want to see an expanded list of interesting reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+. You can also find past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. The conversation about the overhead myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should be evaluated based on how much they spend on overhead (fundraising and administrative expenses), still rages on. First Paul Hogan from the John R. Oishei Foundation reframes the argument to include general operating and program support.  Then Heather Peeler from GEO reports on a panel at a recent gathering of Social Innovation Fund grantees and grantors discussing what funders can do to build more sustainable organizations. And Julie Brandt writes a ringing endorsement of the overhead myth movement arguing that “Donors need to focus on evaluating charities based on leadership, transparency, governance, and results.”

  2. But lest you think that everyone agrees, Tiziana Dearing raises some good points about nonprofits not yet having the necessary resources or tools to boil outcomes down to short term ratios or ratings. As she says, “Everyone has more work to do.”

  3. There were some great examples of nonprofits using social media in interesting ways. From the Social Media BirdBrain blog comes 4 Best Examples of Nonprofit Video Storytelling and from the HubSpot blog, 10 Nonprofits That Are Totally Nailing Pinterest Marketing.

  4. And speaking of innovatively using media to move social change forward, this infographic on America’s school dropout problem demonstrates a concise and compelling way to explain a complex problem.

  5. Part of the potential solution to America’s education problems might lie in new science. An interesting new school within Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project is using neuroscience to teach children in new ways.

  6. If you really want to unpack the buzz around “innovation,” particularly in the arts, take a look at this really interesting, thought-provoking 6-essay series at Culturebot questioning innovation and the arts, what’s working and what isn’t. It is well worth your time and is guaranteed to make you think.

  7. On the Idealist blog, April Greene wisely counsels those entering the social change space, that if you want to pursue your dreams, don’t tell your mother. Such good advice, ha!

  8. Richard Eisenberg provides some really interesting analysis of recent data and what it tells us about how generations approach giving differently.

  9. Writing in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman worries that the widening income gap may be creating a widening empathy gap because “social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” Very scary.

  10. President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci writes a passionate plea that philanthropy help fix a quite broken (as particularly evidenced in October’s federal government shutdown) American political system.

Photo Credit: ekelley89

 

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