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Financing

3 Mistakes Nonprofits Make in Fundraising Staff

Before a nonprofit can achieve financial sustainability, the nonprofit leader has to figure out how to staff their money raising function effectively. When I conduct a Financial Model Assessment for a client, one of the sections of my final report is always focused on the nonprofit’s staffing structure and how that contributes to or detracts from the nonprofit’s ability to attract money. More often than not, a nonprofit that is struggling to bring enough money in the door is not thinking effectively about how they staff the money function.

And it typically boils down to three particular mistakes that a nonprofit’s leadership is making. These are:

1. There Is No Financing Strategy
You can’t expect to effectively staff your money raising function if you are not thinking about money in a strategic and holistic way. The very first step in structuring an effective money-raising staff is for a nonprofit’s leadership to figure out their organization’s financial model — how money should flow into and out of the organization. First you must assess what money-raising strategies fit best with your mission and core competencies. And then you need to develop a long-term financing strategy that is directly tied to the goals of your strategic plan. You can’t expect to hire people who will magically make money appear. Effective fundraisers must be driven by a smart money plan.

2. No Single Person Is In Charge of Money
Once you figure out your long-term financing strategy, you need to find (or promote from within) a person to oversee the entire money function of the organization. To truly use money as a tool, you can’t hire someone who can just write foundation grants, or someone who can just work with individual donors, or someone who can just secure government contracts. You need a single person who is thinking 100% of the time about all the ways money flows to your nonprofit. And make sure you offer enough salary to attract and retain a rockstar. It amazes me how many nonprofits expect to entice a great fundraiser by offering a salary that is comparable to someone with only a few years of experience. If you don’t have the current budget to pay a market rate, raise capacity capital to fund the first 1-2 years of the position. Once you have a great money raiser up and running, he will not only raise his own salary, but also grow your nonprofit’s overall financial engine.

3. Money Doesn’t Pervade Everyone and Everything
Finally, once you have a financing strategy and the right person to lead that strategy, then you need get everyone in the organization bought into and contributing (even in a small way) to its success — this is sometimes called creating a “culture of philanthropy.” But I would instead call it creating a “culture of mission financing,” which means every single person in the organization embraces the fact that in order to succeed in your mission, you must effectively finance that mission.  Money troubles often happen when nonprofit leadership offloads all money-raising responsibility to the Development Director. You must make sure that everyone in the organization (board and staff) understand their role in bringing money in the door. Create a culture where a staff member who doesn’t have dollar goals in her job description understands that giving donor tours, providing program outcome data, or writing thank you notes are critical to keeping the organization going. And make sure your board is trained in fundraising, has countless ideas for how each of them can contribute to the financial engine, meets a give/get requirement, and achieves specific individual and full board money goals.

How you staff your nonprofit’s money-raising function is directly tied to how much money you will bring in the door. Therefore you must create a smart financing strategy, hire a staff leader to execute on that strategy, and create a culture of mission financing that ensures everyone plays a role in the financial engine.

If you need help figuring out what’s holding your nonprofit back from financial sustainability, check out the Financial Model Assessment I provide my clients.

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

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Understanding The Full Costs of Nonprofits: An Interview with Michael Etzel

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Etzel. Michael is a partner in The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that consults to nonprofits and philanthropists, provides leadership development support, and develops and shares insights — all with the goal of scaling social impact.

Since joining Bridgespan in 2006, Michael has focused on effectiveness across the full spectrum of social innovation financing, advising corporate, institutional, and family philanthropists and investors. Much of Michael’s work explores what it takes to use tools of innovative finance and impact investing to solve pressing social problems. His work and research in philanthropy also focuses on the question of what it takes to deliver results as a new approach to ending the nonprofit starvation cycle.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: In your research and writing you have focused a lot on what you call “Pay-What-It-Takes-Philanthropy,” the radical idea that different nonprofit solutions have different business models and thus require different costs and investments. This concept is so accepted in the for-profit world that it is a truism, but why is it a radical idea for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders?

Michael: It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why business models and capabilities matter. Every nonprofit operates with an underlying business model and set of capabilities critical for program delivery. Failure to understand an organization’s business model frequently leads to underinvestment in core capabilities, and, as one program officer put it, “a hollowing out of civil society institutions.” We can’t have resilient, durable civil society organizations that deliver successful programs unless they operate from a position of financial strength.

As you highlight, segmentation and analysis of comparable performance data is common practice in the for-profit world. Leaders like Clara Miller, president of The Heron Foundation and former CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, have long called for this kind of thinking in the social sector. But this type of comparison requires transparent and consistent data, something hard to come by. As one nonprofit executive reminded me, “If you think you can analyze a nonprofit through IRS 990 filings, you are in outer space.”

Yet, I wouldn’t say this a radical idea. Organizations like DataArts and CoMetrics show how this is possible. For example, DataArts gathers a variety of comparable revenue, cost, and performance data for arts and cultural organizations, and provides tools for reviewing that data. This provides grantees and grant makers with actionable data to inform management or funding decisions with an eye to effectiveness and efficiency. CoMetrics addresses a more diverse set of enterprises, providing software platforms and tools that enable those enterprises to collect, display, and compare financial, operational, and impact data against their peers. This bottom-up approach gathers data across organizations running the same type of business in the same field to form groups relevant for comparative assessment and learning.

Bridgespan’s preliminary analysis to date has shown that different types of nonprofit organizations have different cost structures based on their business model. Segmenting nonprofits by business model can help us compare similar organizations. When it comes to indirect costs, for example, nonprofit research labs have a median indirect cost rate of 63%, nearly two and a half times the 25% median rate of direct service organizations.

We plan to push ahead this year to refine and deepen our understanding of segmentation and how it applies to nonprofit cost structures and capital needs. Having this information will benefit funders and grantees alike when it comes to funding discussions.

Nell: You work with both nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, so you likely see both sides of this dysfunction. What do you think it will take to move the field to a place where those with potential solutions to social problems have enough and the right kinds of money to see their solutions come to fruition?

Michael: Nonprofits exist in a complicated marketplace, seeking capital from a broad range of funders. As in any marketplace, some influential market makers set the rules. The practice of setting limits on indirect costs in project grants to nonprofits/NGOs has its antecedents in the US government’s approach to funding R&D at universities during the post-World War II era. The federal government has changed practice dramatically since 1958, embracing the “fair share” approach—that federal agencies pay their fair share of true costs, including indirect costs.

Among private foundations, indirect cost rate policies have been common for decades. A RAND report from the 1980s captured the variety of policies at that time: “many foundations customarily pay full indirect cost as budgeted in a proposal. Other foundations may pay only a portion of… or specify a cap on the support of indirect costs.” More recently, our research has shown that many large foundations set a cap of 15% or lower on indirect costs. Yet, among the 20 large nonprofits we sampled, indirect costs comprised between 21% and 89% of total costs, with the median at 40%.

I offer this history because I see the indirect cost conversation changing. For decades, much of this conversation has been driven by nonprofit and NGO leaders’ concerns about caps on indirect cost reimbursement. But funders have begun to engage more deeply in this conversation over the last several years. In 2013, Forefront (formerly Donors Forum) convened a cross section of staff from smaller Midwest foundations to discuss barriers and potential solutions to funding indirect costs. In 2015, the three California Regional Associations of Grantmakers launched the Real Cost Project (now the Full Cost Project) with the dual goals of increasing the number of funders providing real-cost funding and building the skills and capacity of grantmakers.

Having philanthropic leaders at the table is important to overcoming the reality of power dynamics. In the same breath, it’s also important to see this issue for what it is—a complex systems issue. Acknowledging this complexity helps approach this issue from a place of empathy for funders that want to do the right thing, and nonprofits that want to own and manage the costs of delivering impact.

Funders have the opportunity to ask grantees their true costs of programs and to be prepared to pay their fair share of the operational and financial support it takes to deliver those programs. Meanwhile nonprofits can focus on knowing their costs and advocating for them. Funders cannot pay their fair share if grantees don’t tell them what it is!

Nell: Beyond researching and consulting on these topics, you also serve on the board of two nonprofit organizations. What has been your on-the-ground experience as a board member trying to put these concepts to practice?

Michael: Creating space for a conversation among peer board members has been important in establishing a shared understanding of the issues—and why sometimes the executive director very rightly chooses to say “no” to a grant that doesn’t cover true costs.

The reality of this “complex marketplace” also hits home—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That puts a big burden on the executive director and finance team to effectively report and manage costs.

Photo Credit: The Bridgespan Group

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Do Your Programs Contribute to Mission AND Money?

There is a tool that I think is incredibly helpful to nonprofit leaders trying to figure out where to focus their resources and how to plan for the future. Indeed it is typically one of the first activities in the strategic planning process I use with my clients.

The Program Matrix helps a nonprofit board and staff analyze their portfolio of programs to understand their overall mission and money mix.

Because those two elements — mission and money — are inextricably bound in an effective nonprofit organization. You simply cannot achieve your mission without an operation that attracts and uses money sustainably.

The Program Matrix looks like this:

And, here’s how to fill out yours.

List Your Programs
A nonprofit leader makes a list of all their mission-related programs and initiatives. But don’t include organization-building work, like pure fundraising activities, or board development. While those activities are absolutely critical to your success, they are a means to an end. For example, conducting a fundraising appeal has the goal of raising money to plow into programs. So in Program Matrix, we want to look at just the mission-related programs.

Plot Your Programs on the Matrix
Once you have that list of programs, plot each individual program on the matrix based on that program’s ability to contribute to:

  1. Social Impact: The social change outcomes you are working toward, which are found in your Theory of Change (on the x axis), and

  2. Financial Returns: The financial sustainability of the organization (on the y axis). A program that can attract enough money not only to cover its own direct and indirect costs, but also to subsidize other programs would be above the line (“positive”), whereas a program that cannot attract enough money to cover its own costs would be below the line (“negative.”)

Analyze the Results
Once you have plotted your entire portfolio of programs on the matrix, take a look at where they fall in the four boxes. These are:

  1. Worthwhile: The program significantly contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it drains financial resources from the organization. A nonprofit will always have programs in this box, and that’s fine.

  2. Sustaining: The program doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it does provide a surplus of financial resources to the organization, which is great.

  3. Beneficial: The program contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes AND it provides excess money that can be plowed into “Worthwhile” programs — this is the best of both worlds.

  4. Detrimental: The program doesn’t contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, AND it drains financial resources from the organization — this is the worst of both worlds.

Once filled out, the Program Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address. First, any “Detrimental” programs should be significantly reconfigured, given to another organization to run, or abandoned. Second, in order to ensure financial sustainability, make sure that there are enough “Sustaining” and “Beneficial” programs to subsidize the “Worthwhile” programs. If not, you need to get strategic about developing programs that can offset the financial drain of the “Worthwhile” programs.

Repeat the Analysis Often
Once you’ve completed the Program Matrix analysis, rinse and repeat. On a regular basis (at least annually) board and staff should take a look at an updated Program Matrix and make any necessary programmatic adjustments. And any time you are thinking about adding a new program, redo the Program Matrix to include your best guess of where this new program will fall, so that you can understand its impact on the overall social impact and sustainability of your new portfolio of programs.

Armed with the power of the Program Matrix, nonprofit leaders can create a mix of programs that ensure achievement of their social change goals in a sustainable way.

Photo Credit: ParentingPatch 

 

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7 Questions to Move Your Nonprofit to Financial Sustainability

Financial sustainability seems to be the Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector. Everyone wants it, but few know how to find it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I firmly believe that financial sustainability is attainable for any nonprofit, as long as board and staff are willing to ask the right questions and do the hard work.

In fact, there is a roadmap to nonprofit financial sustainability, which includes several components. Because a nonprofit’s board, their strategy, their vision and mission, their marketing efforts, their programs, all contribute to or detract from their ability to attract and use money well.

But often nonprofits struggle in so many areas (disengaged board, poor fundraising results, non-existent strategy, ineffective marketing) that it can be difficult for a nonprofit leader and board to know where to start in order to become more financially sustainable. So I’ve developed a list of questions that assess where a nonprofit is on that path and where staff and board should focus their efforts.

This mini-assessment of 7 questions is listed in priority order, so once one area is addressed, you can move on to the next. For example, you may have your “Vision” and “Strategy” all figured out, so next you need to tackle “Program Delivery,” and so on.

So to see where your nonprofit is on the path to financial sustainability, answer these 7 questions:

  1. Long-Term Vision: Do board and staff agree on the ultimate goals of the organization — what you are trying to accomplish in the world? If not, then articulate your Theory of Change, which will help you come to a shared long-term vision.

  2. Strategy: Have board and staff together articulated a strategy — how you will marshall staff, volunteers, programs, activities — to move toward that long-term vision? If not, then create a multi-year strategic plan that ties your long-term vision to the activities and resources necessary to get there.

  3. Program Delivery and Impact: Do your programs work with the people you hope to benefit or influence in your long-term vision? If not, review your target populations and analyze each of your programs’ ability to move toward your vision.

  4. Financial Model: Have you articulated how money will flow into the organization and how that money will be used to make your long-term strategy a reality? If not, then develop a long-term financing plan that articulates how much money you need, over what timeframe, and the tasks in each revenue area necessary to meet (and hopefully exceed) those expenses.

  5. Staff Effectiveness: Do you have the right staff expertise structured in the right way to deliver on your strategy? If not, analyze your staffing structure and capabilities and how they relate to what you need.

  6. Board Engagement: Do the vast majority of your board members embrace your mission and actively participate in moving it forward? If not, set clear expectations, establish accountability, and engage them one-on-one.

  7. External Relationships: Do you have the right partnerships and engagement with the right external people and organizations necessary to deliver on your strategy? If not, seek to understand the world outside your walls, develop a marketing strategy, and build the networks you need.

If you are interested in a deeper analysis of how to move your nonprofit forward on the path to financial sustainability, check out the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for clients.

Photo Credit: Jeff Power

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2017

March offered lots of insight about how philanthropy should respond in the age of Trump. From investing in social movements, to getting involved in advocacy, to strengthening local communities, to giving more than the required 5%, there was much advice. Add to that a growing interest in how to combat “fake news,” steps to creating a digital marketing strategy, and the idea of employing migration as a tactic to combat poverty, March had much to read.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in world of social change in March, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant takes issue with the current administration’s distaste for the media and the arts (as evidenced by Trump’s elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts in his proposed budget). Oliphant argues that journalists and artists play a crucial role in a thriving society: “The right of artists and journalists to tweak the nose of power, to challenge what we believe, to criticize those in high places, to hold accountable people who otherwise might anoint themselves kings, cannot be abridged because we find it at times uncomfortable. It is that very discomfort that tells us they are doing their part in maintaining a healthy society.”

  2. Vocalizing dissent as Oliphant does is only one path available to philanthropy in these challenging times. Many people had other ideas for how philanthropy should respond, including funding social movementsgetting involved in advocacycountering the increase in hate crimes, strengthening local communities, and giving more than the typical 5% of assets. As Grantmakers for Effective Organizations President Kathleen Enright puts it: “We have a choice to make. We can succumb to the swirling and diverting streams of information that wash over us with every passing week. Or we can use this moment as a call to action, first to crystalize our values and determine what matters most to our institutions. And then to act in support of those values in new, bold and creative ways.”

  3. Philanthropic visionary Clara Miller, president of the Heron Foundation, describes what the foundation will do now that they’ve reached their goal of putting 100% of their assets toward mission. As she writes, “It’s becoming increasingly important to think and act holistically with money and influence within and beyond our sector, seeking impact on both Wall Street and Main Street.”

  4. The revelations that Russia used fake news to influence the U.S. presidential election added urgency to attempts to find solutions to the growing misinformation ecosystem. Pew Research offered a comprehensive report about the future of fake news. And writing in Nieman Reports Joshua Benton compares American distrust of journalism with American distrust of banks. And Marina Gorbis compares our current reality to the creation of the printing press in the mid-1400s, which ushered in political, religious and scientific revolutions.

  5. Speaking of what we can learn from history about today’s challenges, Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin provides 7 lessons from history for today’s social protests.

  6. Never one to shy away from controversy, Phil Buchanan takes to task those who argue that social problems can be solved by nonprofit and for-profit solutions equally well. As he puts it, “The fact is that in many, dare I say most, of the issue areas in which nonprofits are working to make a difference, there isn’t a way to do it that jibes very well with making a profit. And indeed, that is why the nonprofits were formed in the first place — because markets weren’t taking care of the issue!” Amen!

  7. Writing in his Nonprofit Chronicles blog, Marc Gunther argues that few anti-poverty interventions include the effective approach of encouraging the poor to migrate to areas with better opportunities.

  8. Large and aging nonprofit organization Greenpeace underwent a complete shift toward 21st century fundraising and advocacy efforts using technology.  This fascinating case study describes how they did it.

  9. David Mundy from GuideStar kicked off the first of a great multi-part series on how nonprofits can create their digital marketing strategy.

  10. And Nonprofit Tech for Good offered 24 Must-Read Fundraising and Social Media Reports for Nonprofits.

Photo Credit: Beraldo Leal 

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Nonprofit Capacity Building Works: An Interview with Kathy Reich

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Kathy Reich. Kathy leads the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative both in the United States and in 10 global regions. BUILD is an essential part of the foundation’s strategy to reduce inequality, a strategy arising from the conviction that healthy civil society organizations are essential to driving and sustaining just, inclusive societies. To that end, Kathy guides Ford’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to supporting the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements.

Before joining Ford in 2016, Kathy was director of organizational effectiveness and philanthropy at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she led a cross-cutting program to help grantees around the world strengthen their strategy, leadership and impact.

Kathy has long been a friend of the Social Velocity blog. You can read my interview with Kathy when she was at the Packard Foundation here and a guest blog post she wrote for the blog here.

You can also read interviews with other social changemakers here.

Nell:  You recently moved from the Packard Foundation to the Ford Foundation in order to launch their BUILD initiative, which is all about strengthening organizations. What are your goals with this new initiative and what successes have you seen so far? And what are you finding in terms of the areas where nonprofits need most help?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has two big goals in mind for BUILD. First, we want to foster a measurably stronger, more powerful set of civil society organizations and networks working to address inequality around the world. Second, we aim to build understanding within the Ford Foundation, and ultimately throughout the field of philanthropy, about how strengthening key institutions can advance social justice.

The foundation has committed $1 billion over five years to BUILD because we believe that the fight against inequality needs resilient, durable, and fortified civil society institutions. Individuals and ideas also are critical, but the key role of institutions as drivers of sustained social change is a core, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of social justice work.

Each of the BUILD grantee organizations and networks will receive five years of support, at levels higher than what they have historically received from the Ford Foundation. Much of this support will be as flexible as we can legally make it; most grants will include generous general support. The remainder of each BUILD grant will provide support for nonprofit organizations and networks to strengthen their strategies, leadership, management, and finances. Each BUILD grantee will develop and then implement its own institutional strengthening plan. Although Ford Foundation staff will consult on drafts of these plans, the grantee will be “in the driver’s seat” in determining their institutional strengthening priorities and how best to address them.

So far we’ve made about 90 BUILD grants, and honestly it’s a bit early to say how well they are working. We do know where organizations are planning to spend the money. The vast majority of BUILD grantees, 79 percent, are choosing to strengthen their core operations, investing in areas such as financial management, fundraising, communications, evaluation, and HR. About two-thirds also are investing in strengthening capacities critical to social justice work, such as legal, research, network building, and advocacy. Close to half are investing in strengthening their strategic clarity and coherence, 36 percent are investing in leadership development and governance, and 32 percent are choosing to deepen their organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s important to note that BUILD is not the Ford Foundation’s only investment in strengthening nonprofit institutions. BUILD is part of FordForward, the Ford Foundation’s multi-pronged effort to make philanthropy part of the solution to inequality in a deep and lasting sense. In addition to BUILD, two other aspects of FordForward focus on strengthening nonprofits. The foundation is giving more general support grants across all program areas, with a goal of making general support our default type of grant whenever possible. We also are increasing overhead rates on project grants to a minimum of 20 percent, to more adequately address the indirect costs of executing projects and programs.

Nell: This is a pretty innovative approach to capacity building, how do you plan to share what you learn with other funders and with the sector overall?

Kathy: We’re planning a robust evaluation and learning strategy, although we’re really just getting started. Our hope is to share some early findings by year’s end. We’ll be focusing on three sets of key questions throughout the five-year initiative:

  • Do BUILD grants work? Do the organizations and networks that receive this funding become stronger and more durable over time? And if so, what if any impact does that have on the organization’s effectiveness?
  • If the BUILD approach works, what about it works? Is it the general operating support, or a specific kind of organizational strengthening, or something else?
  • Have we changed the way we do business at Ford, moving away from one-year project grants in favor of larger, more flexible grants?

Along with our evaluation and learning plan, we’re also developing a communications strategy to share what we learn with the field and engage in dialogue with others. We’ll be publishing evaluation results, speaking at conferences, and making active use of social media.

Nell: Both the Ford Foundation and the Packard Foundation are rare funders in that they are very committed to creating strong nonprofit organizations through heavy investment in capacity building. Do you think philanthropic and government funders are starting to follow your lead? Or what will it take to make that happen?

Kathy: Well, we certainly hope they are! It’s important to acknowledge that capacity building grantmaking is not new; in launching BUILD, we’ve learned from and appreciate the work of leaders in this field like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation.

Over time, we hope that the ranks of capacity building funders will grow. We hope that BUILD will influence other donors by contributing to the evidence base that nonprofit capacity building works—that stronger, more durable, and more resilient organizations and networks are more effective at achieving their missions.

We also hope to contribute to the evidence base about what kinds of capacity building work best for organizations and networks of different types and sizes, working on different issues in diverse geographies. That’s a tall order, but one of the great things about being a global funder and being able to invest significant resources in BUILD is that we’re able to try this grantmaking approach with a broad range of institutions.

Nell: The Ford Foundation made a very public move two years ago to focus their efforts on fighting inequality. But that goal has arguably become harder given the political winds. How does a foundation like Ford navigate achievement of their desired impact in a potentially more difficult external environment?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has worked in the U.S. and around the world for more than 70 years, and we’ve seen a lot of upheaval during that time. We’re acutely aware of the challenges facing our work, but we’re moving ahead with optimism and with what my boss Darren Walker calls “radical hope.”

BUILD is a big part of that hope. I believe strongly that in uncertain times, a BUILD approach to grantmaking is one of the smartest choices a foundation can make. By giving our grantees multi-year general operating support, we are giving them the resources and the flexibility to pivot their work quickly in the face of new realities. By also giving them thoughtful and flexible institutional strengthening support, we are enabling them to invest in their own leadership, strategy, management and operations at a time when they have to be at the top of their games.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation

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What Is Nonprofit Sustainability?

Last week I led a planning call among the panelists on the “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability” session I am moderating at April’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference (which I described in an earlier post). One of the panelist suggested that we start the session by defining what we mean by “nonprofit sustainability.”

As we started to discuss this, it quickly became apparent that some of us had different definitions of “nonprofit sustainability.” And indeed, in the social change sector more broadly there is a long list of definitions of nonprofit sustainability.

Sometimes people use “nonprofit sustainability” to mean nonprofits moving away from private philanthropy and becoming self-sufficient through earned income sources (the sale of goods or services). I don’t believe that that is ever possible. Nonprofits are often borne as a response to a disequilibrium that the market created (income inequality, racial injustice, failing education). So it is rare that a nonprofit can figure out a way to make the market pay for something that it created. The vast majority of nonprofits will never be fully self-sustaining through earned income efforts; rather they will always be subsidized by non-earned sources, like philanthropy and government.

Others define “nonprofit sustainability” as the ability to attract multi-year, unrestricted funding. While that would be a positive step, foundations are largely the only nonprofit funding source able or willing to make unrestricted, multi-year commitments. Government funding is never unrestricted, and individuals rarely make multi-year commitments. And even if all foundation funders made these commitments, foundation funding only ever totals 2-3% of all of the revenue flowing to the nonprofit sector. So that’s not a big enough piece of the pie to ensure nonprofit sustainability.

Still others talk about “nonprofit sustainability” as having a diversified revenue stream. It may make sense for some nonprofits to focus on one or two revenue streams if that’s where their core competencies lie. So it is not a foregone conclusion that revenue diversification fits every nonprofit business model.

And other people define “nonprofit sustainability” as understanding and funding a nonprofit’s full costs, including direct and indirect costs. While this is absolutely a part of nonprofit sustainability, I don’t think it tells the whole story.

Therefore, none of these definitions of nonprofit sustainability satisfy me. They are either two narrow, too unrealistic, or inaccurate.

My definition, then, is:

Nonprofit sustainability occurs when a nonprofit attracts and effectively uses
enough and the right kinds of money necessary to achieve their long-term outcome goals.

So to break that down, nonprofit sustainability includes these elements:

Knowing Your Long-Term Outcome Goals
To be sustainable, a nonprofit must articulate the long-term outcomes that they are ultimately trying to accomplish (through a Theory of Change). You cannot hope to be sustainable if you can’t articulate why you exist and what you ultimately want to accomplish as a social change organization.

Having a Strategy to Achieve Those Goals
And you won’t achieve those outcomes (and be sustainable) if you don’t have a long-term strategy to get there. The strategy doesn’t have to be set in stone — it should be malleable as internal and external circumstances change — but it should ultimately guide your course to achieving those outcome goals.

Effectively Using Enough Money
But its not enough to simply plan for the future, you must then figure out what staff, board, volunteers, systems, technology, marketing, and other resources you need to bring your strategy to fruition. You must articulate the business model you will employ, and the corresponding money required, to realize your long-term outcome goals. And I don’t mean the band-aid version — I mean what it will really take to achieve the long-term outcomes you seek.

Attracting the Right Kinds of Money
But it’s also not enough to figure out what it’s going to cost. You have to figure out the other side of the money equation, which is how to bring that money in the door. A smart financial strategy attracts money that is the right fit for your organization. You have to be strategic (not reactive) about how money flows to the organization (fundraising, government grants, earned income). It might be that you focus solely on private sources, or you may have a mix of government and earned sources. But your financial model must align with your core competencies and your mission.

Nonprofit sustainability means that a nonprofit board and staff know what they want to accomplish, develop a smart strategy and business model, and use money as a tool to make it happen.

But nonprofit sustainability should not be up to just nonprofit leaders to figure out. Anyone who wants to realize social change (the government, private funders, social change leaders) must advocate for and support more sustainability in the sector. It must be a larger conversation. I hope that conversation grows far beyond the CEP conference in April.

Photo Credit: Philip Taylor

 

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Nonprofit Leaders, Get Outside Your Walls

It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders form their organizational strategy, their fundraising pitch, or their program model inside their nonprofit’s own walls. In order to be successful, you must understand the market in which you operate. And in order to understand it, you must go investigate it.

It is a simple fact that nonprofits must compete for funding, for clients, for volunteers, for staff, for board members, for mindshare, for policymaker will and commitment. So you must understand the market in which you work – what’s happening out there and how you fit in.

Ongoing market research can help you understand how your clients and potential clients think, what your funders want now and in the future, what your competitors and collaborators are doing and where they might be going, and how the very problems you exist to solve might be changing over time.

And there is another huge benefit to this data gathering — it forces you to expand and strengthen your network, because in the very act of finding out what’s happening outside your walls, you will forge new and deeper connections with others out there. So while market research should definitely be part of your long-term strategic planning process, it is also something you should continue to do on at least an annual basis.

Market research is where you test the assumptions baked into your work. You are seeking to find the answers to questions like:

Competitors/Collaborators

  • How are the efforts of other groups in our space changing over time?
  • How are these other groups funded?
  • What are their program delivery models?
  • What are their plans for the future?
  • Where are there opportunities for alliance?
  • How do they define the social problems they are working on?

External Context

  • What other social, technological, economic, demographic, political, regulatory shifts are happening outside our walls that might affect the problem(s) we are working on?

Target Populations

Of those people or groups you are trying to influence or benefit (like your clients) find out:

  • What are the demographic (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.) characteristics of these groups?
  • What are their psychographic (attitudes, interests, goals, etc.) characteristics?
  • How can we best reach them and change their attitudes and/or behavior?
  • What specific subsets of these populations can we have the greatest impact on?

Funding

  • How might our various funding streams (government, earned income, private donations, etc.) change over time?
  • What might our current or future funders want in the future?
  • What appeals to them about our solution?
  • What appeals to them about alternative solutions?

Before embarking on any market research, think through questions like these and figure out which are most applicable to your situation. This becomes your market research list.

Then determine how you will find the answers to those questions. Very few nonprofits can afford a comprehensive market study, so it will likely be up to your staff to do the digging. This can include activities like:

  • Web research on your competitors, collaborators, funders.
  • One-on-one interviews with current and potential funders, collaborators and competitors, experts in your field.
  • Surveys of your current or potential clients, members, influencers, funders, volunteers.
  • Review of existing research on the social issues on which you work.

And don’t assume that you will do this type of market research only once. Rather, you want to make it a regular part of operations (at least annually, if not more often), so it shouldn’t be overly burdensome. Make it easy and interesting for you and your staff to get beyond your walls and better understand the market in which you work.

Armed with new and ongoing knowledge about your market, you will be better able to design effective programs, attract additional support, articulate your nonprofit’s unique value, grow your network, and much more. So get out there!

Photo Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wartime Social Survey

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