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Foundations

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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Emerging From the Nonprofit Starvation Tunnel

TunnelNonprofits are always starving for resources. It’s a concept so ubiquitous that it’s almost a truism. But it doesn’t have to be.

For those nonprofit leaders brave enough, capacity capital can be the key to emerging from the continuous nonprofit starvation cycle.

Next month I will be speaking at the Securing the Future Conference in Cincinnati about capacity capital. Beyond looking forward to meeting a new group of nonprofit leaders, board members and donors, I’m particularly excited about introducing them to what I think has the potential to be a transformative concept for the nonprofit sector.

The topic of my speech is “The Power of Capacity Capital,” and in it I will convince the audience that you no longer have to run a nonprofit to the bone, continually starving the organization of the staffing, infrastructure, and systems that you need to effectively deliver social change.

Capacity capital is the money that so many nonprofits need, but most find so hard to raise. It is money for infrastructure and organization building. It is a one-time investment of significant money that can fund a program evaluation, a new data gathering system, revenue-generating staff, leadership coaching, and the many other things nonprofits require in order to be effective leaders of social change.

If you want to move your organization out of the starvation cycle, you have to learn how to raise capacity capital.

For those of you who won’t be at the Securing the Future Conference, but want to learn more about capacity capital – whether it’s right for your nonprofit and how to go about raising it – you can download my on-demand webinar, Raising Capacity Capital.

capacity webinarThe 60-minute Raising Capacity Capital on-demand webinar will show you how to:

  • Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
  • Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
  • Develop a campaign goal
  • Break the goal into donor ask amounts
  • Identify prospective donors
  • Give your board a role in the campaign
  • Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need

Like all of the Social Velocity on-demand webinars, you can watch this webinar whenever and however many times you would like.

You really don’t have to continue to live in starvation mode. There is a path toward a stronger, more effective nonprofit organization. Capacity capital can help you get there.

Photo Credit: panthera-lee

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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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Financing Not Fundraising: Assess Your Nonprofit’s Financial Model

moneyI am amazed by the reaction of some nonprofit leaders when faced with a budget shortfall. Some simply shake their head in innocent confusion, some blame an “inexperienced” development director or a “checked-out” board, and others throw together a knee-jerk fundraising event in order to stem the tide.

But a much better approach, when you don’t have the money your nonprofit needs, is to step back and assess the viability of your nonprofit’s overall money function, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.

If you want greater, more reliable funding for your nonprofit, you must get strategic. And the first step to any real strategy is analysis.

Instead of viewing the money that flows to your nonprofit as a side note, or worse, a completely uncontrollable force, you must view money as a very necessary and integrated function that is just as important as your nonprofit’s programmatic function. And in order to determine how well your money function operates and how to transform it, you must assess it.

A transformative financial model assessment uncovers how all aspects of the organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through the doors. It analyzes the financial impact of 7 areas of the organization, like this:

  1. Strategy
    Does your nonprofit have a long-term strategy that integrates money, programs and operations? Does your strategy help articulate the value your nonprofit provides the community in order to compel outsiders to invest? Does your strategy include measures for whether that value is actually being created?

  2. Mission and Vision
    Does your nonprofit have clear, compelling vision and mission statements? The two statements are not “nice to have” marketing language, rather they articulate the very essence of why your nonprofit exists. Does your vision paint a bold description of the social change you seek? Does your mission describe the day-to-day work towards that vision?

  3. Board and Staff Leadership
    Does your board have the skills, experience and networks necessary to execute on your strategic plan? Are they engaged and invested? Are they actively connecting the organization to people, resources, partnerships? Does your staff have the knowledge and experience necessary to make money flow? And are they structured and managed effectively?

  4. Program Delivery and Impact
    As a nonprofit you have two sets of “customers.” Those you serve (or your “clients”), and those who fund those services (or your “donors”). Without a compelling and effective delivery of services to clients, donors won’t fund those services. Is your nonprofit strategic about which programs to grow and which to cut? Do you measure the effect of your programs on clients? Are your programs financially viable, or are too many of your programs mission-rich, but cash-poor?

  5. Marketing and Communications
    Do you make a compelling case for your work and for support of it? Once you’ve made the case, are you using the right marketing channels (website, social media, events, email, etc.) to attract and engage your target funders, volunteers, advocates, board members and other supporters?

  6. External Partnerships
    In order to move the mission forward and in order to attract funders, volunteers, advocates you must be strategic about building alliances that make sense. Do you have the necessary external relationships to execute on your strategy? Are you constantly working to strengthen or grow the right partnerships in the right ways?

  7. Financial Model
    And only now do we look specifically at money. Because without all the previous elements (thoughtful strategy, compelling vision and mission, strong leadership) money simply will not follow. Does your funding mix fit well with your mission and core competencies? Are there other revenue streams that make sense to pursue? Are there fundraising activities that are actually costly rather than profitable?

When money isn’t working the way you want it to, don’t stick your head in the sand. Wrest the money sword from the beast of chance by taking a hard look at your nonprofit’s money function.

If you want to learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I provide clients, click here. And if you want to learn more about the Financing Not Fundraising approach, download the newest e-book in the Financing Not Fundraising series, Financing Not Fundraising volume 3.

Photo Credit: Pen Waggener

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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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Philanthropy, Government, and Nonprofit Excellence: An Interview with Daniel Stid

Daniel StidIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Daniel Stid, Senior Fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Daniel serves as an advisor to Foundation president, Larry Kramer, leading the exploration of a potential Foundation initiative to support and improve the health of democracy in the US. Before joining the Foundation, Daniel was a longtime consultant and strategist to governments, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations, including as a partner in The Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office, where he co-led the organization’s performance measurement practice.

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

Nell: You moderated a panel at the recent After the Leap conference about government and performance management. Government has a long history in the outcomes space, but there was some controversy at the conference about whether government can really lead this new movement. What role should government play in this new push toward nonprofit performance management?

Daniel: Yes, my Twitter feed was blowing up during that session with people adamantly saying that government couldn’t lead this push, it had to be nonprofits! To my mind this controversy misses the point. It presumes a hierarchy – that leadership is lodged in one place, and that it is exercised in one direction. The fact is that if we are going to make this “leap” happen, we need distributed leadership in multiple places: in government agencies, in operating nonprofits, in foundations, among researchers and program developers.

A great example is the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program administered by the Office of Adolescent Health in the federal department of Health and Human Services, the implementation of which I recently wrote about with some former colleagues at The Bridgespan Group. The Office of Adolescent Health administrators demonstrated leadership in conceiving and developing a bold and thoughtful program; the researchers and purveyors involved demonstrated leadership in creating evidence-based solutions and effectively supporting their implementation; and front line agencies demonstrated leadership in implementing these interventions with fidelity. What makes this program so compelling is that it has been animated by multiple forms of leadership that are networked and reinforcing each other across sector lines. I believe this same pattern occurs in most other situations where social change is happening at a large scale.

Nell: Your charge as a senior fellow at the Hewlett Foundation is to help explore how the foundation can “support and improve the health of democracy in the United States.” There have been some criticisms lately that philanthropy has moved away from supporting democracy and instead sometimes enhances wealth inequality. What are your thoughts?

Daniel: Insofar as this occurs, I believe this an inadvertent effect from the standpoint of individual donors. Most people want to give to something they can point to and/or that they can have affiliation with – hence the contributions of many donors to hospitals and arts organizations and universities, or to the schools that their children attend. This is straightforward and understandable. You can readily see and appreciate and be associated with what you are getting for your contributions. And it is philanthropy. We shouldn’t presume that all philanthropy can or should be geared toward reducing inequality. That is not the point of philanthropy in a free society. (Now whether all philanthropy needs to be and should be subsidized by the tax code is another question; I am on the record as saying it is high time to revisit the charitable deduction.)

The kinds of interventions that stand a chance of alleviating inequality – e.g., support for high quality early education, or effective teen pregnancy prevention – entail large-scale systems change and diffuse and uncertain impact for people typically living in very different communities from the philanthropists who are in a financial position to support them. They are for that reason a riskier philanthropic proposition. But many individual donors and foundations are making these investments anyway, and I bet we will see more of them do so as the evidence-base supporting solutions to inequality continues to be solidified.

Nell: Moving nonprofits to a performance management system will be costly. Do you think government can and should foot that bill, or can philanthropy? How do we create and fund the infrastructure necessary for this movement to truly succeed?

Daniel: Really good question! I don’t think that we can count on government to do it – for all of government’s resources relative to those of philanthropy, it is extremely rare that a government program will have the political and policy degrees of freedom, let alone the budget, to invest in nonprofit capacity in any sustained way. And the age of austerity we are in will only worsen this shortfall. To me this is a critical role for philanthropy to play. Just a portion of the billions that philanthropy puts to work in the service of education, health and human services, youth development, etc. could help assess and put to much better use the hundreds of billions that federal, state and local governments do across these areas.

Typically foundations see their role as scaling up initiatives that government can then “take out” and fund directly, freeing up the foundations to move on and fund their next ventures. Foundations should stay engaged rather than moving on and, by investing in the infrastructure and measurement capacity that government cannot pay for, help society get the most out of the far greater levels of government spending. Rather than seeking to “leverage” other foundations, to use some jargon, foundations should in effect be seeking to “leverage” government funding by increasing its impact.

Nell: Should every nonprofit work towards articulating and measuring outcomes, or does it primarily apply only to social service and education nonprofits? Is there a way for arts and cultural organizations, for example, to move toward outcomes management?

Daniel: I think every enterprise – whether it be a profit-seeking business, a government agency, or a nonprofit, whether it is producing cars and trucks, health and human services, or  arts and culture — should seek to get better at what it does. I found Jim Collins very persuasive on this point in his “Good to Great in the Social Sector.”

The desire to improve, to get better at things, is woven into the human psyche, and when this desire is given full expression, by individuals and the organizations they work in, so is our humanity. Whether this quest involves “outcomes” and “measurement” as we conventionally define them depends on context. It may well involve tracking audience surveys and visitor numbers and assessments by informed critics. But it may also involve a troupe rehearsing until it feels it finally has its performance nailed, or a museum director continuing to refine interpretive material that she thinks visitors are struggling to understand. Those behaviors reflect a relentless quest for outcomes in their own right. At the end of the day, performance measures are merely proxies to help us assess our progress toward what we are working towards: an underlying excellence. The excellence itself is really the point.

Photo Credit: Hewlett Foundation

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5 Ways Great Strategy Can Transform a Nonprofit

Nonprofit StrategyI’ve been working with several clients lately to create a strategic plan, and I love the moment when the real value of the strategic plan and the process of creating one becomes blatantly obvious.

It’s the point at which board, staff, funders start to see the possibility that the plan holds for the nonprofit and the social change they seek. They get really excited about bringing that future to fruition.

But that only happens when you create a really smart, thoughtful strategy — a good strategic plan, instead of a poor one.

Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform an organization, in at least 5 fundamental ways. It will:

  1. Create Momentum
    It’s not the final plan that energizes people, rather it’s the process of analyzing the external environment in which a nonprofit operates, making some hard decisions about where to focus resources, articulating the value the nonprofit provides, connecting the dots between individual actors and the larger vision. If done well, the work done during the strategic planning process really energizes board and staff. And when they start talking with people outside the organization (funders, volunteers, stakeholders) about the plan, those outsiders become energized too. To really tap into people’s potential you must inspire them to larger heights and help them understand their role in reaching those heights. A great strategic planning process does that.

  2. Attract Deeper Funding
    The difference between a nonprofit just scraping by and a nonprofit with a sustainable future is strategy. If you want to attract larger, longer-term funding, particularly from major donors, you simply must have a future strategy in place. People and organizations that make large gifts to a nonprofit are in effect investing in the future of that organization. And if you can’t articulate your future plans in a thoughtful, compelling way, funders won’t make that larger investment.

  3. Filter Future Decisions
    If you create your strategic plan correctly it becomes a tool for analyzing and making decisions about future opportunities. Most nonprofits are regularly fielding new opportunities (new funding streams, new programs to develop, new alliances to forge), but without an overall strategy it’s difficult to know which opportunities to pursue. A great strategic plan doesn’t tie an organization’s hands, rather it becomes a tool — a lens — through which you can thoughtfully analyze future decisions and make the best moves for your organization. One of my clients uses growth criteria we developed during their strategic planning process to determine when and where to add new sites. These criteria ensure that they are growing in a strategic, not reactive, way.

  4. Become a Management Tool
    When done right, a strategic plan can drive the operations of the organization and the activities of the board and staff. At the board level, you can regularly track progress on the goals and objectives of the strategic plan through a dashboard (like the one at top of this post). At the staff level, you can monitor the activities and deliverables of the plan through an operational plan. An effective strategic plan doesn’t sit on the shelf, but rather is a living, breathing guide to the daily work and decisions of the organization. It’s not a final product, it’s a way of life.

  5. Realize More Change
    At the end of the day you operate your nonprofit in order to address a social issue, to see some sort of change to a social problem. But the only way you will truly create that change is if you have a strategy that puts all of your limited resources (money, staff, board, volunteers) to their highest, best, most focused use. A great strategic planning process forces you to do the analysis, conduct the research, make the hard decisions, and track your progress so that at the end of the day you actually are making a difference.

Honestly, I don’t know how you operate a nonprofit without a strategy in place. In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world great strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity.

If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page.

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