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3 Signs of a Bad Nonprofit Strategic Plan

nonprofit planningI’ve been leading several strategic planning processes lately, and as we wrapped up the last planning meeting for one of my clients (who had been encouraged to create a strategic plan by a funder) my client announced:

“I have to confess that when we started this process 6 months ago I inwardly rolled my eyes because I thought it would be a pointless process, full of silly buzzwords and with little value. I have completely changed my mind. I can already see how this new plan is making us smarter, more effective and more sustainable.”

Yep, I completely get it.

Strategic planning, when poorly done, is just a joke. But, when strategic planning is done well, it can completely transform an organization.

And there are three key places where a bad strategic plan falls short:

  1. Your Strategy Isn’t Big Enough
    To create an effective strategic plan you have to start with the big picture. You must analyze and articulate who your target audience(s) are and your theory of change. Then you must look externally to understand the needs, the competitive landscape, the funding, the changing factors in the marketplace in which you operate. Nonprofit leaders sometimes mistakenly think they are creating an effective strategic plan when they sit in a room, look around at their fellow board and staff members, and ask each other what they think they should do. It is also a mistake to think that in such a rapidly changing world you can simply develop a status quo strategy. In order to stay relevant and sustainable you have to understand how you interact with the forces outside your walls and outside your control. And here’s a little secret: the more you think about the bigger world out there, the more excited your board and funders will be by the plan. Your nonprofit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither should your plan for the future.

  2. Your Strategy Isn’t Small Enough
    But the other danger is to get too big and neglect the small part — the execution and monitoring of the plan. It’s great to have a bold vision and ambitious goals for the future that flow from an exciting theory of change. But that’s not enough. How will you implement it? How will you break down tasks, and responsibilities? What’s the timeline? And what is your process for determining, on a regular basis, whether the plan is actually coming to fruition? A good strategic plan, one that will actually transform your organization, requires operational detail and a process for monitoring it over time.

  3. Your Strategy Ignores Money
    There is no effective strategic plan that neglects to answer how you will finance it. That’s why a good strategic plan devotes one of its goals to money. How much will it cost to deliver on all of the goals of your plan? How will revenue (and capital if you need it) flow to meet (or exceed) those expenses? A good strategic plan forces nonprofit leadership to become financially savvy (when they may not have been before) and begin to use money as an integral management tool.

How does your nonprofit’s strategic plan stack up? Is it big enough, small enough, and well financed? If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page or download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: ESO/H. Dahle

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Why I’m Excited About the Independent Sector Conference

independent sector conferenceLater this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.

First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.

Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector:

  • Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation
  • Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership
  • Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations
  • Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions
  • Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and
    environmental issues
  • New models for social welfare and social change

Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.

The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.

Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.

So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2015

social changeIn September there was some surprising good news about climate change. Yes, you read that right. We are perhaps, slowly, starting to address that problem (mind blowing, huh?). And in other news, there was a call for funders to help nonprofits become better fundraisers and some tools to help nonprofits use data in that pursuit.

Add to that concern about what digitial technology is doing to our humanness and critiques of Teach for America, proposed changes to philanthropy policy and an emerging “network” entrepreneur, and it was a very interesting month.

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

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

  1. If the world of social change is getting you down, if the challenges we face seem insurmountable, look no further than the New York Magazine where Jonathan Chait sees hope in the battle against climate change. As he puts it: “The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope.” Wow.

  2. Writing on the Blue Avocado blog, Aaron Dorfman from The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy takes foundations to task for wanting their grantees to be financially sustainable, but not helping them build that capacity, “Why don’t more foundations invest in helping their organizing grantees develop independent funding streams? Here – as with many issues grantees face – even a little targeted capacity-building support would go a long way.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

  3. One of the ways nonprofits can build fundraising capacity is by learning to use their data more effectively to raise money. To help in that effort, The Chronicle of Philanthropy put together a helpful toolkit of articles and case studies.

  4. And speaking of fundraising, the ALS Foundation continues to amaze me. In September, they released a nice infographic to the many donors of the 2014 Ice Bucket challenge reporting where their $115 million in donations went. Great donor stewardship and transparency!

  5. There seems to be a growing concern about what technology is doing to our humanness. Callie Oettinger writes “While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.” And MIT professor Sherry Turkle released a new book, Reclaiming Conversation that argues we must “acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable [and] make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

  6. A new series launched at The Washington Post about the newest buzz phrase in the world of philanthropy, “effective altruism.” This is the idea that you should “optimize your donations to ensure that they are as “high-impact” as possible.” It is a fascinating and controversial idea.

  7. To counter the hype about “social entrepreneurs,” Jane Wei-Skillern (who wrote one of my favorite articles ever about networked nonprofits), David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer introduced a new concept they call “network entrepreneurs.” As they put it, “Where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal. And as a result of this work, we celebrate the change-generating network itself above any single person or institution.”

  8. I know I keep talking about how much I love the new History of Philanthropy blog, but this month was a perfect example of the tremendous value they bring the social change sector when Jeffrey Snyder explained how old and new philanthropy to support K-12 education differ. Fascinating. And it’s particularly interesting in light of Dale Russakoff’s new book that describes how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools in 2010 hasn’t accomplished a whole lot.

  9. And that wasn’t the only educational reform effort that came under fire in September. Samantha Allen of the Daily Beast chronicled a growing chorus of critiques of Teach for America.

  10. Philanthropic visionary Lucy Bernholz released a list of proposed changes to philanthropy policy that will keep up with changing times. As she put it: “It’s time to recognize that the tax code is no longer the fundamental policy frame shaping philanthropy and nonprofits…it should be obvious that tax privilege is only one factor that Americans consider when thinking about using their private resources for public benefit…The tax code was the 20th century policy infrastructure for philanthropy. Digital regulations will provide the scaffolding and shape for 21st century associations and expression — aka, civil society.”

Photo Credit: Evan Bench

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Charting a Nonprofit’s Future Direction: A Case Study

Engaging News ProjectI guess I am on a case study kick this week. I do think that actual examples of the paths other nonprofits followed in order to become more effective or more sustainable can be really helpful to other nonprofit leaders in the trenches. So in that spirit, I offer a case study of a small, startup nonprofit ready to grow their impact and their sustainability.

The thing I love about my job the most is that I get to work one-on-one with super smart people who are coming up with innovative solutions to making the world a better place. In particular, lately I’ve been lucky enough to work with some groups in the civic technology space, a really exciting emerging area where innovative technology solutions are used to make government, and ultimately democracy, more effective.

One of these groups, The Engaging News Project (ENP) is a startup nonprofit aimed at helping news organizations better meet their democratic and business goals in a digital age.

While ENP enjoyed success and the support of some key funders over the past two years, they were ready to move from the project phase to an established organization with sustainable funding and a long-term strategy for achieving impact on the digital news industry.

So ENP hired me to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, ENP created an advisory group of staff and key stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which ENP operates, develop their theory of change, define the audiences they want to target, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization. I also helped staff create a year 1 operational plan to help execute and monitor the strategic plan.

The end result was a clear 3-year strategic plan with accompanying financial model and an engaged and excited staff and group of advisors.

Because of their new strategic plan, ENP has focused their project development efforts, clearly defined where and with whom they want to work, and detailed their goals for the next 3-years.

They are now working to implement the strategic plan. They are identifying new funders to help support the growth of the organization, expanding their collaborative partners, creating a formal advisory board, and streamlining operations. ENP staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to have a greater impact on the future of digital news.

As Talia Stroud, Director of the Engaging News Project put it,

As a new entity, we had been doing more of the day-to-day work and hadn’t taken the time to think about the bigger picture of where the Engaging News Project was headed and how to get there. Social Velocity helped us to chart a future direction, hone our messaging, and develop a clear plan for our organization. By working with us to figure out our targets, potential collaborators, and goals, Social Velocity helped us to systematically figure out a strong path forward. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to accomplish with these plans in place.

I’m excited to see where the Engaging News Project goes from here and the growing impact they will have on our democracy.

Photo Credit: Engaging News Project


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What Nonprofits Don’t Get About Marketing

nonprofit marketingIn the nonprofit world marketing is fairly misunderstood. “Marketing” is the act of segmenting the potential market for your products or services and then targeting the right segment(s) in order to convince them to “buy.” While in the for-profit world there is typically just one customer, in the nonprofit world there are (at least) two distinct customer groups:

  • Those benefitting from your products or services (“Clients”) and
  • Those buying your products or services (“Funders”)

Often, marketing to Clients is less tricky because demand is so high for a nonprofit’s services. So the real challenge is to create an effective marketing strategy to attract Funders. But even within that category there can be many different types, depending on a particular nonprofit’s business model. Marketing to foundations vs. individuals vs. earned income customers vs. government contractors — it can get quite complex.

Which is why it is so important for nonprofit leaders to understand some basics about how marketing works.

You Must Know Who You Are Marketing To
Market segmentation is thinking strategically about which specific people you are trying to reach within the vast universe. Anyone who has money should NOT be the target of your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts. Instead, you have to think about what distinguishes people who have an affinity for your work from the rest of the world. Clearly define their particular demographic (age, gender, income, job)  and psychographic (lifestyle, interests, attitudes) characteristics. Create some “target personas” (HubSpot has a great tool for this) that define your target group(s) along different dimensions and then tailor your marketing efforts to where they are and what specific messages will compel them to act.

There’s No Such Thing as “Raising Awareness”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a nonprofit leader say that they are holding an event, or trying to generate media coverage, or sending out a mailer in order to “raise awareness.” Let me be blunt — that phrase is meaningless. Whose attention (specifically) are you trying to capture (see #1 above)? And are you trying to get their attention in the places they already are? And are you talking with them in a way that is meaningful and will encourage them to act? When you attempt to “raise awareness” without a specific and targeted strategy you are just shouting in the wind.

The Market Is Increasingly Crowded
And now more than ever you are shouting in the wind because of the rapidly changing digital environment in which we all live. We are bombarded with an exponentially increasing amount of messages every day. It is completely overwhelming. So unless you get really specific about who exactly you are trying to reach and how exactly you are going to compel them to act (again, see #1 above), you are hopelessly lost.

Push Marketing is Dead
And because of this rapidly changing digital environment, push marketing — the traditional approach of sending out a press release, putting an ad in the paper, sending a direct mail piece, or any other way you PUSH out a message and hope people will act — has become completely ineffective. Instead you want to use PULL activities where you create and participate in communities where your target personas are already present. You connect with them, empower them to get involved and then let them tap into their own networks to help your jointly held cause.

You Must Embrace The Network
In the end you must create a completely different philosophy about marketing. Stop creating your mission in a vacuum and then begging for any and all support to make it happen. Instead, you must break down the walls of your organization and tap into networks outside that have similar social change goals and who can work with you to make that change happen. Rather than investing in an advertising campaign, use those resources to create a network strategy to identify key influencers who can help move your goals forward and connect with them to figure out how you can work together. We live in an increasingly networked world and only those who connect with it will thrive.

You must reinvent your marketing approach. Instead of shouting a message and hoping someone will listen, get strategic about identifying people who can become partners in making a joint social change vision happen.

Photo Credit:

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July & Aug 2015

social innovationSince I was out of the office for a good chunk of July and August, I’ve decided to combine both months into one 10 Great Reads list. But let me be clear, there was still lots going on, I just happened to be (somewhat blissfully) missing it.

From philanthropy’s role in inequality, to climate change preparation, to what the Greek financial crisis teaches us about networks, to civic engagement, to digital’s effect on fundraising, to social impact bond results and pizza on the family farm, they were a great couple of months.

In my (limited) view, below are my 10 favorite reads from the past two months. But because I know I missed things, please add to the list in the comments.

To see a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker made a lot of news this summer, from his announcement of Ford’s shift to focusing on inequality and unrestricted grants, to his July release of a thought-provoking essay in which he took foundations to task. He argued that foundations have been “cutting the pie into smaller slices,” and he instead encouraged funders to embrace “a new era of capacity building investment.” Because, as he put it, “What civil society needs most, and now more than ever, are resilient, durable, fortified institutions that can take on inequality, fight poverty, advance justice and promote dignity and democracy.” Amen! Ford’s move kicked off an excellent Inequality and Philanthropy forum on the HistPhil blog. And Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan argued that Walker’s message is about significant change, which may be tough for the sector to hear.

  2. In a fascinating (and rather depressing) article, Eric Holthaus from Slate talks to climate scientists about how they are personally responding to the climate crisis, particularly how they have “factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in [their] families’ future plans.” Yikes.

  3. Reserve funds are an incredibly critical (but often misunderstood) aspect of nonprofit financial strategy. But as she always does, Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund provides a clear roadmap to understanding.

  4. Paul Vandeventer uses the summer’s Greek Euro crisis to illustrate when networks (of which the Eurozone is an excellent example) thrive and when they fail. As he puts it, “Ignoring or giving short shrift to…the fundamental principles by which networks operate wastes precious reserves of time, money, and goodwill, and imperils all the hopeful good that organizations, institutions, and countries set out to achieve when they start down the path of networked action.”

  5. Late July saw a fascinating gathering of social changemakers around civic engagement, the “Breaking Through” conference, hosted by the Knight Foundation. Keynoter Peter Levine argued “This is the year that we can take back American politics. It’s up to us.” It was a great lineup of speakers and sessions about getting people engaged again. You can see video from the conference here.

  6. Is digital becoming a gamechanger in fundraising? Some think so. And in August Facebook launched a new Donate button, but is it really all that helpful to nonprofits? Some argue that Facebook is critical. Others think the Donate button is a fail.

  7. August of 2014 saw the record-breaking ALS Ice Bucket fundraising challenge. Many (including me) were skeptical of the campaign, but it turns out that last summer’s financial windfall helped scientists make a breakthrough in research to fight the disease.

  8. This August was the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. There were many great articles about where New Orleans has been and is now. But my two favorite were Greater New Orleans Foundation President Albert Ruesga’s Ten-Year Perspective on the philanthropic response, and Andrea Gabor’s New York Times article, The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.

  9. The first results came in from the New York state social impact bond experiment, and they weren’t great. Goldman Sachs invested in a Rikers Island program that attempted to reduce recidivism among teenagers.The program failed to meet its goals and Goldman lost money. But New York is not giving up, as first Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris said, “This social impact bond allowed the city to test a notion that did not prove successful within the climate we inherited on Rikers.  We will continue to use innovative tools on Rikers and elsewhere.”

  10. I’m always a fan of examples of innovation. NPR provided a glimpse of how family farms are using pizza to reinvent their business model.

Photo Credit: Anne Adrian

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Guest Post: Nonprofits Must Be Able to Adapt

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

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

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

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

So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Guest Post: What Funders and Nonprofits Can Do To Solve the Sector’s Talent Troubles

kathy reichNote: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Kathy Reich. Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Here is her guest post… 

Philanthropy pundits often exhort nonprofits to “act more like businesses.” Usually I disagree; in fact, I think there’s a great deal that businesses could stand to learn from nonprofits.

In at least one area, though, I admit that all too frequently nonprofits lag their for-profit peers. Nonprofits simply do not invest enough time or money in talent assessment, development, and management.

Major national surveys provide a helpful snapshot of the nonprofit sector’s talent troubles. In the Bridgespan Group’s Nonprofit Management Tools and Trends 2014 survey, which polled almost 500 nonprofit organizations about their current management practices, nearly 60 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “hiring, training, and retaining staff is one of our greatest challenges.” Yet the survey found that only 40 percent reported using talent assessment and development tools, and just 38 percent said their organizations engage in leadership succession planning.

Similarly, in the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector survey, which included responses from more than 5,400 nonprofits nationwide, respondents were asked to name the top three challenges facing their organizations. “Ability to offer competitive staff pay and/or retain staff” was ranked in the top three by fully 25% of the respondents, behind only “achieving long-term financial sustainability” as one of the top three challenges facing nonprofits. Yet the same survey found that just 37 percent of respondents had invested money or time in staff professional development in the past year. Only 28 percent had given cost-of-living raises, and 18 percent had given raises beyond COLA.

At the Packard Foundation, program officers tell me that they see signs of this underinvestment almost every day. Some problems that our nonprofit grantee partners routinely report:

  • Executive turnover is frequent, and often traumatic.

  • Nonprofits have a hard time finding appropriate candidates for senior management roles, including CEO, program executives, development directors, and communications directors.

  • The leadership many nonprofits have is not reflective of the leadership that they need, or the communities they serve. In most of the fields in which the Packard Foundation works, nonprofit leadership remains predominantly white, male, and middle-aged, even as our country becomes younger, more diverse, and hopefully, more committed to racial and gender equity.

  • Emerging leaders under age 45 report high levels of career dissatisfaction, driven in part by lack of professional development and advancement opportunities. In a 2011 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network survey, only 36 percent of respondents said that their organization invested in “bench strength” to develop emerging leadership. Of that group, less than 47 percent said their organization implemented these investments effectively.

Nonprofits and foundations both have critical roles to play in ensuring that the nonprofit sector has a robust, diverse talent pipeline now and in the future. First, foundations need to step up their financial support for leadership. The private sector spends $12 billion annually, an average of $120 per employee, on developing leaders, investing in their management and technical skills so that they can move up the ranks or excel in their current jobs. In contrast, philanthropy’s investment in nonprofit leadership development totals an average of $29 per employee annually.

Foundations can do much more. Some concrete ways that they can help:

  • Fund nonprofit overhead so that nonprofits have enough money to pay their people competitively and can have the operations in place necessary to support their staff and manage their talent. Depending on their size and talent needs, some nonprofits may need to hire a Chief Operating Officer, a Human Resources Director, or a Chief Talent Officer.

  • Support nonprofits to develop “right-sized” performance assessment and management systems, as well as meaningful succession plans for key leaders.

  • Include funds for staff professional and leadership development in project support grants.

  • Incentivize nonprofits to develop cultural competency in hiring and management so that they can attract and retain diverse employees.

But foundations cannot tackle this issue alone. No matter what their size, nonprofit boards and executive leadership need to focus on talent issues and ensure they have appropriate plans in place to manage and develop staff for their organizations. They need to implement thoughtful, intentional strategies and process to ensure that they are identifying their own talent needs, assessing the strengths and growth areas of their staff, and providing ongoing development and feedback to all employees, particularly those with high growth potential. And they need to make the case for talent to their funders, along with concrete examples of how investing in leadership capacity will improve outcomes.

In the nonprofit sector, as in business, leadership matters. Let’s be sure we’re all investing our time, and our money, where it counts.

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