Note: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. First up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). His guest post is below. In full disclosure, some of the foundations he mentions below are clients or funders of CEP. Don’t forget you can also follow the conference from afar on Twitter #GEO2016 and #2016GEO
Culture was front and center on the first day of the 2016 GEO National Conference – the featured topic at the opening plenary. A conference for some 800 staff of grantmakers interested in maximizing their external impact started by looking inward, at what happens within the walls of staffed foundations.
As Kathleen Enright, GEO’s president & CEO, put it, “culture and effectiveness are inextricably linked” suggesting that companies have recognized this. She cited as an example her positive experience as a customer with the online shoe retailer Zappos, which has been held up as an exemplar in terms of its corporate culture and customer service. [Note: Zappos was acquired by Amazon in 2009 but has sought to maintain a distinct culture.]
Enright moderated the panel discussion, which included Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, Carrie Pickett-Erway of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and Sylvia Yee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.
“Culture is all around us, it permeates everything we do, and yet we often don’t realize it,” said Canales.
It also emanates outward. Yee discussed program officers as the nexus where culture and values are “translated” from the inside to the outside. And her point is certainly supported by the data. The organization I lead, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), has surveyed staff at nearly 50 foundations over the past decade. We know from our analyses that what happens within a foundation’s walls doesn’t stay inside those walls – that staff perceptions and grantee perceptions of foundations are correlated on some key dimensions.
This data and the arguments of the panelists about the importance of culture also resonate with recent writing on the topic. Tom David and Enright’s essay, The Source Codes of Foundation Culture, argues that foundation culture is crucial but often under-appreciated. In a similar vein, Amy Celep, Sara Brenner, and Rachel Mosher-Williams of Community Wealth Partners suggest in a recent issue of Foundation Review that, “Foundations have a tremendous untapped opportunity to more intentionally build culture.”
But culture and results don’t always correlate perfectly, as Fay Twersky of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (and a member of the CEP Board) suggested during the Q&A in a friendly challenge to Enright on her Zappos example. Citing other companies without naming names, she observed – to knowing laughter from the crowd – that “sometimes unhealthy cultures seem to be associated with very fat profits.”
Enright allowed that this was certainly true, as it surely is. And, of course, Twersky wasn’t arguing that culture doesn’t matter. Indeed, in her excellent piece, Foundation Chief Executives as Artful Jugglers, she suggests that building a healthy culture is one of the essential responsibilities of effective foundation CEOs.
But the point is that culture alone is not the answer.
Related, and not mentioned during the session, is that, in the business world, there seems to be a bit of a backlash of late against the emphasis on corporate culture. This is manifested in rants against “forced fun” and other “culture-building” that, at their worst, can look like self-absorbed navel-gazing that is divorced from the imperatives of the work.
This skepticism is perhaps most prominently expressed on the April Harvard Business Review cover, which blares “You Can’t Fix Culture: Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.”
“When organizations get into big trouble, fixing the culture is usually the prescription,” write Harvard Business School Professor Jay Lorsch and his research assistant. “But the corporate leaders we have interviewed – current and former CEOs who have successfully led major transformations – say that culture isn’t something you ‘fix.’ Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges.”
Let’s set aside (if we can) the fact that, unbelievably, this conclusion appears to be drawn from a very (very) limited sample of four interviews with men (yes, all men) who run major corporations. Still, I think there is a healthy caution here: that the focus on culture should not be an end in itself. It’s about the work.
And, in fairness, Enright and the panelists certainly were making that argument, too. They discussed the relationship between culture, being transparent, continual learning and improvement, and getting and receiving feedback. Repeatedly, the discussion about culture became something much, much broader – a discussion about effectiveness.
“The closer we get to the community, to the people whose lives we are trying to improve, the more humble we will be,” said Pickett-Erway. “The more feedback that you can get the better.”
Yee, too, emphasized the link between “culture and organizational effectiveness.” She noted, for example, the importance to effectiveness of “hiring a diverse staff. We need people who can stand in somebody else’s shoes, who have experienced difference themselves.”
And Canales talked about moving from “transparency 1.0” to transparency that is about two-way exchanges.
We need, as the panelists did, to keep the focus on culture as a necessary element of effectiveness rather than promoting too much of an inward gaze among institutions that, in all honesty, are already often seen as isolated and insular. What I don’t want, and what I guess fear a little, is that some foundations will misread the encouragement to focus on culture as an invitation to spend endless hours on office space re-designs, staff personality tests, or trust-building exercises. These things all have their place (or at least the first two do) but in limited doses.
The culture conversation should be integrated with, not separate from, the conversation about goals, strategies, implementation, and performance indicators. My experience (for what it’s worth) suggests that what bonds a staff together best is a sense of shared purpose and alignment toward – and progress against – shared goals.
Put another way, culture is a crucial part of the effectiveness puzzle, but it isn’t a magic bullet.
I’m really excited to announce that I will be doing something a little different on the blog next week. I am attending the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference in Minneapolis May 2nd – 4th, and GEO has asked me to curate a set of bloggers to report on the conference.
I have rounded up a rockstar group of bloggers who will be sharing their insights from the conference with you here on the blog. And the blog series will be reposted to the Minnesota Council on Foundations blog, which is a co-host of the conference.
GEO is made up of 500 member grantmakers who are working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and promote strategies and practices that contribute to grantee success.
The GEO conference is held every other year and brings together philanthropic leaders from across the country who all share a common vision for advancing smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and more effective.
Some of the sessions in this year’s conference that I am particularly excited about include: “Can Foundations Help Grantees Build Fundraising Capacity?,” “Real Costs, Real Outcomes. What Funders Need to Know,” and “Supporting Leadership Development in Social Justice Organizations.” In addition, there will be some really interesting plenary sessions about things like culture in philanthropy and philanthropy’s role in overcoming inequity.
It promises to be a fascinating conference.
So, starting next Tuesday, May 3rd you’ll be hearing from this great group of guest bloggers:
Phil Buchanan, President of The Center for Effective Philanthropy
Phil is a passionate advocate for the importance of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector and deeply committed to the cause of helping foundations to maximize their impact. Hired in 2001 as CEP’s first chief executive, Phil has led the growth of CEP into the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP has been widely credited with bringing the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and with contributing to an increased emphasis on clear goals, coherent strategies, disciplined implementation, and relevant performance indicators as the necessary ingredients to maximize foundation effectiveness and impact. Phil is no stranger to the Social Velocity blog — I interviewed him here, and he guest blogged last summer here.
Trista Harris, President of The Minnesota Council on Foundations
In her role at MCF, Trista helps award more than $1 billion annually. Prior to joining MCF in August 2013, she was executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in Minneapolis, and she previously served as program officer at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. Trista earned her master’s of public policy degree from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and her bachelor of arts from Howard University, Washington, D.C. She is a passionate national advocate for the social sector using the tools of futurism to solve our communities’ most pressing challenges and is a member of the trends in family philanthropy task force for the National Committee for Family Philanthropy.
Mae Hong, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
Mae is responsible for building RPA’s presence in serving individual donors, foundations and corporations throughout the Midwest. Bringing 18 years of nonprofit and philanthropy experience to RPA, she previously served as Program Director at the Field Foundation of Illinois. Mae actively participates in local and national philanthropic associations and networks, serving in leadership roles on committees, engaging in public speaking opportunities, and facilitating planning and execution of philanthropic initiatives. She currently serves on the boards of GEO, the Illinois Humanities Council and the Daystar Center. She is a past chair of the board of Chicago Foundation for Women.
And once the conference is over, I will plan to do a wrap-up blog post on my thoughts and insights from the conference.
If you plan to be at the conference, please let me know, I’d love to see you there! And if you can’t make the conference but want to follow the content from afar, follow the Twitter feed at #2016GEO.
This week the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund released the second in their series of reports about fundraising. Their Fundraising Bright Spots report, by Kim Klein from Klein & Roth Consulting and Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, joins their Beyond Fundraising report, released last month.
These two reports are part of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s larger “Resetting Development” effort “to ‘learn out loud’ about how to…help put the sector on a surer path to sustainability and long-term success.” Given my concerns about their Beyond Fundraising report, the Haas, Jr. Fund very graciously asked me to review this latest report.
This new report analyzes 16 social change organizations that have been successful at individual fundraising to determine what the sector can learn from them.
I am always a huge fan of case studies. I think there is much to be gained by looking at others who have done things well, so I applaud the Haas, Jr. Fund for moving from theory into practice to see what is working in individual fundraising.
But first, we have to understand this report for what it is. This report only looks at nonprofits that have been successful with individual donor fundraising, which is just one of several ways that nonprofits bring money in the door. And the report only looks at “progressive organizations with limited budgets and small staffs.” So I would argue that this report and the case studies contained within it will only be applicable to similar types of nonprofits that have individual fundraising as part of their financial model.
Nevertheless, the report finds four themes present in these 16 social change organizations, which are that fundraising:
- Is core to the organization’s identity
- Is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers
- Succeeds because of authentic relationships with donors
- Is characterized by persistence, discipline, and intentionality
Many, if not all, of these themes make up the “culture of philanthropy” that the Beyond Fundraising report described.
There were several things I liked about the Bright Spots report.
First, I love the report’s focus on making fundraising part of the job of an entire organization’s board and staff. Two case studies in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, demonstrate how major donor fundraising should be shared among senior staff and board members. For example Jewish Voice for Peace “has 57 portfolio managers from across the staff, board, and volunteers who together manage 600 major donor relationships in addition to other roles they play within the organization.”
Indeed the report points out that in these 16 organizations the head fundraiser’s role is to marshal staff, board and other organization resources toward fundraising, which I love: “Time and again, we heard from the development directors at these organizations that their job is to coordinate, to teach, to coach, and to inspire. The individuals in this role are highly relational and they take deep satisfaction in enabling staff, board, volunteers, and members to be successful fundraisers.”
Second, I really appreciate the Breast Cancer Action case study, which emphasizes creating a give/get fundraising requirement for the entire board:
At Karuna [Jaggar]’s first in-person board meeting as the new executive director, she laid out her desire to establish a board give-and-get policy to her board members, each of whom had been told explicitly upon recruitment that they did not have to participate in fundraising…After an in-depth discussion, they set a give-and-get policy of $10,000 per board member. “Maybe we lost some potential board members who felt they couldn’t do it,” said [board chair] Tracy [Weitz], “but only in the first year. Now, our veteran board members can share their fundraising stories with prospective members and say, ‘I’ve been fine, and you’re going to be fine.’” It’s important to note that BCAction does not prioritize personal wealth now more than it did before this policy change, but rather invests the time to support board members’ success, regardless of personal financial capacity, in the fundraising program.”
Yes! That’s exactly the way to get every board member involved in fundraising, of which I am a huge proponent.
Third, the Bright Spots report points out the need to fully integrate marketing and fundraising in a nonprofit: “A critical aspect of building and refining an individual donor program is tending to the intersection of communications and fundraising…development and communications are inextricably linked and staff driving these efforts work extremely collaboratively.” Agreed, fundraising can not sit on the sidelines of anything an organization does, but must be fully integrated throughout the organization.
Now, let’s get to where I think the report falls short.
First, I would have liked to understand better how these 16 organizations were selected as “bright spots.” I think in holding up organizations as exemplars it is critical to understand in what ways they are exemplars. While the beginning of the report describes what these organizations have in common: “a deep commitment to and strong track record with raising money from individuals,” and “individual support is a consistent part of their overall revenue strategy,” and the report highlights some of their individual donor fundraising successes, it is unclear why these 16 organizations in particular are held out as bright spots.
In my mind, I would select case study organizations that achieved: individual giving growth year over year, and/or higher than average donor retention rates, and/or more profitable than average fundraising activities, and/or demonstrated long-term financial viability. While some of the 16 organizations had significant individual donor growth, not all of them did, so I’m not sure what selection metrics were used. I would like to understand how the Bright Spot organizations’ fundraising metrics compare to their most fundraising-successful peers.
It is particularly important to understand what makes these organizations bright spots when the report points out that some of the 16 social change organizations are struggling with scaling or making sustainable their individual fundraising efforts:
“We heard from the Bright Spot leaders who want to grow their organizations that they are grappling with how to scale this organizational highly relational approach to fundraising. And many of them acknowledge how dependent their success is on long-time leaders, despite their distributed approach to fundraising…Many of the Bright Spots will soon have to adapt to very long-time leaders moving on.”
Second, the report does not make a clear distinction between small donor fundraising (one-to-many cultivation and solicitation of donors) versus major donor fundraising (one-to-one cultivation and solicitation). I wonder if the four themes that the report uncovers differ, and if so how, between fundraising activities targeting many small donors versus fundraising activities targeting a few large donors.
Third, the report touches briefly on the 16 organizations’ fundraising systems and use of data and metrics, but not in a robust way. I would have loved to understand better the kinds of systems these bright spot organizations use and what metrics they are tracking and trends they are seeing. While I understand the report’s overall emphasis on some of the “soft” skills of fundraising (“authentic relationships with donors,” “culture of philanthropy”) I also think that understanding the “hard” skills (systems, metrics) is key to replicating fundraising success (and overall financial sustainability).
Fourth, just as the Beyond Fundraising report did, the Bright Spots report continues to leave the problems (and in this case, the successes) with fundraising largely in the hands of individual nonprofits and their leaders. I am still hungry for case studies and research about how nonprofits (and their funders) can overcome the more systemic financial flaws inherent in our social change sector.
In the end, I would say that the Bright Spots report gives us a glimpse into a piece of what works to bring money in the door. For social movement, individual donor fundraising at small nonprofits, the Bright Spots report provides some important and useful insights. But for more broadly understanding what contributes to overall financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector, this report falls short.
But as I have said before, I don’t fault the Haas, Jr. Fund for exploring these issues. Indeed, they are one of very few funders contributing to the knowledge base about what creates a more financially sustainable nonprofit sector. We just need more of them.
Photo Credit: Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
Last month I was asked by Ted Bilich, CEO of Risk Alternatives — a Washington, DC firm helping nonprofits manage their organizational and financial risks — to participate in a podcast. This is part of their ongoing podcast series “About Risk” which talks to thought leaders about risk management and process improvement for nonprofits, small businesses, and startups.
In the podcast Ted and I talk about:
- How the nonprofit landscape has become more competitive
- Why nonprofits need a theory of change
- How and when to engage in strategic planning
- How nonprofits can determine if they are applying best practices
- The benefits of a financial model assessment
- How to address common risks involving a board of directors
- And much more
You can listen to the podcast below, or click here.
Photo Credit: Patrick Breitenbach
March was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.
Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.
- SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
- Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.
- Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”
- On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.
- But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.
- So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
- And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.
- Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”
- Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.
- And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?
Photo Credit: David McSpadden
The new millennium has been a difficult one. A struggling global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap are just a few of the social problems we face. And as our social challenges mount, and the government increasingly offloads services, the burden shifts to the nonprofit sector.
Now more than ever nonprofit leaders must step up to the plate. In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to find and deliver on solutions. It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real, lasting social change.
In my mind, here is what the new nonprofit leader should look like:
Unlocks the Charity Shackles
“Charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. “Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world. While charity was an afterthought, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do. And nonprofit leaders must confidently and assertively articulate the critical importance of their work and why it requires real investment, because social change is about changing larger systems. So it takes real, significant investment of resources, not the pennies that charity requires.
Moves From Misplaced Gratitude to Impregnable Confidence
In the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work. If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment (with a delinquent board member or a meddlesome funder), she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships. Nonprofit leaders must rise from bended knee with confidence in themselves, their staff, and their social change work to articulate what they really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And they get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in the way.
Lives, Breathes and Leads Strategy
Real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy. To get there a nonprofit leader must ask board and staff to answer some key strategic questions like:
- What change do we want to create?
- Where do we fit in the external environment?
- How do we measure if that change is happening?
- What are the right activities to get to there?
- What is the most sustainable financial model to get there?
- What people and networks do we need with us?
These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. But that is true leadership.
And part of that strategy may involve a (formerly feared) move into advocacy. 501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change. But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and many already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.
Uses Money as a Tool
Without money, a compelling, inspiring, world-changing vision for social change is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, and without a smart plan for how a nonprofit will secure and use money there is no mission. So instead of dreaming up magic bullet fundraising schemes, a nonprofit leader must develop an overall financial model for her work that fully integrates with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And because money is so central to mission, you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions.
Embraces the Network
If instead of building an institution, a nonprofit leader built networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change. A true leader leaves her ego, and the ego of her organization aside in order to assemble all necessary resources (individuals, institutions, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of thinking just about her organization, her staff, her mission, her board, her donors, the nonprofit leader must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside her walls, the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can. A nonprofit leader understands that the network approach — particularly for nonprofits that are so resource-constrained — can create a much larger effect than a single entity can.
I believe that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is an ability to inspire others to greatness beyond what they thought possible. A true leader asks us to rise above our current circumstances – and in the nonprofit sector where more and more is being asked of organizations with less and less, those circumstances are often dire — to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. It is with that kind of real leadership that lasting social change can happen.
Photo Credit: Chuck Abbe
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project, which brings a social movement perspective to research on nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining the BMP staff, Sean spent a decade working in a variety of roles at the Center for Community Change, where he developed training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinated online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of issues. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at the National Council of La Raza, where he developed research and lobbied on issues related to employment and income security.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: What is the role of leadership in movement and network building? How do you balance the need for organic and distributed power with the need for someone (or multiple someones) to provide vision and marshal resources?
Sean: I think it’s important to start by teasing apart the concepts of movements and networks, or any other organizational structure/formation that might be the “cool new thing” in the nonprofit sector at any point in time.
I’m pretty traditional (admittedly even rigid) when it comes to what makes a movement. For me, movements are bigger than any organization, coalition, network or campaign could ever hope to direct or contain. That’s not to say that organizations – and networks of organizations – don’t have a role in supporting movements, but nowadays it seems like everyone’s talking about movements, but too often in a way that’s disconnected from the kind of fundamental social change that feminist, anti-war, civil rights movement leaders did a generation ago.
If an organization is trying to build a campaign or network to support its mission, generate a ton of subscribers and followers, and raise their profile as a “legitimate” advocate on an issue, that’s great. But that’s a campaign. Not a movement.
I spent a chunk of my career working on campaigns, and maybe it’s because I was trained by organizers, but we were clear about the difference between our measurable campaign deliverables (whether a policy was won or lost, how many people turned out for an action or march, etc.) and the more intangible aspiration that our organizing would spark some movement energy on the ground.
Part of the reason that my organization holds up leadership as a key focus area for our research is that we recognize that organizations, networks, movements need strong leaders and also need strong collective leadership. So when we think about the balancing act, it’s not that distributed power and vision / resources are at opposite ends of a scale. In fact, from a movement perspective, distributed leadership actually enhances the movement’s vision and brings more resources to bear on the fights the movement takes on. This is not to say that there aren’t struggles over leadership and between individual leaders/personalities… all of our organizations are made up of human beings interacting with each other, so conflict is going to be inevitable. The challenge is how to make those tensions and conflicts generative.
Nell: As you look at two current social movements — Black Lives Matter, and student protests on college campuses — what are your thoughts on their methods? How successful do you think they have been and will be in the future?
Sean: I think we’re in a very exciting movement moment. When we look back on the 1960s, that decade occupies a special place in our collective imagination because we have enough distance to see how specific moments and events and sparks connect to each other. I’d suggest that the rise of Black Lives Matter is connected to the increasing visibility of student protests on college campuses. And not just in the obvious examples where Black Lives Matter was a rallying cry. Young people play an important role in movements, and they always have.
I worked for several years supporting campaigns to reform our country’s broken and inhumane immigration policy. And young people – whether they were in high school or on college campuses or working to support their families – have been critical to the movement for immigration reform. When I had the privilege to be in the room with young folks to strategize about actions and protest and tactics, there was a ton of creativity and fun that I – as someone in my thirties – had forgotten or lost touch with. I think that the turn we saw towards civil disobedience as a strategic choice was informed by the impatience of young people with an insider political game that wasn’t working for communities.
Progressive activists have gotten back in touch with direct action and civil disobedience in the last few years, and I think that’s an important tool / method to have at our disposal. The reason we build movements is because the polite, official ways of making change haven’t worked. And the way to break through is to assert that Black Lives Matter, or to come out as undocumented and unafraid. The willingness of activists to put their bodies on the line to shut down traffic and disrupt the status quo isn’t just about getting media attention; it’s about demonstrating a commitment to change that inspires others to take their own steps in the ongoing struggle for justice.
To come back to the movement vs. network distinction for a moment … Patrisse Cullors – one of the three women who created #BlackLivesMatter – recently posted a super insightful piece titled “We Didn’t Start a Movement, We Started a Network.” And in that she writes about her concern when the media started referring to the “Black Lives Matter movement” because, as she put it “movements don’t belong to any one person, and we knew that this movement wasn’t started by us.” That commitment to recognizing and lifting up the many amazing organizations doing critical on-the-ground organizing is what makes this movement moment feel really different and important, and hopefully lasting. I think there is something to the fact that many of the most visible leaders today are women who are unapologetically black and feminist. I think the movement for Black lives is a game changer, and I’m really excited to see the movement continue to have more success in the future.
Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource-constrained and competition for dollars is so stiff, there is often a perceived risk to building networks. But how can (and why should) nonprofits overcome this and become more networked?
Sean: That’s an interesting observation, because it seems to me that the resource incentive is for organizations to join networks. Philanthropy doesn’t seem to want to invest in small, local organizations that are doing their own thing. The tendency seems to be for funders to give big grants to national networks and count on them to disperse the money to groups on the ground. Now, I’ve worked for national intermediaries my whole career, so I have seen the way that strategy works to support national campaigns that are disciplined and strategic. But I know that there’s lots of concern – especially on the part of people of color led grassroots organizations – that the “trickle down” strategy isn’t working.
Part of the piece about competition for resources is about leadership, and specifically who is leading the networks versus who is leading the small grassroots organizations that comprise networks. Last year, I worked with some colleagues on a report titled #BlackWorkersMatter, and one of the things that came out from the interviews I did with leaders around the country who are using community organizing as a strategy for addressing the jobs crisis in Black communities is that there are a lot of biases playing out in our sector that leave Black-led – and people of color led organizations in general – at a disadvantage for funding, visibility, all of the currencies that give an organization power and stability right now.
Already, we know from the Daring to Lead survey of nonprofit EDs, that the top-level leadership of the sector is overwhelmingly white. And I think we have to grapple with what it means if the leadership of our networks doesn’t match the demographics of the constituents who come to our organizations for support. BMP just launched a survey on Nonprofits, Leadership & Race, and I’m really curious about what the data will reveal in terms of people’s experiences and perceptions about how implicit biases might be playing out inside of organizations and the nonprofit sector.
Nell: What is or should be philanthropy’s role in building social movements and networks? And is philanthropy currently helping or hurting these efforts?
Sean: I think funders can and definitely do play a role in supporting both social movements and networks, but since investing in networks seems like a clear priority already, I’m going to focus on what funders should do to invest in social movements.
I think the first – and most important – thing a foundation should do if they’re interested in supporting social movements is invest in grassroots organizations that are doing authentic base building, popular education and leadership development. And give them general support dollars for multiple years to do that work. Foundations also should recognize that the slow work of organizing may not yield the kind of metrics and deliverables that have become so central to how we evaluate campaigns.
Beyond that commitment to organizing, foundations can use their unique vantage point to identify organizational leaders and strengthen connections between them. Obviously, money directly to the organizations is important, but sometimes the funding is needed to convene people to discuss, debate and disagree about the movement’s vision and strategy. Having philanthropy support relationship-building between leaders and organizations is really important for any movement ecosystem.
Photo Credit: Building Movement Project
Note: I was asked by The Center for Effective Philanthropy to review their latest research report, Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency, released in late February, and provide my thoughts about it for their on-going blog series on the report. Below is my post which originally appeared on the CEP blog.
Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency provides some startling data about the state of transparency in the foundation world.
While for the most part, foundation leaders recognize the importance of transparency and are trying to be more transparent, the report shows there is still much work to do.
To me, this question of foundation transparency is part of the larger, ever-present power imbalance in the nonprofit sector between those with money (funders), and those who seek that money (nonprofits). Funders often encourage nonprofits to be transparent about their results and when they have succeeded or failed. But it appears that in these two areas (results and lessons learned), funders are less transparent than either their grantees want them to be, or they would like themselves to be.
This is all critically important because a more transparent philanthropic sector — particularly if foundations were more transparent about how they assess their results and what has worked and what hasn’t — could mean more money flowing to more social change.
CEP’s report delineates two levels of foundation transparency. First is transparency about grantmaking: who leads the foundation, how they have made grants in the past, how they make decisions. The second is transparency about the results foundations themselves achieve: how they assess the performance of their investments, how they share successes and failures.
This second (and I would argue much more interesting) level of transparency is about foundations reporting the very thing they are often asking nonprofits to report: their performance.
In particular, the research uncovers three stark disconnects:
- Foundations Don’t Share How They Assess Their Performance
Of the foundation leaders surveyed, 61 percent said they believe being transparent about how their foundation assesses its performance could increase effectiveness to a significant extent. Yet, only 35 percent of foundations reported actually being very or extremely transparent about it.
- Foundations Aren’t Transparent about Successes and Failures
While 69 percent of foundation leaders think that being transparent about what’s worked in their grantmaking could increase their effectiveness, only 46 percent report being very or extremely transparent about what’s worked. And transparency about what hasn’t worked is even worse. 30 percent of foundation leaders say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about what does not work, which makes failures the lowest-rated area of foundation transparency. And nonprofits agree that foundation transparency is lowest when it comes to sharing what hasn’t worked.
- Foundations Want to Be More Transparent, But Aren’t
While 94 percent of foundation leaders surveyed say that increased transparency is a medium or high priority at their foundation, 75 percent of foundation leaders say that their current levels of transparency are not sufficient. And shockingly, 24 percent of foundation leaders say that nothing limits their ability to be more transparent. So it’s a big priority, yet it’s not getting done.
The report suggests some reasons why transparency about performance and lessons learned is recognized as important, but still far from ubiquitous in the philanthropic sector:
- Lack of Strategy: Foundations aren’t creating clear enough goals around which they can actually assess their performance.
- Lack of Capacity for Evaluation: Foundations aren’t allocating enough resources to assessing their performance.
- Fear of Diminished Reputation: Foundations are afraid of harming their own or their grantees’ reputations by revealing what has or hasn’t worked.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), these impediments to foundation transparency mimic the hurdles nonprofits find (or place) in their own way. Nonprofits often pour as much money as possible into programs and skimp on investing in organization-building efforts like strategy and evaluation. This bias against organization-building is often encouraged (or demanded) by their funders. And so it appears that funders put these same hurdles in their own way. Perhaps foundations, just like their nonprofit grantees, need to acknowledge that with sufficient investments in smart strategy and performance evaluation, greater results can be achieved.
The third and final impediment to foundation transparency about performance and lessons learned is trickier. Fear of harming the reputations of their grantees by sharing lessons learned is a real issue. Foundations tend to invest in packs. So if a foundation reveals investments that have failed, there is a risk that other foundations will flee.
But if we truly want to move to a place where more resources flow to what works, don’t we have to be more transparent about what worked and what didn’t work? If a foundation investment failed because of the foundation’s shortcomings (the investment didn’t fit with foundation goals, the foundation didn’t invest enough, or it didn’t invest in capacity as well as programs), the foundation (and other foundations learning from these lessons) could learn to become more effective investors. And if the investment didn’t work simply because it was the wrong intervention, then isn’t it better to move investments to interventions that do work? Fear can be a debilitating thing, and for the sake of greater results, I think both foundations and their nonprofit grantees must work to overcome it.
Ultimately, the CEP report is hopeful. It uncovers a desire among both foundation leaders and their grantees to move from a basic level of transparency toward a deeper (and more important) one that reveals performance and lessons learned.
Let’s hope that this stated desire for a change in foundation transparency, and the requisite changes in how foundations invest in strategy and performance assessment and overcome fear, becomes reality.
Photo Credit: The Center for Effective Philanthropy