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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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3 Questions To Regularly Ask Your Development Director

Beyond the mistakes nonprofit leaders often make in staffing their fundraising function, the relationship itself between a nonprofit executive director and the development director (or whatever you call the staff person in charge of bringing money in the door) can often be fraught.

In an ideal world, the executive director and development director have a symbiotic relationship: the development director creates the overall annual financial strategy and regularly updates the executive director on where the organization is on achieving that plan, while the executive director works with higher level money prospects and marshals the board to achieve their fundraising responsibilities.

But we don’t always live in an ideal world. And sometimes, as was the case in a recent coaching session I had with a client, an executive director is in the dark about how the organization is progressing on their money raising efforts.

If that is the case in your nonprofit, here are some key questions to ask your head money raiser:

  1. How does the money we’ve brought in to date compare along each revenue line goal? 
    When you create an annual financing plan for your nonprofit (and if you don’t, get on it), you know how much of each type of revenue (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) you want to come in this year. Then, at any point during the year (and at the very least monthly) you should be asking your chief money raiser, what the organization has actually raised to date for each of those categories. For example, if you are 25% through your fiscal year, but you’ve only raised 5% of your individual revenue goal for the year, that may be a red flag. At the very least it’s cause for conversation with your development director. Perhaps it’s a timing issue (you have a big fundraising campaign closer to the end of the year), and that’s fine. But as the nonprofit leader, you should be able to ask (and get a clear answer to) where the organization’s revenue raising efforts are at any point in time.

  2. How do the numbers and types of gifts we projected compare to what’s actually happening? 
    It’s not enough for a money raiser to have an overall revenue goal for each type of revenue, he also needs to break each of those revenue types down into the number and level of contributed gifts (from individuals), grants (from foundations), or contracts (from government), etc. that will contribute to each revenue line’s overall goal. For example, if your nonprofit has a $250,000 individual donor revenue goal, your development director needs to break that down into the various levels of donors that will make up that $250,000 over the course of the year. You may have both major (one-to-one relationships) and smaller (many-to-one relationships) individual donors. He should project how many donors at each level he will need to hit each part of the individual donor goal. Then he can report to you (again, on at least a monthly basis) how that is progressing. A simple example of such a report (he would fill in the pink areas prior to each update) might look like this:
    And he should create a similar report for the other revenue lines (corporations, government, foundations, etc.) that your nonprofit pursues. The actuals will never completely match what you projected, but this exercise gives you a way to uncover and deal with surprises as they come.

  3. What keeps you up at night?
    Finally, the raw data is not enough. You also want to understand where your development director sees real problems. When you regularly ask this question she may reveal that the board  is not opening enough doors, or her database is inadequate, or the website is not where it needs to be, or her grantwriter needs more help. Then you can strategize together how to overcome those hurdles.

A regular, honest, and data-driven conversation between executive director and development director is the best route to fewer money surprises. And without it, a nonprofit has little hope of achieving financial sustainability .

Photo Credit: Images

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2017

May was another fascinating month in the world of social change. There are some interesting shifts happening among the institutions and movements working to improve black lives, new polls point to a surging American liberalism (not conservatism), the suburbs are no longer the route to the American dream, anti-hunger efforts may actually be perpetuating the problem, and a librarian who questioned the impact of Little Free Libraries received quite a backlash.

Below are my picks of the 10 best social change reads in May. But feel free to add to the list in the comments. And you can see a longer list by following me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also see 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been exhausting for the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered some questions for philanthropist to think about after those first 100 days. And Trump’s budget recommendations, if adopted by Congress, could have pretty damaging effects on the nonprofit sector and the foundations that fund them.

  2. A more specific impact \ that the Trump Administration could have on the nonprofit sector would be to eliminate the Johnson Amendment. The 60 year old Amendment has prohibited churches and nonprofit organizations from any political campaigning. Robert Egger, founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, debated whether the repeal of the amendment would be a good or bad thing for the sector.

  3. Despite the fact that state and federal government is being led largely by Republicans right now, it looks like American populism may have a liberal, as opposed to conservative, bent according to some new polls. Ruy Teixeira from Vox analyzed recent poll data and argued that America is actually witnessing a liberal surge:  “Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress and most states…owes much more to the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, structural GOP advantages in Congress, and poor Democratic strategy than to the actual views of the American public.”

  4. And that populism that is sweeping the country is beginning to target philanthropy. David Callahan argued that the underlying elitism of philanthropy must be laid bare: “America is in the midst of an epic backlash against elites, one that’s put a reality TV maestro in the White House. So far, philanthropy has been insulated from this broader convulsion, but there are good reasons for the sector to engage in its own introspection about elite power…There’s not yet much discussion about the bigger question regarding how much sway private philanthropy—and a growing class of savvy “super-citizens”—should have over public life in a democratic society like ours.” And Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry argued on the HistPhil blog that the populist surge is posing at least 3 challenges to foundations.

  5. There is something interesting happening in the efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. The NAACP fired its president Cornell William Brooks after only 3-years in the hopes that the organization could become more responsive to changing external circumstances. But Cyndi Suarez wondered whether this 100+ year old institution can adapt to and engage with growing social movements like Black Lives Matter.  And earlier in the month she described how BLM itself is evolving amid changing times.

  6. Jay A. Winsten from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health described how a national media strategy, even in today’s very fractured media environment, can move social change forward.

  7. Some new data in May showed giving differences between genders and generations, and the  Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco created a nice infographic on The Current and Future State of Philanthropy.

  8. Something really interesting happened when a Toronto librarian questioned the claim that Little Free Libraries, the small birdhouse-like boxes of free books cropping up in neighborhoods around the country, are actually increasing literacy. People got really mad.

  9. Writing in CityLab, Richard Florida painted a pretty bleak picture of how the suburbs, once the destination for the growing middle class, are now crumbling: “Suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.”

  10. Finally, there’s a new book to add to your reading list: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher argues that anti-hunger nonprofits are perpetuating the underlying wealth inequality that causes hunger by aligning with corporations that are exacerbating poverty through low wages and job cuts.

Photo Credit: kyle rw


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3 Mistakes Nonprofits Make in Fundraising Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: The Bridgespan Group

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