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Innovators

What’s Your Nonprofit’s Theory of Change?

Theory of Change GuideOver the past few years I’ve developed a Social Velocity library of books, step-by-step guides, and webinars. My hope is that these tools can make the concepts I use with my consulting clients accessible to smaller and start up nonprofits who aren’t ready for or interested in a customized approach.

The tools follow the methods I develop in my consulting practice (like creating a financing plan, growing the board of directors, designing a theory of change) so when my consulting approach changes over time, the tools must change as well.

Which brings me to the Design a Theory of Change Guide. I created this guide a couple of years ago, but I recently changed the Theory of Change framework I use with my clients. I used to follow a more traditional logic model approach, but over time I’ve come to realize that there are really five specific and complex questions that make up a Theory of Change.

And those are:

  1. What is the target population or populations you are seeking to benefit or influence?
  2. What relevant trends in or changes to the external environment are occurring?
  3. How and where are your core competencies employed?
  4. What changed conditions do you believe will result from your activities?
  5. What evidence do you have that this theory will actually result in change?

The completely revised Design a Theory of Change Guide walks you step-by-step through answering these questions and creating your nonprofit’s own Theory of Change.

A Theory of Change is a fundamental building block to everything that your nonprofit does. Because without a Theory of Change, you won’t know what you are trying to accomplish, how you will get there, or whether you are moving towards it, and you certainly won’t attract the funding necessary to get there.

A Theory of Change can strengthen your nonprofit in many ways:

  • Guides your strategic planning process. If you understand your nonprofit’s overall Theory of Change and what you exist to do, it is much easier to chart a future course.

  • Helps revise the vision and mission of your organization, making them stronger and more compelling.

  • Gives a framework to prove whether you are actually achieving results and creating real social change.

  • Provides a filter for new opportunities as they arise. Do new opportunities fit within your Theory of Change?

  • Engages board members and other volunteers, friends and supporters in your work. If people understand the bigger picture, they will be more inclined to give more time, energy, and other resources to the work.

  • Allows staff to understand how their individual roles and responsibilities fit into the larger vision of the organization. This can increase staff morale, productivity, communication and overall commitment to the organization.

  • Provides the basic argument for a case for investment or other fundraising messaging. With a Theory of Change, you can articulate what you are working to achieve, in a compelling way.

A Theory of Change is so fundamental because you cannot chart a strategic direction if you don’t know what you are trying to change. And you can’t prove that you’ve changed something unless you have articulated what it is that you want to change in the first place. And you certainly can’t convince funders, volunteers, and key decision makers to support you if you can’t tell them what you are trying to change and whether you are actually doing it.

So to truly create long-term social change you must start with a Theory of Change, which is why I encourage every nonprofit engaged in social change to create one.

You can learn more about the Design a Theory of Change Guide and download a copy of it. If you downloaded the previous Theory of Change Guide and would like the newly revised version free of charge, let me know, and we’ll send it to you.

As always, you can see all of the Social Velocity books, guides and webinars available for download on the Social Velocity Tools page.

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Building a Sustainable Nonprofit: A Case Study

nonprofit strategyI consider myself incredibly lucky because I get to work one-on-one with some amazing social change leaders.

One of the clients I’m working with right now is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). This is a group of incredibly smart and passionate people who are committed to improving public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging the government, media, and communities.

The challenges they face as a nonprofit organization are not unique. So I’d like to share their story as a case study.

I met MPAC in 2013. While they had been around for 25 years and aspired to be a truly national organization, MPAC struggled to build a diversified financial model and a donor base beyond southern California. At the same time the organization lacked a coherent strategy for their future work. They wanted to expand their national presence, grow their networks and influence, strengthen and diversify their funding sources, and ultimately increase their impact on a vibrant American Muslim community, but they didn’t know how to get there.

MPAC hired Social Velocity to conduct a Financial Model Assessment to determine what was holding the organization back from growing their revenue and diversifying their funding sources. I interviewed board and staff members and some external constituents to uncover what was holding MPAC back. I also analyzed MPAC’s past financial history, board and staff structure, marketing materials, fundraising activities and more to understand what was working and what was not. I delivered to board and staff a 30+ page assessment that described how MPAC could strengthen their financial sustainability.

One of the biggest things holding MPAC back financially was the lack of a future organizational strategy around which they could rally donors. Upon hearing my findings, the board voted unanimously to undertake a strategic planning process to chart a focused future direction. We then worked over the next 6+ months to develop a 3-year strategic plan to increase MPAC’s impact and financial sustainability.

Because of the new strategic plan we created, MPAC has focused their efforts and resources and are now working to implement the strategic plan and financial model recommendations. They are working to identify outside investors to help fund a growth campaign, expand the board, hire a Development Director, and streamline operations. Board and staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to bring it to fruition. And to help MPAC in this critical change and growth phase I am coaching staff and board on how to implement the plan and set the organization up for success.

Outside guidance is sometimes critical to moving an organization forward. As Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC’s President and CEO put it:

Nell’s assessment illustrated how we were wasting resources and not connecting prospective donors with a clear message. After the board and staff read the report, we all decided to proceed with a strategic planning process. That exercise, which spanned over 6 months, opened everyone’s eyes. We now have buy-in from our most important stakeholders in the organization – the board – for change. We realized that in order to achieve growth, we have to change internally. Nell helped us to navigate the road to becoming a national organization by changing how we operate internally. Nell’s experience in nonprofit management and fundraising proved to be invaluable in our planning process. We are now beginning to implement the strategic plan are excited about this new era for the organization.

It doesn’t have to be so hard. The mission your board and staff are so passionate about can be achieved in a sustainable way.

You can learn more about how I work with nonprofits on my Consulting page, and you can read more case studies on the Clients page. If you’d like to discuss how I might work with your nonprofit, let me know.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Simak

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5 Fundraising Delusions Nonprofits Suffer

fundraisingFundraising is, for the most part, a fundamentally misunderstood activity. There are a lot of misconceptions, among nonprofit leaders, board members — even donors — about effective ways to bring money in the door.

Here are are a few of the worst delusions about fundraising that persist in the sector:

  1. Events Are Fundraisers
    Very few nonprofit events generate a net income after you factor in the direct (food, venue, invitations, entertainment) and indirect (board and staff time) costs that go into them. They simply are not profit-generating activities. If you are looking to your events to bring in a profit, calculate the cost to raise a dollar to see if they actually are. Some nonprofit leaders argue that events generate value beyond profit, vague terms like “awareness” or “goodwill.” That may be, but unless you follow-up with individual event attendees to turn that increased “awareness” or “goodwill” into money, there is little financial value to events. Turn your energies instead to low-cost, mission-focused cultivation and stewardship events for your major donors and major donor prospects, then you might have something.

  2. Crowdfunding Creates Revenue
    Nope, it doesn’t. Revenue is the on-going money you need to keep your doors open and your operations running. A crowdfunding campaign, by definition, is a one-time deal. It is organized around a specific need or timeframe. Therefore the money it generates is not easily or regularly repeated. Crowdfunding could make sense for a nonprofit hoping to raise startup, growth or capacity capital (all one-time infusions of money). But that Kickstarter campaign is not going to keep the lights on, so look elsewhere (like a financing plan) for sustainable revenue.

  3. Major Donors Can Be Recruited En Masse
    Major donors are secured through a long-term, systematic, one-on-one process. There is no quick way to bring large donors on board. My issue with mass major donor fundraising programs (like the Benevon model) is that when you ask people as a group to pull out their checkbooks, you are leaving money on the table. The check someone feels compelled to write after watching a 20-minute presentation with their friends pales in comparison to the one they will write after you’ve built a one-on-one relationship with them over time. Put together a strategic major donor campaign, along with the infrastructure and systems to execute on it, and you will create a long-term major donor base (and its corresponding revenue stream) for years to come.

  4. Skimping on Fundraising Staff and Systems Saves Money
    While you may save a few thousand dollars in salary by hiring a novice fundraiser (instead of an experienced one), you will cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed revenue. The same is true with cheap fundraising systems like an ineffective donor database, an unresponsive website, a cumbersome email marketing system, or a poor (or non-existent) marketing strategy. Figure out what it will really cost to build the fundraising team and systems you need and then raise the capacity capital to get there.

  5. Endowments Solve Money Woes
    Let’s face it, an endowment makes sense for very few nonprofits. Even if you were able to convince donors to let their money just sit in a bank account (which is a big “if”), that money won’t really impact your bottomline. Even if you raise an endowment of $1 million, it will only generate $50,000 (assuming a 5% return) of operating revenue each year. Instead raise a much smaller amount of capacity capital which you could use to strengthen your fundraising infrastructure (more staff, better technology). Those improvements could increase your annual revenue by many times more than $50,000.

It’s time to face the facts. There are smart ways to raise money and there are delusional ways to (not) do it. Embrace the power of money and use it as a tool to create a more effective, sustainable organization.

Photo Credit: TaxCredits

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Speaking With Social Change Leaders

Nell EdgingtonOne of the things I love about my job is that I get to travel to different parts of the country talking with groups of social change leaders about how to think about their work in new ways. I speak to nonprofit and philanthropic conferences, events, groups, even boards about trends in the nonprofit sector and how social change leaders must adapt.

Recently I have spoken to groups in Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, Dallas, and Idaho. You can see a video of me speaking to the Seattle Association of Fundraising Professionals Conference below (or click here) where I was talking about one of my most popular topics, How to Move From Fundraising to Financing.

I speak about any of the topics covered in the Social Velocity blog, but here is a general list of topics:

  • Speaking Engagements One SheetMoving From Fundraising to Financing
  • The Future of the Nonprofit Sector
  • Overcoming Nonprofit Myths
  • Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader
  • The Power of a Theory of Change
  • Getting Your Board to Fundraise
  • How To Raise Capacity Capital
  • Creating a Sustainable Financial Model
  • Messaging Impact
  • Creating a Succession Plan
  • Honest Conversations Between Funders and Nonprofits
  • The Critical Connection Between Mission and Money

If you want to learn more about having me come speak to your event or group, download the Social Velocity Speaking One Sheet, or visit the Speaking page to learn more.

Photo Credit: Social Velocity

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Making the Case for Nonprofit Leaders: An Interview with Linda Wood

Linda WoodIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Linda Wood, Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative. Over the past decade, the Haas, Jr. Fund has invested over $20 million in strengthening the leadership of more than 75 grantees in its key priority areas– immigrant rights, education equity, and gay and lesbian rights—through the Flexible Leadership Awards program. In that time Linda has become a leading voice on the topic of leadership in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Prior to joining the Fund, she advised senior leaders on strategy, organizational performance and change management at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund has put a lot of investment behind the development of nonprofit leaders, but you are quite an anomaly in the philanthropic world. Support for leadership development is taken as a given in the for-profit world, but rarely recognized, let alone funded, in the nonprofit world. Why do you think there is that discrepancy in leadership development between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds?

Linda: It really is striking to see how differently the business sector and the nonprofit world view the issue of leadership. I went to business school myself, and spent eight years working as a management consultant in the private sector where it’s basic good practice to invest in the people you’re counting on to move the work forward. Strengthening leadership is seen as part and parcel of what it takes to fuel innovation and success.

On the other hand, in the social sector, a lot of foundations think of leadership development as a luxury–a nice-to-have that’s not linked to impact. That’s reflected in recent estimates that less than 1% of total foundation spending is going to strengthen leadership in the nonprofit sector.

Why? Well, I think we’ve got a lot of myths about leadership in our sector.

One myth is that leadership development is simply not a priority for nonprofit leaders because most don’t ask for it. And, when grantees don’t ask, many foundations assume that there’s no need. But we have not yet created a culture in the nonprofit sector that says it’s ok to invest in yourself and in other senior organizational leaders. We place a high value on self-sacrifice. Given the choice, nonprofit leaders will almost always direct general support to critical services and programs. That’s why actually I think it’s important for foundations to earmark funds for supporting leadership.

Another related myth is that leadership is part of overhead, and overhead should be minimized at all costs. From this perspective, investments in the organization’s leadership are cleaved off from the work and seen as wasteful overhead rather than intrinsic to achieving the organization’s goals.

Nell: You recently curated a blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review where funders who have supported nonprofit leadership development articulated its value. How helpful do you think that step was in getting the broader philanthropic community to understand the value of leadership investment? And do you have additional plans to help move leadership development forward among your peers?

Linda: Our goal in putting together the SSIR blog series was to help build momentum around the idea of investing in leadership being a core grantmaking strategy that can catalyze diverse programmatic goals and not just a boutique strategy that only some funders can afford. By featuring perspectives from top-level executives from a half dozen foundations of very different sizes and with very different funding priorities, ranging from the Omidyar Network to the Women’s Foundation of California, we hoped to offer examples that would inspire more foundations to see possibilities for their own work.

To be honest, it’s hard to know whether we are moving the needle. But it does seem like there has been mounting attention to philanthropic underinvestment in leadership lately. Just over the past couple of months GEO and then NCRP have both released major reports making the case for more attention to leadership and talent development. And the Talent Philanthropy Project held a meeting in New York in March that attracted over 60 people including nonprofit leaders, funders, consultants, and intermediaries.

I think the real question is whether increased interest will translate into significant increases in investment—the kinds of sustained, strategic investments in leadership that advance the capacity of organizations, networks and movements to achieve better outcomes. The danger is that we foundations will sprinkle a little leadership development funding here and there, perhaps send a handful of our grantee leaders to a training, and call it a day.

Nell: You recently announced a new initiative to seek solutions to the challenges, which you uncovered in your 2013 UnderDeveloped study with CompassPoint, facing nonprofit fundraising. What are your long-term plans with this initiative and what do you hope to find?

Linda: The UnderDeveloped report caused such a stir across the country. I have heard from so many people—funders, grantees, consultants, board members, etc.—that the report gave voice to concerns they’ve held for a long time. It clearly hit a pain point. And the big question it begs is what to do about it?

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we’ve decided our next step is to try and refine concrete strategies that will help our grantees, and hopefully others, achieve breakthroughs in their fundraising.

One of our goals is to help organizations be more strategic about their approach to fund development. There’s so much out there. The nonprofit fundraising industry is full of consultants, speakers, large trade associations and technology providers. They offer costly, sometimes contradictory advice, patented approaches, one-off success stories, and a dizzying array of technology tools and platforms for raising money. As a result, our work in fundraising may be less about innovating and more about separating the wheat from the chaff, helping grantees chart a coherent, fruitful course through the thicket of possibilities.

Right now, we’re in the R & D phase. Here are some of the questions we’re exploring:

  • What fundraising success stories can be replicated by our grantees? To answer this question, we will conduct “bright spots” research focused on small- to medium-sized organizations who have had sustained success with individual fundraising.
  • How can we address the fundraising talent gap? To answer this question, we are conducting a scan of fundraising training and exploring the feasibility of a “fundraising fellowship.”
  • One fund development approach that’s attracting attention is developing a “culture of philanthropy.” But what does that mean? And what difference does it make?
  • Are there ways to help an entire field of grantees? To identify potential investments that might help a field of grantees, we are testing whether and how donor research can help LGBT grantees with fundraising.

As we tackle these questions, we are sharing what we’re learning along the way through a series of blogs on our website. And we’d love to hear from other people. What questions are missing? What can a foundation’s role be in supporting fundraising capacity?

Ultimately, this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Our goal is to get better at supporting grantees around fund development, and to that end, we anticipate beginning to pilot some new strategies starting in 2016.

You asked what we hope to achieve with this work over the long term. I think if I could fast forward a couple of years, I would hope we will have made a dent in strengthening the talent pipeline for development directors, and that we are helping organizations bring more skill, focus and success to their fundraising, especially in tapping individual donors.

Nell: Philanthropy has traditionally been less interested in funding capacity building (like leadership development and fundraising). Do you think that’s changing? And/or do you think we will have more hope of changing that as generational shifts take hold in philanthropy?

Linda: Yes, I often feel like there’s a real divide between the folks in philanthropy who are focused on the what and those who are focused on the how.

Obviously, we’re all in this work for the what—to help create a more just and sustainable world. But often in philanthropy, conversations about things like capacity and leadership are disconnected from the conversations about the content of the work. We hold separate conferences; we belong to different affinity groups; we read different articles…

So, as someone who’s a member of the how club (as we sometimes jokingly refer to it among ourselves) I think we need to keep strengthening the connection between building leadership and capacity and delivering programmatic wins. No matter what a given foundation seeks to achieve programmatically–whether that’s community health, environmental justice or education equity–it’s important to ask how they will get from where they are today to where they want to be. What is our responsibility as funders to support the people and organizations who are advancing this work? What kind of staff, board and community leadership will be needed to get where we all want to go? And how can we transmit in words and in concrete actions that we are in this together and that we want to provide them with the resources to do their best work.

Photo Credit: Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2015

social changeApril was another busy month in the world of social change writing. From Google’s shift to mobile, to the Baltimore protests, to using sitcoms to change public opinion, to the pace of social change, to teens and social media, to a new way to measure a country’s performance, there was much to read and digest.

Below are my 10 picks of the best in the world of social change in April, but please add to the list in the comments. And to see what else I found beyond these 10, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn.

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

  1. There was much analysis about what went wrong in Baltimore, but I found the most insightful to be Dan Diamond’s Forbes piece about how it is fundamentally a “tale of two cities” and the persistent inequality between two very different Baltimores.

  2. As is Google’s way, they made a huge change to their search algorithm in late April that will affect us all. Google is now favoring websites that are mobile friendly. But fear not, Beth Kanter offers some advice for upgrading your nonprofit’s website.

  3. For those in the trenches, the pace of social change can seem glacial. But this great graphic from Bloomberg demonstrates that for many issues (prohibition, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage) there was a tipping point at which America very quickly changed its mind. Fascinating.

  4. Civic Tech, or using technology to make citizens more engaged and government more effective, is a huge investment opportunity, says Stacy Donohue from the Omidyar Network. With venture capitalists, the federal government and nonprofit and for-profit solutions all poised to make change, Donohue sees civic tech as a “very real, very now investment opportunity.” Let’s hope that new ideas and (most importantly) lots of new money can turn our struggling democracy around.

  5. Social change can happen in many different ways, including by altering popular culture. Former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi is attempting this kind of shift with his new web sitcom that takes a “Cosby Show” approach to portraying American Muslims in order to combat Islamophobia.

  6. Writing in Slate, Krista Langlois takes a hard look at her fellow environmental journalists and whether they have failed to adequately describe the environmental challenges facing our planet since American concern about climate change has actually declined in the last 20 years.

  7. One of the most common hurdles to nonprofits raising capacity dollars is the challenge of articulating to funders the potential impact of a capacity investment. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) have put together some tools to help funders understand the importance of and return on capacity investments. Share these with your funders.

  8. In April, MIT and the Social Progress Imperative launched the Social Progress Index, an effort to create a complement to the Gross Domestic Product that measures a nation’s social and environmental performance. The Social Progress Index looks at 52 indicators of a country’s social and environmental performance (like child mortality rate, adult literacy rate, greenhouse gas emissions). As Michael Porter, one of the chief architects behind it puts it, “Measuring social progress offers citizens and leaders a more complete picture of how their country is developing. And that will help societies make better choices, create stronger communities, and enable people to lead more fulfilling lives.”

  9. Writing on the Huffington Post Politics blog, Robert Reich describes a worrying trend where nonprofits are silencing themselves for fear of losing their big donors. As he writes, “Our democracy is directly threatened when the rich buy off politicians. But no less dangerous is the quieter and more insidious buy-off of institutions democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against what is occurring.”

  10. And finally, if you want to understand where social media is going, Pew Research Center released their most recent findings about teens use of social media and technology.

Photo Credit: Patrick Neil

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Choosing to Make the World a Better Place

two roadsEvery once in awhile David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, gets it really right. His piece earlier this month, The Moral Bucket List, is a sharp departure from his usual political and social commentary. He went (shockingly) a bit spiritual. And the result is profound.

Brooks describes a type of enlightened person who has made a conscious choice to shun the materialistic rat race which often defines our country. This person has chosen to make a significant contribution to the world beyond them. As he puts it: “People on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

As Brooks describes it, instead of being self-promotional, these people are humble; instead of hiding their weaknesses, they embrace them; instead of following individual will they recognize their dependence on others in the journey; instead of living a life of self-centeredness, they find a deep passion and love that takes them outside themselves; instead of pursuing a career that brings them money and prestige, they find their calling to contribute to the larger world.

Brooks’ piece is reminiscent of Steven Pressfield’s seminal book from 2002, The War of Art in which he argues that every single person was put on earth to contribute in a specific and significant way, but only those who can overcome Resistance and put in the effort will find that unique calling.

As Pressfield puts it:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be…Resistance prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius…A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Although Pressfield’s book is focused on artists, it is really about all of us. He believes (and I concur) that every single one of us has something unique and very important to contribute to the larger world. It could be a work of literature, a portfolio of photographs, a game-changing idea. The human race does not possess just a handful of geniuses, people like Hemingway and Georgia O’Keefe, rather every human possesses genius within him. Sometimes that genius is artistic, sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s entrepreneurial, or it may be something completely different. It is up to each of us to figure out what our genius is and put in the tireless effort (Hemingway forced himself to write every single day) to unearth and disseminate our genius.

Brooks would seem to agree. He describes a similar force to Resistance, and he sees the enlightened person as having the desire and ability to fight Resistance in order to find something better:

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were. The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

For both Brooks and Pressfield, the real work is to fight against mediocrity — career success, money, status, and other self-centered, meaningless pursuits that take you away from your greater calling. The real goal is to figure out why you beat all the odds to end up here and to discover what you are meant to contribute to the greater good — a painting, a novel, or perhaps a solution to a social problem.

When it seems the world is falling in around us, that the social problems we face only continue to mount, that greed, self-interest, and corruption surround us, we must remember that we all have choices. We can choose to wake up from the meaningless slumber and find our true genius. We can choose to create something much bigger than ourselves. And in so doing we may just find for ourselves (and show others) a better way to live.

Photo Credit: Ryan Schultz

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Courageous, Adaptive Nonprofit Leadership: Pillar 1

leadershipAs I mentioned last month, the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am a member) recently released the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit. Because I think the Performance Imperative is so important and every nonprofit leader should understand it and begin to use it, today I am kicking off a series to describe, one-by-one, each of the seven pillars of the Performance Imperative.

I think the Performance Imperative is so exciting because it can serve as a north star to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations analyze their own performance and create a clear roadmap for improvement.

As Lowell Weiss, one of the leading architects of the Performance Imperative, explained in my interview with him last month:

High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The Performance Imperative is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.

So, first up in this series on the Performance Imperative is Pillar #1: Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership.

Without true leadership, at both the board and staff level, you will achieve little as a nonprofit. This pillar is about asking hard questions, pushing the organization toward excellence, continuously improving and taking nothing for granted.

You can read the full description of Pillar #1 in the Performance Imperative, but here are a few key elements present in nonprofits that exhibit this pillar:

  • Boards “ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.”
  • Executives and boards “know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.”
  • Executives and boards “know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
  • Executives and boards “are constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing…redirecting scarce resources to the highest opportunity areas.”

In other words, nonprofit leaders who embody Pillar 1 of the Performance Imperative, ask hard questionsbuild a stellar staff, seek continuous improvement, and put resources to their highest and best use.

There is no doubt that there are many examples of this courageous, adaptive leadership in the nonprofit sector. One of those, I believe, is Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca.

Molly founded Roca in 1988, and by 2004 it was a multi-million dollar teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program.  But that year, Molly began asking some hard questions about the results Roca was achieving. She forced board and staff to take a huge step back and examine what they were doing and the ultimate effect that work had.  She led her board and staff through a rigorous refocusing and pruning effort to limit their target populations and use data to drive their interventions. Instead of continuing a laundry list of services to many different populations that had limited effect, she helped her organization refocus resources on where they could create real change — transforming the lives of young men in the criminal justice system.

It was a challenging transition to lead, but the results are impressive. An internal study overseen by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013 found that Roca reduced recidivism 65% and increased employment by 100% for the men in the program. And Roca was chosen as the lead provider in Masschusetts’ first pay for success effort.

Ten years ago Molly could have continued on Roca’s then current path, continuing to do “good work,” but failing to ask hard questions about whether that work was really resulting in change. But instead, Molly brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.

That’s the kind of social change leadership we need.

If you want to learn more, download the Performance Imperative and read additional case studies here.

Photo Credit: William B. T. Trego painting depicting George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.

 

 

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