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Charting a Nonprofit’s Future Direction: A Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Engaging News Project


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Well-Designed and Implemented Nonprofit Programs: Pillar 3

First Place for YouthThis year on the blog I have been highlighting the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit released by the Leap Ambassador community (of which I am a member) in March. Today I continue the ongoing blog series describing each of the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative with Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies.

You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management.

Pillar 3 describes being crystal clear about what your nonprofit exists to do, how you fit into the external environment, and how you develop and execute smart programs that result in your desired social change. This Pillar is essentially about creating and executing a Theory of Change.

The most important part, in my mind, of Pillar 3 is encouraging nonprofits to define the target population(s) they aim to serve. I have seen too many nonprofit organizations so focused on doing good that they don’t define who they are best positioned to serve and how that relates to who else may be serving them. Nonprofits must get clear about their place amid other services and interventions and, very specifically, who they are hoping to benefit or influence.

As always, you can read a larger description of Pillar 3 in the Performance Imperative (and I strongly encourage you to do so), but, in summary, a nonprofit that exhibits Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies:

  • Is clear on the target population they serve.
  • Bases the design of their programs on evidence informed assumptions about how the organization’s activities can lead to the desired change (a“theory of change”).
  • Designs programs with careful attention to the larger ecosystem in which they operate.
  • Implements their programs in a consistently high-quality manner and views collecting and using data as part of implementing high-quality programs.
  • Guards against the temptation to veer off course in search of numbers that look good in marketing or funder materials.

Because I think case studies are so critical to understanding what high performance really looks like in a nonprofit, I asked Sam Cobbs, CEO of First Place for Youth, to explain how he led his organization to become a national model for helping foster kids to thrive.

Here is his story:

First Place went through an intensive theory of change process in 2008 where we explored what impact we wanted to make with youth and what type of activities and interactions it would take to achieve that impact. In addition, because the activities and interactions needed to be intensive (and therefore costly) we made the decision to focus our services on the most vulnerable youth. This was measured by how at risk a youth was using a risk assessment scale that took into account, among other factors:

  • number of foster care placements
  • years or days of homelessness
  • job history
  • education level, and
  • the number and quality of support systems, including positive adult role models.

Based on this criteria, youth who had a higher risk factor score were given priority over youth with lower scores.

After establishing our target population, we began to collect data on what activities and interactions youth were having with the organization and started to analyze these trends. We were looking to understand what our population had in common so that we could understand who we were effective with and who we needed to create better interventions for.

Through this work we determined that we had 8 participant types at baseline and figured out which types we worked better with and what interventions were best used with these sub-populations. We then trained staff to deliver the interventions that were shown to work better with certain sub-populations.

We also began to understand that our sweet spot was kids who had multiple foster care placements, had experienced homelessness at some point, and had a high school diploma or GED. We also learned that we needed to get better with youth who had low risk factor scores because they had an extensive support network, had never experienced homelessness, and were somewhat stable while in foster care. This may go against what we naturally think — that a person with extensive support would do better, but our data showed the opposite. We were also not very good at working with single parents who did not have a high school degree. In the coming year we are going to redo this process using algorithms to see if we get the same results and trends.

If we see that we are not doing well in an area, we research the best practices to deal with that area and direct resources and time to delivering that intervention. For example, because of the data we realized that a portion of our youth had very high trauma scores. Therefore we said we needed to become better at working with youth who have had complex trauma at high rates. We then created an initiative to insure that everyone in the organization understood trauma and its impact on our youth and the best ways to address it. We will see at the end of this year if this investment in trauma informed training has paid off by increasing our outcomes and impact with the youth that we serve.

We are consistently looking at the data to understand where we are doing well and where we need to improve. Its the data, the data, the data.

Photo Credit: First Place for Youth

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The Fundraising Event Debate Rages On

512px-Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976Predictably, my post last week arguing that nonprofit events aren’t efficient fundraisers caused some controversy. In particular, fundraising consultant, Gayle Gifford and I had an interesting (and very polite) debate about the post.

The exchange with Gayle really made me think and further refine my argument (which is really the point of debate, right?). What our exchange made me realize is that my issue with nonprofit fundraising events goes far beyond my belief that they are inefficient fundraisers.

Rather, my distaste for events stems from the fact that they often perpetuate the charity mindset, a destructive approach that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. The world is changing rapidly and the “charity” model doesn’t work anymore. And in fact, that model holds nonprofits back from becoming more efficient, more sustainable social change machines.

In our debate, Gayle and I discussed how events are merely a symptom of larger changes happening in the economy. As I wrote, nonprofit events are part of a:

“dying mentality that “charity” lives beside,…instead of fully integrated into, the economy. I believe that we are moving to a place where the work of social change (historically the work of “charity”) is fully integrated into the rest of the economy…the work of social change is just as important as the work of making widgets or the work of building roads and everyone understands that in order for all of it to work well, we need to finance it effectively.”

And Gayle argued that what I am describing would be a significant change to the world as we know it:

“I too long for/ and am working for the day when social justice is integrated into our economy as well as our philanthropic life… though that’s going to take some pretty massive restructuring of an economy based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption. But I still hold out that hope.”

But, as I responded, I think that kind of massive restructuring is already well underway:

I agree with you that fully integrating social change into our economy is not going to be quick or easy, but the truth is that it is already happening. There is a real convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors and the result is that social change is now rather ubiquitous. At the same time, technology and the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly as well. Add to that a Millennial generation that bakes social change into everything they do, and I think you start to see the beginnings of the “pretty massive restructuring” you and I are talking about. Nonprofits need to do the analysis and abandon activities that just aren’t effective. And then they need to look to some of these structural changes we are witnessing to find more efficient ways to create a sustainable financial model for their social change work.

In my mind, nonprofit fundraising events are anathema because they are symptom of a larger, ineffective way of thinking about nonprofits and the work of social change. Fundraising events are typically run as an aside, a tangential activity that sucks time and money out of a nonprofit and begs otherwise uninterested participants to pay the price of admission. These events keep charity squarely separate from the “real” work of the world.

And I truly believe we have moved past that. There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore. Social change must be bigger, more effective, and more efficiently financed.

When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” supported in part by inefficient, occasional parties, we start creating real investment, real attention, and real change.

Photo Credit: Gerald Ford Library



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The Problem With Nonprofit Events

nonprofit eventI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders recently about how to Move from Fundraising to Financing, and when I came to the part about events, the room went predictably quiet. Looks of shock shot around the room. Events are so ubiquitous in the nonprofit sector, how could I possibly say they have little financial value? It was heresy.

My argument in that room (and always, always) is that the nonprofit sector’s belief that events are a legitimate way to raise money is misguided.

For the most part, when you factor in the direct (food, venue, invites, entertainment) and indirect (staff, board and volunteer time) costs of an event, you either break even (best case) or lose money (worst case). The error many nonprofit leaders (board and staff alike) make is looking only at the gross revenue of an event (“We made $50,000!”) as opposed to the net revenue (“After factoring in expenses, we actually only made $20,000 on that event…”) and the cost to raise a dollar (“Whoa, it cost us $1.50 to raise $1.00 at that event!”).

Because it was a group of nonprofit leaders, they remained polite despite their disbelief (God love them!). But they did argue with me, and here is how I responded to each of their refutations:

“Board and staff time aren’t event expenses.”
The argument is that since staff salaries are a fixed expense and board (and other volunteer) time costs nothing, you shouldn’t include these items as event expenses. But you absolutely should. Every resource a nonprofit has (especially board and staff time) is limited. When you ask a board member to spend 20 hours volunteering to put on and attend an event, that is 20 hours of their time you can’t use in other (more profitable) ways. This is the idea of opportunity costs. As a nonprofit leader you want to make sure you are putting each resource to its highest and best use.

“Even if an event isn’t financially profitable, it raises awareness.”
I know I’m on a “raising awareness” rampage lately, but an expensive and time consuming activity like an event should never have such a vague goal guiding it. Awareness is not a real, tangible financial result. Awareness does not equal action, and it certainly doesn’t equal money. An event attendee’s vague sense of having had a good time quickly dissipates. Instead of trying to raise awareness, create a real strategy for getting in front of and encouraging action from your target funders.

“But our event builds our brand.”
Building your brand is about as meaningless as raising awareness. Forget the marketing jargon, the word “brand” is just a fancy word for what people think of your organization. I know this is blasphemy, but it simply doesn’t matter what people who are not in your target audience(s) think about your organization. In reality you only want to “build your brand” among those you are specifically targeting. So segment the market, figure out your target audiences, and then find cheaper, more specific ways to get them to act.

“We use events to connect with major donors”
Yes, now you are on to something. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that you should never host events. To the contrary, there absolutely are times when events make sense. When events are mission-focused, free to attend, and focused on cultivating and/or stewarding current or potential major donors (individuals, foundations, corporate leaders) they can make a lot of sense. But ONLY if you follow up with attendees on a one-on-one basis to further invest them in the organization and eventually ask them to contribute or renew their contributions. And ONLY if you don’t charge them to attend so that you can ask them for a bigger, and more meaningful gift down the road.

I stand by my claim: nonprofit events are not efficient fundraisers. Do the math on your events and see if they generate a positive cost to raise a dollar. If not, you should restructure or abandon them. But don’t continue doing something you hope is making money when it isn’t.

Photo Credit: Graham-Killers


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Thursday, September 10th, 2015 Innovators 14 Comments

What Nonprofits Don’t Get About Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit:

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July & Aug 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Anne Adrian

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Using Digital to Influence Social Change: An Interview with Jay Geneske

jay geneskeIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Jay Geneske, Director of Digital at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Jay directs the Foundation’s digital strategy to engage internal and external audiences, champion organization-wide collaboration, deliver data that informs organization decisions, and pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas. Jay previously served as the Director of Online Communications for Echoing Green, and has also served in digital and brand strategy roles at Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: Your role as head of digital for a major foundation is a pretty new kind of position in the world of philanthropy. Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation sees a lot of value (beyond marketing) in digital. How does digital play into the Foundation’s overall strategy? 

Jay: Like every other sector, digital has changed the game for social impact. At the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been tasked to pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas and perspectives on serving the needs of poor or vulnerable people in a time of rapid change.

That’s a tall order, but an exciting one.

This remit certainly includes how we utilize digital media to tell the story and impact of our work, to bring valuable information to those working in the sector, and to elevate our staff, grantees, and partners as thought leaders.

But digital goes far beyond traditional communication or marketing.

For external audiences, our digital focus is on influence. A carefully planned Twitter campaign can influence a policy maker to prioritize building resilience to the shocks and stresses facing their city. A data-informed segmented email can make a practitioner think more innovatively about solving a social or environmental problem. A well-crafted blog post syndicated on Medium, LinkedIn or elsewhere can connect our staff members to an important partner in the private sector.

Digital also plays an increasingly critical role for our internal audience. We’re reimagining how we work with each other and our hundreds of external partners by meeting people where they are and embracing nimble digital technology. For example, we’re bringing all of our files to the cloud for easy access around the globe and on mobile devices. We’ve also just launched an internal hub that brings valuable real-time data directly to staff members’ fingertips and also more easily captures and stores the critical informal knowledge and insights—typically stuck in email inboxes—that drive strategic decision-making.

What’s most important is the connective tissue between internal and external audiences, and confronting and embracing the increasing overlap and intersection to make us more effective.

Nell: The Rockefeller Foundation turned 100 in 2013 making it one of the oldest U.S. foundations. But the Foundation obviously works hard to stay relevant amid changing social challenges, technology, modes of communication, etc. What drives the Foundation’s desire and ability to be so nimble? 

Jay: Our mission has always been to improve the well-being of humanity. To achieve that mission, we must work in a way that is suited to a rapidly changing world, especially where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live.

This reality manifests throughout our formal initiatives, such as Digital Jobs Africa, which is connecting Africa’s rapidly growing youth population with jobs in the ICT sector. Technology has also clearly changed the game for how and where we do our work. For example, I’ve awarded grants to networks with a robust online presence with the aim to surface new ideas and connect to new people who are solving big social issues.

But in many ways, the sector is just scratching the surface, particularly around data. As David Henderson from FII recently noted, for data to change the world, we must think beyond software and data visualizations. There is a serious lack of investment and focus on how to turn data into action.

Nell: A big initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation is the 100 Resilient Cities project that works to help cities adapt to the “new normal” of continuous disruption. How are you using digital in this particular project? 

Jay: Digital plays a critical role in this initiative where our digital strategy is focused on influencing policy and business leaders and practitioners to focus on building resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges facing the world.

Through this work we’ve learned that content is the key to building influence. Our multichannel editorial strategy centers on creating and curating relevant, insightful, and vibrant content that our audience will find immediately actionable. It’s amazing to see how that content then travels around the social web, especially by politicians and business leaders.

We also know that reach is not the same as influence. Although growth is important, our focus has always been on influencing a specific audience, many of whom may not have huge a Twitter following.

Nell: In your work you talk about “digital storytelling” as a critical component of effective social impact, which goes far beyond a more traditional nonprofit approach to marketing. What does effective digital storytelling look like and what is the return on investment for a nonprofit? 

Jay: While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them. I’ve also noticed a fast increase in big brands infusing questionable social change messaging and stories into their communications, and I worry that organizations driving real social impact will be left behind.

The Foundation has invested in storytelling –including launching the free tool Hatch for Good— to help organizations tell stories that are strategically planned, creatively crafted, and designed to achieve measurable outcomes.

In many ways, storytelling is an angle or a focus in social impact communications and marketing. It’s a way to stand out, to inspire action and donations, to drive policy change.

We’ve had tens of thousands of people use Hatch for Good in beta, and what’s become clear is that, for all the good they do, our mission statements are preventing us from telling effective stories. We try to insert them, sometimes word-for-word, into every story. And the result is a story so crowded that our audience never had a chance to take action.

Effective storytelling shows the human consequences of the problem our organizations address—and the solutions that give people hope. Stories about the people whose lives are directly affected by the work, and about the people who join forces with us to create change. These stories exemplify our mission statement, but are not bound by it.

When done strategically, these stories can prove a return on investment, case studies of which are posted on Hatch for Good.

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Why Some Nonprofits Leap, And Others Don’t

leapI am back after an amazing three weeks away from the world of social change. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job and the ability it gives me to work each day with incredibly inspiring, passionate, and driven social changemakers.

But as I’ve said before, time away is absolutely critical to feeding your soul and making you a more complete, interesting and effective person. I am so grateful to the amazing guest bloggers who wrote incredible pieces for the blog while I was away (you can read their posts here).

One of the benefits of giving your brain a break is new insight. It occurred to me while I was away that there is a big difference between social change efforts that just exist and those that reach the tipping point of achieving real social change. I work at the nexus between the two because nonprofit leaders often come to me when they hit an inflection point. They desire a big change — to move out of the status quo and take a big leap — but they don’t know how to get there.

Sometimes they make the leap, and sometimes they don’t. And the difference often comes down whether or not they possess (or cultivate) these traits:

Those nonprofits that make it have someone (or a handful of someones) who are the cheerleaders for the change they seek. These are the people who are constantly reminding board members, staff, donors about why change is necessary and all of the great things that will happen if they continue with the hard work. To achieve true change you must have a leader who can see the ultimate goal and rallies everyone together to get there.

To take a big leap (scale your solution, rebuild your board) you must have the confidence that you can do it. And you need the confidence to convince others to join you. You have to “fake it ’til you make it.” Some leaders are really good at this, others are not. It amazes me how important confidence is and how many in the nonprofit sector often lack it. You must fight the fairly normal state in the nonprofit sector of supplication and instead make confident demands for what it will take to achieve the change you seek.

Related to confidence — but different — is a necessary fearlessness. A nonprofit leader I worked with several years ago wanted to dramatically grow her services, and she knew she needed a bigger, more networked board to get there. So she had to get over the fear of asking for new connections. It is terrifying to ask someone to help you in new ways, or to ask for something you’re not sure the other person is willing or able to give, but you don’t get anything unless you ask. The path of change may be really difficult, or it may force you to make hard decisions. But if you want real change you have to face those uncertainties head on.

Changing minds, changing systems, changing habits is really hard work, and you must be dedicated to seeing the change through to the end. I know that the daily work of your nonprofit is already hard work. But I’m talking about a different kind of hard work. It is the hard work of explaining to ineffective board members why they have to resign, or letting poor performing staff members go, or educating donors about how they are holding your organization back, or creating new performance management systems. I have found that those nonprofit leaders who are constantly fighting the urge to settle back into the status quo are the ones who succeed.

It’s not enough to want a bigger, better, more effective organization. You must cultivate the vision, drive, confidence and fearlessness to get there.

Photo Credit: Stuart Anthony

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