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Leadership

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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We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Well, to be honest, I am often thinking about leadership. I’m perpetually fascinated by it in all of its forms — the good, the bad, the ugly. In particular, lately I’ve been mulling on Nancy Koehn’s definition of leadership. She spoke at this Spring’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference on what history can teach us about leadership. And what she discussed has really stayed with me.

For Koehn, leadership is not something inherent in any one person, rather leaders are created when they face a critical event and make a conscious decision to step up to the plate: “Leaders make themselves capable of doing extraordinary things…A true leader has to decide to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

I completely agree. Leaders are not born, they are made. And a leader is made when she or he decides to stand up and do the hard, right thing.

It is, at its essence, a purely selfless act. Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is often difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular. But the true leader, as opposed to the blind follower, makes a decision to step up. Steven Pressfield calls this distinction between the true leader and the blind follower the “amateur versus the professional mindset.” The “amateur” takes the easy path and expects someone else to get them what they need, but the “professional” understands that they must step up and do the hard, right thing. The “professional” says: “I will expect no opportunity and no remuneration until I have first created value for someone else.”

I believe that our country is in the midst of a leadership crisis. No matter your political beliefs, our democracy is facing a critical event. Those we have elected to represent us are faced with a decision about whether they will step up and defend the equal power of our three branches of government or whether they will not. As Max Boot wrote on Twitter:

 

 

 

And as always, history provides an analog. As American Revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These are definitely interesting times. Only history will tell where we will land. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in 1966, interesting times demand something from us:

“The temptation [is] to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us…Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society.”

Now is the time for true leaders to emerge. And it is not just a moment for our political leaders to step up. Every single one of us must take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we have the courage, the fortitude to lead us forward.

Because in this moment in our history, as Nancy Koehn put it, “We need great, courageous leaders like we need oxygen and water.”

Photo Credit: Winston Churchill on V-E day, IWM Collections.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2017

April saw a debate about whether or not crowdfunding is transforming philanthropy, critiques of Harvard Business School, a report on the lack of philanthropy in the Deep South, a first-person account of the effects of founder’s syndrome, and tools to help more funders engage in advocacy. Add to that a new Supreme Court Justice, some new data about fundraising, and two fascinating new books, and April was a very interesting month in the world of social change.

Below are my 10 favorite reads about nonprofits and philanthropy in April, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And, as always, for a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. The dramatic growth of person-to-person crowdfunding efforts may be fundamentally transforming philanthropy argued Ben Paynter in an interesting long read in FastCompany. As he puts it: “[This] vast pool of money [is] fundamentally shifting who is funding charitable work and how that work gets done.” But Eduardo Andino would seem to disagree. Writing in Philanthropy Daily he argues that crowdfunding is not all that different or disruptive: “As has always been the case, Americans give money when they see an organization with a mission they believe in or a person whose need moves them. GoFundMe simply allows more Americans to encounter more people in need of immediate assistance than ever before.”

  2. A new report on the state of philanthropy in the Deep South showed the dramatic discrepancy in per capita funding there versus other areas of the country. As Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly described the findings of the report: “Funders do not invest in homegrown power-building efforts in the Black Belt because they are not drawn in the image of the more-built-up grantees they know well and favor.”

  3. Now is definitely the time for more philanthropists to engage in advocacy, and to help in that effort The Foundation Center released a suite of tools for funders interested in advocacy collaborations.

  4. Two new (and diametrically opposed) books came out in April. First, Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport (reviewed by Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times) took a hard look at Harvard Business School, which McDonald argued bred a greedy generation of corporate leaders. And for a completely opposite worldview, check out the new edition of The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life by Piero Ferrucci (reviewed by Mirielle Clifford on the PhilanTopic blog), which could be a balm for our divisive times.

  5. Linda Wood, Senior Director of Leadership Initiatives at the Haas Jr. Fund, encouraged other foundations to invest in the capacity not just of individual organizations, but also larger social movements. As she put it: “We need to be more attentive to the interplay between the strength and agility of leaders and organizations and the dynamics of their broader movements.” And Patrick Guerriero discussed the evolution of the social movement that resulted in marriage equality.

  6. I think I could probably very happily spend hours digging into Pew Research data. It is fascinating stuff, especially their recent 10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world in 2017.

  7. Speaking of data, there was new fundraising data on donor retention and how more effective an in-person (versus email) solicitation is.

  8. An anonymous nonprofit staff member in the United Kingdom wrote a scathing critique in The Guardian of their nonprofit’s founder who has stayed at the organization too long.

  9. April saw the nomination, confirmation, and swearing in of a new Justice on the Supreme Court, and Michael Wyland provided an analysis of what the implications of a court with Justice Gorsuch could mean for the nonprofit sector.

  10. And finally, if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by these challenging times, look no further than Steven Pressfield who wrote: “You were born for adversity. It’s in your DNA as much as it’s in the DNA of a shark or an eagle or a lion…Our stubby little ancestors left us not just the ability to endure adversity, but the capacity to thrive under conditions of adversity.” Yes!

Photo Credit: Andy Roberts

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3 Things I Wish Funders Would Ask Nonprofits

I think we can all agree that most philanthropists truly want to be helpful to the nonprofit recipients of their dollars. However, because of the inherent power imbalance, it is often challenging, if not impossible, for a funder and a grantee to have a candid conversation about what it will really take to achieve the social change that they both seek.

I think part of the answer may lie in funders initiating more productive conversations with their grantees about what truly holds a nonprofit back from becoming more sustainable and effective at creating social change.

So here are some questions that funders, who hope to help their most beloved grantees achieve their mission, can employ:

  1. What holds you back?
    Rather than hearing this most critical question asked of them, nonprofit leaders often hear a very different question from their funders: “Why don’t you grow your programs?” In fact in the most recent Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey, 49% of nonprofit leaders said they could have an open dialogue with their funders about expanding programs, but only 17% said they could have a conversation with funders about organizational change or adaptation.  Instead of pressuring nonprofit leaders to grow, funders should ask about the capacity constraints that are holding those nonprofits back. And once a nonprofit leader reveals what those constraints are, funders and nonprofit leaders together should brainstorm how to overcome those hurdles, with capacity capital.

  2. What would it really cost to achieve your long-term goals?
    Nonprofit leaders are rarely asked what their long-term goals are, let alone what it would take to achieve them. For so long the incentives in the nonprofit sector have encouraged nonprofit leaders to hide their full organizational and infrastructure costs and operate on a short-term view. So they rarely give themselves the luxury of planning for the long-term, let alone calculating what the long-term might cost. Instead, funders should encourage the leaders of the nonprofits they fund to take the longview (perhaps starting with a Theory of Change), and to include ALL the costs (program, infrastructure, reserves, staffing and systems) necessary to get there.

  3. What other funders or influencers can we introduce you to?
    Beyond actual money, there is much more that philanthropists could be doing to support their grantees. Whether they realize it or not, funders often are connected to other key people who could help move a nonprofit’s mission forward. That might include other funders in the same issue area, or policymakers with an influence on the nonprofit’s mission, or others with a role in whether or not a nonprofit’s desired outcomes will come to fruition. Instead of being overly protective of their desirable network, funders should actively make connections for those nonprofits that they want to succeed.

I know I’m an optimist. These are hard questions for funders to ask and equally hard questions for nonprofit leaders to candidly answer. But the only way we are going to move beyond the power dynamic and an under-resourced nonprofit sector is if funders and nonprofit leaders have more open and honest conversations about what it will really take to move social change forward. So get talking.

Photo Credit: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios

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Do Your Programs Contribute to Mission AND Money?

There is a tool that I think is incredibly helpful to nonprofit leaders trying to figure out where to focus their resources and how to plan for the future. Indeed it is typically one of the first activities in the strategic planning process I use with my clients.

The Program Matrix helps a nonprofit board and staff analyze their portfolio of programs to understand their overall mission and money mix.

Because those two elements — mission and money — are inextricably bound in an effective nonprofit organization. You simply cannot achieve your mission without an operation that attracts and uses money sustainably.

The Program Matrix looks like this:

And, here’s how to fill out yours.

List Your Programs
A nonprofit leader makes a list of all their mission-related programs and initiatives. But don’t include organization-building work, like pure fundraising activities, or board development. While those activities are absolutely critical to your success, they are a means to an end. For example, conducting a fundraising appeal has the goal of raising money to plow into programs. So in Program Matrix, we want to look at just the mission-related programs.

Plot Your Programs on the Matrix
Once you have that list of programs, plot each individual program on the matrix based on that program’s ability to contribute to:

  1. Social Impact: The social change outcomes you are working toward, which are found in your Theory of Change (on the x axis), and

  2. Financial Returns: The financial sustainability of the organization (on the y axis). A program that can attract enough money not only to cover its own direct and indirect costs, but also to subsidize other programs would be above the line (“positive”), whereas a program that cannot attract enough money to cover its own costs would be below the line (“negative.”)

Analyze the Results
Once you have plotted your entire portfolio of programs on the matrix, take a look at where they fall in the four boxes. These are:

  1. Worthwhile: The program significantly contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it drains financial resources from the organization. A nonprofit will always have programs in this box, and that’s fine.

  2. Sustaining: The program doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it does provide a surplus of financial resources to the organization, which is great.

  3. Beneficial: The program contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes AND it provides excess money that can be plowed into “Worthwhile” programs — this is the best of both worlds.

  4. Detrimental: The program doesn’t contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, AND it drains financial resources from the organization — this is the worst of both worlds.

Once filled out, the Program Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address. First, any “Detrimental” programs should be significantly reconfigured, given to another organization to run, or abandoned. Second, in order to ensure financial sustainability, make sure that there are enough “Sustaining” and “Beneficial” programs to subsidize the “Worthwhile” programs. If not, you need to get strategic about developing programs that can offset the financial drain of the “Worthwhile” programs.

Repeat the Analysis Often
Once you’ve completed the Program Matrix analysis, rinse and repeat. On a regular basis (at least annually) board and staff should take a look at an updated Program Matrix and make any necessary programmatic adjustments. And any time you are thinking about adding a new program, redo the Program Matrix to include your best guess of where this new program will fall, so that you can understand its impact on the overall social impact and sustainability of your new portfolio of programs.

Armed with the power of the Program Matrix, nonprofit leaders can create a mix of programs that ensure achievement of their social change goals in a sustainable way.

Photo Credit: ParentingPatch 

 

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7 Questions to Move Your Nonprofit to Financial Sustainability

Financial sustainability seems to be the Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector. Everyone wants it, but few know how to find it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I firmly believe that financial sustainability is attainable for any nonprofit, as long as board and staff are willing to ask the right questions and do the hard work.

In fact, there is a roadmap to nonprofit financial sustainability, which includes several components. Because a nonprofit’s board, their strategy, their vision and mission, their marketing efforts, their programs, all contribute to or detract from their ability to attract and use money well.

But often nonprofits struggle in so many areas (disengaged board, poor fundraising results, non-existent strategy, ineffective marketing) that it can be difficult for a nonprofit leader and board to know where to start in order to become more financially sustainable. So I’ve developed a list of questions that assess where a nonprofit is on that path and where staff and board should focus their efforts.

This mini-assessment of 7 questions is listed in priority order, so once one area is addressed, you can move on to the next. For example, you may have your “Vision” and “Strategy” all figured out, so next you need to tackle “Program Delivery,” and so on.

So to see where your nonprofit is on the path to financial sustainability, answer these 7 questions:

  1. Long-Term Vision: Do board and staff agree on the ultimate goals of the organization — what you are trying to accomplish in the world? If not, then articulate your Theory of Change, which will help you come to a shared long-term vision.

  2. Strategy: Have board and staff together articulated a strategy — how you will marshall staff, volunteers, programs, activities — to move toward that long-term vision? If not, then create a multi-year strategic plan that ties your long-term vision to the activities and resources necessary to get there.

  3. Program Delivery and Impact: Do your programs work with the people you hope to benefit or influence in your long-term vision? If not, review your target populations and analyze each of your programs’ ability to move toward your vision.

  4. Financial Model: Have you articulated how money will flow into the organization and how that money will be used to make your long-term strategy a reality? If not, then develop a long-term financing plan that articulates how much money you need, over what timeframe, and the tasks in each revenue area necessary to meet (and hopefully exceed) those expenses.

  5. Staff Effectiveness: Do you have the right staff expertise structured in the right way to deliver on your strategy? If not, analyze your staffing structure and capabilities and how they relate to what you need.

  6. Board Engagement: Do the vast majority of your board members embrace your mission and actively participate in moving it forward? If not, set clear expectations, establish accountability, and engage them one-on-one.

  7. External Relationships: Do you have the right partnerships and engagement with the right external people and organizations necessary to deliver on your strategy? If not, seek to understand the world outside your walls, develop a marketing strategy, and build the networks you need.

If you are interested in a deeper analysis of how to move your nonprofit forward on the path to financial sustainability, check out the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for clients.

Photo Credit: Jeff Power

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Putting Wealth to Work for Social Value Creation: An Interview with Jen Ratay

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jen Ratay. Jen is executive director of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund – SV2, a community of families and individuals who come together to learn about effective giving and impact investing while pooling their resources and skills to support promising social ventures. Prior to taking the helm of SV2, Jen served as program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation where she led its Organizational Effectiveness grantmaking program that helps grantees build high-performing organizations.

Nell: SV2 is a strategic partner of the Social Venture Partners network of affiliates across the country that fueled the development of the venture philanthropy model of making large investments of money and expertise to grow proven nonprofits. The venture philanthropy model is almost 20 years old now, where do you think it stands? What have you learned and where do you think venture philanthropy goes from here?

Jen: Twenty years ago in the heart of Silicon Valley, SV2’s founder Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen launched a team sport approach to grantmaking that pooled donor resources for investment in promising nonprofits. Laura and her peers went beyond pooling monetary donations and invested their time and professional skills to help high-potential nonprofits build strong organizations and scale their impact.

From its earliest days, SV2 focused on finding and funding innovative nonprofits poised for dramatic scale, creating a philanthropic version of venture capital. SV2’s giving approach, along with the broader Social Venture Partners network it helped inspire and now partners with, helped catalyze the global movement known as venture philanthropy.

Not unlike venture capitalists, venture philanthropists believe the success of a great idea is contingent on building a leadership team that can effectively execute against a compelling plan. Key elements of the venture philanthropy approach include offering larger and longer-term grants to support nonprofit growth and core operations, tying continued funding to outcomes and measurable results, and providing coaching and management assistance to nonprofit leaders.

As venture philanthropy has evolved over the years, we’ve learned a number of lessons.

First, venture philanthropy’s historical focus on investing in individual organizations, while important, has rarely been sufficient to drive major paradigm shifts or sustained systems-level change. Achieving transformative impact often requires strengthening the capacity of networks and social movements and engaging government and the business sectors in addition to scaling high-performing nonprofit organizations.

Second, we’ve learned how essential it is for nonprofit CEOs to not just be strong organizational managers but also highly-collaborative network leaders and movement builders, a different skillset altogether.

Additionally, venture philanthropy, which resonates with many Silicon Valley professionals, is not a perfect analog for investing in nonprofits. To be effective, donors must understand that nonprofits differ from for-profits in many meaningful ways including governance, funding flows, scaling challenges, organizational culture, and what it means to attain financial sustainability. It takes time to understand these complexities and execute well – whether as an individual donor or as part of a collaborative donor group like SV2.

Looking ahead, I’d be surprised if we don’t see continued rapid growth in venture philanthropy, as wealth transfers from one generation to the next and Millennials and other new philanthropists seek high-impact ways to put their wealth to work for social value creation. As part of this growth, the hands-on venture philanthropy model with its focus on experiential grantmaking and donor learning continues to be an attractive entry point for emerging philanthropists, whether in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Bangalore or Beijing.

Nell: The philosophy behind the venture philanthropy model is that we should scale proven solutions, but significant growth to nonprofit organizations is tricky because often those organizations lack basic capacity. When does scaling make sense and how can funders effectively support it?

Jen: Yes, scaling nonprofits – even those with proven program outcomes – can be tricky.

For early stage nonprofits, there’s often a capacity building Catch 22 – a nonprofit needs basic organizational capacity to be able to step back from the daily treadmill of client needs and service delivery to invest in strengthening the organization and laying a foundation for future growth.

Compounding this, nonprofits don’t currently work within a well-functioning social capital market that supports organizations through each stage of growth. While making a large impact does not necessarily require a large organizational budget, nonprofits do need a reasonable level of revenue to develop certain core capabilities. The majority of nonprofits also face what has been termed the “social capital chasm,” the huge gap between their current budget and the $10 million or more they would need to move toward full scale.

On top of these financing barriers, compensation for nonprofit employees typically lags behind – sometimes far behind — that offered by foundations and for-profits. There’s no equity for nonprofit founders or executives, which, in highly competitive labor markets like Silicon Valley, can make attracting and retaining top talent a challenge.

And don’t get me started on the nonprofit overhead problem – our sector’s wildly unhelpful myth that at least 85 percent of an organization’s income should go toward programs rather than core operations. This myth is not only illogical, but damaging, as it constrains organizational growth and impact that hinges on strategic investments in infrastructure, people, processes and capabilities.

Despite all this, candidates for nonprofit scaling do exist. Common across them, they have promising programs based on early evidence of impact and compelling business models. They have strong, connected boards of directors and leaders who are coachable, collaborative and brave. Perhaps because of these qualities, these organizations also have the ability to attract talent and new sources of funding over time in competitive human and social capital markets.

Funders can help by playing the higher risk role of “Big Bettor”. A funder willing to make a significant multi-year investment in a promising small or mid-sized nonprofit organization can help them prepare to cross that daunting social capital chasm. These funders clear the way for other funders, signaling an investment in the organization is worth the risk. Early Big Bettors who help a nonprofit prove its model make the waters safer for other grantmakers to jump in.

Nell: The SV2 model is a bit different than other Social Venture Partner models, how does geography play into this? Do you think Silicon Valley funders think about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector differently, and if so how?

Jen: I do think Silicon Valley funders tend to think somewhat differently about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

In my experience with Silicon Valley’s giving culture, it’s not uncommon for donors, particularly those coming from the technology sector, to prioritize clear, measurable social impact, innovative or disruptive products and services, tech-enabled platforms, and a lean startup management approach to social change efforts.

On the nonprofit side, we have a crisis in Silicon Valley.

Local community organizations are struggling amidst a perfect storm of increased demand for their services, exorbitant operating costs, and competition for staff talent in one of the tightest labor markets in the country.

Silicon Valley is ground zero for income inequality. Skyrocketing wealth, including 76,000 millionaires and billionaires who live in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties alone, is found alongside rapid displacement of vulnerable families. Even with the nearly $5 billion boom in philanthropy from 2008-2013, 30 percent of Silicon Valley residents require some form of private or public assistance to get by. One in three local kids aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.

SV2 Partners, Alexa Cortes Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant, recently authored a report, The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy, that is elevating an important discussion around the region’s prosperity paradox. This data-rich report shines a light on a sobering donor knowledge gap around acute local needs and understanding of the local nonprofit ecosystem. Much of Silicon Valley donors’ philanthropy flows out of the region.

Alexa and Heather’s research also found a two-way empathy gap between donors and nonprofits. The reality is that Silicon Valley donors and nonprofit professionals tend to run in different circles, and they often have very different life experiences.

The Silicon Valley prosperity paradox, knowledge and empathy gaps are adding urgency and ambition to SV2’s work.

Our mission is to unleash the resources and talents of Silicon Valley to support promising social ventures to achieve measurable impact. An increasingly important role for us is to nurture empathy within and across Silicon Valley. As part of this, we’re sparking tough conversations via experiential poverty simulations and workshops with Silicon Valley donors on topics such as redefining power and privilege in the funder-fundee relationship and philanthropy’s role in advancing equity.

SV2 differs from SVP Network affiliates in that SV2 expanded beyond grantmaking to nonprofits to also invest in mission-driven for-profit companies and provide our donors experiential learning in impact investing. I’m seeing emerging Silicon Valley donors using both grants and investment tools to drive social change, following in the footsteps of Silicon Valley philanthropic leaders like Pam and Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, one of the earliest SV2 Partners.

I’ve also observed a trend of Silicon Valley donors thinking hard and in a more sophisticated way about where exactly their money sleeps at night. Are donors’ financial assets invested in alignment with their core values and social impact priorities? If the answer is no, local donors I work with are increasingly motivated to change this.

Nell: Prior to running SV2 you ran the Hewlett Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program investing in the capacity of nonprofit organizations, so building strong nonprofits is obviously near and dear to your heart. What holds nonprofits and their funders back from creating stronger organizations and how do we get beyond that?

Jen: In my view, trust is the critical lubricant between funders and grantees on the path to building strong, sustainable nonprofit organizations.

Yet it can be hard – even scary – for nonprofit leaders and funders to have courageous, authentic dialogue amidst the very real funder-fundee power dynamics.

This was equally true when I was a grantmaker at the Hewlett Foundation as it is now that I’m on the other side of the table as a nonprofit leader responsible for raising SV2’s entire operating budget each year to make payroll and fund SV2’s learning programs and grantmaking.

When striving for authentic relationships, it helps to consider this: Does it feel like we as funders and grantees are accountable to each other? Or is the grantee solely accountable to a funder? When something goes wrong with a grantee organization, does a funder run away or dig in and engage more deeply? Do funders think to ask a grantee “Is this an effective use of your time?” And respect it when the answer is no?

Whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, funders can help build strong organizations by making certain to keep their net grant high — that is, the net actual value of the grant to a nonprofit after subtracting out the costs to the nonprofit of applying for and reporting on the grant.

I’d also encourage funders of all stripes to consider doubling down versus abandoning organizations during leadership transitions. Leadership transitions are inevitable milestones that all organizations face, and are a high-stakes and often fragile time for nonprofits. These transitions can also be a time of revitalization and great opportunity for a nonprofit to evolve toward its strongest and highest-impact future.

Photo Credit: SV2

 

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How Effective Is Your Nonprofit Leader?

In an ideal world, one of the things a nonprofit board of directors does is annually evaluate the performance of the executive director. But let’s be honest, how often does that actually happen?

I once had an executive director so desperate for feedback about her job performance from a board who refused to evaluate her that she hired me to interview board and staff and write her performance review.

Perhaps boards are uncomfortable with reviewing the CEO, or they don’t know how to manage it, or they are simply unaware that it’s their responsibility. Whatever the reasons, effective evaluation of nonprofit CEO performance doesn’t happen enough in the sector.

But for a nonprofit to be effective and sustainable there must be a system in place for regularly evaluating it’s chief staff member (not to mention the rest of the staff and the board of directors itself, but those are for another day).

As I’ve said before, the head staff member (CEO or executive director) is the most important position in a nonprofit organization. She affects the level of engagement of  the board, the financial sustainability of the organization, the productivity of the staff, and ultimately the organization’s ability to achieve it’s mission. She is the chief spokesperson, chief fundraiser, chief cheerleader and so much more. At the very least, she deserves to know, on an annual basis, how well her board and staff think she is doing.

The CEO evaluation is an opportunity for the board to discuss the performance of their lead staff person, whether the organization is going in the right direction, and what, if any, adjustments need to be made. The discussion can offer a real point of organizational self-reflection that can re-energize and re-orient all involved.

So in order to inspire your nonprofit to create an annual system for evaluating the performance of your CEO or executive director, I’d like to offer some suggested questions to guide your board’s process. Ideally the board’s Governance or Board Affairs committee would be charged with managing the CEO evaluation each year. These are the types of questions they would want to answer (by surveying, compiling and analyzing staff and board feedback):

  1. What does the CEO do really well? What are his/her strengths as the leader of our nonprofit?
  2. Where is there room for improvement? What are his/her weaknesses as a leader of our nonprofit?
  3. How well does she/he recruit, manage and develop the board?
  4. How well does she/he recruit, manage, and develop the staff?
  5. How well does she/he guide the overall strategy of our nonprofit?
  6. How well does she/he serve as a spokesperson and external relationship builder for our nonprofit?
  7. How well does she/he ensure the financial sustainability of our organization?

It is critical to mention that the data gathered in the review process should be kept anonymous. You want board and staff to feel free to be honest in their responses and not fear reprisal or embarrassment for their candor. And when the board delivers the final evaluation to the CEO, they should do it in a way in which the CEO feels appreciated for the things she does well and supported in addressing any areas of concern. Ideally both board and CEO come away from the process feeling that the CEO has a clear path for the coming year and the tools and support she needs to get there.

If you need help getting your board moving forward on this process, or help coaching your leader to become more effective, check out the Leadership Coaching services I provide.

Photo Credit: Packer, poster artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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