One thing the nonprofit sector desperately needs is more people asking hard questions. A lot of time is spent skirting issues or sugar coating situations. If nonprofit leaders instead forced some challenging conversations, with hard questions as the impetus, the sector could become more effective. And the place to start is with a nonprofit leader questioning herself.
I’ve written before about questions to ask your board, and questions to ask your nonprofit, and questions to ask before you pursue a new opportunity, but there are also some key questions a nonprofit leader should ask herself.
On a fairly regular basis a nonprofit leader should ask:
- Am I Leading or Managing?
A manager shuffles resources around, waits to be told what to do, and focuses on checking things off her list. But a leader crafts a larger vision for her organization, articulates what her nonprofit is trying to accomplish, and then marshals all the resources at her disposal (board, staff, funders, partners) toward that vision. And when some of those resources won’t align to the vision (board members who aren’t performing, donors who want to veer off course) she confidently tells it like it is. A manager will deploy resources, but a leader will ensure that the deployment results in social change.
- How Can I Address My Weaknesses?
A great leader recognizes when he is falling short and where he needs complementary abilities. A leader who doesn’t know how to fundraise hires a rockstar Development person, or gets fundraising training. A leader who struggles with strategic decisions finds a leadership coach. A leader who can’t build an effective board, asks fellow nonprofit leaders for counsel. Most importantly, if there are costs associated with addressing his weaknesses, a leader raises the money he needs, instead of doing it on the cheap.
- Am I Selling Myself (and My Nonprofit) Short?
I see so many nonprofit leaders not fighting for what their organization really needs. From not articulating the true costs of their nonprofit to funders, to allowing the board to shirk their fundraising responsibilities, to addressing capacity constraints with a band-aid, to burning out from long hours with not enough staff, nonprofit leaders are constantly giving their organizations, and themselves, short shrift. A true leader finds the confidence to stand up for herself and her organization and demand what is truly required to achieve the vision for change.
- Which Other Leaders Should I Align With?
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders exist in a bubble. They may collaborate with others on a programmatic level, but they are not regularly analyzing the larger marketplace in which they operate (emerging competitors, new technologies, changing needs) and figuring out with which other leaders impacting the field (policymakers, organization heads, advocates, influencers) they should forge alliances. Social change requires much more than any single organization can accomplish. It is critical that nonprofits become fully networked in their area of social change. A nonprofit leader makes that happen.
- Am I Still The Right Person for The Job?
This is such a hard question. But if you simply don’t have the skills (or the energy) to lead the right road ahead, then you must step aside. Don’t hold your organization and the vision back because of your ego. If you are a true leader, you have assembled a whole army of board, staff, supporters and allies that can continue to move forward in your wake. It’s not easy to recognize or admit, but if you really care about the cause and want to see real change happen, then you should regularly be assessing this.
A true nonprofit leader drives the vision, marshals resources, forges alliances, inspires support, and, ultimately, leads the charge toward social change. Because now more than ever we need real social change leaders. People who are willing and able to find the best way forward and the confidence, smarts, and humility to lead us there.
If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: iwona_kellie
Between my own time away from social media in August, the general end of summer quiet, and of course, the glut of posts about the Ice Bucket challenge (of which I have already said my piece), my list of great reads in August is admittedly slim.
But there was some interesting debate, most notably about “strategic philanthropy” and about ratings agency Philanthropedia. Also, calls for more nonprofit leadership development and for nonprofit leaders to get out of their own way by taking the Overhead Pledge. Throw in a little Mark Twain, some sharing economy, and a dash of Millennial analysis and you have a pretty good month in the world of social change.
So below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in August. For an expanded list you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Leadership development is a woefully underfunded need in the nonprofit sector. Indeed from 1992-2011 only $3.5 billion of the nearly $287 billion dollars granted by foundations went to support leadership. In order to get more foundations investing in leadership development, Rusty Stahl offers case studies of 9 foundations who already do.
- In the summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, the lead article “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” caused quite a stir in the philanthropy world with many arguing that there is not much new there. In August, Alliance Magazine ran a series of editorials by philanthropy leaders as counterpoints. Most interesting among them was Avila Kilmurray’s, former director of the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland, response, in which she said “Can we not just recognize that when any funder sets her/himself the task of addressing complex issues…there needs to be provision for continuous consultation, practice, reflection and change?”
- An interesting article in the New York Times paints the Millennial generation as a very communal-minded one, where “the highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.” From working, to eating, to shopping it seems Millennials bake social into everything they do. How will the world be different if that holds true as they age?
- Writing in Forbes, Tom Watson asks whether nonprofits should participate in GivingTuesday. As he puts it, “Is #GivingTuesday a well-meaning marketing promotion – or is it a real, organic movement for change?…[Does it] seek to increase U.S. giving from 2% of GDP (where it’s been stuck for two generations) to some higher point?” Amen to that!
- Rating nonprofit effectiveness is such a tricky challenge. Philanthropedia, one rating system that is driven by crowdsourced feedback from experts, comes under fire from the clean water space for being just “a popularity contest.” But others claim it’s an improvement over previous evaluations.
- Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy Nicole Wallace shows the value of sharing data by profiling Crisis Text Line, which gives other nonprofits, researchers and government agencies access to their data of 60,000 counseling sessions with teens in crisis to use in their own programs. It begs the question whether other social change data could be shared and how we make that easier to do.
- Sue Dorsey from Water for People was among a group of nonprofit leaders at the InsideNGO conference who took the Overhead Pledge in August, vowing to fully disclose the true costs of their nonprofits. And she encourages other nonprofit leaders to follow suit. This is exciting because it is not enough for funders to get over the overhead myth, nonprofit leaders must as well.
- I am always a sucker for connecting literature and/or history to social change, and even better both, so David Bonbright’s post about how Mark Twain would have viewed recent trends in business is fascinating. Bonbright argues that Twain wanted American business to fully integrate profit and community. And we are beginning to witness this trend again where companies are “embracing the full implications of what they are – what they mean for the environment, for communities, for the most marginalized people affected by their supply chains…[because] this is best way to remain competitive and successful over time.” Let’s hope!
- The new “sharing” economy is not all good, but not all bad either, as Daniel Ben-Horin argues that “there are enormous opportunities for the social sector to engage with the values-driven segment of the sharing economy.”
- Finally, some guidance on making your nonprofit email marketing more mobile friendly and your website better able to connect people to your cause. It’s all about responsive, engaging design.
Photo Credit: Seth Anderson
I have to be honest. I am so sick of hearing about the ice bucket challenge that I am loathe to write about it. But I wonder if many in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are falling victim, yet again, to shiny object syndrome, so I feel compelled to say something.
To me the ice bucket challenge is yet another example of what happens so often in the world of fundraising. Nonprofit board members and staff hate fundraising, so they desperately search for a magic bullet to make it all go away.
Sometimes that magic bullet is “an endowment,” sometimes its “earned income,” more recently it has been “crowdfunding.” This month it’s a form of crowdfunding taken to the extreme, the ice bucket challenge. Some have been so swept up in the hype that they have gone as far to say that the challenge is “rewriting the charity model.”
The reality is that if you want to create social change you need to develop a sustainable financial model that aligns with your long-term goals. It’s not sexy, it’s not easy, and I’m probably one of the few people on this planet who thinks it’s fun. But there it is.
While many nonprofits are scrambling to figure out how to create their own ice bucket challenge, and some thought leaders are offering tips along the way, maybe we should all just take a step back.
Let’s be very clear. ALS’s close to $100 million windfall is not a revenue stream. It is a one-time infusion of money. Yes, ALS may try to replicate the ice bucket challenge on a regular basis, but the stars will never align in quite the same way, people will move on to the next shiny object, and the money will eventually fade.
Because this pile of money is not a revenue stream, ALS can’t and shouldn’t add long-term staffing or programming because the money won’t be there next year. At the same time, they probably can’t create an endowment because the donors’ intent was not for the money to sit in a bank account. Regranting the money is also tricky, again because donor intent was for it to go specifically to ALS. In all of this ALS will be under the microscope, because as Ken Berger of CharityNavigator cautioned, a year from now everyone will be asking where the money went.
One of the few paths that I see for ALS is to treat the money like capacity capital. This could be an opportunity to invest some of the windfall in building a stronger organization by investing in technology, infrastructure, and systems. And they could do the same for their affiliates. They could require capacity building plans and budgets and invest in those plans accordingly. They could, in essence, create a $100 million capacity capital investment fund for the ALS system.
But the point is that far from being a great thing that all nonprofits should strive to emulate, the ice bucket challenge creates a complex and potentially damaging problem.
So instead of spending board and staff time trying to dream up the next ice bucket challenge, please, please, please spend that time and those resources building your financial model, by creating a long-term financial strategy, raising capacity capital to build your revenue-generating function, developing a compelling strategic plan in which people will want to invest, and growing and educating your board.
These are the ingredients for a robust, sustainable financial model. Not a bucket of water, a video camera, and a social media stream.
Photo Credit: StoiKNA
As summer draws to a close and my own downtime ends, it occurs to me that there is a real need, in our increasingly always-on world, for leaders to find time for quiet reflection, to reconnect with their core.
And particularly in the nonprofit world, where a leader is constantly bombarded with suggestions – from funders, board members, staff, fellow leaders, Facebook friends – it is critical that she find regular solitude to analyze and plan the best way forward.
Indeed true leadership lies not in finding the lowest common denominator among a disparate group of supporters, volunteers and staff, but rather in analyzing all options and then driving the most effective way forward (even if it is unpopular). Real leadership is not about giving the people around you what they want. It is about doing what is best and what is right. And often you find that path through time alone to think.
Perhaps thoughtful, reasoned leadership has taken a hit in recent years. Our push toward social technology has created a culture of extreme extraversion and constant noise. Dave Eggers 2013 novel, The Circle, describes a world where companies like Google and Facebook have taken over. He offers a chilling view of social media taken to the extreme with destructive group think and no room for solitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of social media, but I also think there is tremendous value in regular, silent retreat.
And I’m not alone. Amid the broad adoption of an increasingly social way of life, we are, in certain pockets, beginning to realize that quiet has its place as well. Some politicians, finally turned off by the constant screaming of our increasingly partisan political system, have begun turning toward inner reflection to find a better way. Steven Pressfield describes the importance of getting away from it all and “letting the well fill up overnight.” And even social media mavens, Beth Kanter and Arianna Huffington have both recently begun promoting solitude and reflection.
Could it be that we are realizing that while new tools to make us more social have their place in the work of social change, individual reflection is also quite necessary. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing and crowdthinking all have an important role to play, there is also tremendous value in a leader spending time, alone, to process the world around her and then emerge with a plan.
Nonprofit leaders are often working on large, intractable social problems. Those problems require the right way forward, not the most popular way forward. As a social change leader you must claim your very real need to turn off the noise. Amid the quiet you may just discover the necessary path. And perhaps also, the will to lead us there.
Photo Credit: Sebastien Panouille
If you want to get your nonprofit out of the (all too common) starvation cycle of never having enough money to achieve your goals, you must raise capacity capital. Capacity capital is not the day-to-day revenue you need to keep your doors open. Rather, capacity capital is a one-time infusion of significant money that can help you grow or strengthen your nonprofit. It is money for things like: technology, revenue-generating staff, systems, a program evaluation.
This Slideshare helps you understand capacity capital and how to raise it. And if you want some additional guidance for launching your own capacity capital campaign, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.
You can see the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations here.
Note: Fourth in my list of guest bloggers this summer is Jessamyn Lau. Jessamyn is Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, a family foundation that invests in and serves social entrepreneurs. Here is her guest post:
At the Peery Foundation, we’re hungry for insight into what a truly grantee-centric approach to philanthropy looks like. About five months ago we had an idea. What if we could hear regular, brief, unfiltered feedback from our grantees on what we do and how we do it?
We occasionally solicit input from our grantees on delicate questions, like “how should we give feedback to a grant-seeker when we have major concerns about leadership?”. Our grantees have incredible ideas, often helping us solve problems and ensure we incorporate their experience into solutions. But what about capturing their untapped insights into our everyday grant making approach?
This doesn’t generally happen because 1) grantees are rarely asked for their opinions on funder practices, 2) when they are asked, grantee opinions are heavily filtered to prevent potential risk to future funding. We think the Peery Foundation team, and a large proportion of philanthropic professionals, could benefit from regular open feedback from grantees. In a February 2014 Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled “Assessing Funders’ Performance” Caroline Fiennes suggested listening to grantees as a core part of funder performance assessment. This resonated with our idea of what it means to be truly grantee-centric. So we thought about how we might do that – without reinventing the wheel.
We landed on a very simple anonymous rating tool, similar to the rating systems used by Amazon, Uber, and other service providers. The good folks at Advocate Creative built us a prototype site – which we named, imaginatively, Funder Feedback. It’s a very simple, concise survey that solicits anonymous information from our grantees (or anyone else I interact with), at any time they choose. They rate me out of five stars on three aspects (currently Respectfulness, Consistency, Value), and then leave any feedback for me in a text box. It takes 30 seconds to fill out – 90 seconds if you ponder on what to write in the text box for a minute! Each person on our team has their own survey link, so the results can be used for individual professional development. You can see my survey here.
Over three months the Peery Foundation team and the Tipping Point team piloted the tool, inviting people to give us feedback on our recent interactions. At the end of the pilot our results were delivered to us on a dashboard in aggregate (see below), with no time or date stamps – so unless someone mentioned their organization they are anonymous.
So did it work?
Our team’s response rate ranged from 10 to 40 completed surveys for the pilot. The star rating system yielded average results from 4.7 to 5 stars. Given this clustering it’s clear that the rating system is not a proactive way for us to find out where we need to improve, but could serve as a warning system that will alert us if something needs attention. We could also potentially change the three starred rating topics from values to processes, e.g. “Please rate us out of 5 stars on our due diligence, reporting, and grant making exit processes”. Something to consider down the road.
Over 50% of respondents left us written feedback. The overwhelming majority of feedback was positive and reaffirming. It served as personal affirmation of the aspects of each individual’s approach appreciated by grantees (transparency was mentioned consistently for one team member, another received specific feedback around the value of their preparation for meetings with grantees).
There was also feedback letting us know what we should keep doing as a foundation. For instance, we had several people comment on how valuable warm introductions to other funders had been. This was great to hear because in the past year we’ve allocated significant time to building and maintaining our funder network. We knew this time was useful for us – as we shared pipeline and recommendations with other funders – but knowing that this provides real value to our grantees makes it an even higher priority for us to continue and improve.
What didn’t work?
We would like to receive even more specific and critical feedback. We believe the tool will become truly useful when grantees and others we interact with are clearly invited to give us more constructive opinions. We want to ensure they are comfortable in doing that, which will probably involve tweaking the way we frame the tool, and also building trust that we will truly listen to and implement advice as often as we can.
To solicit distinct feedback, we’ll change the descriptor text on the text box each quarter to give people permission to be specific and critical. For example, next quarter it might say “Please compare the Peery Foundation’s reporting process to that of other foundations you’ve worked with. What can we learn from other processes?”, and the following quarter it might be, “What’s one thing we should keep doing and one thing we should change about the Peery Foundation’s philanthropic approach?”.
Continuing the experiment
At the Peery Foundation we’re accustomed to the process of iteration and, when appropriate, dropping a project that simply isn’t working. We like to experiment. For now, we think we’ve seen enough promise to continue developing the Funder Feedback tool. On an individual level it can help us as philanthropy professionals see where we have room for growth. As a foundation, we know we need insights from our grantees to become truly efficient and effective.
And philanthropy as a field might do well to turn the tables a little, listen regularly to grantees’ insights, and reign in the power imbalance inherent in our work.
So, for now we’ll keep experimenting with the Funder Feedback tool and articulating the changes we’ll make with it to help us become a genuinely grantee-centric foundation.
Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum
I get a little tired of the social media noise sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media for finding new information and making connections. But sometimes it replaces thoughtful conversation with increasingly shortened sound bites (more on that later). And when I hear people claim that 140 characters are better than long-form articles and blog posts, I get depressed.
Call me old fashioned, but I love to spend the necessary time processing thought-provoking, controversy-encouraging written words. Social change is incredibly complex work, so we desperately need people and spaces where we can have difficult, thoughtful, and game-changing conversations. And I think great blogs are one of those spaces.
So I offer here my current list of favorite blogs. These are spaces where I think really valuable points of view are being expressed. That’s not to say that I don’t read or enjoy blogs beyond this list. These are just the top of the heap for me right now:
- White Courtesy Telephone
- Balancing the Mission Checkbook
- Nonprofit Finance Fund Social Currency
- Work in Progress: The Hewlett Foundation Blog
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog
- Steven Pressfield Online
- Full Contact Philanthropy
- Markets for Good
- Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog
- Beth’s Blog
- Philanthropy 2173
But I LOVE to find new writers and spaces, so what are the places you have found for a good, thought-provoking read?
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Note: Third in my list of guest bloggers this summer is David Henderson. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. Here is his guest post:
I was recently turned down for a position at a startup-up big-data company focused on the philanthropic sector because I’m “too pessimistic”. This company initially sought me out since they don’t have any social sector expertise on staff, a likely requisite to make successful nonprofit software. Our courtship turned sour when I expressed my view that we have a lot more social sector initiatives than evidence that those interventions actually work.
My skepticism that social sector initiatives by and large work was wrongly misconstrued as pessimism that social progress is possible. Skepticism is a critical driver of intellectual curiosity. I spent a pretty penny on two degrees that essentially taught me how to critically assess the divide between rhetoric and results. Indeed, the null hypothesis in a statistical model assumes the intended effect is not present. I guess statisticians are just a bunch of pessimists.
Fundamentally, I believe the company I interviewed with was mirroring the widespread lack of intellectual curiosity that plagues the social sector and impedes real progress. Too many nonprofits are terrified of having their claims of social impact investigated, lest their effects are discovered to be more modest than claimed. And I don’t blame them. The funding community’s emphasis on investing in “what works” has resulted in a proliferation of noise as every nonprofit steadfastly argues their interventions cure everything. It’s no wonder evaluators are seen as Angels of Death.
I generally don’t favor taking cues from the for-profit world, but venture capital and angel investors’ practice of investing in people and teams over ideas is far more conducive to intellectual honesty in product (and social intervention) development. The basic premise of this investment strategy is that initial product ideas are generally wrong, but smart people will investigate, iterate, and innovate.
Compare that philosophy to the social sector, where the expectation is that nonprofits already have the answers, they just need money to scale them up. This assumption is largely incorrect, but by making funding contingent on the perception of effectiveness, the nonprofit sector is incentivized to not question the efficacy of its own work. In this model, continued funding depends on a lack of intellectual curiosity at best, and intellectual dishonesty at worst.
A better alternative is for nonprofits to embrace intellectual curiosity, and to be the first to question their own results. Under this model, nonprofits would invest in their capacity to intelligently probe the effectiveness of their own interventions, by staffing those with the capacity to sift through outcomes data and investing in the growing list of tools that are democratizing evaluation. Of course, this would require a shift in the funding community away from “investing in what works” to more humbly “investigating what works”.
A shift toward intellectual curiosity would create more space for the sector to solicit beneficiary feedback in the design of social interventions, as organizations would no longer be incentivized to defensively “prove” existing approaches work, and instead would be rewarded for proactively evolving practices to achieve better results. It is this very intellectual curiosity that led organizations like GiveDirectly and the Family Independence Initiative to invest in the poor directly, a departure from long-standing anti-poverty practices that the evidence suggests might actually work. It’s a shame that organizations imbued with a mission of experimentation deviate so far from the norm.
I don’t consider it pessimistic to question whether the sector is achieving its intended social impact. To the contrary, it’s rather cynical to set aside what should be the critical question for any nonprofit organization in the name of self-preservation. In order to achieve social progress, the sector needs to expel anti-intellectual policies and actors in favor of a healthy skepticism that questions everything, and is willing to try anything.
Photo Credit: NASA
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