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Leadership

Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)

nonprofit capacityDon’t get me wrong, I am a huge believer in strategy. I talk about it All. The. Time. I firmly believe that every nonprofit should have a long-term strategy with a corresponding financial model.

But sometimes a nonprofit is not quite ready to create that long-term strategy because they don’t know what they don’t know.

When a nonprofit suffers from a host of problems that they don’t know how to solve, I encourage them to take a big step back. Because you cannot articulate your theory of change, your goals for the future, the makeup of your staff and board, your financial model, if you are putting out fires and struggling to keep your doors open.

Let me give you an example. An animal welfare nonprofit came to me recently wanting to embark on a strategic planning process. Yet, in the course of our conversation, they revealed that they currently faced a long list of challenges, including:

  • A disengaged board of directors
  • A poorly structured staff
  • A non-existent marketing strategy
  • An over-reliance on a couple of funding streams
  • An inability to articulate to outsiders what they do and why

These are huge challenges, and creating a strategic plan won’t solve them. If the leader of this nonprofit were to gather her board and staff and ask them to chart the next three years, they would only be talking in circles. Because if you don’t know what’s wrong, you have no hope of figuring out how to fix it.

You should only embark on a strategic planning process when you have the knowledge and capacity necessary to chart a clear future course.

So how do you know if you are truly ready to launch a strategic planning process? Start with these questions:

  • Do you have a critical mass of key board members who are excited about and in general agreement on the future of the organization?
  • Are you fairly confident of your cash flow over the next several years?
  • Do board and staff have the time, capacity and commitment to devote to a rigorous and external-facing, long-term planning process?
  • Can board and staff confidently articulate what the nonprofit does and why it matters?
  • Does the organization have the right staff in the right places?
  • Is your supporter/funder base growing?
  • Is the majority of your board effectively engaged in your nonprofit?

If you can’t answer yes to these questions, you may not be ready for a strategic planning process.

But all is not lost. Instead, you may need an organizational assessment (what I call a Financial Model Assessment) to determine what is holding your nonprofit back. An assessment helps a nonprofit figure out why money isn’t flowing the way they need it to be, why the board is disengaged, how to articulate what you do and why, how to structure staff effectively, and ultimately how to build the capacity and knowledge necessary to chart a future direction.

A Financial Model Assessment provides a roadmap to help a nonprofit board and staff analyze and prioritize their immediate challenges so they can address them in preparation for a longer-term planning process.

The approach, in essence is two-fold:

  1. Assess: Figure out what is holding your nonprofit back (from financial sustainability, operational effectiveness, board and donor engagement, etc.) and how to remedy those challenges.
  2. Plan: Chart a future direction that lays out the strategy for moving the organization to that next level.

It’s a one-two punch that is sometimes necessary when nonprofit leaders are so caught up in the day-to-day that they simply aren’t prepared to make the big, long-term decisions necessary in a strategic planning process.

If you want to get more strategic as an organization, I applaud you. But make sure your nonprofit is truly ready to create a strategy, or you will just be spinning your wheels and wasting everyone’s time.

If you want to learn more about these two processes I use with my clients, download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet and/or the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: Kale Taylor

 

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The Network As Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio

Anna Muoio face2In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Anna Muoio, an expert on the use of networks in social change efforts.

At Monitor Institute, a part of Deloitte Consulting, Anna leads the practice on how to drive large-scale social change through galvanizing networks around a shared agenda. She has led aligned action efforts for organizations such as New Profit, Skoll Foundation and Venture Philanthropy Partners. Anna is the author of GATHER: The Art and Science of Effective Convening; ENGAGE: How Funders Can Support and Leverage Networks for Social Impact; and most recently, “Wicked Opportunities” in Business Ecosystems Come of Age.

Nell: Is the idea of a network entrepreneur new in the world of social change? Or how do you think the use of networks is different now than it has been in the past?

Anna: The idea of an individual who works, often tirelessly, to mobilize diverse stakeholders to tackle a tough problem by developing a coordinated plan of attack is not new by any means. Funders and practitioners have been galvanizing networks to address large scale challenges for decades. But the term “network entrepreneur” is new. I heard it recently from two practitioners, David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman from Converge, who are working with network leaders in California.

Over the years we’ve used several terms to describe this type of person: network weaver, network CEO, system leader, tri-sector athlete, Chief Resilience Officer, ecosystem integrator, to name a few. What is changing, though, is the acceptance of why developing the capacity to lead and engage in problem solving through networks is important—as well as an appreciation for what it takes to do so. Increasingly, we’re seeing a shift from the organization as the primary unit of change to the network as a viable means of achieving social impact goals.

Nell: Why do you think nonprofit leaders should embrace the idea of a network entrepreneur? What makes this approach so attractive to social change efforts?

Anna: It’s not just nonprofit leaders who should embrace the idea of using networks to drive systemic change. The tough problems we face as a society have no consideration for sector or issue boundaries—and can’t be solved by leaders from any one sector. Business and government leaders have just as important a role to play in cross-sector social problem solving. And for companies, working through networks is becoming a powerful way to integrate social impact into their core business strategy rather than isolate it within a corporate social responsibility initiative. This is where a lot of exciting activity is happening globally.

We’ve identified five types of networks that create that intersection between social impact and business value—and in which companies are playing critical roles. There are those networks which can directly benefit a company’s core business and are designed for addressing strategic goals such as stewarding natural resources, enabling market-based solutions and raising industry standards. Then there are networks that tend to more indirectly benefit a company’s core business; and these focus on aligning solutions within local communities and mobilizing action around large-scale solutions. We are seeing bold cross-sector experiments in many arenas–where social impact networks are successfully engaging the private sector to tackle a range of challenges while also meeting specific business needs, such as: effectively stewarding the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California; redesigning the global seafood supply chain to preserve fisheries; surfacing new market-based solutions for building a healthy and sustainable food system worldwide; improving access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries; and enabling communities to create local education ecosystems to support children and youth from cradle to career.

I don’t want to put an unrealistic sheen on the power of networks to solve all problems. Working in this way is one of many important tools in our collective problem-solving toolkit. What networks do, however, is allow us to pursue solutions that would be harder to attain in other ways. A network approach aligns the actions of a diverse set of stakeholders to tackle a larger piece of a problem than by working in isolation; diversifies risk and spreads bets across many experiments; enables innovation by building a platform where different voices can come to the table to shape new solutions; and ultimately, helps build a resilient problem-solving ecosystem where a dense web of relationships provides the resilience necessary to adapt to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. These qualities are harder to get through one-to-one partnerships or from the efforts of a single organization. A network builds a platform that can launch a portfolio of interventions and simultaneously pull many levers for change. That’s what makes them attractive for social change efforts.

Nell: Networks are often organic and can become ineffective if they are overtaken by a single person or entity, yet they also require leadership to be successful. How does a network balance the need for leadership with the need for organic growth?

Anna: Walking the right “leadership line” is certainly critical in a network context; but that’s not to say that networks don’t need focused and intentional leadership. Network leadership requires a different mindset than operating in a traditional organization. It’s more loosely controlled and emergent than top-down and planned. Decision making is shared rather than concentrated in one person. Insights come from the collective rather than from individual “experts.” Power and commitment come from trust among many not from mandates from the C-suite.

In this way, leadership is just one of the many attributes to factor into a network’s design. Through our own work with networks, we’ve identified eight particularly common ways that they can vary to suit different circumstances—and enable or hinder growth. Besides the important leadership attribute, network entrepreneurs need to consider others such as a network’s purpose, alignment, governance, sector, orientation, size and geography.

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Our Axes of Collaboration (to the left) is a useful tool for any network entrepreneur as they think about the foundational DNA of a network—and how to design one to best match the type of problem it’s meant to tackle.

For instance, if you’re a network like REAMP, now with over 165 participating organizations focused on the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050 across the Midwest, you won’t want to design a network that “lives” more on the left side of these axes: one with distributed leadership, informal governance, that’s more learning than action oriented, and has minimal alignment. You’ll never hit that goal with that kind of design. Leadership is a critical component of any network; but so are the other factors that will either help support or inhibit a network’s growth. Considering all these dimensions—and then designing appropriately—is essential.

Nell: When you look at some of the social movements active today — like Black Lives Matter and the protests on college campuses — how does your research on networks help inform your understanding of whether or how successful you think those efforts will be?

Anna: I won’t try to predict the future of these movements. But through our work helping design and launch networks, we know that we need to apply a different frame to evaluate a network’s success. We’ve been influenced by the work of Peter Plastrik and Madeline Taylor who are pushing the field’s thinking around how we measure the impact of a network. For a network, it’s important to understand—and to be able to measure—not just the effects, what a network achieves in terms of outcomes, but also to measure its operations, its “internal health” and how it runs.

We segment network effects into three areas:

  1. Beneficiary effects (the outcomes and impacts on the people a group aims to serve),
  2. Idea dissemination (the spread and adoption of language, concepts or practices a network supports) and
  3. Field building (changes we’ve promoted in the development of the fields in which we work).

We then segment network operations into its structure and health and measure things such as the network’s membership, connectivity, activities, resources, infrastructure and value proposition. Many years ago we developed a diagnostic tool to evaluate a network’s effectiveness. Many of the elements to consider may be highly relevant to those working more directly with movements.

Ultimately, a network’s—or movement’s—success depends on a variety of factors. And getting smart about how to track them in order to refine, recalibrate or redirect the network’s strategy is what matters. Unfortunately, there’s not one solitary variable to evaluate the multi-dimensional nature of a network that’s built to tackle deeply systemic and complex challenges. I wish it were that simple, but it’s not.

Photo Credit: Monitor Institute

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5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make

nonprofit mistakesFundraising is such a misunderstood enterprise. And it’s not just misunderstood by nonprofit leaders in the trenches.

I was talking to a normally very savvy foundation program officer the other day who wondered if one of his struggling grantees should think about launching a new gala event to raise some additional money. I swallowed my first inclination to scream “NOOOOOO!” in the middle of a crowded restaurant and instead calmly explained why events are a bad money fix, and why any short-term money generating strategy is probably a really bad idea.

But this well-meaning program officer is far from alone in his understanding of financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector. If I had my way, nonprofit leaders would stop making these 5 big fundraising mistakes:

  1. Taking a Short-Term Approach
    If you don’t have enough money today, a single fundraising activity isn’t going to solve the problem in the long-term. If you want to solve your ongoing money woes, you have to create a long-term plan. The single best way to bring more and larger dollars in the door is to create a smart, long-term strategy for your nonprofit. And that long-term strategy must include a corresponding long-term financial strategy. With a compelling Theory of Change (an articulation of the value your nonprofit creates), what you are hoping to accomplish, and how you will get there, you will be better able to convince funders (no matter what your financial model) to come aboard. People invest in a compelling and believable vision for the future. If you are just raising money for the day-to-day, you will always struggle.

  2. Looking Under the Same Rocks
    Often when there is a money shortfall, nonprofit leaders think they simply need to ask the same people to give again or more. If only it were that easy. To attract more people and organizations you have to have a wider net. But not just on your Facebook page or in your mailing list. A wider net means that your board’s networks need to grow, your distribution channels need to grow, your friend-raising activities, your strategic alliances need to grow — the overall network of your nonprofit needs to grow. You need to think holistically about how to grow the reach of your organization and get everyone involved in making that happen.

  3. Chasing A Magic Bullet
    Seriously, listen when I say this: There Is No Magic Bullet to Fundraising. Fundraising, like so many things, often falls victim to shiny object syndrome. From the Ice Bucket Challenge, to crowdfunding, to social media, it seems there is always something new that nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, or board members think will finally solve a nonprofit’s money woes. But the reality is that finding enough and the right kind of money for the results you want to achieve as an organization is hard work. There is no easy fix. Instead you have to get strategic and create, and then systematically execute on, a financial plan for your nonprofit. It may sound boring, but believe me, once you attach strategy to money, the transformation — to your staff and board, to your funders, to your financial model, to your overall results, to your effectiveness and sustainability as an organization — can be incredible.

  4. Giving People a Free Pass 
    When you tell certain board members or certain staff members that they don’t have to worry about money, you are essentially giving them a free pass and placing a larger burden on the rest of the organization. While money must be led by your Chief Money Officer (whatever their title — Executive Director, Development Director, CDO), it must be a team effort. Your money person’s job is to develop an overall money strategy and then mobilize all her resources (staff, board, other volunteers, technology, systems) to bring that money strategy to fruition. She CANNOT do it alone or with only half a board. Money has to be part of the conversation for everyone in the organization.

  5. Not Fundraising for The Fundraising Function 
    If you want to get better at raising money, you must invest in the right strategy, staff, and systems — your fundraising function –to raise that money. You need to pay market rate for a fundraising person who is a smart, strategic leader. You need to put time and effort into an overall financial strategy, and you need to create the infrastructure (technology, systems) to make that financial strategy a reality. To make these investments, you might have to raise capacity capital from your donors, a one-time infusion of significant money that helps strengthen your organization. A capacity capital investment in your fundraising function can more than pay for itself in a few years when your transformed financial engine is running at a much more profitable rate. But failing to invest in your fundraising function means you will continue to struggle financially.

Oh nonprofit leaders, please stop hitting your heads against the fundraising wall. I promise you, a more sustainable financial engine awaits if you simply invest the time and energy into a smart strategy, a broader network, effective staff and systems and a real team effort.

If you want to find out more about the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for nonprofits, download the one sheet.

Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Jan 2016

Korean_War_Veterans_Memorial_as_seen_during_the_January_2016_BlizzardFrom an historic blizzard that blanketed the country, to tackling poverty, to the leadership of Black Lives Matter, to technology in the new year, to using social media to stop ISIS, to advice for Charity Navigator, January was an interesting month in the world of social change.

Here is my pick of the 10 best reads in January. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And to see past month’s 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. Winter storm Jonas dumped several feet of snow across the country, but also offered a couple of interesting lessons in social change. First, the sheer amount of snow piled up on east coast urban streets provided a glimpse into better urban design. And after the blizzard hit Washington, DC it seems only female senators were brave enough to come to work. Among them, Senator Lisa Murkowski wondered: “Perhaps it speaks to the hardiness of women…that put on your boots and put your hat on and get out and slog through the mess that’s out there.”

  2. Writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Tom Klaus took issue with those who criticize the Ferguson and Black Lives Matters movements as being “leaderless.” Instead, he argued that they demonstrate a more effective “shared leadership” model: “Shared leadership…means that multiple members of a team or group step up to the responsibility and task of leadership, often as an adaptive response to changing circumstances. Multiple members may emerge to lead at the same time, or it may be serial as multiple leaders emerge over the life of a team or group.” And The Chronicle of Philanthropy profiled three of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

  3. One of my favorite bloggers, David Henderson, has made a new year’s resolution to write more often. Let’s hope he keeps it up because he offered us two great ones this month. First, he wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors for not standing up against presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hate-filled ideology. And then he took it further in a later post arguing that the philanthropic sector must get more political: “It seems a strange consensus that philanthropy and politics do not mix. Yet it is our politics, and more specifically our collective values, that creates the maladies we aim to address. Martin Luther King was a civil rights pioneer not for creating a nonprofit that provided social services to help African Americans live a little better, but by challenging the laws and social values that subjugated a significant portion of our community. Social interventions like homeless shelters, food pantries, and tutoring programs are fundamentally responses to injustice. While these programs are wrapped in apolitical blankets, they are plainly and intuitively critiques of the system we live in.”

  4. And speaking of critiques, columnist Tom Watson wrote a sharp commentary on American philanthropy arguing that it is going the way of American politics — moving from democracy towards plutocracy: “The disparity between democratic philanthropy and its plutocratic cousin is nowhere more apparent than in the importance placed on the Facebook co-founder’s commitment to giving away much of his vast personal fortune compared with the potential of the largest digital social network in the nation. Mr. Zuckerberg’s billions may create major causes and eventually steer public policy, but many nonprofits will struggle to find in their budgets the money required to purchase desperately needed social-media eyeballs from his advertising department. If there’s a better example of the power gulf in American philanthropy, I’m not sure what it is.”

  5. And other critiques of philanthropy in January went even further, with some arguing that modern American philanthropy attempting to address growing wealth inequality (illustrated by a new Oxfam infographic “An Economy for the 1%“) is a paradox because philanthropy itself emerged from the wealth excesses of capitalism.  A new book by Erica Kohl-Arenas argued that philanthropic interventions to solve poverty have been flawed because they don’t address the structural issues causing the poverty in the first place. And her argument was extended when she wrote about her view of a January 7th public event at the Ford Foundation where Darren Walker (who recently announced a new foundation focus on overcoming poverty) and Rob Reich discussed these issues.

  6. Caroline Fiennes argued that nonprofits should not try to “prove their impact,” since proof of impact is impossible, but rather use evaluation to gain knowledge that can help “maximize our chances of making a significant impact.” Patrick Lester, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, offered a similar caution about outcomes, but this time to the Obama administration: “A dose of…realism, combined with a greater reliance on evidence and a willingness to learn from the past, could transform the administration’s focus on outcomes into an important step forward. By openly acknowledging the challenges and dangers, recognizing the difference between mere outcomes and true impact, and demonstrating how this time we will do better, the administration could show that what it’s really calling for is not just an outcomes mindset, but an Outcomes Mindset 2.0.”

  7. Speaking of proving results, Charity Navigator’s new leader, former Microsoft exec Michael Thatcher, and the board that hired him came under attack in January for not moving quickly enough away from rating nonprofits on financials and towards rating them based on results.   But Doug White, writing an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and who created the beginning data behind Charity Navigator many years ago, took it even further took it even further: “Charity Navigator is far worse than nothing. The best that could happen is for the group to sink into oblivion, with no charities, no news outlets, and no donors giving it any thought. Or the group could take serious steps to grow up, humbly taking the time and effort to truly try to understand the charitable world.”

  8. Wanting to get further into the social change game, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced a new effort to use Facebook “Likes” to stop ISIS recruitment efforts on social media. It will be interesting to see how effective this slacktivism effort becomes at creating real change.

  9. Kivi Leroux Miller released her annual Nonprofit Communication Trends Report, including lots of data about how and where nonprofits are marketing. And while she found that YouTube is currently the #3 social network for nonprofits, that may change since YouTube just announced new “donation cards” that allow donors to give while watching a video.

  10. And finally, in January we lost David Bowie. But Callie Oettinger urged us not to be sad, but rather, inspired: “I [am] comforted in thinking of Bowie…on Mars, mixing it up with other artists…a place where the greats go to keep an eye on the rest of us and send down jolts of inspiration from above.” Yes.

Photo Credit: Northside777

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The Debate: Should Boards Raise 10% of a Nonprofit’s Budget?

nonprofit debateIt seems I raised controversy with my recent post, “Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?”. The hot button issue, not surprisingly, was my assertion that boards should be charged with raising 10% of a nonprofit’s budget.

As I put it:

I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list…of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so?

Several people disagreed, and consultant Gayle Gifford (who very respectfully argued with me in the past about my take on nonprofit events) took real issue, commenting (in part):

In my 30 years of experience, the most sustainable organizations financially are those that rely little on their board of directors for their financial success. I just wonder why it is that these governing volunteers, who are charged with so many more weighty responsibilities for sustainability, are held to such a double standard when it comes to revenue development. Imagine the absurdity of you pronouncing: The Board of Directors must be responsible for managing at least 10% of the organization’s programs.

I argued back that we must define board contribution to the financial model of a nonprofit much more broadly:

The point is that board members should not be allowed to ignore the financial realities of the organization, and it is impossible to ignore something when you have a responsibility for a piece of it. In the examples you give, I would wager that if you calculated board involvement in a much broader way, you would find that at least 10% of that money could be attributed to board involvement. And if not, yikes! Because that means it is all resting on the shoulders of the staff, and that simply is not sustainable. The board must be much more supportive of the nonprofits they serve, and in my mind that means they need to show up, and show up in a significant way, to the financial engine of their organization.

But Gayle was not having it. She responded that just as the board should not be expected to deliver on programs, they should also not be expected to contribute to the financial model:

In very brief, the role of the board as governors is to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support. This is the absolutely best fundraising work that they can do. Boards are totally within their governing role to decide that the way to meet the organization’s revenue needs is hire professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do. I would hypothesize that organizations that do that are more likely to successfully achieve their revenue goals (actually, there is research data to back this us -see “Nonprofit Fundraising Study” of Nonprofit Research Collaborative 2012 ) than the wishful and largely unmeasurable objective of 10% standards pulled out of a hat. BTW, I don’t understand why it is unimaginable to say that the board is responsible for delivering 10% of programs, or 10% of operations, if you set up a standard of attributing 10% of revenues? What makes one different from the other in terms of sustainability or professional expertise?

But in my mind, there is a critical role for the board in both mission and money, and you cannot have one without the other, as I replied to Gayle:

I completely agree with how you characterize the role of the board (“to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support”). However, the missing link (so very, very often) in nonprofit organizations is that the board thinks that showing up to meetings and hearing the development report is enough. Raising money requires that the board take an active role. And that active role means opening doors, making connections, providing intelligence, offering insight. This can actually also be true in delivering programs — the board should not only help provide the overall program strategy and theory of change for the organization, but also help to open doors and make connections to key decisionmakers, advocates, or others outside the organization walls who are critical to effective delivery of the organization’s mission. In all of this, I am simply asking that the board step up and take an ACTIVE role, as opposed to a passive role of “hiring professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do.” There must be an effective partnership between the board and staff in developing and executing on a robust financial model, just as this partnership between board and staff must exist in delivery on mission, because at the end of the day there is no mission without money. Maybe 10% isn’t the right number, but I believe you have to set a significant goal if you truly want the board to take notice and actually step up.

You can read the full debate here.

To me, this is such an important topic because it helps uncover our underlying assumptions about the role of the board versus the role of staff. In my mind, we must elevate the expectations we have for the nonprofit board of directors, and one way to do this is to set clear, specific, and lofty goals for them.

What are your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Ron Cogswell

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Using Digital to Win the Freedom to Marry: An Interview with Michael Crawford

MichaelCrawford_headshot

In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Crawford, Director of Digital and Creative at Freedom to Marry, one of the organizations instrumental in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Michael Crawford led Freedom to Marry’s in-house creative team and directed its award-winning digital program. He led the Freedom to Marry’s shift to a storytelling-centered content strategy and worked with a team of content creators and digital organizers to build an online supporter base of 1.5 million people, produce award-winning video content, and revolutionize the national conversation about gay people and marriage.

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry’s work is now done. However, they have turned their website into a repository of tools, case studies and examples from which other movements seeking social change can learn.

You can read past interviews in the Social Velocity social changemaker interview series here.

Nell: The June Supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage was a huge victory to organizations like Freedom to Marry that had been working on this issue for decades. How did multiple organizations and entities collaborate to make this victory a reality? Who were some of your collaborators and what did you learn about forging effective collaborations to create social change?

Michael: Freedom to Marry was one of many organizations who worked to win marriage nationwide for same-sex couples. Our organizational partners included national, state and local groups, and we advised groups working in other countries on marriage campaigns.

Our national partners included organizations like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, ACLU, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Human Rights Campaign. At the state level, we worked with dozens of groups in states across every region of the country.

Our work was especially intensive at the state level. In dozens of states, we worked with national and state partners to create coalition campaigns to advance marriage in the respective state. Depending on the state and its anticipated path to marriage — legislative, ballot or legal — that work included creating effective public education campaigns, growing grassroots support, engaging elected officials, getting out the vote for ballot campaigns, earned media, and digital work.

Our Digital Action Center, which became the central hub for digital organizing in the marriage movement, is one example of how Freedom to Marry worked with state campaigns to win marriage. Through the Digital Action Center, Freedom to Marry established a full-service digital shop that built winning campaigns from the ground up, led digital strategy day in and day out, and delivered concrete results to help secure game-changing victories at the ballot box and state legislatures nationwide.

What made our coalition work successful was that throughout we were not hands-off or operating at arms-length. Freedom to Marry was deeply involved as a partner in the work and campaigns, apart from our role as fiscal sponsor or funding engine. We actively looked for opportunities where we could add value without duplicating existing efforts.

Nell: How big a role did technology play in this victory? Obviously it was a multi-pronged approach (legal, political, public awareness, etc.) but how did technology contribute and what do you think other social movements can learn from what you did?

Michael: Freedom to Marry’s use of digital played a critical role in the organization’s work and the implementation of its national strategy, the Roadmap to Victory. The digital team supported the campaign’s focus on rapidly accelerating the growth in public support for marriage, mobilizing supporters into an effective movement, and making the case for marriage in the court of public opinion.

Telling emotionally powerful, authentic stories in compelling ways was a key tactic in achieving a crucial element of our strategy, building a critical mass of public support for the freedom to marry (ultimately, we grew support from 27% in 1996 to 63% in 2015).

Much of Freedom to Marry’s storytelling work was concentrated, or originated, online. Through written online profiles, videos and advertisements, placements in traditional media outlets, and social media, Freedom to Marry consistently and authentically showcased the faces of people from all across the country who needed to be able to say “I do,” marry in any state they chose, and be sure their marriages would be respected by the all states and the federal government. Our central goal was to spark and frame the millions of conversations needed to change hearts and minds and build momentum and a critical mass of support.

The focus on storytelling was at the core of our digital program. We made extensive use of online video, social media and email.

The digital team was its own department within the organization, and we collaborated with all of the programming areas to achieve our joint goals and to amplify the work of the respective programming areas. For example, we partnered closely with our communications team to find and elevate the best stories of couples, supporters and unlikely messengers. The digital team built a database of couples and other potential messengers with compelling stories that we widely shared on our website, through social media and in videos. We worked with the communications team to pitch the best of these stories to news outlets, and then we used social media to push out those earned media stories.

Here are a few takeaways for other movements:

  • Integrate digital into the fabric of the organization’s work: Your digital staff should be included when all critical decisions are being made for the organization regarding messaging, strategy and campaigning.

  • Place storytelling at the center of your digital work: People are hard-wired to connect to stories and stories can help others to better understand the how and why of your work.

  • Prepare content in advance for big decisions: This will enable you to move quickly once the decisions like court rulings or legislative outcomes are announced giving you the best possible chance to shape the narrative around those decisions.

  • Leverage social media to scale your outreach and advance your narrative: People are increasingly getting their news via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Developing and executing smart strategies for disseminating your perspective on the news helps you to be seen as a trusted news source, and it gets your message out more widely.

Nell: One of the reasons this victory happened was because it was a state-by-state strategy, instead of a nationwide strategy. How and why was the decision to go state-by-state made and what can other social change efforts learn from that approach? Why does it work and why now?

Michael: Our Roadmap to Victory was the national strategy to win the freedom to marry. The three tracks of the Roadmap included winning marriage in more states, growing public support and ending federal marriage discrimination all with an eye towards creating the climate for a Supreme Court decision. The state-by-state tactic was in service to the national strategy of winning at the Supreme Court.

The idea was not to focus just on one court case or one legislative battle or lurch from crisis to crisis. Rather, like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy, and needed to build momentum, foster collaboration, enlist new allies, identify new resources, fill in the gaps, and stay the course to victory.

It’s crucial to first identify the overarching goal, then develop a strategy or roadmap to achieve that, then develop the right programs or tactics to implement the strategy and then to provide supporters clear and effective ways that they can help implement the strategy to achieve the goal.

Nell: What’s next for Freedom to Marry and other organizations that won this victory? Where do your efforts go now? Is there other social change you all would like to see?

Michael: Freedom to Marry is in the process of winding down. Most of our staff has moved on to other causes, and we will soon be shutting our doors. The next big fight for the LGBT community is advancing effective legislation to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. One of the organizations leading that effort is Freedom For All Americans.

Over the last year especially, we have been talking with leaders in other movements sharing what we have learned working on the freedom to marry. We hope that our experiences will benefit others seeking to make the world a better place.

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What Are You Meant to Create?

createI don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, but I do think that the beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on where your life is going and what course corrections you’d like to make. For me, as I reflected at the beginning of this new year, I realized that I was getting lost in the noise.

And by lost, I mean that I was losing sight of my core. I really believe that the path toward happiness, meaningful contribution to the world, connection to others, and making the most of the life you are given is by staying connected to who you are and what you are meant to do. I call this my “core.”

Steven Pressfield describes it like this:

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

But I find it really hard sometimes, as I know everyone does, to pay attention to my core when there is so much noise. We live in such a loud culture that seems to grow louder every day. Sometimes I get exhausted by the constant glut of information, ideas, opinions. And I particularly get tired of the noise when I feel like it is an artifice or it lacks true meaning (like Facebook humble brags or BuzzFeed click bait).

So the challenge I have given myself in this new year is to stay connected to my core — to not allow the noise and the fluff and the flashing lights that constantly swirl around us to move me off my path. And when the swirl starts to escalate and I begin to feel lost, I take a deep breath and remind myself of what, for me, is true and meaningful.

And perhaps Phil Buchanan from CEP would agree, given his recent post about quiet leadership. He suggests that perhaps it is the quiet, centered leaders (as opposed to the loud, hero leaders) who actually make the most progress toward social change:

There is a kind of quiet and collaborative leader who ultimately often gets results, in part because she (and sometimes he) recognizes that there is no miracle cure — that progress will be a slog and will need to involve and engage many diverse participants. Yes, to be sure, sometimes a high profile leader (or leaders) is necessary for success — and, very occasionally, leaders emerge who are both larger than life and elevate and amplify the voices of those around them (like Martin Luther King, Jr.). But often, paradoxically, high visibility for individual leaders makes meaningful progress tougher. It emphasizes the individual (or individuals) over the collective engagement of the many, including the intended beneficiaries. So it’s time for us to stop pretending there are easy answers that will be delivered by hero-leaders. And it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and do the tough work that effectiveness requires.

I would take Phil’s thoughts even further and argue that perhaps these quiet leaders he describes have been more successful because they eschew the hype and the noise and instead connect with their core, with what they are supposed to be doing, what they were put here to accomplish. By focusing on what is true, instead of the hype, they make a much greater contribution.

And perhaps there is something here for all of us to learn. Perhaps paying attention to the noise, following meaningless links on social media, or chasing the latest fad only serves to get us further away from our core, from what we are supposed to be doing and creating. As Callie Oettinger wrote recently:

While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.

So for me at least — and perhaps for you as well — it’s time to turn away from the noise and reconnect with our core. It’s time to get back to becoming what we were meant to be and creating what we were meant to create.

Photo Credit: Lorraine Santana

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Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?

nonprofit boardI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders in Pittsburgh last month about how to Move From Fundraising to Financing and there were some parts of the presentation that raised eyebrows and (sometimes) controversy. And it usually happened around the topic of the nonprofit board.

I strongly believe that the board of directors is a nonprofit’s most critical financial asset. A board that is actively engaged and has the specific skills, experience, and networks required to deliver on the organization’s strategy can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is truly creating social change. And money is an inextricable part of that. Therefore, a nonprofit’s board cannot avoid its money role, or the organization and its mission will suffer.

Is your board avoiding their money role? Here’s what it looks like when they are:

The Board Isn’t Raising 10% of the Budget
I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list (here and here) of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so? There are really so many reasons why your board should take on more money responsibilities.

The Board Doesn’t Enforce a Give/Get
So to reinforce the idea of complete board involvement in the financial engine, you need to make it a practice. And that’s where the give/get comes in. A give/get requirement is a minimum dollar amount at which each individual board member must either “give” themselves, and/or “get” from somewhere else. Every single member of the board must understand and contribute to how money flows to the organization. They cannot argue that money is the purview only of the staff or a subset of board members. Money has to be part of the ENTIRE board’s job. Until you force the board to really participate in creating and maintaining an effective financial engine, you won’t be able to have substantive conversations about or get real engagement in raising or spending money.

New Program Decisions Ignore Money
It is not enough for a board to approve new programs or program expansion by only analyzing the potential impact on the mission. The board must also understand how a new program will or will not contribute to the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. The board needs to analyze all of the costs (including set up, opportunity costs, and ongoing operating costs) of the program and whether the program can attract enough money to at least cover those costs. And if not, whether the new program can be subsidized by other activities already in the mix. But the board cannot blind themselves to the financial downfalls of a sexy new program.

Real Conversations About Money Happen Only in Crisis 
Most board meetings include an update on a nonprofit’s budget, which is the extent of any money conversation. If there is a problem (expenses are too high, or revenue is not flowing as budgeted) a long conversation will ensue about the crisis. But bigger, regular discussions about the overall financial strategy of the organization are scarce. If the board is to be the financial steward of the organization, they have to spend time analyzing and developing their nonprofit’s financial model — where revenue should flow and how money should be employed to meet the mission. Money is a tool. But to effectively wield that tool, the board needs to think, talk, and act strategically about it.

For a nonprofit to be truly effective and sustainable, its board — the entire board — must embrace its money role. Because their is no mission without money. And no successful board turns a blind eye to the financial engine of their organization.

If you want to find out more about developing a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit, download the Develop a Financial Model Bundle. And if you want to learn how to create a more effective board, download the Build an Engaged Board Bundle.

Photo Credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

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