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Leadership

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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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2017

March offered lots of insight about how philanthropy should respond in the age of Trump. From investing in social movements, to getting involved in advocacy, to strengthening local communities, to giving more than the required 5%, there was much advice. Add to that a growing interest in how to combat “fake news,” steps to creating a digital marketing strategy, and the idea of employing migration as a tactic to combat poverty, March had much to read.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in world of social change in March, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant takes issue with the current administration’s distaste for the media and the arts (as evidenced by Trump’s elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts in his proposed budget). Oliphant argues that journalists and artists play a crucial role in a thriving society: “The right of artists and journalists to tweak the nose of power, to challenge what we believe, to criticize those in high places, to hold accountable people who otherwise might anoint themselves kings, cannot be abridged because we find it at times uncomfortable. It is that very discomfort that tells us they are doing their part in maintaining a healthy society.”

  2. Vocalizing dissent as Oliphant does is only one path available to philanthropy in these challenging times. Many people had other ideas for how philanthropy should respond, including funding social movementsgetting involved in advocacycountering the increase in hate crimes, strengthening local communities, and giving more than the typical 5% of assets. As Grantmakers for Effective Organizations President Kathleen Enright puts it: “We have a choice to make. We can succumb to the swirling and diverting streams of information that wash over us with every passing week. Or we can use this moment as a call to action, first to crystalize our values and determine what matters most to our institutions. And then to act in support of those values in new, bold and creative ways.”

  3. Philanthropic visionary Clara Miller, president of the Heron Foundation, describes what the foundation will do now that they’ve reached their goal of putting 100% of their assets toward mission. As she writes, “It’s becoming increasingly important to think and act holistically with money and influence within and beyond our sector, seeking impact on both Wall Street and Main Street.”

  4. The revelations that Russia used fake news to influence the U.S. presidential election added urgency to attempts to find solutions to the growing misinformation ecosystem. Pew Research offered a comprehensive report about the future of fake news. And writing in Nieman Reports Joshua Benton compares American distrust of journalism with American distrust of banks. And Marina Gorbis compares our current reality to the creation of the printing press in the mid-1400s, which ushered in political, religious and scientific revolutions.

  5. Speaking of what we can learn from history about today’s challenges, Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin provides 7 lessons from history for today’s social protests.

  6. Never one to shy away from controversy, Phil Buchanan takes to task those who argue that social problems can be solved by nonprofit and for-profit solutions equally well. As he puts it, “The fact is that in many, dare I say most, of the issue areas in which nonprofits are working to make a difference, there isn’t a way to do it that jibes very well with making a profit. And indeed, that is why the nonprofits were formed in the first place — because markets weren’t taking care of the issue!” Amen!

  7. Writing in his Nonprofit Chronicles blog, Marc Gunther argues that few anti-poverty interventions include the effective approach of encouraging the poor to migrate to areas with better opportunities.

  8. Large and aging nonprofit organization Greenpeace underwent a complete shift toward 21st century fundraising and advocacy efforts using technology.  This fascinating case study describes how they did it.

  9. David Mundy from GuideStar kicked off the first of a great multi-part series on how nonprofits can create their digital marketing strategy.

  10. And Nonprofit Tech for Good offered 24 Must-Read Fundraising and Social Media Reports for Nonprofits.

Photo Credit: Beraldo Leal 

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Goodbye to a Mentor and a Friend

I have a heavy heart today. I found out yesterday that my first boss, long-time mentor, and most influential teacher of all things nonprofit management died over the weekend.

Mary Jubitz was the CEO of SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), a statewide early literacy nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. I met Mary when, as a new college graduate, I responded to a classified ad (yes, that is truly how we used to find jobs) for an office manager at a startup nonprofit. I had never worked at a nonprofit, but I was hungry to learn. And Mary proved to be an excellent teacher. So much of what I write, speak and consult about in the nonprofit world today was born out of what I learned at Mary’s side over the first two years of my career.

She was first and foremost an excellent fundraiser. Over the course of her 12 year tenure as CEO, she grew the budget by 400% and built a highly engaged donor base. She did that through an amazing mix of charisma, drive, organization, and exceptional relationship-building skills. I have never met someone who was so incredibly skilled at making a donor or potential donor feel that their involvement was absolutely critical. She rarely walked away from a meeting without the prospect wanting to be part of the exciting, game-changing partnership she described.

From her tenacious ability to find a connection to a prospective donor, to her skilled mastery of the meetings and conversations necessary to entice them to get involved, to her eloquent and (always!) grammatically correct letters and proposals, to her beautiful hand-written thank you notes, to her ongoing invitations to keep the donor invested, she was a thrill to watch.

But it was not just her exceptional fundraising ability — she also translated that relationship-building acumen into deft management of her board of directors. She made a habit of regularly meeting one-on-one with each board member to ensure that they were continually engaged. And it worked. Every single board member was not only personally giving, but also introducing their own networks to the organization. And beyond ensuring the board’s active money role, Mary made sure that they were all completely engaged in board meetings and decisions.

The board was so engaged certainly because SMART was a great cause, but also — and maybe even more importantly — because they simply didn’t want to let Mary down. No one wanted to let Mary down. As a true leader, she set the bar high making those around her want to give their best and then a bit more. She created and continually inspired a winning team of board, staff and donors who truly believed they were changing the future of the children of Oregon.

And they did. Over the course of SMART’s history the organization has reached almost 200,000 children who were found to be 60% more likely than other students to reach state reading benchmarks.

20 years after I left her employ, Mary continued to be a tremendous mentor to me. Throughout my career she was always available for advice, recommendations, words of support. She took real joy in watching the progression of my career, which is as it should be since she built its foundation. As a female leader, she took great interest in other women who were doing their best to rise through the ranks of the nonprofit world and devoted time and energy to helping groom the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

She was an amazing leader. She will be missed.

Photo Credit: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

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Why Nonprofits Need Both Leaders and Managers

In the nonprofit sector the words “leader” and “manager” are sometimes tossed around interchangeably. But the fact is that they are two very different, and equally necessary, elements to an effective and sustainable nonprofit organization.

A leader provides an inspiring, motivating big strategy for staff and board to get behind. She asks hard questions and constantly pushes the organization and its people to do more, try harder, expand their reach, think bigger. A leader makes sure that people are engaged and invested in the work and creates a team environment where each person feels part of something much larger than herself. And in this way, a leader inspires board and staff to do more and be more than they ever thought possible.

Whereas, a manager creates systems that allow the organization to get things done and holds board and staff accountable. He makes sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be, has the tools they need to get the job done, and is held responsible for their part. The manager executes the path that the leader has articulated.

So in an ideal scenario, the two — leader and manager — work as a perfect team. One strategizes, propels, and inspires. The other creates systems and accountability to bring the strategy to fruition.

It doesn’t matter if you are a large nonprofit or a tiny one. And it doesn’t matter if the roles of “leader” and “manager” are contained in one person or multiple people, as long as everyone is clear about who is which, and when. Sometimes, in larger nonprofits, the leader and the manager will be contained in two different people, or in several people (senior management team, board chair and CEO). And other times the executive director of a small nonprofit may need to play the role of leader and manager in equal measure.

However you do it, in order to be effective and sustainable as a nonprofit, both your board and your staff need to be led and managed well.

Ask yourself these questions to see if your nonprofit lacks leadership, management, or both:

Leadership

Management

If you answered “No” to some or all of these questions, your nonprofit may lack some key leadership or management capabilities. If that is the case, step up as a leader and encourage a hard conversation about where your nonprofit is lacking and how to fill those gaps.

And if you need some help figuring out what your nonprofit lacks or how to fill those gaps, check out the coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staffs, or download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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Nonprofit Capacity Building Works: An Interview with Kathy Reich

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Kathy Reich. Kathy leads the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative both in the United States and in 10 global regions. BUILD is an essential part of the foundation’s strategy to reduce inequality, a strategy arising from the conviction that healthy civil society organizations are essential to driving and sustaining just, inclusive societies. To that end, Kathy guides Ford’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to supporting the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements.

Before joining Ford in 2016, Kathy was director of organizational effectiveness and philanthropy at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she led a cross-cutting program to help grantees around the world strengthen their strategy, leadership and impact.

Kathy has long been a friend of the Social Velocity blog. You can read my interview with Kathy when she was at the Packard Foundation here and a guest blog post she wrote for the blog here.

You can also read interviews with other social changemakers here.

Nell:  You recently moved from the Packard Foundation to the Ford Foundation in order to launch their BUILD initiative, which is all about strengthening organizations. What are your goals with this new initiative and what successes have you seen so far? And what are you finding in terms of the areas where nonprofits need most help?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has two big goals in mind for BUILD. First, we want to foster a measurably stronger, more powerful set of civil society organizations and networks working to address inequality around the world. Second, we aim to build understanding within the Ford Foundation, and ultimately throughout the field of philanthropy, about how strengthening key institutions can advance social justice.

The foundation has committed $1 billion over five years to BUILD because we believe that the fight against inequality needs resilient, durable, and fortified civil society institutions. Individuals and ideas also are critical, but the key role of institutions as drivers of sustained social change is a core, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of social justice work.

Each of the BUILD grantee organizations and networks will receive five years of support, at levels higher than what they have historically received from the Ford Foundation. Much of this support will be as flexible as we can legally make it; most grants will include generous general support. The remainder of each BUILD grant will provide support for nonprofit organizations and networks to strengthen their strategies, leadership, management, and finances. Each BUILD grantee will develop and then implement its own institutional strengthening plan. Although Ford Foundation staff will consult on drafts of these plans, the grantee will be “in the driver’s seat” in determining their institutional strengthening priorities and how best to address them.

So far we’ve made about 90 BUILD grants, and honestly it’s a bit early to say how well they are working. We do know where organizations are planning to spend the money. The vast majority of BUILD grantees, 79 percent, are choosing to strengthen their core operations, investing in areas such as financial management, fundraising, communications, evaluation, and HR. About two-thirds also are investing in strengthening capacities critical to social justice work, such as legal, research, network building, and advocacy. Close to half are investing in strengthening their strategic clarity and coherence, 36 percent are investing in leadership development and governance, and 32 percent are choosing to deepen their organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s important to note that BUILD is not the Ford Foundation’s only investment in strengthening nonprofit institutions. BUILD is part of FordForward, the Ford Foundation’s multi-pronged effort to make philanthropy part of the solution to inequality in a deep and lasting sense. In addition to BUILD, two other aspects of FordForward focus on strengthening nonprofits. The foundation is giving more general support grants across all program areas, with a goal of making general support our default type of grant whenever possible. We also are increasing overhead rates on project grants to a minimum of 20 percent, to more adequately address the indirect costs of executing projects and programs.

Nell: This is a pretty innovative approach to capacity building, how do you plan to share what you learn with other funders and with the sector overall?

Kathy: We’re planning a robust evaluation and learning strategy, although we’re really just getting started. Our hope is to share some early findings by year’s end. We’ll be focusing on three sets of key questions throughout the five-year initiative:

  • Do BUILD grants work? Do the organizations and networks that receive this funding become stronger and more durable over time? And if so, what if any impact does that have on the organization’s effectiveness?
  • If the BUILD approach works, what about it works? Is it the general operating support, or a specific kind of organizational strengthening, or something else?
  • Have we changed the way we do business at Ford, moving away from one-year project grants in favor of larger, more flexible grants?

Along with our evaluation and learning plan, we’re also developing a communications strategy to share what we learn with the field and engage in dialogue with others. We’ll be publishing evaluation results, speaking at conferences, and making active use of social media.

Nell: Both the Ford Foundation and the Packard Foundation are rare funders in that they are very committed to creating strong nonprofit organizations through heavy investment in capacity building. Do you think philanthropic and government funders are starting to follow your lead? Or what will it take to make that happen?

Kathy: Well, we certainly hope they are! It’s important to acknowledge that capacity building grantmaking is not new; in launching BUILD, we’ve learned from and appreciate the work of leaders in this field like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation.

Over time, we hope that the ranks of capacity building funders will grow. We hope that BUILD will influence other donors by contributing to the evidence base that nonprofit capacity building works—that stronger, more durable, and more resilient organizations and networks are more effective at achieving their missions.

We also hope to contribute to the evidence base about what kinds of capacity building work best for organizations and networks of different types and sizes, working on different issues in diverse geographies. That’s a tall order, but one of the great things about being a global funder and being able to invest significant resources in BUILD is that we’re able to try this grantmaking approach with a broad range of institutions.

Nell: The Ford Foundation made a very public move two years ago to focus their efforts on fighting inequality. But that goal has arguably become harder given the political winds. How does a foundation like Ford navigate achievement of their desired impact in a potentially more difficult external environment?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has worked in the U.S. and around the world for more than 70 years, and we’ve seen a lot of upheaval during that time. We’re acutely aware of the challenges facing our work, but we’re moving ahead with optimism and with what my boss Darren Walker calls “radical hope.”

BUILD is a big part of that hope. I believe strongly that in uncertain times, a BUILD approach to grantmaking is one of the smartest choices a foundation can make. By giving our grantees multi-year general operating support, we are giving them the resources and the flexibility to pivot their work quickly in the face of new realities. By also giving them thoughtful and flexible institutional strengthening support, we are enabling them to invest in their own leadership, strategy, management and operations at a time when they have to be at the top of their games.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation

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What Is Nonprofit Sustainability?

Last week I led a planning call among the panelists on the “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability” session I am moderating at April’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference (which I described in an earlier post). One of the panelist suggested that we start the session by defining what we mean by “nonprofit sustainability.”

As we started to discuss this, it quickly became apparent that some of us had different definitions of “nonprofit sustainability.” And indeed, in the social change sector more broadly there is a long list of definitions of nonprofit sustainability.

Sometimes people use “nonprofit sustainability” to mean nonprofits moving away from private philanthropy and becoming self-sufficient through earned income sources (the sale of goods or services). I don’t believe that that is ever possible. Nonprofits are often borne as a response to a disequilibrium that the market created (income inequality, racial injustice, failing education). So it is rare that a nonprofit can figure out a way to make the market pay for something that it created. The vast majority of nonprofits will never be fully self-sustaining through earned income efforts; rather they will always be subsidized by non-earned sources, like philanthropy and government.

Others define “nonprofit sustainability” as the ability to attract multi-year, unrestricted funding. While that would be a positive step, foundations are largely the only nonprofit funding source able or willing to make unrestricted, multi-year commitments. Government funding is never unrestricted, and individuals rarely make multi-year commitments. And even if all foundation funders made these commitments, foundation funding only ever totals 2-3% of all of the revenue flowing to the nonprofit sector. So that’s not a big enough piece of the pie to ensure nonprofit sustainability.

Still others talk about “nonprofit sustainability” as having a diversified revenue stream. It may make sense for some nonprofits to focus on one or two revenue streams if that’s where their core competencies lie. So it is not a foregone conclusion that revenue diversification fits every nonprofit business model.

And other people define “nonprofit sustainability” as understanding and funding a nonprofit’s full costs, including direct and indirect costs. While this is absolutely a part of nonprofit sustainability, I don’t think it tells the whole story.

Therefore, none of these definitions of nonprofit sustainability satisfy me. They are either two narrow, too unrealistic, or inaccurate.

My definition, then, is:

Nonprofit sustainability occurs when a nonprofit attracts and effectively uses
enough and the right kinds of money necessary to achieve their long-term outcome goals.

So to break that down, nonprofit sustainability includes these elements:

Knowing Your Long-Term Outcome Goals
To be sustainable, a nonprofit must articulate the long-term outcomes that they are ultimately trying to accomplish (through a Theory of Change). You cannot hope to be sustainable if you can’t articulate why you exist and what you ultimately want to accomplish as a social change organization.

Having a Strategy to Achieve Those Goals
And you won’t achieve those outcomes (and be sustainable) if you don’t have a long-term strategy to get there. The strategy doesn’t have to be set in stone — it should be malleable as internal and external circumstances change — but it should ultimately guide your course to achieving those outcome goals.

Effectively Using Enough Money
But its not enough to simply plan for the future, you must then figure out what staff, board, volunteers, systems, technology, marketing, and other resources you need to bring your strategy to fruition. You must articulate the business model you will employ, and the corresponding money required, to realize your long-term outcome goals. And I don’t mean the band-aid version — I mean what it will really take to achieve the long-term outcomes you seek.

Attracting the Right Kinds of Money
But it’s also not enough to figure out what it’s going to cost. You have to figure out the other side of the money equation, which is how to bring that money in the door. A smart financial strategy attracts money that is the right fit for your organization. You have to be strategic (not reactive) about how money flows to the organization (fundraising, government grants, earned income). It might be that you focus solely on private sources, or you may have a mix of government and earned sources. But your financial model must align with your core competencies and your mission.

Nonprofit sustainability means that a nonprofit board and staff know what they want to accomplish, develop a smart strategy and business model, and use money as a tool to make it happen.

But nonprofit sustainability should not be up to just nonprofit leaders to figure out. Anyone who wants to realize social change (the government, private funders, social change leaders) must advocate for and support more sustainability in the sector. It must be a larger conversation. I hope that conversation grows far beyond the CEP conference in April.

Photo Credit: Philip Taylor

 

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Guest Post: The Rebirth of Nonprofit Advocacy

Note: With a current political climate which is arguably more challenging for many nonprofit social change efforts, I believe (along with many others) that now is the time for nonprofits to move more actively into advocacy. But many nonprofit leaders don’t know how to get started. So I asked the expert on all things nonprofit advocacy — Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits — to write a guest post describing how nonprofit leaders can move into advocacy. Here is his post.

Given the new realities at the state and federal levels of governments, nonprofit leaders (board and staff) are recognizing that nonprofit advocacy is more important than ever before. They suddenly feel compelled to engage in advocacy. Yet many admit privately that their advocacy know-how has either atrophied or never gotten off the ground. As we witness a re-birth of interest in nonprofit advocacy, this article offers initial steps along a pathway to effective advocacy.

Nonprofit advocacy is a lot simpler than most people realize, with easy steps involving the heart, mind, body, and soul.

Heart Steps

Care. The very first step in advocacy is to care deeply about something. For nonprofits, this means caring about your organization’s mission. When you really care, then you will see the barriers blocking your way … and be motivated to remove or overcome those barriers to advance the organization’s mission. Consider this mom who worried that she would be ineffective as an advocate, yet when motivated to protect her child’s safety, she championed changes to federal and state laws.

Know you are not alone. If you start to get weak of heart, know that you are part of a community that includes more than one million organizations, employs ten percent of the American workforce, and contributes billions to the economy. Your nonprofit’s mission is unique, but your organization is part of an expansive ecosystem of nonprofits working in every community across the country. We are all stronger if we honor the Three Musketeers’ motto of “All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”

Mind Steps

Realize that you are already advocating. People sometimes fret that they don’t know how to advocate. But it’s so easy that first graders do it! So do you, every day. Did you share an update with your nonprofit’s stakeholders (such as donors, board members, or reporters) recently, so they know about the impact your organization is having in the community? Congratulations, you are already advocating! We like to say that the definition of advocacy is answering the question, “Who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?”

Lean into the news to stay informed. It’s too late for action when reading that the Governor signed a bill to regulate nonprofits or the city council voted to pass an ordinance to tax nonprofit property. Nonprofits need to pay attention to the news so you’re ready to speak up for your communities. To help nonprofits make sense of the swirling policy issues in Washington, DC, we wrote this analysis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy identifying six sector-wide issues that we foresee impacting all nonprofits in the coming months. Your local state association of nonprofits can help keep you up-to-date on what is happening, and you can subscribe to our free policy newsletter, Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.

Focus. One danger of paying attention to the news is most people suddenly will see multiple things that motivate them to action. Yet there is only so much time in each day. When taking the Heart Step of identifying what you deeply care about with your nonprofit’s mission, define and then refine the topics on which your nonprofit agrees in advance that it will devote some of its limited resources to advocate for or against. Reduce that in writing as part of your Public Policy Agenda. (Here’s a link to our Public Policy Agenda, which you can use as a rough draft to start your own.)

Work smarter, not harder. The old Fram oil commercials used to say, “You can pay me a little now … or a whole lot more later.” So it is with advocacy. If you invest a little time now to lift your voice instead of sitting silently while your local government imposes new taxes on nonprofits, then you can avoid the added burden of trying to raise additional money. If government contracts impose mindless administrative burdens and costs, then you can either keep paying people to do wasteful acts or band together with other nonprofits to ease the burdens of government and nonprofits. Our hallmark as nonprofits is that we solve community problems. Advocacy is a powerful leveraging tool to do just that.

Take the (h) election. Sometimes called the best, easiest, and cheapest (free!) insurance in America, filling out IRS Form 5768 can simplify life for most 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits advancing their missions through advocacy. Taking the “(h) election” doesn’t cost anything, and gives many benefits for nonprofits.

Soul Steps

Build relationships. The poet’s line that “no man is an island” underscores not only a universal interconnectedness that feeds our souls, but also a basic tenet of advocacy: relationships are fundamental. You will be more effective when those you are advocating already trust you and know the impact your nonprofit is having. Whether you are advocating to a potential funder or to an elected official (or a member of their staff), relationships matter. Take the time now, before you have a distinct ask to make, to make friends before they are needed. They will come in handy later, for you and for them. Even without further advocacy, informing officials of the work your nonprofit is doing can pay dividends as they consider proposals down the road.

Body Steps

Stand for Your Mission. No matter who is in office or which party is in control, nonprofits can’t afford to sit silently on the sidelines on issues that affect their ability to serve their community and advance their mission. The nonprofit community is at its strongest when every nonprofit, and every person associated with that nonprofit, raises their voice. To help board members in particular, check out this website on steps your nonprofit can take to stand for your mission.

Use Your Voice. Advocacy takes many forms. You can write or call your representatives or attend a Nonprofit Day at the Capitol. You can make a video demonstrating the effects (or potential effects) of an issue. Even social media has become a part of the advocacy toolkit. Read more stories of nonprofit advocacy in action to learn about the other ways you can engage.

Be a Team Player. Nonprofit advocacy is a team sport. Most funders and nonprofits focus on their narrow issue area. But some policy issues affect all nonprofits and thus require collective action. The current federal attempt to erode trust in nonprofits and foundations by removing or weakening the 60+ years of protection against politicizing nonprofits during elections, and local attempts to impose taxes, fees, or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), are attacks on all nonprofits.

Be Vigilant. My football coach used to say, “Keep your head on a swivel,” meaning always be on the lookout, watching everything on the field. Public policy is even wilder than football because it’s played on a three-dimensional chess board, with activity happening up and down the local, state, and federal levels of governments and across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. While many want to focus on the new President, the White House is only one source of policy action. Federal legislative priorities this year will likely flow down to hit the states to implement. Domestic spending cuts are a near certainty, and with states currently receiving, on average, 30 percent of their revenue from the federal government, it’s important to see the interconnections. The White House might dominate the nightly news, but life is lived at the local level and not in faraway DC.

Just as Plato wrote that “necessity is the mother of invention,” policy threats can spark inspiration for advocacy action. Although dismayed by the cause, I’m heartened by hearing how many nonprofit leaders are now seeing the value and power of advocacy. Let this be the re-birth of nonprofit advocacy, which is deeply rooted in our collective DNA.

Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits

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