In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Amy Sample Ward, CEO of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), the membership organization of nonprofit professionals who put technology to use for their causes. Amy leads a team dedicated to connecting individuals, organizations and campaigns in order to transition the nonprofit technology sector into a movement-based force for positive change.
Previously serving as the Membership Director at NTEN, Amy is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events in the US, UK and around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: For many nonprofit leaders, social media is still viewed as a sideline, rather than an integral, aspect of the work. How do you convince nonprofit leaders that social media can actually be a means of furthering their social change missions?
Amy: Social media really encompasses so many different tools and platforms. The probability that your community isn’t using ANY kind of social technology is pretty low. Every organization doesn’t have to use every tool out there. Quite the opposite! I encourage every nonprofit not to think of social media as time suck and “one more thing to add to the list”, but, instead, as a way to connect directly with community members on a much more regular basis than your other outreach in email or events. Select which platform or platforms you use by asking your community and listening first – this helps ensure that any time you do invest in social media is spent in the platforms where your community is active and you have the highest chance of success.
Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource constrained, nonprofits have traditionally been somewhat insular and risk averse. How do nonprofits reconcile that approach to a growing need to be more open, collaborative, transparent and risk embracing?
Amy: If there’s fear about change, taking risks, or transparency, my suggestion is to take inspiration from and share responsibility with your community. As a nonprofit organization, you cannot fully achieve your mission on your own – you need your community to help you create lasting change in the world, so why not invite the community to help you create change in your work!
When you invite your community in, you start to embrace transparency. You also lessen the stigma of risks because you now have community members championing new ideas and helping you test and iterate to find the best approaches. You don’t have to fear changing when you are working closely with your community because doing so means working with people, and we all change every day.
Nell: On the flip side of that, is there a risk of becoming too consumed by social media and new technologies? Can nonprofits – and all of us really – become too enamored of every new shiny object at the expense of actually creating social change?
Amy: At the end of the day, we all have lots of work to do and don’t want to get distracted or bogged down by any one thing, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, email, or meetings! I think the real risk is in letting your tools guide your strategic decisions. Social media tools are launching every day, sometimes with a lot of press coverage. It’s understandable that you could read a post or see another organization trying a new platform and think you should do it, too. Or, to let the functionality of a certain platform dictate how you decide to create and run a campaign. It’s critical that all staff have the resources and training to think and plan strategically about their work, identifying the tools last that align with their goals, community and audience, and your mission.
Nell: Technology is often considered “overhead” in the nonprofit world. How can nonprofit leaders convince funders and board members that investing in technology can have a significant return on investment?
Amy: The best thing organizations can do to prove this is by actually proving it: track and evaluate your own return on investment, share information about your budgeting and planning, and include clear information and analysis of the necessary technologies to do your work in every grant proposal and report. You can’t expect funders to invest in something if you aren’t able to convince them from the beginning.
Photo Credit: nten.org
Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the new shiny object in the world of social change. From Giving Days, to new giving platforms, to lots of articles and studies (here and here to start), it seems that crowdfunding is everywhere lately.
I’m all for innovations in the funding of social change, but I’m not convinced that crowdfunding is really creating anything fundamentally new.
Under “crowdfunding” I include efforts like Kickstarter where a creative effort (a film, art exhibit, library) can garner small investments from a large number of people. And I’m also including Giving Days, at the city and national level, where nonprofits try to raise as much money as possible in a 24-hour online “event”. What these efforts all have in common is they raise money, from a large group of people, over a short period of time.
I earned my fundraising chops working public television pledge drives, one of the earliest “crowdfunding” efforts. The technology was different (TV screens and telephones, instead of CRM systems and social media), but I’m not sure much else is.
So I would like to see us separate what is potentially exciting about crowdfunding from what is just hype. To help in that effort, I offer some questions:
How much is truly new money?
It’s unclear to me how much new money crowdfunding brings to social change organizations. For example, nonprofits participating in Giving Days encourage their annual donors to give on that specific day so that Giving Day dollars are higher. But that’s not new money. True innovation in social change funding comes from efforts to grow the 2% pie – giving as a share of America’s Gross Domestic Product has stayed at 2% for the last 40+ years. I’m not convinced that crowdfunding uncovers money that would not have otherwise ended up somewhere in the nonprofit sector.
How many new donors are being retained?
The point of crowdfunding is that it’s a one time deal. There is a message of urgency that encourages donors to give NOW. So the numbers on a specific Giving Day or with a crowdfunding campaign may be good, but is the funding sustainable? Are nonprofits or social change organizations actually growing their donor base? Are they able to go back to these investors later and encourage them to give again? And if the funding isn’t sustainable, is it really worth the effort it took to get it?
Is crowdfunding reinforcing the “Overhead Myth”?
The destructive idea that donors shouldn’t support nonprofit “overhead“, or administrative costs, is slowly dying, but crowdfunding might just be bringing it back to life. Nonprofit crowdfunding darling charity:water has been taken to task for reinforcing the idea that 100% of the dollars they raise go “directly to the field”. And crowdfunding projects are often specific and “sexy,” which means that the money is not being raised for boring things like the staffing, technology, and infrastructure that most organizations desperately need. Are we perpetuating the overhead myth by encouraging donors to give to specific projects, instead of to overall issues, organizations or teams?
What’s the return on investment?
A lot of time and effort can go into crowdfunding campaigns. If the benefits are shortlived, donors aren’t retained, and the majority of the funding is not new dollars, while the costs (staff and board time, technology investments) are high, then what is the true return on investment? I’m not arguing that it can’t be positive, but I would like to see more critical analysis about it, both at the aggregate and the individual organization levels.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’d like us to dig a bit deeper to understand what the real effects of crowdfunding are so far and what it’s true promise is. If there is already research out there that can answer some of these questions, please let me know in the comments below.
Photo Credit: SeedingFactory.com
Heather Mansfield’s newest book, Mobile for Good, is a nice complement to her 2011 book, Social Media for Social Good. This time around, she adds mobile to the “new media” mix and gives a detailed approach for nonprofit leaders ready to embrace changing technology.
In Mobile for Good, Mansfield sounds a warning call to nonprofit leaders. The tide of new media is swift and those nonprofit leaders who don’t embrace it will be left behind:
“Your nonprofit would be wise to assume and act upon the fact that more than 50 percent of your website traffic will occur on screens varying in sizes from one to six inches by 2016.”
And, contrary to popular belief, this shift is not just among the youngest generations of potential donors. Every generation – from Silent, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, to Gen Z – is increasingly discovering and giving to nonprofits online.
But Mansfield is not suggesting that nonprofits chuck all fundraising vehicles in favor of a singular new media approach. Rather, she urges nonprofits to embrace a multi-channel fundraising strategy, “using print, web, and email communications, and mobile and social media in order to appeal to donors of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
And in fact, reports on the death of email are unwarranted. In fact, it’s enjoying a rebirth:
“Email is not dying. It’s growing. Furthermore, every email address that your nonprofit accrues translates into $13 in online donations over a one-year period. If you think this trend is isolated to Gen X and older, it’s worth noting that 65% of Millennials subscribe to nonprofit e-newsletters.”
The key, however, is making sure that everything (your website, your e-newsletters) is responsively designed, meaning that it automatically converts to fit whatever is being used to view it (laptop, phone, tablet).
Mansfield urges nonprofit leaders to invest in new media. The nonprofit sector’s desire for free or very cheap technology solutions isn’t realistic anymore:
“It’s imperative that you find the funds and the tech know-how to position your nonprofit for future survival…One of the downsides of the rise in social media is that it has inadvertently resulted in nonprofits becoming overly accustomed to and dependent upon “free” online tools. This mindset is becoming destructive to the sector istelf…The era of free is over.”
Mansfield devotes a chapter to each of the main social media networks and gives tips and best practices for each. The problem with writing a book about such a quickly evolving space, however, is that it becomes out of date before it even hits the shelf (for example Facebook’s recent organic search changes, and LinkedIn’s discontinued Products and Services tabs). So you must view Mansfield’s tips in a larger context, and for real-time updates you can check out her Nonprofit Tech for Good blog.
Overall I think the book holds a good deal of value for nonprofit leaders, however, I do have two criticisms.
First, for the nonprofit leader already overwhelmed by new media Mansfield doesn’t effectively prioritize where to focus. By including all major social media networks and all new fundraising tools (including untested ones like Crowdfunding) she leaves the impression that there is an endless and equally valuable list of innovations to embrace. Without a framework for prioritizing where to focus it is easy for the already overwhelmed nonprofit leader to give up. She could have discussed the merits of focusing on some of the bigger bang for your buck social media networks (like Facebook) while letting others (Pinterest) go if time doesn’t allow. Or thinking through a nonprofit’s target audience and their habits and preferences in order to prioritize staff time.
Second, I must take Mansfield to task for perpetuating the nonprofit overhead myth – the idea that nonprofits should separate their “program” and “overhead” costs. As I’ve mentioned before, this myth is incredibly destructive to nonprofits by forcing them to hide or ignore the true costs of their work. In Mansfield’s “Online Fundraising” chapter, she lists 10 best practices, of which #6 is to “Include Program Versus Operating Expense Graphics,” suggesting that nonprofits create “a pie chart graphic that shows your low fundraising and operating costs.” She goes on to mention the Overhead Myth Campaign in passing, with no irony about how she is perpetuating the myth itself. Ugh.
At the end of the day, Mansfield provides a nice overview of the rapidly changing new media landscape and some great steps for what nonprofits can do to keep up.
Photo Credit: nptechforgood.com
I am amazed by the reaction of some nonprofit leaders when faced with a budget shortfall. Some simply shake their head in innocent confusion, some blame an “inexperienced” development director or a “checked-out” board, and others throw together a knee-jerk fundraising event in order to stem the tide.
But a much better approach, when you don’t have the money your nonprofit needs, is to step back and assess the viability of your nonprofit’s overall money function, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
If you want greater, more reliable funding for your nonprofit, you must get strategic. And the first step to any real strategy is analysis.
Instead of viewing the money that flows to your nonprofit as a side note, or worse, a completely uncontrollable force, you must view money as a very necessary and integrated function that is just as important as your nonprofit’s programmatic function. And in order to determine how well your money function operates and how to transform it, you must assess it.
A transformative financial model assessment uncovers how all aspects of the organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through the doors. It analyzes the financial impact of 7 areas of the organization, like this:
Does your nonprofit have a long-term strategy that integrates money, programs and operations? Does your strategy help articulate the value your nonprofit provides the community in order to compel outsiders to invest? Does your strategy include measures for whether that value is actually being created?
- Mission and Vision
Does your nonprofit have clear, compelling vision and mission statements? The two statements are not “nice to have” marketing language, rather they articulate the very essence of why your nonprofit exists. Does your vision paint a bold description of the social change you seek? Does your mission describe the day-to-day work towards that vision?
- Board and Staff Leadership
Does your board have the skills, experience and networks necessary to execute on your strategic plan? Are they engaged and invested? Are they actively connecting the organization to people, resources, partnerships? Does your staff have the knowledge and experience necessary to make money flow? And are they structured and managed effectively?
- Program Delivery and Impact
As a nonprofit you have two sets of “customers.” Those you serve (or your “clients”), and those who fund those services (or your “donors”). Without a compelling and effective delivery of services to clients, donors won’t fund those services. Is your nonprofit strategic about which programs to grow and which to cut? Do you measure the effect of your programs on clients? Are your programs financially viable, or are too many of your programs mission-rich, but cash-poor?
- Marketing and Communications
Do you make a compelling case for your work and for support of it? Once you’ve made the case, are you using the right marketing channels (website, social media, events, email, etc.) to attract and engage your target funders, volunteers, advocates, board members and other supporters?
- External Partnerships
In order to move the mission forward and in order to attract funders, volunteers, advocates you must be strategic about building alliances that make sense. Do you have the necessary external relationships to execute on your strategy? Are you constantly working to strengthen or grow the right partnerships in the right ways?
- Financial Model
And only now do we look specifically at money. Because without all the previous elements (thoughtful strategy, compelling vision and mission, strong leadership) money simply will not follow. Does your funding mix fit well with your mission and core competencies? Are there other revenue streams that make sense to pursue? Are there fundraising activities that are actually costly rather than profitable?
When money isn’t working the way you want it to, don’t stick your head in the sand. Wrest the money sword from the beast of chance by taking a hard look at your nonprofit’s money function.
If you want to learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I provide clients, click here. And if you want to learn more about the Financing Not Fundraising approach, download the newest e-book in the Financing Not Fundraising series, Financing Not Fundraising volume 3.
Photo Credit: Pen Waggener
As we head off for the Thanksgiving holiday and the start of the consumer-driven holiday season, it’s important also to give back. And there’s a movement to help you do just that.
Tuesday, December 3rd is the second annual Giving Tuesday, an exciting experiment that started last year to “create a national day of giving to kick off the giving season on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.” Last year’s first Giving Tuesday saw some impressive results:
- More than 2,500 recognized #GivingTuesday™ partners from all 50 states
- Blackbaud processed over $10 million in online donations on 11/27/12 – a 53% increase when compared to the Tuesday after Thanksgiving the previous year.
- DonorPerfect recorded a 46% increase in online donations and the average gift increased 25%.
- More than 50 million people worldwide spread the word about GivingTuesday – resulting in milestone trending on Twitter.
The video below explains the movement and how to get involved. To learn more go to community.givingtuesday.org.
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?
Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.
Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?
Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.
Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?
Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.
Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?
Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.
Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?
Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.
Photo Credit: Share Our Strength
There were some really great articles and discussions in the social change space this past month. From new attempts to put philanthropy under the microscope, to analyses of Silicon Valley’s contributions to social change, to the difference between market innovations and social innovations, to Millennial giving, there was a lot to think about.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in September. But please add what I missed in the comments.
The 10 Great Reads lists from past months are here.
- Silicon Valley has been getting into the social change game, but some aren’t impressed with their contributions so far. David Henderson takes Silicon Valley to task for focusing their technology “innovations” only on broken nonprofit fundraising models (Google’s announcement in September of a new fundraising app, One Today, is an example of what he’s talking about). And Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur seem equally unimpressed arguing that Silicon Valley’s view that technology can end global poverty is “wildly overoptimistic.”
- And speaking of social change and business, Daniel Goldberg makes a very interesting (and helpful) distinction between “market innovations” (“an opportunity for profit that also happens to help people…and [is] effective precisely because [it] so cleverly ride[s] the market wave”) and “social innovations” (which “produce value by filling gaps left by the market…a business opportunity in the classic sense, but a systematic market failure that required a social purpose to address”). Much of impact investing, he argues, falls into the first camp, whereas social impact bonds fall into the second.
- It is crazy (and terrifying) how the wealth of America is increasingly concentrated in a small group of people at the top. The rate at which it is happening is mind blowing. The 400 richest Americans are worth $2 trillion, which is a $300 billion increase from last year and double what it was a decade ago. And in 2012 the top 10% of earners brought home more than 50% of the total U.S. income, which is the highest level ever recorded. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?
- But there is hope. Clara Miller, formerly head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and now head of the F.B. Heron Foundation, is one of the leading visionaries in the social finance space. Her recent article is a must read and explains the dangers of nonprofit growth without adequate capital and what funders can do to prevent it.
- Paul T. Hogan, VP of the John R. Oishei Foundation, argues that funders should focus on building nonprofit organizations: “The development of the nonprofit organization provides plenty of factors to evaluate and many outcomes to strive for. It can also satisfy the funder’s obligation to effectively steward resources insofar as an organization is being helped to last for the long term and have a much greater chance of effectively achieving its, and therefore the funders’, goals.” Oh, if only more foundation leaders thought that way!
- Pablo Eisenberg writes a fairly vehement rant against philanthropy for being an increasingly closed loop. He argues that their insularity “keeps philanthropy from solving serious problems” and that we need “foundations and big donors to realize they don’t have all the answers. Nonprofits should have a greater role in driving the agenda.”
- September saw the annual Social Capital Markets Conference and one of the interesting things to come out of it was a new Community Capital Symposium that immediately preceded SoCap this year. CoCap brought non-accredited investors (with a net worth below $1 million) and social entrepreneurs together to talk about community-focused investing. It’s an interesting financial innovation to watch.
- Over the month of September, GrantCraft, a project of the Foundation Center, ran a 4-episode podcast series talking about and with Millennial philanthropists as a complement to the Johnson Center NextGen Donor Report about Millennial giving that came out earlier this year. Fascinating stuff.
- And then on the tactical side, HubSpot offers some great insight on What Millennials Really Want From Your Nonprofit’s Website.
- I always love urban food innovations, perhaps it’s because they are addressing several social problems at the same time (urban decay, obesity, economic decline, environmental degradation). And so I was interested to see that urban rooftop farming is a new trend.
Photo Credit: UWW ResNet
Asking the right questions is absolutely essential to creating social change. I’ve written before (here and here) about the importance and kinds of questions nonprofits should be asking. I am a huge believer in smart, hard questions.
Which is why I loved Bill Shore’s recent post in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He encourages nonprofits to ask one simple, yet profound question: “What Does Success Look Like?” Which is very similar to Mario Morino’s question, “To What End?“, encouraging nonprofits to determine the ultimate goal of their work.
We are increasingly (I hope) asking nonprofits to get more strategic about their work, so that instead of spinning wheels, we are actually solving social problems. So Bill’s is an incredibly critical question.
But it is only the starting point.
Once a nonprofit knows what they are ultimately trying to accomplish, there are three critical questions they must next ask. And these are:
What is our strategy for getting there?
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as Bill makes it seem (and he would probably agree). You can’t simply set an end goal, and yell “Go!” You need a strategy for getting there, because there are many ways to get from point A to point B. The trick is figuring out what the right strategy is given your core competencies and the external environment in which you work. Because you cannot get to point B by doing something you are no good at, or something someone else does better, or something that won’t solve the problem.
What is the most effective and sustainable model to get there?
This is a piece that is sorely lacking in most of the nonprofit sector. Once you have figured out what you want to accomplish, you must figure out how you can structure your resources (money, staff, volunteers, board, advocates, assets) in a way that puts them to their highest and best use and actually ends up accomplishing your end goal. That’s a business model, and it includes staffing, financing, marketing and so on. And few nonprofits have a smart, strategic, sustainable business model behind their work.
What people and networks do we need with us?
Nonprofits have to stop trying to convince anyone and everyone to join their cause. You must be strategic about analyzing your end goal and your strategy for getting there and then determining what people, organizations, networks you need in order to execute effectively. So instead of assembling a board of warm bodies, you want to think about exactly what kinds of people, what kinds of networks, what kinds of expertise you need to move forward. And beyond assembling the right board, you need to assemble the right advisors, partners, alliances, advocates, decision makers, followers. In order to reach your end goal, you must marshal a whole army of people with specific, key assets. But you won’t build that army without first figuring out what the army should look like.
These are not easy questions. And finding the right answers is hard, hard work. Often it is challenging enough to get a diverse group of people (board, staff, funders) to agree on a common end goal, let alone to agree on all the steps and structures necessary to get there. But the alternative is to simply continue to spin your wheels while our challenges grow.
So start asking some hard questions.
Photo credit: Oberazzi
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