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Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments (and frequent contributor to their excellent blog).

Prior to running The Heinz Endowments, Grant was president and chief executive officer of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years. Before that, he served as press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz from 1988 until the senator’s death in 1991.

Grant frequently leads community conversations around critical issues such as public school reform, civic design, the ongoing sustainability of anchor institutions, domestic violence, riverfront development and various socio-economic concerns. He also serves extensively on the boards of local nonprofit and national sector organizations, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which he chairs. He has also served on the boards of Grantmakers Evaluation Network, Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, and the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.

You can read other conversations with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have written on the Heinz blog and elsewhere about the importance of philanthropists speaking out against government policies or decisions that are at odds with their work. However, philanthropy is often hesitant, because of both real and perceived limitations, to become too political. What do you think philanthropists, and the nonprofits they fund, can and should do to speak out against political decisions that are at odds with their missions?

Grant: This question makes my brain hurt. I mean, seriously, we live in a time when everything is labeled as political—affirming the science of climate change, standing up for equity, denouncing racism, defending basic math, you name it. A cultural institution we support recently faced criticism from its own docents for posting an inclusion policy they condemned as “political” because it welcomed all visitors, including immigrants. When your core values are suddenly defined as political, what are you going to do—run from your ideals and hope they somehow survive in the shadows? Or are you going to step into the light and advocate for what you say you believe in?

We have to remember this is about policy and the marketplace of ideas and values, not politics. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about trying to influence who wins an election, and private philanthropy can’t lobby on specific legislation. But foundations of all ideological bents have long understood that on some issues, the only way to bring about meaningful change is to persuade the broader culture that it matters and then translate that into supportive policy. In telling the story of its own impact, philanthropy loves to point at successes like universal vaccinations. But now even vaccines are under attack, along with the science informing them. So what should philanthropy do—stand mutely by and pretend it doesn’t have a point of view on saving lives and preventing suffering, or for that matter on the importance of science as a basic decision-making tool for public policy? You can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding.

We have to speak honestly about the perils of policy rooted in magical thinking and so-called alternative facts. That sort of candor is described as courageous in the foundation world, but really what’s brave about speaking the truth when everything you believe in and work for is under attack? We are witnessing a jaw-dropping assault on fundamental institutions of democracy—the press, the judiciary, free speech, basic notions of civility, even the right of the people to assemble. The American system of philanthropy, which hinges on an engaged civic sector, simply cannot work in the context of dysfunctional or broken democracy. Speaking out against these attacks is basic self-defense for the sector but it’s so much more than that. It’s really a defense of the democratic freedoms and governance that make philanthropy matter in the first place. And if we’re not willing to fight for that, then what in the world do we stand for?

Nell: Some argue that philanthropy is at least partly to blame for the divides currently impacting our country because philanthropy is a result of wealth inequality and sometimes perpetuates inequity. What are your thoughts on that?

Grant: Martin Luther King commented on this far more eloquently than I ever can, and recently Darren Walker at The Ford Foundation has done some excellent writing on it. There’s not much more I can add. No question, the ideal goal for philanthropy should be to help create a society where it is no longer necessary. And it’s fair to ask whether a by-product of massive wealth disparity can really address the social inequity that in some ways helps drive it.

At the same time, to dismiss philanthropy as merely a symptom of inequality is to understate both the enormous value of enterprise creation and the positive social impulse that drives philanthropy at its best. Foundations and other forms of philanthropy may be imperfect expressions of an imperfect system but they also can do tremendous good, especially at a time when government is paralyzed and the private sector has become so removed from social and community concerns.
So much of the social good that philanthropy has helped support—from sensible thinking on climate change to marriage equality—is being unraveled right now, and that’s terrifying. But if nothing else maybe it’s giving those of us who are privileged to work in this field a renewed appreciation for the value philanthropy really can contribute and a heightened sense of responsibility and urgency to actually deliver it.

Nell: What role do facts play? We are arguably living in a “post-truth” world where opposing sides can no longer agree on a common set of facts. How can the social change sector hope to create change when there is no longer agreement about what the current reality is? What do we do about that?

Grant: I’d joke that the Bowling Green massacre changed my thinking on this, but I worry folks might miss the sarcasm. This is a scary time. We have leaders just making stuff up and hiding behind disinformation machines posing as media. It’s bizarre but that’s the landscape now, and I hope the social sector wakes up to it in two critical ways.

First, we need to stop confusing facts with persuasion. Our sector loves to throw data at people and preach from what we assume is our scientific and moral high ground. But neuroscience has taught us that people rely more on their emotions and “gut feelings” to make important decisions than they do on reason. It turns out we are more likely to be persuaded by a good story than by a good fact. I’ve long thought our sector could do better at simply bearing witness, at telling stories that help people see themselves in the lives and suffering of others. That’s the most basic work of philanthropy, this process of sowing compassion. In a time of unprecedented division when humanity’s notions of who we mean by “us” are being challenged as never before, philanthropy needs to get back to that.

But, second, at the same time we need to fight like hell against the normalization of “alternative facts.” Data may be a weak tool to shift closely held beliefs but over time it can move civilizations. Think about how dismissive the medical establishment was initially of the idea that germs cause disease and how conscious our society is today of antibacterial everything. Truth wins in the end, but we need to remember the end can take a long, long time to arrive. Give up on science and suddenly you end up in the Dark Ages for a millennium. For philanthropy that means continuing to invest in science and research, but it also means investing in the institutions and processes that help facts become more broadly known, including journalism. And it means not backing off when propagandists try to peddle their lies as just an alternate reality. We need to have the courage to call that nonsense out.

Nell: For many in the social change sector these are dark days. What gives you hope?

Grant: Oh wow, I could so easily sink sanctimonious piety here, which is not what any of us needs right now. The truth is, there are plenty of days I despair over what’s happening, and it’s important to acknowledge that. If you work in the social sector and these aren’t dark days for you, then you seriously aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, hope is connected with purpose. If we only feel hope when it seems like we’re making progress or winning, then that’s not really hope, is it? It’s expectation. And there is absolutely nothing about the goals we are fighting for that can be taken for granted. Every single step of humanity’s journey toward justice and sustainable community has been marked by hardship and reversals, and often outright losses, so who are we in this era to only feel hope if the circumstances are right?

If it were up to me, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” would be required reading for us all right now, because the only way any of this gets better is if people of good intent keep pushing, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be, even when it feels like we’ve lost on something irredeemable, like the climate. We have to be humble enough to own that none of us ever really “controls” anything, but over time somehow progress still happens as long as we keep at it.

The other day the President tried to drag my hometown of Pittsburgh into his myopic decision on the Paris climate accords. I loved how local leaders here and all over the country responded with a collective roar of “no way,” which was not just about saying “that isn’t us” but went beyond that to “we’ll do it ourselves.” That’s what gives me hope—all the people I get to work with every day who greet the darkness by bringing the light of their own creativity and unrelenting determination.

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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What I Learned From My Time Off

I am back from vacation, and as I suspected it would, the space has given me a new lease on life. I have returned with more energy, more hope, more perspective, and less worry.

As I said before I left, I really encourage you also to take some time off this summer. Reject the pervasive notion that we must be always on and create some space for yourself to recharge.

Perhaps as an added incentive, I offer you some of the perspective that my time away gave me.

On my vacation I traveled to Europe, and I have to say, Europeans seem so much more relaxed than Americans. Now I spent only two weeks there, so this is far from a scientific observation, but the pace just seemed less harried. People walk more slowly than they do in America, taking more time with their strides, observing their surroundings, pausing to chat with friends. Meals take much longer and require that you specifically ask your waiter for the bill because they don’t want to rush you. The lack of a relentless pace allowed me to take a deep breath and live more in the moment. I’m trying to take that slower pace back to work with me.

Europeans also move their bodies and get outside much more than Americans, it seems. There are so many more bikes and pedestrians on the roads. In fact, in Berlin every street has a dedicated bike/pedestrian lane, and often one for each. And the biker or walker always has the right of way over the car. It is obvious that while cars are important, the healthier, more environmentally friendly forms of transportation are more valued. I found that the increased amount of walking and biking made me feel healthier, but also gave me a new perspective on my surroundings. Removing the separation of the car window, I became much more cognizant of and part of my world.

I also spent a lot of time exploring museums and monuments in order better to understand European history. Because we were in London and Berlin, our historical exploration tended to focus on World War II and the Cold War. And for some strange reason I found the people and places from that period of history strangely comforting. Our current times often feel overwhelmingly uncertain and grim. But those anxieties pale in comparison to the second half of the 20th Century, which was particularly hard on the people of Europe — from the rise of Nazism, to the violence and destruction of World War II, to the displacement and fear of the Cold War. Yet the European people somehow found a way to get through it. In fact, the DDR Museum, which chronicles social history in East Germany under communist rule, demonstrated how East Berliners, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by the Berlin Wall, found creative ways to build lives for themselves despite the limits of their surroundings. It was, to me, a testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure, adapt and survive. And it was a particularly heartening message for me in our 2017 world.

The geographic and historical space my time away provided helped me realize that my little world is fairly insignificant. There is a much larger world and a much longer history out there. And so I emerge more relaxed, more present and with a greater appreciation for focusing on what I can control and letting the rest just be.

Photo Credit: October 1961. Children keep their friendship across the barbed wire border between East and West Berlin. From the booklet “A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall.” The Central Intelligence Agency.

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Planning for Nonprofit Success: An Interview With David Grant

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with David Grant.

David is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and past chair of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. He now consults nationally with nonprofits, foundations, and schools and is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.

He is also a member of the Leap Ambassadors, a 100+ community of nonprofit thought leaders, progressive funders, policy makers, and instigators who believe “performance matters.”

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Your book, The Social Profit Handbook, is about assessment, but your central chapter is titled “Mission Time.” Is this akin to the time spent on research and development in for-profit companies?

David: Yes, it is. I would compare it to any time set aside for strategic thinking and reflection on what we are learning from experience. I invoke Steven Covey’s famous Urgent/Important matrix and equate mission time with “Quadrant II,” where we deal with important matters when they are not urgent.

Effective nonprofit leaders often think strategically. The case I make for mission time in my book is that this should be an ongoing collective exercise. I believe there should be more time set aside for staffs and boards, singly and together, to be much more specific about what success will look like for their organization, so they can plan backwards from that shared vision.

I think it’s the most important practice nonprofit organizations can adopt if they are serious about getting better at what they do – which is creating social profit. At its best, I think mission time also includes the voices and perspectives of the people being served by a nonprofit organization. Can you imagine a company conducting R&D without checking in with clients and customers?

Nell: “Planning backwards” is another phrase you use frequently in the book. Is that what you are saying should happen during mission time? And if this practice is as important as R&D is in the for-profit sector, why don’t we see more of it in the social sector?

David: Those are great questions. Let me start with “planning backwards.” I see this phrase as critical to the practice of formative assessment – the kind of assessment whose purpose is to improve performance, not audit it or judge it. I think too many of us view assessment as summative; we think it comes at the end and that somebody gives us a grade. The central argument of my book is that when an organization takes assessment into its own hands, embraces its formative purpose, makes time for it and gets good at planning backwards, they not only improve their workplace culture, they go much further towards fulfilling their mission. In short, they create more social profit.

But here’s where the challenges of assessing and measuring success come in. If you describe what matters most to you – things like increasing a young person’s sense of hope and confidence; improving relationships and building trust between former adversaries; inducing an aesthetic response through great art; inspiring a long-term commitment to equity or a healthy environmental – people say, “You can’t measure that.”

What they are really saying is, “there is no standard unit of measure that applies to that.” Ok, fair enough – that’s why we need to get good at qualitative assessment. We need to be able to respond with confidence, “If you can describe it, you can measure it.” That’s why I spend so much time in my book talking about qualitative assessment rubrics as effective tools for this process. The rubric invites us to describe as specifically as possible along a spectrum what we mean by success, in relation to our criteria for success. It is as if we were creating the test we want to give ourselves a year from now, and we can plan backwards from how we want to score on that test. You can see how that can’t happen without mission time.

Your other question about why we don’t see more mission time, more planning backwards, and more rubrics in the nonprofit sector is one I think about a lot. I don’t think there is a single answer. Part of it is mindset – we tend to focus on programs and direct mission-based actions in the world instead of on building strong organizations and internal practices. Part of it is resources – we are stretched so thin that it is hard to get out of a mode of urgency. Part of it is our habits – we are used to certain kinds of meetings that often don’t make enough room for group education, reflection, and decision-making. Part of it is funding patterns – donors prefer program support to general operating or infrastructure support.

Ironically, I believe mission time and planning backwards make their own cases. But we have to take the time first in order for the case to be made.

Nell: In your previous role as CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, you launched a capacity building initiative for your grantees. What results did you see from doing so and what do you think holds other foundations back from doing something similar?

David: It’s interesting you should ask that this week, because even though I’ve been gone from the Dodge Foundation for seven years, I just saw something I would attribute, at least in part, to those capacity building efforts. I was working with a national gathering of arts service organizations, and we were examining several of their strategic plans to see how they addressed the concept of sustainability. The first two defined it narrowly as financial stability. But then a New Jersey-based organization, a long-time Dodge grantee, defined it holistically, citing elements of governance, human resources, assessment systems, and ongoing capacity building as critical to sustainability, in addition to maintaining financial vitality. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this organization, alone among this national group, had just completed a successful, million dollar capital campaign.

I remember when I was still reading proposals that the groups that participated in our capacity building workshops were much clearer about what they were trying to do, more straightforward about the challenges they faced, and more cognizant of their own needs as a vehicle that carried the pursuit of their mission over time.

What holds foundations back from capacity building? Well, I imagine some might feel it is too indirect as a social investment; others might worry this kind of support carries with it a promise of ongoing funding. All I can say is that I think Dodge got more bang for our bucks in this part of our funding portfolio than in any other.

Nell: One of the projects you are working on is Artists Thrive, which is about developing assessment tools for the arts. What are the goals of this project and how could it be a model for other social issue areas?

David: The Artists Thrive project is the brainchild of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, CT and its grantees. It started with creating an assessment tool for those who work with artists – essentially the grantees in Tremaine’s program called “Marketplace Empowerment of Artists.” But it quickly expanded to consider a much larger system and asked: “What would it look like to have thriving artists in thriving communities?” and “Who would need to do what to achieve that vision?”

A group of six arts leaders have been running with these questions for over a year, with me in a support role. We have launched a series of rubrics, with the spectrum of success defined from bottom to top as “Artists Give Up,” “Artists Struggle,” “Artists Survive,” and “Artists Thrive.” The initial rubric, as I said, looked at the mental models and the actions of those who work with artists. The second looked at the range of attitudes and actions of artists themselves. The third will be for funders, describing how different philanthropic practices affect artists and their communities. Those are the front-line players, so to speak, but we plan to look at how others can contribute to the realization of the thriving artists/thriving communities vision as well – mayors, corporate leaders, planning commissions, educators, etc.

As far as models go, I think we already have some fantastic models of rubrics that deal with issues on a national scale, like the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, which I describe in my book, or more recently, the Whole Measures for Urban Conservation (2017), which is described on The Nature Conservancy’s website..

Nell: Our country is currently divided along many lines, however in your work as a consultant you often lead groups made up of people that bridge these divides in order to create change in their communities. What are some examples of change you have seen recently in your work? And more broadly, what gives you hope in these challenging times?

David: I wish I were doing more of the kind of work you mention. In fact, I had this fantasy during the 2016 primary election cycle that one of the candidates would brandish my book on stage during a debate and say, “What this country needs is a good rubric!”

But I did see an exercise in cooperation recently that I found really heartening. It was in Delaware, where members of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) and the Delaware Grantmakers Association (DGA) created a working group to write a rubric titled, “Grantmaker and Nonprofit Relationship for Creating Community Impact.” The title identifies their shared purpose — why their relationship matters.

The DANA/DGA draft rubric evokes a spectrum of performance (the columns of the rubric) in four short words: “Transactional,” “Engaged,” “Partnership,” and “Transformative.” As far as criteria to be measured along that spectrum (the rows of the rubric), the task force went to the critical dimensions of the relationship: the Alignment of beliefs in the purpose of the relationship; the Mutuality of feeling about its importance; the levels of Trust and Transparency in their interactions; and the quality of their Communication. Given that structure, it is no surprise that the draft rubric is both honest about disappointments and aspirational in its description of the possible.

This is an example of what gives me hope whenever I see it – systems thinking. As David Peter Stroh writes, “In conventional thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must optimize the parts. In systems thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must improve the relationships among the parts.” It strikes me that at the highest level of the DNA/DGA rubric, it will not be just a relationship that has been transformed; it will be the State of Delaware. All from carving out the mission time and learning how to use it!

Photo Credit: Social Profit Handbook

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2017

May was another fascinating month in the world of social change. There are some interesting shifts happening among the institutions and movements working to improve black lives, new polls point to a surging American liberalism (not conservatism), the suburbs are no longer the route to the American dream, anti-hunger efforts may actually be perpetuating the problem, and a librarian who questioned the impact of Little Free Libraries received quite a backlash.

Below are my picks of the 10 best social change reads in May. But feel free to add to the list in the comments. And you can see a longer list by following me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been exhausting for the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered some questions for philanthropist to think about after those first 100 days. And Trump’s budget recommendations, if adopted by Congress, could have pretty damaging effects on the nonprofit sector and the foundations that fund them.

  2. A more specific impact \ that the Trump Administration could have on the nonprofit sector would be to eliminate the Johnson Amendment. The 60 year old Amendment has prohibited churches and nonprofit organizations from any political campaigning. Robert Egger, founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, debated whether the repeal of the amendment would be a good or bad thing for the sector.

  3. Despite the fact that state and federal government is being led largely by Republicans right now, it looks like American populism may have a liberal, as opposed to conservative, bent according to some new polls. Ruy Teixeira from Vox analyzed recent poll data and argued that America is actually witnessing a liberal surge:  “Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress and most states…owes much more to the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, structural GOP advantages in Congress, and poor Democratic strategy than to the actual views of the American public.”

  4. And that populism that is sweeping the country is beginning to target philanthropy. David Callahan argued that the underlying elitism of philanthropy must be laid bare: “America is in the midst of an epic backlash against elites, one that’s put a reality TV maestro in the White House. So far, philanthropy has been insulated from this broader convulsion, but there are good reasons for the sector to engage in its own introspection about elite power…There’s not yet much discussion about the bigger question regarding how much sway private philanthropy—and a growing class of savvy “super-citizens”—should have over public life in a democratic society like ours.” And Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry argued on the HistPhil blog that the populist surge is posing at least 3 challenges to foundations.

  5. There is something interesting happening in the efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. The NAACP fired its president Cornell William Brooks after only 3-years in the hopes that the organization could become more responsive to changing external circumstances. But Cyndi Suarez wondered whether this 100+ year old institution can adapt to and engage with growing social movements like Black Lives Matter.  And earlier in the month she described how BLM itself is evolving amid changing times.

  6. Jay A. Winsten from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health described how a national media strategy, even in today’s very fractured media environment, can move social change forward.

  7. Some new data in May showed giving differences between genders and generations, and the  Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco created a nice infographic on The Current and Future State of Philanthropy.

  8. Something really interesting happened when a Toronto librarian questioned the claim that Little Free Libraries, the small birdhouse-like boxes of free books cropping up in neighborhoods around the country, are actually increasing literacy. People got really mad.

  9. Writing in CityLab, Richard Florida painted a pretty bleak picture of how the suburbs, once the destination for the growing middle class, are now crumbling: “Suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.”

  10. Finally, there’s a new book to add to your reading list: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher argues that anti-hunger nonprofits are perpetuating the underlying wealth inequality that causes hunger by aligning with corporations that are exacerbating poverty through low wages and job cuts.

Photo Credit: kyle rw

 

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Understanding The Full Costs of Nonprofits: An Interview with Michael Etzel

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Etzel. Michael is a partner in The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that consults to nonprofits and philanthropists, provides leadership development support, and develops and shares insights — all with the goal of scaling social impact.

Since joining Bridgespan in 2006, Michael has focused on effectiveness across the full spectrum of social innovation financing, advising corporate, institutional, and family philanthropists and investors. Much of Michael’s work explores what it takes to use tools of innovative finance and impact investing to solve pressing social problems. His work and research in philanthropy also focuses on the question of what it takes to deliver results as a new approach to ending the nonprofit starvation cycle.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: In your research and writing you have focused a lot on what you call “Pay-What-It-Takes-Philanthropy,” the radical idea that different nonprofit solutions have different business models and thus require different costs and investments. This concept is so accepted in the for-profit world that it is a truism, but why is it a radical idea for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders?

Michael: It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why business models and capabilities matter. Every nonprofit operates with an underlying business model and set of capabilities critical for program delivery. Failure to understand an organization’s business model frequently leads to underinvestment in core capabilities, and, as one program officer put it, “a hollowing out of civil society institutions.” We can’t have resilient, durable civil society organizations that deliver successful programs unless they operate from a position of financial strength.

As you highlight, segmentation and analysis of comparable performance data is common practice in the for-profit world. Leaders like Clara Miller, president of The Heron Foundation and former CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, have long called for this kind of thinking in the social sector. But this type of comparison requires transparent and consistent data, something hard to come by. As one nonprofit executive reminded me, “If you think you can analyze a nonprofit through IRS 990 filings, you are in outer space.”

Yet, I wouldn’t say this a radical idea. Organizations like DataArts and CoMetrics show how this is possible. For example, DataArts gathers a variety of comparable revenue, cost, and performance data for arts and cultural organizations, and provides tools for reviewing that data. This provides grantees and grant makers with actionable data to inform management or funding decisions with an eye to effectiveness and efficiency. CoMetrics addresses a more diverse set of enterprises, providing software platforms and tools that enable those enterprises to collect, display, and compare financial, operational, and impact data against their peers. This bottom-up approach gathers data across organizations running the same type of business in the same field to form groups relevant for comparative assessment and learning.

Bridgespan’s preliminary analysis to date has shown that different types of nonprofit organizations have different cost structures based on their business model. Segmenting nonprofits by business model can help us compare similar organizations. When it comes to indirect costs, for example, nonprofit research labs have a median indirect cost rate of 63%, nearly two and a half times the 25% median rate of direct service organizations.

We plan to push ahead this year to refine and deepen our understanding of segmentation and how it applies to nonprofit cost structures and capital needs. Having this information will benefit funders and grantees alike when it comes to funding discussions.

Nell: You work with both nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, so you likely see both sides of this dysfunction. What do you think it will take to move the field to a place where those with potential solutions to social problems have enough and the right kinds of money to see their solutions come to fruition?

Michael: Nonprofits exist in a complicated marketplace, seeking capital from a broad range of funders. As in any marketplace, some influential market makers set the rules. The practice of setting limits on indirect costs in project grants to nonprofits/NGOs has its antecedents in the US government’s approach to funding R&D at universities during the post-World War II era. The federal government has changed practice dramatically since 1958, embracing the “fair share” approach—that federal agencies pay their fair share of true costs, including indirect costs.

Among private foundations, indirect cost rate policies have been common for decades. A RAND report from the 1980s captured the variety of policies at that time: “many foundations customarily pay full indirect cost as budgeted in a proposal. Other foundations may pay only a portion of… or specify a cap on the support of indirect costs.” More recently, our research has shown that many large foundations set a cap of 15% or lower on indirect costs. Yet, among the 20 large nonprofits we sampled, indirect costs comprised between 21% and 89% of total costs, with the median at 40%.

I offer this history because I see the indirect cost conversation changing. For decades, much of this conversation has been driven by nonprofit and NGO leaders’ concerns about caps on indirect cost reimbursement. But funders have begun to engage more deeply in this conversation over the last several years. In 2013, Forefront (formerly Donors Forum) convened a cross section of staff from smaller Midwest foundations to discuss barriers and potential solutions to funding indirect costs. In 2015, the three California Regional Associations of Grantmakers launched the Real Cost Project (now the Full Cost Project) with the dual goals of increasing the number of funders providing real-cost funding and building the skills and capacity of grantmakers.

Having philanthropic leaders at the table is important to overcoming the reality of power dynamics. In the same breath, it’s also important to see this issue for what it is—a complex systems issue. Acknowledging this complexity helps approach this issue from a place of empathy for funders that want to do the right thing, and nonprofits that want to own and manage the costs of delivering impact.

Funders have the opportunity to ask grantees their true costs of programs and to be prepared to pay their fair share of the operational and financial support it takes to deliver those programs. Meanwhile nonprofits can focus on knowing their costs and advocating for them. Funders cannot pay their fair share if grantees don’t tell them what it is!

Nell: Beyond researching and consulting on these topics, you also serve on the board of two nonprofit organizations. What has been your on-the-ground experience as a board member trying to put these concepts to practice?

Michael: Creating space for a conversation among peer board members has been important in establishing a shared understanding of the issues—and why sometimes the executive director very rightly chooses to say “no” to a grant that doesn’t cover true costs.

The reality of this “complex marketplace” also hits home—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That puts a big burden on the executive director and finance team to effectively report and manage costs.

Photo Credit: The Bridgespan Group

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We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Things I Wish Funders Would Ask Nonprofits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios

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