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3 Signs of a Bad Nonprofit Strategic Plan

nonprofit planningI’ve been leading several strategic planning processes lately, and as we wrapped up the last planning meeting for one of my clients (who had been encouraged to create a strategic plan by a funder) my client announced:

“I have to confess that when we started this process 6 months ago I inwardly rolled my eyes because I thought it would be a pointless process, full of silly buzzwords and with little value. I have completely changed my mind. I can already see how this new plan is making us smarter, more effective and more sustainable.”

Yep, I completely get it.

Strategic planning, when poorly done, is just a joke. But, when strategic planning is done well, it can completely transform an organization.

And there are three key places where a bad strategic plan falls short:

  1. Your Strategy Isn’t Big Enough
    To create an effective strategic plan you have to start with the big picture. You must analyze and articulate who your target audience(s) are and your theory of change. Then you must look externally to understand the needs, the competitive landscape, the funding, the changing factors in the marketplace in which you operate. Nonprofit leaders sometimes mistakenly think they are creating an effective strategic plan when they sit in a room, look around at their fellow board and staff members, and ask each other what they think they should do. It is also a mistake to think that in such a rapidly changing world you can simply develop a status quo strategy. In order to stay relevant and sustainable you have to understand how you interact with the forces outside your walls and outside your control. And here’s a little secret: the more you think about the bigger world out there, the more excited your board and funders will be by the plan. Your nonprofit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither should your plan for the future.

  2. Your Strategy Isn’t Small Enough
    But the other danger is to get too big and neglect the small part — the execution and monitoring of the plan. It’s great to have a bold vision and ambitious goals for the future that flow from an exciting theory of change. But that’s not enough. How will you implement it? How will you break down tasks, and responsibilities? What’s the timeline? And what is your process for determining, on a regular basis, whether the plan is actually coming to fruition? A good strategic plan, one that will actually transform your organization, requires operational detail and a process for monitoring it over time.

  3. Your Strategy Ignores Money
    There is no effective strategic plan that neglects to answer how you will finance it. That’s why a good strategic plan devotes one of its goals to money. How much will it cost to deliver on all of the goals of your plan? How will revenue (and capital if you need it) flow to meet (or exceed) those expenses? A good strategic plan forces nonprofit leadership to become financially savvy (when they may not have been before) and begin to use money as an integral management tool.

How does your nonprofit’s strategic plan stack up? Is it big enough, small enough, and well financed? If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page or download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: ESO/H. Dahle

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Why I’m Excited About the Independent Sector Conference

independent sector conferenceLater this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.

First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.

Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector:

  • Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation
  • Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership
  • Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations
  • Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions
  • Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and
    environmental issues
  • New models for social welfare and social change

Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.

The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.

Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.

So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2015

social changeIn September there was some surprising good news about climate change. Yes, you read that right. We are perhaps, slowly, starting to address that problem (mind blowing, huh?). And in other news, there was a call for funders to help nonprofits become better fundraisers and some tools to help nonprofits use data in that pursuit.

Add to that concern about what digitial technology is doing to our humanness and critiques of Teach for America, proposed changes to philanthropy policy and an emerging “network” entrepreneur, and it was a very interesting month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in September. But let me know what I missed. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

And if you want to see past 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If the world of social change is getting you down, if the challenges we face seem insurmountable, look no further than the New York Magazine where Jonathan Chait sees hope in the battle against climate change. As he puts it: “The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope.” Wow.

  2. Writing on the Blue Avocado blog, Aaron Dorfman from The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy takes foundations to task for wanting their grantees to be financially sustainable, but not helping them build that capacity, “Why don’t more foundations invest in helping their organizing grantees develop independent funding streams? Here – as with many issues grantees face – even a little targeted capacity-building support would go a long way.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

  3. One of the ways nonprofits can build fundraising capacity is by learning to use their data more effectively to raise money. To help in that effort, The Chronicle of Philanthropy put together a helpful toolkit of articles and case studies.

  4. And speaking of fundraising, the ALS Foundation continues to amaze me. In September, they released a nice infographic to the many donors of the 2014 Ice Bucket challenge reporting where their $115 million in donations went. Great donor stewardship and transparency!

  5. There seems to be a growing concern about what technology is doing to our humanness. Callie Oettinger writes “While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.” And MIT professor Sherry Turkle released a new book, Reclaiming Conversation that argues we must “acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable [and] make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

  6. A new series launched at The Washington Post about the newest buzz phrase in the world of philanthropy, “effective altruism.” This is the idea that you should “optimize your donations to ensure that they are as “high-impact” as possible.” It is a fascinating and controversial idea.

  7. To counter the hype about “social entrepreneurs,” Jane Wei-Skillern (who wrote one of my favorite articles ever about networked nonprofits), David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer introduced a new concept they call “network entrepreneurs.” As they put it, “Where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal. And as a result of this work, we celebrate the change-generating network itself above any single person or institution.”

  8. I know I keep talking about how much I love the new History of Philanthropy blog, but this month was a perfect example of the tremendous value they bring the social change sector when Jeffrey Snyder explained how old and new philanthropy to support K-12 education differ. Fascinating. And it’s particularly interesting in light of Dale Russakoff’s new book that describes how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools in 2010 hasn’t accomplished a whole lot.

  9. And that wasn’t the only educational reform effort that came under fire in September. Samantha Allen of the Daily Beast chronicled a growing chorus of critiques of Teach for America.

  10. Philanthropic visionary Lucy Bernholz released a list of proposed changes to philanthropy policy that will keep up with changing times. As she put it: “It’s time to recognize that the tax code is no longer the fundamental policy frame shaping philanthropy and nonprofits…it should be obvious that tax privilege is only one factor that Americans consider when thinking about using their private resources for public benefit…The tax code was the 20th century policy infrastructure for philanthropy. Digital regulations will provide the scaffolding and shape for 21st century associations and expression — aka, civil society.”

Photo Credit: Evan Bench

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Charting a Nonprofit’s Future Direction: A Case Study

Engaging News ProjectI guess I am on a case study kick this week. I do think that actual examples of the paths other nonprofits followed in order to become more effective or more sustainable can be really helpful to other nonprofit leaders in the trenches. So in that spirit, I offer a case study of a small, startup nonprofit ready to grow their impact and their sustainability.

The thing I love about my job the most is that I get to work one-on-one with super smart people who are coming up with innovative solutions to making the world a better place. In particular, lately I’ve been lucky enough to work with some groups in the civic technology space, a really exciting emerging area where innovative technology solutions are used to make government, and ultimately democracy, more effective.

One of these groups, The Engaging News Project (ENP) is a startup nonprofit aimed at helping news organizations better meet their democratic and business goals in a digital age.

While ENP enjoyed success and the support of some key funders over the past two years, they were ready to move from the project phase to an established organization with sustainable funding and a long-term strategy for achieving impact on the digital news industry.

So ENP hired me to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, ENP created an advisory group of staff and key stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which ENP operates, develop their theory of change, define the audiences they want to target, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization. I also helped staff create a year 1 operational plan to help execute and monitor the strategic plan.

The end result was a clear 3-year strategic plan with accompanying financial model and an engaged and excited staff and group of advisors.

Because of their new strategic plan, ENP has focused their project development efforts, clearly defined where and with whom they want to work, and detailed their goals for the next 3-years.

They are now working to implement the strategic plan. They are identifying new funders to help support the growth of the organization, expanding their collaborative partners, creating a formal advisory board, and streamlining operations. ENP staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to have a greater impact on the future of digital news.

As Talia Stroud, Director of the Engaging News Project put it,

As a new entity, we had been doing more of the day-to-day work and hadn’t taken the time to think about the bigger picture of where the Engaging News Project was headed and how to get there. Social Velocity helped us to chart a future direction, hone our messaging, and develop a clear plan for our organization. By working with us to figure out our targets, potential collaborators, and goals, Social Velocity helped us to systematically figure out a strong path forward. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to accomplish with these plans in place.

I’m excited to see where the Engaging News Project goes from here and the growing impact they will have on our democracy.

Photo Credit: Engaging News Project


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The Fundraising Event Debate Rages On

512px-Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976Predictably, my post last week arguing that nonprofit events aren’t efficient fundraisers caused some controversy. In particular, fundraising consultant, Gayle Gifford and I had an interesting (and very polite) debate about the post.

The exchange with Gayle really made me think and further refine my argument (which is really the point of debate, right?). What our exchange made me realize is that my issue with nonprofit fundraising events goes far beyond my belief that they are inefficient fundraisers.

Rather, my distaste for events stems from the fact that they often perpetuate the charity mindset, a destructive approach that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. The world is changing rapidly and the “charity” model doesn’t work anymore. And in fact, that model holds nonprofits back from becoming more efficient, more sustainable social change machines.

In our debate, Gayle and I discussed how events are merely a symptom of larger changes happening in the economy. As I wrote, nonprofit events are part of a:

“dying mentality that “charity” lives beside,…instead of fully integrated into, the economy. I believe that we are moving to a place where the work of social change (historically the work of “charity”) is fully integrated into the rest of the economy…the work of social change is just as important as the work of making widgets or the work of building roads and everyone understands that in order for all of it to work well, we need to finance it effectively.”

And Gayle argued that what I am describing would be a significant change to the world as we know it:

“I too long for/ and am working for the day when social justice is integrated into our economy as well as our philanthropic life… though that’s going to take some pretty massive restructuring of an economy based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption. But I still hold out that hope.”

But, as I responded, I think that kind of massive restructuring is already well underway:

I agree with you that fully integrating social change into our economy is not going to be quick or easy, but the truth is that it is already happening. There is a real convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors and the result is that social change is now rather ubiquitous. At the same time, technology and the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly as well. Add to that a Millennial generation that bakes social change into everything they do, and I think you start to see the beginnings of the “pretty massive restructuring” you and I are talking about. Nonprofits need to do the analysis and abandon activities that just aren’t effective. And then they need to look to some of these structural changes we are witnessing to find more efficient ways to create a sustainable financial model for their social change work.

In my mind, nonprofit fundraising events are anathema because they are symptom of a larger, ineffective way of thinking about nonprofits and the work of social change. Fundraising events are typically run as an aside, a tangential activity that sucks time and money out of a nonprofit and begs otherwise uninterested participants to pay the price of admission. These events keep charity squarely separate from the “real” work of the world.

And I truly believe we have moved past that. There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore. Social change must be bigger, more effective, and more efficiently financed.

When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” supported in part by inefficient, occasional parties, we start creating real investment, real attention, and real change.

Photo Credit: Gerald Ford Library



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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July & Aug 2015

social innovationSince I was out of the office for a good chunk of July and August, I’ve decided to combine both months into one 10 Great Reads list. But let me be clear, there was still lots going on, I just happened to be (somewhat blissfully) missing it.

From philanthropy’s role in inequality, to climate change preparation, to what the Greek financial crisis teaches us about networks, to civic engagement, to digital’s effect on fundraising, to social impact bond results and pizza on the family farm, they were a great couple of months.

In my (limited) view, below are my 10 favorite reads from the past two months. But because I know I missed things, please add to the list in the comments.

To see a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker made a lot of news this summer, from his announcement of Ford’s shift to focusing on inequality and unrestricted grants, to his July release of a thought-provoking essay in which he took foundations to task. He argued that foundations have been “cutting the pie into smaller slices,” and he instead encouraged funders to embrace “a new era of capacity building investment.” Because, as he put it, “What civil society needs most, and now more than ever, are resilient, durable, fortified institutions that can take on inequality, fight poverty, advance justice and promote dignity and democracy.” Amen! Ford’s move kicked off an excellent Inequality and Philanthropy forum on the HistPhil blog. And Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan argued that Walker’s message is about significant change, which may be tough for the sector to hear.

  2. In a fascinating (and rather depressing) article, Eric Holthaus from Slate talks to climate scientists about how they are personally responding to the climate crisis, particularly how they have “factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in [their] families’ future plans.” Yikes.

  3. Reserve funds are an incredibly critical (but often misunderstood) aspect of nonprofit financial strategy. But as she always does, Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund provides a clear roadmap to understanding.

  4. Paul Vandeventer uses the summer’s Greek Euro crisis to illustrate when networks (of which the Eurozone is an excellent example) thrive and when they fail. As he puts it, “Ignoring or giving short shrift to…the fundamental principles by which networks operate wastes precious reserves of time, money, and goodwill, and imperils all the hopeful good that organizations, institutions, and countries set out to achieve when they start down the path of networked action.”

  5. Late July saw a fascinating gathering of social changemakers around civic engagement, the “Breaking Through” conference, hosted by the Knight Foundation. Keynoter Peter Levine argued “This is the year that we can take back American politics. It’s up to us.” It was a great lineup of speakers and sessions about getting people engaged again. You can see video from the conference here.

  6. Is digital becoming a gamechanger in fundraising? Some think so. And in August Facebook launched a new Donate button, but is it really all that helpful to nonprofits? Some argue that Facebook is critical. Others think the Donate button is a fail.

  7. August of 2014 saw the record-breaking ALS Ice Bucket fundraising challenge. Many (including me) were skeptical of the campaign, but it turns out that last summer’s financial windfall helped scientists make a breakthrough in research to fight the disease.

  8. This August was the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. There were many great articles about where New Orleans has been and is now. But my two favorite were Greater New Orleans Foundation President Albert Ruesga’s Ten-Year Perspective on the philanthropic response, and Andrea Gabor’s New York Times article, The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.

  9. The first results came in from the New York state social impact bond experiment, and they weren’t great. Goldman Sachs invested in a Rikers Island program that attempted to reduce recidivism among teenagers.The program failed to meet its goals and Goldman lost money. But New York is not giving up, as first Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris said, “This social impact bond allowed the city to test a notion that did not prove successful within the climate we inherited on Rikers.  We will continue to use innovative tools on Rikers and elsewhere.”

  10. I’m always a fan of examples of innovation. NPR provided a glimpse of how family farms are using pizza to reinvent their business model.

Photo Credit: Anne Adrian

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Using Digital to Influence Social Change: An Interview with Jay Geneske

jay geneskeIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Jay Geneske, Director of Digital at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Jay directs the Foundation’s digital strategy to engage internal and external audiences, champion organization-wide collaboration, deliver data that informs organization decisions, and pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas. Jay previously served as the Director of Online Communications for Echoing Green, and has also served in digital and brand strategy roles at Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: Your role as head of digital for a major foundation is a pretty new kind of position in the world of philanthropy. Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation sees a lot of value (beyond marketing) in digital. How does digital play into the Foundation’s overall strategy? 

Jay: Like every other sector, digital has changed the game for social impact. At the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been tasked to pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas and perspectives on serving the needs of poor or vulnerable people in a time of rapid change.

That’s a tall order, but an exciting one.

This remit certainly includes how we utilize digital media to tell the story and impact of our work, to bring valuable information to those working in the sector, and to elevate our staff, grantees, and partners as thought leaders.

But digital goes far beyond traditional communication or marketing.

For external audiences, our digital focus is on influence. A carefully planned Twitter campaign can influence a policy maker to prioritize building resilience to the shocks and stresses facing their city. A data-informed segmented email can make a practitioner think more innovatively about solving a social or environmental problem. A well-crafted blog post syndicated on Medium, LinkedIn or elsewhere can connect our staff members to an important partner in the private sector.

Digital also plays an increasingly critical role for our internal audience. We’re reimagining how we work with each other and our hundreds of external partners by meeting people where they are and embracing nimble digital technology. For example, we’re bringing all of our files to the cloud for easy access around the globe and on mobile devices. We’ve also just launched an internal hub that brings valuable real-time data directly to staff members’ fingertips and also more easily captures and stores the critical informal knowledge and insights—typically stuck in email inboxes—that drive strategic decision-making.

What’s most important is the connective tissue between internal and external audiences, and confronting and embracing the increasing overlap and intersection to make us more effective.

Nell: The Rockefeller Foundation turned 100 in 2013 making it one of the oldest U.S. foundations. But the Foundation obviously works hard to stay relevant amid changing social challenges, technology, modes of communication, etc. What drives the Foundation’s desire and ability to be so nimble? 

Jay: Our mission has always been to improve the well-being of humanity. To achieve that mission, we must work in a way that is suited to a rapidly changing world, especially where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live.

This reality manifests throughout our formal initiatives, such as Digital Jobs Africa, which is connecting Africa’s rapidly growing youth population with jobs in the ICT sector. Technology has also clearly changed the game for how and where we do our work. For example, I’ve awarded grants to networks with a robust online presence with the aim to surface new ideas and connect to new people who are solving big social issues.

But in many ways, the sector is just scratching the surface, particularly around data. As David Henderson from FII recently noted, for data to change the world, we must think beyond software and data visualizations. There is a serious lack of investment and focus on how to turn data into action.

Nell: A big initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation is the 100 Resilient Cities project that works to help cities adapt to the “new normal” of continuous disruption. How are you using digital in this particular project? 

Jay: Digital plays a critical role in this initiative where our digital strategy is focused on influencing policy and business leaders and practitioners to focus on building resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges facing the world.

Through this work we’ve learned that content is the key to building influence. Our multichannel editorial strategy centers on creating and curating relevant, insightful, and vibrant content that our audience will find immediately actionable. It’s amazing to see how that content then travels around the social web, especially by politicians and business leaders.

We also know that reach is not the same as influence. Although growth is important, our focus has always been on influencing a specific audience, many of whom may not have huge a Twitter following.

Nell: In your work you talk about “digital storytelling” as a critical component of effective social impact, which goes far beyond a more traditional nonprofit approach to marketing. What does effective digital storytelling look like and what is the return on investment for a nonprofit? 

Jay: While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them. I’ve also noticed a fast increase in big brands infusing questionable social change messaging and stories into their communications, and I worry that organizations driving real social impact will be left behind.

The Foundation has invested in storytelling –including launching the free tool Hatch for Good— to help organizations tell stories that are strategically planned, creatively crafted, and designed to achieve measurable outcomes.

In many ways, storytelling is an angle or a focus in social impact communications and marketing. It’s a way to stand out, to inspire action and donations, to drive policy change.

We’ve had tens of thousands of people use Hatch for Good in beta, and what’s become clear is that, for all the good they do, our mission statements are preventing us from telling effective stories. We try to insert them, sometimes word-for-word, into every story. And the result is a story so crowded that our audience never had a chance to take action.

Effective storytelling shows the human consequences of the problem our organizations address—and the solutions that give people hope. Stories about the people whose lives are directly affected by the work, and about the people who join forces with us to create change. These stories exemplify our mission statement, but are not bound by it.

When done strategically, these stories can prove a return on investment, case studies of which are posted on Hatch for Good.

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Guest Post: Nonprofits Must Be Able to Adapt

antony bugg-levineNote: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post… 

When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.

What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.

In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.

So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?

Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.

Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.

Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.

Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:

  • “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
  • “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
  • “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
  • “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”

Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.

New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.

Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”

Measure outcomes.
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.

Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.

Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.

Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.

There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.

It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.

It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.


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