In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Cindy Gibson. Cindy is a consultant to national foundations and nonprofits providing support to improve capacity and program effectiveness. She is a widely published author and blogger on issues affecting the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Cindy has been named one of the Nonprofit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Your writing tends to pull back the curtain on some of the “politeness” that goes on in the nonprofit sector and encourages more authentic conversations. Yet the tendency to seek consensus instead of conflict is fundamental to the sector and its long history, so how and where do we start having more productive, challenging conversations as a sector?
Cindy: This question nicely acknowledges the unique role the nonprofit sector can and does play in an increasingly polarized world, but that doesn’t mean the same sector necessarily values consensus over all else, including conflict. Historically, nonprofits have been at the forefront of passionate debates over some of the most difficult and divisive issues we’ve ever faced as a country—civil rights and abortion, for example.
Relatively speaking, though, nonprofits may be less predatory when it comes to how they work and the goals they want to achieve. That’s all good, but it doesn’t mean that nonprofits are or should be immune from criticism or legitimate questions about what they’re doing, how and for what purpose. Unfortunately, I think we’ve become so averse to that kind of open dialogue and critical analysis. As a result, the few people who are brave enough to raise questions are immediately labeled as “negative” or “a naysayer,” which slams the door shut on any hope of deeper discussion.
I think that’s because challenge sometimes is seen as being critical of the good intentions behind doing “God’s work.” But good intentions aren’t mutually exclusive from honesty and critical thinking. Honesty with the intent of finding out where there’s agreement, disagreement, what’s substantive and what’s smoke and mirrors can be transformational. After all, just because we might believe something is “effective,” doesn’t mean that it actually is. The danger in eschewing healthy skepticism is that organizations that aren’t particularly effective but receive a disproportionately high percentage of funding leaves organizations that are getting results with less support.
I can think of at least two examples of organizations – one national and one international – that have instant name recognition and are frequently held up as exemplars. Both have very charismatic leaders and are extremely savvy in marketing themselves and their brand. Both organizations, however, also have been the focus of studies by highly credible evaluators who found little or no data demonstrating their effectiveness. In fact, what data does exist shows that these groups are actually failing to achieve their stated missions. Nevertheless, they continue to receive millions of dollars from the same foundations that tout the virtues of evidence-based philanthropy, and their nonprofit colleagues continue to roll their eyes privately when these organizations are trumpeted as “models.”
Another place where critical thinking (and honesty) is desperately needed is when new organizations that may be replicating what others have been doing for years are hailed as “innovative.” And in fact, without more healthy skepticism, we’ll continue to lag behind other fields when it comes to innovation, which is built on critical thinking and disruption.
I think the first step toward breaking this cycle is to provide more platforms that are intentional about giving where people can express their opinions and ideas without fear of ad hominen attacks that tend to squelch the discussions we need to have. We can loosen up the tightly buttoned format of some of these events and allow for more humor, personality and insouciance. Fewer power points, more spontaneity.
We also need more venues in which to suss out what’s hype and what’s real so that people outside the inner circles of “the newest best thing” can understand what’s being promoted and what they think about it. Take social impact bonds, for example. A lot of what’s written about these is by people who are steeped in finance backgrounds, leaving those who aren’t confused and, in turn, disinterested in finding out more. As a result, there’s little serious debate about whether these are really all they’re cracked up to be, since there’s not much hard evidence, to date, as to whether they work. Yet, millions of dollars have been poured into their creation and rollout.
We also need more investigative journalism about nonprofits and philanthropy—not just in the mainstream but trade press as well. That’s difficult, given that most nonprofit information sources tend to be supported with grant dollars, making it difficult for them to be openly critical or truthful, especially when it comes to funders. But as foundations and nonprofits veer into territory previously relegated to either government or the private sector, there will be more attention focused on the issues that are natural byproducts of these changes: public accountability, mission creep, profit motivation and others. We’re already seeing it in stories about whether foundations have too much power in influencing public policy and whether citizens are being left out of important decisionmaking processes that involve only those with the financial resources to have access to that table. Something we can do right now though is encourage the same news outlets that don’t hesitate to cite “anonymous sources” in other fields to do likewise in reporting about philanthropy, which can be just as retributive against people who go on the record with critical comments.
Nell: One of the most difficult places for open, honest conversation is between nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them because of an inherent power imbalance. Can we ever hope to overcome that and if so, how?
Cindy: While there is clearly a power imbalance baked into most transactional dynamics—including funding—I think it’s important that we don’t frame the need for more honest conversation as one that’s only about the funder/grantseeker relationship, which can usually be summed up as “funder bad, grantseeker good.”
I’d suggest that nonprofits themselves are reluctant to engage in honest public discussions about their peers.That silence is understandable, but it can be self-defeating—for both nonprofits and grant makers. Nonprofits aren’t given the chance to have thoughtful and open conversations about what’s not working so they could use that information help them strengthen their own activities. And philanthropists don’t have the benefit of getting honest, first-hand perspectives from a broad array of organizations with expertise.
Happily, I think there are larger, cultural currents that may break this logjam. Some of these stem from technology, which is driving more interactivity and transparency and democratizing what were once closed institutions to allow more meaningful participation for “real people.” These changes are also upending traditional hierarchical management structures, which rests on the premise that rank is power, to more collaborative and fluid systems based on ecosystem thinking. Clearly, we’re already seeing these trends disrupting entire fields such as journalism, education, and politics.
Young people in particular, “get it.” Frustrated by traditional institutions, they’re doing an end run around those organizations and creating new models of social innovation and change. They’re becoming social entrepreneurs unencumbered by bureaucracy, launching web-based giving circles where everyone’s a partner, and using social media to generate engagement that goes beyond donations. And they’re demanding more transparency from traditional “closed-door” institutions, including big foundations, which tend to see transparency as putting grant guidelines and allocations on a website. To grantseekers, though, transparency is being as honest as possible about how funders make decisions and on what criteria those are based.
Institutional philanthropy is one of those domains that, admittedly, is still dragging its feet in moving into this new universe. Risk averse by nature, they have hierarchies of power that are hard to shake. That’s why some of the most innovative developments in philanthropy are occurring outside the walls of the big foundations and among smaller entities such as community foundations, a group of which are involving community residents as equal partners in their grantmaking efforts. That kind of “participatory philanthropy” is also reflected in the rise of giving circles and crowdfunding sites that allow everyone to be a philanthropist.
I’ve had the privilege of working with several foundations who’ve been willing to jump into the abyss and open their doors in ways that previously would be sacrosanct. One national funder, for example, convened all 80 of their grantees in face-to-face discussions with a facilitator (and no foundation staff in the room) to give their unvarnished feedback about the funder’s somewhat unhelpful application process and the way in which they communicated with nonprofits. What made this process distinctive is that, according to a recent study by the Grants Managers Network (Project Streamline), only 9% of foundations have these kind of in-person conversations. Only 50% of funders even want to solicit grantee/seeker feedback, and they usually do so through surveys. But this foundation went even further: It used the “data” from those gatherings to completely revamp not only its application process but the internal funding decisionmaking systems. And it’s checking in with grantees annually.
I also worked with the Case Foundation several years ago to develop one of the first national “open source” funding initiatives that went beyond asking the public to vote on the recipients to involving “real people” in every step of the process — including determining the grantmaking criteria, reviewing all proposal applications, and deciding on the winners. What made this truly transparent was that the experts/funders didn’t decide the final list of potential grantees and then ask the public to vote on them; that, instead, emerged from a bottom-up process that didn’t involve the foundation at all.
This kind of transparency is the bedrock on which new, more democratic forms of philanthropy are being built. And it’s going to require that funders of all kinds be open to exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships with “real people” on the ground. That will mean going beyond interviewing those people for input that funders then use to make the decisions themselves. Instead, it will require more meaningful involvement of people in communities in decisions about where funds are allocated, why, and how. Asking people to vote on grant-award dollars is one way; another might be recruiting people in communities to help advise foundations in developing their grant criteria, application process, and overall programs. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priority-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff members on a regular basis.
Admittedly, this kind of participatory philanthropy won’t be easy to embrace for institutions that have historically been shrouded in secrecy. But it could make philanthropy more responsive, authentic, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.
Nell: One of the topics you recently took on was Bill Shore’s (and others’) argument that nonprofits need to have bolder goals. You argued that “wicked problems” require a much more complex and messy approach. To take that point even further, given the ongoing increase in wealth inequality is there a point at which the system is so broken that no intervention by the social sector will really make a difference?
Cindy: I think there may be some assumptions in your question that need more clarification. First, there’s a link made here between burgeoning income inequality and the “system.” Which system, though? Government-subsidized social programs? The political process that determines who receives that support and how much? An economic system that, some argue, will always have built into it a level of income stratification? An educational system in which those with the social and financial capital to access the “best” schools are able to access better jobs? All of these factors contribute to income inequality, which, yes, results in an extremely complex and messy issue. In turn, any attempt to “solve” (you’ll note in our article, we say “resolve” instead) these problems will be fraught with nuanced minefields.
Another interesting thing in your question is the use of the word “intervention” as singular. Wicked problems by their very nature don’t usually respond to one “best practice” or even a set of discrete interventions. As one of my co-authors, Katya Fels Smyth, notes wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions, which means that all sectors and domains need to be involved.
That doesn’t mean the social sector should just give up. We always need to continue to strive toward ensuring equality, equity and opportunity—the cornerstones of our democracy. It’s become increasingly clear, however, that no one sector or set of players can do it alone. So, perhaps rather than ask what the social sector can do, why not ask whether it’s time to start seeing all sectors as equally important in addressing these kinds of thorny issues?
But I’d raise yet another, bigger question: Is there even a need to have such a bright line separating the social sector from others? What, exactly, is the social sector? If, like the government, it shut down tomorrow, what would close? Today, like it or not, what used to be a clear delineation among the various sectors has become more of a membrane, with a lot of overlap and interflow.
I think what’s increasingly needed is a balance between preserving the values and mission of nonprofits while moving toward different ways of working with a more diverse set of players to achieve the common good. That will mean recognizing that the social sector may no longer have a corner on the market of all that’s right and good in the world, nor is it the only domain that can carry out charitable, philanthropic and social change efforts. Now, it’s less about which sector is “doing good” and more about making sure that all sectors, all organizations, and all individuals have the opportunity to affect change in meaningful ways in whatever milieu it occurs.
But that doesn’t mean the social sector should just disappear or morph into some kind of fuzzy hybrid. It suggests that the sector needs to step up now and ensure that cross-collaborative, horizontal approaches to “doing good” include the lessons nonprofits have learned about the kinds of skills, strategies and leadership are required to do that effectively and successfully—no matter who’s doing it or in what sector.
That means the social sector needs to move from the kid’s table to one where organizations from all sectors meet as equal partners, all with something important to add to the mix.
And the social sector has a lot to offer. Because of their experience in tackling wicked problems like poverty, violence and discrimination, nonprofits understand that the most successful of these efforts requires cooperation, rather than competition; collaboration, rather than individual effort; and long-term commitment over fast results. Those are the traits that research has shown will be essential to the 21st century.
The key will be figuring out how to parse out the best of what the nonprofit sector epitomizes and balance that with an array of competing approaches to achieve a more balanced and fluid approach.
Photo Credit: Cindy Gibson
Today the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) released the results of their sixth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey and the data underlines a growing crisis in the financial sustainability of our nonprofit sector.
56% of nonprofit leader respondents reported that they were unable to meet demand for their services in 2013, this is the highest rate since the survey’s inception six years ago. And the scary part is that this inability to meet demand is not because of a temporary down period in the economy, but rather because of deeper dysfunctions in how we funnel money to the sector. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of NFF put it, “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle, they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”
The survey gathered responses from more than 5,000 leaders from U.S. nonprofits of all sizes, domain areas, and geographies.
The top challenge by far for nonprofit leaders, with 41% of them reporting it, is “achieving long-term financial stability.” And this is evidenced in several ways:
- More than half of nonprofits (55%) have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
- 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
- Only 9% can have an open dialogue with funders about developing reserves for operating
These struggles with financial sustainability stem in large part from a lack of understanding among funders of the true costs of social change work. Roughly 53% of nonprofit respondents’ funders rarely or never fund the full costs of the programs they support. And for approximately 24% of respondents their government indirect cost rate (the amount government allows for indirect, or “overhead” expenses) declined over the last 5 years, while about 47% of respondents are subject to a government indirect rate of 9% or less. That is nearly impossible.
For the first time, the survey included questions about impact measurement, a growing interest among funders, ratings agencies and others in the sector. But these questions just further underline the financial Catch-22 in which nonprofit leaders find themselves. 70% of nonprofit leaders report that half to all of their funders want to see proof of the impact of their programs, but 71% of nonprofit leaders also report that funders rarely or never fund the costs of impact measurement.
At the end of the day, government and private funders are putting greater demands on nonprofits whose services are increasingly needed, all while funding is becoming more difficult to secure. It’s a vicious downward spiral.
More than ever this survey demonstrates a need for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it to take a hard look at how the social sector is financed. We are not sustainably financing the social change work we so desperately need. And if we don’t address that, the downward spiral will simply continue.
Here are some fundamental changes to the financing of the nonprofit sector that I’d like to see:
- Government must move to a more reasonable indirect rate. No one can deliver an effective program with only 9% allocated to administration and other “overhead” costs.
- Funders who want to see impact measures need to step up and fund the work and systems necessary to make it happen.
- Nonprofit leaders and funders need to have more open and honest conversations about the hurdles standing in the way of the work.
- Nonprofit leaders need help figuring out sustainable financial models.
In the six years of NFF’s comprehensive and unparalleled view into the world of nonprofit leaders the story is not getting better. Let’s hope this data serves as a wake up call for the social sector. We must collectively realize that if we really want social change we have to figure out how to finance it effectively and sustainably.
Wrangling a group of volunteers who have competing and often conflicting interests is an exhausting job. It’s no wonder that nonprofit leaders often want to throw up their hands and soldier on without the rag tag group that’s supposed to further, as opposed to impede, the work.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. An “engaged board” is not an oxymoron. It is actually attainable. But you don’t get there by cajoling, guilting, ignoring or dismissing your board.
You get there by marshaling this critical army to grow your resources, your community of supporters, your results. Because an engaged board raises more money, recruits and trains other engaged board members, connects your nonprofit to key people and organizations necessary to achieve the mission, puts your nonprofit above their self interest, and ultimately leads your organization to greater results and impact.
There are very clear steps you can take to build an engaged board:
- Create a clear idea of the specific skills, experience and networks board members should possess
- Continually focus the board on the big picture
- Get them ALL to raise enough money
- Help them embrace money as an effective tool
- Make them understand and be able to articulate the impact of your nonprofit
- Create a commitment among them to build the organization
- Encourage them to ask hard questions
- And more…
You can help them become the board of directors they were meant to be.
An engaged board understands and fully embraces their charge. They have extremely high standards, and they hold themselves, their fellow board members and their nonprofit to those standards. They are constantly pushing, striving, and building the nonprofit to whom they are devoting their service. An engaged board may be an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you want to build an engaged board, the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle can help you get there. The Bundle includes:
- The “Getting Your Board to Raise More Money” Webinar
- The “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” E-book
- The “How to Create a Groundbreaking Board” Webinar
Here’s what some people who have already downloaded the board tools had to say about them:
“This was very concrete and actionable – gave specific suggestions regarding engaging board members. This was very useful. Well done.”
“This really opened my eyes to new possibilities – thank you so much!”
“This was one of the best and most helpful and informative webinars I’ve been on. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of beginning to get our board energized and on track and I will use the slides to help me prepare for our upcoming board retreat.”
An ineffective board is not just a frustration for the executive director. Sadly it is a HUGE missed opportunity. Your board could be so much more. When you effectively engage your board of directors, you grow your resources and ability to create social change exponentially.
You can download the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle here.
Photo Credit: Dr. Strangelove
Could it be that the nonprofit sector is coming into its own? Increasing prominence in the economy coupled with a growing (we hope) recognition of the need for stronger organizations, the nonprofit sector may be hitting its stride. Add to that some interesting discussions about the effect of crowdfunding and a “revitalizing” Detroit and you have a pretty good month of reading in the world of social innovation.
You can also see my favorites from past months here.
- It appears that the nonprofit sector is beginning to take center stage in a new economy. The rise of the “sharing economy,” where products and services are shared by many rather than owned by one (think Netflix, Car2Go, HomeAway), apparently holds tremendous opportunity for the nonprofit sector. So says Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times, “We are…entering a world partly beyond markets, where we are learning how to live together in an increasingly interdependent, collaborative, global commons.” Erin Morgan Gore (writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) would agree.
- But at the same time, NPR describes a growing individualism in America and an emerging “Opt-Out Society.”
- And lest you forget why we do this social change work, Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, describes some “menacing mega-trends” facing America and our political system’s inability to keep up.
- We continue to be fascinated by the Millennial generation and this infographic very nicely puts to rest some myths about them.
- Writing in the Huffington Post, Ashley Woods questions whether the recent focus on revitalizing Detroit is helping or hurting long-time residents.
- Crowdfunding is increasingly gaining interest, but can it actually increase money flowing to social change? A new infographic by Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, describes some recent crowdfunding results for nonprofits. And Beth Kanter digs deeper into the data.
- The CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Robert Ross makes a compelling argument for why foundations need to move beyond funding new solutions and instead get into the advocacy and community organizing game: “Philanthropy has to recognize that community power, voice, and advocacy are, to use a football analogy, the blocking and tackling of winning social change.”
- Are funders beginning to understand the need to invest in nonprofit capacity building? Some recent research by The Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that, not surprisingly, nonprofit leaders think funders don’t understand their need for help with sustainability. But some new data from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations finds that funder appetite for capacity building might be growing. And Rodney Christopher from the F.B. Heron Foundation makes the case for support of capacity building, “Failing to pay attention to nonprofits as enterprises will undermine impact over time.”
- But Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund places a big part of the burden of overcoming the nonprofit overhead myth squarely on the shoulders of nonprofit leaders themselves.
- Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and contributor to the White Courtesy Telephone blog, very thoughtfully breaks down how to understand philanthropy’s relationship to social change. Well worth the read.
Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida
“Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and as such was viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world.
As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do.
And here’s why:
Charity Lives Beside the Economy, Social Change is Baked into the Economy
While charity was just an afterthought of the real work of the world, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. The number of nonprofits grew 50 times faster than for-profits in the last 10 years and nonprofit revenues grew at double the rate of GDP growth in the same period. And its not just the size and resources of nonprofits that contribute to an emerging social change economy, the Millennial generation actually thinks about social change as part of every aspect of, not separate from, their work and life. The work of social change is ubiquitous.
Charity Addresses Symptoms, Social Change Addresses Systems
Charity is about remedying the immediate and direct symptoms of a larger problem. It is about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. But as very real structural challenges grow (like the widening income gap) we can no longer just stick a finger in the dike. We must come up with approaches that solve the underlying issues causing those problems.
Charity Requires Spare Pennies, Social Change Requires Significant Investment
Charity existed on the largesse of the profiteers of the last centuries. Once they made their millions, they sloughed off a portion of the excess to the charities who cleaned up the messes they made. But you can’t do much with the dregs. Because social change is about changing larger systems it takes real, significant investment of resources.
Charity Employs Volunteers, Social Change Employs Experts
Charity was always the purview of the wives who didn’t work. As volunteers they devoted their time to helping the needy. But as our social problems become increasingly complex and entrenched, we must employ experts – not volunteers – who through education, knowledge and experience know exactly how to approach the problem and how to solve it. And we must pay them what it takes to keep them working on those solutions.
Charity Apologizes, Social Change Demands
When you are voluntarily acting on behalf of a charity and asking others also to act voluntarily on behalf of the charity, you are often apologizing for the interruption to their “real work.” But social change is very necessary work, and social changemakers must demand the investment, mindshare, time and effort required. There is absolutely no space for apology.
Sometimes words and the baggage of the past really matter. When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” we start demanding and creating real investment, real attention, and real change.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
I’ve written before about how hard it sometimes is for nonprofit leaders to ask for help. Donors, board members, regulators, and others put enormous pressure on nonprofit leaders to do it all with little (if any) help.
So in an effort to help nonprofit leaders convince those around them about the benefits of getting help, I’ve developed five benefit sheets describing the advantages of building a stronger nonprofit organization.
Whether or not you are interested in working with me, these benefit sheets describe the return on investing in nonprofit organization building efforts like leadership coaching, strategic planning, board engagement. Obviously I feel very strongly that nonprofits need to build stronger, more effective organizations, but that’s often a difficult case for nonprofit leaders to make.
I hope these benefit sheets can help you make that case:
Nonprofit Leader Coaching
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A leadership coach becomes your strategic partner helping you analyze your challenges and concerns, think through staffing decisions, overcome fundraising hurdles, address board management struggles, and brainstorm new approaches. Coaching provides tremendous benefits including: increased board and donor engagement, more productive staff, greater financial sustainability, and clearer strategic thinking. Download the Nonprofit Leader Coaching benefit sheet.
In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world, great nonprofit strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity. Without an overall strategy, a nonprofit is relegated to the world of “doing good work,” instead of the world of “making a real difference.” And these days more and more funders, supporters, advocates, partners and decision makers are requiring that nonprofits do more than just good work.
Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform your nonprofit. It can create momentum, attract deeper funding, filter future decisions, become a management tool, and ultimately realize more social change. Download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
It can often seem impossible to get your board’s attention, let alone get them all pointing in the same, effective direction. But if managed strategically, your board can be an unstoppable army moving your nonprofit forward.
If you take a big step back and develop a groundbreaking board, you can dramatically increase your ability to: reach new audiences, grow your programs, forge new external partnerships, raise more money, increase exposure to key decision makers, build community investment and engagement. Download the Board Engagement benefit sheet.
Financial Model Assessment
It happens all the time. A nonprofit leader wants to expand her services to meet growing demand, or is frustrated with a stalled fundraising effort, or doesn’t know where to diversify her fundraising efforts. She wants to raise more money, but doesn’t know how.
A Financial Model Assessment can be game changing. It uncovers how all aspects of your organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through your doors, including strategy, mission & vision, leadership, program delivery & impact, marketing and partnerships. It can give your nonprofit a deep understanding of where you need to focus your efforts and a clear road map for growing your financial sustainability. Download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.
Unlike a traditional fundraising plan, a financing plan is an integrated, thoughtful, and strategic way to help your nonprofit raise enough money to achieve your programmatic and organizational goals. Instead of asking the question: “How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?” you start asking the question: “How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
A financing plan galvanizes board and staff to bring enough of the right kinds of money in the door to make your nonprofit’s goals a reality. It creates a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit so that you can survive and thrive. Download the Financing Plan benefit sheet.
If you are trying to make the case for a stronger nonprofit organization download these benefits sheets and share them with your board, donors, staff. And if you would like to talk about these organization building processes in more detail, let me know.
Photo Credit: Johnathan Nightingale
For those nonprofit leaders brave enough, capacity capital can be the key to emerging from the continuous nonprofit starvation cycle.
Next month I will be speaking at the Securing the Future Conference in Cincinnati about capacity capital. Beyond looking forward to meeting a new group of nonprofit leaders, board members and donors, I’m particularly excited about introducing them to what I think has the potential to be a transformative concept for the nonprofit sector.
The topic of my speech is “The Power of Capacity Capital,” and in it I will convince the audience that you no longer have to run a nonprofit to the bone, continually starving the organization of the staffing, infrastructure, and systems that you need to effectively deliver social change.
Capacity capital is the money that so many nonprofits need, but most find so hard to raise. It is money for infrastructure and organization building. It is a one-time investment of significant money that can fund a program evaluation, a new data gathering system, revenue-generating staff, leadership coaching, and the many other things nonprofits require in order to be effective leaders of social change.
If you want to move your organization out of the starvation cycle, you have to learn how to raise capacity capital.
For those of you who won’t be at the Securing the Future Conference, but want to learn more about capacity capital – whether it’s right for your nonprofit and how to go about raising it – you can download my on-demand webinar, Raising Capacity Capital.
The 60-minute Raising Capacity Capital on-demand webinar will show you how to:
- Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
- Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
- Develop a campaign goal
- Break the goal into donor ask amounts
- Identify prospective donors
- Give your board a role in the campaign
- Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need
Like all of the Social Velocity on-demand webinars, you can watch this webinar whenever and however many times you would like.
You really don’t have to continue to live in starvation mode. There is a path toward a stronger, more effective nonprofit organization. Capacity capital can help you get there.
Photo Credit: panthera-lee
In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?
Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.
As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.
It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.
Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?
Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.
Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?
Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.
Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?
Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?
Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.
If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.
From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.
Photo Credit: Youth Villages
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