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Guest Post: Intellectual Curiosity is the Cornerstone of Social Progress

NotCuriositye: Third in my list of guest bloggers this summer is David Henderson. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. Here is his guest post:

I was recently turned down for a position at a startup-up big-data company focused on the philanthropic sector because I’m “too pessimistic”. This company initially sought me out since they don’t have any social sector expertise on staff, a likely requisite to make successful nonprofit software. Our courtship turned sour when I expressed my view that we have a lot more social sector initiatives than evidence that those interventions actually work.

My skepticism that social sector initiatives by and large work was wrongly misconstrued as pessimism that social progress is possible. Skepticism is a critical driver of intellectual curiosity. I spent a pretty penny on two degrees that essentially taught me how to critically assess the divide between rhetoric and results. Indeed, the null hypothesis in a statistical model assumes the intended effect is not present. I guess statisticians are just a bunch of pessimists.

Fundamentally, I believe the company I interviewed with was mirroring the widespread lack of intellectual curiosity that plagues the social sector and impedes real progress. Too many nonprofits are terrified of having their claims of social impact investigated, lest their effects are discovered to be more modest than claimed. And I don’t blame them. The funding community’s emphasis on investing in “what works” has resulted in a proliferation of noise as every nonprofit steadfastly argues their interventions cure everything. It’s no wonder evaluators are seen as Angels of Death.

I generally don’t favor taking cues from the for-profit world, but venture capital and angel investors’ practice of investing in people and teams over ideas is far more conducive to intellectual honesty in product (and social intervention) development. The basic premise of this investment strategy is that initial product ideas are generally wrong, but smart people will investigate, iterate, and innovate.

Compare that philosophy to the social sector, where the expectation is that nonprofits already have the answers, they just need money to scale them up. This assumption is largely incorrect, but by making funding contingent on the perception of effectiveness, the nonprofit sector is incentivized to not question the efficacy of its own work. In this model, continued funding depends on a lack of intellectual curiosity at best, and intellectual dishonesty at worst.

A better alternative is for nonprofits to embrace intellectual curiosity, and to be the first to question their own results. Under this model, nonprofits would invest in their capacity to intelligently probe the effectiveness of their own interventions, by staffing those with the capacity to sift through outcomes data and investing in the growing list of tools that are democratizing evaluation. Of course, this would require a shift in the funding community away from “investing in what works” to more humbly “investigating what works”.

A shift toward intellectual curiosity would create more space for the sector to solicit beneficiary feedback in the design of social interventions, as organizations would no longer be incentivized to defensively “prove” existing approaches work, and instead would be rewarded for proactively evolving practices to achieve better results. It is this very intellectual curiosity that led organizations like GiveDirectly and the Family Independence Initiative to invest in the poor directly, a departure from long-standing anti-poverty practices that the evidence suggests might actually work. It’s a shame that organizations imbued with a mission of experimentation deviate so far from the norm.

I don’t consider it pessimistic to question whether the sector is achieving its intended social impact. To the contrary, it’s rather cynical to set aside what should be the critical question for any nonprofit organization in the name of self-preservation. In order to achieve social progress, the sector needs to expel anti-intellectual policies and actors in favor of a healthy skepticism that questions everything, and is willing to try anything.

Photo Credit: NASA

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Speaking About A Changing Nonprofit World

Nell EdgingtonOne of the things I love most about what I do is the opportunity to speak around the country to nonprofit and philanthropic leaders about new approaches. The nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it are changing dramatically, which can be unsettling, but can also be an incredible opportunity for nonprofit leaders to find a better way to reach their goals.

This Fall I’m particularly excited about some great speaking opportunities I have coming up. If you will be at any of these events, please let me know, I’d love to connect there.

And if you’d like to learn more about having me come speak at your event, or to your board, staff or donors, check out the Social Velocity Speaking page.

Here are my upcoming engagements:

Ecotrust

August 1st, Portland, Oregon

I’m delighted to have such a groundbreaking nonprofit, Ecotrust (which inspires more resilient communities, economies, and ecosystems around the world) hosting me at a lunch event for Portland nonprofit leaders. I’ll be speaking to the group about new ways to finance their work. I’ll describe how clarifying the work their nonprofit does and connecting that to a robust financial model can transform their organizations’ financial sustainability and ability to create social change.

AFP Symposium on Major Gifts

October 10th, Seattle

I’ll be kicking off the symposium with a talk on “Moving From Fundraising to Financing,” where I’ll show nonprofit leaders a new, more effective way to fund their work. As donors shift from a “charity” mindset to an impact and investment view, nonprofit leaders must articulate the social change they seek, develop a robust and sustainable financial model for their mission, and make their donors partners in the work. We’ll discuss how to uncover the most important building blocks of creating an integrated approach to engaging people in the mission.

Philanthropy Southwest Conference

November 5th-7th, Phoenix

At this year’s annual conference of grantmakers, I’ll be serving on a panel titled “The Power of Investing in Nonprofit Capacity.” Ellen Solowey, Program Officer at the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust; Darryl Tocker, Executive Director of the Tocker Foundation; and I will discuss foundations that make capacity investments in nonprofits. We will explore how funders can collectively address nonprofit capacity constraints such as financial instability, disengaged boards, lack of funding for professional development, and the need for long-term planning.

Nonprofit Education Initiative

January 22, 2015, Hailey, Idaho

At this gathering of nonprofit leaders I’ll be leading a session titled “Messaging Impact.” More and more donors are interested in funding organizations that can demonstrate impact, or change to a social problem, as opposed to organizations that only talk about their needs. If a nonprofit leader can create a message of impact, she will be able to raise more money over a longer period of time. I’ll explain how to create a message of impact to encourage more donors to invest in the long-term work of a nonprofit.

It’s going to be a great Fall. I hope to see you at one of these events!

 Photo Credit: Social Velocity

 

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Moving Beyond the Starving Nonprofit

Volunteers_of_America_Soup_Kitchen_WDCEver since last year’s release of the Letter to the Donors of America it seems there is an increasing drumbeat against the “Overhead Myth,” the idea that nonprofits must keep their overhead and administrative costs as low as possible. The fact that we are now openly talking about overhead as a myth is very encouraging.

But I think it will take a good deal of time before donors actually embrace the idea that nonprofits should stop starving their organizations of the resources they need to create and execute effective programs.

To move donors along, nonprofit leaders must lead this conversation with their own donors. Those nonprofit leaders who need more money to build a stronger, more effective and sustainable organization behind their work should educate themselves, their board members, and their donors about capacity capital.

“Capacity capital” is a one-time infusion of significant money that can be used to strengthen or grow a nonprofit organization. Capacity capital is NOT the day-to-day operating money nonprofits are used to raising and employing. Rather, capacity capital is money to build a stronger, more sustainable organization.

A nonprofit could use capacity capital in many ways, for example to:

  • Plan and execute a program evaluation
  • Plan and launch an earned income stream
  • Create a strategic financing plan
  • Hire a seasoned Development Director, or other revenue-generating staff
  • Purchase a new donor database
  • Improve program service delivery
  • Upgrade website, email marketing, and/or social media efforts
  • Launch a major gifts campaign

But raising capacity capital is not like traditional fundraising. It involves determining how much capacity capital you need, creating a compelling pitch, deciding which prospective funders to approach, and educating those prospects about the power of capacity capital. In so doing, you are not only raising the money you so desperately need, but you are also leading your part of the nonprofit sector away from the overhead myth.

Capacity CapitalThe Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide can show you how to raise capacity capital for your nonprofit.

Here is an excerpt from the guide…

 

Section 1: Create a Capacity Building Plan

You cannot raise money without a plan for how you will spend it. Funders need to be convinced that you did your homework and have a clear, actionable, measurable plan for how you will invest capacity capital dollars to result in a stronger organization that can deliver more impact.

To get there, start by answering these questions:

  1. What is holding our nonprofit back from doing more and being more effective?
  2. What could we purchase to overcome these hurdle(s)?
  3. If we were able to purchase these items how would we use them and over what time frame?
  4. What can we reasonably expect to be the changes in our effectiveness and/or impact because of these things we purchased and implemented?

With your answers to these questions, put together a plan.

Start by creating 1-3 goals around the hurdles you identified in #1 above. For example, you may have identified in #1 that you don’t have adequate staff to raise enough money to achieve your mission.

So your capacity plan goals might be:

  1. Create an overall money strategy to raise $450,000 per year.
  2. Hire a Development Director to implement the plan.
  3. Secure the technology and materials necessary to raise this money (database, website, etc.)

Or, if you are a much smaller nonprofit, your goals might be more modest:

  1. Create an overall money strategy to raise $100,000 per year.
  2. Train the board on their role in fundraising.
  3. Upgrade our website to attract online donations.

Once you’ve developed your goals, make a laundry list of activities and purchases necessary to make each goal a reality. In some cases you may need outside help to determine how to get there. For example, you may not know how to put together an overall money strategy to raise $450,000, so you may have to hire a fundraising consultant to help you create that strategy. Also note roughly how long each activity will take.

So, your list of activities with a timeline for each might look something like this:

Goal 2: Train the board on their role in fundraising

  • Discuss and get buy-in from board on a fundraising training (October)
  • Find a date/location (October)
  • Research fundraising trainers (November-December)
  • Hire a trainer (January)
  • Hold training (February)
  • Follow up with each individual board member on the next steps resulting from the training (March-April)

Once you have listed all of the activities to achieve each goal of your capacity plan, highlight activities that would require new purchases. Research a ballpark figure for what each one would cost and then attach that figure to those highlighted items, like this…

 

To learn more, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide. And if you’d like more guidance, you can also view the Raising Capacity Capital Webinar.

Good luck!

Photo Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

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Social Technology for Social Change: An Interview with Amy Sample Ward

In today’s Soamysampleward-headshotcial Velocity interview, I’m talking with Amy Sample Ward, CEO of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), the membership organization of nonprofit professionals who put technology to use for their causes. Amy leads a team dedicated to connecting individuals, organizations and campaigns in order to transition the nonprofit technology sector into a movement-based force for positive change.

Previously serving as the Membership Director at NTEN, Amy is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events in the US, UK and around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: For many nonprofit leaders, social media is still viewed as a sideline, rather than an integral, aspect of the work. How do you convince nonprofit leaders that social media can actually be a means of furthering their social change missions?

Amy: Social media really encompasses so many different tools and platforms. The probability that your community isn’t using ANY kind of social technology is pretty low. Every organization doesn’t have to use every tool out there. Quite the opposite! I encourage every nonprofit not to think of social media as time suck and “one more thing to add to the list”, but, instead, as a way to connect directly with community members on a much more regular basis than your other outreach in email or events. Select which platform or platforms you use by asking your community and listening first – this helps ensure that any time you do invest in social media is spent in the platforms where your community is active and you have the highest chance of success.

Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource constrained, nonprofits have traditionally been somewhat insular and risk averse. How do nonprofits reconcile that approach to a growing need to be more open, collaborative, transparent and risk embracing?

Amy: If there’s fear about change, taking risks, or transparency, my suggestion is to take inspiration from and share responsibility with your community. As a nonprofit organization, you cannot fully achieve your mission on your own – you need your community to help you create lasting change in the world, so why not invite the community to help you create change in your work!

When you invite your community in, you start to embrace transparency. You also lessen the stigma of risks because you now have community members championing new ideas and helping you test and iterate to find the best approaches. You don’t have to fear changing when you are working closely with your community because doing so means working with people, and we all change every day.

Nell: On the flip side of that, is there a risk of becoming too consumed by social media and new technologies? Can nonprofits – and all of us really – become too enamored of every new shiny object at the expense of actually creating social change?

Amy: At the end of the day, we all have lots of work to do and don’t want to get distracted or bogged down by any one thing, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, email, or meetings! I think the real risk is in letting your tools guide your strategic decisions. Social media tools are launching every day, sometimes with a lot of press coverage. It’s understandable that you could read a post or see another organization trying a new platform and think you should do it, too. Or, to let the functionality of a certain platform dictate how you decide to create and run a campaign. It’s critical that all staff have the resources and training to think and plan strategically about their work, identifying the tools last that align with their goals, community and audience, and your mission.

Nell: Technology is often considered “overhead” in the nonprofit world. How can nonprofit leaders convince funders and board members that investing in technology can have a significant return on investment?

Amy: The best thing organizations can do to prove this is by actually proving it: track and evaluate your own return on investment, share information about your budgeting and planning, and include clear information and analysis of the necessary technologies to do your work in every grant proposal and report. You can’t expect funders to invest in something if you aren’t able to convince them from the beginning.

Photo Credit: nten.org

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Should Nonprofit Consultants Be Thought Leaders?

nonprofitNote: Fellow nonprofit consultant Cindy Gibson and I were asked to write an opinion piece for Alliance Magazine this month answering the question, “Should Consultants Be Thought Leaders?” There is no doubt that there is a preponderance of consultants in the social sector, some who help move the sector forward, and some who don’t. Cindy and I offer some thoughts about how to distinguish what has value and what does not. Text from the piece is below, and you can also read the piece in the June issue of Alliance.

From strategic and business planning to marketing and fundraising, there seems to be no shortage of consultants ready to help nonprofits meet all kinds of needs. But should they be thought leaders too? Because they are removed from the day-to-day experience of the average non-profit or foundation and have a breadth of perspective that comes from working with different types of organization, consultants can provide important insights to the larger sector.

But when is that thought leadership adding value to the sector and when is it just a means for hawking a consultant’s wares?

At a recent conference, a consulting firm president suggested his shop’s model was the only way to achieve social change, which caused some participants to shift in their seats. As one participant put it, ‘It’s because they’re consultants. If there’s only one solution and that’s the one they offer consulting on, that’s the approach they promote.’ There is, after all, a difference between introducing ideas to spark new thinking and marketing particular frameworks to build a consultant’s brand. At the end of the day, it all comes down to value.

Is a consultant adding value by introducing new approaches, raising hard questions, highlighting important trends, or suggesting necessary changes to systems and structure, the hallmarks of thought leadership? Or are they using ideas to package what they’re selling? Here are some key questions that might help us to make that distinction:

  1. Is what the consultant is presenting really new or just something old with new packaging?
    We’ve all fallen victim to shiny object syndrome. The next new thing can seem so appealing that it’s easy to believe the hype, but it isn’t necessarily applicable for many organizations. Before embracing a new approach, it’s important to determine whether it actually applies to the specific situation at hand.

  2. Has the consultant’s new framework been tested?
    If the new idea is really worthy of broad adoption, there should be evidence of its value. Consultants need to be transparent about whether they have this evidence and, if so, how it was collected. Was it a randomly sampled population or a few focus groups of satisfied clients? Consultants, like other thought leaders, sometimes ignore the fact that the big ideas they’ve envisioned may not work on the ground.

  3. Does what the consultant is proposing embrace the complexity of the situation?
    Social challenges are inherently difficult to resolve because change takes time and requires grappling with the messiness of ‘wicked problems’, which don’t usually respond to one best practice or even a set of discrete interventions. Wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions. True thought leadership emerges from understanding and integrating a problem’s inherent complexity into a potential resolution.

  4. Is the consultant willing to engage in thoughtful debate about their ideas with those who may disagree?
    Thought leaders who are genuinely interested in moving a field invite feedback, including criticism, because they know open and honest discussion can strengthen the original idea. They’re also eager to make their ideas broadly accessible so that they become part of the larger field.

  5. Are influential people hailing the new idea as definitive when there may be little hard evidence to suggest that it is?
    While it’s nice to have the endorsement of influential people, this can sometimes be a shield against real critique. It can also suggest an echo chamber at work, where the hype around the idea is bigger than the actual value of the idea itself.

There’s no question that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate good marketing – which every consultant must do to survive financially – from real thought leadership. We think that consultants can and should have opportunities to stand away from their business and share what they’re learning and observing. Like other thought leaders, they can lift us out of our individual circumstances and move us to see a bigger picture.

That isn’t always easy, especially when consultants’ thought leadership is controversial. But good thinking that has the potential to transform minds and entire fields, even when it may be inimical to a brand, can sometimes lead to impact that may not be easily achieved by focusing only on clients’ individual needs. The key is knowing when and where that kind of thought leadership will add value.

Photo Credit: Eugene Atget

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New Book: Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader

Nonprofit leaderMy focus this month at Social Velocity is nonprofit leadership. As I mentioned earlier, May’s webinar is Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader. And I’m delighted to release today, as promised, the companion book, Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.

Here is an excerpt from the new book:

The new millennium has been a difficult one. A crippled global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap comprise a few of the social problems we face.

And as our social challenges mount, the burden increasingly falls to the nonprofit sector to deal with the fall out.

So it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to lead the nonprofit sector, and our communities, forward. Indeed it is up to the leaders of our great nonprofit sector, to face, rather than shrink from, these many challenges.

It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real social change.

So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I have written this book. It is based on my many years of coaching nonprofit leaders to success. This book lays out the elements that those nonprofit leaders have learned in order to embrace their role as reinvented nonprofit leaders.

The reinvented nonprofit leader:

  • Unlocks the Charity Shackles and demands to be treated as an equal and critical part of the economy, the community, the solution.
  • Refuses to Play Nice and gets real with funders, board members, partners, and staff who are standing in the way of progress.
  • Embraces Strategy that moves beyond just “doing good work” and gets real results.
  • Uses Money as a Tool because big plans will not come to fruition without a sustainable financial engine behind them.
  • Demands Real Help and the tools necessary to achieve the mission because the best leaders recognize weakness and solicit help to address it.
  • Breaks Down the Walls of the organization and lets the world in as fully engaged partners, advocates, and supporters.
  • Remembers the Dream that got them here in the first place because often it is the big idea that propels great leaders forward.

It is a tall order, but true leadership is.

We no longer have the luxury of mediocre leaders. These times demand confident, capable, engaging leaders who are a beacon to a society whose mounting problems are overwhelming at best.

While it may seem like an impossible transition to become a new kind of nonprofit leader – one who is more entrepreneurial, innovative, confident and strategic – let us remember that nonprofit leaders have always been entrepreneurs. They have recognized some sort of disequilibrium in our society and have created, out of nothing, an organization, a solution and an assembly of staff and volunteers to fix it. In essence, I am simply encouraging you, the nonprofit leader, to claim your rightful place.

The reinvented nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector, and all of us who benefit from it, to new heights.

So how do you become a reinvented nonprofit leader? Let’s take these one by one…

 

If you want to read more, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book now.

And if you register for the webinar before May 21st the companion book is free. You can register for the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader webinar here.

 

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7 Ways to Kiss Fundraising Goodbye [Slideshare]

I am really in to Slideshare lately. I uploaded my first Slideshare presentation, Calculating the Cost of Fundraising, last month and people seemed to really like it. So I plan to create regular Slideshare presentations and share them on the Social Velocity Slideshare site.

Today’s Slideshare is 7 Ways to Kiss Fundraising Goodbye. Traditional nonprofit fundraising is broken. It lock nonprofits in an endless cycle of chasing low return activities. A much better approach is to create a sustainable financial model that aligns well with your mission and core competencies. Nonprofits must move from Fundraising to Financing.

If you want to move your nonprofit from a Fundraising to a Financing approach, download the Build a Nonprofit Financing Plan Step-by-Step Guide.

 

7 Ways to Kiss Fundraising Goodbye from Nell Edgington

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It’s Time to Reinvent The Nonprofit Leader

Nonprofit LeaderLeading a nonprofit is an incredibly challenging, if not impossible, job.

Nonprofit leaders have been given a seemingly endless list of tasks: develop and execute effective programs, manage a diverse and underpaid staff, chart a bold strategic direction, create a sustainable financial model, wrangle a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruit and appease a disparate funder base.

All with little support along the way.

I think its time for us to reinvent the nonprofit leader. In order to better lead her staff, board, and donors to greater social change, the reinvented nonprofit leader must:

  • Unlock the charity shackles that keep nonprofits beholden to dysfunctional expectations
  • Refuse to play nice with staff members, board members, or funders who stand in the way of the mission
  • Embrace strategy that gets results
  • Wield the money sword
  • Break down the walls of her nonprofit to let in more supporters, advocates, and partners
  • Demand real help and the tools necessary to do the work well
  • Remember the dream for change that inspires the work

So in the hope of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I am offering a new Social Velocity webinar, Reinventing The Nonprofit Leader.

Informed by years of experience coaching nonprofit leaders, the Reinventing The Nonprofit Leader webinar will help nonprofit leaders like you to:

  • Adapt to a rapidly changing world
  • Find the confidence, energy and will to lead more effectively
  • Better engage your staff, board, and donors in the work
  • Stop apologizing for what you really need
  • Use money as a tool
  • Embrace new technologies and approaches to build momentum
  • Become inspired for the work ahead

Register Now

And this webinar is a companion to my new book, also called Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader. If you sign up for this webinar before May 21st, you’ll receive a free copy of the book.

Webinar Details:

Reinventing Nonprofit Leader
A Social Velocity Webinar
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 1:00pm Eastern (or On Demand)

Don’t worry if you can’t make the time of the live webinar. All of our webinars are recorded and available On Demand, so simply sign up now, and you’ll be sent a link to watch the recording of the webinar after it airs. You can see the entire Social Velocity On Demand Webinar Library here.

I hope to see you there!

Register for the Reinventing The Nonprofit Leader Webinar Now

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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