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Planning

7 Questions to Move Your Nonprofit to Financial Sustainability

Financial sustainability seems to be the Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector. Everyone wants it, but few know how to find it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I firmly believe that financial sustainability is attainable for any nonprofit, as long as board and staff are willing to ask the right questions and do the hard work.

In fact, there is a roadmap to nonprofit financial sustainability, which includes several components. Because a nonprofit’s board, their strategy, their vision and mission, their marketing efforts, their programs, all contribute to or detract from their ability to attract and use money well.

But often nonprofits struggle in so many areas (disengaged board, poor fundraising results, non-existent strategy, ineffective marketing) that it can be difficult for a nonprofit leader and board to know where to start in order to become more financially sustainable. So I’ve developed a list of questions that assess where a nonprofit is on that path and where staff and board should focus their efforts.

This mini-assessment of 7 questions is listed in priority order, so once one area is addressed, you can move on to the next. For example, you may have your “Vision” and “Strategy” all figured out, so next you need to tackle “Program Delivery,” and so on.

So to see where your nonprofit is on the path to financial sustainability, answer these 7 questions:

  1. Long-Term Vision: Do board and staff agree on the ultimate goals of the organization — what you are trying to accomplish in the world? If not, then articulate your Theory of Change, which will help you come to a shared long-term vision.

  2. Strategy: Have board and staff together articulated a strategy — how you will marshall staff, volunteers, programs, activities — to move toward that long-term vision? If not, then create a multi-year strategic plan that ties your long-term vision to the activities and resources necessary to get there.

  3. Program Delivery and Impact: Do your programs work with the people you hope to benefit or influence in your long-term vision? If not, review your target populations and analyze each of your programs’ ability to move toward your vision.

  4. Financial Model: Have you articulated how money will flow into the organization and how that money will be used to make your long-term strategy a reality? If not, then develop a long-term financing plan that articulates how much money you need, over what timeframe, and the tasks in each revenue area necessary to meet (and hopefully exceed) those expenses.

  5. Staff Effectiveness: Do you have the right staff expertise structured in the right way to deliver on your strategy? If not, analyze your staffing structure and capabilities and how they relate to what you need.

  6. Board Engagement: Do the vast majority of your board members embrace your mission and actively participate in moving it forward? If not, set clear expectations, establish accountability, and engage them one-on-one.

  7. External Relationships: Do you have the right partnerships and engagement with the right external people and organizations necessary to deliver on your strategy? If not, seek to understand the world outside your walls, develop a marketing strategy, and build the networks you need.

If you are interested in a deeper analysis of how to move your nonprofit forward on the path to financial sustainability, check out the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for clients.

Photo Credit: Jeff Power

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Putting Wealth to Work for Social Value Creation: An Interview with Jen Ratay

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jen Ratay. Jen is executive director of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund – SV2, a community of families and individuals who come together to learn about effective giving and impact investing while pooling their resources and skills to support promising social ventures. Prior to taking the helm of SV2, Jen served as program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation where she led its Organizational Effectiveness grantmaking program that helps grantees build high-performing organizations.

Nell: SV2 is a strategic partner of the Social Venture Partners network of affiliates across the country that fueled the development of the venture philanthropy model of making large investments of money and expertise to grow proven nonprofits. The venture philanthropy model is almost 20 years old now, where do you think it stands? What have you learned and where do you think venture philanthropy goes from here?

Jen: Twenty years ago in the heart of Silicon Valley, SV2’s founder Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen launched a team sport approach to grantmaking that pooled donor resources for investment in promising nonprofits. Laura and her peers went beyond pooling monetary donations and invested their time and professional skills to help high-potential nonprofits build strong organizations and scale their impact.

From its earliest days, SV2 focused on finding and funding innovative nonprofits poised for dramatic scale, creating a philanthropic version of venture capital. SV2’s giving approach, along with the broader Social Venture Partners network it helped inspire and now partners with, helped catalyze the global movement known as venture philanthropy.

Not unlike venture capitalists, venture philanthropists believe the success of a great idea is contingent on building a leadership team that can effectively execute against a compelling plan. Key elements of the venture philanthropy approach include offering larger and longer-term grants to support nonprofit growth and core operations, tying continued funding to outcomes and measurable results, and providing coaching and management assistance to nonprofit leaders.

As venture philanthropy has evolved over the years, we’ve learned a number of lessons.

First, venture philanthropy’s historical focus on investing in individual organizations, while important, has rarely been sufficient to drive major paradigm shifts or sustained systems-level change. Achieving transformative impact often requires strengthening the capacity of networks and social movements and engaging government and the business sectors in addition to scaling high-performing nonprofit organizations.

Second, we’ve learned how essential it is for nonprofit CEOs to not just be strong organizational managers but also highly-collaborative network leaders and movement builders, a different skillset altogether.

Additionally, venture philanthropy, which resonates with many Silicon Valley professionals, is not a perfect analog for investing in nonprofits. To be effective, donors must understand that nonprofits differ from for-profits in many meaningful ways including governance, funding flows, scaling challenges, organizational culture, and what it means to attain financial sustainability. It takes time to understand these complexities and execute well – whether as an individual donor or as part of a collaborative donor group like SV2.

Looking ahead, I’d be surprised if we don’t see continued rapid growth in venture philanthropy, as wealth transfers from one generation to the next and Millennials and other new philanthropists seek high-impact ways to put their wealth to work for social value creation. As part of this growth, the hands-on venture philanthropy model with its focus on experiential grantmaking and donor learning continues to be an attractive entry point for emerging philanthropists, whether in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Bangalore or Beijing.

Nell: The philosophy behind the venture philanthropy model is that we should scale proven solutions, but significant growth to nonprofit organizations is tricky because often those organizations lack basic capacity. When does scaling make sense and how can funders effectively support it?

Jen: Yes, scaling nonprofits – even those with proven program outcomes – can be tricky.

For early stage nonprofits, there’s often a capacity building Catch 22 – a nonprofit needs basic organizational capacity to be able to step back from the daily treadmill of client needs and service delivery to invest in strengthening the organization and laying a foundation for future growth.

Compounding this, nonprofits don’t currently work within a well-functioning social capital market that supports organizations through each stage of growth. While making a large impact does not necessarily require a large organizational budget, nonprofits do need a reasonable level of revenue to develop certain core capabilities. The majority of nonprofits also face what has been termed the “social capital chasm,” the huge gap between their current budget and the $10 million or more they would need to move toward full scale.

On top of these financing barriers, compensation for nonprofit employees typically lags behind – sometimes far behind — that offered by foundations and for-profits. There’s no equity for nonprofit founders or executives, which, in highly competitive labor markets like Silicon Valley, can make attracting and retaining top talent a challenge.

And don’t get me started on the nonprofit overhead problem – our sector’s wildly unhelpful myth that at least 85 percent of an organization’s income should go toward programs rather than core operations. This myth is not only illogical, but damaging, as it constrains organizational growth and impact that hinges on strategic investments in infrastructure, people, processes and capabilities.

Despite all this, candidates for nonprofit scaling do exist. Common across them, they have promising programs based on early evidence of impact and compelling business models. They have strong, connected boards of directors and leaders who are coachable, collaborative and brave. Perhaps because of these qualities, these organizations also have the ability to attract talent and new sources of funding over time in competitive human and social capital markets.

Funders can help by playing the higher risk role of “Big Bettor”. A funder willing to make a significant multi-year investment in a promising small or mid-sized nonprofit organization can help them prepare to cross that daunting social capital chasm. These funders clear the way for other funders, signaling an investment in the organization is worth the risk. Early Big Bettors who help a nonprofit prove its model make the waters safer for other grantmakers to jump in.

Nell: The SV2 model is a bit different than other Social Venture Partner models, how does geography play into this? Do you think Silicon Valley funders think about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector differently, and if so how?

Jen: I do think Silicon Valley funders tend to think somewhat differently about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

In my experience with Silicon Valley’s giving culture, it’s not uncommon for donors, particularly those coming from the technology sector, to prioritize clear, measurable social impact, innovative or disruptive products and services, tech-enabled platforms, and a lean startup management approach to social change efforts.

On the nonprofit side, we have a crisis in Silicon Valley.

Local community organizations are struggling amidst a perfect storm of increased demand for their services, exorbitant operating costs, and competition for staff talent in one of the tightest labor markets in the country.

Silicon Valley is ground zero for income inequality. Skyrocketing wealth, including 76,000 millionaires and billionaires who live in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties alone, is found alongside rapid displacement of vulnerable families. Even with the nearly $5 billion boom in philanthropy from 2008-2013, 30 percent of Silicon Valley residents require some form of private or public assistance to get by. One in three local kids aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.

SV2 Partners, Alexa Cortes Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant, recently authored a report, The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy, that is elevating an important discussion around the region’s prosperity paradox. This data-rich report shines a light on a sobering donor knowledge gap around acute local needs and understanding of the local nonprofit ecosystem. Much of Silicon Valley donors’ philanthropy flows out of the region.

Alexa and Heather’s research also found a two-way empathy gap between donors and nonprofits. The reality is that Silicon Valley donors and nonprofit professionals tend to run in different circles, and they often have very different life experiences.

The Silicon Valley prosperity paradox, knowledge and empathy gaps are adding urgency and ambition to SV2’s work.

Our mission is to unleash the resources and talents of Silicon Valley to support promising social ventures to achieve measurable impact. An increasingly important role for us is to nurture empathy within and across Silicon Valley. As part of this, we’re sparking tough conversations via experiential poverty simulations and workshops with Silicon Valley donors on topics such as redefining power and privilege in the funder-fundee relationship and philanthropy’s role in advancing equity.

SV2 differs from SVP Network affiliates in that SV2 expanded beyond grantmaking to nonprofits to also invest in mission-driven for-profit companies and provide our donors experiential learning in impact investing. I’m seeing emerging Silicon Valley donors using both grants and investment tools to drive social change, following in the footsteps of Silicon Valley philanthropic leaders like Pam and Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, one of the earliest SV2 Partners.

I’ve also observed a trend of Silicon Valley donors thinking hard and in a more sophisticated way about where exactly their money sleeps at night. Are donors’ financial assets invested in alignment with their core values and social impact priorities? If the answer is no, local donors I work with are increasingly motivated to change this.

Nell: Prior to running SV2 you ran the Hewlett Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program investing in the capacity of nonprofit organizations, so building strong nonprofits is obviously near and dear to your heart. What holds nonprofits and their funders back from creating stronger organizations and how do we get beyond that?

Jen: In my view, trust is the critical lubricant between funders and grantees on the path to building strong, sustainable nonprofit organizations.

Yet it can be hard – even scary – for nonprofit leaders and funders to have courageous, authentic dialogue amidst the very real funder-fundee power dynamics.

This was equally true when I was a grantmaker at the Hewlett Foundation as it is now that I’m on the other side of the table as a nonprofit leader responsible for raising SV2’s entire operating budget each year to make payroll and fund SV2’s learning programs and grantmaking.

When striving for authentic relationships, it helps to consider this: Does it feel like we as funders and grantees are accountable to each other? Or is the grantee solely accountable to a funder? When something goes wrong with a grantee organization, does a funder run away or dig in and engage more deeply? Do funders think to ask a grantee “Is this an effective use of your time?” And respect it when the answer is no?

Whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, funders can help build strong organizations by making certain to keep their net grant high — that is, the net actual value of the grant to a nonprofit after subtracting out the costs to the nonprofit of applying for and reporting on the grant.

I’d also encourage funders of all stripes to consider doubling down versus abandoning organizations during leadership transitions. Leadership transitions are inevitable milestones that all organizations face, and are a high-stakes and often fragile time for nonprofits. These transitions can also be a time of revitalization and great opportunity for a nonprofit to evolve toward its strongest and highest-impact future.

Photo Credit: SV2

 

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How Effective Is Your Nonprofit Leader?

In an ideal world, one of the things a nonprofit board of directors does is annually evaluate the performance of the executive director. But let’s be honest, how often does that actually happen?

I once had an executive director so desperate for feedback about her job performance from a board who refused to evaluate her that she hired me to interview board and staff and write her performance review.

Perhaps boards are uncomfortable with reviewing the CEO, or they don’t know how to manage it, or they are simply unaware that it’s their responsibility. Whatever the reasons, effective evaluation of nonprofit CEO performance doesn’t happen enough in the sector.

But for a nonprofit to be effective and sustainable there must be a system in place for regularly evaluating it’s chief staff member (not to mention the rest of the staff and the board of directors itself, but those are for another day).

As I’ve said before, the head staff member (CEO or executive director) is the most important position in a nonprofit organization. She affects the level of engagement of  the board, the financial sustainability of the organization, the productivity of the staff, and ultimately the organization’s ability to achieve it’s mission. She is the chief spokesperson, chief fundraiser, chief cheerleader and so much more. At the very least, she deserves to know, on an annual basis, how well her board and staff think she is doing.

The CEO evaluation is an opportunity for the board to discuss the performance of their lead staff person, whether the organization is going in the right direction, and what, if any, adjustments need to be made. The discussion can offer a real point of organizational self-reflection that can re-energize and re-orient all involved.

So in order to inspire your nonprofit to create an annual system for evaluating the performance of your CEO or executive director, I’d like to offer some suggested questions to guide your board’s process. Ideally the board’s Governance or Board Affairs committee would be charged with managing the CEO evaluation each year. These are the types of questions they would want to answer (by surveying, compiling and analyzing staff and board feedback):

  1. What does the CEO do really well? What are his/her strengths as the leader of our nonprofit?
  2. Where is there room for improvement? What are his/her weaknesses as a leader of our nonprofit?
  3. How well does she/he recruit, manage and develop the board?
  4. How well does she/he recruit, manage, and develop the staff?
  5. How well does she/he guide the overall strategy of our nonprofit?
  6. How well does she/he serve as a spokesperson and external relationship builder for our nonprofit?
  7. How well does she/he ensure the financial sustainability of our organization?

It is critical to mention that the data gathered in the review process should be kept anonymous. You want board and staff to feel free to be honest in their responses and not fear reprisal or embarrassment for their candor. And when the board delivers the final evaluation to the CEO, they should do it in a way in which the CEO feels appreciated for the things she does well and supported in addressing any areas of concern. Ideally both board and CEO come away from the process feeling that the CEO has a clear path for the coming year and the tools and support she needs to get there.

If you need help getting your board moving forward on this process, or help coaching your leader to become more effective, check out the Leadership Coaching services I provide.

Photo Credit: Packer, poster artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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Why Nonprofits Need Both Leaders and Managers

In the nonprofit sector the words “leader” and “manager” are sometimes tossed around interchangeably. But the fact is that they are two very different, and equally necessary, elements to an effective and sustainable nonprofit organization.

A leader provides an inspiring, motivating big strategy for staff and board to get behind. She asks hard questions and constantly pushes the organization and its people to do more, try harder, expand their reach, think bigger. A leader makes sure that people are engaged and invested in the work and creates a team environment where each person feels part of something much larger than herself. And in this way, a leader inspires board and staff to do more and be more than they ever thought possible.

Whereas, a manager creates systems that allow the organization to get things done and holds board and staff accountable. He makes sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be, has the tools they need to get the job done, and is held responsible for their part. The manager executes the path that the leader has articulated.

So in an ideal scenario, the two — leader and manager — work as a perfect team. One strategizes, propels, and inspires. The other creates systems and accountability to bring the strategy to fruition.

It doesn’t matter if you are a large nonprofit or a tiny one. And it doesn’t matter if the roles of “leader” and “manager” are contained in one person or multiple people, as long as everyone is clear about who is which, and when. Sometimes, in larger nonprofits, the leader and the manager will be contained in two different people, or in several people (senior management team, board chair and CEO). And other times the executive director of a small nonprofit may need to play the role of leader and manager in equal measure.

However you do it, in order to be effective and sustainable as a nonprofit, both your board and your staff need to be led and managed well.

Ask yourself these questions to see if your nonprofit lacks leadership, management, or both:

Leadership

Management

If you answered “No” to some or all of these questions, your nonprofit may lack some key leadership or management capabilities. If that is the case, step up as a leader and encourage a hard conversation about where your nonprofit is lacking and how to fill those gaps.

And if you need some help figuring out what your nonprofit lacks or how to fill those gaps, check out the coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staffs, or download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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What Is Nonprofit Sustainability?

Last week I led a planning call among the panelists on the “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability” session I am moderating at April’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference (which I described in an earlier post). One of the panelist suggested that we start the session by defining what we mean by “nonprofit sustainability.”

As we started to discuss this, it quickly became apparent that some of us had different definitions of “nonprofit sustainability.” And indeed, in the social change sector more broadly there is a long list of definitions of nonprofit sustainability.

Sometimes people use “nonprofit sustainability” to mean nonprofits moving away from private philanthropy and becoming self-sufficient through earned income sources (the sale of goods or services). I don’t believe that that is ever possible. Nonprofits are often borne as a response to a disequilibrium that the market created (income inequality, racial injustice, failing education). So it is rare that a nonprofit can figure out a way to make the market pay for something that it created. The vast majority of nonprofits will never be fully self-sustaining through earned income efforts; rather they will always be subsidized by non-earned sources, like philanthropy and government.

Others define “nonprofit sustainability” as the ability to attract multi-year, unrestricted funding. While that would be a positive step, foundations are largely the only nonprofit funding source able or willing to make unrestricted, multi-year commitments. Government funding is never unrestricted, and individuals rarely make multi-year commitments. And even if all foundation funders made these commitments, foundation funding only ever totals 2-3% of all of the revenue flowing to the nonprofit sector. So that’s not a big enough piece of the pie to ensure nonprofit sustainability.

Still others talk about “nonprofit sustainability” as having a diversified revenue stream. It may make sense for some nonprofits to focus on one or two revenue streams if that’s where their core competencies lie. So it is not a foregone conclusion that revenue diversification fits every nonprofit business model.

And other people define “nonprofit sustainability” as understanding and funding a nonprofit’s full costs, including direct and indirect costs. While this is absolutely a part of nonprofit sustainability, I don’t think it tells the whole story.

Therefore, none of these definitions of nonprofit sustainability satisfy me. They are either two narrow, too unrealistic, or inaccurate.

My definition, then, is:

Nonprofit sustainability occurs when a nonprofit attracts and effectively uses
enough and the right kinds of money necessary to achieve their long-term outcome goals.

So to break that down, nonprofit sustainability includes these elements:

Knowing Your Long-Term Outcome Goals
To be sustainable, a nonprofit must articulate the long-term outcomes that they are ultimately trying to accomplish (through a Theory of Change). You cannot hope to be sustainable if you can’t articulate why you exist and what you ultimately want to accomplish as a social change organization.

Having a Strategy to Achieve Those Goals
And you won’t achieve those outcomes (and be sustainable) if you don’t have a long-term strategy to get there. The strategy doesn’t have to be set in stone — it should be malleable as internal and external circumstances change — but it should ultimately guide your course to achieving those outcome goals.

Effectively Using Enough Money
But its not enough to simply plan for the future, you must then figure out what staff, board, volunteers, systems, technology, marketing, and other resources you need to bring your strategy to fruition. You must articulate the business model you will employ, and the corresponding money required, to realize your long-term outcome goals. And I don’t mean the band-aid version — I mean what it will really take to achieve the long-term outcomes you seek.

Attracting the Right Kinds of Money
But it’s also not enough to figure out what it’s going to cost. You have to figure out the other side of the money equation, which is how to bring that money in the door. A smart financial strategy attracts money that is the right fit for your organization. You have to be strategic (not reactive) about how money flows to the organization (fundraising, government grants, earned income). It might be that you focus solely on private sources, or you may have a mix of government and earned sources. But your financial model must align with your core competencies and your mission.

Nonprofit sustainability means that a nonprofit board and staff know what they want to accomplish, develop a smart strategy and business model, and use money as a tool to make it happen.

But nonprofit sustainability should not be up to just nonprofit leaders to figure out. Anyone who wants to realize social change (the government, private funders, social change leaders) must advocate for and support more sustainability in the sector. It must be a larger conversation. I hope that conversation grows far beyond the CEP conference in April.

Photo Credit: Philip Taylor

 

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Feb 2017

Whew, are you as exhausted as I am? As I said last month, with the January inauguration of President Trump, it seems we moved into hyper drive. And February didn’t slow down a bit. From debates about the right political role for nonprofits, to advocacy in new areas like science, to efforts to reinvent journalism, to new grassroots organizing campaigns, to new ways to think about marketing in the nonprofit sector, there was a lot going on in the world of social change.

Here is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change in February. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And check out past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. A big contributor to the exhausting pace is the daily onslaught of new and shocking pronouncements from the Trump administration. One with a potentially huge impact on the nonprofit sector was Trump’s call for an end to the Johnson Amendment, which limits the election-related activity of nonprofits. Many argued that this would be a destructive development for the sector, from limiting the collaborative position of the sector, to moving philanthropy away from social change and toward politics, to contributing to an elimination of the charitable tax deduction, to increasing dark money contributions to political campaigns. But others disagreed arguing that repealing the Johnson Amendment would level the playing field with for-profits.  As always, the HistPhil blog gives some much needed historical perspective on the issue.

  2. Another victim of Trump’s ire in February was the news media. Journalism has been struggling for years amid falling advertising revenues and a changing digital landscape. But it seems the Trump administration may just be the impetus the industry needs to reinvent itself. As Jeff Jarvis argued: “Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.” And Nieman Lab hosted a conversation among journalists and editors from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post about the future of journalism. And Democracy Fund launched a cool new project, the Local News Lab, aimed at making local news more sustainable.

  3. In these uncertain times where many nonprofits are feeling under attack, advocacy has become a more important tool than ever. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jim Shultz offers some guiding questions for developing your nonprofit’s advocacy strategy.

  4. And speaking of new levels of advocacy, while scientists once strived to remain separate from politics, some scientists are finding themselves in the political arena just by investigating areas at odds with the Trump administration, like climate change. And some scientists created a network of scientists who could offer temporary space to U.S. scientists stranded overseas by the immigration ban.

  5. The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies released a new online database that lets you slice and dice data on the U.S. nonprofit economy. Fascinating.

  6. Some nonprofits have enjoyed dramatic donation and follower increases as a result of the election. One of these, the ACLU has developed a pretty impressive social media strategy and plans for a much larger ground game. Similarly, Planned Parenthood is using their increased support to develop their grassroots organizing efforts.

  7. All of these efforts to resist the Trump Administration got David Brooks thinking about resistance movements throughout history and which might be most applicable now.

  8. Taz Hussein and Matt Plummer offered a wakeup call to social change leaders who think they don’t need to generate demand for their social change work: “It’s time [nonprofits] and their funders heed business findings on increasing noise in the marketplace and the need to make any new offering, even a life-saving one, stand out. In other words, they need to pay what it takes to actively drive demand.”

  9. And speaking of marketing in the nonprofit sector, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argued that nonprofits needs to stop “raising awareness” and instead create strategies for changing behavior: “Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.” Amen!

  10. Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Kyle Crawford argued that chatbots — computer programs that conduct a conversation via voice or text — have a real role to play in social change, and nonprofits should become early adopters of this new technology.

Photo Credit: Max Pixel

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Nonprofit Leaders, Get Outside Your Walls

It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders form their organizational strategy, their fundraising pitch, or their program model inside their nonprofit’s own walls. In order to be successful, you must understand the market in which you operate. And in order to understand it, you must go investigate it.

It is a simple fact that nonprofits must compete for funding, for clients, for volunteers, for staff, for board members, for mindshare, for policymaker will and commitment. So you must understand the market in which you work – what’s happening out there and how you fit in.

Ongoing market research can help you understand how your clients and potential clients think, what your funders want now and in the future, what your competitors and collaborators are doing and where they might be going, and how the very problems you exist to solve might be changing over time.

And there is another huge benefit to this data gathering — it forces you to expand and strengthen your network, because in the very act of finding out what’s happening outside your walls, you will forge new and deeper connections with others out there. So while market research should definitely be part of your long-term strategic planning process, it is also something you should continue to do on at least an annual basis.

Market research is where you test the assumptions baked into your work. You are seeking to find the answers to questions like:

Competitors/Collaborators

  • How are the efforts of other groups in our space changing over time?
  • How are these other groups funded?
  • What are their program delivery models?
  • What are their plans for the future?
  • Where are there opportunities for alliance?
  • How do they define the social problems they are working on?

External Context

  • What other social, technological, economic, demographic, political, regulatory shifts are happening outside our walls that might affect the problem(s) we are working on?

Target Populations

Of those people or groups you are trying to influence or benefit (like your clients) find out:

  • What are the demographic (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.) characteristics of these groups?
  • What are their psychographic (attitudes, interests, goals, etc.) characteristics?
  • How can we best reach them and change their attitudes and/or behavior?
  • What specific subsets of these populations can we have the greatest impact on?

Funding

  • How might our various funding streams (government, earned income, private donations, etc.) change over time?
  • What might our current or future funders want in the future?
  • What appeals to them about our solution?
  • What appeals to them about alternative solutions?

Before embarking on any market research, think through questions like these and figure out which are most applicable to your situation. This becomes your market research list.

Then determine how you will find the answers to those questions. Very few nonprofits can afford a comprehensive market study, so it will likely be up to your staff to do the digging. This can include activities like:

  • Web research on your competitors, collaborators, funders.
  • One-on-one interviews with current and potential funders, collaborators and competitors, experts in your field.
  • Surveys of your current or potential clients, members, influencers, funders, volunteers.
  • Review of existing research on the social issues on which you work.

And don’t assume that you will do this type of market research only once. Rather, you want to make it a regular part of operations (at least annually, if not more often), so it shouldn’t be overly burdensome. Make it easy and interesting for you and your staff to get beyond your walls and better understand the market in which you work.

Armed with new and ongoing knowledge about your market, you will be better able to design effective programs, attract additional support, articulate your nonprofit’s unique value, grow your network, and much more. So get out there!

Photo Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wartime Social Survey

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