return on investment
February witnessed some dissatisfaction with the current state of funding for social change, but also some trailblazers playing with new financial vehicles. I always wonder whether true change to money for social good will come with the next generation. Do Millennials hold the key to fundamental shifts in how we finance social change efforts? We shall see.
Below is my list of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in February. But, as usual, please add what I missed in the comments. If you’d like to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can also find the list of past months’ 10 Great Reads here.
- As we work toward social change, its important to embrace the gray areas. Writing in the New York Times Simon Critchley takes us back to the 1970s BBC documentary series “The Ascent of Man” to make a point about the importance of uncertainty in our search for solutions. As he puts it, “Insisting on certainty…leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.” And Fay Twersky seems to agree when it comes to strategic philanthropy, arguing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that “we need to challenge the certainty creeping into [philanthropy].”
- And speaking of changing philanthropy yet another study of Millennial philanthropists claims that this new generation of donors will be quite different than their predecessors. As Phil DeMuth writing in Forbes puts it, these new donors “are no longer interested in providing an annuity to some tax-deductible charity organization.” They want to see results, and they want to get in and get out.
- But Lucy Bernholz is frustrated by the pace of change, at least in how little the financial vehicles philanthropists use are changing. She argues that in this year’s list of the top 50 philanthropists “the financial vehicles for philanthropy…look not unlike [those] in 1954 or 1914.”
- Tris Lumley from New Philanthropy Capital voices frustration as well, but with the general state of nonprofit finance. He puts forward a new model for the social sector that removes the “funder-centricity” of the “anti-social sector.” Because, as he argues, “the result of this funder-centricity at its worst is that the social sector exists not for those it’s supposed to help, but in fact for those who work in it, volunteer in it, and give money to it.”
- There are some bright spots, at least in the United Kingdom. The country leads the way in the social impact bond trend. Emma Tomkinson provides a map of social impact bond activity in the UK versus the rest of the world and the UK Centre for Social Impact Bonds provides a great site of resources on the new tool.
- And even here at home there are some trend setters, particularly the F.B. Heron Foundation, led by the visionary Clara Miller who also founded and led the trailblazing Nonprofit Finance Fund for 25 years. Clara has announced the F.B. Heron Foundation will account for the mission return of 100% of its assets. Unheard of and definitely interesting to watch.
- There is a constant tension in the nonprofit sector between funding new ideas and funding the growth of proven ideas. Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Alex Neuhoff, Laura Burkhauser, and Bradley Seeman fall squarely on the side of growing proven solutions, arguing that in order to reach a higher performing nonprofit sector we must “follow the “recipes” that earned proven programs their stellar ratings.”
- There was much for Millennial changemakers to chew on this month. First, there is a growing drumbeat questioning the relevance and value of college. Does the higher education model really work anymore? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate. And Naomi Schaefer Riley does so in the “College Tuition Bubble.“
- I’ve been on a real Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art) kick lately. His worldview is that each individual was put on earth to create some specific greater good, but Resistance constantly fights to keep us from achieving it. If you need inspiration to overcome Resistance, read his post “How Resistance Proves the Existence of God.” Love it.
- And for those who are pursuing a life of social change despite the lure of a more traditional path, look to Thoreau for inspiration. For as Maureen Corrigan explains in her NPR review of a new biography of the man, “Thoreau’s youth seemed aimless to himself and others because there were no available roadmaps for what he was drawn to be…If Thoreau had committed to a professional career right after Harvard, his parents might have rested easier, but the world would have been poorer.”
Photo Credit: beggs
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Denise San Antonio Zeman. Denise has been President and CEO of Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio since 2000. A lifelong Clevelander, Denise’s career has spanned higher education, human services, healthcare and philanthropy. Now in its 17th year of grantmaking, Saint Luke’s provides leadership and support to improve and transform health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Saint Luke’s Foundation is different than most foundations in that you have made a conscious commitment to funding the capacity of nonprofit grantees in areas such as leadership development and outcomes measurement. Why did the foundation decide to put an emphasis on capacity funding and what have you learned from those investments?
Denise: Just over two years ago, our Foundation board and staff held a retreat. An important topic was our frustration over the reality that the recent economic downturn had produced tremendous need in our community and volatility in our grant budget. Specifically, this downturn highlighted for us that we were spending more when the economy was good and less when the community needed us most. These concerns were analyzed, and the culprit was determined to be our spending policy, for although we knew we could not control the world economy, we realized that we could control the way we responded to it.
We had employed a traditional 5% payout since our inception in 1997, and decided to investigate spending policies that might provide us a higher, more predictable level of spending going forward. With much trepidation, the board approved a bold new spending policy that provides for a “floor” with certain tolerance limits. We increased our spending by about $4 million and established a spending range between 5 and 7%. For the past two years our spending has been very close to 7%.
With this came a strong commitment to working with our grantees and philanthropic colleagues to move toward funding what works in order to advance a smaller set of priorities. The new priorities more narrowly define our previously broad definition of “health” to focus on three specific strategy areas: Healthy People, Strong Communities and Resilient Families.
The role of our senior program officers also shifted from a focus on managing a set of grants to a commitment to advancing a strategy. We agreed upon long and short-term outcomes that guide our grantmaking decisions, and the program team now manages their portfolios of grants in a more entrepreneurial way. In addition to making grants, their due diligence includes an in-depth analysis of the grantees’ capacity to be successful.
A thorough analysis of the literature, conversations with colleagues and focus groups with grantees revealed six strengths that the highest performing nonprofits have in common. These include strong financial management, investment in leadership, a commitment to outcomes and learning, a spirit of collaboration, excellent communications, and advocacy for good public policy.
We support and encourage our grantees to develop these capacities in a variety of ways. In our formal and informal interactions, we encourage them to think about their approach to building these capacities and we provide support to assist them in this process. We ask probing questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” in order to nurture lines of communication, demonstrate our concern for their growth and development, and most importantly, learn. And we work with our regional association, Philanthropy Ohio, to bring national content experts to our region for programs and seminars on relevant topics. We also host meetings ourselves during which we invite thought leaders such as Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), Dan Heath (Made to Stick and Switch), Fay Twersky (Beneficiary Voice), and Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy) to challenge the status quo and help us focus our efforts to build a stronger nonprofit and philanthropic sector.
In order to be able to deliver on their promise to the community, nonprofits must have a solid financial base. Our scrutiny of financial statements has increased, and with that has come a commitment to working with our grantees to improve their financial planning, monitoring, operations and governance. The Nonprofit Finance Fund and Financial Management Associates, LLC have provided local strategic financial management seminars to increase knowledge and inspire motivation to build financial capacities.
We also know that strong leaders produce great results. We therefore encourage and support comprehensive leadership development for our grantees, and we support efforts to implement leadership development practices that ensure good governance and empower professional staff to be leaders of change.
We are committed to tapping into the power of outcomes measurement as a way to support continuous learning and encourage performance improvement, and we work with our grantees to support their efforts to collect and use data to improve their outcomes for their clients. We have learned first-hand how challenging measuring impact in the social sector can be. But we have also learned that unless we measure and move toward specific, measurable outcomes, we run the risk of spinning our wheels at best, and actually doing harm at worst. The works of Mario Morino (Leap of Reason) and David Hunter (Working Hard and Working Well) provide nonprofit and philanthropic leaders with the rationale and roadmap for making a measurable, meaningful and lasting difference for the people they serve, and we strongly encourage our grantees and colleagues to join us in embracing their approaches.
We have also learned the importance of supporting the capacity of our grantees to work with others. We live in a nonprofit community that was built for a population of over one million people, and yet the last census revealed that our community has contracted by more than half. Our government and philanthropic resources have diminished, yet the need in our community has grown. We therefore work in partnership with our grantees and philanthropic partners to support collaboration in practice and in learning, and we have embraced the concepts of Collective Impact (Foundation Strategy Group) to inform our work.
Communication is also an area of focus for us. Borrowing from what we learned from Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, we support strategic communications that help our grantees leverage outcomes and tell effective stories to advance their missions. This is not storytelling for the sake of storytelling; rather, it is using the power of outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness and impact.
While philanthropic support for health and human services is important, it is miniscule compared to government spending. We therefore support efforts to educate policymakers on relevant issues and influence institutions, systems and community and/or individual behaviors within the funding guidelines for private foundations.
Quite simply, we believe that strong nonprofits produce the strongest results, and as funders of impact, we believe it is our role to support our grantees to be the strongest they can be.
Nell: Leadership development is a particular area of interest for the foundation. What do you think nonprofit leaders need most to become more effective and what role can philanthropists play in that?
Denise: We view strong, resilient leadership as one of the most effective tools for achieving superior results. In our work with grantees, we have learned that organizations that take an intentional, focused approach to leadership development achieve better outcomes for the people they serve. Nonprofit leaders need boards that are uncompromising on quality and results, and these boards must both challenge and support executive leadership to drive innovation and strategic performance.
As noted in Independent Sector’s Leadership Initiative, nonprofit leaders need “time, attention and resources to engage in high-quality leadership development programming that equips them to deliver significant results.” Leaders cannot be so “in the weeds” that they lose sight of their role as keepers of the promise. We encourage our grantees to use some of our general operating support to focus on leadership development, and to extend that focus to developing the “next generation” of leaders as well.
We also provide funds for nonprofit leaders to participate in high quality leadership development programs locally and nationally. Additionally, we support an individual professional development program for each member of our foundation staff to ensure that they continue to develop their own potential as leaders.
Nell: One of the arguments some philanthropists make against providing funding for building nonprofit organizations is that it is harder to demonstrate the return from a capacity building investment than a program investment. How do you respond to that argument?
Denise: I agree…it is hard, but we have never been an organization that avoids hard! In our work with the TCC Group last year, we learned more about what it takes to be a learning organization. We made a commitment to learning from everything we do, and we are committed to learning more about how to measure the impact of capacity building investments.
And while we are still learning, we have some specific examples that demonstrate the return on our investments in building capacity. We know, for example, that our support for outcomes and learning has helped some of our grantees build the capacity to reflect their success by implementing outcomes management software and producing results-oriented dashboards. Eight of the organizations we helped form strategic alliances have merged into four, and are serving more people with fewer resources. We also know that some of the communications-related grants we have made have enabled grantees to extend their reach in innovative ways such as electronic case management programs. And we know that policy-focused grants have allowed some of our safety net providers to come together to provide patient-centered medical homes for some of our most vulnerable citizens in advance of Medicaid expansion. While these results might be viewed as anecdotal, we believe they are building our own capacity to make a strong case for capacity building.
Nell: Funders are becoming increasingly interested in nonprofit outcomes measurement, yet few funders are willing to fund evaluations. How do we solve that chicken or the egg scenario?
Denise: I was recently invited to participate on a panel called “Do Funders Get It?” at a national conference called After the Leap. The panel responded to Nancy Roob’s stirring plenary session in which she described the phenomenal work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in supporting youth development organizations across the country to be more effective.
We posed the question “Do funders understand the resources and support nonprofits require to scale impact?” to the audience, and not surprisingly, the response affirmed the reality that most of us do not. The truth that funders want results but are reluctant to fund evaluations has been confirmed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to name just a few.
So how do we solve this dichotomy? As with any attempt at true and lasting change, there is no single silver bullet that will suddenly convince funders to change their traditional ways of grantmaking. But I do believe there is a growing receptivity to the concept of funding for impact, and there is a role for philanthropic affinity groups and regional associations to educate their membership with concrete suggestions that funders can use with their boards, professional staffs and grantees.
Government funders are beginning to understand the importance of funding what works, and this will raise the stakes for nonprofits that rely heavily on public support. They will have to demonstrate impact or they will not receive support. This will raise the evaluation imperative to standard operating procedure, and funders that care at all about their grantees will be compelled to support building evidence that their approaches do, in fact, achieve sustainable results.
Nell: Although Saint Luke’s Foundation is a real trail blazer in the philanthropic world, philanthropy overall is rather slow to change, particularly when it comes to funding in new ways. What do you think it will take to get more funders to understand that stronger nonprofit leaders and organizations can equal more impact?
Denise: Thank you for your kind words. Our change in spending policy and approach was largely informed by Mario Morino’s admonition to “rethink, redesign and reinvent the why, what and how of our work in every arena.” He went on to suggest that we “need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving – all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.” When put that way, who could argue?
Foundations and nonprofits are about the business of improving lives. The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO. And unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail. We must be bold in challenging and supporting one another to disrupt the sector in unprecedented ways. We at Saint Luke’s Foundation have changed our approaches from spending to strategy to portfolio management, but we have stayed true to our original mission statement to improve and transform health and well-being in our community. I suppose it is fair to say that our very mission implies that we will fund what improves and transforms…and therefore we see it as being true to our mission to build highly effective provider organizations.
Photo Credit: Saint Luke’s Foundation
There is a calculation (in addition to the cost of fundraising which I’ve discussed before) that I would love more nonprofits to do. And that is to calculate the opportunity costs of a decision.
An opportunity cost is the value (money, time, resources) of the next best option when you make a choice between two options. Understanding the opportunity costs of decisions is particularly important when resources are scarce, as is the case in the nonprofit sector.
And it is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising blog series.
In calculating the opportunity costs, you are consciously analyzing two or more options and quantifying the value of the next best option when you choose one option over the others. So, for example, when you are choosing between two new jobs you’ve been offered, you recognize that in choosing one position you are giving up the value (or salary) of the other position. It seems so simple, yet in the nonprofit world it becomes much more complex.
Because the nonprofit sector is under capitalized, money is king. A driving motivation in many nonprofits is to preserve money, or go after money, at all costs. So the concept of opportunity costs is often ignored. But if we truly want to put every last nonprofit resource to its highest and best use, we must understand opportunity costs.
Opportunity costs are calculated like this:
Opportunity Costs of Option #1 = The long-term benefits of option #2 – the long term benefits of option #1
If the opportunity costs for a particular choice are positive, you have not chosen the best (most valuable) option.
Let me give you a couple of examples of how opportunity costs can be calculated in the nonprofit world.
Fundraising vs. Friend-Raising Event
This decision came up for one of my clients the other day. They were going to host an event at a board member’s house with 25 potential major donors. They were hesitant to use the event just as a group cultivation of major donors, so they were grappling with the idea of asking attendees to make a $100 donation while at the event (a total of $2,500 in revenue). That would have been a huge mistake because of opportunity costs. If cultivated correctly over the coming year, the attendees all had the capacity to give much larger donations, probably an average of $5,000 per attendee (a total of $125,000 in revenue). But if those attendees were forced to make a $100 donation, they would be done with their giving to that organization for the year.
The opportunity cost of the fundraising event would be:
$125,000 (value of the friend-raiser) – $2,500 (the value of the fundraiser) = $122,500
In other words, in deciding to hold a fundraising event, instead of a friend-raising event, the nonprofit is giving up $122,500 in value.
Needless to say, they decided to make the event purely a friend-raiser, with no fundraising ask. However, it goes without saying that they now need to be sure to do effective follow up cultivation and eventually solicitation with every attendee to the friend-raiser.
Grantwriter vs. Development Director
If a nonprofit leader is deciding whether to spend $45,000 to hire a grant writer or $75,000 to hire a development director they might opt to hire the grantwriter because that is the cheaper option, and in the world of nonprofits, cheaper is always better. But in hiring a grantwriter, the nonprofit would save $30,000 in regular costs (the difference in salary between a development director and grantwriter), but lose many times that amount in long-term benefits. The difference in revenue brought in under the development director, someone who could increase the overall financial engine of the organization, could be in the hundreds of thousands and many times the value of the grantwriter, who would only be able to increase foundation and/or government funding.
So the opportunity costs of hiring a grantwriter would be:
$250,000 (estimated annual increase to overall giving with a development director) – $30,000 (additional cost of the development director salary) – $100,000 (estimated annual increase to foundation giving with a grantwriter) = $120,000
In choosing the “cheaper” grantwriter, the nonprofit is losing $120,000 in value.
I would love to see more nonprofits calculate the opportunity costs of all decisions they make. Indeed, because nonprofits are so constrained for resources they should be even more cognizant of opportunity costs and ensure that every last resource is put to its highest and best use.
If you want to learn more about moving from a fundraising to a financing approach at your nonprofit, check out our on-demand library of Financing Not Fundraising webinars, guides and e-books.
Photo Credit: Krzysztof Poltorak
I’ve had a lot of great questions about the upcoming Financing Not Fundraising E-Course for nonprofit leaders. So I created a video that breaks the e-course down and explains exactly how it will work.
The Financing Not Fundraising E-Course is an excellent opportunity for nonprofits stuck in the starvation cycle to figure out what they can do to more effectively raise money and then create a plan for a more sustainable financial engine. The registration fee is per organization, so if you would like your executive director, development director and a board member, for example, to participate, they all can for one fee. You will just simply appoint one person as representative of the organization to participate in the coaching calls, and the others are free to “listen in” and help you with each step along the way.
The total time commitment over the course of two months is approximately 10-15 hours, which includes the webinars, coaching calls, Google Hangouts and homework assignments.
This E-Course is truly an investment in the future of your organization. By making the investment of the time and cost you will transform the money engine of your organization and recoup that investment many, many times over.
A big topic of conversation lately has been whether donors really care about impact, or whether they simply just give based on less scientific things like their emotions, or their friends recommendations. Which is why I’m excited to announce that I’ll be participating in a Google Hangout April 30th about using data to attract donors.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Ogden claims that donors have never really been interested in impact. And Ken Berger from Charity Navigator and William Schambra of the Hudson Institute debate (here and here) whether moving the nonprofit sector toward performance management helps or hurts social change efforts.
To add to this conversation, David Henderson and I are hosting a Google Hangout, “How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money,” on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern. David is a super smart guy who runs Idealistics, a consultancy that helps nonprofits learn from their outcomes data, increase impact, and demonstrate results to funders and stakeholders. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to implement higher impact poverty interventions. He has been quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and has written for Change.org and the Huffington Post. You can read my interview with him from a year and a half ago here.
David and I thought it would be interesting to host a conversation with nonprofit leaders about how nonprofits can use real performance data to raise more money. We’ll kick off the hour-long conversation with a couple of points and a case study or two of nonprofits that are using data to raise more money, but then we’ll open it up to you for questions. You can send us your questions ahead of time (via email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) or simply post them to the Google Hangout here as you watch.
I hope you’ll join us!
How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money
A Google Hangout with David Henderson and Nell Edgington
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013
Can nonprofits that use real performance data to raise more money? Are donor increasingly interested in impact data? How can nonprofits communicate their program data to donors? And how should nonprofits respond to questionable performance claims by other organizations? Join David Henderson from Idealistics and Nell Edgington from Social Velocity in a Google Hangout on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern to discuss these and many more questions about how nonprofits can use real data to raise more money. We’d love to have you participate in the discussion, so send your questions ahead of time to Nell or David, or leave a comment at the Google Hangout here.
Photo Credit: 401(K) 2013
I wrote last month about the crippling nonprofit fear of investment. Related to that, nonprofits need to understand and embrace the concept of Return on Investment. Nonprofit leaders often exist in such a world of scarcity that they don’t recognize that an investment today can have a huge payoff down the road. And not recognizing the value of a return on investment, particularly when it comes to a nonprofit’s fundraising function, can keep nonprofits in starvation mode.
One of the ways I consult with nonprofits is coaching a development director or executive director to increase money flowing to the organization. We work on getting board members to bring money in the door, identifying new donors, crafting a compelling message, launching new revenue streams, developing an overall financing plan.
This work could have a huge future payout:
- Board members no longer sit on their hands but actively recruit new donors to the organization.
- New donors are acquired through a thoughtful, strategic major donor campaign.
- A compelling case for investment convinces foundations and major donors to invest at higher levels and for longer periods.
- A new earned income stream brings in unrestricted revenue.
- An effective financing plan puts scarce resources to their highest and best use.
If you think of this in terms of return on investment it’s a no-brainer. You have two options:
- Continue to struggle day-to-day for the foreseeable future, or
- Make an investment today in order to dramatically increase funding and sustainability tomorrow
Let’s do the math. If a nonprofit with a budget of $1 million were to spend, say $5,000 on hands-on coaching to develop a financing plan, create a compelling case for investment, get their board engaged in fundraising, and launch a major donor campaign those elements could translate into well over $100,000 of new money annually for the nonprofit.
- A financing plan clarifies and marshals resources so staff and board know exactly where the money flows and who will do what to make it happen. The very act of creating and monitoring a financing plan could increase funding by 5%, or $50,000.
- A case for investment, when done well, becomes the backbone of any and all money-raising efforts. It can be integrated into your website, your social media efforts, your donor letters, your presentations. Telling a concise, compelling story makes donors sit up and take notice and adds perhaps another 2% increase, or $20,000.
- If your entire board starts (in their own unique ways) bringing money in the door that could increase your bottomline as well. If each member of a 15-person board starts to increase their own giving and/or the giving of those in their network by $1,000 each, that’s another $15,000.
- A major donor campaign charts a logical, strategic way for you to identify and acquire new donors. Getting strategic about how you find and recruit those donors will ensure much greater success, perhaps a 5% increase, or $50,000.
So with very conservative estimates the original $5,000 investment in coaching translates to $135,000 in new money every year thereafter.
My favorite example of this is when I helped KLRU, Austin’s PBS station use $350,000 in capacity capital to do many of the above things. After 3 years of implementing a new financing plan, using a new case for investment, and more, they were raising $1.6 million in NEW REVENUE each year. That’s a huge return on investment.
If you make a smart investment in improving the money engine of your nonprofit, that investment will pay off many times over, creating a more secure financial future for your organization.
Photo Credit: MeckiMac
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Wendy Harman. Wendy is the Director of Social Strategy at the American Red Cross. Her goal is for the Red Cross to be a social organization ready for 21st century humanitarian work. She is responsible for their national social media presence, including the listening program, social content and community engagement.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: The Red Cross has fully embraced social media. How specifically has it helped you get closer to achieving your mission?
Wendy: Our social engagement philosophy centers around using social tools to execute our mission. That is, moving beyond using social engagement for communications and marketing purposes and onto using these tools and our increased ability to network horizontally with huge communities for service delivery. The Red Cross has five main service areas: disaster services; international services; serviced to the Armed Forces; preparedness health and safety; and biomedical services (blood). We have probably made the most headway in operationalizing during disasters. For example, we’ve created the Digital Operations Center (funded by Dell) in order to holistically see and synthesize social conversations from disaster-affected areas. So far, we’ve found three main purposes for the center:
- We use the center to provide real-time and anticipatory situational awareness. This means we can provide all decision makers in the Red Cross disaster services, as well as many of our partners outside the organization, with real-time trends from the affected areas. We can identify gaps in service, the biggest needs, the most talked-about subjects as they relate to the disaster, and more. This helps us know what’s happening on the ground in the moment and also can help our experts anticipate service delivery that will be needed in the coming days or weeks.
- We use it to route needs. When we see an individual tweet that says, “I need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I haven’t eaten in days because of this hurricane,” we can route this information to our teams on the ground who are organizing our mobile feeding efforts.
- We provide individualized information. We have built a digital volunteer role and now have trained volunteers who can “deploy” in place and help to get information, resources, shelter locations, mobile feeding locations, real time tips, and a bit of confidence and support to people who need it. For example, during tornado warnings we often see a big increase in tweets from people hunkered down in their basements or bathtubs—and they are scared. The Red Cross has a lot of expertise on exactly what to do when you find yourself in this situation, and we’re able to provide those tips in the exact moment people need them. In addition, a big part of our mission is to provide hope and comfort in people’s worst moments, so we’re also encouraging the digital volunteers to offer that hope and comfort via digital “hugs,” or words of support.
Nell: How do you manage the ever-changing and ever-expanding social media environment? How do you determine where to spend your time and when to change your approach?
Wendy: The age of the social web has affected the role of the nonprofit sector in general and the role of the Red Cross, particularly during disasters. We are expanding from an organization that executes discrete relief activities with trained experts and volunteers, to an organization that acts as a platform to connect and mobilize people affected by disasters. We are tool agnostic; the foundation of our social engagement program centers around listening to, engaging with and acting on social conversations. This way we stay nimble in our content, and we can adapt quickly with the public.
Nell: The Red Cross is a huge nonprofit and has more resources to put behind social media. How do you suggest small nonprofits logistically work social media into their marketing mix?
Wendy: Huge doesn’t necessarily translate to big budgets for social engagement. We are lucky to have three staff members dedicated to social engagement, but we’re really trying to work our way out of our jobs. In other words, rather than having the three of us triaging thousands of conversations per day, we’d like to see social engagement become part of every Red Crossers’ workday. My more concrete advice is to do what you can do well—you don’t have to be everywhere, you just have to really be in the places where you say you will be.
Nell: In some ways your role at the Red Cross is to help an aging institution embrace change and the new realities of the world we live in. Why do you think the Red Cross has been open to change when other large and seasoned nonprofits have not?
Wendy: I think innovation and adaptation has always been baked into the DNA of the Red Cross. One of my favorite Clara Barton quotes is, “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” No doubt we have built up institutional walls over the years, but at the same time, we have broad recognition of the value of partnerships and collaboration, and we’re working to be sure we make openings in those walls so everyone can participate in the Red Cross network and our humanitarian mission. We’re also getting quicker at adopting new technologies, but I think the openness in our organizational culture to strive to be better is more of a key indicator about our relevancy than our adoption to a particular technology.
Nell: Some nonprofits will embrace social media if they think there is a fundraising payoff, but the Red Cross has obviously found a huge mission payoff as well. How do you explain to nonprofits that are hesitant to spend time building communities what the payoff could be and how to be patient in finding it?
Wendy: This is the million-dollar question. I think my favorite quote about this is from Socialnomics author Erik Qualmann who says, “The ROI of social media is that your business will still exist in 5 years.”
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Erine Gray. Erine is the founder of Aunt Bertha, an online Benefit Corporation that matches people in need with federal, state, county, city or nonprofit services to specifically address their situation. Erine studied economics at Indiana University, public policy at the University of Texas and spent the better part of eleven years consulting (six of which were spent helping governments operate more effectively).
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Aunt Bertha essentially exists to fix an inefficient system of connecting services to those who need them. It seems to me your model is at the heart of an ongoing debate about whether there are some public goods that simply cannot be turned into marketable items. Obviously you believe there is a market for you, but why? What sorts of public goods can be turned into a market?
Erine: I’ve always been kind of a public policy nerd and understand that government has a vital role in the social safety net. Having graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, I understand that government programs don’t have the luxury of catering to a certain segment. Programs like Food Stamps (now called SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) don’t get to choose who they serve because they *are* the safety net.
The private sector is different. A consulting firm can choose to only serve telecommunications companies with 200 – 500 employees. A shoe store can focus on high-end running shoes. These types of organizations can survive if they hustle and convince enough people to become customers.
When you start to look at the amount of money spent by both government social service programs and charities, the figure is spectacular. It just takes a little research and a few clicks in Excel to see the enormous amount of money that is spent every year either telling people about these programs or determining whether or not people qualify.
If we accept, for a moment, that the public social safety net should exist (and I believe it should), we then must ask the question: is the public doing a good job of administering these programs?
I’ve spent the last 10 years working in this industry, with six of those years working on projects with city and state governments. My answer to this question would be: there’s plenty of room for improvement.
We don’t need to start over because government does some things very well. But we should break down the problem and see what should be outsourced to qualified vendors.
Should governments build their own marketing teams to tell people about their programs? Or should governments work with professional marketing firms to get the word out as needed? Should charities build their own fundraising software or would Blackbaud [fundraising software] do the trick?
Nell: The fact that you are a for-profit company is fascinating to me. Can you explain how your business model works and how you make money in a space that has traditionally been dominated by the nonprofit and public sectors? And do you envision those public-run services (like 211) eventually going away?
Erine: Aunt Bertha picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off by making it easy to find and apply for social services online and through mobile devices. Our service is and always will be free for people in need or those working on their behalf. Our users include everybody from the homeless (yes, they definitely have internet access in many cases), working moms, family caretakers, social workers and case managers.
We list every government and charitable program we can find on our site for free as well.
Many charities and government agencies don’t yet offer a way for people to apply online. We offer a software platform that allows them to accept and process applications online. Charities pay us a monthly fee for this service. Our customers are housing programs, churches, government agencies, charter schools or any other organization that provides need-based services to people.
In your question you refer to the 211 service, I would hope that there will always be a place for these call centers. The 211 call centers are staffed with committed volunteers that help people navigate very difficult circumstances, 24-hours a day. However, if Aunt Bertha is successful, more people in need will be able to find social service programs themselves (without needing to call someone). We believe that if more people find help themselves, the cost of running a government funded call center will go down – which is better for everyone involved.
Nell: Any social entrepreneur just starting out struggles with the question of whether to organize as a for-profit or nonprofit. How and why did you make your decision?
Erine: I went back and forth about this one. Our mission is to make human service information accessible to people and programs. To truly be successful at this mission, I believe we need to be a sustainable business.
With our software, governments and charities are saving money over the way they currently work. They are willing to pay us a monthly fee to help them provide a better service to people in need. We think this is a better approach and more importantly, we never wanted to be in a position where we are competing with our customers for donations. That’s why we chose to be a certified Benefit Corporation (a business that meets higher standards of mission and accountability).
Nell: How widespread is Aunt Bertha? How many people are using the service now and what are your goals for the future?
Erine: Aunt Bertha is available in every zip code in the United States. Our service is both on the web and available on most smart phone browsers. Although our service works everywhere, our focus so far has been in Texas – where we have a critical mass of programs in most zip codes.
So far we’ve helped more than 20,000 people find help and we believe we’re just getting started. Right now we’re focused on making our service as intuitive and user-friendly as possible. We think we’re on to something big, but we don’t want to skip the important steps of listening to our early adopters.
Erine: We were fortunate enough to have been accepted as an ATI company this year and it has provided us access to coaching, introductions and inexpensive office space. ATI is a joint initiative between the City of Austin, the State of Texas and the University of Texas and it feels like they’re all behind us. Whenever you can be in an environment where more and more people are rooting for you it’s always a good thing.
The Unreasonable Institute was a very memorable experience for us. I had a chance to live with 21 of the world’s most interesting social entrepreneurs and words can’t describe what I learned during that experience. I highly recommend people check out the site and try and figure out a way to get to know as many people associated with the Unreasonable Institute as possible. They’re making a big dent in the world.
We recently raised capital after bootstrapping the business for the first two years. We’re very excited about our future. Our investors so far have liked the audacity of our mission. We think we can organize the world’s social service information so people and programs can find what they need in seconds. And because we sell software-as-a-service in a huge industry, we’re an attractive investment with a scalable model.
Most importantly, we’re starting to see – in real-time – the supply of and demand for social services. That’s never been done before and we hope that this data will allow some amazing things to happen. It’s hard not to get behind this goal.
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