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Roadblocks

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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Guest Post: Philanthropy Must Get Better at Funding Scale

philanthropy and scaleNote: Second in my list of esteemed guest bloggers this summer is Adin Miller. Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, but his post is his personal viewpoint, not necessarily that of his employer.  Here is his guest post:

 

Readers of the Social Velocity blog know of Nell’s clarion call for nonprofit financing not fundraising and her conviction that the current mode of nonprofit growth through fundraising is bankrupt. Today I want to examine another area I consider broken, namely the ineffective way in which philanthropy identifies and grows emerging organizations and projects – the domain of scaling innovation. I’ll focus on the Jewish federation system, in which I currently work, and then pull back out to the larger philanthropic sector.

To begin, let’s define innovation funding as the practice of funding an innovative venture – a new emerging organization or an iteration of an existing program within an established organization – that does not yet have evidence-based documentation of its approach but that points to the potential to generate significant social benefit. In my work, I also focus on the stages of funding an innovative venture goes through as it morphs into a scaled up nonprofit. Funding is generally aligned with the following stages:

  • Pre-proof of concept
  • Proof of concept
  • Pilot stage funding
  • Early stage funding
  • Second stage funding, and
  • Mezzanine stage funding.

By the time the organization has approached mezzanine funding, its annual budget will be growing from the $1 – 5 million level per year to the $10 – 50 million level per year.

The Jewish federation system represents one of the oldest philanthropic engines in the United States and Canada, tracing its history back to 1895. The system includes 153 Jewish Federations (local independent fundraising and grantmaking nonprofits) and over 300 Network communities (volunteer driven federations), which raise funds and distribute resources among programs serving the Jewish community. Per the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), each year the federation system raises and distributes “more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs,” placing it among “the top 10 charities on the continent” in terms of grantmaking.

One would think that as units in an overarching system that the local federations would share a common agenda. And that’s true to a large extent – there is commonality of purpose (funding Jewish overnight camps, for instance), ongoing support for local Jewish organizations, and consistent funding support in Israel and other global Jewish communities. However, where the system fails to deliver is in scaling up innovative ventures.

Much of that failure in funding innovation is attributable to a confluence of factors such as limited geographic scope and funding periods. With the exception of international funding, for instance, each local federation fences its funding to the geographic area in which it operates. As such, a local federation won’t fund an emerging innovative venture unless it has a presence within the funder’s geographic area. That holds true even if the innovative venture has developed the best new approach to addressing a critical area of need because it operates on the other side of the figurative (and in some cases literal) river.

Additionally, many federations provide limited funding windows lasting between three to five years. The funding period is usually sufficient to help an innovative venture establish some basis to prove its concept. But it also forces these innovative ventures to focus on sustainability instead of continued growth, a syndrome similar to the starvation cycle experienced by more established organizations. This failure by the funders to adopt a long-term strategy to not only fund but also finance the continued growth of a successful innovative venture tends to prematurely end its ability to scale efforts and generate more impact.

The situation for the innovative venture is further exasperated if it concludes that continued growth can only be achieved through expansion to new locations. By virtue of each federation working independently, without an intentional approach to working collaboratively to scale an innovative venture, the “system” establishes unique markets. And each unique local market forces the innovative venture to reestablish its market opportunity. That involves seeking independent funding for each location, repetitive due diligence scrutiny (because, as we know, funders don’t proactively share due diligence data amongst themselves), and a faint hope that sustained funding or financing will materialize after the initial funding period ends.

In short, this is not an efficient method for scaling innovative ventures. It has generated pockets of nonprofit incubators in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. And any number of innovative ventures emerge each year – there’s even a handy guidebook to track some of the most promising ones. But there is no methodology or intentional effort on a national scale to support these innovative ventures at all stages of their potential development (from pre-proof of concept to mezzanine funding). In some sense, growth is based on a hope and prayer that another funder will step in and continue to fund the innovation venture as it looks to scale.

You can take my above critique and substitute the words “community foundations” for “federations” and you will see the same issues in the larger philanthropic sector. Just as the federation system does not effectively scale innovative ventures, neither do community, local family, and private foundations.

The absence of a coordinated national strategy to support the ongoing growth and potential impact of innovative ventures highlights the inherent inefficiencies of the philanthropic sector. The Social Innovation Fund was one potential hope that could address this challenge. But its focus remains centered on those ideas that have already generated evidence-based results. The newly announced White House initiative on impact investing with pooled resources of $1.5B might also point to a new opportunity, but it’s too early to tell.

So, what’s the potential solution to supporting scaled growth of innovative ventures?

One idea, which I first came across in the energy technology sector through a blog post published in 2011 by the Breakthrough Institute, would involve establishing an independent nonprofit investment bank to offer a range of financial tools (grants, loans, etc.) to help not only fund but also finance the growth of an innovative venture. If the federation system could pool 1% of its annual grantmaking budgets into this bank, that would create a $30 million annual fund. And if community foundations could do the same, we’d have an almost $50 million annual fund (this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that community foundations’ assets now total $66 billion and giving is nearly at $5 billion per year).

A second idea would involve creating a framework by which funders would actually work together to lower the structural and financial barriers limiting the continued growth and impact of innovative ventures.

Both ideas require more thinking and a willingness by philanthropic communities to come together to explore possible solutions. The investment bank would certainly require local funders to give up some autonomy of decision-making and local application of funding in order to provide resources for greater social benefit. The second idea would require a national or prominent organization to take the lead in organizing a coalition and developing the framework.

And if all else fails, perhaps we should consider a petition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to share its resources in more unique ways (this coming on the day the foundation received $2.1 billion from Warren Buffett).

At the end of the day, we should allow innovative ventures to succeed and fail on their own merits, instead of as result of a broken funding model.

Photo Credit: 401k2012

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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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Guest Post: Millennials and Boomers MUST Make Peace

Millennials and BoomersNote: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have several fantastic guest bloggers contributing to the blog this summer. First up is Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, as well as the nonprofit sector advocacy group, CForward. He is a tireless advocate for the nonprofit sector, encouraging nonprofits to take their rightful seat at the table. He is always pushing us to think bigger and smarter about social change.

Here is Robert’s post:

 

For you old school Trekkies out there, you may remember the 1969 episode titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” that featured the great Frank Gorshin as Commissioner Bele. The plot is built on a particularly brilliant metaphor of two alien beings – Bele and Loki – all but identical to the crew of the Enterprise, but who loathe each other because they represented a mirror image of the other.

This comes to mind because lately I’ve encountered quite a few fellow, older “leaders” who have a seemingly uniform concern about the Millenials, and their “we’re ready to run the show” attitude.

Similarly, I’ve also been speaking with lots of young “up-and-comers” who are all but ready to push the founder of their organization out the closest window, due to their inability to embrace new ideas or cede some of the decision making to those who sweat and toil on the front lines.

I totally get the friction, but I also know that our generations have lots of common ground to build upon. And for this blog, I’d like to suggest that we must avoid the inter-generational battle that many talking heads would stoke, so that we can take advantage of what will be, in my opinion, one of the greatest opportunities to change the world in centuries.

Yeah…I said centuries!

Think about it. Our generations represent two of the biggest, most educated, freest and richest generations in the history of the world. We’ll outlive our predecessors by decades, and remain healthy and productive much longer than any previous peoples. On top of that, at the push of a button, we can connect with tens of thousands of our peers; locally, nationally and internationally.

And as far-fetched as it might sound…from two divergent ends of the life spectrum, we actually are careening towards the same destination, and looking for many of the same things.

Together, we could be a social, political and economic juggernaut that could re-wire the world, explore new forms of capitalism, re-invigorate politics and reaffirm the incredible power of community.

Now…if you have already rolled your eyes, I can dig your skepticism. You have every right to laugh…but hang with me for a few more moments.

Every morning, 10,000 Baby Boomers wake up, walk into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and see a birthday boy or girl who just turned 67…and that will happen everyday for the next 20 years. You have to figure that a big ass hunk of them let out a looooong sigh, and wonder how they got so lost, tricked and hoodwinked into thinking money and stuff would buy them happiness. THEY are primed to join the ranks of those who would look for deeper meaning and purpose out of life. Heaven knows…they may even get humble, and seek to make amends by reaching to help younger men and women climb a different ladder.

Similarly, an even bigger number of Millenials do the same thing everyday, but they are turning 25…and they are looking in the mirror, and saying “I NEVER want to live my life the way they did.” Who knows…maybe some of them would like to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of possessions, and would value rich conversations with older leaders on how to re-examine the meaning of “rich”.

Do you get where I’m coming from? As weird as it sounds, more and more people everyday are waking up and wondering…is there a different way to live, be happy, judge success, value life, be a neighbor and make a difference?

Sure, one generation might be looking for redemption, while the other a different path, but we really are on the same road…we just haven’t realized it yet.

So…please…rather than buy into the whole “I hate you right back” shtick…realize that if our generations fight, we loose. If we unite, we can make things really right.

You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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Weaving Nonprofit Capacity Building Into Philanthropy: An Interview with Kathy Reich

Kathy ReichIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Kathy Reich, Director of Organizational Effectiveness Grantmaking at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Kathy leads a cross-cutting program to help grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness.

She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. She has been with the Foundation since 2001, and previously held positions in the Organizational Effectiveness and Children, Families, and Communities programs. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California.

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

Nell: There is often a chicken or the egg scenario in the nonprofit sector where nonprofit leaders are hesitant to tell funders their real struggles and needs for fear of appearing unworthy of investment, and philanthropists are hesitant to stick their noses in the business of the nonprofits they fund, so organizational capacity needs are not openly discussed or addressed. How does the Packard Foundation uncover the organizational needs of your grantees and what would you advise other funders to do in order to have more open and transformative discussions with their grantees?

Kathy: Well, I try not to tell other people—funders or nonprofit leaders—what to do! But I can tell you what works for us at the Packard Foundation. First, we encourage each of our program officers to learn about the organizational strengths and challenges of their grantees, and to weave capacity building into grantmaking strategies. That’s a big part of the work of the Organizational Effectiveness team here at the Packard Foundation.

But we also have a separate Organizational Effectiveness (OE) program, staffed by its own program officers and with its own budget, to help grantee partners strengthen their fundamentals so they can focus on achieving their missions. Once a non-profit gets a grant from any Packard Foundation program, they’re also eligible to apply for an OE grant. We support a wide range of projects to promote individual and team leadership, organizational planning and development, and the development of healthy networks.

The application process is pretty simple and straightforward. It starts with a letter of inquiry where our grantee partners have to answer just a handful of questions: What are the objectives of your project and what do you expect to accomplish? How will this project support your organization in meeting its goals, and over the long term, enhancing its effectiveness? What special challenges or changes have caused your organization or network to focus on management and organizational issues at this time? How do you propose to use Foundation funds? Who from your organization’s staff and board has made the commitment to lead the project?

Here’s the most important part of our approach: We work very hard to be responsive to the needs of our partners. We never say, “We think you need a strategic plan, and that’s the only thing we’re going to fund.” We listen to the grantee’s assessment of their strengths and challenges, and serve in a coaching role to help them develop the OE project that best meets their needs.

Folks can read more about the Organizational Effectiveness program on our website, or on our wiki page, where we share resources, evaluations of the program, and other information.

Nell: Leadership development is something that is fairly prevalent in the for-profit sector – it’s understood that good leaders need coaching and support along the way – but leadership development is rarely supported in the nonprofit sector. Why do you think there is that disparity and what do we do to change it?

Kathy: I think you’re right — the lack of investment in leadership development and talent management in the nonprofit sector is a significant issue. We don’t have any shortage of talented, passionate people entering this sector. But I believe that we lose too many of them before they rise to senior-level leadership positions.

Some of that brain drain happens for financial reasons: people are staggering under the weight of educational debt, or they’re lured away by more lucrative career prospects in the private sector. But much of the loss of talent is preventable. People leave because they feel burnt out and undervalued. They can’t forge career pathways and can’t access meaningful professional development. They sometimes have lousy managers. Their jobs don’t offer opportunities for promotion, or sufficient work/life/family balance.

That is all stuff that the nonprofit sector can fix. As a sector, we can even tackle some of the thornier issues around compensation and educational debt. And funders can lead the way. But philanthropy is not doing that. Rusty Stahl at the Talent Philanthropy Project, a Packard Foundation grantee partner, points out that between 1992 and 2011 foundations spent, on average, about 1% of grant dollars on nonprofit talent development. I’m not sure why there’s been a lack of investment in leadership development in the nonprofit sector over time — especially when virtually everyone seems to agree that effective leadership is one of the keys to lasting social change.

I do see some glimmers of hope. In the OE program last year, 21 of the 86 grants we awarded focused on leadership development, including projects that invested in interventions like executive coaching, board development, succession planning, and executive transition at key grantee organizations. And a number of efforts are underway throughout the Foundation to support existing and/or emerging leaders in the issue areas where we work. Clearly, though, much more is needed.

Nell: There has been a concerted effort in the past year to overcome the “Overhead Myth,” the idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” (administrative and fundraising) expenses. But there is still much work to do before that idea becomes mainstream in the philanthropic sector. How do we change funder (and nonprofit leader) thinking about overhead?

Kathy: I’m a fan of so many leaders and organizations who have spoken out on this issue, including Packard Foundation grantee partners like Guidestar, California Association of Nonprofits, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. They’ve done a great job of making a research-based case that arbitrary, low overhead rates don’t capture the true cost of delivering non-profit programs and services. I think that there are a couple of common-sense things that funders and nonprofit leaders can do to keep this debate at the forefront of people’s minds.

First, prepare real budgets. If the funder tells you, “You can only have $25,000 for this project,” that’s fine. That’s their budget. But submit a budget for the full cost of the project, including your personnel, facilities, and other costs of doing business. Let them see what their funding covers, and what it does not. Be honest if you do not know where the rest of the money will come from. At least it will spark a good conversation with your funder about the gap, and about your real costs. Most funders do not penalize honesty. If the funder does penalize honesty, their money probably is not worth your trouble.

Second, define what goes into your overhead rate, and stick with it. Many funders have a “rule” about acceptable overhead; 15 percent, 10 percent, even 5 percent. But most do not have a standard definition for what’s included in that rate. You should have one. Define it, calculate it, and then defend it.

Nell: Philanthropy is a very personal and values-driven thing, but at the same time we need to funnel more philanthropic money towards the most effective solutions. Do you think it’s possible to get more philanthropists to give based on results rather than interests and values, or can we somehow better combine the two drives?

Kathy: I think combining values and a focus on results is not just desirable — it’s essential. None of us goes into social change work with a completely cool, dispassionate lens. We go in with passion. We want to make a difference. We bring our whole selves to this work. That’s what makes it wonderful, and that’s why we stay in it.

At the same time, resources are limited — money, people, time — and we have to be sure they’re being well-spent. Ideally, we want to make sure those resources are being better-spent than they could be on other endeavors.

At the Packard Foundation, we try to craft a balance. Our mission—to improve the lives of children, families, and communities, and to restore and protect our planet—derives directly from the values and beliefs of our founders. The way we go about that work is deeply rooted in five core values, which also come from our founding family — integrity, respect for all people, belief in individual leadership, commitment to effectiveness, and the capacity to think big. But we also are committed to scientific rigor, evaluation, and most importantly, learning. We care not only about what grant funds accomplish, but also about how we do that grantmaking, engage with grantees and improve over time. You can read about some of what we’ve accomplished over the years on our new digital timeline.

Photo Credit: Packard Foundation

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Why Nonprofit Donors and Boards Must Get Over Overhead [Video]

As I mentioned earlier, I am building a video library of topics that can spur discussion among your board and donors. So, to add to that library, today I’m talking about why we need to get over overhead.

Traditional wisdom is that nonprofits should keep “overhead” (administrative, fundraising, systems, technology, staffing) costs as low as possible. This is a really destructive idea, and we need to move beyond it. But we will only get there if nonprofit leaders across the country start having that conversation with their board members and donors. Because if we can move beyond overhead, we will have a much stronger, more effective nonprofit sector.

The transcript of the video is also below. And you can view all of the Social Velocity videos on the Social Velocity YouTube channel.

To learn more about getting over overhead and raising capacity building dollars for your nonprofit, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide.

Hi I’m Nell Edgington from Social Velocity. Today I want to talk about why nonprofit board members and donors need to get over overhead.

So overhead is the idea that nonprofit organizations can separate what they spend on programs and services, the mission work of the organization, versus what they spend on infrasturucture, staffing, systems, fundraising function, administrative costs. All of those things in the second bucket are typically considered “overhead.”

Now overhead, I think, is a very meaningless distinction in the nonprofit sector, and we need to move beyond it.

It’s meaningless because you can’t have exceptional programs and services if you don’t have solid staff behind them, if you don’t have evaluation systems to figure out if you are making a difference, if you don’t have a fundraising function to bring the revenue in the door to make those programs and services operate, if you don’t have the infrastructure, the technology, all of the things that you need to make those programs and services run well.

We also need to get over overhead because if you think in terms of overhead as a nonprofit organization you will not seek, nor will you attract, the funding to invest in infrastructure, the funding that so many nonprofit organizations desperately need, the funding for capacity building, for strong staff, for great technology and systems, for evaluation programs, etc. If you think in terms of overhead you are going to keep those costs as low as possible and you won’t try to bring the money in the door to support your capacity as an organization.

Finally, we need to get over overhead because if as a nonprofit organization we are measuring our work in terms of how much we spend on overhead and keeping that as low as possible, we are not measuring our work based on whether we are actually making a difference, whether we are actually creating social change. And we need to move to a place where we are evaluating nonprofit organizations based on their results, based on the social change and the outcomes that they are achieving, not how they spend their dollars.

So those are the reasons I think overhead is very destructive in the nonprofit sector, and I hope that you will talk with your board and donors about how we need to get over overhead. Good luck!

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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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