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Why Women Will Lead the Social Movement For Gun Control

As a mother and a human being, the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Wednesday cut me to the core. As I know it did so many of you.

And as someone who spends my time writing about and advising social change efforts, I am also curious about how growing momentum to create change to the obviously severe social problem of gun violence in America will evolve. Because it can often seem that gun violence is an impossible problem for America to solve. But as Daniel Kibblesmith put it on Twitter, it is not:

 

True, smoking was once so pervasive in America, and the tobacco lobby so strong that there was little hope that change would happen, but it has. There are now few places where you can smoke inside and smoking rates have dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1965 almost 43% of American adults smoked, in 2014 only 17% did.

History shows that this pattern of social change repeats again and again — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the legalization of interracial marriage. An issue becomes so egregious that it builds enough critical mass to force change.

Bloomberg did a fascinating graphic of 6 social issues and how quickly they went from a flash point of public interest to a change in federal policy. The issues ranged from prohibition, to women’s suffrage, to abortion. The amount of time that spanned between an issue’s flash point and change to federal law ranged from 2-19 years:

 

The idea is that once an issue becomes so important to the American public it is only a question of time (and relatively short time at that) before the issue moves through the states to eventually become a federal policy change. As Bloomberg writers Alex Tribou and Keith Collins put it:

“Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

The 10+ year social movement to legalize gay marriage is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2004 as a collaboration among many social change organizations, funders, and experts, by June 2015 (11 short years later) gay marriage became legal across the country.

So, what will it take for Americans, who overwhelmingly support common sense gun legislation, to rise up and convince their elected officials to make change? It is already beginning in many states, with hundreds of gun control laws passed at the state level since Sandy Hook. I think we will see a federal-level change to gun control in the next 5-10 years. It is within the realm of possibility to push the federal government to change gun laws.

And I honestly think that that push will come largely from moms. Women like me, who watched in horror as children the exact same age as my youngest son ran, arms locked with classmates, screaming in terror out of Sandy Hook Elementary and then just 5 years later watched again in horror as children the exact same as my oldest son shared video on SnapChat of the bloodshed they witnessed.

Let me tell you, there is hardly a more powerful force in this world than that of a mother wanting to protect her child. 2018 has been called “The Year of Women” because women are stepping up in record numbers to run for office, to advocate, to volunteer, and even take to the streets all in the name of social change. I think gun violence — violence that increasingly threatens to harm our own children — will compel women who are already stepping up to force change.

As a dear friend and fellow mother texted me Wednesday morning:

“Just reading all the politicians offer their bullshit condolences and take money from the NRA makes me sick.”

And as Margaret Mead (also a mother) famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Yep. I’m telling you. Our leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the daily carnage around us is wrong on every single level and it will and it must change. I don’t think moms are going to take it much longer. Change is coming. Just you watch.

Photo Credit: Slowking4 

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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Creating Honest Conversations Between Nonprofits and Funders: An Interview With Eric Weinheimer

Eric WeinheimerIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of Forefront, the only regional association that represents grantmakers, nonprofits, advisors, and social entrepreneurs. With 1,100 members in Illinois, Forefront provides education, advocacy, and research, and mobilizes its members around issues that are important to the nonprofit sector.

Prior to his current role, Eric was the CEO of The Cara Program, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive training, job placement, and support services to individuals who are homeless and struggling in poverty. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. He was also appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Nell: Forefront is the only statewide association that has both nonprofit and funder members. How does Forefront deal with the power dynamic that is so often present between grantors and grantees?

Eric: Forefront talks explicitly about the power dynamic in much of our programming and classes, specifically our annual Grantmakers Institute for new program officers. We have candid conversations with these grantmakers and present actual case studies to give them a better understanding of their power and unique position. We also discuss how others perceive them and their roles, and how those perceptions can impact their effectiveness.

Forefront also has a non-solicitation policy that prevents nonprofits and grantmakers from discussing specific requests or proposals with each other when they gather at Forefront. The spirit of that policy also extends to how we bring grantmakers and nonprofits together. When nonprofits and grantmakers meet at Forefront, there is an explicit goal or purpose related to an issue in their fields or in the sector. While the power dynamic still exists, putting the focus on a larger purpose rather than on money helps our members build trust, leading to more genuine and balanced relationships. We also make sure that grantmakers and nonprofits co-chair some of our affinity groups to ensure balanced perspectives.

Nell: One of Forefront’s biggest initiatives is Real Talk about Real Costs, a series of funder and nonprofit convenings (the first in the nation) to talk about funding the full costs of nonprofit organizations. What have you learned through this series both about how to encourage more effective conversations between nonprofits and funders and about how to better support strong nonprofit organizations?

Eric: In the conversation on Real Costs we’ve learned that it’s not about creating another resource or a toolkit. Its not about what grantmakers or nonprofits should or should not do. Rather, it’s about starting an honest conversation. There are so many grantmakers and nonprofits that haven’t had the opportunity to dig in and engage with this work, either independently or with feedback from their counterparts. Our value-add is to catalyze these conversations. Forefront’s role is to create the space for honest dialogue, mobilize our members around this issue, promote best practices, and curate and share the newest research. It’s a slow and gradual process, but it ultimately leads to change in awareness, understanding and behavior.

Nell: How far do you think the national social sector has come in terms of more effectively supporting strong nonprofits and building more transparent and effective funder/nonprofit relationships?

Eric: We’ve certainly made some progress in the last 15 years, but we have a long way to go. It’s encouraging to see more funders express interest in general operating support and capacity building. However, too often, funders’ still feel the need to be in control and prescribe certain solutions rather than engage communities for their feedback and ideas.

Likewise, nonprofits have become more transparent, but they are still too reluctant to admit to challenges or failures because of possible consequences to their funding. Funders could model this practice for the nonprofits much more than they currently do. Funder transparency is only in its infancy.

Nell: Your national counterpart, Independent Sector — a national membership association of nonprofits and funders — had a recent change in leadership with Dan Cardinali taking the helm. What would you like to see Independent Sector doing to move this work forward on the national stage?

Eric: Dan is terrific – smart, experienced, strategic and passionate. He will do a great job. Under his leadership, Independent Sector (IS) has a real opportunity to be the connective tissue for our sector and elevate the good work that is happening around the country. I would encourage Dan to focus on a few of the critical issues facing our sector, both internal and external. Whether it be real costs, transparency, the power dynamic, or policy and advocacy, IS can highlight and amplify where real progress is being achieved and help to transport those examples to other locations. Once new practices take hold in certain geographic locations, other regions will follow suit. Organizations are eager for strong leadership that informs, inspires and mobilizes them to action.

Photo Credit: Forefront

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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What I Learned From My Time Off

I am back from vacation, and as I suspected it would, the space has given me a new lease on life. I have returned with more energy, more hope, more perspective, and less worry.

As I said before I left, I really encourage you also to take some time off this summer. Reject the pervasive notion that we must be always on and create some space for yourself to recharge.

Perhaps as an added incentive, I offer you some of the perspective that my time away gave me.

On my vacation I traveled to Europe, and I have to say, Europeans seem so much more relaxed than Americans. Now I spent only two weeks there, so this is far from a scientific observation, but the pace just seemed less harried. People walk more slowly than they do in America, taking more time with their strides, observing their surroundings, pausing to chat with friends. Meals take much longer and require that you specifically ask your waiter for the bill because they don’t want to rush you. The lack of a relentless pace allowed me to take a deep breath and live more in the moment. I’m trying to take that slower pace back to work with me.

Europeans also move their bodies and get outside much more than Americans, it seems. There are so many more bikes and pedestrians on the roads. In fact, in Berlin every street has a dedicated bike/pedestrian lane, and often one for each. And the biker or walker always has the right of way over the car. It is obvious that while cars are important, the healthier, more environmentally friendly forms of transportation are more valued. I found that the increased amount of walking and biking made me feel healthier, but also gave me a new perspective on my surroundings. Removing the separation of the car window, I became much more cognizant of and part of my world.

I also spent a lot of time exploring museums and monuments in order better to understand European history. Because we were in London and Berlin, our historical exploration tended to focus on World War II and the Cold War. And for some strange reason I found the people and places from that period of history strangely comforting. Our current times often feel overwhelmingly uncertain and grim. But those anxieties pale in comparison to the second half of the 20th Century, which was particularly hard on the people of Europe — from the rise of Nazism, to the violence and destruction of World War II, to the displacement and fear of the Cold War. Yet the European people somehow found a way to get through it. In fact, the DDR Museum, which chronicles social history in East Germany under communist rule, demonstrated how East Berliners, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by the Berlin Wall, found creative ways to build lives for themselves despite the limits of their surroundings. It was, to me, a testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure, adapt and survive. And it was a particularly heartening message for me in our 2017 world.

The geographic and historical space my time away provided helped me realize that my little world is fairly insignificant. There is a much larger world and a much longer history out there. And so I emerge more relaxed, more present and with a greater appreciation for focusing on what I can control and letting the rest just be.

Photo Credit: October 1961. Children keep their friendship across the barbed wire border between East and West Berlin. From the booklet “A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall.” The Central Intelligence Agency.

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Planning for Nonprofit Success: An Interview With David Grant

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with David Grant.

David is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and past chair of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. He now consults nationally with nonprofits, foundations, and schools and is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.

He is also a member of the Leap Ambassadors, a 100+ community of nonprofit thought leaders, progressive funders, policy makers, and instigators who believe “performance matters.”

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Your book, The Social Profit Handbook, is about assessment, but your central chapter is titled “Mission Time.” Is this akin to the time spent on research and development in for-profit companies?

David: Yes, it is. I would compare it to any time set aside for strategic thinking and reflection on what we are learning from experience. I invoke Steven Covey’s famous Urgent/Important matrix and equate mission time with “Quadrant II,” where we deal with important matters when they are not urgent.

Effective nonprofit leaders often think strategically. The case I make for mission time in my book is that this should be an ongoing collective exercise. I believe there should be more time set aside for staffs and boards, singly and together, to be much more specific about what success will look like for their organization, so they can plan backwards from that shared vision.

I think it’s the most important practice nonprofit organizations can adopt if they are serious about getting better at what they do – which is creating social profit. At its best, I think mission time also includes the voices and perspectives of the people being served by a nonprofit organization. Can you imagine a company conducting R&D without checking in with clients and customers?

Nell: “Planning backwards” is another phrase you use frequently in the book. Is that what you are saying should happen during mission time? And if this practice is as important as R&D is in the for-profit sector, why don’t we see more of it in the social sector?

David: Those are great questions. Let me start with “planning backwards.” I see this phrase as critical to the practice of formative assessment – the kind of assessment whose purpose is to improve performance, not audit it or judge it. I think too many of us view assessment as summative; we think it comes at the end and that somebody gives us a grade. The central argument of my book is that when an organization takes assessment into its own hands, embraces its formative purpose, makes time for it and gets good at planning backwards, they not only improve their workplace culture, they go much further towards fulfilling their mission. In short, they create more social profit.

But here’s where the challenges of assessing and measuring success come in. If you describe what matters most to you – things like increasing a young person’s sense of hope and confidence; improving relationships and building trust between former adversaries; inducing an aesthetic response through great art; inspiring a long-term commitment to equity or a healthy environmental – people say, “You can’t measure that.”

What they are really saying is, “there is no standard unit of measure that applies to that.” Ok, fair enough – that’s why we need to get good at qualitative assessment. We need to be able to respond with confidence, “If you can describe it, you can measure it.” That’s why I spend so much time in my book talking about qualitative assessment rubrics as effective tools for this process. The rubric invites us to describe as specifically as possible along a spectrum what we mean by success, in relation to our criteria for success. It is as if we were creating the test we want to give ourselves a year from now, and we can plan backwards from how we want to score on that test. You can see how that can’t happen without mission time.

Your other question about why we don’t see more mission time, more planning backwards, and more rubrics in the nonprofit sector is one I think about a lot. I don’t think there is a single answer. Part of it is mindset – we tend to focus on programs and direct mission-based actions in the world instead of on building strong organizations and internal practices. Part of it is resources – we are stretched so thin that it is hard to get out of a mode of urgency. Part of it is our habits – we are used to certain kinds of meetings that often don’t make enough room for group education, reflection, and decision-making. Part of it is funding patterns – donors prefer program support to general operating or infrastructure support.

Ironically, I believe mission time and planning backwards make their own cases. But we have to take the time first in order for the case to be made.

Nell: In your previous role as CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, you launched a capacity building initiative for your grantees. What results did you see from doing so and what do you think holds other foundations back from doing something similar?

David: It’s interesting you should ask that this week, because even though I’ve been gone from the Dodge Foundation for seven years, I just saw something I would attribute, at least in part, to those capacity building efforts. I was working with a national gathering of arts service organizations, and we were examining several of their strategic plans to see how they addressed the concept of sustainability. The first two defined it narrowly as financial stability. But then a New Jersey-based organization, a long-time Dodge grantee, defined it holistically, citing elements of governance, human resources, assessment systems, and ongoing capacity building as critical to sustainability, in addition to maintaining financial vitality. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this organization, alone among this national group, had just completed a successful, million dollar capital campaign.

I remember when I was still reading proposals that the groups that participated in our capacity building workshops were much clearer about what they were trying to do, more straightforward about the challenges they faced, and more cognizant of their own needs as a vehicle that carried the pursuit of their mission over time.

What holds foundations back from capacity building? Well, I imagine some might feel it is too indirect as a social investment; others might worry this kind of support carries with it a promise of ongoing funding. All I can say is that I think Dodge got more bang for our bucks in this part of our funding portfolio than in any other.

Nell: One of the projects you are working on is Artists Thrive, which is about developing assessment tools for the arts. What are the goals of this project and how could it be a model for other social issue areas?

David: The Artists Thrive project is the brainchild of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, CT and its grantees. It started with creating an assessment tool for those who work with artists – essentially the grantees in Tremaine’s program called “Marketplace Empowerment of Artists.” But it quickly expanded to consider a much larger system and asked: “What would it look like to have thriving artists in thriving communities?” and “Who would need to do what to achieve that vision?”

A group of six arts leaders have been running with these questions for over a year, with me in a support role. We have launched a series of rubrics, with the spectrum of success defined from bottom to top as “Artists Give Up,” “Artists Struggle,” “Artists Survive,” and “Artists Thrive.” The initial rubric, as I said, looked at the mental models and the actions of those who work with artists. The second looked at the range of attitudes and actions of artists themselves. The third will be for funders, describing how different philanthropic practices affect artists and their communities. Those are the front-line players, so to speak, but we plan to look at how others can contribute to the realization of the thriving artists/thriving communities vision as well – mayors, corporate leaders, planning commissions, educators, etc.

As far as models go, I think we already have some fantastic models of rubrics that deal with issues on a national scale, like the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, which I describe in my book, or more recently, the Whole Measures for Urban Conservation (2017), which is described on The Nature Conservancy’s website..

Nell: Our country is currently divided along many lines, however in your work as a consultant you often lead groups made up of people that bridge these divides in order to create change in their communities. What are some examples of change you have seen recently in your work? And more broadly, what gives you hope in these challenging times?

David: I wish I were doing more of the kind of work you mention. In fact, I had this fantasy during the 2016 primary election cycle that one of the candidates would brandish my book on stage during a debate and say, “What this country needs is a good rubric!”

But I did see an exercise in cooperation recently that I found really heartening. It was in Delaware, where members of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) and the Delaware Grantmakers Association (DGA) created a working group to write a rubric titled, “Grantmaker and Nonprofit Relationship for Creating Community Impact.” The title identifies their shared purpose — why their relationship matters.

The DANA/DGA draft rubric evokes a spectrum of performance (the columns of the rubric) in four short words: “Transactional,” “Engaged,” “Partnership,” and “Transformative.” As far as criteria to be measured along that spectrum (the rows of the rubric), the task force went to the critical dimensions of the relationship: the Alignment of beliefs in the purpose of the relationship; the Mutuality of feeling about its importance; the levels of Trust and Transparency in their interactions; and the quality of their Communication. Given that structure, it is no surprise that the draft rubric is both honest about disappointments and aspirational in its description of the possible.

This is an example of what gives me hope whenever I see it – systems thinking. As David Peter Stroh writes, “In conventional thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must optimize the parts. In systems thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must improve the relationships among the parts.” It strikes me that at the highest level of the DNA/DGA rubric, it will not be just a relationship that has been transformed; it will be the State of Delaware. All from carving out the mission time and learning how to use it!

Photo Credit: Social Profit Handbook

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Understanding The Full Costs of Nonprofits: An Interview with Michael Etzel

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Etzel. Michael is a partner in The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that consults to nonprofits and philanthropists, provides leadership development support, and develops and shares insights — all with the goal of scaling social impact.

Since joining Bridgespan in 2006, Michael has focused on effectiveness across the full spectrum of social innovation financing, advising corporate, institutional, and family philanthropists and investors. Much of Michael’s work explores what it takes to use tools of innovative finance and impact investing to solve pressing social problems. His work and research in philanthropy also focuses on the question of what it takes to deliver results as a new approach to ending the nonprofit starvation cycle.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: In your research and writing you have focused a lot on what you call “Pay-What-It-Takes-Philanthropy,” the radical idea that different nonprofit solutions have different business models and thus require different costs and investments. This concept is so accepted in the for-profit world that it is a truism, but why is it a radical idea for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders?

Michael: It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why business models and capabilities matter. Every nonprofit operates with an underlying business model and set of capabilities critical for program delivery. Failure to understand an organization’s business model frequently leads to underinvestment in core capabilities, and, as one program officer put it, “a hollowing out of civil society institutions.” We can’t have resilient, durable civil society organizations that deliver successful programs unless they operate from a position of financial strength.

As you highlight, segmentation and analysis of comparable performance data is common practice in the for-profit world. Leaders like Clara Miller, president of The Heron Foundation and former CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, have long called for this kind of thinking in the social sector. But this type of comparison requires transparent and consistent data, something hard to come by. As one nonprofit executive reminded me, “If you think you can analyze a nonprofit through IRS 990 filings, you are in outer space.”

Yet, I wouldn’t say this a radical idea. Organizations like DataArts and CoMetrics show how this is possible. For example, DataArts gathers a variety of comparable revenue, cost, and performance data for arts and cultural organizations, and provides tools for reviewing that data. This provides grantees and grant makers with actionable data to inform management or funding decisions with an eye to effectiveness and efficiency. CoMetrics addresses a more diverse set of enterprises, providing software platforms and tools that enable those enterprises to collect, display, and compare financial, operational, and impact data against their peers. This bottom-up approach gathers data across organizations running the same type of business in the same field to form groups relevant for comparative assessment and learning.

Bridgespan’s preliminary analysis to date has shown that different types of nonprofit organizations have different cost structures based on their business model. Segmenting nonprofits by business model can help us compare similar organizations. When it comes to indirect costs, for example, nonprofit research labs have a median indirect cost rate of 63%, nearly two and a half times the 25% median rate of direct service organizations.

We plan to push ahead this year to refine and deepen our understanding of segmentation and how it applies to nonprofit cost structures and capital needs. Having this information will benefit funders and grantees alike when it comes to funding discussions.

Nell: You work with both nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, so you likely see both sides of this dysfunction. What do you think it will take to move the field to a place where those with potential solutions to social problems have enough and the right kinds of money to see their solutions come to fruition?

Michael: Nonprofits exist in a complicated marketplace, seeking capital from a broad range of funders. As in any marketplace, some influential market makers set the rules. The practice of setting limits on indirect costs in project grants to nonprofits/NGOs has its antecedents in the US government’s approach to funding R&D at universities during the post-World War II era. The federal government has changed practice dramatically since 1958, embracing the “fair share” approach—that federal agencies pay their fair share of true costs, including indirect costs.

Among private foundations, indirect cost rate policies have been common for decades. A RAND report from the 1980s captured the variety of policies at that time: “many foundations customarily pay full indirect cost as budgeted in a proposal. Other foundations may pay only a portion of… or specify a cap on the support of indirect costs.” More recently, our research has shown that many large foundations set a cap of 15% or lower on indirect costs. Yet, among the 20 large nonprofits we sampled, indirect costs comprised between 21% and 89% of total costs, with the median at 40%.

I offer this history because I see the indirect cost conversation changing. For decades, much of this conversation has been driven by nonprofit and NGO leaders’ concerns about caps on indirect cost reimbursement. But funders have begun to engage more deeply in this conversation over the last several years. In 2013, Forefront (formerly Donors Forum) convened a cross section of staff from smaller Midwest foundations to discuss barriers and potential solutions to funding indirect costs. In 2015, the three California Regional Associations of Grantmakers launched the Real Cost Project (now the Full Cost Project) with the dual goals of increasing the number of funders providing real-cost funding and building the skills and capacity of grantmakers.

Having philanthropic leaders at the table is important to overcoming the reality of power dynamics. In the same breath, it’s also important to see this issue for what it is—a complex systems issue. Acknowledging this complexity helps approach this issue from a place of empathy for funders that want to do the right thing, and nonprofits that want to own and manage the costs of delivering impact.

Funders have the opportunity to ask grantees their true costs of programs and to be prepared to pay their fair share of the operational and financial support it takes to deliver those programs. Meanwhile nonprofits can focus on knowing their costs and advocating for them. Funders cannot pay their fair share if grantees don’t tell them what it is!

Nell: Beyond researching and consulting on these topics, you also serve on the board of two nonprofit organizations. What has been your on-the-ground experience as a board member trying to put these concepts to practice?

Michael: Creating space for a conversation among peer board members has been important in establishing a shared understanding of the issues—and why sometimes the executive director very rightly chooses to say “no” to a grant that doesn’t cover true costs.

The reality of this “complex marketplace” also hits home—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That puts a big burden on the executive director and finance team to effectively report and manage costs.

Photo Credit: The Bridgespan Group

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3 Things I Wish Funders Would Ask Nonprofits

I think we can all agree that most philanthropists truly want to be helpful to the nonprofit recipients of their dollars. However, because of the inherent power imbalance, it is often challenging, if not impossible, for a funder and a grantee to have a candid conversation about what it will really take to achieve the social change that they both seek.

I think part of the answer may lie in funders initiating more productive conversations with their grantees about what truly holds a nonprofit back from becoming more sustainable and effective at creating social change.

So here are some questions that funders, who hope to help their most beloved grantees achieve their mission, can employ:

  1. What holds you back?
    Rather than hearing this most critical question asked of them, nonprofit leaders often hear a very different question from their funders: “Why don’t you grow your programs?” In fact in the most recent Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey, 49% of nonprofit leaders said they could have an open dialogue with their funders about expanding programs, but only 17% said they could have a conversation with funders about organizational change or adaptation.  Instead of pressuring nonprofit leaders to grow, funders should ask about the capacity constraints that are holding those nonprofits back. And once a nonprofit leader reveals what those constraints are, funders and nonprofit leaders together should brainstorm how to overcome those hurdles, with capacity capital.

  2. What would it really cost to achieve your long-term goals?
    Nonprofit leaders are rarely asked what their long-term goals are, let alone what it would take to achieve them. For so long the incentives in the nonprofit sector have encouraged nonprofit leaders to hide their full organizational and infrastructure costs and operate on a short-term view. So they rarely give themselves the luxury of planning for the long-term, let alone calculating what the long-term might cost. Instead, funders should encourage the leaders of the nonprofits they fund to take the longview (perhaps starting with a Theory of Change), and to include ALL the costs (program, infrastructure, reserves, staffing and systems) necessary to get there.

  3. What other funders or influencers can we introduce you to?
    Beyond actual money, there is much more that philanthropists could be doing to support their grantees. Whether they realize it or not, funders often are connected to other key people who could help move a nonprofit’s mission forward. That might include other funders in the same issue area, or policymakers with an influence on the nonprofit’s mission, or others with a role in whether or not a nonprofit’s desired outcomes will come to fruition. Instead of being overly protective of their desirable network, funders should actively make connections for those nonprofits that they want to succeed.

I know I’m an optimist. These are hard questions for funders to ask and equally hard questions for nonprofit leaders to candidly answer. But the only way we are going to move beyond the power dynamic and an under-resourced nonprofit sector is if funders and nonprofit leaders have more open and honest conversations about what it will really take to move social change forward. So get talking.

Photo Credit: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios

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