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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: SV2

 

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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye to a Mentor and a Friend

I have a heavy heart today. I found out yesterday that my first boss, long-time mentor, and most influential teacher of all things nonprofit management died over the weekend.

Mary Jubitz was the CEO of SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), a statewide early literacy nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. I met Mary when, as a new college graduate, I responded to a classified ad (yes, that is truly how we used to find jobs) for an office manager at a startup nonprofit. I had never worked at a nonprofit, but I was hungry to learn. And Mary proved to be an excellent teacher. So much of what I write, speak and consult about in the nonprofit world today was born out of what I learned at Mary’s side over the first two years of my career.

She was first and foremost an excellent fundraiser. Over the course of her 12 year tenure as CEO, she grew the budget by 400% and built a highly engaged donor base. She did that through an amazing mix of charisma, drive, organization, and exceptional relationship-building skills. I have never met someone who was so incredibly skilled at making a donor or potential donor feel that their involvement was absolutely critical. She rarely walked away from a meeting without the prospect wanting to be part of the exciting, game-changing partnership she described.

From her tenacious ability to find a connection to a prospective donor, to her skilled mastery of the meetings and conversations necessary to entice them to get involved, to her eloquent and (always!) grammatically correct letters and proposals, to her beautiful hand-written thank you notes, to her ongoing invitations to keep the donor invested, she was a thrill to watch.

But it was not just her exceptional fundraising ability — she also translated that relationship-building acumen into deft management of her board of directors. She made a habit of regularly meeting one-on-one with each board member to ensure that they were continually engaged. And it worked. Every single board member was not only personally giving, but also introducing their own networks to the organization. And beyond ensuring the board’s active money role, Mary made sure that they were all completely engaged in board meetings and decisions.

The board was so engaged certainly because SMART was a great cause, but also — and maybe even more importantly — because they simply didn’t want to let Mary down. No one wanted to let Mary down. As a true leader, she set the bar high making those around her want to give their best and then a bit more. She created and continually inspired a winning team of board, staff and donors who truly believed they were changing the future of the children of Oregon.

And they did. Over the course of SMART’s history the organization has reached almost 200,000 children who were found to be 60% more likely than other students to reach state reading benchmarks.

20 years after I left her employ, Mary continued to be a tremendous mentor to me. Throughout my career she was always available for advice, recommendations, words of support. She took real joy in watching the progression of my career, which is as it should be since she built its foundation. As a female leader, she took great interest in other women who were doing their best to rise through the ranks of the nonprofit world and devoted time and energy to helping groom the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

She was an amazing leader. She will be missed.

Photo Credit: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

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Nonprofit Capacity Building Works: An Interview with Kathy Reich

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Kathy Reich. Kathy leads the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative both in the United States and in 10 global regions. BUILD is an essential part of the foundation’s strategy to reduce inequality, a strategy arising from the conviction that healthy civil society organizations are essential to driving and sustaining just, inclusive societies. To that end, Kathy guides Ford’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to supporting the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements.

Before joining Ford in 2016, Kathy was director of organizational effectiveness and philanthropy at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she led a cross-cutting program to help grantees around the world strengthen their strategy, leadership and impact.

Kathy has long been a friend of the Social Velocity blog. You can read my interview with Kathy when she was at the Packard Foundation here and a guest blog post she wrote for the blog here.

You can also read interviews with other social changemakers here.

Nell:  You recently moved from the Packard Foundation to the Ford Foundation in order to launch their BUILD initiative, which is all about strengthening organizations. What are your goals with this new initiative and what successes have you seen so far? And what are you finding in terms of the areas where nonprofits need most help?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has two big goals in mind for BUILD. First, we want to foster a measurably stronger, more powerful set of civil society organizations and networks working to address inequality around the world. Second, we aim to build understanding within the Ford Foundation, and ultimately throughout the field of philanthropy, about how strengthening key institutions can advance social justice.

The foundation has committed $1 billion over five years to BUILD because we believe that the fight against inequality needs resilient, durable, and fortified civil society institutions. Individuals and ideas also are critical, but the key role of institutions as drivers of sustained social change is a core, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of social justice work.

Each of the BUILD grantee organizations and networks will receive five years of support, at levels higher than what they have historically received from the Ford Foundation. Much of this support will be as flexible as we can legally make it; most grants will include generous general support. The remainder of each BUILD grant will provide support for nonprofit organizations and networks to strengthen their strategies, leadership, management, and finances. Each BUILD grantee will develop and then implement its own institutional strengthening plan. Although Ford Foundation staff will consult on drafts of these plans, the grantee will be “in the driver’s seat” in determining their institutional strengthening priorities and how best to address them.

So far we’ve made about 90 BUILD grants, and honestly it’s a bit early to say how well they are working. We do know where organizations are planning to spend the money. The vast majority of BUILD grantees, 79 percent, are choosing to strengthen their core operations, investing in areas such as financial management, fundraising, communications, evaluation, and HR. About two-thirds also are investing in strengthening capacities critical to social justice work, such as legal, research, network building, and advocacy. Close to half are investing in strengthening their strategic clarity and coherence, 36 percent are investing in leadership development and governance, and 32 percent are choosing to deepen their organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s important to note that BUILD is not the Ford Foundation’s only investment in strengthening nonprofit institutions. BUILD is part of FordForward, the Ford Foundation’s multi-pronged effort to make philanthropy part of the solution to inequality in a deep and lasting sense. In addition to BUILD, two other aspects of FordForward focus on strengthening nonprofits. The foundation is giving more general support grants across all program areas, with a goal of making general support our default type of grant whenever possible. We also are increasing overhead rates on project grants to a minimum of 20 percent, to more adequately address the indirect costs of executing projects and programs.

Nell: This is a pretty innovative approach to capacity building, how do you plan to share what you learn with other funders and with the sector overall?

Kathy: We’re planning a robust evaluation and learning strategy, although we’re really just getting started. Our hope is to share some early findings by year’s end. We’ll be focusing on three sets of key questions throughout the five-year initiative:

  • Do BUILD grants work? Do the organizations and networks that receive this funding become stronger and more durable over time? And if so, what if any impact does that have on the organization’s effectiveness?
  • If the BUILD approach works, what about it works? Is it the general operating support, or a specific kind of organizational strengthening, or something else?
  • Have we changed the way we do business at Ford, moving away from one-year project grants in favor of larger, more flexible grants?

Along with our evaluation and learning plan, we’re also developing a communications strategy to share what we learn with the field and engage in dialogue with others. We’ll be publishing evaluation results, speaking at conferences, and making active use of social media.

Nell: Both the Ford Foundation and the Packard Foundation are rare funders in that they are very committed to creating strong nonprofit organizations through heavy investment in capacity building. Do you think philanthropic and government funders are starting to follow your lead? Or what will it take to make that happen?

Kathy: Well, we certainly hope they are! It’s important to acknowledge that capacity building grantmaking is not new; in launching BUILD, we’ve learned from and appreciate the work of leaders in this field like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation.

Over time, we hope that the ranks of capacity building funders will grow. We hope that BUILD will influence other donors by contributing to the evidence base that nonprofit capacity building works—that stronger, more durable, and more resilient organizations and networks are more effective at achieving their missions.

We also hope to contribute to the evidence base about what kinds of capacity building work best for organizations and networks of different types and sizes, working on different issues in diverse geographies. That’s a tall order, but one of the great things about being a global funder and being able to invest significant resources in BUILD is that we’re able to try this grantmaking approach with a broad range of institutions.

Nell: The Ford Foundation made a very public move two years ago to focus their efforts on fighting inequality. But that goal has arguably become harder given the political winds. How does a foundation like Ford navigate achievement of their desired impact in a potentially more difficult external environment?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has worked in the U.S. and around the world for more than 70 years, and we’ve seen a lot of upheaval during that time. We’re acutely aware of the challenges facing our work, but we’re moving ahead with optimism and with what my boss Darren Walker calls “radical hope.”

BUILD is a big part of that hope. I believe strongly that in uncertain times, a BUILD approach to grantmaking is one of the smartest choices a foundation can make. By giving our grantees multi-year general operating support, we are giving them the resources and the flexibility to pivot their work quickly in the face of new realities. By also giving them thoughtful and flexible institutional strengthening support, we are enabling them to invest in their own leadership, strategy, management and operations at a time when they have to be at the top of their games.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation

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How Funders Can Help Overcome the Overhead Myth

Note: In April I will be moderating a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference about what funders can do to support nonprofit sustainability. To promote that panel and the conference, the Center for Effective Philanthropy asked me to write a post for their blog, which is reprinted below. You can see the original post at the CEP blog here.

 

Among the many myths that pervade the nonprofit sector, the Overhead Myth is perhaps the most destructive. It is the erroneous idea that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low, which leads to anemic organizations that are not as effective as they could be.

In fact, the disparity between the nonprofit and for-profit sector in investment in strong organizations is striking. As just one example, research from the Foundation Center found that in 2011, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million. Or, viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

But the reality is that nonprofit organizations are no different than for-profit organizations in terms of overhead. Last summer a Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

Some nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders are recognizing that we must move beyond the Overhead Myth and start building stronger nonprofit organizations. This is partly due to the Overhead Myth campaign, launched in 2014 by GuideStar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance with their famous “Letter to the Donors of America” and follow up “Letter to the Nonprofits of America,” which argue that nonprofit leaders and funders must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate — and instead focus on a nonprofit’s results. So the idea is that instead of evaluating the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization based on how it spends money, funders would move to evaluate the effectiveness of a nonprofit based on the results it achieves.

This campaign has gained some traction. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits, which means more money for things beyond direct program costs.

But unfortunately, we are far from overcoming the Overhead Myth. An article just this month in Philanthropy Daily extoled the virtues of the Salvation Army because “the most effective nonprofits are those with lean management. The Salvation Army is a constructive example of an effective charity with very low overhead.” And a recent article in Forbes profiled five nonprofit leaders advising other nonprofit leaders about how to keep overhead costs low.

There is still much work to be done in recognizing the need for and investing in strong, effective nonprofit organizations.

Which is where progressive funders, like those who will be attending the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston in April, come in. If a critical mass of funders could start supporting nonprofits to create strong and effective organizations, we could perhaps overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all.

But what does that look like? In my mind, funders can lead the effort to eradicate the Overhead Myth by:

  • Working with their nonprofit grantees to uncover the full costs of their work. Instead of hiding or severely limiting non-program costs, nonprofit leaders must fully analyze, report on, and fund ALL of the expenses necessary to achieve results.
  • Uncovering the capacity constraints that impact their grantees. Funders must actively work with their grantees to determine what is standing in the way of building stronger, more effective organizations — and then fund the solutions to those hurdles.
  • Moving from program-specific funding to unrestricted, general operating support of the organization.
  • Investing in the revenue-generating functions of their grantees. It takes money to create mission, so we need more investments in sustainable financial models, which includes (among other things) smart plan development, recruitment of effective revenue-generating staff, and training of board members on their role in the financial model.

The good news is that there are already funders who are doing these things. For example, there is the collaboration of California grantmakers who lead the Real Cost Project aimed at helping grantmakers understand “what it would take to fund the real costs of the organizations they support — that is all of the necessary investments for a nonprofit organization to deliver on mission and to be sustainable over the long term.”

So to help move this conversation and work further, I will be moderating a breakout session at the 2017 CEP Conference titled “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability,” where Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, Vu Le, nonprofit blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, and Pia Infante, co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, will be discussing how foundations can start advocating for and investing in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations.

If nonprofits and those who fund them could overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all, it could be a watershed moment for social change.  It would be the point at which we move from a nonprofit sector that is just trying to get by to a nonprofit sector that is armed with the people, infrastructure, and systems necessary to deliver on lasting social change.

I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an exciting conversation.

Photo Credit: Mike Baird

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Is Your Nonprofit Stuck In A Rut?

The other day I was talking with a nonprofit leader and was suddenly struck by how much his story echoed so many of the stories I hear from nonprofit leaders.

See if your nonprofit fits some or all aspects of the scenario he faces:

  • His board is passionate about the mission and wants to be helpful, but they don’t really contribute much to the financial model.
  • His staff and board want to expand services, but they can’t grow their budget past where it has been for years.
  • Their funding is fairly dependent on just a couple of sources.
  • Their funders support specific projects, rather than the organization or mission as a whole.
  • Their strategic plan hasn’t been updated in 5 years.
  • The board worries whether some of what the nonprofit does duplicates other efforts out there.
  • Board and staff don’t have a common way to articulate what the nonprofit is and does.
  • Their nonprofit is just barely getting by and has no cash reserves.

They, like so many nonprofits, are stuck in a rut.

They want to accomplish something much bigger and better but continue to spin their wheels against what they have always done. It’s really a chicken or the egg scenario. A nonprofit is unable to grow their services, their board, and their supporters because the organization has limited resources. And so they keep soldiering on, same as it ever was.

But let’s face it folks, in times like these, the status quo just isn’t going to work anymore.

Luckily, there is a way out.

When I encounter a nonprofit leader like the one above who has a real desire to break out of this pattern, I suggest a Financial Model Assessment. A Financial Model Assessment analyzes every aspect of the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategy, Program Delivery and Impact, Staffing, Board, Marketing, External Partnerships) in order to understand how each element helps or hurts their financial sustainability and their ability to achieve results. It then analyzes all current and potential revenue streams to find opportunities for sustainable growth. Finally, the Assessment gives very detailed recommendations for creating a more effective and sustainable organization.

I am a firm believer in a holistic approach. You simply cannot bemoan a lack of financial resources and call it a day. You must dig deep and figure out how everything you do contributes to or detracts from your current reality.

But because nonprofit leaders are usually consumed by putting out fires and worrying when the next check will come, they don’t have the ability to take a big step back and figure out how all of the pieces can and should fit together. So a Financial Model Assessment allows a nonprofit board and staff to understand what is holding their organization back from becoming financially sustainable AND achieving more mission-related results.

Once I’ve written my final Assessment, I lead a change discussion among board and staff. We delve into the Assessment and discuss how and why I came to the conclusions I did. This is often a galvanizing moment for the nonprofit — a moment when board and staff finally understand together a way forward that can allow them to be smarter, more strategic, more sustainable and ultimately achieve more results.

If you are interested in big change and need help navigating how to get there, download the Financial Model Assessment Benefit Sheet that describes the process in more detail. And if you’d like to read about other nonprofits who undertook a change process, check out these case studies.

Photo Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia

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