Note: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post…
When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.
What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.
In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.
So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?
Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.
Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.
Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.
Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:
- “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
- “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
- “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
- “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”
Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.
New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.
Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.
Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.
Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.
Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.
There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.
It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.
It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.
As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.
And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).
I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.
Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.
UPDATE: Here is Antony’s guest post.
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.
UPDATE: Here is Kelly’s guest post.
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does. He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.
UPDATE: Here is Phil’s guest post.
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.
UPDATE: Here is Kathy’s guest post.
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.
UPDATE: Here is David’s guest post.
Earlier this week the Nonprofit Finance Fund released the results of their 7th annual State of the Sector survey about the financial health of the American nonprofit sector. This on-going survey, now in its 7th year, has become a fascinating marker to gauge how the nonprofit sector is evolving amid a changing economic climate.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund launched the survey in 2008, when the economic crisis was just beginning. This year results from 5,451 respondents show some positive signs of adaptation and growth, but also recurring challenges that continue to face the sector.
Nonprofits are unable to meet a growing demand for their services:
- 76% of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for services – the 7th year that a majority have reported increases.
- 52% couldn’t meet demand, the third year in a row that more than half of nonprofits couldn’t meet demand.
- Of those who reported that they could not meet demand, 71% said that client needs go unmet when they can’t provide services.
Nonprofits still (not surprisingly) struggle to make ends meet. While some nonprofits are achieving financial sustainability (47% ended 2014 with a surplus, the highest in the history of the survey), many still face real challenges:
- 53% report three months or less of cash-on-hand.
- 32% find achieving long-term sustainability a top challenge.
- 25% struggle to be able to offer competitive pay and/or retain staff.
- 19% can’t raise funding to cover their full costs.
And these financial challenges are due in large part to the catch-22 funders place nonprofits in by routinely covering only a portion of the full costs of the programs they intend to support:
- 70% of survey respondents receiving Federal funding report that the government never or rarely pays for the full costs of delivering services.
- 68% of respondents who receive state funding say the state government never or rarely pays for the full costs of delivering services.
- 47% of respondents who secure foundation funding report that foundations never or rarely cover their full costs.
- While 89% of nonprofits are asked to collect data to capture the effectiveness of programming, 68% of funders rarely or never cover the costs associated with measuring program outputs or outcomes.
So we still have a long way to go.
But those nonprofits who are faring well in this environment are those being strategic. As one human services nonprofit leader put it:
“Sustainable funding continues to be our greatest challenge. Our actions to address this challenge include developing and adhering to a strong and dynamic strategic plan; diversifying our program funding streams as much as possible; developing and communicating a strong community impact statement for our programs; and focusing on increased donor engagement in order to increase fundraising dollars.”
You can dig further into the data from this and past years’ surveys here.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund
What a great month March was. Just as the weather started to turn to Spring (I hope it did where you are too), there was a whole host of great reading to digest. From analysis of the new breed of philanthropists, to controversy about contest grantmaking, to mission investing progress, to tips and guides on nonprofit finance, leadership and financial advocacy, there was lots to read.
Below are my picks of the 10 most interesting reads in the world of social change in March, but as always, please add to the list in the comments.
You can also see the 10 Great Reads lists from previous months here.
- Call me biased, but I think the biggest social change news in March was the launch of the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performance nonprofit, by the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am one). Many reviewed the new tool, including Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy who wrote that nonprofit performance is a “moral imperative.” And if you want to learn more, there is a webinar drilling down on the PI later this month.
- Who says online debate never results in change? There was a big discussion on the Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s site this month over the Council on Foundation’s plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like contest for nonprofits. Many felt this contest would be a step backward, forcing nonprofits to perform for money, so the Council scrapped the contest and created instead a panel discussing the positives and negatives of contest-style grantmaking.
- F.B. Heron Foundation CEO, Clara Miller (formerly of the Nonprofit Finance Fund) is a true nonprofit finance visionary, and this month the Foundation passed the halfway mark on their goal of putting ALL of their capital toward mission. And writing in The Guardian, Tim Smedley would seem to agree with their goal when he makes the case for mission investing.
- Chris Gates (from the Sunlight Foundation) and Matt Leighninger (from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) wrote a fascinating letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy taking issue with Diana Aviv’s comments on recent Independent Sector research about technology and nonprofit institutions. Gates and Leighninger argue that there is great opportunity in technology if nonprofits embrace it effectively, as they put it, “It is true that the rise of the Internet is forcing institutions like governments, foundations, nonprofits, and professional associations to rethink how they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and goals of 21st-century citizens or perish. But ultimately, people want the same things they always have: to belong to a community, to have a voice, and to make an impact…if institutions can provide those things in this interconnected time, they will thrive.”
- American educators and education funders have focused in recent years on science and math to create a more effective and competitive American education. But Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, thinks that’s a big mistake, “As we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” Amen!
- The fourth installment of Tom Watson’s on-going series about the changing face of American philanthropy focuses on the class of new, entrepreneurial philanthropists, those young, tech wealthy donors who are pushing for data-based social change. And Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry takes it even further arguing that “effective altruism,” what he calls this data-centered approach to philanthropy, is only one potential method of investing in social change, not the only or best approach. As he puts it, “making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we’d have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one.” And as one of these new philanthropists, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in Newark public schools continues to come under fire.
- The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a fantastic report on the need for more philanthropic investment in nonprofit leadership development. This should be required reading for every philanthropic and nonprofit leader in the country.
- The National Council of Nonprofits developed a guide for nonprofit leaders to advocate for their funding rights, particularly around indirect rates, with government funders.
- And there were lots of great tips and tools this month for becoming an effective financial leader. The Nonprofit Finance Fund released a list of tips to help “keep business and finance an integral part of decision-making.” And Kate Barr offered 6 Takeaways from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s annual Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference.
- Finally, Jocelyn Wyatt from IDEA.org argues that general funding for nonprofits is the “future of innovation”. Yes please!
Photo Credit: BibBornem
I’ve been leading several strategic planning efforts lately, and I am always amazed at the nonprofit sector’s general fear (borderline hatred) of strategic planning. I get it, strategic planning has traditionally been done so badly that many have just given up on the idea altogether. But that’s a mistake.
Without a long-term strategy for what your nonprofit is trying to accomplish and how you will marshal people and money to reach it, you are just spinning your wheels.
Rather than be a feared and misunderstood exercise, strategic planning can actually be distilled into 7 key questions. Now granted, these are really challenging questions, but they can be the impetus for some thoughtful strategic decision-making among board and staff. These 7 questions must be tackled in the following order because they build on each other.
The 7 questions are:
- What is Our Marketplace Map?
As a nonprofit you will be most successful when your 1)core competencies (what you do better than anyone else) uniquely position you to address 2)a community need, apart from your 3)competitors or collaborators. So the first step in strategic planning is to map those three areas and figure out where your nonprofit lies. But because you cannot create a strategic plan in a vacuum, you need to do market research to see how future trends might impact your place in the market.
- What is Our Theory of Change?
A Theory of Change is an argument for why your nonprofit exists. It helps you articulate who your target populations are and how you employ your core competencies to change outcomes for them. It is a fundamental building block to any strategic plan because if you don’t know what you are ultimately trying to accomplish and for whom, how can you possibly chart a future course?
- What Are Our Vision and Mission?
These two statements are NOT feel-good rallying cries. Rather they are instrumental elements of your future direction. Your nonprofit’s Vision relates to the “Outcomes” section of your Theory of Change and describes how you want the world to be different because of your work. And the Mission relates to the “Activities” section of your Theory of Change and describes your day-to-day work to move toward that Vision. Any good strategic plan takes a hard look at the two statements and revises them as necessary.
- What is Our Mission and Money Mix?
Once you’ve articulated your Theory of Change you need to analyze your current programs to understand how well each one contributes to 1) your Theory of Change, and 2) the financial viability of your organization. This allows you to understand where to grow, cut, or restructure programs to align with your strategy.
- What Are Our 3-Year Goals?
Given your long-term Theory of Change, you then need to determine what 3-5 broad things (goals) you want to accomplish in the next 3-years. A strategic plan is too limited if it only charts 1-2 years out, and 4+ years is so far ahead that it’s probably meaningless. Typically those 3-5 goals break down like this: 1-3 program-related goals, 1 money goal, and 1 infrastructure (board, staff, systems) goal.
- How Will We Finance The Plan?
A strategic plan is not effective without an attached financing plan because there is no action without money. So as part of the “money goal” of your strategic plan you must project how revenue and expenses (and capital investments if necessary) will flow to your nonprofit over the timeframe of the plan. This becomes your financing plan.
- How Will We Operationalize It?
So many strategic plans have started out strong but withered on the vine because they had no implementation or monitoring plans attached. You have to include a way both to track the tactics necessary to achieve your goals and to monitor regularly whether the strategic plan is coming to fruition. Do not overlook this most critical (and often forgotten) piece.
There is a smart way to create nonprofit strategy. But it requires hard questions and the time and effort necessary to thoughtfully answer them.
If you’d like to learn more about the strategic planning process I take my clients through, visit the Social Velocity Strategic Planning page.
Photo Credit: pixabay
I love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.
And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.
- Growth of the Sharing Economy
The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.
- More Focus on Crowdfunding
One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.
- Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.
- Growing Emphasis on High Performance
Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.
- Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.
Photo Credit: slorenlaboy
There is an article in Forbes this month that bothered me. Carrie Rich, co-founder and CEO of The Global Good Fund, argues that more nonprofits should move from a “donor-driven organization” to a “revenue-producing social enterprise.” Instead of “relying on donor funding” more organizations should “create revenue-producing services.” In essence she is encouraging more nonprofits to figure out how to sell their services.
The problem with her argument, though, is that it encourages nonprofits to think one-dimensionally about funding sources instead of developing an overall financial strategy that may or may not include earned income.
Rich’s argument is that earned income, or what she calls “revenue-producing social enterprise” is a more sustainable and impactful way to create social change. She goes on to list all sorts of reasons (10 actually) that revenue generation (or earned income) is better than contributed income. These reasons include that revenue generation allows nonprofits to be “more responsive to change,” “attract employees who seek growth,” “accelerate growth and impact,” “become more financially sustainable and mature,” and the list goes on.
Rich is echoing a repeated dichotomy in the social change space between traditional, broken nonprofit approaches, and new, more sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship approaches. Her line of argument stems from a distaste for fundraising done badly.
Believe me, I get it. Fundraising is broken. But just because traditional fundraising is flawed doesn’t mean we should eschew all contributed income.Yes there is deep dysfunction within the nonprofit sector – I talk about it all the time. But the answer is not to simply dismiss the sector and all of its trappings (and revenue sources).
Let’s remember that a nonprofit organization is often created to provide a public good that is not offered by the market. In other words, nonprofits are selling what someone is unable to purchase.
Thus, nonprofits typically have two customers:
- Those who benefit from the services (“Clients”), and
- Those who buy the services (“Donors”)
When social change organizations are able to conflate the two – when the client becomes the buyer – a social enterprise is born. And while that is great, it is rarely the case. Therefore, market-based solutions will never provide all the social change we need.
Every social change organization must analyze their overall strategy and develop a financial model that best delivers on that strategy. That financial model may have earned income elements, contributed income (individual, corporate and foundation grants) elements, government funding or, most likely, some combination of all of these. And every nonprofit should at least analyze whether earned income is right for their financial model. But social enterprise will never be right for all nonprofits, or even a majority of them.
Instead of completely throwing out “traditional charity models,” let’s make them better. Rich argues that one of the many reasons earned income is better is that it allows organizations to “afford the best technologies to help them succeed.” If social change organizations need more capital investments for technology (which they definitely do) then let’s make capacity capital ubiquitous in the sector. But let’s not erroneously assume that more earned income equates to more capital investment.
Let’s move past these social enterprise vs. charity debates and instead focus on helping social change organizations develop smart, sustainable financial engines that include the right revenue (and capital) mix.
Photo Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham
Note: Fifth and last in my list of guest bloggers this summer is Laura Tomasko. Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she follows trends related to private capital for social good. Here is her guest post:
Perhaps like some of you, I dedicate a good portion of my internet reading to blogs like Social Velocity, Re: Philanthropy, and Philanthropy 2173. When I am browsing a blog unrelated to nonprofits, philanthropy, and impact investing, I do a double take when I come across a topic from my professional sphere.
One of those non-work related blogs that I read is Popville, which chronicles activities in Washington, DC neighborhoods. This July and last, two local businesses sought financing through crowdfunding platforms, and reached out to Popville readers for support. Both cited the community focus of their enterprises as reasons to financially support their efforts. What ensued in the comment thread of both posts provides a snapshot into how those outside of the philanthropy and impact investing field understand and discuss crowdfunding, charitable giving, and investing with the intention to generate social and financial returns.
Last year, a local business named Pulp posted to Popville to request “donations” to improve the store and website, including repairs to fixtures, new paint, windows, and other related costs. Even though they said they wanted donations, Pulp actually sought no-interest loans, a distinction clear on their Clovest crowdfunding page but not on Popville. Confusion and opinions swarmed the comments section as people tried to figure out whether Pulp wanted a donation or a loan, and shared their musings on the whole situation.
This July, another local business, Three Little Pigs (TLP), used Popville to promote their Kickstarter campaign, accurately requesting donations for infrastructure improvements to enhance the business that will allow them to build a community space on their third floor. In exchange for donations, TLP offers gifts, like a pound of maple-cured bacon, to donors.
The comments to both posts provide insight into how local residents react to financial requests from community-focused small businesses. Such requests may increase given the passage of the JOBS Act and the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rules that allow non-accredited investors to get an equity stake in a local business through crowdfunding platforms.
Here are common themes about local businesses raising money on crowdfunding platforms raised by commenters:
- Is This Charity?
While both businesses used words associated with philanthropy to appeal to the charitable sense of local residents, neither provides a charitable tax benefit to the readers. This created confusion and commenters wrote in to ask whether the business would provide a tax benefit or repay the money. One Pulp commenter asked, “Does anyone know what the tax implications are to this approach? I doubt they realize the tax-exemption you typically see with donations to non-profits. Or do they? Could this be an interest free loan as well as a tax-free donation?”Questions such as this one suggest that those using crowdfunding platforms to raise money need to clearly state what they ask of their potential supporters and what they will get in return. For example, they should distinguish between how the funding will benefit the community and whether it is a charitable donation, a donation without a tax benefit, or loan.
- Should You Donate to a For-Profit?
Many commenters bemoan the idea of a for-profit business asking for donations instead of raising the necessary capital through the sale of goods and services. There seems to be an expectation that the business should either flourish or fail based on the value of the good or service, and donations should not supplement either course. While some were happy with the idea of donating to a for-profit, most did not support the concept.
- What About Traditional Financing?
Several wondered why the businesses did not get loans through banks or pay for these expenses using a credit card. Others supported crowdfunding as a way to get around the hurdles of traditional financing. While one TLP commenter in support of traditional financing noted, “There are plenty small business loans and lines of credit they can apply for at the mentioned banks,” one in favor of crowdfunding stated, “If you can’t meet every requirement, the major banks will usually turn you down due to high risk.”
The confusion and concern that arose from these two crowdfunding experiences suggest that language matters and concepts like crowdfunding and impact investing are still new to people accustomed to distinguishing charity, which generates social benefit, from business and investing, which seek to generate financial revenue.
In addition to local businesses on crowdfunding platforms, mainstream media use language associated with charity to describe impact investing activities. An interesting example is coverage of the bridge loan that Laura and John Arnold made to the National Head Start Association during the 2013 government shutdown. Covering the story, the New York Times uses the headline, “$10 Million Gift to Help Head Start Through Shutdown” and Politico writes, “Philanthropists pledge $10 million to restore 7,000 Head Start seats.”
Tucked within both articles, after terms like “donation” and “gift,” are brief mentions that the money might be paid back as a no-interest loan if government restores funding after the shutdown. However, to those scanning headlines and not reading the entire article, it is not clear that the Arnolds have made an impact investment in the form of a bridge loan to the Association.
With increased interest in social entrepreneurship and impact investing, many use charitable language to describe financial transactions ranging from donations to impact investments. Until the concept of impact investing becomes as mainstream as charitable giving, taking the time to distinguish between the two could increase awareness, and eventually adoption, of both traditional and untraditional forms of financing for social good.
Language matters and those raising capital from local residents, as well as those in the media writing about these transactions, should differentiate between the desired financial transaction and its charitably-minded purpose. Crowdfunding may bring impact investing to new audiences, and let’s make sure that the message gets there clearly and accurately.
Photo Credit: zeh fernando