They have been spinning their wheels for months (maybe years) and can’t seem to get out of a vicious cycle that might include insufficient funding, a disengaged board of directors, struggling programs, or an inability to articulate their value to outsiders. They continue to have the same conversations month after month, wanting to do more and be more, but unable to figure out what’s holding them back.
When that is the case, a Financial Model Assessment can be really instrumental in moving the nonprofit forward.
Last week, I led the culminating meeting of a Financial Model Assessment for one of my clients. In this meeting I bring board and staff together to discuss my findings after a 3-4 month assessment of how every aspect of their nonprofit (strategy, vision and mission, board and staff structure, marketing, etc.) contributes to (or detracts from) their ability to bring sustainable money in the door.
This meeting is always my favorite part of the process because it starts to move a nonprofit forward in several ways:
Taboo Topics Are Uncovered and Discussed
Let me be clear, this is a challenging meeting. Through the course of the Assessment, I often uncover one or two things that are happening at a nonprofit that everyone knows about (and may even be discussing privately) but no one is willing or able to address as an organization. Perhaps the nonprofit is running a program that drags the organization down, or the board is not pulling their weight, or the staff is not structured effectively. In this meeting, nothing is sacred. Anything that holds the nonprofit back is fair game. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone finally put everything out in the open for the organization as a whole to discuss. Because if you don’t articulate and analyze the problems, you have no hope of overcoming them.
Board and Staff Are Energized
Once those problems are out in the open, there is often a palpable energy that begins sparking around the room as individual board and staff members begin to realize that there is a better way. It may not be easy, and it may push them and the organization in new, challenging ways, but it is exciting and hopeful and energizing. Every single time I have led one of these Assessment meetings a noticeable energy beings to build. It’s the acknowledgement among board and staff that they don’t have to be stuck anymore.
A Clear Path Emerges
And the reason they don’t have to be stuck anymore is because the Assessment lays out a path forward that frees the nonprofit from the spinning wheels. Suddenly board and staff have a set of steps and a strategy that they can discuss, analyze, and execute. They may not agree with or integrate every recommendation I make, but they at least have a future path around which they can mobilize.
This meeting, and the Financial Model Assessment that instigates it, can often be the first step in a new direction. It can be the inflection point at which board and staff finally recognize together, as a critical mass, that the status quo just won’t work anymore, and they must come together to chart a smarter, more strategic future course. It is the place where everyone acknowledges that change — true change — is necessary and possible.
Photo Credit: Till Krech
Although I already mentioned (in my September 10 Great Reads list) a really interesting article about “network entrepreneurs,” I want to further explore the concept because I think it could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in September, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer describe a “network entrepreneur” as different from, and much more effective at creating social change than a typical nonprofit leader. As they put it:
A network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.
And this mirrors Wei-Skillern’s earlier article from 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit” where she described how a “networked nonprofit” builds alliances far beyond its own walls and is thus much more effective at creating social change that a traditional nonprofit:
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. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.
In essence, the network approach to social change is one of true leadership — leadership writ large. Because a true leader leaves their ego, and the ego of their organization, aside in order to assemble all the required resources (individuals, institutions, networks, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of leading an organization, a network entrepreneur is, in essence, leading a social change movement.
A network entrepreneur understands that social change lives beyond any single organization. It requires someone (or a set of someones) to marshall all the necessary resources, create a larger change vision and lead people towards that vision.
This concept is so critical to nonprofit leaders who are often working with such limited resources. If instead of working to build an institution, a nonprofit leader worked to build networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change.
So what does this network approach look like in practice for a nonprofit leader?
Instead of thinking just about your organization, your staff, your mission, your board, your donors, you must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside your walls. You need to analyze the other people and entities working on similar challenges, and not just in the nonprofit space, but also in other sectors, geographies and time periods (yes, history matters!). Determine how other places, other people, other organizations, both past and present, addressed similar problems. You need to understand the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than your single organization can. Figure out who the influencers are in the space and how to connect your work with those other individuals, institutions, networks.
The network approach also requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding. Instead leaders must take an abundance approach that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder approach.
And the network approach involves having the confidence to think that there is potentially a larger solution and that you might be part of it. The dysfunctional power imbalance present for so long in the nonprofit sector has bred a crisis of confidence that keeps nonprofit leaders focused just on their own work, instead of seeing the larger picture and envisioning a larger solution or role in that solution.
The network approach to social change involves taking a big step back from the work you have always done. It requires asking a much larger set of questions. And having the faith, confidence and leadership to plug into the network for social change.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
I’ve been leading several strategic planning processes lately, and as we wrapped up the last planning meeting for one of my clients (who had been encouraged to create a strategic plan by a funder) my client announced:
“I have to confess that when we started this process 6 months ago I inwardly rolled my eyes because I thought it would be a pointless process, full of silly buzzwords and with little value. I have completely changed my mind. I can already see how this new plan is making us smarter, more effective and more sustainable.”
Yep, I completely get it.
Strategic planning, when poorly done, is just a joke. But, when strategic planning is done well, it can completely transform an organization.
And there are three key places where a bad strategic plan falls short:
- Your Strategy Isn’t Big Enough
To create an effective strategic plan you have to start with the big picture. You must analyze and articulate who your target audience(s) are and your theory of change. Then you must look externally to understand the needs, the competitive landscape, the funding, the changing factors in the marketplace in which you operate. Nonprofit leaders sometimes mistakenly think they are creating an effective strategic plan when they sit in a room, look around at their fellow board and staff members, and ask each other what they think they should do. It is also a mistake to think that in such a rapidly changing world you can simply develop a status quo strategy. In order to stay relevant and sustainable you have to understand how you interact with the forces outside your walls and outside your control. And here’s a little secret: the more you think about the bigger world out there, the more excited your board and funders will be by the plan. Your nonprofit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither should your plan for the future.
- Your Strategy Isn’t Small Enough
But the other danger is to get too big and neglect the small part — the execution and monitoring of the plan. It’s great to have a bold vision and ambitious goals for the future that flow from an exciting theory of change. But that’s not enough. How will you implement it? How will you break down tasks, and responsibilities? What’s the timeline? And what is your process for determining, on a regular basis, whether the plan is actually coming to fruition? A good strategic plan, one that will actually transform your organization, requires operational detail and a process for monitoring it over time.
- Your Strategy Ignores Money
There is no effective strategic plan that neglects to answer how you will finance it. That’s why a good strategic plan devotes one of its goals to money. How much will it cost to deliver on all of the goals of your plan? How will revenue (and capital if you need it) flow to meet (or exceed) those expenses? A good strategic plan forces nonprofit leadership to become financially savvy (when they may not have been before) and begin to use money as an integral management tool.
How does your nonprofit’s strategic plan stack up? Is it big enough, small enough, and well financed? If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page or download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
Photo Credit: ESO/H. Dahle
I guess I am on a case study kick this week. I do think that actual examples of the paths other nonprofits followed in order to become more effective or more sustainable can be really helpful to other nonprofit leaders in the trenches. So in that spirit, I offer a case study of a small, startup nonprofit ready to grow their impact and their sustainability.
The thing I love about my job the most is that I get to work one-on-one with super smart people who are coming up with innovative solutions to making the world a better place. In particular, lately I’ve been lucky enough to work with some groups in the civic technology space, a really exciting emerging area where innovative technology solutions are used to make government, and ultimately democracy, more effective.
One of these groups, The Engaging News Project (ENP) is a startup nonprofit aimed at helping news organizations better meet their democratic and business goals in a digital age.
While ENP enjoyed success and the support of some key funders over the past two years, they were ready to move from the project phase to an established organization with sustainable funding and a long-term strategy for achieving impact on the digital news industry.
So ENP hired me to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, ENP created an advisory group of staff and key stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which ENP operates, develop their theory of change, define the audiences they want to target, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization. I also helped staff create a year 1 operational plan to help execute and monitor the strategic plan.
The end result was a clear 3-year strategic plan with accompanying financial model and an engaged and excited staff and group of advisors.
Because of their new strategic plan, ENP has focused their project development efforts, clearly defined where and with whom they want to work, and detailed their goals for the next 3-years.
They are now working to implement the strategic plan. They are identifying new funders to help support the growth of the organization, expanding their collaborative partners, creating a formal advisory board, and streamlining operations. ENP staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to have a greater impact on the future of digital news.
As Talia Stroud, Director of the Engaging News Project put it,
As a new entity, we had been doing more of the day-to-day work and hadn’t taken the time to think about the bigger picture of where the Engaging News Project was headed and how to get there. Social Velocity helped us to chart a future direction, hone our messaging, and develop a clear plan for our organization. By working with us to figure out our targets, potential collaborators, and goals, Social Velocity helped us to systematically figure out a strong path forward. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to accomplish with these plans in place.
I’m excited to see where the Engaging News Project goes from here and the growing impact they will have on our democracy.
Photo Credit: Engaging News Project
This year on the blog I have been highlighting the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit released by the Leap Ambassador community (of which I am a member) in March. Today I continue the ongoing blog series describing each of the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative with Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies.
You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management.
Pillar 3 describes being crystal clear about what your nonprofit exists to do, how you fit into the external environment, and how you develop and execute smart programs that result in your desired social change. This Pillar is essentially about creating and executing a Theory of Change.
The most important part, in my mind, of Pillar 3 is encouraging nonprofits to define the target population(s) they aim to serve. I have seen too many nonprofit organizations so focused on doing good that they don’t define who they are best positioned to serve and how that relates to who else may be serving them. Nonprofits must get clear about their place amid other services and interventions and, very specifically, who they are hoping to benefit or influence.
As always, you can read a larger description of Pillar 3 in the Performance Imperative (and I strongly encourage you to do so), but, in summary, a nonprofit that exhibits Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies:
- Is clear on the target population they serve.
- Bases the design of their programs on evidence informed assumptions about how the organization’s activities can lead to the desired change (a“theory of change”).
- Designs programs with careful attention to the larger ecosystem in which they operate.
- Implements their programs in a consistently high-quality manner and views collecting and using data as part of implementing high-quality programs.
- Guards against the temptation to veer off course in search of numbers that look good in marketing or funder materials.
Because I think case studies are so critical to understanding what high performance really looks like in a nonprofit, I asked Sam Cobbs, CEO of First Place for Youth, to explain how he led his organization to become a national model for helping foster kids to thrive.
Here is his story:
First Place went through an intensive theory of change process in 2008 where we explored what impact we wanted to make with youth and what type of activities and interactions it would take to achieve that impact. In addition, because the activities and interactions needed to be intensive (and therefore costly) we made the decision to focus our services on the most vulnerable youth. This was measured by how at risk a youth was using a risk assessment scale that took into account, among other factors:
- number of foster care placements
- years or days of homelessness
- job history
- education level, and
- the number and quality of support systems, including positive adult role models.
Based on this criteria, youth who had a higher risk factor score were given priority over youth with lower scores.
After establishing our target population, we began to collect data on what activities and interactions youth were having with the organization and started to analyze these trends. We were looking to understand what our population had in common so that we could understand who we were effective with and who we needed to create better interventions for.
Through this work we determined that we had 8 participant types at baseline and figured out which types we worked better with and what interventions were best used with these sub-populations. We then trained staff to deliver the interventions that were shown to work better with certain sub-populations.
We also began to understand that our sweet spot was kids who had multiple foster care placements, had experienced homelessness at some point, and had a high school diploma or GED. We also learned that we needed to get better with youth who had low risk factor scores because they had an extensive support network, had never experienced homelessness, and were somewhat stable while in foster care. This may go against what we naturally think — that a person with extensive support would do better, but our data showed the opposite. We were also not very good at working with single parents who did not have a high school degree. In the coming year we are going to redo this process using algorithms to see if we get the same results and trends.
If we see that we are not doing well in an area, we research the best practices to deal with that area and direct resources and time to delivering that intervention. For example, because of the data we realized that a portion of our youth had very high trauma scores. Therefore we said we needed to become better at working with youth who have had complex trauma at high rates. We then created an initiative to insure that everyone in the organization understood trauma and its impact on our youth and the best ways to address it. We will see at the end of this year if this investment in trauma informed training has paid off by increasing our outcomes and impact with the youth that we serve.
We are consistently looking at the data to understand where we are doing well and where we need to improve. Its the data, the data, the data.
Photo Credit: First Place for Youth
Predictably, my post last week arguing that nonprofit events aren’t efficient fundraisers caused some controversy. In particular, fundraising consultant, Gayle Gifford and I had an interesting (and very polite) debate about the post.
The exchange with Gayle really made me think and further refine my argument (which is really the point of debate, right?). What our exchange made me realize is that my issue with nonprofit fundraising events goes far beyond my belief that they are inefficient fundraisers.
Rather, my distaste for events stems from the fact that they often perpetuate the charity mindset, a destructive approach that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. The world is changing rapidly and the “charity” model doesn’t work anymore. And in fact, that model holds nonprofits back from becoming more efficient, more sustainable social change machines.
In our debate, Gayle and I discussed how events are merely a symptom of larger changes happening in the economy. As I wrote, nonprofit events are part of a:
“dying mentality that “charity” lives beside,…instead of fully integrated into, the economy. I believe that we are moving to a place where the work of social change (historically the work of “charity”) is fully integrated into the rest of the economy…the work of social change is just as important as the work of making widgets or the work of building roads and everyone understands that in order for all of it to work well, we need to finance it effectively.”
And Gayle argued that what I am describing would be a significant change to the world as we know it:
“I too long for/ and am working for the day when social justice is integrated into our economy as well as our philanthropic life… though that’s going to take some pretty massive restructuring of an economy based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption. But I still hold out that hope.”
But, as I responded, I think that kind of massive restructuring is already well underway:
I agree with you that fully integrating social change into our economy is not going to be quick or easy, but the truth is that it is already happening. There is a real convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors and the result is that social change is now rather ubiquitous. At the same time, technology and the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly as well. Add to that a Millennial generation that bakes social change into everything they do, and I think you start to see the beginnings of the “pretty massive restructuring” you and I are talking about. Nonprofits need to do the analysis and abandon activities that just aren’t effective. And then they need to look to some of these structural changes we are witnessing to find more efficient ways to create a sustainable financial model for their social change work.
In my mind, nonprofit fundraising events are anathema because they are symptom of a larger, ineffective way of thinking about nonprofits and the work of social change. Fundraising events are typically run as an aside, a tangential activity that sucks time and money out of a nonprofit and begs otherwise uninterested participants to pay the price of admission. These events keep charity squarely separate from the “real” work of the world.
And I truly believe we have moved past that. There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore. Social change must be bigger, more effective, and more efficiently financed.
When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” supported in part by inefficient, occasional parties, we start creating real investment, real attention, and real change.
Photo Credit: Gerald Ford Library
In the nonprofit world marketing is fairly misunderstood. “Marketing” is the act of segmenting the potential market for your products or services and then targeting the right segment(s) in order to convince them to “buy.” While in the for-profit world there is typically just one customer, in the nonprofit world there are (at least) two distinct customer groups:
- Those benefitting from your products or services (“Clients”) and
- Those buying your products or services (“Funders”)
Often, marketing to Clients is less tricky because demand is so high for a nonprofit’s services. So the real challenge is to create an effective marketing strategy to attract Funders. But even within that category there can be many different types, depending on a particular nonprofit’s business model. Marketing to foundations vs. individuals vs. earned income customers vs. government contractors — it can get quite complex.
Which is why it is so important for nonprofit leaders to understand some basics about how marketing works.
You Must Know Who You Are Marketing To
Market segmentation is thinking strategically about which specific people you are trying to reach within the vast universe. Anyone who has money should NOT be the target of your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts. Instead, you have to think about what distinguishes people who have an affinity for your work from the rest of the world. Clearly define their particular demographic (age, gender, income, job) and psychographic (lifestyle, interests, attitudes) characteristics. Create some “target personas” (HubSpot has a great tool for this) that define your target group(s) along different dimensions and then tailor your marketing efforts to where they are and what specific messages will compel them to act.
There’s No Such Thing as “Raising Awareness”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a nonprofit leader say that they are holding an event, or trying to generate media coverage, or sending out a mailer in order to “raise awareness.” Let me be blunt — that phrase is meaningless. Whose attention (specifically) are you trying to capture (see #1 above)? And are you trying to get their attention in the places they already are? And are you talking with them in a way that is meaningful and will encourage them to act? When you attempt to “raise awareness” without a specific and targeted strategy you are just shouting in the wind.
The Market Is Increasingly Crowded
And now more than ever you are shouting in the wind because of the rapidly changing digital environment in which we all live. We are bombarded with an exponentially increasing amount of messages every day. It is completely overwhelming. So unless you get really specific about who exactly you are trying to reach and how exactly you are going to compel them to act (again, see #1 above), you are hopelessly lost.
Push Marketing is Dead
And because of this rapidly changing digital environment, push marketing — the traditional approach of sending out a press release, putting an ad in the paper, sending a direct mail piece, or any other way you PUSH out a message and hope people will act — has become completely ineffective. Instead you want to use PULL activities where you create and participate in communities where your target personas are already present. You connect with them, empower them to get involved and then let them tap into their own networks to help your jointly held cause.
You Must Embrace The Network
In the end you must create a completely different philosophy about marketing. Stop creating your mission in a vacuum and then begging for any and all support to make it happen. Instead, you must break down the walls of your organization and tap into networks outside that have similar social change goals and who can work with you to make that change happen. Rather than investing in an advertising campaign, use those resources to create a network strategy to identify key influencers who can help move your goals forward and connect with them to figure out how you can work together. We live in an increasingly networked world and only those who connect with it will thrive.
You must reinvent your marketing approach. Instead of shouting a message and hoping someone will listen, get strategic about identifying people who can become partners in making a joint social change vision happen.
Photo Credit: pexels.com
Since I was out of the office for a good chunk of July and August, I’ve decided to combine both months into one 10 Great Reads list. But let me be clear, there was still lots going on, I just happened to be (somewhat blissfully) missing it.
From philanthropy’s role in inequality, to climate change preparation, to what the Greek financial crisis teaches us about networks, to civic engagement, to digital’s effect on fundraising, to social impact bond results and pizza on the family farm, they were a great couple of months.
In my (limited) view, below are my 10 favorite reads from the past two months. But because I know I missed things, please add to the list in the comments.
- President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker made a lot of news this summer, from his announcement of Ford’s shift to focusing on inequality and unrestricted grants, to his July release of a thought-provoking essay in which he took foundations to task. He argued that foundations have been “cutting the pie into smaller slices,” and he instead encouraged funders to embrace “a new era of capacity building investment.” Because, as he put it, “What civil society needs most, and now more than ever, are resilient, durable, fortified institutions that can take on inequality, fight poverty, advance justice and promote dignity and democracy.” Amen! Ford’s move kicked off an excellent Inequality and Philanthropy forum on the HistPhil blog. And Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan argued that Walker’s message is about significant change, which may be tough for the sector to hear.
- In a fascinating (and rather depressing) article, Eric Holthaus from Slate talks to climate scientists about how they are personally responding to the climate crisis, particularly how they have “factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in [their] families’ future plans.” Yikes.
- Reserve funds are an incredibly critical (but often misunderstood) aspect of nonprofit financial strategy. But as she always does, Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund provides a clear roadmap to understanding.
- Paul Vandeventer uses the summer’s Greek Euro crisis to illustrate when networks (of which the Eurozone is an excellent example) thrive and when they fail. As he puts it, “Ignoring or giving short shrift to…the fundamental principles by which networks operate wastes precious reserves of time, money, and goodwill, and imperils all the hopeful good that organizations, institutions, and countries set out to achieve when they start down the path of networked action.”
- Late July saw a fascinating gathering of social changemakers around civic engagement, the “Breaking Through” conference, hosted by the Knight Foundation. Keynoter Peter Levine argued “This is the year that we can take back American politics. It’s up to us.” It was a great lineup of speakers and sessions about getting people engaged again. You can see video from the conference here.
- Is digital becoming a gamechanger in fundraising? Some think so. And in August Facebook launched a new Donate button, but is it really all that helpful to nonprofits? Some argue that Facebook is critical. Others think the Donate button is a fail.
- August of 2014 saw the record-breaking ALS Ice Bucket fundraising challenge. Many (including me) were skeptical of the campaign, but it turns out that last summer’s financial windfall helped scientists make a breakthrough in research to fight the disease.
- This August was the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. There were many great articles about where New Orleans has been and is now. But my two favorite were Greater New Orleans Foundation President Albert Ruesga’s Ten-Year Perspective on the philanthropic response, and Andrea Gabor’s New York Times article, The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.
- The first results came in from the New York state social impact bond experiment, and they weren’t great. Goldman Sachs invested in a Rikers Island program that attempted to reduce recidivism among teenagers.The program failed to meet its goals and Goldman lost money. But New York is not giving up, as first Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris said, “This social impact bond allowed the city to test a notion that did not prove successful within the climate we inherited on Rikers. We will continue to use innovative tools on Rikers and elsewhere.”
- I’m always a fan of examples of innovation. NPR provided a glimpse of how family farms are using pizza to reinvent their business model.
Photo Credit: Anne Adrian