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Strategy

When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

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

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

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

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

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

Let’s be honest, nonprofit leaders tend to be a pretty reactive bunch. Instead of creating or controlling a situation, they tend to simply react to it. And it makes sense.

A foundation suddenly changes their funding strategy, and a nonprofit leader must scramble to find a new revenue source. A shift in how or where the government provides social services and a nonprofit leader suddenly sees a dramatic spike in the number of her clients. A board chair finds a job in a new city and a nonprofit leader finds his board leaderless. Nonprofit leaders are incentivized and learn quickly to react to ever-changing internal and external circumstances.

But I worry that in the face of the relentless shocks that 2017 brought, many nonprofit leaders have gone from a mode of normal reactive to super reactive. And the problem is that when you are operating from a point of reacting to circumstances instead of creating circumstances, you are much less effective at achieving your ultimate goals.

Lately I have seen some nonprofit leaders swept up into the chaos wrought by our divisive political and social climate and thus become less effective than they could otherwise be.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit leader who runs a national nonprofit recently became understandably concerned about a proposed federal policy change that would dramatically affect her mission. She became obsessed with emailing, calling, texting everyone and anyone in her network and encouraging them to call, write, email their members of Congress. She became so controlled by this need to react to this policy change — a change, by the way, that was ultimately outside of her control because the political will simply did not exist in the current Congress — that it made her sick. She became wild-eyed, exhausted, and ill and ultimately of little use to her staff, board or social change mission. If she had instead taken a step back, become quiet, and analyzed what was within her ability to change and what was not, she could have then developed a way forward from that knowledge. And I think she would have been much more successful.

If our actions come from a place of anger, frustration, or despair in reaction to the behavior of others, then we are only exacerbating the problem. This has become even more obvious since the 2016 election. The Trump Administration will take an action or make a statement that is so egregious, that goes so completely against what we as social change leaders have worked our whole lives to promote, and our initial response is to react, to fight, to bend in despair.

But we are only making it worse. We are feeding the demons of division, anger, and hatred.

I think Brene Brown would likely agree.  In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone she argues that in feeding into the anger and hatred that swirls around us, we are only hurting our efforts for larger social change and a better, more just world:

If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics and social media, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations…Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it…Holding on to [anger] will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

I wonder how the tide might shift if each one of us stepped away from the noise and the hatred and instead came from a place of courage, love, change, compassion, and justice, as Brene suggests. Instead of reacting to the noise, we became silent and sought to truly listen, to understand, to find common ground with those around us.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and although I no longer practice, I’m sometimes reminded of the beautiful prayers of that faith. One of my favorites is the Prayer of St. Francis. I wonder if in these historic words there is something for those of us who want to see a more just, inclusive, loving world. Perhaps as true leaders we must do what sometimes feels impossible and instead of reacting to hatred and anger, offer love and hope, as the prayer suggests:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy…

I am not suggesting that we pardon behavior or comments that we find objectionable. But rather, that we refuse to add fuel to them by stirring up the anger, frustration, and despair of our friends, our family, our employees, our donors, our board members, our fellow social change leaders.

What if instead of spending time forwarding, commenting or re-Tweeting depressing news or comments; obsessively refreshing our news feeds for the latest dose of adrenaline; or worrying over what the next outrage will be, we build effective organizations and work across organizations, we develop smart strategies and deep networks, we instill social change leaders with confidence and ample resources, we focus on what brings us joy and peace so that we are refreshed each day to start anew, we take good care of our families and friends so that we all have the energy and the optimism necessary to see our goals realized.

There is no doubt that these are incredibly challenging times. But what if the social change leaders who dream of a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive world work towards that goal from a place of calm and confidence, rather than a place of anger and fear. Indeed, I wonder if that is truly the only way forward.

Photo Credit: sarowen

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The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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3 Questions To Regularly Ask Your Development Director

Beyond the mistakes nonprofit leaders often make in staffing their fundraising function, the relationship itself between a nonprofit executive director and the development director (or whatever you call the staff person in charge of bringing money in the door) can often be fraught.

In an ideal world, the executive director and development director have a symbiotic relationship: the development director creates the overall annual financial strategy and regularly updates the executive director on where the organization is on achieving that plan, while the executive director works with higher level money prospects and marshals the board to achieve their fundraising responsibilities.

But we don’t always live in an ideal world. And sometimes, as was the case in a recent coaching session I had with a client, an executive director is in the dark about how the organization is progressing on their money raising efforts.

If that is the case in your nonprofit, here are some key questions to ask your head money raiser:

  1. How does the money we’ve brought in to date compare along each revenue line goal? 
    When you create an annual financing plan for your nonprofit (and if you don’t, get on it), you know how much of each type of revenue (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) you want to come in this year. Then, at any point during the year (and at the very least monthly) you should be asking your chief money raiser, what the organization has actually raised to date for each of those categories. For example, if you are 25% through your fiscal year, but you’ve only raised 5% of your individual revenue goal for the year, that may be a red flag. At the very least it’s cause for conversation with your development director. Perhaps it’s a timing issue (you have a big fundraising campaign closer to the end of the year), and that’s fine. But as the nonprofit leader, you should be able to ask (and get a clear answer to) where the organization’s revenue raising efforts are at any point in time.

  2. How do the numbers and types of gifts we projected compare to what’s actually happening? 
    It’s not enough for a money raiser to have an overall revenue goal for each type of revenue, he also needs to break each of those revenue types down into the number and level of contributed gifts (from individuals), grants (from foundations), or contracts (from government), etc. that will contribute to each revenue line’s overall goal. For example, if your nonprofit has a $250,000 individual donor revenue goal, your development director needs to break that down into the various levels of donors that will make up that $250,000 over the course of the year. You may have both major (one-to-one relationships) and smaller (many-to-one relationships) individual donors. He should project how many donors at each level he will need to hit each part of the individual donor goal. Then he can report to you (again, on at least a monthly basis) how that is progressing. A simple example of such a report (he would fill in the pink areas prior to each update) might look like this:
    And he should create a similar report for the other revenue lines (corporations, government, foundations, etc.) that your nonprofit pursues. The actuals will never completely match what you projected, but this exercise gives you a way to uncover and deal with surprises as they come.

  3. What keeps you up at night?
    Finally, the raw data is not enough. You also want to understand where your development director sees real problems. When you regularly ask this question she may reveal that the board  is not opening enough doors, or her database is inadequate, or the website is not where it needs to be, or her grantwriter needs more help. Then you can strategize together how to overcome those hurdles.

A regular, honest, and data-driven conversation between executive director and development director is the best route to fewer money surprises. And without it, a nonprofit has little hope of achieving financial sustainability .

Photo Credit: Images

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Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments (and frequent contributor to their excellent blog).

Prior to running The Heinz Endowments, Grant was president and chief executive officer of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years. Before that, he served as press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz from 1988 until the senator’s death in 1991.

Grant frequently leads community conversations around critical issues such as public school reform, civic design, the ongoing sustainability of anchor institutions, domestic violence, riverfront development and various socio-economic concerns. He also serves extensively on the boards of local nonprofit and national sector organizations, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which he chairs. He has also served on the boards of Grantmakers Evaluation Network, Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, and the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.

You can read other conversations with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have written on the Heinz blog and elsewhere about the importance of philanthropists speaking out against government policies or decisions that are at odds with their work. However, philanthropy is often hesitant, because of both real and perceived limitations, to become too political. What do you think philanthropists, and the nonprofits they fund, can and should do to speak out against political decisions that are at odds with their missions?

Grant: This question makes my brain hurt. I mean, seriously, we live in a time when everything is labeled as political—affirming the science of climate change, standing up for equity, denouncing racism, defending basic math, you name it. A cultural institution we support recently faced criticism from its own docents for posting an inclusion policy they condemned as “political” because it welcomed all visitors, including immigrants. When your core values are suddenly defined as political, what are you going to do—run from your ideals and hope they somehow survive in the shadows? Or are you going to step into the light and advocate for what you say you believe in?

We have to remember this is about policy and the marketplace of ideas and values, not politics. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about trying to influence who wins an election, and private philanthropy can’t lobby on specific legislation. But foundations of all ideological bents have long understood that on some issues, the only way to bring about meaningful change is to persuade the broader culture that it matters and then translate that into supportive policy. In telling the story of its own impact, philanthropy loves to point at successes like universal vaccinations. But now even vaccines are under attack, along with the science informing them. So what should philanthropy do—stand mutely by and pretend it doesn’t have a point of view on saving lives and preventing suffering, or for that matter on the importance of science as a basic decision-making tool for public policy? You can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding.

We have to speak honestly about the perils of policy rooted in magical thinking and so-called alternative facts. That sort of candor is described as courageous in the foundation world, but really what’s brave about speaking the truth when everything you believe in and work for is under attack? We are witnessing a jaw-dropping assault on fundamental institutions of democracy—the press, the judiciary, free speech, basic notions of civility, even the right of the people to assemble. The American system of philanthropy, which hinges on an engaged civic sector, simply cannot work in the context of dysfunctional or broken democracy. Speaking out against these attacks is basic self-defense for the sector but it’s so much more than that. It’s really a defense of the democratic freedoms and governance that make philanthropy matter in the first place. And if we’re not willing to fight for that, then what in the world do we stand for?

Nell: Some argue that philanthropy is at least partly to blame for the divides currently impacting our country because philanthropy is a result of wealth inequality and sometimes perpetuates inequity. What are your thoughts on that?

Grant: Martin Luther King commented on this far more eloquently than I ever can, and recently Darren Walker at The Ford Foundation has done some excellent writing on it. There’s not much more I can add. No question, the ideal goal for philanthropy should be to help create a society where it is no longer necessary. And it’s fair to ask whether a by-product of massive wealth disparity can really address the social inequity that in some ways helps drive it.

At the same time, to dismiss philanthropy as merely a symptom of inequality is to understate both the enormous value of enterprise creation and the positive social impulse that drives philanthropy at its best. Foundations and other forms of philanthropy may be imperfect expressions of an imperfect system but they also can do tremendous good, especially at a time when government is paralyzed and the private sector has become so removed from social and community concerns.
So much of the social good that philanthropy has helped support—from sensible thinking on climate change to marriage equality—is being unraveled right now, and that’s terrifying. But if nothing else maybe it’s giving those of us who are privileged to work in this field a renewed appreciation for the value philanthropy really can contribute and a heightened sense of responsibility and urgency to actually deliver it.

Nell: What role do facts play? We are arguably living in a “post-truth” world where opposing sides can no longer agree on a common set of facts. How can the social change sector hope to create change when there is no longer agreement about what the current reality is? What do we do about that?

Grant: I’d joke that the Bowling Green massacre changed my thinking on this, but I worry folks might miss the sarcasm. This is a scary time. We have leaders just making stuff up and hiding behind disinformation machines posing as media. It’s bizarre but that’s the landscape now, and I hope the social sector wakes up to it in two critical ways.

First, we need to stop confusing facts with persuasion. Our sector loves to throw data at people and preach from what we assume is our scientific and moral high ground. But neuroscience has taught us that people rely more on their emotions and “gut feelings” to make important decisions than they do on reason. It turns out we are more likely to be persuaded by a good story than by a good fact. I’ve long thought our sector could do better at simply bearing witness, at telling stories that help people see themselves in the lives and suffering of others. That’s the most basic work of philanthropy, this process of sowing compassion. In a time of unprecedented division when humanity’s notions of who we mean by “us” are being challenged as never before, philanthropy needs to get back to that.

But, second, at the same time we need to fight like hell against the normalization of “alternative facts.” Data may be a weak tool to shift closely held beliefs but over time it can move civilizations. Think about how dismissive the medical establishment was initially of the idea that germs cause disease and how conscious our society is today of antibacterial everything. Truth wins in the end, but we need to remember the end can take a long, long time to arrive. Give up on science and suddenly you end up in the Dark Ages for a millennium. For philanthropy that means continuing to invest in science and research, but it also means investing in the institutions and processes that help facts become more broadly known, including journalism. And it means not backing off when propagandists try to peddle their lies as just an alternate reality. We need to have the courage to call that nonsense out.

Nell: For many in the social change sector these are dark days. What gives you hope?

Grant: Oh wow, I could so easily sink sanctimonious piety here, which is not what any of us needs right now. The truth is, there are plenty of days I despair over what’s happening, and it’s important to acknowledge that. If you work in the social sector and these aren’t dark days for you, then you seriously aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, hope is connected with purpose. If we only feel hope when it seems like we’re making progress or winning, then that’s not really hope, is it? It’s expectation. And there is absolutely nothing about the goals we are fighting for that can be taken for granted. Every single step of humanity’s journey toward justice and sustainable community has been marked by hardship and reversals, and often outright losses, so who are we in this era to only feel hope if the circumstances are right?

If it were up to me, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” would be required reading for us all right now, because the only way any of this gets better is if people of good intent keep pushing, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be, even when it feels like we’ve lost on something irredeemable, like the climate. We have to be humble enough to own that none of us ever really “controls” anything, but over time somehow progress still happens as long as we keep at it.

The other day the President tried to drag my hometown of Pittsburgh into his myopic decision on the Paris climate accords. I loved how local leaders here and all over the country responded with a collective roar of “no way,” which was not just about saying “that isn’t us” but went beyond that to “we’ll do it ourselves.” That’s what gives me hope—all the people I get to work with every day who greet the darkness by bringing the light of their own creativity and unrelenting determination.

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Planning for Nonprofit Success: An Interview With David Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Social Profit Handbook

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2017

May was another fascinating month in the world of social change. There are some interesting shifts happening among the institutions and movements working to improve black lives, new polls point to a surging American liberalism (not conservatism), the suburbs are no longer the route to the American dream, anti-hunger efforts may actually be perpetuating the problem, and a librarian who questioned the impact of Little Free Libraries received quite a backlash.

Below are my picks of the 10 best social change reads in May. But feel free to add to the list in the comments. And you can see a longer list by following me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also see 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been exhausting for the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered some questions for philanthropist to think about after those first 100 days. And Trump’s budget recommendations, if adopted by Congress, could have pretty damaging effects on the nonprofit sector and the foundations that fund them.

  2. A more specific impact \ that the Trump Administration could have on the nonprofit sector would be to eliminate the Johnson Amendment. The 60 year old Amendment has prohibited churches and nonprofit organizations from any political campaigning. Robert Egger, founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, debated whether the repeal of the amendment would be a good or bad thing for the sector.

  3. Despite the fact that state and federal government is being led largely by Republicans right now, it looks like American populism may have a liberal, as opposed to conservative, bent according to some new polls. Ruy Teixeira from Vox analyzed recent poll data and argued that America is actually witnessing a liberal surge:  “Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress and most states…owes much more to the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, structural GOP advantages in Congress, and poor Democratic strategy than to the actual views of the American public.”

  4. And that populism that is sweeping the country is beginning to target philanthropy. David Callahan argued that the underlying elitism of philanthropy must be laid bare: “America is in the midst of an epic backlash against elites, one that’s put a reality TV maestro in the White House. So far, philanthropy has been insulated from this broader convulsion, but there are good reasons for the sector to engage in its own introspection about elite power…There’s not yet much discussion about the bigger question regarding how much sway private philanthropy—and a growing class of savvy “super-citizens”—should have over public life in a democratic society like ours.” And Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry argued on the HistPhil blog that the populist surge is posing at least 3 challenges to foundations.

  5. There is something interesting happening in the efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. The NAACP fired its president Cornell William Brooks after only 3-years in the hopes that the organization could become more responsive to changing external circumstances. But Cyndi Suarez wondered whether this 100+ year old institution can adapt to and engage with growing social movements like Black Lives Matter.  And earlier in the month she described how BLM itself is evolving amid changing times.

  6. Jay A. Winsten from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health described how a national media strategy, even in today’s very fractured media environment, can move social change forward.

  7. Some new data in May showed giving differences between genders and generations, and the  Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco created a nice infographic on The Current and Future State of Philanthropy.

  8. Something really interesting happened when a Toronto librarian questioned the claim that Little Free Libraries, the small birdhouse-like boxes of free books cropping up in neighborhoods around the country, are actually increasing literacy. People got really mad.

  9. Writing in CityLab, Richard Florida painted a pretty bleak picture of how the suburbs, once the destination for the growing middle class, are now crumbling: “Suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.”

  10. Finally, there’s a new book to add to your reading list: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher argues that anti-hunger nonprofits are perpetuating the underlying wealth inequality that causes hunger by aligning with corporations that are exacerbating poverty through low wages and job cuts.

Photo Credit: kyle rw

 

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