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Strategy

What Are The Key Strategic Questions Facing Your Nonprofit?

At the beginning of any strategic planning process I lead, this is the question I pose to the nonprofit’s leadership: “What are the key strategic questions facing your nonprofit?”

Nonprofit leaders who want to plan for the future must first articulate what it is they need to decide about that future. A strategic question is a big picture, two roads diverged in the woods kind of question. Shall we go this way, or shall we go that way? They are not the tactical “How do we get this done?” questions, but rather the “What should we be doing?” kinds of questions.

So my first step in strategic planning is to lead the board and staff to create a laundry list of the big picture questions they want to be able to answer by the end of the strategic planning process.

These are questions like:

What people or groups are we seeking to benefit or influence?
It is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create social change. Your target populations are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so will move you closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clear about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, money, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal. The clearer and more specific you can get about exactly who your target population(s) are, the more effective you will be at creating change for them.

Which programs or activities should we cut?
Often nonprofit leaders are so big hearted that over the years they take on more and more programs and services, regardless of whether those additional programs make strategic sense or fit with the core competencies of their organization. So if you run a nonprofit with a long list of programs that don’t necessarily align with each other or with what you do best, you may want (during your strategic planning process) to ask which programs should stay and which should go.

What social issues are we working to address?
Sometimes a nonprofit’s board and staff are at odds about (or at least have never really decided) the exact list of social problems their nonprofit wants to address. A nonprofit is typically created because its founder recognizes some injustice or disparity and she wants to address that problem. But over time, a nonprofit’s leadership might take on additional issues, or the issues they were formed to address might change or grow, or other competing groups might launch to address similar issues.  So to chart a future direction, board and staff together must become crystal clear about exactly which social problems they believe are in their nonprofit’s purview.

Given what others working on the same issues are doing, where should we be focusing our efforts?
You cannot create a long-term strategy in a vacuum. Therefore you must get outside your walls and understand what other people and groups working on similar social issues are doing. And then you may need to determine what impact those efforts have on your nonprofit’s future direction and where can you have the most effective results.

What changed conditions should result from our work?
This is the ultimate strategic question because it forces everyone to articulate why your nonprofit exists. The changed social conditions that you desire (in other words, your desired outcomes) help you articulate what you ultimately hope your nonprofit will accomplish. And by articulating that, you can then work backwards to determine how you will operate, what programs you will run, who you will work with, how you will be funded, etc. Your desired outcomes serve as your nonprofit’s guiding light. And they hold your nonprofit accountable both internally and externally.

What is the most sustainable financial model for the outcomes we want to achieve?
All money is not equal and in order to create sustainable social change you have to figure out how to attract enough and the right kinds of money to achieve your outcome goals. So as part of your strategic planning process, you may need to figure out what your financial model should look like given the answers to all of your other strategic questions.

These are just a sampling of potential key strategic questions. Your unique mission and operating model will necessitate that you create your own custom list of key strategic questions.

Once you have that list, the purpose of a good strategic planning process then is to set about answering those questions in an evidence-based, decisive way. And once you have answers to all of your key strategic questions, you can craft a compelling, effective strategic plan that board, staff and supporters will be excited to bring to fruition.

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I use with my clients, check out my Strategic Planning page.

Photo Credit: Nick Page

 

 

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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

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

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

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

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

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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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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