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Advancing Philanthropy

Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?

mythEver since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStarCharity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.

More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.

But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.

Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?

I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.

For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:

  • Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
  • Engage a more invested board of directors
  • Use money and other limited resources more strategically
  • Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
  • More effectively manage to outcomes
  • Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit

So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.

At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.

If you want to learn more about funding nonprofit organization building, download the Power of Capacity Capital E-book or the Raising Capacity Capital Webinar.

Photo Credit: liquidnight

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Advancing Philanthropy: Moving from Fundraising to Financing

movingNote: I wrote the following article for the Summer Issue of Advancing Philanthropy. You can download the Nonprofit Finance section of the magazine, of which this article is part, on the Association of Fundraising Professionals website here.

It has been a really difficult few years for nonprofits, particularly their fundraisers. But the bad news is that the situation won’t get easier any time soon. In order to keep up, nonprofit leaders have to recognize that traditional fundraising doesn’t work anymore.

In fact, traditional fundraising is holding nonprofits back by forcing them to wear out their boards, staffs, and donors, focus efforts on low-return activities, subsist with inadequate technology and infrastructure, and ultimately distance them from their missions.

Nonprofits must emerge from the broken fundraising mold and instead develop a sustainable financing strategy that will bring mission to fruition.  That means that nonprofits have to break out of the narrow view that traditional fundraising (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) will completely fund all of their activities.  Instead, nonprofits must take a big step back and create an overall financing strategy. Nonprofits must move from fundraising to financing.

And this fundamental shift needs to happen not just because of a poor economy, but also because of deeper, long-term shifts in our world.

Donors are changing. A recent study by the Johnson Center for Philanthropy found that the next generation of donors is very different than preceding generations. The study looked at Millennial and GenX donors (wealthy individuals, or individuals who will inherit wealth, born between 1964-2000). These donors will control more philanthropic dollars than any previous generation — it’s estimated that $41 trillion will transfer from the Baby Boom to these next generations in the next 40 years. And these donors, unlike their predecessors, are focusing their money on nonprofits that demonstrate change to a social problem, or impact. According to the report, “They see previous generations as more motivated by a desire for recognition or social requirements, while they see themselves as focused on impact, first and foremost.”

At the same time, the fundraising function at most nonprofits is showing real signs of strain. A recent study by CompassPoint reveals that executive directors and their fundraisers are fundamentally unhappy with the results that fundraising achieves. Twenty-five percent of executive directors fired their last development director and 33% are lukewarm about their current one. While 50% of development directors plan to leave within the next two years.

In order to stay relevant to donors, be sustainable and achieve their missions, nonprofits need to shift from fundraising to financing.

Here’s what a financing approach looks like.

Move to Impact
It is no longer enough for nonprofits to just do good work. There is a growing demand for nonprofits to 1) articulate what results they hope their work will achieve, and 2) track whether those results are actually happening. Nonprofits have long discussed the outputs of their work: number of people served, number of services provided. But the sector is increasingly being asked to articulate and track the outcomes they are achieving. How are people’s lives changing because of the work a nonprofit does? Increasing competition for shrinking dollars means nonprofits must develop their own theory of change (how they use community resources to create change to a social problem) and then measure whether that theory is becoming a reality. The more a nonprofit can talk about outcomes and impact, the more donors it will attract.

Connect Mission and Money

The financial woes of nonprofits often stem from a misalignment of mission and money. A nonprofit leader who creates a financial engine for her organization that is fully connected to and supportive of the mission (instead of detracting or isolated from it) will enjoy financial sustainability. Nonprofits must make money one of the goals of the strategic plan of the organization and no longer separate fundraising from mission.  All elements of a nonprofit’s operations, including the moneymaking ones, must be fully integrated and moving forward together.

Create a Financing Plan

Once money and mission are connected, a nonprofit leader must create a comprehensive strategy for bringing enough, and the right kind of, money in the door to achieve his strategic goals. This includes revenue and capital, programs and infrastructure dollars, and all funding sources. Money must be understood and used as a tool, instead of feared or ignored. A financing plan integrates all activities that bring money in the door (individual donors, foundation grants, earned income, government contracts) and funds both the short and long term goals, as well as the programs and infrastructure of the organization.

Diversify Funding
Relying on only one or two funding sources, particularly foundation grants — which make up less than 2% of all the money flowing to the nonprofit sector, is a dangerous strategy. It is far better to create a robust and diverse money mix that fits well with and builds on the nonprofit’s mission and competencies.

Find Money to Build
In such a stark economic environment those nonprofits that don’t have adequate infrastructure simply will not survive, let alone be able to adequately address the social problem they were organized to solve. Nonprofit leaders must become savvy about capacity capital and start raising the money they need to build the organization their mission requires. There are two kinds of money in the sector: revenue and capital. Revenue is the day-to-day money necessary to run programs (staff, beds in a homeless shelter, books in a reading program). Capital is a one-time infusion of significant money to strengthen or grow the organization so that it can create more impact. The band-aid reality of inadequate technology, underpaid staffs, and underfunded systems that riddle the nonprofit sector is not sustainable. A nonprofit will only get better at delivering impact if it has an effective organization behind its work.

So how do you go about creating a financing plan for your nonprofit? Here are the steps:

  1. Develop a Budget for Your Strategic Plan
    The most important first step in creating a financing plan is connecting money to the work of your strategic plan. It continues to amaze me how many nonprofits create a strategic plan but attach no dollars to it. If you truly want to bring your strategic plan to fruition, you must connect that plan to the money it will take to execute on it. Go through your strategic plan and ask yourself how much it will cost to make the strategic plan a reality. Project those expenses out over the time frame of the strategic plan. If you have a 3-year strategic plan, determine what your organization’s expenses must be each year over the next three years in order to achieve the goals of your strategic plan.

  2. Create Revenue Goals

    To meet these expenses of your strategic plan, your final financing plan will have approximately 5 broad goals. These goals come in three types: revenue goals, a capital goal, and a financing infrastructure goal. Revenue is the day-to-day money you need to meet the expenses of your strategic plan. You will have 1 revenue goal for each revenue source that is appropriate to your organization (private dollars from foundations, corporations and/or individuals; government dollars; and earned income – the sale of goods or services). Your revenue goals will make up 3 of the 5 goals of your final financing plan.

  3. Create a Capital Goal 

    As mentioned earlier, capital is the one-time organization-building money you need to fund special or infrastructure-related purchases within your strategic plan. It might be the money you need for a program evaluation, or a new data-gathering system, or a new database. If you require capital investments to make your strategic plan a reality, one of the goals of your financing plan will be a capital goal.

  4. Create a Financing Infrastructure Goal 

    The last goal of your financing plan should focus on what improvements you will make to the internal systems, staffing and technology you use to bring money in the door. This goal is not a money goal, but rather an activity goal. If you want to significantly grow the revenue that flows to your nonprofit you will have to make some improvements to the financing infrastructure of your organization. This means you might want to add additional development staff, buy a new donor database, upgrade your website, or create marketing materials.

  5. Create Objectives

    Each of the goals in your financing plan will be broken down into objectives (or pieces) to make them achievable. For example, you might have a revenue goal that describes how much private money you will raise. You would then break that total private revenue goal into the individual donor, corporate donor, and foundation grant objectives necessary to achieve that goal.

  6. Create an Operational Plan

    Once you establish your goals and objectives you will break each objective into the activities, deliverables, people responsible, and due dates necessary. This becomes your very tactical operational plan with which you will execute on and monitor the financing plan. It ensures that the goals and objectives actually come to fruition.

In the end, the goals and objectives of a nonprofit’s financing plan might look like this:

Fiscal Years 2014-2016 Financing Plan

1.    Goal 1: Raise $548,625 annually from private sources by 2016

  • Objective 1: Raise $288,750 from individuals by 2016
  • Objective 2: Raise $86,625 annually from corporations by 2016
  • Objective 3: Raise $173,250 annually from foundations by 2016

2.    Goal 2: Raise $346,500 annually from government sources by 2016

  • Objective 1: Raise $120,500 from county grant by 2016
  • Objective 2: Raise $226,000 from federal grant by 2016

3.    Goal 3: Raise $17,325 annually from earned income sources by 2016

  • Objective 1: Raise $5,000 from t-shirt sales
  • Objective 2: Raise $12,325 from classes

4.    Goal 4: Raise $220,000 in capital

5.    Goal 5: Improve our financing infrastructure in order to meet our revenue and capital goals

  • Objective 1: Increase the staff and board’s ability to bring money in the door by adding positions and training
  • Objective 2: Add key technology
  • Objective 3: Improve the quality and effectiveness of our marketing efforts

You would then be ready to create the very tactical operational plan to bring each of these goals and objectives to life.

It’s not just semantics. There really is a better way.  Nonprofits don’t have to wear out their fundraisers, their donors, their staffs and their messages.  By creating a financing strategy, as opposed to a fundraising plan, a nonprofit can get a lot closer to sustainable social change.

If you’d like to explore how I can help your nonprofit develop a Financing Plan, visit the Financing Plan Consulting page of the website.

Photo Credit: MIT Libraries

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