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advocacy

Guest Post: The Rebirth of Nonprofit Advocacy

Note: With a current political climate which is arguably more challenging for many nonprofit social change efforts, I believe (along with many others) that now is the time for nonprofits to move more actively into advocacy. But many nonprofit leaders don’t know how to get started. So I asked the expert on all things nonprofit advocacy — Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits — to write a guest post describing how nonprofit leaders can move into advocacy. Here is his post.

Given the new realities at the state and federal levels of governments, nonprofit leaders (board and staff) are recognizing that nonprofit advocacy is more important than ever before. They suddenly feel compelled to engage in advocacy. Yet many admit privately that their advocacy know-how has either atrophied or never gotten off the ground. As we witness a re-birth of interest in nonprofit advocacy, this article offers initial steps along a pathway to effective advocacy.

Nonprofit advocacy is a lot simpler than most people realize, with easy steps involving the heart, mind, body, and soul.

Heart Steps

Care. The very first step in advocacy is to care deeply about something. For nonprofits, this means caring about your organization’s mission. When you really care, then you will see the barriers blocking your way … and be motivated to remove or overcome those barriers to advance the organization’s mission. Consider this mom who worried that she would be ineffective as an advocate, yet when motivated to protect her child’s safety, she championed changes to federal and state laws.

Know you are not alone. If you start to get weak of heart, know that you are part of a community that includes more than one million organizations, employs ten percent of the American workforce, and contributes billions to the economy. Your nonprofit’s mission is unique, but your organization is part of an expansive ecosystem of nonprofits working in every community across the country. We are all stronger if we honor the Three Musketeers’ motto of “All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”

Mind Steps

Realize that you are already advocating. People sometimes fret that they don’t know how to advocate. But it’s so easy that first graders do it! So do you, every day. Did you share an update with your nonprofit’s stakeholders (such as donors, board members, or reporters) recently, so they know about the impact your organization is having in the community? Congratulations, you are already advocating! We like to say that the definition of advocacy is answering the question, “Who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?”

Lean into the news to stay informed. It’s too late for action when reading that the Governor signed a bill to regulate nonprofits or the city council voted to pass an ordinance to tax nonprofit property. Nonprofits need to pay attention to the news so you’re ready to speak up for your communities. To help nonprofits make sense of the swirling policy issues in Washington, DC, we wrote this analysis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy identifying six sector-wide issues that we foresee impacting all nonprofits in the coming months. Your local state association of nonprofits can help keep you up-to-date on what is happening, and you can subscribe to our free policy newsletter, Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.

Focus. One danger of paying attention to the news is most people suddenly will see multiple things that motivate them to action. Yet there is only so much time in each day. When taking the Heart Step of identifying what you deeply care about with your nonprofit’s mission, define and then refine the topics on which your nonprofit agrees in advance that it will devote some of its limited resources to advocate for or against. Reduce that in writing as part of your Public Policy Agenda. (Here’s a link to our Public Policy Agenda, which you can use as a rough draft to start your own.)

Work smarter, not harder. The old Fram oil commercials used to say, “You can pay me a little now … or a whole lot more later.” So it is with advocacy. If you invest a little time now to lift your voice instead of sitting silently while your local government imposes new taxes on nonprofits, then you can avoid the added burden of trying to raise additional money. If government contracts impose mindless administrative burdens and costs, then you can either keep paying people to do wasteful acts or band together with other nonprofits to ease the burdens of government and nonprofits. Our hallmark as nonprofits is that we solve community problems. Advocacy is a powerful leveraging tool to do just that.

Take the (h) election. Sometimes called the best, easiest, and cheapest (free!) insurance in America, filling out IRS Form 5768 can simplify life for most 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits advancing their missions through advocacy. Taking the “(h) election” doesn’t cost anything, and gives many benefits for nonprofits.

Soul Steps

Build relationships. The poet’s line that “no man is an island” underscores not only a universal interconnectedness that feeds our souls, but also a basic tenet of advocacy: relationships are fundamental. You will be more effective when those you are advocating already trust you and know the impact your nonprofit is having. Whether you are advocating to a potential funder or to an elected official (or a member of their staff), relationships matter. Take the time now, before you have a distinct ask to make, to make friends before they are needed. They will come in handy later, for you and for them. Even without further advocacy, informing officials of the work your nonprofit is doing can pay dividends as they consider proposals down the road.

Body Steps

Stand for Your Mission. No matter who is in office or which party is in control, nonprofits can’t afford to sit silently on the sidelines on issues that affect their ability to serve their community and advance their mission. The nonprofit community is at its strongest when every nonprofit, and every person associated with that nonprofit, raises their voice. To help board members in particular, check out this website on steps your nonprofit can take to stand for your mission.

Use Your Voice. Advocacy takes many forms. You can write or call your representatives or attend a Nonprofit Day at the Capitol. You can make a video demonstrating the effects (or potential effects) of an issue. Even social media has become a part of the advocacy toolkit. Read more stories of nonprofit advocacy in action to learn about the other ways you can engage.

Be a Team Player. Nonprofit advocacy is a team sport. Most funders and nonprofits focus on their narrow issue area. But some policy issues affect all nonprofits and thus require collective action. The current federal attempt to erode trust in nonprofits and foundations by removing or weakening the 60+ years of protection against politicizing nonprofits during elections, and local attempts to impose taxes, fees, or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), are attacks on all nonprofits.

Be Vigilant. My football coach used to say, “Keep your head on a swivel,” meaning always be on the lookout, watching everything on the field. Public policy is even wilder than football because it’s played on a three-dimensional chess board, with activity happening up and down the local, state, and federal levels of governments and across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. While many want to focus on the new President, the White House is only one source of policy action. Federal legislative priorities this year will likely flow down to hit the states to implement. Domestic spending cuts are a near certainty, and with states currently receiving, on average, 30 percent of their revenue from the federal government, it’s important to see the interconnections. The White House might dominate the nightly news, but life is lived at the local level and not in faraway DC.

Just as Plato wrote that “necessity is the mother of invention,” policy threats can spark inspiration for advocacy action. Although dismayed by the cause, I’m heartened by hearing how many nonprofit leaders are now seeing the value and power of advocacy. Let this be the re-birth of nonprofit advocacy, which is deeply rooted in our collective DNA.

Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Feb 2017

Whew, are you as exhausted as I am? As I said last month, with the January inauguration of President Trump, it seems we moved into hyper drive. And February didn’t slow down a bit. From debates about the right political role for nonprofits, to advocacy in new areas like science, to efforts to reinvent journalism, to new grassroots organizing campaigns, to new ways to think about marketing in the nonprofit sector, there was a lot going on in the world of social change.

Here is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change in February. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And check out past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. A big contributor to the exhausting pace is the daily onslaught of new and shocking pronouncements from the Trump administration. One with a potentially huge impact on the nonprofit sector was Trump’s call for an end to the Johnson Amendment, which limits the election-related activity of nonprofits. Many argued that this would be a destructive development for the sector, from limiting the collaborative position of the sector, to moving philanthropy away from social change and toward politics, to contributing to an elimination of the charitable tax deduction, to increasing dark money contributions to political campaigns. But others disagreed arguing that repealing the Johnson Amendment would level the playing field with for-profits.  As always, the HistPhil blog gives some much needed historical perspective on the issue.

  2. Another victim of Trump’s ire in February was the news media. Journalism has been struggling for years amid falling advertising revenues and a changing digital landscape. But it seems the Trump administration may just be the impetus the industry needs to reinvent itself. As Jeff Jarvis argued: “Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.” And Nieman Lab hosted a conversation among journalists and editors from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post about the future of journalism. And Democracy Fund launched a cool new project, the Local News Lab, aimed at making local news more sustainable.

  3. In these uncertain times where many nonprofits are feeling under attack, advocacy has become a more important tool than ever. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jim Shultz offers some guiding questions for developing your nonprofit’s advocacy strategy.

  4. And speaking of new levels of advocacy, while scientists once strived to remain separate from politics, some scientists are finding themselves in the political arena just by investigating areas at odds with the Trump administration, like climate change. And some scientists created a network of scientists who could offer temporary space to U.S. scientists stranded overseas by the immigration ban.

  5. The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies released a new online database that lets you slice and dice data on the U.S. nonprofit economy. Fascinating.

  6. Some nonprofits have enjoyed dramatic donation and follower increases as a result of the election. One of these, the ACLU has developed a pretty impressive social media strategy and plans for a much larger ground game. Similarly, Planned Parenthood is using their increased support to develop their grassroots organizing efforts.

  7. All of these efforts to resist the Trump Administration got David Brooks thinking about resistance movements throughout history and which might be most applicable now.

  8. Taz Hussein and Matt Plummer offered a wakeup call to social change leaders who think they don’t need to generate demand for their social change work: “It’s time [nonprofits] and their funders heed business findings on increasing noise in the marketplace and the need to make any new offering, even a life-saving one, stand out. In other words, they need to pay what it takes to actively drive demand.”

  9. And speaking of marketing in the nonprofit sector, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argued that nonprofits needs to stop “raising awareness” and instead create strategies for changing behavior: “Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.” Amen!

  10. Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Kyle Crawford argued that chatbots — computer programs that conduct a conversation via voice or text — have a real role to play in social change, and nonprofits should become early adopters of this new technology.

Photo Credit: Max Pixel

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Will the Women’s March Usher In a New Era of Civic Engagement?

Perhaps like many of you, I participated in the Women’s March on Saturday. In my hometown of Austin, Texas I stood with my husband and two teenage sons amid a sea of 50,000 other people, and I suddenly wondered whether we are witnessing the birth of a new era of civic engagement.

Saturday was to me an amazing and previously unseen (in my lifetime) display of citizen participation. Whatever your political views, when 2 million+ people take to the streets in a single day, you have to admit that something is going on.

As one of my East-coast based colleagues said in an email on Saturday morning:

“I’m on a bus to DC this morning with my wife and daughter.  The excitement is palpable  on the I-95 corridor as thousands of buses are lined up to enter the Capital. The buses are filled with patriots, patriots with a lovers quarrel with their country.  It should be an exhilarating day for the promise of America.”

And as I looked around at the thousands and thousands of smiling faces around me on Saturday, I too felt my patriotism swell. It was perhaps the beginning of a more inclusive and engaging democracy — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social change).

It is too soon to tell where this will take us. It could be that the nonprofit sector will be called to lead this movement. Indeed, many of the speakers across the country on Saturday urged people to join and support nonprofit organizations. And many new organizations are cropping up amid this new energy, while, as I’ve mentioned before, many nonprofit organizations have seen donations soar since the election.

As Josh Marshall wrote last week, these times demand something much more from us — something more than any of us have ever been asked to give. And we must rise to the challenge:

“We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need. This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.”

So while I spent much of November and December full of dread about what the future may bring, I now have a burgeoning sense of hope. Perhaps our democracy isn’t crumbling. Maybe instead we are being asked, each one of us, to remake it stronger, more inclusive and more energetic than ever before.

These are certainly interesting times.

Photo Credit: National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon

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Climbing Out Of The Rubble Of 2016

If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.

But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.

Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).

But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.

I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us.  But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.

And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:

“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”

That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.

Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

So check your attitude at the door.

The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.

Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann

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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017

It’s that time of year again, where we take a look back at the year drawing to a close, and forward to the year ahead. We all know that 2016 was rough (and if you want to wallow for a minute or two, check out John Oliver’s cathartic send off to 2016).

But I am ever the optimist, so I’m hopeful that 2017 will be better. In particular I think the upheaval of this year provides an opportunity for social change to mobilize. So 2017 could be an interesting year to watch.

Below are what I predict (hope) will happen in 2017. But I make no promises.

And if you want to see how I did in past years, you can check out my 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists from 2011, 2012, 201320142015, or 2016.

  1. An Expanding Definition of Equity 
    As philanthropy continues to agonize over the presidential election and what it means and what philanthropy missed, I think there may be a reckoning that philanthropy’s growing interest in equity and inclusion must expand to include those in the rural, working class who feel they’ve been left behind. Whether this means increased philanthropic investments in “red” America, it remains to be seen, but I believe philanthropy will seek to understand how they might help to heal a divided nation.

  2. Greater Use of Networks and Movements for Social Change
    There is no doubt that social change must cross organizational boundaries in order to become systemic, so nonprofits will (I hope) increasingly recognize that they must break down their walls and become more networked in order to achieve their goals. From social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the widespread networks working on LGBTQ rights, social change leaders will increasingly recognize that they cannot go it alone. There will be more organized efforts to marshal resources toward larger social change.

  3. Growing Recognition Among Millennials of the Role of Institutions in Social Change
    But networks and movements are not enough — institutions also play a critical role in social change. And Millennials in particular tend to be anti-institution — we saw their distaste for political institutions in their low voter turnout rates in November’s election. So those Millennials pushing for reforms will need to figure out how to connect their movements and networks to the requisite political and social institutions.

  4. More Nonprofit Advocacy
    Continuing to be squeezed by shrinking government dollars and a challenging political environment, nonprofits will increasingly recognize the need to embrace advocacy as a social change tool. Formerly worried about jeopardizing the legal status of their organization, nonprofit boards and staffs will become more willing to take the risk and work to help policymakers and their influencers understand the need for their social change work.

  5. More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires
    This one is truly optimistic, I know, but I really believe that the discussions about the Overhead Myth and funding a nonprofit’s real costs will give way to a larger conversation (and research) around what it takes to create financial resilience in the nonprofit sector. Funders and nonprofit leaders are slowly starting to recognize that they must invest in financial models in order to be successful. So I’m hopeful that there will be a growing body of research into what works and what doesn’t, more case studies about nonprofits that have found financial sustainability, and a growing push to wield the money sword in the nonprofit sector.

Photo Credit: James Vaughan

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Thursday, December 8th, 2016 Advocacy, Innovators 1 Comment

Nonprofits Must Use Their Power For What Is Right: An Interview With Ruth McCambridge

Ruth Mccambridge

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ruth McCambridge.

Ruth is Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her background includes forty-five years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Ruth spent a decade at The Boston Foundation, developing and implementing capacity building programs and advocating for grantmaking attention to constituent involvement.

If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: The Nonprofit Quarterly sometimes serves as a watchdog for the nonprofit sector. For example, shortly before his death last year, Rick Cohen took the nonprofit sector to task for not standing up against anti-refugee legislation. But in some ways the sector’s hands are tied because of real or perceived rules against too much political activity. What is (or should be) the nonprofit sector’s role amid an increasingly polarized, gridlocked political system?

Ruth: The nonprofit sector’s hands are by no means tied and pretty much everyone knows that. We who work in 501(c) 3s do have to avoid partisan political activity and be a little careful when it comes to direct lobbying, but this leaves a whole world of political activity in which nonprofits can be and are involved, and there are plenty of powerful examples of political activism by nonprofits.

Look at the way that planned Planned Parenthood Action (a 501(c)4) has mobilized around this election season. Four years ago, in fact, the Sunlight Foundation found it had the highest ROI of any electorally focused PAC.

This response you speak of, of not being allowed to be political is, it seems to me, a convenient and patently obvious cop-out. It’s not that nonprofits do not know they can be involved in these kinds of issues, it is that they are employing a facile excuse for not doing what is right.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this dynamic – what most exposes the true nature of the excuse – is the tendency of some nonprofit infrastructure groups to mobilize nonprofits only on the most institutionally self-interested causes, resisting any limitations on fundraising, for instance. The fact that these campaigns are launched in favor of refugee rights to a safe harbor is not attractive to those who expect integrity from the sector.

Of course, there are issues that combine long term institutional self-interest with the interests of communities – for instance, recently a few statewide nonprofit networks have stood up for a living wage requirement and have accompanied that with work on rate adjustments, but in general, nonprofits, specifically those which are not expressly organized around advocacy, need to consider how to use their institutional power for what is right and stop playing coy in the face of current intense political scrums around issues of basic human and civil rights.

But let’s get back to the NPQ as watchdog idea. We have been hearing this increasingly over the past few years, but we have always tried to afflict the comfortable so maybe our voice has just become louder. We have many more readers than this time last year – I know that!

Nell: The mainstream media is sometimes criticized for holding the nonprofit sector to an unfair standard compared to the private sector. Do you agree with that criticism, or is the nonprofit sector not analyzed enough?

Ruth: That unfair standard coin has two sides. The nonprofit sector is more trusted by the public than government or business and that means that people expect more from us in terms of consistency of ethics. When we violate those higher expectations – yes – we may look like we are being held to a higher standard because the contrast between what they want and expect to see from us and what we give them is sometimes so starkly disappointing. This, by the way, causes some of the obsession with executive salaries that are seen as overly high. There is a sensitivity to wage justice in the context of mission and other compensation of staff that is easy to play on because people just expect us to act from the highest possible ethical position.

Nell: As a journalist, what is your take on the state of journalism and its role in democracy given the 30% decline in the number of journalists over the last decade. What will become of journalism and its role in democracy? And what do you make of the emerging breed of nonprofit newsrooms?

Ruth: Journalism is a changing form, and I would be talking far above my pay grade to suggest that I knew exactly what it was evolving toward, but it has always been clear to me that the role of journalism is central to democracy – to the ability of a populace to act in an informed manner and thus it is as important to democracy as the right to associate, which is at the basis of our nonprofit sector.

In a way, this commonality of purpose links the two, and so it is no surprise that there are now more nonprofit journalism outlets springing up – entities that are not placing profit above mission. That makes sense.

Just as interesting are the conversations around how people choose who can be trusted to inform them and on what basis, and who is going to pay for the long term investigative journalism that always has to be central to the mix, and what part open data plays in breaking stories. Other interesting trends are the evolution of citizen journalism, collaborative journalism and niche journalism. It is unendingly interesting.

Nell: In your interview last Spring with Douglas Rushkoff he had some very interesting things to say, one of which was that the nonprofit business model is superior because it more equitably distributes wealth than the for-profit model. Do you agree with his assessment, or what is your take?

If we do not want to encourage the pillaging of the earth and its peoples by the few – I guess I do agree.

Photo Credit: Nonprofit Quarterly

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5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have

douglas fairbanksChange is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.

But I’m hungry for more.

And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:

  1. What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
    Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.

  2. Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
    Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.

  3. Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
    Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.

  4. Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
    Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.

  5. How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
    There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.

It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.

Photo Credit: Paul Thompson

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2016

spring readingMarch was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.

Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.

  1. SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

  2. Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.

  3. Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”

  4. On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.

  5. But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.

  6. So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

  7. And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.

  8. Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”

  9. Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.

  10. And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?

Photo Credit: David McSpadden

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