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Blueprint Research and Design

Data and the Future of Philanthropy: An Interview with Lucy Bernholz

In the August installment of our Social Velocity interview series, we are talking with Lucy Bernholz, founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. a strategy consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. She is also the author of many seminal books (including the prescient Creating Philanthropic Capital Markets), reports (like Disrupting Philanthropy) and her famous Philanthropy 2173 blog. Lucy is considered a visionary in the philanthropic world and is doing tremendous work to move philanthropy forward.

Our interview with Lucy is below, but you can also read our past interviews with Kevin Jones, Clara Miller, and Paul Tarini.

Nell: You have become increasingly interested in data sharing and crowd-sourcing for change. What are the risks in these new forms of social problem solving?

Lucy: Data are not objective – quantitative data is subjectively collected, categorized, sourced, and analyzed and its “reputation” as neutral is unearned. Using data well requires skills that most of us don’t have – statistical analysis, methods, etc.

That said, when I talk about data I mean “anything that can be digitized.” Stories. Video. Anecdotes. Numbers.  We may not all have all the skills to make sense of every type of data, that is partly why crowds are important. For decades, only experts and the wealthy had access to data – so their subjective analyses dominated the discussion. Now, many of us – crowds – can have access, make sense of, add nuance, ask questions. That changes the “subjectivity” and changes the dynamic. Data are disruptive when access to them is broad, cheap, and easy.

We still need to be skeptical, ask questions, and think deeply about the biases behind both data collection and presentation. But, as computer programmers say, “many eyes make for shallow bugs.” Crowds and data are two sides of the same coin when it comes to disrupting the social sector.

Nell: In Disrupting Philanthropy you examine the long tails of donors (foundation and individual contributors of money for social change) and doers (nonprofits, social entrepreneurs receiving that money) and how information technology is connecting the two. But as a future teller, how and when do you see more conservative/fearful nonprofits and philanthropists embracing these new technologies?  What is the tipping point?

Lucy: There are few pressures on endowed foundations to change their behavior. It is hard to force this change from the outside.

The drivers of change in this day and age include new expectations about information at a societal level, the government 2.0 movement, the skills of two to three generations of employees and managers in using online tools and finding information when they want it. These are the soft, cultural, and ultimately most meaningful drivers of change. Regulations that require more disclosure, new expectations of transparency, efforts such as The Foundation Centers Glasspockets.org, the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s assessments are other possible influencers of the timeline.

That said, don’t discount the inevitable backlash against transparency, which is coming. Recent online “revelations” that have been fueled by political agendas and resulted in “flash decision making” highlight the need for all of us to be careful about the pace of information, believing everything we read, and the need for thoughtful, investigative, well-referenced and fact checked information. As Craig Newmark says, the news business is the “immune system of democracy.” As the news business is caught in this wildly transformative moment, we must all consider where we get our information, how we use it, who provided it to us, and what its credibility is. There is no straight line to widespread adoption of new tools – it is episodic and includes strange diversions.

Nell: Where does government fit into the connection between donors and doers? What can/should government do to encourage use of data sharing, crowd-sourcing, etc.?

Lucy: The government 2.0 movement is way ahead of nonprofits and foundations in the open sharing of data. That said, most of this is a “supply side” effort at this point – cities, states, and federal agencies shoveling data over the wall into the public domain with little knowledge of what information communities want or need and even less support for communities to use the information well. Firehousing data into the public domain is one thing, but it is not enough (It can also work to distract – “You want data? Here have it all”)

As for nonprofits and foundations, the data disclosure requirements of the new 990 are small steps in the right direction. Most of what will happen as far as nonprofits and foundations sharing their data is likely to be voluntary, led by innovators, and taken up by others over time as communities and constituents learn to ask for what they want. The expanding ecosystem of nonprofit ratings/raters – from GiveWell to Greater Nonprofits to Philanthropedia to National Councils of Nonprofit Analysts, etc. will also spur this.

The proposed legislation, HR 5533, which calls for a national council on nonprofits and a central system for tracking nonprofits as funded by federal agencies is the wildcard here – if it passes, the data game on nonprofits and philanthropy will change. How so, and whether for the better, I can’t say at this time because I just don’t know enough (yet) about what is being proposed, how it is supposed to work, and how it will really work (if enacted).

Nell: As you mention in Disrupting Philanthropy, 10 years ago socially responsible investment was a small niche, but now it makes up 10% of professionally managed investment funds. How much bigger will it grow? How much can mission and money be blended in our economy?

Lucy: Socially responsible screened assets have been growing for more than a decade. This is a multi-decade trend that is growing mostly outside of the realm of the charitable and philanthropic sector and within the realm, incentives, and returns of the mutual fund business. Philanthropic efforts to connect to these assets and to promote Mission Related, Program Related spending are only now getting real traction and advocacy from within philanthropy.

Nell: Your focus is largely on philanthropy, but what do you think nonprofits should be doing to tap into these trends and take advantage of the long tails of donors and doers?

Lucy: Nonprofits are experimenting with every tool to reach the long tail that they can – from “donate now” buttons to text giving. For the most part, the process has been focused on marketing and fundraising. The exciting changes are happening where we see people developing solutions that take the digital connectivity and data as the starting point for the work they are trying to do – think about Ushahidi or CrisisCommons – their entire programs/projects/initiatives/governance models/organizations are built on deep understanding of the power of disbursed long tails. That is powerful.

Nell:  Because you are such a proponent of data and measurement, what do you make of the emotional part of giving? Do you think we can ever get to a place where it’s all about the data? And should we want to?

Lucy: I have always said that philanthropy is a business of passion – it is largely emotional. The use of data, as Hope Neighbor’s recent report shows, is a small part of the process of philanthropic decision making. And it will always happen within the personal interests of donors. And please remember, when I say data, I don’t mean just numbers.

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Can PRIs Support Fundraising and Capacity Building?

Lucy Bernholz is hosting a great conversation on her Blueprint Research and Design website called “What Capital When?” As part of their work with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in their Digital Media & Learning initiative, Blueprint is hosting this online conversation around the theories and strategies of program-related and mission investing to advance knowledge and research in the field. They asked that I do a guest post on using PRIs (program related investments) to improve the fundraising effectiveness of nonprofit organizations. Below is that post. You can also read the post on their What Capital When site here, and you can read the whole series here.

I think there is a tremendous opportunity that most foundations and nonprofits are missing.  PRIs (program-related investments) are an under-used tool that could provide much needed capital for nonprofits to transform how they finance social impact.

PRIs are loans that foundations make to nonprofits at low, or no interest.  At the end of the loan period (typically 3-7 years) the loan is repaid, or forgiven.  PRIs are usually used for capital projects or land purchases in the nonprofit world.  But they could also be used to increase the fundraising capacity of a nonprofit organization, through increased fundraising knowledge, planning, tools and staffing.  The current economic climate seems like the perfect opportunity for this new use of PRIs when foundations are trying to hold on to their dwindling corpus while maintaining their past level of community support.

A nonprofit could use a PRI to improve their fundraising infrastructure in several ways:

  • Create a strategic development plan. Many nonprofits don’t have the expertise or time to put together a strategy for how they will bring money in the door.  With funding to hire an outside consultant to put together such a plan, the nonprofit would have a much better chance of increasing their fundraising revenue.
  • Get fundraising training for their staff and board. If a nonprofit staff and board have the tools and expertise for successfully raising money, they will be more likely to do so.
  • Hire a seasoned Development Director. Many nonprofit organizations can only afford to pay the bare minimum for a Development Director, which means that they are often forced to hire someone with little experience who must learn on the job.  If instead they had enough funding to pay a market rate salary for a seasoned fundraiser, they could hit the ground running, increasing the likelihood of fundraising success.
  • Purchase a new donor database. A key element to success in individual donor fundraising is an organization’s ability to capture and use data about donors and prospects.  A good donor database makes this effort easier and more successful.
  • Upgrade their website, email marketing, social media efforts. As direct mail appeals (a nonprofit fundraiser’s traditional standby) continues to become less and less effective, nonprofits need to move effectively into the online world.  Funds for technology upgrades and staff could help them do this.
  • Launch a major gifts campaign. The vast majority of private funding in the nonprofit sector comes from individuals (80+%), so to stay competitive nonprofits need to move into the world of major gift solicitation.  But that takes expertise, staff, collateral and other infrastructure elements.

These are just a few examples of how nonprofits could make investments to strengthen their fundraising efforts. But currently it is difficult to find funding to support things like this.

But a PRI could provide an initial investment that sets the nonprofit on a path toward more diversified, more sustainable fundraising for the social impact they are working to create.

There are tremendous benefits to a PRI program like this.  First, for the foundation:

  • Increases their ability to meet past levels of giving, despite any losses they might have found in the market, because the loaned money will eventually come back to them.
  • Encourages their nonprofit grantees to be proactive in creating fundraising streams that will make them more sustainable.  Thus, increasing the likelihood that their nonprofit grantees a) won’t have to come back to them year after year for ongoing support and b) will become more sustainable and thus achieve greater social impact.
  • Stretches their capacity-building dollars further. Because PRI money eventually comes back to the foundation, they can increase their level of impact by helping more nonprofits improve their capacity than they could with grants alone.
  • Increases the level of accountability among nonprofit recipients because of the expectation of repayment.

And second, for the nonprofit:

  • More diversified and sustainable fundraising streams.
  • Increased fundraising knowledge and experience.
  • Increased ability to work towards social impact.

Although PRIs used in this new way seems, at least to me, to be an obvious win-win, very few foundations are doing it.  PRIs in general are used (according to the Foundation Center) by only a few hundred of the thousands of grantmaking foundations in the country.  And I know of only one example of a foundation using a PRI to upgrade the fundraisng capacity of a nonprofit (the KDK Harman Foundation in Austin just launched a program like this last Fall, but does not yet have any participants).

So what is holding foundations back from launching a PRI program like this?  A number of things:

  1. Nonprofits lack the expertise to put a plan together and pitch it to foundations. This is where Social Velocity comes in to help nonprofits create a plan to upgrade their revenue function and pitch that plan to foundations and other funders.
  2. Most foundations  have an aversion to capacity building funding and prefer that their money go to direct program service.  However, as more nonprofits can demonstrate to funders that capacity building actually results in even more impact, this aversion can be alleviated.
  3. Foundations lack awareness of or experience with PRIs.  However, this is changing, especially in the last year when the poor economy has made foundations increasingly interested in finding alternative ways to maintain community investment levels.
  4. Foundations that are experienced with PRIs are not aware of using them to improve a nonprofit’s fundraising function.

So there is a disconnect.  But I am optimistic that as nonprofits learn to put a plan together to upgrade their fundraising function and articulate to funders how PRI’s could finance it, more examples of this new use of PRIs will surface.


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2010 and the Future of the Social Sector

Lucy Bernholz, head of Blueprint Research and Design, a philanthropy consulting firm, and thought-leader on trends in philanthropy is preparing a monograph on what 2010 will hold for the social sector. As a true adopter of social media, she is asking others to contribute, in essence crowd-sourcing answers, this year to her annual “what will next year bring” treatise. Last week, she asked her blog readers, Twitter followers, and all others the question: “What trend, change, entity, or idea will matter most to the social sector in 2010?”

She’s gotten a great set of responses, in blog, email, Tweet, and other forms, which she and others are collecting. It’s kind of an interesting experiment to ask a broad question to the universe and see what you get back, and whether it is intelligible and adds anything to what she may have already been planning to write. It is also interesting to navigate the very fine line between future-telling and wishful thinking. I probably tend to fall into the latter category, but if we don’t envision the future we want to see, we probably won’t get there.

I submitted my thoughts to Lucy via Twitter, but it is difficult to distill broad ideas into 140 characters, so I will elaborate on my thoughts here.

There are three things that I think will matter most to the social sector in 2010:

  1. Increased Philanthropic Dollars Will Go to Organization Building. Donors will increasingly realize that they can achieve a greater social return on their investment (more social impact) when they invest in the capacity, or growth of a successful nonprofit.  That is to say that donors will increasingly realize the power of BUILDING organizations rather than BUYING services.  I don’t think donors will move away from buying services, there will still be a majority of that.  But I think donors will start to understand the difference between a “donation” where they are simply supporting an organization’s current program, versus an “investment” that makes the organization stronger, healthier, better positioned to address the social problem head on.

  2. Nonprofits Will Move From Outputs to Outcomes. And in order to meet this trend of donors wanting to invest rather than donate, nonprofits will begin to understand that they will attract more capital if they can demonstrate a social return on investment, or a change in outcomes, not just outputs.  Outputs have been a favorite of the nonprofit sector, i.e. 500 kids went through our after-school program, 1,000 meals were served in our kitchen. But outputs don’t demonstrate social impact, or a change to a problem.  Outcomes do, which is what investors increasingly will want to see.  Outcomes are about changed lives, changed trajectories.  It is so much more powerful and compelling to be able to say that the 500 kids that went through our after-school program stayed in school and increased their academic achievement which was a marked difference from their cohorts that didn’t attend our program.  Then, if you can continue to track those children and demonstrate that they continued to stay in school at a higher rate than their contemporaries, you have a compelling change to a trajectory.  You begin to show how your organization is an intermediary between donors who want to invest in social change and a change you are making in the community.  I believe that philanthropic capital will begin to flow more readily to those nonprofit organizations that can demonstrate outcomes as opposed to outputs, and those nonprofits that can comply will be more successful at attracting capital.

  3. The Social Capital Market Will Increasingly Include Philanthropic Capital. The social capital market to date has focused mostly on investing in social businesses that provide both a social and financial return. Philanthropy and nonprofit organizations have been somewhat left behind. But this will change with a growing recognition of the benefits of broadening the definition of social capital markets to include nonprofits and philanthropy.  There is much to be gained when ALL organizations working towards social impact and ALL investors interested in social return can pool resources and work towards closer collaboration, creation of new financial vehicles, sharing of ideas and information.

Perhaps 2010 is too early for all three of these trends to really take hold, but I think the beginnings are there. It will be interesting to see what Lucy comes up with, and what actually starts evolving in a few short months when the new year begins.

But in the meantime, what are your thoughts?  Where do you see the social sector going in the coming year?


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Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 Capacity Building, Nonprofits, Philanthropy 5 Comments

A False Dichotomy: Non-profit vs. For-profit Solutions

In a recent blog post, Tony Wang, a brilliant researcher at Lucy Bernholz’s  Blueprint Research & Design, a strategy consulting firm for philanthropy in the Bay Area, makes a thought-provoking, yet ultimately flawed argument about the social impact of nonprofits (which he calls charities) versus social businesses. Tony and I have sparred before on PRIs and mission-related investing, and I had to take up the cause again with his argument that poses a false dichotomy.

Tony’s underlying argument is that a for-profit business model is better able to deliver social impact per dollar than a nonprofit one.  He gives many reasons for this:

  1. Dollars for charity are limited. True the nonprofit sector is undercapitalized, but that is changing, and will continue to change as the public, private and nonprofit sectors continue to converge and the social capital market, for both for-profit and nonprofit social impact organizations, grows.  The mere fact that nonprofits are undercapitalized is not a reason to dismiss nonprofit solutions out of hand.
  2. Charity is often inefficient because of its lack of accountability to the people who are the primary beneficiaries of aid.”  This has been true in the past, but I think it is changing.  An increasing focus on metrics, brought on by the venture philanthropy movement and others, has encouraged nonprofits to track and demonstrate outcomes.  These aren’t perfect by any means and there is much work still to be done, but why not work to encourage better accountability rather than simply say nonprofits are inefficient?
  3. Charity is often harmful and insulting to its recipients.  I agree that Western solutions to third world problems can sometimes be full of hubris, but this is no less true in social businesses than it is in nonprofits.  Read my post on the “missionary” nature of some social business solutions.
  4. Business has a much easier time scaling: “it will be difficult for domestic nonprofits to scale when the federal government is the only viable answer and that international nonprofits will still struggle mightily with the issue.”  Government isn’t the only viable answer.  Some great organizations have been able to scale without government assistance (Teach for America, KIPP, Citizen Schools). And the beauty of nonprofit organizations is that scale doesn’t have to mean just the expansion of a single organization.  Rather, scale can mean the dissemination of a solution that works.  Because nonprofits worry less about competition, they are more likely to want to share best practices, models that work, and allow local adaptations of a solution from another area.

Because of all of this, Tony believes that “a lot of young social entrepreneurs…are starting to realize that business solutions and not charity solutions can be more ideal when it comes to maximizing impact (and philanthropy’s impact would be multiplied if it leveraged its capital to fund social impact businesses with true potential).”

I’m sorry, Tony, but I really disagree with this.  Why does it have to be either, or?  Why is one model inherently better able to create value than another? Rather, I would say that it depends on the problem and what the best solution is.  Yes, there are problems and inefficiencies within the nonprofit sector, but there are also some pretty major problems, and inefficiencies in the for-profit sector (dot-com bust, financial crisis, anyone?).

Rather, we need to take a holistic approach to social impact.  There need to be multiple tools available to social entrepreneurs, whether they be for-profit or nonprofit  (different business models, various financing, etc).  And let’s remember that there are some inherent problems with for-profit social impact models as well.  When a solution requires the appearance of impartiality, a nonprofit model might be more effective.

I think the whole point of the convergence and “resetting,” to quote Lucy Bernholz, that is going on is that the old dichotomies and definitions don’t work anymore.  We have to break out of the notion that the way we used to categorize things doesn’t apply anymore.  Structures are changing, new models are emerging.  We need to be flexible and analyze the best solution to each problem that faces us.  “One or the other” thinking just won’t cut it anymore.


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