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Board of Directors

Nonprofit Leaders Have the Power to Create Capacity Funding

nonprofit capacity capitalI was in a meeting with a group of nonprofit leaders the other day, and one of them voiced an often-heard complaint: “There just aren’t many foundations funding nonprofit capacity building.”

I was instantly reminded of my mother’s admonishment when I would come home from school with complaints about a classroom rule or a frustrating teacher. She would say, “Well, you have a mouth on you, don’t you?” Her quip was intended to encourage me to stop complaining about an inadequacy (however small, in my case) and do something to change it.

While I am the first to bemoan the lack of adequate resources in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders themselves do have some agency to turn the tide and find funding to create more effective and sustainable organizations.

Rather than searching for donors who already express an interest in funding nonprofit capacity (like fundraising staff and systems, program evaluation, technology), it is actually more effective if a nonprofit leader takes it upon herself to create her own capacity funders.

But that requires a process, like this:

Move From Scarcity to Abundance Thinking
You can’t hope to solve your capacity challenges without thinking that they are, in fact, solvable. Many nonprofit leaders are so used to going without that they don’t allow themselves and their staffs to envision what could make things better. So start by brainstorming with your staff the hurdles standing in your way (lack of fundraising staff, inadequate technology, poor long-term planning, disengaged board of directors). Then list the kinds of investments you could make to solve those challenges (new staff positions, new technology and systems, strategic planning, board training) without constraining those potential solutions due to their costs.

Create a Capacity Building Plan
Once you have articulated what is standing in your way and the potential solutions to those hurdles, create a plan for overcoming your nonprofit’s challenges. Because funders often see capacity funding as more “risky” than traditional programming support, a nonprofit leader interested in securing capacity building funds must put together a clear plan for the need, solutions, costs and execution plan for capacity support. Clearly articulate what capacity changes you need to make, why, what those changes will help you accomplish, and over what timeframe.

Create a Capacity Building Budget
Attached to your capacity building plan must be the dollars necessary to implement the plan. What would it cost for a new donor database, a program evaluation, or your other needed capacity investments? Do the research and then create the capital requirements, over an adequate timeframe (2-3 years), for the capacity building needs you have. Now you know how much capacity capital you need to raise.

Brainstorm Capacity Donors
Just as you would with a traditional capital campaign, create a list of potential donors to whom you will pitch this “capacity capital campaign.” This is where the real magic happens — when you turn traditional donors into capacity building donors, perhaps without them even knowing it. A good capacity building donor is someone (a major individual donor, board member, or foundation funder) who is already a donor to your nonprofit and can be convinced (through your excellent persuasion skills) that an investment in your capacity building plan (above) will actually help your organization do even more of the things they love.

Work the Prospect List
Just as you would in a major donor campaign, begin meeting one-on-one with these prospective capacity building donors to share your capacity building plan and articulate how critically important these capacity building investments are to the future of your work together. Make a clear, compelling argument about how greater organizational capacity will help you further the mission that these donors love. Connect greater effectiveness and sustainability directly to more programming, more people served, more outcomes achieved.

Demonstrate the Return on Their Investment
Once you’ve secured them, provide those donors who become capacity builders a regular update on the progress of your capacity building efforts. And I have seen tremendous results that nonprofits can report on these types of capacity investments. One of my clients was able to translate $65,000 worth of capacity building investments in strategic planning, board development, fundraising training and leader coaching into 300% growth in the number of people they reached with their services. Another client turned $350,000 worth of capacity building investments in a new donor database, fundraising staff and training, and donor research into a $1.4 million annual increase in fundraising. If you make enough and the right kind of capacity investments, you can see gains in programming, efficiency, and fundraising effectiveness, so share those wins with those who invested in them. And believe me, your capacity donors will be hungry for more.

Instead of continuing to complain about a lack of capacity funding in the nonprofit sector, let’s fix it. A big part of the solution lies in nonprofit leaders planning for and initiating capacity building conversations with their current donors. And in so doing, nonprofit leaders themselves can change philanthropy for the better.

To learn more about turning your donors into capacity funders, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.

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How Open to Change Is Your Nonprofit, Really?

nonprofit changeBecause I talk about change in the nonprofit sector a lot, I sometimes get inquiries from nonprofit leaders who think they want change at their organization, but actually don’t.

A nonprofit leader might be excited by the idea of dramatically improved fundraising results, or a board who is engaged and invested in the work, or funders who want to step up, but she isn’t willing to do the hard work to realize that change.

I recently talked with a nonprofit leader who was interested in a Financial Model Assessment because he was intrigued by the idea of potential revenue increases. But when I explained that realizing those changes might necessitate other changes — like how he structures his staff, how involved in decision-making he allows the board to be, even how he crafted their long-term strategy — he began to balk.

But the fact is that you simply cannot expect a different result if you continue to operate in the exact same ways.

When I work with a nonprofit organization, my role is to lead a change process so that when I leave, the organization is more sustainable, more engaged and engaging, more strategic and integrated, and ultimately more effective at creating social change.

But significant change is not easy. And for it to truly come to fruition it requires that the nonprofit leader must fully commit — and get her board and staff to fully commit — to creating real, lasting change.

The nonprofit sector is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in its ways. And indeed it can be hard to create change amid a sector that is so consensus-based. Sometimes even the smallest decisions must involve discussion among staff, the board, even funders and other stakeholders.

So if you really want the reality that your nonprofit faces to be different, if you want to find greater financial sustainability, if you want to achieve more program results, if you want to attract more and bigger funders, if you want a stronger, more effective board, you have to commit to real change. And then you have to get others at your organization to commit to real change as well.

I can often tell the difference between a nonprofit leader who is just playing at change, and one who is actually committed to doing the hard work. Ask these questions to determine if your nonprofit is truly ready for meaningful change:

  • Are we willing (at every level of the organization) to take a hard look at how we operate and make changes where behaviors or systems no longer make sense?
  • Are we willing to have difficult conversations, perhaps on formerly taboo topics, in order to find a better way forward?
  • Are we excited enough by the potential rewards of change to work hard to convince skeptics (on the board and/or staff) to come along?
  • Are we as an organization willing to invest the time (and patience) in a change process that could take months or years to fully realize?
  • Are we willing to open everything we do as an organization to discussion and analysis?

If you can find a critical mass of board and staff members who can answer yes to these questions, then your nonprofit is a candidate for true change and a more effective and sustainable path forward.

Because change is really hard. But with effective, meaningful change can come great reward.

To learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I use with clients, download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: Pat Ronan


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Nonprofit Leaders, You Are Not Alone

nonprofit leaderOne of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”

While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.

We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.

When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:

What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.

How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.

Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.

I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.

If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

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Is Your Frustrating Board a Symptom of a Larger Problem?

nonprofit board frustrationOne of the biggest complaints I hear from nonprofit leaders is that their board is not working well enough for them — most often around fundraising. From board members who are largely in name only, to others who refuse to fundraise, to those who meddle or micromanage, to those who don’t understand the organization or its programs, there can be a large list of grievances that nonprofit leaders have about their board. So nonprofit leaders often look for a magic bullet to get their board in gear.

Just last week a nonprofit leader approached me seeking help getting her board engaged. She thought that if she hired a consultant to rewrite their board by-laws and rework the board committee structure, all would be well.

But it just isn’t that simple.

An ineffective board is often just a symptom of a larger problem at your nonprofit. And while nonprofit boards can be incredibly frustrating, it is often not their fault that they aren’t working harder for you.

If you are frustrated with your board, ask these questions to uncover the larger issues at play:

Do We Have a Compelling Case?
You simply cannot get people excited to help further your nonprofit’s cause if they don’t fully understand and embrace that cause. Have you had a conversation with your board about why your nonprofit does the work it does? Have you articulated together your nonprofit’s Theory of Change? Have you involved your board in creating your nonprofit’s Case for Investment? It surprises me how often I see nonprofit leaders leaving these critical and investing conversations at the staff level. The number one way to get your board excited about your work is to get them involved in articulating to others why that work is so critical.

Do We Have a Long-Term Strategy?
But it’s not enough to articulate what you hope to accomplish as a nonprofit, you also need to create a strategy for bringing those goals to fruition. You must involve your full board in your nonprofit’s overall strategy. They must buy in at the ground level to the goals of your strategic plan. And then the board must be in charge, as is their true leadership role, in  monitoring in their ongoing board meetings whether those goals are actually being realized. Give your board the opportunity to create and then drive the overall organizational strategy, and then see how they start to come alive.

Do We Have Clear Board Responsibilities?
And they will truly come to life when they understand how each of them individually can and must contribute to bringing that larger strategy to fruition. You simply cannot expect a board to engage when they don’t understand how and where they can be helpful. Give the overall board specific goals and responsibilities and then talk one-on-one with each individual board member to determine together where their unique skills and experience can be brought to bear on the larger strategy. With a clear roadmap for how they can help, you will see your board start to pick up the pace.  

Do We Have the Wrong Board Members?
However, you may find that some of your board members are simply taking up space. It may be that some are disengaged because they simply don’t have the skills, experience and networks necessary to achieve your goals. That’s why you have to do the analysis and look at every single board member against the skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your strategic plan. Please, please, please don’t fall for the temptation of filling your board with warm bodies. Make sure that you are recruiting the type of board members that you truly need to deliver on your organization’s strategy.

Are We Afraid of Asking For What We Really Need?
Nonprofit leaders sometimes fear their board members as much as they fear their donors. Rather than insisting their board members step up to the plate and effectively contribute their time, energy, and resources, nonprofit leaders may be overly grateful for ineffective board members. But when you operate under that dysfunctional power imbalance, you are setting the bar incredibly low for your board. And when a person is confronted with a low bar, there is nothing compelling him to get engaged and get working. So be very clear with your board members about what you want from them, and then be equally clear when they aren’t delivering. There is a nice way to tell a board member that you need more from her. And if she isn’t willing, then it is probably best that she walk away and leave room for more effective board members.

If you are fed up with your board, use frustration as an opportunity to dig deeper to figure out what is really causing their uselessness. And if you need some help to get there, check out the nonprofit leader coaching I provide.

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

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Building Better Nonprofits: A Podcast

podcastLast month I was asked by Ted Bilich, CEO of Risk Alternatives — a Washington, DC firm helping nonprofits manage their organizational and financial risks —  to participate in a podcast. This is part of their ongoing podcast series “About Risk” which talks to thought leaders about risk management and process improvement for nonprofits, small businesses, and startups.

In the podcast Ted and I talk about:

  • How the nonprofit landscape has become more competitive
  • Why nonprofits need a theory of change
  • How and when to engage in strategic planning
  • How nonprofits can determine if they are applying best practices
  • The benefits of a financial model assessment
  • How to address common risks involving a board of directors
  • And much more

You can listen to the podcast below, or click here.

And you can see all episodes in the “About Risk” series here. And if you want to listen to more podcasts about the evolving nonprofit sector, go here, here or here.

Photo Credit: Patrick Breitenbach

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5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]

nonprofit theory of changeI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders last month about creating a nonprofit value proposition — how to articulate the value their nonprofit creates — and it was exciting to see the lightbulb go on around the room.

Nonprofit leaders are so passionate about the work they do — it is so obvious to them why their work is critically important.

But that’s the problem.

Because it is so obvious to them, it is often incredibly difficult for a nonprofit leader to articulate to someone outside the organization (funders, volunteers, advocates, even board members sometimes) why they should become involved.

This is where a value proposition — or what I call a Theory of Change — comes in.

If you can articulate your target audience, what you do, and what you hope to achieve, you have a much greater chance of encouraging others to join your efforts.

A Theory of Change is such a fundamental building block to everything a nonprofit does. So I have created a new Slideshare presentation from the speech I gave on the 5 Benefits of a Theory of Change. In my mind, a Theory of Change:

  1. Builds a Vision, Mission and Strategy
  2. Engages Board and Staff
  3. Helps Prove Impact
  4. Allows Capacity Capital, and
  5. Attracts More Support

So, adding to the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations, below is the 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change slideshare, which describes these benefits in detail and shows you how to create a Theory of Change for your nonprofit.

Take a look below.

And if you’d like to learn more, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide or the Craft a Case for Investment Guide. Or, if you’d like me to come speak to your group about this or other topics, check out my Speaking page.

5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change from Nell Edgington


Photo Credit: Bost

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The Debate: Should Boards Raise 10% of a Nonprofit’s Budget?

nonprofit debateIt seems I raised controversy with my recent post, “Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?”. The hot button issue, not surprisingly, was my assertion that boards should be charged with raising 10% of a nonprofit’s budget.

As I put it:

I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list…of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so?

Several people disagreed, and consultant Gayle Gifford (who very respectfully argued with me in the past about my take on nonprofit events) took real issue, commenting (in part):

In my 30 years of experience, the most sustainable organizations financially are those that rely little on their board of directors for their financial success. I just wonder why it is that these governing volunteers, who are charged with so many more weighty responsibilities for sustainability, are held to such a double standard when it comes to revenue development. Imagine the absurdity of you pronouncing: The Board of Directors must be responsible for managing at least 10% of the organization’s programs.

I argued back that we must define board contribution to the financial model of a nonprofit much more broadly:

The point is that board members should not be allowed to ignore the financial realities of the organization, and it is impossible to ignore something when you have a responsibility for a piece of it. In the examples you give, I would wager that if you calculated board involvement in a much broader way, you would find that at least 10% of that money could be attributed to board involvement. And if not, yikes! Because that means it is all resting on the shoulders of the staff, and that simply is not sustainable. The board must be much more supportive of the nonprofits they serve, and in my mind that means they need to show up, and show up in a significant way, to the financial engine of their organization.

But Gayle was not having it. She responded that just as the board should not be expected to deliver on programs, they should also not be expected to contribute to the financial model:

In very brief, the role of the board as governors is to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support. This is the absolutely best fundraising work that they can do. Boards are totally within their governing role to decide that the way to meet the organization’s revenue needs is hire professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do. I would hypothesize that organizations that do that are more likely to successfully achieve their revenue goals (actually, there is research data to back this us -see “Nonprofit Fundraising Study” of Nonprofit Research Collaborative 2012 ) than the wishful and largely unmeasurable objective of 10% standards pulled out of a hat. BTW, I don’t understand why it is unimaginable to say that the board is responsible for delivering 10% of programs, or 10% of operations, if you set up a standard of attributing 10% of revenues? What makes one different from the other in terms of sustainability or professional expertise?

But in my mind, there is a critical role for the board in both mission and money, and you cannot have one without the other, as I replied to Gayle:

I completely agree with how you characterize the role of the board (“to ensure that the organization is delivering on its mission, that it has a business model that supports its ability to deliver its social impact and that the organization has a human resource and operation plan to make that happen. That it is trustworthy and worthy of support”). However, the missing link (so very, very often) in nonprofit organizations is that the board thinks that showing up to meetings and hearing the development report is enough. Raising money requires that the board take an active role. And that active role means opening doors, making connections, providing intelligence, offering insight. This can actually also be true in delivering programs — the board should not only help provide the overall program strategy and theory of change for the organization, but also help to open doors and make connections to key decisionmakers, advocates, or others outside the organization walls who are critical to effective delivery of the organization’s mission. In all of this, I am simply asking that the board step up and take an ACTIVE role, as opposed to a passive role of “hiring professional staff and have them do what they are in fact trained to do.” There must be an effective partnership between the board and staff in developing and executing on a robust financial model, just as this partnership between board and staff must exist in delivery on mission, because at the end of the day there is no mission without money. Maybe 10% isn’t the right number, but I believe you have to set a significant goal if you truly want the board to take notice and actually step up.

You can read the full debate here.

To me, this is such an important topic because it helps uncover our underlying assumptions about the role of the board versus the role of staff. In my mind, we must elevate the expectations we have for the nonprofit board of directors, and one way to do this is to set clear, specific, and lofty goals for them.

What are your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Ron Cogswell

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Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?

nonprofit boardI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders in Pittsburgh last month about how to Move From Fundraising to Financing and there were some parts of the presentation that raised eyebrows and (sometimes) controversy. And it usually happened around the topic of the nonprofit board.

I strongly believe that the board of directors is a nonprofit’s most critical financial asset. A board that is actively engaged and has the specific skills, experience, and networks required to deliver on the organization’s strategy can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is truly creating social change. And money is an inextricable part of that. Therefore, a nonprofit’s board cannot avoid its money role, or the organization and its mission will suffer.

Is your board avoiding their money role? Here’s what it looks like when they are:

The Board Isn’t Raising 10% of the Budget
I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list (here and here) of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so? There are really so many reasons why your board should take on more money responsibilities.

The Board Doesn’t Enforce a Give/Get
So to reinforce the idea of complete board involvement in the financial engine, you need to make it a practice. And that’s where the give/get comes in. A give/get requirement is a minimum dollar amount at which each individual board member must either “give” themselves, and/or “get” from somewhere else. Every single member of the board must understand and contribute to how money flows to the organization. They cannot argue that money is the purview only of the staff or a subset of board members. Money has to be part of the ENTIRE board’s job. Until you force the board to really participate in creating and maintaining an effective financial engine, you won’t be able to have substantive conversations about or get real engagement in raising or spending money.

New Program Decisions Ignore Money
It is not enough for a board to approve new programs or program expansion by only analyzing the potential impact on the mission. The board must also understand how a new program will or will not contribute to the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. The board needs to analyze all of the costs (including set up, opportunity costs, and ongoing operating costs) of the program and whether the program can attract enough money to at least cover those costs. And if not, whether the new program can be subsidized by other activities already in the mix. But the board cannot blind themselves to the financial downfalls of a sexy new program.

Real Conversations About Money Happen Only in Crisis 
Most board meetings include an update on a nonprofit’s budget, which is the extent of any money conversation. If there is a problem (expenses are too high, or revenue is not flowing as budgeted) a long conversation will ensue about the crisis. But bigger, regular discussions about the overall financial strategy of the organization are scarce. If the board is to be the financial steward of the organization, they have to spend time analyzing and developing their nonprofit’s financial model — where revenue should flow and how money should be employed to meet the mission. Money is a tool. But to effectively wield that tool, the board needs to think, talk, and act strategically about it.

For a nonprofit to be truly effective and sustainable, its board — the entire board — must embrace its money role. Because their is no mission without money. And no successful board turns a blind eye to the financial engine of their organization.

If you want to find out more about developing a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit, download the Develop a Financial Model Bundle. And if you want to learn how to create a more effective board, download the Build an Engaged Board Bundle.

Photo Credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

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