Fundraising is such a misunderstood enterprise. And it’s not just misunderstood by nonprofit leaders in the trenches.
I was talking to a normally very savvy foundation program officer the other day who wondered if one of his struggling grantees should think about launching a new gala event to raise some additional money. I swallowed my first inclination to scream “NOOOOOO!” in the middle of a crowded restaurant and instead calmly explained why events are a bad money fix, and why any short-term money generating strategy is probably a really bad idea.
But this well-meaning program officer is far from alone in his understanding of financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector. If I had my way, nonprofit leaders would stop making these 5 big fundraising mistakes:
- Taking a Short-Term Approach
If you don’t have enough money today, a single fundraising activity isn’t going to solve the problem in the long-term. If you want to solve your ongoing money woes, you have to create a long-term plan. The single best way to bring more and larger dollars in the door is to create a smart, long-term strategy for your nonprofit. And that long-term strategy must include a corresponding long-term financial strategy. With a compelling Theory of Change (an articulation of the value your nonprofit creates), what you are hoping to accomplish, and how you will get there, you will be better able to convince funders (no matter what your financial model) to come aboard. People invest in a compelling and believable vision for the future. If you are just raising money for the day-to-day, you will always struggle.
- Looking Under the Same Rocks
Often when there is a money shortfall, nonprofit leaders think they simply need to ask the same people to give again or more. If only it were that easy. To attract more people and organizations you have to have a wider net. But not just on your Facebook page or in your mailing list. A wider net means that your board’s networks need to grow, your distribution channels need to grow, your friend-raising activities, your strategic alliances need to grow — the overall network of your nonprofit needs to grow. You need to think holistically about how to grow the reach of your organization and get everyone involved in making that happen.
- Chasing A Magic Bullet
Seriously, listen when I say this: There Is No Magic Bullet to Fundraising. Fundraising, like so many things, often falls victim to shiny object syndrome. From the Ice Bucket Challenge, to crowdfunding, to social media, it seems there is always something new that nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, or board members think will finally solve a nonprofit’s money woes. But the reality is that finding enough and the right kind of money for the results you want to achieve as an organization is hard work. There is no easy fix. Instead you have to get strategic and create, and then systematically execute on, a financial plan for your nonprofit. It may sound boring, but believe me, once you attach strategy to money, the transformation — to your staff and board, to your funders, to your financial model, to your overall results, to your effectiveness and sustainability as an organization — can be incredible.
- Giving People a Free Pass
When you tell certain board members or certain staff members that they don’t have to worry about money, you are essentially giving them a free pass and placing a larger burden on the rest of the organization. While money must be led by your Chief Money Officer (whatever their title — Executive Director, Development Director, CDO), it must be a team effort. Your money person’s job is to develop an overall money strategy and then mobilize all her resources (staff, board, other volunteers, technology, systems) to bring that money strategy to fruition. She CANNOT do it alone or with only half a board. Money has to be part of the conversation for everyone in the organization.
- Not Fundraising for The Fundraising Function
If you want to get better at raising money, you must invest in the right strategy, staff, and systems — your fundraising function –to raise that money. You need to pay market rate for a fundraising person who is a smart, strategic leader. You need to put time and effort into an overall financial strategy, and you need to create the infrastructure (technology, systems) to make that financial strategy a reality. To make these investments, you might have to raise capacity capital from your donors, a one-time infusion of significant money that helps strengthen your organization. A capacity capital investment in your fundraising function can more than pay for itself in a few years when your transformed financial engine is running at a much more profitable rate. But failing to invest in your fundraising function means you will continue to struggle financially.
Oh nonprofit leaders, please stop hitting your heads against the fundraising wall. I promise you, a more sustainable financial engine awaits if you simply invest the time and energy into a smart strategy, a broader network, effective staff and systems and a real team effort.
Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm
As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.
And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).
I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.
Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.
UPDATE: Here is Antony’s guest post.
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.
UPDATE: Here is Kelly’s guest post.
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does. He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.
UPDATE: Here is Phil’s guest post.
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.
UPDATE: Here is Kathy’s guest post.
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.
UPDATE: Here is David’s guest post.
In the nonprofit world there is often a disconnect between funders of nonprofits and their understanding of the fundraising activity necessary to secure their gifts. Funders (and board members) rarely understand how critical fundraising is, how it works, and what’s required to do it well.
But in the hope that greater understanding leads to better actions, I’d like to offer 7 of the most important things funders (and really the sector as a whole) should understand about fundraising:
- Nonprofits Must Fundraise or Perish
It seems so obvious, but so many in the nonprofit sector act as if fundraising can be ignored or shuffled to the side. Board members hate to do it, and foundations refuse to fund it. But let’s be clear. Without a strategic, sophisticated mechanism for bringing regular revenue in the door there is no organization and certainly no social change. Fundraising must happen, and it must happen effectively in order for a nonprofit to survive and thrive. So funders (and board members) do not have the luxury of saying they don’t want to talk about, think about, or fund fundraising efforts.
- There is a Sector-wide Lack of Fundraising Knowledge
Because fundraising has for so long been ignored or sidelined, most nonprofit leaders and their board members don’t have sufficient fundraising experience or training. And neither do funders. There hasn’t been enough research into the fundraising discipline broadly and little investment in educating nonprofit leaders about how to do it well. The end result is that few people know how to crack the fundraising nut.
- Every Nonprofit Has Two Customers
Part of the solution to cracking that nut is understanding that unlike for-profit entities, nonprofits have two (not just one) set of customers. Nonprofits provide products and/or services to the first customer (“Clients”), but “sell” those services to the second customer (“Funders”). Therefore “sales” in the nonprofit world is much more complex than it is in the for-profit world. Yet for-profit businesses can spend much more money on their sales and marketing staff, training, systems and materials than a nonprofit is allowed to spend on fundraising.
- It Takes Money to Make Money
So in order to do fundraising well nonprofits must invest in their fundraising function (planning, staff, training, systems, materials). Those nonprofits that develop a strategic financial model that is fully integrated with their mission and core competencies will be more sustainable and more effective at creating social change. So nonprofit leaders must start asking for the money necessary to build effective financial models.
- Sustainability is a Funder’s Problem Too
And funders must start providing it. Funders often want a nonprofit to demonstrate financial sustainability, but those same funders won’t invest in the capacity necessary to create that sustainability. Instead of just pointing out the sustainability problem, funders must become part of the solution. Funders should step up to the plate to help nonprofits create a capacity building plan and then provide capacity capital (along with other fellow funders) to build a more sustainable organization that will survive once a funder is gone.
- Earned Income is Not a Solution
But a more sustainable organization does not mean one based on earned income, or selling a product or service. Nonprofits will always be subsidized, at least in part, by private and/or public contributions. By definition, nonprofits exist to address a failing in the market economy (i.e. not enough food or jobs). Thus, those failings will never be overcome purely by market forces. So while earned income is something every nonprofit should explore, it is not right for every organization and will never become 100% of a nonprofit’s revenue model. So don’t confuse sustainability, which means a longterm financial model, with earned income.
- Nonprofit Leaders Fear Funders
Let’s just be honest. A funder is providing much needed resources to a nonprofit and that automatically creates a power imbalance. Until we figure out a way around that inherent dynamic, funders must limit the hurdles they put in the way of nonprofit leaders and instead give them the financial runway to make their social change vision happen.
Let’s face it, without money there is no social change. But the knowledge, experience and infrastructure necessary to generate enough money is woefully short in the nonprofit sector. That could change if funders lead the way toward more investment in strategic, sustainable financial models.
Photo Credit: 401K Calculator
There was a great post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last week that clearly articulates a dysfunction in the nonprofit sector and when recognized by nonprofit leaders and their funders could reshape the sector.
In the SSIR, veteran nonprofit leader Kristen Joiner argues that because 86% of Fortune 500 leaders are men and 70% of nonprofit workers are women “gender dynamics” often cripple the nonprofit sector:
Like the provider of old, heading off to the office for a day of work, the private sector is focused on money and profit. The nonprofit sector, as the nurturing caretaker, is charged with caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, and the poor…This creates a have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their “good work,” trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic…Investors in the social sector make it difficult for nonprofits to gather the resources to measure and pivot as necessary for success. They are looking for the proverbial “good girl”—an organization that doesn’t rock the status quo, that gives them a credential to show they “care” or “contribute.”
Joiner’s argument is not a new one, in fact Robert Egger voiced it in a 2008 Chronicle of Philanthropy article, where he described how the modern nonprofit sector was born out of the gender biases of the mid-20th century:
[In the 1970s and 80s] the number of nonprofits in the U.S. exploded…[led by] tens of thousands of college-educated, stay-at-home mothers…Many of these “founding mothers” brought with them an internalized understanding of their “role”…As long as these new organizations limited their work to nurturing, feminized charity work…they were humored, and even honored. [And foundations were] often dominated by men who were charged with dispensing money made by other men. Foundations rarely awarded money that fostered independence for grantees…In these formative years, and even today, grants are primarily made to submissive organizations — those willing to jump through countless hoops, those that would not push back when confronted with short-sighted policies, and those that would make do with much less than they knew was needed to do the job right…The rules that govern our sector — indeed, the very nature of our how we view ourselves — is rooted in systemic sexism.
Although I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, this “systemic sexism” never occurred to me until I read Egger’s article a few years ago. But now I see it often. And while I don’t think sexism should become a shorthand for everything that ails the nonprofit sector, I do think nonprofit leaders, board members and funders must be more aware of the underlying forces at play, so that we can all work to overcome them.
There are several key areas where this systemic sexism results in an uneven playing field for nonprofits:
- Less Access to Capital. Businesses have access to various forms of capital (startup, mezzanine, risk), whereas nonprofits struggle to attract day-to-day revenue, let alone the capacity and growth capital they so desperately need.
- Inadequate Sales Function. In the for-profit sector, sales and marketing are a much researched, supported and heralded part of a business model because it is well understood that without sales there is no business. But in the nonprofit world, sales — called “fundraising”– is misunderstood, under-supported, and sometimes ignored by nonprofit leaders, board members and funders.
- Tighter Limits on Overhead. Although this is starting to change, nonprofits are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses), but for-profit companies can spend whatever it takes.
- Less Investment in Leadership. Business leaders are encouraged to invest in professional development, training, and leadership coaching, but a nonprofit leader often must figure it all out on her own.
- A Restricted Role in Politics
While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and supporting political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive.
And the list goes on. Many of the dysfunctions present in the nonprofit sector are rooted in years and years of sector inequality. If we hope to make social change more effective and sustainable, we must free the sector of these shackles.
Photo Credit: Campbell’s Soup
We talked about:
- How broken fundraising is
- A more effective financing approach
- Nonprofit fear of money
- The passion of nonprofit leaders
- The need to articulate a nonprofit’s message
- Capacity capital
- Social entrepreneurship
- Nonprofit boards
- And much, much more…
I really enjoyed the conversation and hope you will too.
You can listen to the podcast below, or click here to listen to it on the Panvisio site.
Photo Credit: Makingster
Building and keeping a highly effective nonprofit staff is really tricky. The recently released 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey from NonprofitHR found that 50% of nonprofits surveyed plan to add new positions in 2015, compared to 36% of private companies. But, staff recruitment and retention are still significant hurdles for nonprofit leaders, with 52% of nonprofits lacking a recruitment strategy and 27% reporting their greatest retention challenge is low wages.
So how can nonprofits grow their staffs when they are hampered by significant recruitment and retention challenges?
Here’s how I coach my clients to build a highly effective nonprofit team:
Recruit Outside Your Comfort Zone
The 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey found that the top recruitment strategy for nonprofit leaders is to “use a network of friends and colleagues.” But that’s not a strategy. As with everything, nonprofit leaders must embrace the idea of a “networked nonprofit,” growing their connections to people and organizations outside their comfort zone. To find your next staff rockstar, be strategic about getting your job in front of new audiences and networks. Come up with a list of 50-100 people who might be connected to someone who fits the job’s qualifications. Think of strategic allies, leaders in the field, funders, volunteers. Send the job posting and ask them to direct great candidates to you. And in addition to posting the position on regular job sites, send it out through all of your social media channels and ask your board, partners, allies, funders, etc. to do the same. Cast your net far and wide in order to recruit the best and brightest.
As I said, one of the biggest challenges to retaining staff is low salaries. But the fact is that staff turnover is an enormous cost to an organization (recruitment, lost time, retraining) so convince your board that you should pay competitive salaries in order to save the organization money in the long run. Do salary research (at salary.com, or from nonprofit salary surveys in your region) and determine what a competitive wage for your position really is. Then convince your board to increase the budget to accomodate it. Move from the scarcity mindset to the abundance mindset, or if you just don’t have the funding right now, raise capacity capital to elevate your fundraising function so that you can recruit and retain top talent.
Hire The Right Person
Nonprofit leaders must go against the default, which is to hire someone with less experience than the position requires (since it’s cheaper). Instead hire someone who can take the position to the next level. Hire the person who has the demonstrated experience you need and is hungry to build that function in your nonprofit. But keep in mind that finding that person takes time. Many nonprofit leaders make quick hiring decisions because they are desperate to fill a position and end up suffering a poor fit later. Instead, create a detailed due diligence process which includes multiple rounds of interviews (quick screening phone calls, longer one-on-one interviews, interviews with their future staff colleagues, interviews with key board members), a written “homework assignment” to gauge their skills, and detailed reference checks. Be thoughtful and methodical in your process and spend the time it takes.
Once you have a great person in place, make sure you lead them effectively by using goals and strategy, not micromanagement. The best way to do this is to schedule a 30-60 minute, weekly, one-on-one meeting with each of your direct reports that focuses on your goals for their position. This allows you to give your staff ample leeway to shine, while monitoring their progress along the way. You will also have fewer interruptions during the rest of the week because your staff feels they get the attention and feedback they need in a regular, dedicated meeting. This creates an empowered staff, a confident leader, and a productive organization.
Like anything else, doing something well takes strategy and the will to effectively implement it. You can recruit and retain a phenomenal nonprofit staff, but you must be thoughtful about it.
If you want to learn more about the coaching I provide nonprofit leaders — on staffing, board development, fundraising, strategy and more — check out my Coaching page.
Photo Credit: Maurice Bramley
Today I am in Sacramento (it’s a busy travel month) speaking at the Nonprofit Resource Center’s 2015 Conference “Building a Mission Focused Community.” I am honored to share the stage with amazing nonprofit sector visionaries like Jan Masaoka from the California Association of Nonprofits and Blue Avocado, Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, and Robert Egger from LA Kitchen (and past Social Velocity interviewee and guest blogger).
My topic for today’s conference is “Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.” Amid growing competition, decreased funding sources, and more and increasingly complex social challenges, nonprofit leaders must reinvent themselves. They must unlock the charity shackles, embrace strategy and impact, use money as a tool, refuse to play nice, and demand real help. We need a new kind of nonprofit leader.
Below is a Slideshare synopsis of my talk today, and it joins the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations.
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Ann Goggins Gregory, Chief Operating Officer at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she oversees programs, the social enterprise called the ReStore, HR and Operations.
Previously, Ann was a Senior Director at the Bridgespan Group, where she led the organization’s work on organizational learning; managed consulting engagements with human services, education, and youth-serving nonprofits; and spearheaded research efforts on a variety of nonprofit management topics. She remains a Senior Advisor to Bridgespan on issues related to the starvation cycle.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You and your colleague Don Howard are in some ways the catalysts behind the Overhead Myth campaign because of your seminal article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2009. How far have we come since that article? How prevalent is the starvation cycle today and what can we do to move beyond it?
Ann: “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” names what I consider to be a fundamental truth: “Organizations that build robust infrastructure…are more likely to succeed than those that do not. This is not news, and nonprofits are no exception to the rule.” For decades, researchers and practitioners have argued that low overhead does not equate with efficiency and efficiency, in turn, does not equate with effectiveness.
We are seeing (productive) focus and movement now versus five or ten years ago, yet that starvation cycle is still an entrenched issue. On a positive note, the Overhead Myth campaign has been critical in communicating with donors directly and empowering nonprofits to communicate with “back up.” Though I have mixed feelings about some of the messages in Dan Pallotta’s video, it elevated paradoxes of how costs are treated in the social sector. We’ve also seen targeted efforts to help funders and nonprofits address cost-related issues together. Even the federal government is trying to shift practice: the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance requiring that nonprofits receiving federal funding receive a minimum of 10% indirect rate, or they can negotiate a rate. If this guidance is followed, it will be a major policy win.
Yet we have a long way to go. Talking about terminology isn’t scintillating, but it’s critical to breaking the starvation cycle. Overhead costs aren’t the same as indirect, yet we conflate them. General operating support and capacity building—often seen as ways to help break the cycle—aren’t the same thing. Many nonprofits do not know the full costs associated with their programs, and many funders don’t understand nonprofit finance. Bridging the skill gap on both sides of the equation is critical.
Moreover, a single figure like the overhead rate is appealing because it makes comparison easy. Until nonprofits have better ways to communicate outcomes, we will continue to battle against the simplicity of a ratio. Finally, power dynamics between funders and nonprofits inhibit change; candidly, there aren’t strong forces pushing on philanthropy and government to change their practice. In the absence of such change, nonprofits are understandably worried about shifting their stance on overhead if their competitors do not (I do think there are steps that any nonprofit can take, though).
Nell: Part of what keeps the starvation cycle alive is that it is being fed, as you so clearly point out in your SSIR article, by both funders and nonprofit leaders. One of the things you were working on at Bridgespan was the Real Talk About Real Costs series of nonprofit leader and funder conversations. How effective was it to bring nonprofits and funders together to talk about these issues? And is that potential solution to the starvation cycle scalable?
Ann: Real Talk about Real Costs, sponsored by the Donors Forum with Bridgespan as a partner, brought together 300 leaders from nonprofits and philanthropy to wrestle with what good outcomes really cost. The event built upon a nine-month Community of Practice focused on “tackling the overhead challenge.” This interview has more about how Donors Forum decided to put the cost issue front and center. Another such effort is slated to begin in California in 2015.
In watching funder-nonprofit “mixed company” interactions, I was struck by how many funders expressed dissatisfaction with the grant-making status quo, yet frustrated that foundation trustees did not feel the same way. And I noticed how uncomfortable both funders and nonprofits were about having a tough conversation about full costs. At the event, we gave participants a role-reversal case study where a fictitious grantee and grant-maker had to discuss the terms of a grant; nonprofit attendees acted the part of the program officer and vice versa. In feedback surveys, the majority of comments focused on the discomfort and lack of knowledge they felt in talking about costs. Finding more ways for nonprofits and funders to wrestle with cost issues together would go a long way to building empathy and skills.
I don’t see a single scalable solution, but what feels most scalable as a starting point is a fundamentally different approach to communicating about costs: on websites, in collateral, and in conversations between nonprofit and funder. I believe that most funders can still make restricted grants without making unrealistic demands about how the funds are spent. For instance, what if funders asked “what type of capacity will you need to deliver on this grant?” vs. “what is the overhead for this project?” What if funders moved away from prescribed budget templates that don’t align with how nonprofits think about their resources? Even these seemingly small steps would go a long way to empowering nonprofits to communicate differently. Below I share a few specific ways I think nonprofits can help break the cycle.
Nell: The starvation cycle is just one example of the many ways we hold the nonprofit sector to a higher standard than we do the for-profit sector (costs for R&D, marketing, infrastructure, technology are taken as a given in the business world). Why does that discrepancy exist and how do we overcome it?
Ann: Overhead in the for-profit world—sales, general and administrative costs as a percentage of total sales—is 25% across all industries and 34% for service industries. The cruel irony of holding nonprofits to a much tougher standard is that donors often say that they do this because nonprofits ought to “run more efficiently, like a business.” Most people don’t know the overhead of businesses because profitability matters more.
Unlike businesses, nonprofits can’t report results in a single figure that makes apples-to-apples comparisons easy. One way to overcome this challenge is to move toward highlighting outcomes. I don’t mean standardizing outcomes (although efforts like Perform Well are very powerful), and I don’t mean doing away with financial indicators entirely. I mean moving from touting our overhead to sharing our program results. In an ideal world, nonprofits would be able to share not only their outcomes but also the costs associated with producing them.
I know this doesn’t happen overnight. Starting immediately, I would love to see more funders speak out in support of—and actually fund—these investments. And nonprofits have a role to play in shifting the conversation: by sharing for-profit overhead as a way to challenge assumptions; by taking down the overhead pie chart and other “we’re lean!” messaging from websites; and using systems like the Guidestar Exchange to share our goals and strategies in our own words.
Nell: You recently left the consulting/thought leader side of the sector (as a senior director at The Bridgespan Group) to work in the nonprofit trenches as COO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. What are you learning as you work to turn theory about overcoming the starvation cycle into action inside a nonprofit organization?
Ann: I am learning that it is doable and reminded that it is hard. In the last few months, we have taken down the efficiency statement on our website (“87 cents of every dollar goes to helping families…”) and will soon to replace it with statements of outcomes we see for Habitat homeowners. We walked away from a $100K+ funding opportunity because the grant would have allowed a maximum of 10% for indirect costs, and we estimated that the compliance costs alone would have been 2-3 times that. The grant’s focus aligned well with a nascent program, so it was a tough decision.
Under our finance team’s leadership, we also implemented a time tracking system. We now have better information on how people spend their time and can compare actual versus what was allocated in the budget. We learned, for instance, that in the last quarter we spent more time on G&A than we’d projected. This makes sense: this summer a small team of board and staff, including myself, negotiated a lease for a new office space, then transitioned to managing the move out- and move-in process. I don’t think anyone would say that was a waste of time; finding a space that met our budget in the San Francisco real estate market has been a challenging but important task.
Next on the list is an internal conversation about Charity Navigator and the way we promote our four-star rating on our website. It will be a healthy debate. On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on accountability and transparency, and I’d be naïve if I thought we hadn’t received donations from donors who use these ratings. On the other hand, I have deep reservations about Charity Navigator’s financial health methodology, particularly in that it penalizes nonprofits with higher overhead regardless of context. If we invest to support our growth—spending time finding a new office in a tough market, or upgrading our HR systems to find and retrain the best staff—we ought not to feel embarrassed about that, nor be penalized for it.
I am fortunate to work with a board and staff who are open to these changes and debates. My hope is that our experiences can serve to keep my perspective about the starvation cycle grounded and productive.
Photo Credit: Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco