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Live Chatting Mission and Money

Computer_keyboardI’m excited to announce that I will be participating in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Chat on Tuesday, March 26th at 12 noon Eastern. Karina Mangu-Ward, from EmcArts will be joining me to answer questions from the audience about connecting mission and money. You may remember Karina from a past interview I did with her. She’s really amazing and is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts, a social enterprise for innovation and adaptive change across the arts sector. She leads the strategy and development of ArtsFwd.org, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation.

Karina and I will be live chatting and answering questions from the audience, so I hope you can join us. It promises to be a fast-paced, interactive hour.

Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle of Philanthropy description:

In the mad dash for donor dollars, nonprofits often take money for projects that distract them from their missions. Some donors pitch new programs but provide too little money to pay for a big enough staff to run it, so the charity ends up skimping on efforts that its clients really need. Other nonprofits might think holding a fancy gala will raise tons of money but don’t consider how the time spent planning the event will affect the group’s critical services. Join us on Tuesday, March 26, at noon U.S. Eastern time for a live online discussion about how to take a more strategic approach to fundraising. You’ll learn how to focus your fundraising efforts on your organization’s mission—and why saying no to some opportunities might actually help your nonprofit raise more money.

If you’re interested in participating, it’s easy. Just go to the Chronicle Live Chat page here at 12 Eastern on Tuesday, March 26th. You don’t need to RSVP or login, just show up.

I hope to see you there!

Photo Credit: wikimedia

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It’s Time For A New Kind of Nonprofit Leader

FDRLast week I spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders about 5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2013 and a woman stood up and said “These trends are all well and good, but we need to talk about the fact that the money just isn’t there anymore. We are having to compete with more organizations for much less available funding. We need solutions to that.”

Agreed — fewer resources and more competition for those shrinking resources is the reality we are facing. But it’s not going to change anytime soon. So it is up to nonprofit leaders to embrace and adapt to that new reality. Instead of beating our heads against the wall of change, let’s adapt to meet it.

In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to really lead the nonprofit sector forward.

This new nonprofit leader:

Moves to Impact. She realizes that it is no longer enough to just “do good work.” Nonprofits must create a theory of change and then find a way to measure and articulate the outcomes and impact they hope they are achieving.

Finances the Work. He works toward completely integrating money into the mission his nonprofit is trying to achieve, understanding that big plans are not enough, he also must finance them. And beyond just recognizing his lack of infrastructure, he puts together a plan for raising capacity capital and convinces donors to start investing in a stronger, more effective organization behind the work.

Refuses to Play Nice.  She overcomes the nonprofit norm of politeness at all costs and gets real with funders, board members, or staff who are standing in the way of the mission and impact of the organization.

Looks Outside. He understands that a nonprofit can no longer exist in a vacuum. He and his board and staff must constantly monitor the external marketplace of changing client needs, demographic and economic trends, funder interests in order make sure their nonprofit continues to create community value.

Gets SocialShe embraces the idea of a networked nonprofit and is willing and able to open her organization and let the world in as fully engaged partners in the work her nonprofit is doing.

Asks Hard Questions. He constantly forces himself, and his high-performing team of board, staff, funders and volunteers to ask hard questions (like these and these) in order to make sure they are pushing themselves harder, making the best use of resources and delivering more results.

This new nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector to new heights.

If you need help figuring out how to adapt to this new reality, let me know.

Photo Credit: John Morton

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Maximizing Philanthropic Impact: An Interview with Jim Canales

JimIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jim Canales. Jim is President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, the largest multi-issue foundation focused exclusively on the state of California. Under his leadership, the foundation has adopted a more targeted approach in its grantmaking programs, focusing on three areas — Arts, California Democracy and Youth — of critical significance to the state’s future. Jim also serves on the boards of Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the College Access Foundation of California.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: One of the four grantmaking principles of the Irvine Foundation is “Invest in Organizations,” meaning that you are committed to providing grants to build nonprofit organizations (evaluation, operating support, infrastructure). This is a pretty radical idea for most foundations. What do you think holds other foundations back from this kind of investment and what will it take to get more of them to embrace the idea of organization building as opposed to just supporting direct programs?

Jim: This question of general operating support versus project support has been an ongoing debate in the nonprofit sector, and I’d like to suggest that we may be creating for ourselves a false dichotomy that may not be helpful. I’d suggest we focus on the end goal, not the means. Let’s start by asking the question: How can we maximize impact toward the shared goals of a foundation and its grantees? By asking the question in that way, we naturally have to explore whether we are investing sufficient resources, in the right ways, so that our grantee can have the impact we both seek.

That’s how we try to approach our work at Irvine. At times, we may make grants for general operating support; in other cases, our grants would not be characterized that way – and yet we try to ensure we are investing the necessary resources for the organization to achieve its goals. That will, by necessity, require investment in the infrastructure or organizational development needs that are critical to success. Without that support, whatever project or program we’re funding can’t and won’t have the impact we both seek.

Another part of this question presupposes that foundation staff are able to recognize and address organizational needs. Because we believe that’s an important ability, you will notice that each of Irvine’s program directors has held senior positions in nonprofit organizations. Each of them brings an understanding of organizational development, financial management, board development and all that it takes for an organization to succeed and thrive.

Nell: The Irvine Foundation tends to be fairly transparent in its work and even does an annual survey to gauge how the foundation is viewed by grantees, the social sector, other philanthropists, etc. What do you gain from this survey and how do you integrate what you find into your work going forward?

Jim: This goes back to the time we adopted our current strategic directions in Arts, California Democracy and Youth. At that time, a task force of board members and senior staff explored the question: How will we know we are making a difference? Out of that exploration came a framework that we use to assess our performance on an annual basis, and one of the key elements of that framework is constituent feedback.

Feedback is critically important in philanthropy. If you look at foundation initiatives that have failed — and I would include some of our own — one common theme is that feedback loops were not sufficiently robust. Grantees often are reluctant to come forward with bad news or criticism. And our sector doesn’t have a strong track record of consistently gathering candid feedback from our various constituents, whether that’s grantees or other stakeholders.

Phil Buchanan and his colleagues at the Center for Effective Philanthropy have played a catalytic role in improving philanthropy’s feedback loops through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and other assessment tools. Irvine has commissioned two grantee surveys from CEP over the last seven years. And last year, we commissioned a separate stakeholder survey gathering opinions from leaders in our fields and the nonprofit and philanthropy community in general.

In each of these cases, we have found the data immensely valuable and used it to improve our performance. And we’ve tried to be transparent about it: We posted the results of the grantee perception reports on our website, and, more recently, I described what we had learned from the stakeholder report of 2012. In all instances we have sought to describe how we intended to use these findings to improve our work going forward.

There does remain, however, one area we have not fully explored: So far, we haven’t done very much to gather feedback from the people who benefit from the work that we support, which is obviously a critical constituent for any foundation. But we are following what others are doing in this regard to see what they have learned and how it might apply to us. An example of that is YouthTruth, the national survey of high school students that CEP developed in partnership with the Gates Foundation. I commend the article that Phil and others authored in the recent Stanford Social Innovation Review on this very topic.

Nell: One of the things that came out of your survey was a desire to see the Foundation take more risks. What does taking more risks mean to the Irvine Foundation and how do you think you will go about doing that in the coming years?

Jim: We have to start by defining risk. At Irvine, we’re not interested in risk for risk’s sake. Rather we are trying to understand the relationship between risk and reward and our tolerance for ambiguity and even failure. In the context of philanthropy, I think risk is about trying to balance the need to invest our resources wisely, while also taking advantage of the fact that we have very few restrictions on how we invest those resources.

For those of us in endowed foundations, we have much to learn about risk-taking from our investment colleagues who think about it in the context of managing a foundation’s endowment. And we have benefited from discussions amongst our program and investment teams on this subject. Our investment colleagues are willing to take risks on investments that offer the potential for greater return. But they know that to maximize returns over the long run, you need to have a balanced portfolio. So it’s not just about taking lots of risks; it’s about balance and a portfolio approach.

And ultimately, part of taking risk is about being comfortable with failure and learning from it. As part of our annual report on the foundation’s progress, we have a section that covers what we’re learning from our programmatic work and how those lessons can be used to further improve our strategies.

Nell: The Irvine Foundation is very much focused on evaluation, yet outcomes measurement is still difficult for the majority of nonprofits to achieve, given that most nonprofit funding sources aren’t interested in funding it. How do we get past the catch-22 of not being able to find funding for evaluation, but increasingly needing evaluation to get funding?

Jim: We approach evaluation as a tool that enables us to understand the effectiveness of key programs and initiatives, to learn from the progress and challenges along the way, and to demonstrate the value of approaches that will have an impact. In our experience, it is important to think carefully at the outset about what stage of development the work is in and to align the evaluation accordingly. We cannot evaluate everything, so we need to be selective about when and why we choose to use this tool.

I see evidence of a change underway in how the social sector and philanthropy approach evaluation. There is emerging greater interest in tools for measuring progress and impact. The proliferation of assessment tools available from organizations like CEP and PerformWell suggest that we’re moving beyond talking about the problem to developing real solutions.

As a complement to this, we are broadening our understanding about the purpose of evaluation. More and more foundations view evaluation less as the thumbs-up or thumbs-down audit and more as a tool for learning, strategic refinement and improvement. It’s been interesting to see foundations create senior-level roles like Chief Learning Officer or Director of Strategic Learning, as an indication of the value and importance of this work. I am of the belief that the more we shift toward evaluation as a tool for learning and improvement, the more likely we can have the impact we seek. At the same time, that is not to suggest that we should not be clear-eyed about whether we are achieving what we set out to achieve, which is an important role for evaluation activity.

Nell: In 2010 President Obama appointed you to the White House Council for Community Solutions to come up with recommendations about how to address the large population of Americans aged 16 to 24 who are not in school or work. What do you think the role of the federal government should be in creating innovative solutions to “disconnected youth” in America? And what do you think is the role of government more broadly in social innovation?

Jim: It was a privilege to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions with a group of committed and dedicated leaders from across the country. The experience underscored yet again the critical importance of building relationships between philanthropy and government. In fact, an interesting study on this topic of cross-sector partnerships was recently published by the University of Southern California’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. One of its conclusions is that in many cities and states, we’re starting to see a concerted effort to develop and institutionalize more of these partnerships.

We know that many of the innovations that foundations are working on need the engagement and partnership of government to increase their impact and to bring those solutions to scale. A good example for Irvine is the ways in which our Youth program is partnering with state and local government to reform high school education in California.

For the past six years, our Youth program has been working to build the field of Linked Learning — an educational approach that integrates rigorous academics with career-based learning. It has demonstrated success at increasing high school graduation and college attendance rates. And after a lot of work, Linked Learning is now available to students in nine school districts in California.

This year, thanks to a pilot program sponsored by the state Education Department, an additional 63 school districts have committed to Linked Learning. When the program is fully implemented, Linked Learning will be available to more than a third of high school students in California. That’s not something that Irvine or the nonprofit sector could ever have done by itself. So for the state to be launching this kind of pilot program underscores the importance of these partnerships.

As for the work of the White House Council and its focus on what we called “opportunity youth,” the fact that the White House raised this up as a critical issue for our country was really important for this often-ignored population. And the Council’s work continues to live on: most recently, FSG issued a report that serves as a framework for how different stakeholders can improve outcomes for this population of youth who are neither in school nor participating in the job market.

For our part, the focus on out-of-school youth complements the work of our Youth program. A little over a year ago, we launched an initiative to extend the Linked Learning approach to this population as a way to help them re-engage with education. Improving outcomes for this population is so critical — it represents an immense opportunity for our economy and society and for the youth and their families who want to create a better future for themselves.

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Stop Beating Your Head Against the Nonprofit Fundraising Wall

wallI was in Atlanta last week speaking at NeighborWorks America’s National Fundraising Symposium. I really love speaking to nonprofit staff and board members who are in the trenches trying to raise money for their organizations. The same thing that happened in Atlanta always happens. The group started out tired, uninspired, worn out with fundraising. But then I started to describe Financing and the light bulb went on. And for the rest of the day when I talked with attendees, or heard them talking to each other, they would try out this new word, this new concept, “Financing.”

But it’s not just semantics. Financing is a fundamentally different approach to every aspect of a nonprofit organization. For the group in Atlanta, I laid out the five main elements of it:

  • Create A Financing Plan
    Nonprofits must create a comprehensive strategy for bringing enough, and the right kind of, money in the door to achieve their strategic goals. This includes revenue and capital, programs and infrastructure dollars, and all funding sources. Money must be understood and used as a tool, instead of feared and sequestered.

  • Connect Mission & Money
    The financial woes of many nonprofit organizations often stem from a misalignment of mission and money. A nonprofit leader who creates a financial engine for her organization that is fully connected to and supportive of its mission (instead of detracting or isolated from it) will enjoy financial sustainability.

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

  • Invest Supporters
    As mounting research demonstrates, donors are increasingly looking to become engaged in the nonprofits they support. And they are looking for impact, not just a place to write a check. In order to attract these donors, nonprofits must articulate their value and convince supporters to become a partner in creating social change.

  • Find Money to Build
    The time for scraping by and never having enough money for the right technology, staff, and systems is over. Instead nonprofits must become savvy about capacity capital and start raising the money they need to build the organization their mission requires.

It is so inspiring to see people who are on the front lines of creating stronger schools, neighborhoods, communities in this country suddenly realize that it doesn’t have to be so hard. You can stop beating your head against the fundraising wall.

If you’d like to have me come speak to your event, group, board or staff about Financing not Fundraising, or any of the many topics I speak about, email info@socialvelocity.net.

Photo Credit: billaday

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New Guide: Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan

Creating a Financing Plan GuideI’m delighted to announce the release of the newest Social Velocity step-by-step guide, Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan. This guide is designed to help you build a financing plan for your nonprofit and joins the growing list of Social Velocity tools available to nonprofits.

A financing plan, unlike a traditional fundraising plan, is an integrated, thoughtful, and strategic way to help a nonprofit raise enough money to achieve its programmatic and organizational goals. When you finance, instead of fundraise for, your nonprofit you are developing a long-term strategy for bringing enough money in the door to achieve your mission.

Financing means that instead of asking the question:

“How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?”

you start asking the question:

“How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”

A financing plan differs from a fundraising plan in a number of ways. Unlike a fundraising plan, a financing plan:

  • Raises all of the necessary revenue AND capital required to achieve the goals of your strategic plan
  • Includes ALL activities that bring money in the door
  • Supports the short AND long term goals of your nonprofit
  • Funds your programs AND infrastructure
  • Employs activities in line with your core competencies and mission

The Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan Guide walks you step-by-step through the process of creating your nonprofit’s financing plan and is divided into 8 sections:

1. Align Money, Mission and Competence
2. The Financing Plan Framework
3. Create Revenue Goals
4. Create A Capital Goal
5. Create A Fundraising Infrastructure Goal
6. Operationalize the Plan
7. Monitor the Plan
8. Next Steps

With a clear financing plan, your nonprofit will bring more money in the door, in a more sustainable way, ultimately bringing you closer to achieving your mission and creating change in your community.

Download Now

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Financing Not Fundraising: Find and Keep a Great Fundraiser

handshake2The news is not good lately about how effective the head fundraiser is at nonprofit organizations. A new study by CompassPoint reveals some startling realities about the fundraiser role in the nonprofit sector:

  • 25% of executive directors fired their last development director
  • 33% of executive directors are lukewarm about their current development director
  • More than 50% of executive directors say they can’t find well-qualified fundraisers
  • 50% of development directors plan to leave within the next two years
  • And 40% plan to leave fundraising altogether

That sounds like a fundraising crisis to me. And it’s just another example of why fundraising in the nonprofit sector is broken. So in today’s installment of my regular Financing Not Fundraising blog series, I’m talking about how to find and keep a great fundraiser.

If you’re new to this series, Financing Not Fundraising recognizes that fundraising in the nonprofit sector just doesn’t work anymore. Nonprofits have to break out of the narrow view that traditional FUNDRAISING (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) will completely fund all of their activities and instead work to create a broader approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.

What I find most troubling about CompassPoint’s recent study is that it makes nonprofits sound so powerless to do anything about this deep dissatisfaction with fundraising performance. But I think it’s not staff, board or donors who are lacking, rather it’s the entire fundraising approach.

Here is how to go about finding and keeping a great fundraiser.

  • Hire a Money Head. Don’t hire someone who can just write grants or someone who can just work with individual donors. Take a look at the entire financial engine of your organization and hire someone who can develop and execute a strategy for strengthening and growing ALL aspects of that financial engine. If you have significant government grants or earned income, make sure you have someone on board who understands and can work with those aspects as well as the private money that flows to the organization.

  • Develop a Financing Plan. Don’t just expect to hire someone who will magically make money appear. Your head fundraiser has to be in charge of developing and executing an overall financing strategy for your organization. And that means that you need an overall financing strategy for your organization. Without a strategy, your chief fundraiser and your nonprofit are sunk.

  • Pay a Real Salary. It amazes me how many nonprofits expect to entice a great fundraiser by offering a salary that is comparable to someone with only a few years of experience . If you don’t have the current budget to pay a market rate, raise capacity capital to fund the first 1-2 years of the position. Once you have a great fundraiser on board he will raise his own salary while growing your nonprofit’s overall revenue.

  • Work WITH Them. It drives me crazy how many times a nonprofit’s lone fundraiser is trying to raise all the money by herself. If you are going to align mission and money, you have to make sure that EVERYONE in the organization (board and staff) understand their role in bringing money in the door. Create a culture of philanthropy among the staff so that even a staff member who doesn’t have dollar goals in her job description understands that talking to prospects and donors, giving tours, writing thank you notes are critical to keeping the organization going. And make sure the board is trained in fundraising, has a give/get requirement, and has specific individual and board money goals.

  • Hire Enough Fundraisers. The rule of thumb is that it takes one full time person to raise $500K, including anyone who touches prospects and donors (database manager, prospect researcher, etc). If you are asking a single fundraiser to raise $1.5 million there is little wonder why she is (and you are) miserable.

  • Give Them Tools. Don’t hire a great fundraiser and then fail to give him a donor database, an interactive website, marketing materials, prospect research, support. It does no good to hire someone with great ideas but no way to bring those ideas to fruition. If you don’t have the budget for additional support and tools, raise capacity capital to find it.

  • Train Them. No one knows it all. In every other profession we expect to send employees to conferences, provide them classes, coach them along the way. Don’t expect that your fundraiser automatically knows all there is to know. Give him opportunities to gain new knowledge, meet others in the field, and continue to grow his skills.

If you want to attract and retain someone who will develop a sustainable financial engine for your nonprofit, don’t leave her out in the cold. Fully integrate your head fundraiser into your organization and give her the tools, support and resources necessary to succeed.

If you want to move your nonprofit from fundraising to financing, check out the Financing Not Fundraising page of our website with articles, e-books and webinars to get you started. Or if you’d like to find out more about how I could help your nonprofit develop a financing plan or coach your fundraising staff to greater success, send me an email at nell@socialvelocity.net.

Photo Credit: Sahaja 

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Charting a Better Future for the Nonprofit Sector: An Interview with Phil Buchanan

phil-buchananIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Phil Buchanan. Phil is president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and was the first chief executive of the organization. Under his leadership, the organization has grown into the leading provider of comparative performance data to large foundations and other grantmaking institutions. Phil also serves on the board of Great Nonprofits and is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: At the Center for Effective Philanthropy you work to make philanthropists more effective at creating social change, but a large part of philanthropy is driven by emotion and passion as opposed to results and data. How do you reconcile a push towards more reasoned philanthropy with the emotional aspect that will always be present?

Phil: I understand that some people feel this tension, but to me, it’s hard to understand because I think emotion and passion and results and data can – and should – cohabitate very happily. The passionate, emotional desire to make change is what inspires the commitment to get results. If you believe deeply in helping people in need, but do it in a way that doesn’t help, what kind of emotional satisfaction do you get from that?

Fay Twersky of the Hewlett Foundation articulated this very well in an essay in Alliance Magazine. She says impact should be pursued with “a warm heart and a hard head.” I like this way of thinking about it.

Nell: One of the the things you promote at CEP is a move from evaluating nonprofits based on overhead spending to evaluating them based on achievement of results. But sadly most funders haven’t yet embraced this distinction. What will it take for funders and the general public to recognize that overhead percentages are meaningless and destructive to the nonprofit sector?

Phil: I think the adoption of better nonprofit performance assessment practices is part of the answer. The more data nonprofits can point to that can show what they achieved with their total budgets, the less relevant how that budget was divided will feel to donors.

Look, I think people tend to gravitate toward that which is available, quantifiable, and comparative. Overhead percentages are all of those things, so they become the default performance measure even those they don’t tell you anything about performance. Caroline Fiennes of the U.K. has a great new book called It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way You Give It, and one of the best parts is that she really slays the argument for looking at administrative costs, while also providing guidance on how to approach performance measurement.

The rub is that the only way we’ll get better overall nonprofit performance assessment practices is if funders support that work. In our research, we have seen that, contrary to the stereotypes, nonprofits care about assessment and are working on it. But they want and need much more support – financial and non-financial – from their funders. I hope that funders embrace this and support better assessment practices in service of better outcomes.

I think Mario Morino has been a powerful voice on this topic and I recommend his book, Leap of Reason, to everyone I can. I hope people are listening to Mario because measuring effectiveness isn’t some academic issue. People who work at nonprofits deeply want to be effective. Foundations want to be effective. The people we help desperately need us to be effective. So we should – and we must – figure it out and get beyond empty measures. And many have. There are some fantastic exemplars when it comes to nonprofit performance assessment. But there are not enough.

Nell: In addition to leading CEP, you also serve on the board of GreatNonprofits, which allows individuals (clients, donors, volunteers) to review nonprofits. How does the idea of individual consumer reviews of nonprofits fit into the larger movement to evaluate nonprofits based on outcomes when the average person doesn’t yet understand or embrace the idea of nonprofit performance measurement?

Phil: In some ways I think it’s very easy for anyone to grasp. You’re trying to help someone; shouldn’t you ask whether they feel they have been helped? GreatNonprofits can provide that read on whether individuals served by a nonprofit feel they’ve been helped. I think GreatNonprofits, which Perla Ni founded and leads, is really important and I also think we need other kinds of efforts to collect and analyze beneficiary perception data. We need both the kind of open, web-based opportunity GreatNonprofits offers as well as rigorous, survey-based efforts such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s YouthTruth initiative, which helps schools, districts, and funders hear from middle school and high school students. We’re debating school reform in this country yet many of those with power and resources don’t understand the students’ experiences. We know that those experiences correlate to outcomes, so this kind of perceptual data could be a vitally important “leading indicator” of progress.

Nell: Philanthropy tends to be fairly risk averse and focused on program funding, as opposed to the organization-building capital investments (money to build organizations rather than buy services) the nonprofit sector so desperately needs. What do you think it will take to get more philanthropists to make riskier, longer-term, organization-building investments?

Phil: I think there needs to be a greater recognition that we count on organizations to get the work done. Sounds obvious, I know, but I think funders sometimes forget.

It is stunning, and sobering, that despite the valiant advocacy of Paul Brest, Paul Shoemaker, GEO, NCRP, and others, there has been no increase in the provision of general operating support over recent years. But we also need to be careful not to pretend operating support alone is the answer. Our research demonstrates that what really matters to grantees is operating support that is multi-year and a decent chunk of change – six figures or up in annual support, ideally. So the problem isn’t just one of grant type, it’s also one of grant size.

This comes back to assessment, too, in my view. If, as a funder, you know what you’re going after, and there is an organization that is focused on the same goal and can show that it’s delivering results, why would you not provide significant, long-term, unrestricted support? And, if you can’t find organizations delivering results toward your shared goal, why wouldn’t you fund in a way that would allow them to build that capacity?

Nell: You recently wrote a fairly scathing critique of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case because you thought his approach to advocating for the nonprofit sector was misguided. Yet the nonprofit sector is largely underfunded, undervalued, and dismissed in the broader regulatory and political environment. What do you think it will take to change that reality?

Phil: Pallotta’s book doesn’t advocate for the nonprofit sector that I know – or for one that I would ever hope to see. He wants the sector to become something entirely different, something a lot more like business, something that ultimately might not be discernible at all as a distinct sector. His take on the sector is both ahistorical (he demonstrates almost no understanding of the sector’s past contributions) and ideological (he has written that “the free market is a self-correcting system” that supports our “natural desire to help each other” and “only stops working when it is interfered with”). He is infatuated with free market analogies, believes financial incentives are the key to motivating people despite research demonstrating that they are not, insists that public trust in charities is lower than in other sectors when all credible research shows the opposite, and does not seem to understand that many nonprofits work to address the problems that exist as a result of market failures. His book is a disservice to the nonprofit sector.

So, then, what do we need to do to increase the appreciation of public and government officials for the nonprofit sector?

We need to start by standing up and asserting our value as a sector separate and distinct from business and government. We need to stop buying into the fiction that being effective means being “like a business,” whatever that even means. We need to stop praising the “blurring of the boundaries” and start articulating why we need organizations that pursue mission alone rather than profit for their shareholders. We need to explain why the sector is good for our society, good for business, good for government, good for citizens: we all need the nonprofit sector to be its best for us to be our best. And we need to re-learn our history – Olivier Zunz’s recent book on U.S. philanthropy would be a good place to start.

Yes, of course there is much work to do to improve the sector, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear it down. I wrote a series of blog posts for Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society a few years ago and argued that just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible to believe both that the nonprofit sector is and has been a defining strength of this country and that it must dramatically improve its effectiveness. It is possible to both celebrate the diversity of the sector and its various organizations and push for greater clarity of organizational goals, strategies, and performance indicators. It is possible both to applaud initiatives fostering “social innovation” and the government’s embrace of this push and also recognize what has worked in the past.

We need not tear down the sector to improve it. We need not disparage all that has come before in order to chart a better future.

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Breaking Freeing of the Nonprofit Overhead Trap

Note: While I’m off during the holidays I wanted to provide some archive blog posts that you might enjoy. A version of this post originally appeared on the Social Velocity blog in November 2011.

It’s that time of year when donors make key decisions about their end of year giving. But a post on the Social Earth blog advising donors about questions they should ask nonprofits perpetuates thinking that actually hurts, rather than helps the nonprofit sector. The author asks “How do you know where your charitable dollars are going? Are they going to the cause you want to support or are they going to administrative and fundraising expenses?” In reinforcing old, and destructive binary thinking about program vs. overhead expenses, the author is doing nonprofits and their donors a real disservice.

The author lists 4 key questions she thinks every donor should ask of the nonprofits they consider donating to:

As various charities vie for your charitable donations, there are many questions you can ask them directly, including:

  1. How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?
  2. How efficient is their fundraising? What is their cost-per-fundraised-dollar ratio?
  3. Is the charity run properly? How efficient and effective is their human capital? Management team?
  4. Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?

I think questions #2 and #3 are excellent, but questions #1 and #4 perpetuate thinking that holds the nonprofit sector back.

Let’s start with Question #1: “How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?”

As I’ve written before, the distinction between program (or “cause”) and administrative expenses is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst. If a nonprofit organization is creating change, then everything they do is in support of that change. How can a program run if there is no financial engine (fundraising) to fund it? If there is no building or space to house it? If there is no financial management or regular audits? If there is no regular evaluation of whether the program is making a difference? How can you possibly separate “program” from “overhead?” We must move beyond this distinction and encourage nonprofits to raise (and donors to give) more capacity capital, or the money that nonprofits so desperately need to create effective and efficient organizations.

Question #4 “Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?” is equally troublesome.

This question reinforces the backward notion that nonprofits should not have a reserve fund. As I (and others) have written before, we have to get away from the nonprofit taboo that operating reserves are wrong. Nonprofits cannot plan for the future, have a sustainable financial model, experiment with program changes, take risks, or any of the other things that are absolutely necessary to creating social change, without some operating reserves. If nonprofits are continually forced to go month to month without any cushion they will never emerge as strong, sustainable organizations capable of creating lasting change.

We must move away from thinking that encourages nonprofits to scrape by without the tools and infrastructure they desperately need. We must stop measuring nonprofit performance with meaningless financial metrics and instead evaluate nonprofits on their ability to deliver change. If a nonprofit is creating real change, does the minutia of how they spend money really matter?

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