In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Aria Finger, COO of DoSomething.org. Aria oversees the programmatic and business development activities that empower millions of young people to take action each year around causes they’re passionate about. She reads economic theory for fun, loves vanilla cupcakes and thinks that “After Innocence” should be required movie viewing for anyone who cares about social justice. Aria currently serves on the board of Care for the Homeless, is an adjunct professor at New York University and was recently named to Crain’s New York Business list of “40 under 40″.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: DoSomething was founded almost 20 years ago, long before the explosion of social entrepreneurship and social media. How has the organization evolved and kept up with the new energy and excitement around social change and new technologies for connecting people?
Aria: DoSomething.org has always had the same goal – enable young people to take action around the causes that they’re passion about. The exciting part is that now, in 2012, we have an entirely new toolkit at our fingertips – mobile, social, the web, etc – to reach millions of young people who want to make a difference. Experimentation and iteration keeps us on our toes. About a year ago, we decided to text 500 of our users who we hadn’t heard from via email in 6+ months. We sent them a text message and in 9 minutes, we had a 20% response rate. Just incredible. We found that with texting we could activate 20% of a group of “defunct” users. This SMS test was the basis for our pivot to mobile – using cell phones as a means to activate and engage teens. We now text out to over 220,000 teens on a weekly basis.
Nell: How does an organization like DoSomething, that is all about the youngest generation, remain relevant as the organization and its staff age?
Aria: One word: interns. At any given time, we have 20-30 college students working for the organization. And we pay them. These interns are coming to pitch meetings, becoming instant focus groups, creating full-fledged national campaigns and being the frontline of interaction with our users.
In addition, in this new world where everything can be crowd-sourced, we use that to our full advantage. When we were re-launching our website, we put the mocks on Facebook and asked our fans what they thought. When we’re stuck on a campaign name, we go out to our 500,000+ twitter followers and ask them what we should call it.
Nell: At DoSomething you are committed to metrics and have some impressive quarterly performance dashboards. How do you balance what is easy to measure, like outputs (# of members, # of campaigns), with what’s harder to measure like outcomes (what social change DoSomething is creating)?
Aria: At DoSomething.org, we LOVE data. In fact, we have two data analysts on a staff of 40. They inform everything we do and we love that we get to show off their awesomeness in our quarterly dashboards. That being said, you can’t always measure in numbers the value of a warm and fuzzy story about a teen’s first volunteerism experience being with our Teens for Jeans campaign. Qualitative anecdotes do have a place in performance dashboards as well. What I’m really excited about is 5 years down the road when we’ll be able to track our young people long-term – see them go from engagement in one campaign to five campaigns to perhaps starting their own Do Something Club when they go off to college. It will be really exciting to measure whether DoSomething.org members are happier, healthier, participate in their communities more, register to vote more, etc.
Nell: In the last few years there has been a huge increase in online action platforms like Change.org that organize people around causes. How does DoSomething compete with or complement these new channels and movements?
Aria: We love the Change.org folks and all of the other fabulous online platforms that are promoting social change (half of our staff found their job on Idealist.org!). For the most part, the thing that sets DoSomething.org apart is our focus on teenagers. A lot of the other sites do a great job activating older folks – mid 20somethings and beyond – and our focus has remained on high school and college students.
Nell: The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely driven by dissatisfaction among the Millennial generation. What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, how they’ve organized and their potential to make change happen?
Aria: Personally, I’m a supporter of any movement that tries to change this world for the better, as long as they’re doing so in a peaceful and constructive way. A lot of millennials are pissed off because they perceive that the “older folks” have done a good job screwing up our world and now they’re left to pick up the pieces. We see a lot of young people really tuning out politics because they don’t see any good coming out of it and they think they can do a better job trying to fix things themselves. There has been plenty of criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I’m sure many of them are valid, although I do think they created a national conversation around income distribution, fairness, jobs for middle class people, etc that wasn’t happening before them.
There’s a new, or perhaps it is very old, idea kicking around the blogosphere that is probably a dream of many nonprofit leaders. The idea, put forward by Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) founder Peter Haas, is that there could be a company to which nonprofits completely outsource fundraising. Although the idea is intriguing, its underlying assumption that money and mission can, and should be, separated is a potentially destructive one.
Peter proposes a new business idea that takes the burden of fundraising off the backs of nonprofit Executive Directors. A fundraising contractor would solicit donations and take a 10% cut of the revenue:
This is an industry that is waiting for its day…There are incredibly talented development people with strong contacts who raise hundreds of millions of dollars for big organizations…who could do a lot of good in the world by going solo and helping smaller organizations…There need to be more contractors and less consultants in this field, people who will treat it as their job to do the work and the heavy lifting of the fund raising task instead of just offering advice.
Peter’s post set off a string of mostly positive comments and a response blog post by Change.org blogger Nathaniel Whittemore, who thinks it’s a “pretty fascinating idea.” Nathaniel’s post similarly drew comments, which were largely positive.
I completely agree that we need innovation in how nonprofits fund their impact (read my series on Financing not Fundraising), but I don’t think Peter’s justified frustration has developed a valid idea. First, there are legal and ethical challenges, for example the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the largest association of fundraisers in America, calls fundraiser commissions unethical because they inject personal financial gain into a charitable transaction, and the IRS frowns on parts of charitable donations benefiting individuals.
But in any innovation there are hurdles to overcome, so these issues are not what really bothers me. Where Peter’s idea gets dangerous is in his underlying assumption that fundraising can somehow be separated from mission, as he argues:
If the mission of the NGO is the service to the community, and fund raising is truly something administrative (as most donors like to classify it in costs analysis), then it should be something an NGO can easily subcontract. NGOs subcontract back end services all the time, book keeping, accounting, payroll. I don’t hire somebody to tell me how to reach into my heart and find my inner book keeper, I hire a book keeper. Why not fund raising?
But, fundraising is NOT simply an administrative aside that can be tossed to someone else. The money that supports a nonprofit is integral to, not distinct from, the organization’s impact. Unlike a for-profit company that has one customer group, a nonprofit has two: 1) those who benefit from their services and 2) those who fund those services. To separate an organization from one of their customer groups is unthinkable. Not many successful for-profit companies outsource their sales function. Indeed, the most successful companies are those who integrate feedback that their sales team gathers as they meet with current and potential customers (the marketplace). So too should a nonprofit integrate ideas and feedback it gets from its second customer group: its funders.
Ah, I can hear the screaming now. In some nonprofit circles it is close to blasphemy to consider that those with the money should be able to influence a nonprofit program.
But funders (love them or hate them) provide a very necessary input to an organization’s theory of change. An organization can have a phenomenal solution, but if that organization is not able to articulate and demonstrate why a community as a whole should care and how that solution provides a positive return on investment, the solution is pointless.
Nonprofits cannot outsource the absolutely critical function of understanding, building relationships with, and gathering feedback from funders. To separate financing from impact would be to wave goodbye to half your business model and the customers who support it.
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I have a new post up at the Change.org blog, “What Does the Handmade Movement Say About Social Entrepreneurship?”. Here is an excerpt:
Last weekend I went to the Renegade Craft Fair, the first time the traveling “edgy craft fair” has made it to Austin. As I passed booth after booth of creative, cool, handmade posters, paper, clothing, bags and other items, I was struck by how this craft fair is a fascinating microcosm of the convergence of three trends that are moving social entrepreneurship toward a tipping point.
The Renegade Craft Fair was started in 2003 in Chicago by Kathleen Habbley and Sue Blatt, two “crafters” who wanted a venue to sell their funky, homemade wares. In the past 7 years the fair has seen great success and expanded to four other cities, including this year’s foray into Texas.
Renegade is one of many examples of a handmade, or “do it yourself,” revolution that is sweeping the country. But I think that this revolution isn’t just about the homemade, it’s also about social entrepreneurship and the converging trends that are (we hope) taking it mainstream…
You can read this entire post at the Change.org blog.
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I have a new post up at the Change.org Social Entrepreneurship blog about the cost of making bad decisions in the nonprofit sector. Here is an excerpt:
There is an economic concept that is beautifully profound in its simplicity, but often overlooked in the nonprofit sector. Opportunity costs are the cost (financial, time, resource, other) of what you have given up in making a choice between two or more options. Understanding the opportunity costs of decisions is particularly important when resources are scarce, as is the case in the nonprofit sector. Key to the concept of opportunity costs is that you are consciously analyzing two or more options and what you must give up in choosing one over the others. Because the nonprofit sector is undercapitalized, money is king. A driving motivation in many nonprofits is to preserve money, or go after money, at all costs. So the idea of opportunity costs is often thrown out the window…
You can read the full post here.
Inherent in our current time of constraint (struggling economy, crumbling institutions, unhealthy planet) is the opportunity of possibility. As Margaret Drabble said, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”
But it is only possible if we seize the opportunity. Nowhere is this more true than in the nonprofit sector. Let’s admit it, the nonprofit sector tends to be risk averse. And you could argue that the many constraints that they endure incent them to be risk averse. But what if nonprofit organizations seized the opportunity that this restructuring offers and became bold. I mean really BOLD.
What if nonprofit organizations adopted massive, crazy, BOLD goals? The BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that Jim Collins in Good to Great describes:
A BHAG is a huge and daunting goal — like a big mountain to climb. It is clear, compelling, and people “get it” right away. A BHAG serves as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish line. Like the 1960s NASA moon mission, a BHAG captures the imagination and grabs people in the gut.
It is a massive, energizing, crazy goal that can bring people together, give them something to work for, make them part of a team that is doing something inventive, game-changing.
To Nathaniel Whittemore of the Change.org blog we are obligated to move the solutions we seek to a loftier realm. Those working to solve social problems must be bigger, bolder, crazier, more disruptive in their goals:
Where I think it leaves us is with an obligation to push even harder. At the cusp of that last gasp of crazy, the forces that wish to uphold the status quo kick and fight even harder. The former gatekeepers will not leave without a fight. We need to be even more bold, because at the end of the day, I don’t want 20% better nonprofits with a fundraising strategy better optimized for online giving. I want disruptive change that rights wrongs and realigns incentives for a more sustainable, just future.
And Dan Pallotta agrees. He challenges nonprofits to take a cue from the moon program as well and create massive goals:
Nonprofit organizations have to join forces and begin committing themselves to impossible goals that address the massive social problems we confront, and they must define those goals in time and space — a cure for MS in 10 years; the end of homelessness in Boston in 10 years, and so on. Think of President Kennedy’s challenge: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” No wiggle room there…
But bold goals are not just for the sake of goals. Those massive, crazy goals propel an organization forward. They galvanize staff, board, volunteers, funders to get up from their chairs, to step away from mindless, boring meetings, to enlist their friends, family, colleagues, to invest time and resources until it hurts. Bold goals are the rallying cry that moves us toward solutions, compels us to fix broken systems, to break out of our inertia:
If a courageous group of nonprofits would call for the end of child hunger in D.C. within seven years, we’d have to start talking seriously about…all of the…structural problems like admin:program ratios, inadequate investment in infrastructure…and those discussions would actually be exciting. There would be a reason to reframe the present structure. To try to reframe that structure in the absence of a compelling context…[is] like trying to develop a lunar module in the absence of any goal to get to the moon. You wouldn’t know anything about the booster that would carry it, the rendezvous strategy, weight limits, etc. Everything you did would be ineffective…Daring goals, set in time and space are the only way to get there. Any less courageous path lands us exactly in the chaotic and ineffectual place we stand today. And that’s a long way from the moon.
I’ve seen with my clients how massive goals can transform organizations and galvanize them toward solutions. When they have decided to take on exponential growth instead of incremental growth. When they have moved from working to grow their services by 50% each year to working toward addressing 50% of the need. The former can address the needs of 100 new clients a year, the latter can move towards actually eradicating the problem all together. This change in perspective, in goals, can revolutionize an organization. No longer are the board, staff and funders content to add a few sites each year with no end goal in sight. Rather, they understand and rally around their long-term goal, which is to solve a problem. And they see every effort they make, every meeting they come to, every investment they secure as getting them that much closer to that solution. It can transform an organization, and ultimately transform a problem. And isn’t that really what we are all here to do?
I’m back from Spring break, which came right as the flurry of discussion about my blog post The Critical Alignment of Mission, Money and Competence was winding down. I really appreciate the great comments and discussion from Sean Stannard-Stockton (of the Tactical Philanthropy blog), Nathaniel Whittemore (of Change.org’s Social Entrepreneurship blog), Kjerstin Erickson (founder of FORGE) and Sasha Dichter (Director of Business Development for Acumen Fund), among others.
The great discussion happened and was then picked up by others (such as the Social Capital Markets blog, and the Nonprofit Assistance Fund blog) and taken further by others (Sasha kept going) because of our good friend, Twitter. For all the jokes and rolled eyes, Twitter has a tremendous amount of value. The discussion itself didn’t happen on Twitter, 140 characters can only do so much. But rather, it created a space for a thoughtful discussion about a topic that seems to be of interest to many in the social innovation space, among people who otherwise would not have connected, let alone been able to have a conversation of such depth.
I’m a fairly recent convert to Twitter (aren’t we all?) and at times it can feel like an albatross (one more thing on my very long list of things to keep up with), but if you can keep up with it, even just marginally, it can hold tremendous value. (You can follow me on Twitter @nedgington).
But what came out of this great discussion? What were the takeaways? I’m sure the battle rages on, but for me, the key points were:
- Although mission, money and core competencies must be in equal alignment in a nonprofit organization, funding must mold to mission, not vice versa.
- A sustainable revenue stream is one that is sustainable not because it is based on sale of goods or services (“earned income” is often used interchangeably with “sustainable revenue stream”, which I, like Sasha, really disagree with) but because it is based on a funding mix (whatever that may be) that can be counted on for years down the road.
- Finding a sustainable revenue engine is often about creating a context or a “market” for your work.
- Nonprofits have to be more analytical about their funding sources and how sustainable, and aligned with their mission and core competencies, they are and will continue to be.
- The funding community is best positioned to help with revenue misalignments.
I’m sure nothing was changed by this discussion. But the more that these kinds of discussions happen and the more that some of the assumptions of nonprofit operation and finance are challenged the more apt we are to restructure how nonprofits work so that great missions with great delivery can become sustainable.
In the midst of chaos comes opportunity. While the current government is trying to figure out the financial meltdown, the President-elect is assembling his cabinet, the ice caps are melting and two wars wage on, the chaos can seem a bit overwhelming. But at the same time innovation in the social space is taking off. People are coming up with and implementing new ideas to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems. And in an unprecedented way it seems that everyone is talking about possible solutions to the many problems we face. Here are just a few examples.
In his column this past weekend, David Brooks talked with Michael Porter, economic expert from the Harvard Business School, about positive things an Obama administration could do to turn the economy around. At the end, Brooks offered his own idea for addressing the economic turmoil: a network of social entrepreneurship investment banks:
These regionally operated semi-public funds would invest in the best local community organizations, so they could bring their ideas to scale. These funds, first proposed by the group America Forward, would supplement the safety net and employ college grads entering a miserable job market. They’d have a powerful psychological effect on a country that desperately wants to feel mobilized and united. This is a mental recession as well as an economic one. Solving it means getting more and more people involved in a fundamental rebirth.
Getting more and more people involved in finding solutions is exactly what Change.org, a social network of people and nonprofits, has launched with their “Ideas for Change in America” effort. They have taken Obama at his word, in asking Americans to be involved in their own democracy again, by asking people to submit their ideas for solutions. The top ten winners, voted on by the Change.org community, will be submitted to Obama on inauguration day. There are some pretty interesting ideas. They include: creating a citizen news organization, developing a national youth policy council, restoring rail service, and launching a public service academy.
The best antidote to the chaos that surrounds is the hope that ideas like these bring.