I sometimes wonder how many of the nonprofit sector’s challenges stem from a fundamental lack of confidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep structural dysfunctions at play in the nonprofit sector. The sector is held back by a lack of adequate financial resources and an on-going grantor/grantee power imbalance, to name just two.
But how much is a lack of nonprofit leader confidence also to blame? How much further could we go in the sector if more nonprofit leaders confidently stood up for what they believe, what they need, and the value of the work they do.
I am a huge believer in confidence. In fact, I think that those who exude confidence, even when they don’t necessarily feel it, are far more likely than those who don’t to be taken seriously and get what they want.
But often in the nonprofit sector that confidence is absent.
I think this lack of confidence stems from a fundamental feeling of inadequacy that pervades the sector. Nonprofit leaders are subjected to a recurring litany of false beliefs that include, nonprofits: “live beside the economy“, “aren’t as capable as business“, only “do good work,” and “should be grateful” for whatever they get.
But nonprofit leaders must free themselves from those crippling shackles. You must stand up and demand (nicely if you’d like) what you truly need. And you start by articulating the value your organization provides.
Let me give you an example.
A nonprofit leader whose organization had long provided critical services for a school district was fed up with not being paid for those services (they had to privately fundraise for the costs of the program). The nonprofit leader did her research on how much money her organization was saving the district (in increased student attendance, additional staff and instruction time, etc.) and how much the district was investing in other inferior solutions.
She put together a confident, thoughtful and decisive presentation, secured a meeting with the superintendent, and made her case for increased investment. The end result was a superintendent blown away by the evidence and the nonprofit leader’s presentation. For the first time ever the superintendent included significant, multi-year support for the program in the district budget.
This nonprofit leader could have simply swallowed the fact that the school district didn’t value the services her organization provided. But instead she pointed out the disconnect between value provided and money invested and stood up for her organization.
I would guess that most nonprofit leaders lack that kind of confidence. And in fact, for many years even the nonprofit leader above didn’t have it.
But there is so much to be gained from a confident approach. Aside from the potential of securing more resources, when you become a confident player you start to identify strategic partners (like the school superintendent above) who can be your equal in the work of social change.
Because partnerships are infinitely more successful when they are forged by two equal entities coming together to create value. This is true for partnerships between your organization and your vendors (like the school district) but also your funders, board members, advocates, policymakers — anyone that you need on board in order to get the work done.
Confidence isn’t just about getting more of what your nonprofit needs. It’s ultimately about effectively creating social change. And you can’t create social change with your head down and your voice low.
So stop living in the shadows. Arm yourself with data, a compelling argument, an army of advocates and, most importantly, confidence to forge what you need in order to create change.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
As the year draws to a close, and you (I hope) make time to relax, reconnect with friends and family, and reacquaint yourselves with some much-needed quiet, you may also want to reflect on your role as a social change leader. Effective leadership is really, really hard work, but it is also incredibly necessary and needed.
So if you find time over the next few weeks to take a look at your role as social change leader and you want some help along the way, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Here is an excerpt:
Chapter 3: Refuse to Play Nice
As a by-product of the charity mindset, nonprofit leaders often suffer from being too nice. The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who is not performing may work for the individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
Indeed, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Stanford University, nonprofits are perceived as “warm, generous and caring organizations, but lacking the competence to produce high-quality goods or services and run financially sound businesses.” In other words, we think nonprofit leaders are nice — but not competent.
But this reality is often imposed on nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders are encouraged to collaborate instead of compete, hold onto under-performing staff, accept martyr-like salaries, smile and nod when funders push them in tangential directions, and keep quiet when government programs require the same services at a lower price.
This demand that the nonprofit sector play “nice” is the result of (at least) three aspects to the sector:
- A Focus on the Social. The sector exists to address and (hopefully) solve social problems. Thus, by definition, it is socially oriented and has an inclusive, consensus-based approach to doing business.
- More Customers. Nonprofits have two customer groups, as opposed to the single customer for-profits have: 1) those who benefit from the services a nonprofit provides (clients) and 2) those who pay for those services (funders).
- Multiple Players. In addition to their customer groups, nonprofit leaders must corral their board of directors, which often includes individuals with competing interests, and external decision-makers (policy makers, advocates, leaders of collaborating organizations) who have an impact on the change the nonprofit seeks. The end result is that multiple players must somehow be brought together and led in a common direction.
But in order to work toward real solutions and get out from under consensus-based mediocrity, you need to break free from the niceness trap. Rest assured, I am not asking you to get mean and ugly. But there is a way to politely, but assertively, make sure you get what you need to succeed.
In other words, the reinvented nonprofit leader needs to:
- Say “No” to funders who demand new programs or changes to programs that detract from your nonprofit’s theory of change and your core competencies.
- Diversify revenue streams so that you are not beholden to any one funder or funding stream.
- Demand that board members invest significant time and money in your nonprofit, or get out.
- Fire under-performing staff. This is such a taboo in the sector, but with limited resources and mounting social problems to be addressed, we do not have time to invest in people who cannot deliver.
- Be brutally honest with funders and board members about the true costs of running operations effectively and stop apologizing for, or hiding, administrative expenses.
- Create a bold strategic plan that will drive your nonprofit toward social impact and sustainability, not mediocrity.
- Make an honest assessment of your nonprofit’s core competencies, competitors and consumers so that you understand and can articulate where you fit in the marketplace — and act accordingly.
- Stop waiting for your board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow you to do something that you know is the right way forward.
- Refusing to play nice is not easy. And it often culminates in a difficult conversation, perhaps with an underperforming staff member, an ineffective board member, or a time-consuming funder.
In order to manage these difficult conversations for success, you need to approach them in a thoughtful and strategic way. Here are the steps…
Photo Credit: Satish Krishnamurthy
There is an article in Forbes this month that bothered me. Carrie Rich, co-founder and CEO of The Global Good Fund, argues that more nonprofits should move from a “donor-driven organization” to a “revenue-producing social enterprise.” Instead of “relying on donor funding” more organizations should “create revenue-producing services.” In essence she is encouraging more nonprofits to figure out how to sell their services.
The problem with her argument, though, is that it encourages nonprofits to think one-dimensionally about funding sources instead of developing an overall financial strategy that may or may not include earned income.
Rich’s argument is that earned income, or what she calls “revenue-producing social enterprise” is a more sustainable and impactful way to create social change. She goes on to list all sorts of reasons (10 actually) that revenue generation (or earned income) is better than contributed income. These reasons include that revenue generation allows nonprofits to be “more responsive to change,” “attract employees who seek growth,” “accelerate growth and impact,” “become more financially sustainable and mature,” and the list goes on.
Rich is echoing a repeated dichotomy in the social change space between traditional, broken nonprofit approaches, and new, more sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship approaches. Her line of argument stems from a distaste for fundraising done badly.
Believe me, I get it. Fundraising is broken. But just because traditional fundraising is flawed doesn’t mean we should eschew all contributed income.Yes there is deep dysfunction within the nonprofit sector – I talk about it all the time. But the answer is not to simply dismiss the sector and all of its trappings (and revenue sources).
Let’s remember that a nonprofit organization is often created to provide a public good that is not offered by the market. In other words, nonprofits are selling what someone is unable to purchase.
Thus, nonprofits typically have two customers:
- Those who benefit from the services (“Clients”), and
- Those who buy the services (“Donors”)
When social change organizations are able to conflate the two – when the client becomes the buyer – a social enterprise is born. And while that is great, it is rarely the case. Therefore, market-based solutions will never provide all the social change we need.
Every social change organization must analyze their overall strategy and develop a financial model that best delivers on that strategy. That financial model may have earned income elements, contributed income (individual, corporate and foundation grants) elements, government funding or, most likely, some combination of all of these. And every nonprofit should at least analyze whether earned income is right for their financial model. But social enterprise will never be right for all nonprofits, or even a majority of them.
Instead of completely throwing out “traditional charity models,” let’s make them better. Rich argues that one of the many reasons earned income is better is that it allows organizations to “afford the best technologies to help them succeed.” If social change organizations need more capital investments for technology (which they definitely do) then let’s make capacity capital ubiquitous in the sector. But let’s not erroneously assume that more earned income equates to more capital investment.
Let’s move past these social enterprise vs. charity debates and instead focus on helping social change organizations develop smart, sustainable financial engines that include the right revenue (and capital) mix.
Photo Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham
Note: Fifth and last in my list of guest bloggers this summer is Laura Tomasko. Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she follows trends related to private capital for social good. Here is her guest post:
Perhaps like some of you, I dedicate a good portion of my internet reading to blogs like Social Velocity, Re: Philanthropy, and Philanthropy 2173. When I am browsing a blog unrelated to nonprofits, philanthropy, and impact investing, I do a double take when I come across a topic from my professional sphere.
One of those non-work related blogs that I read is Popville, which chronicles activities in Washington, DC neighborhoods. This July and last, two local businesses sought financing through crowdfunding platforms, and reached out to Popville readers for support. Both cited the community focus of their enterprises as reasons to financially support their efforts. What ensued in the comment thread of both posts provides a snapshot into how those outside of the philanthropy and impact investing field understand and discuss crowdfunding, charitable giving, and investing with the intention to generate social and financial returns.
Last year, a local business named Pulp posted to Popville to request “donations” to improve the store and website, including repairs to fixtures, new paint, windows, and other related costs. Even though they said they wanted donations, Pulp actually sought no-interest loans, a distinction clear on their Clovest crowdfunding page but not on Popville. Confusion and opinions swarmed the comments section as people tried to figure out whether Pulp wanted a donation or a loan, and shared their musings on the whole situation.
This July, another local business, Three Little Pigs (TLP), used Popville to promote their Kickstarter campaign, accurately requesting donations for infrastructure improvements to enhance the business that will allow them to build a community space on their third floor. In exchange for donations, TLP offers gifts, like a pound of maple-cured bacon, to donors.
The comments to both posts provide insight into how local residents react to financial requests from community-focused small businesses. Such requests may increase given the passage of the JOBS Act and the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rules that allow non-accredited investors to get an equity stake in a local business through crowdfunding platforms.
Here are common themes about local businesses raising money on crowdfunding platforms raised by commenters:
- Is This Charity?
While both businesses used words associated with philanthropy to appeal to the charitable sense of local residents, neither provides a charitable tax benefit to the readers. This created confusion and commenters wrote in to ask whether the business would provide a tax benefit or repay the money. One Pulp commenter asked, “Does anyone know what the tax implications are to this approach? I doubt they realize the tax-exemption you typically see with donations to non-profits. Or do they? Could this be an interest free loan as well as a tax-free donation?”Questions such as this one suggest that those using crowdfunding platforms to raise money need to clearly state what they ask of their potential supporters and what they will get in return. For example, they should distinguish between how the funding will benefit the community and whether it is a charitable donation, a donation without a tax benefit, or loan.
- Should You Donate to a For-Profit?
Many commenters bemoan the idea of a for-profit business asking for donations instead of raising the necessary capital through the sale of goods and services. There seems to be an expectation that the business should either flourish or fail based on the value of the good or service, and donations should not supplement either course. While some were happy with the idea of donating to a for-profit, most did not support the concept.
- What About Traditional Financing?
Several wondered why the businesses did not get loans through banks or pay for these expenses using a credit card. Others supported crowdfunding as a way to get around the hurdles of traditional financing. While one TLP commenter in support of traditional financing noted, “There are plenty small business loans and lines of credit they can apply for at the mentioned banks,” one in favor of crowdfunding stated, “If you can’t meet every requirement, the major banks will usually turn you down due to high risk.”
The confusion and concern that arose from these two crowdfunding experiences suggest that language matters and concepts like crowdfunding and impact investing are still new to people accustomed to distinguishing charity, which generates social benefit, from business and investing, which seek to generate financial revenue.
In addition to local businesses on crowdfunding platforms, mainstream media use language associated with charity to describe impact investing activities. An interesting example is coverage of the bridge loan that Laura and John Arnold made to the National Head Start Association during the 2013 government shutdown. Covering the story, the New York Times uses the headline, “$10 Million Gift to Help Head Start Through Shutdown” and Politico writes, “Philanthropists pledge $10 million to restore 7,000 Head Start seats.”
Tucked within both articles, after terms like “donation” and “gift,” are brief mentions that the money might be paid back as a no-interest loan if government restores funding after the shutdown. However, to those scanning headlines and not reading the entire article, it is not clear that the Arnolds have made an impact investment in the form of a bridge loan to the Association.
With increased interest in social entrepreneurship and impact investing, many use charitable language to describe financial transactions ranging from donations to impact investments. Until the concept of impact investing becomes as mainstream as charitable giving, taking the time to distinguish between the two could increase awareness, and eventually adoption, of both traditional and untraditional forms of financing for social good.
Language matters and those raising capital from local residents, as well as those in the media writing about these transactions, should differentiate between the desired financial transaction and its charitably-minded purpose. Crowdfunding may bring impact investing to new audiences, and let’s make sure that the message gets there clearly and accurately.
Photo Credit: zeh fernando
My focus this month at Social Velocity is nonprofit leadership. As I mentioned earlier, May’s webinar is Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader. And I’m delighted to release today, as promised, the companion book, Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.
Here is an excerpt from the new book:
The new millennium has been a difficult one. A crippled global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap comprise a few of the social problems we face.
And as our social challenges mount, the burden increasingly falls to the nonprofit sector to deal with the fall out.
So it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to lead the nonprofit sector, and our communities, forward. Indeed it is up to the leaders of our great nonprofit sector, to face, rather than shrink from, these many challenges.
It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real social change.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I have written this book. It is based on my many years of coaching nonprofit leaders to success. This book lays out the elements that those nonprofit leaders have learned in order to embrace their role as reinvented nonprofit leaders.
The reinvented nonprofit leader:
- Unlocks the Charity Shackles and demands to be treated as an equal and critical part of the economy, the community, the solution.
- Refuses to Play Nice and gets real with funders, board members, partners, and staff who are standing in the way of progress.
- Embraces Strategy that moves beyond just “doing good work” and gets real results.
- Uses Money as a Tool because big plans will not come to fruition without a sustainable financial engine behind them.
- Demands Real Help and the tools necessary to achieve the mission because the best leaders recognize weakness and solicit help to address it.
- Breaks Down the Walls of the organization and lets the world in as fully engaged partners, advocates, and supporters.
- Remembers the Dream that got them here in the first place because often it is the big idea that propels great leaders forward.
It is a tall order, but true leadership is.
We no longer have the luxury of mediocre leaders. These times demand confident, capable, engaging leaders who are a beacon to a society whose mounting problems are overwhelming at best.
While it may seem like an impossible transition to become a new kind of nonprofit leader – one who is more entrepreneurial, innovative, confident and strategic – let us remember that nonprofit leaders have always been entrepreneurs. They have recognized some sort of disequilibrium in our society and have created, out of nothing, an organization, a solution and an assembly of staff and volunteers to fix it. In essence, I am simply encouraging you, the nonprofit leader, to claim your rightful place.
The reinvented nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector, and all of us who benefit from it, to new heights.
So how do you become a reinvented nonprofit leader? Let’s take these one by one…
If you want to read more, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book now.
And if you register for the webinar before May 21st the companion book is free. You can register for the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader webinar here.
“Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and as such was viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world.
As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do.
And here’s why:
Charity Lives Beside the Economy, Social Change is Baked into the Economy
While charity was just an afterthought of the real work of the world, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. The number of nonprofits grew 50 times faster than for-profits in the last 10 years and nonprofit revenues grew at double the rate of GDP growth in the same period. And its not just the size and resources of nonprofits that contribute to an emerging social change economy, the Millennial generation actually thinks about social change as part of every aspect of, not separate from, their work and life. The work of social change is ubiquitous.
Charity Addresses Symptoms, Social Change Addresses Systems
Charity is about remedying the immediate and direct symptoms of a larger problem. It is about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. But as very real structural challenges grow (like the widening income gap) we can no longer just stick a finger in the dike. We must come up with approaches that solve the underlying issues causing those problems.
Charity Requires Spare Pennies, Social Change Requires Significant Investment
Charity existed on the largesse of the profiteers of the last centuries. Once they made their millions, they sloughed off a portion of the excess to the charities who cleaned up the messes they made. But you can’t do much with the dregs. Because social change is about changing larger systems it takes real, significant investment of resources.
Charity Employs Volunteers, Social Change Employs Experts
Charity was always the purview of the wives who didn’t work. As volunteers they devoted their time to helping the needy. But as our social problems become increasingly complex and entrenched, we must employ experts – not volunteers – who through education, knowledge and experience know exactly how to approach the problem and how to solve it. And we must pay them what it takes to keep them working on those solutions.
Charity Apologizes, Social Change Demands
When you are voluntarily acting on behalf of a charity and asking others also to act voluntarily on behalf of the charity, you are often apologizing for the interruption to their “real work.” But social change is very necessary work, and social changemakers must demand the investment, mindshare, time and effort required. There is absolutely no space for apology.
Sometimes words and the baggage of the past really matter. When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” we start demanding and creating real investment, real attention, and real change.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Along with the burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement comes a bit of hubris that social entrepreneurs know better how to create social change than do the nonprofits that have been working on it for decades. We can’t dismiss an entire sector that has been working on social problems for years. However, I do think that there are some things that nonprofits can learn from social entrepreneurs. The most important is how to lose the Charity Mindset.
Nonprofits are sometimes referred to as “charities,” and it is a real misnomer and does a real disservice to nonprofits. A charity mindset is when a nonprofit, its board, funders or others promoting its work have a narrow view that the organization is benevolent, but not critical, to the world at large. The charity mindset assumes that a nonprofit starts from the position of need, inadequacy, and burden, rather than a position of opportunity, strength, and effectiveness. The charity mindset differs from a social entrepreneur mindset in a number of ways:
- Symptoms vs. Solutions: A charity, by its very definition, exists to provide aid to the needy, not to solve the underlying cause of the need. This is not to say that every nonprofit can work toward solving an underlying problem; there will always be organizations that exist simply to provide basic needs (food, shelter, safety, etc.). But I wonder if too many nonprofit organizations view their work as residing in the “charity” camp, instead of working, as social entrepreneurs do, to understand the cause of the need and how how they may be able to attack and solve it.
- Fundraising: A fundraiser in the charity mindset apologizes for the burden of asking someone for money, but a social entrepreneur offers investment opportunities to prospects. Wendy Kopp from Teach for America went around evangelizing the Teach for America story and sought investors who wanted to get in on the ground level of an incredible opportunity to change the American public education system.
- Investment in Infrastructure: Charities spend every last penny on the program and leave little money for building the organization. Social entrepreneurs understand that it takes organizations, infrastructure, systems, and talent to effectively execute on a solution to a social problem.
- Respect: Charities may be beloved by their supporters, but they may not garner a lot of respect from them. Social entrepreneurs behave as equal partners with funders in creating solutions, and, as such, they command and receive real respect from investors, volunteers, partners and others.
- True Costs: Charities like to claim that as much money as possible goes to direct services, but social entrepreneurs recognize the true costs of their endeavors and are open and honest with funders about those costs. In fact they demand that funders understand and support those true costs.
I think the old adage is true, people will treat you the way you ask to be treated. If a nonprofit acts like a charity, people will treat it like one. Nonprofits need to stand up and demand to be treated as critical, equal partners in creating solutions.
Photo Credit: wolfgangfoto
I’m delighted to announce that I was interviewed last week for Georgetown University’s Social Strategist series. The Social Strategist: A Conversation on Cause Based Communication is an audio project of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication that aims to create a dialogue on effective cause based communication while showcasing best practices of the most successful organizations, companies and people working in the field today. The series aims to ultimately answer the question: what are the traits of an effective social strategist? Past interviewees include Jane Goodall, Beth Kanter, Katya Andreson, to name a few.
I am honored to be part of this exciting series. In my podcast, John Trybus (series curator) and I discuss the current state of the nonprofit sector, what social innovation really means, financing social change, the future of social impact and much more.
Here’s John’s preview of our podcast discussion:
- The rapid evolution of the nonprofit sector is happening now. “Our economy is going under a fundamental restructuring and that’s affecting nonprofits as well,” Nell explains. “If [nonprofits] don’t dramatically change the way they do business they’re not going to be able to survive and thrive.” The status quo where nonprofits can hide behind the benevolent shield of charity no longer exists. Nonprofits “have to make some significant changes if they want to survive in this new reality,” she adds.
- A new type of ROI is fundamental to prove value. Forget the traditional ROI and think about a social return on investment. Says Nell: “It’s not enough to say we are doing good work and we’re helping people. You now need to start to prove that. That’s a real movement in the sector and I think that’s exciting.”
- Financing and not fundraising is necessary to ensure sustainability. The hamster wheel of galas, dinners and other traditional forms of raising money for good causes no longer works. “The system is broken,” Nell proclaims. To truly create sustainable sources of funding “it starts with taking a much bigger picture view and creating an overall financing strategy,” she adds. “So it’s starting with ‘what do we want to accomplish in the world?’ and how do we create a financial model to do that?”
So what does the future hold for social innovation?
“I think we are at a critical point where so many people want to see social change and they’re willing to change structures and systems [to make that happen],” Nell says. “This kind of momentum is really exciting. It remains to be seen where it’s going to take us but it’s going to be an exciting ride.”
You can listen to the podcast here.
Photo Credit: faungg
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