Change is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.
But I’m hungry for more.
And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:
- What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.
- Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.
- Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.
- Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.
- How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.
It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.
Photo Credit: Paul Thompson
The new millennium has been a difficult one. A struggling global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap are just a few of the social problems we face. And as our social challenges mount, and the government increasingly offloads services, the burden shifts to the nonprofit sector.
Now more than ever nonprofit leaders must step up to the plate. 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 find and deliver on solutions. 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, lasting social change.
In my mind, here is what the new nonprofit leader should look like:
Unlocks the Charity Shackles
“Charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. “Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world. While charity was an afterthought, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. 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 nonprofit leaders must confidently and assertively articulate the critical importance of their work and why it requires real investment, because social change is about changing larger systems. So it takes real, significant investment of resources, not the pennies that charity requires.
Moves From Misplaced Gratitude to Impregnable Confidence
In the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work. If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment (with a delinquent board member or a meddlesome funder), she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships. Nonprofit leaders must rise from bended knee with confidence in themselves, their staff, and their social change work to articulate what they really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And they get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in the way.
Lives, Breathes and Leads Strategy
Real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy. To get there a nonprofit leader must ask board and staff to answer some key strategic questions like:
- What change do we want to create?
- Where do we fit in the external environment?
- How do we measure if that change is happening?
- What are the right activities to get to there?
- What is the most sustainable financial model to get there?
- What people and networks do we need with us?
These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. But that is true leadership.
And part of that strategy may involve a (formerly feared) move into advocacy. 501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change. But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and many already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.
Uses Money as a Tool
Without money, a compelling, inspiring, world-changing vision for social change is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, and without a smart plan for how a nonprofit will secure and use money there is no mission. So instead of dreaming up magic bullet fundraising schemes, a nonprofit leader must develop an overall financial model for her work that fully integrates with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And because money is so central to mission, you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions.
Embraces the Network
If instead of building an institution, a nonprofit leader built networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change. A true leader leaves her ego, and the ego of her organization aside in order to assemble all necessary resources (individuals, institutions, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of thinking just about her organization, her staff, her mission, her board, her donors, the nonprofit leader must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside her walls, the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can. A nonprofit leader understands that the network approach — particularly for nonprofits that are so resource-constrained — can create a much larger effect than a single entity can.
I believe that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is an ability to inspire others to greatness beyond what they thought possible. A true leader asks us to rise above our current circumstances – and in the nonprofit sector where more and more is being asked of organizations with less and less, those circumstances are often dire — to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. It is with that kind of real leadership that lasting social change can happen.
Photo Credit: Chuck Abbe
Tris is Director of Development for New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a U.K. think tank and consultancy that works with both nonprofits and funders. Tris focuses on both the demand and supply sides of innovation around social impact. His particular interest is putting impact at the heart of the social sector, including shared measurement, open data and systems thinking. He helped initiate, and now coordinates, the Inspiring Impact program which aims to embed impact measurement across the UK charity sector by 2022. He is also a trustee of the Social Impact Analysts Association, a member of the EU GECES subgroup on impact measurement in social enterprise, and the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: A big focus of your work at NPC is making impact measurement ubiquitous in the UK’s nonprofit sector. How far is there to go and how does the UK compare to the US in impact measurement being a norm?
Tris: There’s undoubtedly been significant progress over the last decade on impact measurement in the UK, and NPC has been at the heart of that. There are several ways in which that progress is visible, as well as in the sector level surveys NPC has done to track change. For example, most charities say that they have invested more in impact measurement in the last five years, and as a result we see that it is increasingly the norm for charities to have a defined theory of change, a role within the organisation to lead on impact measurement, and to talk about their impact measurement efforts in their public reporting. Most institutional funders also say that they look for evidence of charities’ impact measurement efforts in their funding decisions. Demand for measurement advice is growing, and the impact measurement industry is growing in response – there are more consultants offering services in this area.
The growth of social (or impact) investing has also driven greater interest in impact measurement. The industry as a whole acknowledges the centrality of impact measurement and the need for social returns to be as well evidenced as financial returns. There have been a number of key developments to move the field forward here, from Big Society Capital’s outcomes matrix to the G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce and European GECES reports and guidance on impact measurement – all of which NPC has helped to deliver.
What’s not as clear is how much progress there’s been on the use of impact measurement, rather than its mere existence. When NPC repeats our field level state of the sector research in 2016, we’ll be asking a number of questions to tease out whether impact measurement activity is leading to use of impact evidence in decision-making – whether it’s becoming embedded in practice.
My concern is that we don’t see the signs that impact measurement is driving learning, improvement, decision-making or wholesale shifts in allocating resources towards higher impact interventions, programmes and organisations. It feels like impact measurement is something that everyone acknowledges we need to do, but few have worked out how to use. With the result that it’s bolted on to the reality of organisations delivering services and raising funding, but not embedded at the core.
A few examples of what I mean: if impact measurement were driving learning, I’d expect to see lots of organisations sharing their insights on success and failure, and learning from each other. I’d expect to see common measurement frameworks which allow organisations to understand their relative performance. These are still very rare. I’d also expect to see investment by funders and investors in the infrastructure that we know is needed for learning – journals, online forums and repositories and practitioner networks. There are some emerging examples of these, like the What Works Centres, but they’re still mostly just getting off the drawing board.
Most importantly I’d expect to see charities adjusting strategies and programmes in response to their learning. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but the examples I do see are the exception, not the norm.
When it comes to comparing the UK and US, it’s really hard. We don’t have comparable field-level studies, and we need to work together more closely on these if we want robust insights. For example, if you compare the findings in NPC’s 2012 paper with a recent US study it looks like nonprofits are more likely to say the main purpose of impact measurement is learning and improvement. But actually we don’t know if this is the result of the questions we asked and how we asked them.
In both the US and the UK, it’s clear that the rhetoric on impact measurement has advanced over the last decade. What’s not yet clear is how the reality underlying that has shifted.
Nell: While there are many similarities between the US and UK nonprofit sectors there are some fundamental differences, in particular views about how much government (vs. private charity) should do for public welfare. How does the UK’s view of government’s role help or hurt the capacity building efforts of nonprofits?
Tris: The UK government has taken on a leading role in the social investment space, and it’s here that efforts to build capacity are most visible. Investment readiness programmes have been introduced over the past few years to build general capacity to access social investment. More recently, impact readiness programmes have arrived to do the same for impact measurement capacity. NPC has been working within these programmes to help a number of charities, and cohorts of charities, and it’s clear that they can play a major role in helping the sector to improve. But capacity-building in general has felt the effects of austerity just as much as any other area of government funding. Perhaps more so, as limited funds are increasingly focused on service delivery, not on efforts to improve services.
When NPC repeats its survey of the field, I am certain that we’ll find that limited funding to develop impact measurement capacity is still the major barrier cited by charities. It doesn’t look like anything’s going to change that any time soon.
Nell: NPC works at the nexus between nonprofits and funders, helping the two groups to understand and adopt impact measurement. In the US few funders will fund impact measurement systems, even though they want the data. How does NPC work to convince funders of the need for investments in measurement (among other capacity building investments)? What progress have you seen and what’s necessary for similar progress to happen in the US?
Tris: While a proportion of funders have for a long time supported evaluation, the majority still don’t. We’ve worked through programmes like Inspiring Impact (a sector-level collaborative programme to help embed impact measurement) with a group of funders to develop principles, and help them to embed support for impact measurement in their practice. These efforts can help those who already see the benefit of capacity-building to advance their work, but it’s tough to engage those who aren’t already thinking in this way. I think that the leap we need to make is to selling impact measurement through its benefits, by showing how organisations improve, and their impact increases, as a result. And because impact measurement isn’t yet typically embedded in organisations, those benefits aren’t as evident as they should be.
What does seem to work well is trying to get funders and charities to work together in a specific outcome area to make progress, rather than making a general case for impact measurement. Cohort capacity-building programmes, learning forums and shared measurement initiatives are all part of this. The key thing here is that then the funder is committed to the outcomes everyone’s working towards, and impact measurement becomes a tool for everyone to achieve those outcomes together.
Nell: You are part of the Leap Ambassador Community that recently released the Performance Imperative. Have you seen similar interest groups forming around these issues in the UK? And what role do you think interest groups like these play in a norm shift for the sector?
I have been privileged to be part of this amazing community of leaders, and one of a minority initially from outside the US. I’m convinced we need a similar movement here in the UK, and globally and have been discussing whether and how to approach this with the group from the start. And as co-Chair of Social Value International – a network of those working in the social impact field, I’m part of an effort to do this at the practitioner level too.
The Leap Ambassadors Community brings a human face to what is often seen as a technical subject. After 11 years of working in the social impact field, I am convinced that we cannot sell impact measurement just by increasing the supply of good technical solutions. We need a movement to build the demand for those solutions. We need the right frameworks to measure impact and manage performance. But we need the leaders to demand them, and to harness them to hold themselves accountable, learn and improve, and share what they find.
Photo Credit: NPC
There was a great post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last week that clearly articulates a dysfunction in the nonprofit sector and when recognized by nonprofit leaders and their funders could reshape the sector.
In the SSIR, veteran nonprofit leader Kristen Joiner argues that because 86% of Fortune 500 leaders are men and 70% of nonprofit workers are women “gender dynamics” often cripple the nonprofit sector:
Like the provider of old, heading off to the office for a day of work, the private sector is focused on money and profit. The nonprofit sector, as the nurturing caretaker, is charged with caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, and the poor…This creates a have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their “good work,” trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic…Investors in the social sector make it difficult for nonprofits to gather the resources to measure and pivot as necessary for success. They are looking for the proverbial “good girl”—an organization that doesn’t rock the status quo, that gives them a credential to show they “care” or “contribute.”
Joiner’s argument is not a new one, in fact Robert Egger voiced it in a 2008 Chronicle of Philanthropy article, where he described how the modern nonprofit sector was born out of the gender biases of the mid-20th century:
[In the 1970s and 80s] the number of nonprofits in the U.S. exploded…[led by] tens of thousands of college-educated, stay-at-home mothers…Many of these “founding mothers” brought with them an internalized understanding of their “role”…As long as these new organizations limited their work to nurturing, feminized charity work…they were humored, and even honored. [And foundations were] often dominated by men who were charged with dispensing money made by other men. Foundations rarely awarded money that fostered independence for grantees…In these formative years, and even today, grants are primarily made to submissive organizations — those willing to jump through countless hoops, those that would not push back when confronted with short-sighted policies, and those that would make do with much less than they knew was needed to do the job right…The rules that govern our sector — indeed, the very nature of our how we view ourselves — is rooted in systemic sexism.
Although I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, this “systemic sexism” never occurred to me until I read Egger’s article a few years ago. But now I see it often. And while I don’t think sexism should become a shorthand for everything that ails the nonprofit sector, I do think nonprofit leaders, board members and funders must be more aware of the underlying forces at play, so that we can all work to overcome them.
There are several key areas where this systemic sexism results in an uneven playing field for nonprofits:
- Less Access to Capital. Businesses have access to various forms of capital (startup, mezzanine, risk), whereas nonprofits struggle to attract day-to-day revenue, let alone the capacity and growth capital they so desperately need.
- Inadequate Sales Function. In the for-profit sector, sales and marketing are a much researched, supported and heralded part of a business model because it is well understood that without sales there is no business. But in the nonprofit world, sales — called “fundraising”– is misunderstood, under-supported, and sometimes ignored by nonprofit leaders, board members and funders.
- Tighter Limits on Overhead. Although this is starting to change, nonprofits are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses), but for-profit companies can spend whatever it takes.
- Less Investment in Leadership. Business leaders are encouraged to invest in professional development, training, and leadership coaching, but a nonprofit leader often must figure it all out on her own.
- A Restricted Role in Politics
While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and supporting political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive.
And the list goes on. Many of the dysfunctions present in the nonprofit sector are rooted in years and years of sector inequality. If we hope to make social change more effective and sustainable, we must free the sector of these shackles.
Photo Credit: Campbell’s Soup
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