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CharityNavigator

Fundraising’s Shiny Object Syndrome

shiny objectI have to be honest. I am so sick of hearing about the ice bucket challenge that I am loathe to write about it. But I wonder if many in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are falling victim, yet again, to shiny object syndrome, so I feel compelled to say something.

To me the ice bucket challenge is yet another example of what happens so often in the world of fundraising. Nonprofit board members and staff hate fundraising, so they desperately search for a magic bullet to make it all go away.

Sometimes that magic bullet is “an endowment,” sometimes its “earned income,” more recently it has been “crowdfunding.” This month it’s a form of crowdfunding taken to the extreme, the ice bucket challenge. Some have been so swept up in the hype that they have gone as far to say that the challenge is “rewriting the charity model.

Oh boy.

The reality is that if you want to create social change you need to develop a sustainable financial model that aligns with your long-term goals. It’s not sexy, it’s not easy, and I’m probably one of the few people on this planet who thinks it’s fun. But there it is.

While many nonprofits are scrambling to figure out how to create their own ice bucket challenge, and some thought leaders are offering tips along the way, maybe we should all just take a step back.

Let’s be very clear. ALS’s close to $100 million windfall is not a revenue stream. It is a one-time infusion of money. Yes, ALS may try to replicate the ice bucket challenge on a regular basis, but the stars will never align in quite the same way, people will move on to the next shiny object, and the money will eventually fade.

Because this pile of money is not a revenue stream, ALS can’t and shouldn’t add long-term staffing or programming because the money won’t be there next year. At the same time, they probably can’t create an endowment because the donors’ intent was not for the money to sit in a bank account. Regranting the money is also tricky, again because donor intent was for it to go specifically to ALS. In all of this ALS will be under the microscope, because as Ken Berger of CharityNavigator cautioned, a year from now everyone will be asking where the money went.

One of the few paths that I see for ALS is to treat the money like capacity capital. This could be an opportunity to invest some of the windfall in building a stronger organization by investing in technology, infrastructure, and systems. And they could do the same for their affiliates. They could require capacity building plans and budgets and invest in those plans accordingly. They could, in essence, create a $100 million capacity capital investment fund for the ALS system.

But the point is that far from being a great thing that all nonprofits should strive to emulate, the ice bucket challenge creates a complex and potentially damaging problem.

So instead of spending board and staff time trying to dream up the next ice bucket challenge, please, please, please spend that time and those resources building your financial model, by creating a long-term financial strategy, raising capacity capital to build your revenue-generating function, developing a compelling strategic plan in which people will want to invest, and growing and educating your board.

These are the ingredients for a robust, sustainable financial model. Not a bucket of water, a video camera, and a social media stream.

Photo Credit: StoiKNA

 

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Technology for Good: An Interview with Craig Newmark

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist, the web-based platform that has fundamentally changed classified advertising. In early 2011, Craig launched craigconnects, his initiative to link everyone on the planet using the Internet in order to bear witness to good efforts and encourage the same behavior in others.

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

Nell: You seem to be a different breed from other high-tech philanthropists. What is your philosophy about philanthropy? For you, what’s the best way to do it?

Craig: I’m a nerd, and can be somewhat simplistic. If there’s some area where I can help, I should to that. My broad theme is “technology for good”, where people work together using social media for the common good. So, I proceed on that basis, finding groups who are good at something, usually using tech, at least using social media for outreach, fundraising and more.

Nell: Why is Craigslist Foundation winding down? How and why did you come to that decision?

Craig: I’m not really a part of CLF, and I think the consensus was that it had run its course, and had accomplished a lot.

Nell: With Likeminded and craigconnects you obviously have an interest in making the social sector more transparent and integrated. Do you think that is happening? Are those working on social change (nonprofits, foundations, social entrepreneurs, social investors) getting better at sharing information and what will encourage that?

Craig: I feel that people in the social sector are starting to work together in more and better ways, but it requires folks like me to nudge them together. In particular, I’m chatting with nonprofits about promoting each other in social media, with little success so far.

Nell: A big part of craigconnects is to get nonprofits to collaborate more effectively. Collaboration is often a tricky concept in a sector where the reality of scarce resources breeds constant competition. How do you reconcile collaboration and competition in the space?

Craig: I don’t know yet, but will figure it out, with lots of help.

Nell: Part of the craigconnects model is that you vet the nonprofits that you showcase there based on ratings services like CharityNavigator and GuideStar, so what do you make of recent efforts to move nonprofit ratings systems to outcomes as opposed to use of funds? What are your thoughts on how we create meaningful ways to evaluate nonprofits?

Craig: I think that real measures of nonprofits will involve their effectiveness, but the means of doing so are still under development. Charity Navigator, GuideStar and GreatNonprofits are making real progress.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September

There were lots of great discussions and developments in the world of social innovation in September. So much so, that I had a really hard time narrowing down to ten. But alas, here are my top 10 of the last month. As always, please add what I missed to the comments. If you’d like to see the expanded list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.

  1. Two really interesting divergent reports on the results of social change work. First, a $1 million, 6-year study of nonprofit After School Matters shows that the program doesn’t really change lives.

  2. And a year after Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to Newark public schools, some positive results are trickling in.

  3. After the August resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple due to health reasons, people came out in droves to criticize him for his poor philanthropic record. Dan Pallotta rose to his defense, arguing, in a thought-provoking way, that Jobs’ contributions to the world at large make him the World’s Greatest Philanthropist.

  4. In an exciting move to kick-start social impact bonds (a government bond that allows private investors to invest capital in nonprofits and then gain a return if the nonprofit achieves promised outcomes), the Rockefeller Foundation granted Social Finance $500K to develop the social impact bond market in the US.

  5. September was the month of the 4th annual Social Capital Markets Conference that brings social entrepreneurs and the funders of social entrepreneurs together. Over the course of the four SoCap conferences there has been a recurring tension between philanthropy and impact investing. Adin Miller reported from SoCap that the great convergence between philanthropy and impact investing has disappointingly not yet happened.

  6. The Washington Post shows us the devastating impact of the economic crisis in five charts.

  7. At long last, CharityNavigator, one of the best known nonprofit rating systems, unveils their Charity Navigator 2.0, an expanded rating system that includes financial health, accountability, and transparency measures. Every nonprofit should understand this important change and what it means for their organization.

  8. Lucy Bernholz discusses a fascinating distinction between problems and difficulties and the implications for social change efforts. “Problems have solutions; solve them and problems go away. Difficulties don’t have solutions; they require continual address.”

  9. On the Harvard Business Review blog Lucy Marcus argues In Troubled Times, Boards Must Step Up.

  10. In a similar vein, Mario Morino from Venture Philanthropy Partners argues that Board Members Cannot Check Their Courage at the Door.

Photo Credit: MMcQuade

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