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Dan Pallotta

Building a Nonprofit Talent Pipeline: An Interview with Monisha Kapila

Monisha KapilaIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Monisha Kapila. Monisha founded ProInspire to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders by expanding the talent pipeline, developing professionals, and increasing diversity in the social sector. She has created partnerships with leading nonprofits like Global Giving, Share Our Strength, and Year Up. Monisha’s vision to start ProInspire stemmed from her own experience transitioning from business to nonprofit, and her passion for helping organizations and individuals achieve their potential for social impact.

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

Nell: One of the things ProInspire does is train business professionals about how things are different in the nonprofit sector. Can you, and how do you, teach people about fundamental cultural differences between the business and nonprofit sectors?

Monisha: Through our work with the ProInspire Fellowship, we recruit and train business professionals to spend one-year working full-time at a leading nonprofit. Fellows have the opportunity to use their skills for social impact, and gain an entry path into the nonprofit sector. Over the past five years, we have learned that it is less important to focus on differences between business and nonprofit sectors, and more important to focus on how to be successful at a nonprofit. We also help our Fellows think abut how to translate these skills to be effective in the social sector.

Before starting the Fellowship, we send Fellows articles on transitioning (some great ones from Bridgespan) and The First 90 Days book. During orientation, we have Fellows develop their transition strategy and their learning agenda. We also discuss the phases of culture shock that people typically feel when they move to a new country, as we have seen Fellows go through similar emotions as they move through sectors. Finally, we have our alumni share their experiences in moving from business to nonprofit. Just having a common language and a peer group helps Fellows with the transition.

Nell: In the past there has been a backlash in the nonprofit sector against people with a business background entering the sector and ignoring the complexities that differentiate the nonprofit sector from the for-profit sector. How do you address these tensions?

Monisha: We do this in a few ways. First, we have a very competitive selection process and evaluate candidates’ ability to be successful in the nonprofit sector before they are selected to be a Fellow. Things that we look for include humility, flexibility, initiative, and managing up. These are skills we believe are critical for anyone to be successful in the nonprofit sector.

Second, we talk about the challenges many business professionals face when moving into the sector and the Fellows think about how they will address them. The top ten we focus on are:

  • Avoiding the “white knight” syndrome
  • Proving that you are passionate about the mission
  • Working with less resources
  • Making decisions in a more complex environment
  • Wearing many hats
  • Learning to self-manage
  • Getting feedback about your performance
  • Finding professional development opportunities
  • Creating your own career path
  • Working hard for less money

Third, we emphasize that the Fellowship is a learning experience. Our partners are looking for Fellows to bring their business skills to the nonprofit, but they must first learn about the organization and then figure out how to adapt their skills in that context.

Nell: What is your view on arguments (like Dan Pallotta’s) that nonprofit leaders are sorely underpaid. Do we need to address social sector salaries in order to attract top talent or are there other more important hurdles to attracting talent to the sector?

Monisha: I think that compensation is definitely a factor in attracting and retaining nonprofit leaders. It will become even more important as we start to see convergence in the social sector, with leaders having opportunities to make social impact in nonprofits, for-profits and government.

I have no doubt that talented people are willing to get paid less to do work that is meaningful. Every year we have hundreds of talented professionals from consulting, banking and corporations who apply to our Fellowship program and take pay cuts to work in the nonprofit sector. But as we see Fellows grow in their careers, compensation becomes a bigger issue.

Nonprofits have a lot of assets they can use to offset the lower compensation. Namely the level of responsibility that leaders get at nonprofits is often higher than they would get in a similar role at a for-profit. When I came out of Harvard Business School, I spent a year as an HBS Leadership Fellow at Accion International. I managed product development, marketing, and partnerships for micro-insurance products. Over time I developed strategic alliances with major companies like Visa. After my Fellowship, I joined Capital One in a product development role, but my responsibilities were more narrow. I was supposed to primarily focus on the product – there were other teams for strategic partnerships and for marketing.

So while I think compensation is and continues to be an issue, opportunities for nonprofit professionals to contribute to multiple aspects of the organization’s success are extraordinary. I always tell ProInspire Fellows that one of the benefits of being at a resource-constrained organization is that you will rarely be told “no” if you want to take on more responsibility. This is particularly exciting when you feel very strongly about an organization’s mission. These opportunities to wear many hats, especially near the beginning of one’s career, might not make up for a lower compensation, but we cannot ignore their importance.

Nell:  Since ProInspire’s model is based on working with individuals (“Fellows”) how do you reach a tipping point that will address the approaching leadership shortfall for the entire nonprofit sector?

Monisha: ProInspire’s focus is on helping individuals and organizations achieve their potential for social impact. With our Fellowship program, we partner with nonprofits to bring in Fellows who address critical organizational needs. We work closely both with the organizations and the Fellows who are part of our program. The Fellowship demonstrates the ways that nonprofits can expand their talent pools and shows business professionals paths into the sector.

I don’t think we will address the leadership shortfall just by recruiting more people to the sector. Our next area of focus is on how do we support emerging leaders to grow and increase their impact at nonprofits. This summer we are piloting “Managing For Success”, a leadership development program for first-time managers at nonprofits. Our goal is to develop a high quality, cost effective program that can be scaled nationally and reach many more people.

Finally, we think it is important to show thought leadership around the issue of talent and leadership in the nonprofit sector. This is an issue that many organizations have put on the back burner and we are working with other partners to make it a priority. I recently participated in the White House Forum on Cross Sector Leadership and was excited to see this is a priority for our government, corporations, nonprofits, and foundations. We will only reach a tipping point when we have multiple players in the nonprofit sector thinking about developing talent to drive forward these important organizations that make a difference in the world.

Nell: ProInspire was launched at a time when record numbers of college graduates have an interest in social issues. What do you think makes this generation different in terms of their approach to social change and their approach to organizational structure?

Monisha: Millennials commitment to social change is unlike any generation before. This generation has been taught that they can do anything, and they feel drawn to doing work that has an impact. Communication and social media have played a big role in making them more connected to world events and causes they care about. We see this with the high level of interest in our Fellowship program. Young people who have great jobs at places like Bain, JP Morgan, and Microsoft tell us that they have been waiting for this opportunity to do work that has a purpose.

I have seen that Millennials are also “sector agnostic” – they want to make a difference and don’t care what sector they are in. This means that nonprofits will start to compete more and more with tech start-ups, social enterprises, and the public sector for talent that cares about social issues.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2013

reading 3-13Perhaps it had something to do with the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but March was all about using technology in interesting ways to further social change. From crowdfunding, to a new giving graph, to credit card donations to the homeless, to engaging people in the arts and beyond, people are experimenting with technology for social change in really exciting ways.

Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in March. But let me know in the comments what I missed. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.

You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the hot new thing in the social change world. It remains to be seen if it is a game changer, but in the meantime take a look at some examples of how its being used here, here, and here. And while we’re talking about innovative use of technology to fundraise, Lucy Bernholz dissects some new efforts to donate to the homeless via a credit card.

  2. Writing on the ArtsFwd blog, Anna Prushinskaya describes how some innovative arts organizations have used social media to effectively engage audiences in new ways.

  3. I’m really excited about a new technology the Case Foundation is developing that will map your online search preferences to giving suggestions just like Google, Facebook and others currently use your search preferences to suggest products and services. (I’ll be interviewing the mastermind behind this, Will Grana, on the blog this summer).

  4. I love to see nonprofits using new media (like video and infographics) to tell their story. Beth Kanter offers some easy tips for creating infographics. And speaking of cool infographics, check out this one on why slacktivists are more active than you think.

  5. It seems “scale,” the social innovation buzzword of a few years back, is being redefined. Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, describes a new report that expands the idea of scale and offers ways grantmakers can support it.  And Ben Mangan, CEO of nonprofit EARN, spurs nonprofits and funders to move past “stifling incrementalism” and start working towards real scale.

  6. Dan Pallotta ruffled some feathers, as is his way, with his TED Talk this month The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong, and there were several responses. But I thought the most thought-provoking was from a group of professors from Boston who suggest that Pallotta’s argument that nonprofit salaries are too low only reinforces the wealth inequality of the American economy.

  7. And on a related note, Dione Alexander, writing on the Mission and Money blog, explains increasing wealth inequality as a kind of bullying, noting “The social contract through which we assume shared responsibility for the community is broken.”

  8. And since we are on the topic, this video about wealth inequality in America blew my mind. If you want a quick and dirty view of where America’s money goes, take a look.

  9. As part of the ten year anniversary of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Forti looks back at the past ten years of measuring nonprofit outcomes, the good, bad and the ugly.

  10. Writing in the Duke Chronicle, Trinity senior Elena Botella argues that deciding when a public service should be privatized should be based on evidence, as she says “Humans respond to a profit motive, but we also respond to altruism, community values, prestige and pride in our work.”

Photo Credit: mendhak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can the Nonprofit Sector Stand Up for Itself?

There is something really interesting going on in the world of nonprofit advocacy. And I don’t mean advocacy for a specific cause. Rather, I’m talking about advocating for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Three new efforts underway in recent months are vying to be the voice of the nonprofit sector. And the firestorm brewing is interesting to watch.

Robert Egger kicked it off a year ago when he formed CForward an advocacy organization that champions the economic role of the nonprofit sector and supports political candidates who include the nonprofit sector in their plans to rebuild the economy. You can read my interview with Robert about why he launched CForward here. Robert’s video about the need to advocate for the nonprofit sector is below (or here if you are reading this in an email):

And then in the last couple of months there have been two similar movements to better advocate for the nonprofit sector. Dan Pallotta released a new book last month called Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Change the World where he announces the creation of his new entity, the Charity Defense Council, which is also aimed at advocating for the nonprofit sector, via five efforts:

  1. An “anti-defamation league” to respond to and rectify inaccurate reports about the sector in the media
  2. Big public advertising campaigns for the sector
  3. A “legal defense fund” to challenge unproductive laws against the sector
  4. Work to create a “National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise” to support the sector
  5. Grassroots organizing of the sector as a whole, including a national database of every nonprofit in the country

And then the third grand effort to advocate for the nonprofit sector comes from Independent Sector, the organization formed in 1980 to “advance the common good by leading, strengthening, and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community.” Their new report “Beyond the Cause,” which interviewed 100 nonprofit organizations, recommends the creation of a national organization (probably run by Independent Sector) to push a nonprofit agenda, costing $20 million over 4 years. For Independent Sector the key issues that such an entity would address are:

  1. Changes that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status
  2. Threats to charitable tax deductions for donors
  3. A need to clarify advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations
  4. Changes to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations
  5. Burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits
  6. Lack of government-financed research on the nonprofit world

While CForward seems to be largely supported in their work, both Pallotta’s and Independent Sector’s efforts are drawing fire. Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, writes a scathing review of Pallotta’s new book and advocacy effort and concludes that “Mr. Pallotta is selling is himself—as both the nonprofit world’s messiah and its advertising agency,” and suggests that people support CForward and Independent Sector instead of Pallotta’s Charity Defense Council.

Similarly, Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, dislikes Independent Sector’s effort to coalesce the nonprofit sector arguing that “nonprofits will never share a broad consensus about which issues are most important. The best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”

It is really a fascinating and multi-layered debate. I strongly agree that the nonprofit sector is often dismissed in the policies of the day. But if organizations like Independent Sector have been working to create a common voice for the sector for more than 30 years with little improvement, I’m not sure what will change. Especially if 3 separate entities are all singing different verses of the same tune. They will be competing for dollars, mind-share, and the ears of policy makers. But I am a huge advocate for fixing a broken sector, so let’s see how this all plays out.

What do you think? How do we get policy makers to recognize the importance and value of the nonprofit sector?

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: February 2012

February was the month to learn from other’s mistakes — from Komen to Hull House there was some great analysis about what went wrong and what can be learned. The other thing emerging in February was new social media darling, Pinterest, as an opportunity for nonprofits to tell their story visually.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in February, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

  1. The biggest news in February was Susan G. Komen Foundation’s repeated strategy and PR blunders when they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, then reinstated the funding. Kivi Leroux Miller offered tips to recover from a PR scandal. Nancy Schwartz broke down Komen’s “busted nonprofit brand” and Beth Kanter described the 5 stages of a social media PR disaster.  And when things finally settled down a bit, Komen stumbled again with their attempt to reassure donors.

  2. Always a great resource, the Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog provides 50 Fun, Useful, and Totally Random Resources for Nonprofits

  3. “As modern businesses search for a soul, who better than Millenials to help find one?” This month there were two articles about how the Millennial generation approaches work and ultimately how it will change how we all work: 13 Ways The Recession Has Changed How Millennials View Work and The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce.

  4. Tom Watson launched a new column in Forbes focused on social entrepreneurship, and his inaugural post took an interesting spin on the endless “what is social entrepreneurship” conversation by finding parallels between Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street.

  5. Sometimes Dan Pallotta gets it really right, and that is especially true with his post arguing that a huge missed opportunity for philanthropist is to invest in the fundraising capacity of nonprofits.

  6. In the Harvard Business Review blog Nilofer Merchant argued that technology is fundamentally changing how organizations operate. This applies to nonprofits as well, and we should all take note.

  7. If you, like most people, struggle with creating content for your blog, this infographic makes it so much easier.

  8. Writing in the Washington Post, Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, argued that nonprofits must embrace breakthrough innovations like restructuring their approaches to social problems and using capital to build organizations, “The sooner we confront our new economic reality and support visionary thinking and organizations, the sooner we can begin to rebuild a sustainable safety net.”

  9. The collapse of one of America’s oldest and most successful nonprofit organizations late last year, Hull House, provides a cautionary tale to other nonprofits that may not be employing good financial management, argued Rick Moyers.

  10. An interesting debate loomed at the end of the month because of a study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University that found nonprofit managers lack key financial knowledge. But Kate Barr and Ruth McCambridge took issue with the study’s methods arguing that the study missed the mark.

Photo Credit: aithom2

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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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The Awkwardness of it All: SoCap and the Nonprofit World

I’ll give a full rundown of my Day 1 experience at SoCap in a later post, but first I have to admit my excited anticipation of this year’s Social Capital Markets conference encountered some disappointment yesterday as the third annual conference kicked off. The day began with a co-keynote address by Sean Stannard-Stockton, from Tactical Philanthropy and organizer of this year’s first philanthropy/nonprofit focused track at the conference, and Kevin Jones, co-founder of SoCap. Kevin and Sean’s figurative two-step was a nod to the on-going confusion about where/whether philanthropy and the nonprofit sector fit, or how they fit, into a conference who’s heart and founding are heavily in the double bottom-line, impact investing camp.

Sean gave an eloquent speech arguing for the inclusion of the nonprofit/philanthropy sector in this movement to create a social capital market, arguing that “We don’t speak the same language, but we have the same goals,” and “We need to come together to be better able to find what we are both looking for.” But Kevin still referred to Sean and his track as the “nonprofit clan” and Sean as its “emissary.” I’m not sure why there has to be this awkward line between impact investing and philanthropy, but apparently there is still quite a bit of discomfort with the connection between the two worlds. As Stacy Caldwell, Executive Director of Dallas Social Venture Partners, so eloquently Tweeted yesterday:

I’m not sure that we are past the “awkward” stage yet.

To me, it seems so obvious that the nonprofit and government sectors, who hold the majority of money up for grabs in the social impact space, must be full and equal partners in the creation of the social capital marketplace.

But we are still speaking two different languages. And I’m not sure we’re pushing the conversation forward.

The first breakout session I attended yesterday was the Tactical Philanthropy Track’s “Decriminalizing Fundraising” session with two of the rockstars of nonprofit fundraising: George Overholser, from Nonprofit Finance Fund, and Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable. But I have to be honest with you, and it pains me to say this about two people I admire quite a bit, I was underwhelmed. The session was just a recap of the spiels George and Dan have given many times before, rather than a cutting-edge discussion and demonstration of how we change the broken funding of the nonprofit sector. If you missed the session, or haven’t read any of Dan or George’s writings, Adin Miller did a great job of summarizing the session on the Tactical Philanthropy blog. But the conversation didn’t go nearly far enough. As Adin said:

In general, the audience seemed to agree with the speakers’ position. There were little to no objections to their key points. The questions from the audience reflected more practical inquiries related to changing perceptions and attitudes toward nonprofits and freeing them up to truly grow the sector. And yet, I feel the conversation has just started and that we need a lot more insights into new strategies and tools to truly decriminalize fundraising.”

There ARE new tools and examples of organizations doing exciting things to finance their social impact in the nonprofit space. I would have loved to hear about those, instead of these old arguments about the need for new tools.  And I would have loved to see a discussion about what infrastructure and structural changes need to happen in the sector to push funding forward and how we make those happen.

In the sessions on impact investing and the general sessions later in the day there is a constant movement to push the conversation forward, to unveil new tools, to detail new approaches, to describe new infrastructure in order to push the impact investing sector forward. There is a very palpable sense that this new market is ours to create, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” as Lisa Hall from the Calvert Foundation said in a later session on impact investing. But yesterday at SoCap I didn’t see that same confidence, that same rigor, that same diligence, that same drive in the nonprofit/philanthropy side of the market to create new funding vehicles, new solutions to the broken funding structures we encounter every day.

Let’s see how today goes…

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If We Could Be So Bold

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?


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Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 Nonprofits, scale, Social Entrepreneurship 6 Comments