Almost two years ago three nonprofit rating organizations launched the Overhead Myth campaign aimed at eradicating “the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.” Call me an optimist, but I think it might be working. I see more nonprofit leaders and funders discussing the radical idea that overhead might not be a bad thing. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps there is progress.
The bad news, however, is that the Overhead Myth is only one of many (way too many) destructive nonprofit myths. So in this new year, let’s look at those additional myths that hold the nonprofit sector back.
As we all know, a myth is a story that everyone believes, but is actually not true. Here are the 5 most egregious myths I see in the nonprofit sector:
- Good Nonprofits Don’t Make a Profit
For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. The best a nonprofit should hope for is to break even, and if they do run a profit, they should not be fundraising. To the contrary, a nonprofit with operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct evaluations to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. For a donor it is far better to invest in an organization with the people and systems necessary to effectively tackle a social problem than an organization that is barely getting by. The best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.
- There Are Too Many Nonprofits
I’m so tired of the refrain (mostly by funders) that there are “too many” nonprofits. Does anyone complain about how many tech startups there are? This myth comes from the fact that the sector is undercapitalized which causes organizations to compete for scarce resources. So let’s fix that problem instead. To be sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring two nonprofits that address similar needs together in order to save costs, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. The process of merging two organizations is itself incredibly time-intensive and costly, and, honestly, rarely do funders invest the amount of resources required to ensure a successful merger. Every nonprofit should regularly assess their Theory of Change and how they fit into the external market place of social problems and competitors working on similar problems. If a nonprofit finds that they are no longer adding unique value to that marketplace, then they should reorganize, merge, or disband, whichever makes most strategic sense.
- Nonprofits, Unlike Businesses, Are Inefficient
This myth takes many forms: “nonprofits are too slow,” “nonprofits should sell more products or services”, “nonprofits should run more like a startup,” and the list goes on. The underlying assumption is that the for-profit world is inherently smarter, more strategic, more nimble and more effective. But the truth is that all three sectors (business, government, and nonprofit) have their stars (like Apple), their screwups (like Lehman Brothers) and the multitude in between. Inefficiency in the nonprofit sector is merely a symptom of a larger problem, which is the persistent lack of adequate capital to fund enough of the right staff, technology, systems, evaluation, marketing required to address the intractable problems nonprofits are trying to solve. Let’s talk about that instead.
- Nonprofits Are Outside the Economy
This is the myth that nonprofits are “nice to have” and make everyone feel good, but are not a critical component of our lives or our economic system. But the fact is that the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the U.S. workforce and accounts for 5% of GDP. And the number of nonprofits grew 25% from 2001-2011, while the number of businesses only grew by 0.5%. As government continues to slough off services to nonprofits, those numbers will only continue to grow. The nonprofit sector is not tangential to the economy, but rather an instrumental part of it.
- Nonprofits Have No Role In Politics
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 (Robert Egger has written extensively on this). 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 already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.
Being mired in the demoralizing and debilitating cloak of these myths wears the nonprofit sector down. We must follow the Overhead Myth’s example and start uncovering the other myths that hold the sector back. Because the power of a myth is greatly diminished when we openly admit that the myth is only that — a myth.
Photo Credit: We Shall Overcome, Rowland Scherman, National Archives
There was a bit of a dust up in the (social change) Twitterverse yesterday. Ryan Seashore from CodeNow wrote a post on TechCrunch arguing that the majority of nonprofits are “broken,” and should act more like for-profit startups in order to create impact. The post follows a similar line of other arguments over the years (most recently Carrie Rich’s argument that nonprofits should all become social enterprises) that the nonprofit form is so dysfunctional that it should be tossed out. But there is a real danger to this idea of abandoning the nonprofit sector.
Debates like these are crucial not because of the entertainment value (although I do love good drama), but because they force us to uncover and analyze our underlying assumptions. Yesterday’s debate, and others like it, which take the nonprofit sector to task for being inefficient, broken, unbusinesslike, lay bare some false and destructive assumptions about nonprofits and about social change in general.
Ryan sees nonprofits as aging dinosaurs with “too much overhead, too much bureaucracy, and a lack of focus on impact. Everything feels slow.” But for real change to happen you have to integrate the institutions that already exist with the networks, or “startups,” that want change, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two (institutions and networks) must work together. Ryan’s argument that nonprofits need to be more like startups is fundamentally flawed because if everything were a startup, change wouldn’t happen.
To quote David Brooks from a recent The New York Times piece, “Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked…social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] this is misguided…Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as ‘overhead,’ really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.”
To be sure, in his blog post Ryan outlines some areas where many nonprofits could improve (becoming more focused, continually innovating, diversifying revenue sources, thinking big), but these are best practices that any organization (startup or established institution, for-profit or nonprofit) should embrace. It is simplistic and misguided to think, as Ryan writes, that “the nonprofit world must embrace the nimble ways of successful startups to become more effective, and do better.” I know its not sexy, but real social change is much more complex than startup versus institution.
So let’s move on from this either/or mentality. Effective social change requires institutions AND networks, it requires Millennials AND Boomers, it requires startups AND established organizations, it requires public AND private money (and lots of it), and it requires for-profit and nonprofit solutions. We are wasting our time (and our keystrokes) by creating false dichotomies. Let’s work together toward strategic, sustainable social change.
The year is winding down, and I will be taking some time off to enjoy friends and family (as I hope you are too). But before I go, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular posts on the blog this year, in case you missed any of them.
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with you amazing social change leaders. I am grateful for the amazing work you are doing to create a better world. And I appreciate you being part of the Social Velocity community.
I wish you all a happy, relaxing holiday season, and a wonderful new year. I’ll see you in 2015!
- Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?
- 7 Rules For Brilliant Nonprofit Leaders
- How to Move Your Nonprofit Board From Fundraising to Financing
- Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful
- 5 Questions Every Nonprofit Leader Should Ask
- Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get In Their Own Way?
- 3 Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged
- 5 Ways Great Strategy Can Transform a Nonprofit
- Does Your Nonprofit Know How To Attract Big Donors?
- It’s Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo
I love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.
And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.
- Growth of the Sharing Economy
The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.
- More Focus on Crowdfunding
One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.
- Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.
- Growing Emphasis on High Performance
Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.
- Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.
Photo Credit: slorenlaboy
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview I’m talking with Albert Ruesga. Albert is the President and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, known for its leadership in the region after Hurricane Katrina. He serves as chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and sits on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace steering committee. He earned his Ph.D. at MIT and taught philosophy at Gettysburg College before entering the world of philanthropy. An accomplished writer, his articles have appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, Social Theory and Practice, and other publications.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: As President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation you were deeply involved with the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Katrina and the attempts to use Katrina as an opportunity to kickstart social innovation. Looking back, how successful do you think efforts were to use the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to create social change?
Albert: I came to New Orleans at the beginning of 2009, three years after New Orleanians had cleared their streets of rubble and buried and mourned their dead. It was also two years after the Greater New Orleans Foundation had launched its very successful Community Revitalization Fund that helped rehabilitate and construct affordable housing for 9,500 families. Certainly some good things have happened under my watch–at least I hope other people will judge this to be true–but it’s worth remembering the substantial good that came before, thanks to the sacrifices of so many.
The term “social change” is as slippery as a fresh Louisiana oyster. How do we measure it? One model that springs immediately to mind is the New Testament story of the sheep and the goats in which God says to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed … ; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ You may recall that God had some very choice words for those on his left.
There are many good people in New Orleans who understand and abide by these words. These people–and there are many–continue to be the hope of our city. As individuals or through their foundations, they give generously to help the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.
We need to remember also that what drew the attention of the world to New Orleans was not a powerful hurricane–powerful storms are by now a commonplace. What drew their attention was the fact that so many people needed to be rescued from their rooftops. What shocked the world were the appalling disparities between New Orleans’s poor, largely black, population and those who were better off. If you judge social change in these terms, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, metaphorically at least, many New Orleanians are still running for their attics. While there has been progress in some domains, we have not adequately addressed the cultural, structural, and spiritual causes of these disparities.
And before we start pointing fingers at New Orleans, let’s not forget that these same kinds of disparities exist in every metropolitan area in the United States.
Nell: On the White Courtesy Telephone blog you sometimes take philanthropy to task (for being too theoretical, for chasing shiny objects, etc.). Is there something fundamentally wrong with philanthropy? Does the power imbalance between funder and recipient create a dysfunctional relationship that stands in the way of social change?
Albert: There is nothing fundamentally wrong about philanthropy when understood as generosity, as the giving of time and treasure to help others, as giving for the sake of the common good. On the contrary, philanthropy is hands down our greatest achievement as a species.
As for “organized philanthropy,” “professionalized philanthropy,” the philanthropy practiced by foundations large and small — that’s another matter. The problems with organized philanthropy, in my view, go far beyond power imbalances. Several years ago, I tried to summarize philanthropy’s shortcomings in “Twenty-Five Theses”. I still believe these are essentially accurate.
I’m constantly amazed at what our field marginalizes and what it deems important. There’s currently a good deal of discussion about the differences between strategic and emergent models of philanthropy. Highly compensated consultants will make fortunes helping befuddled foundation CEOs like me sort out the differences. But it’s not the model that will make or break our efforts at social change: it’s us; in most cases, we will be the reason our best models will not work. We simply cannot make good omelets out of bad eggs.
We philanthropoids chase the new model, the new technology, the new structure — the “shiny object,” as you call it — because we’re a deeply insecure tribe, lacking the self-awareness we need to admit to ourselves and others that affecting the dynamics of social change is beyond our powers, and that, as a consequence, we really don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Either that, or we do in fact understand how social change works — at least intuitively — and we fear that a frank discussion of the subject will cost us our jobs. Both of these possibilities constitute what I’ve called “philanthropy in bad faith.” I’m not immune to these criticisms; I too am guilty as charged. If my understanding of the field’s shortcomings is at all accurate, it’s because I embody so many of them. Every morning my next blog post stares at me from the bathroom mirror.
Nell: You have written about your hope that the next generation of philanthropists will make some significant changes to philanthropy. And studies have claimed that Millennial philanthropists will be different (although some disagree). How much do you think Millennial philanthropists will actually change philanthropy and in what ways?
Albert: My generation has left a terrible mess for the Millennials to clean up: a huge gap between the haves and have-nots; unthinkable gender and racial inequality; an insecure world; a despoiled environment; the illusion of democracy in our own country; and much more besides. My great hope is that the Millennials will realize that philanthropy-as-usual simply will not get the job done. We need to discourage them as much as possible from thinking and behaving like their predecessors.
If I could give the Millennials one piece of advice it would be this: pay close attention to the frame. While you’re focusing on the content (hunger, homelessness, global warming), the frame you’ve internalized — the frame we’ve all internalized — is keeping us from seeing and understanding the larger picture. What happens locally, pretty much everywhere in the world, is shaped by simple rules of human behavior that have over time led to a global economic order that needs to be made transparent. This awareness, I hope, will be the legacy of the Millennials and their successors.
Nell: One of the areas that the Greater New Orleans Foundation funds is capacity building. Is it possible to convince a critical mass of funders to start investing in nonprofit capacity building?
It’s certainly worth a try, isn’t it? Short of launching a capacity building program, as we did, grantmakers can start by providing general operating support whenever possible (although multi-year support is better), providing grants for capacity building, providing capital for operating reserves, and awarding larger grants. Foundations can teach their program officers to look and listen for cues that a nonprofit needs special assistance. There are so many ways in to the capacity building “space,” ways that cost so very little. The payoffs, in our experience, are substantial.
Photo Credit: Greater New Orleans Foundation
Note: In October I interviewed Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), on the blog. In the course of that interview, she mentioned GEO’s upcoming study of staffed grantmaking institutions. That study was released a few weeks ago, and I asked Kathleen to provide some perspective here on what the results mean. Her guest post is below.
A few weeks ago GEO released our latest field study, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? We conduct this national study of staffed foundations in the United States every three years to better understand how and whether grantmaker attitudes and practices are changing in ways that help nonprofits make faster progress on their missions. In our 2014 survey, we endeavored to understand how funders support and engage in collaboration.
We were anxious to make meaning of the results related to collaboration in part because it was a key theme across the nonprofit listening sessions we conducted last year. Leaders touted the value of funders connecting them with each other and building peer networks. They recommended funders create more opportunities for nonprofit leaders to share ideas and allow collaboration to be an organic outcome of these peer exchanges. In addition, they made a strong case for funding collaborative work. As one listening session participant noted about collaborating, “It is expensive to undertake and not really fully funded.” Hopefully these results will provide an opportunity for funders to look carefully at their own practices to make sure that they are doing what they can to help productive collaboration flourish.
Collaboration in the context of philanthropy has many dimensions (you can find a description of the many forms and uses for collaboration here). In this survey we attempted to learn more about the extent to which grantmakers:
- Fund nonprofit collaboration
- Collaborate with one another
- Create an enabling environment that supports collaboration
The findings in Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? were mixed on this issue.
Fund nonprofit collaboration. Anyone who has participated in collaborative initiatives knows the truism that they take longer and cost more than you think at the beginning. It follows that successful collaborative initiatives hinge on nonprofits having sufficient bandwidth to meaningfully engage in them. This is why it’s encouraging that multiyear support has rebounded to pre-recession levels and general operating support is on the rise. General operating support increased in terms of share of total grantmaking dollars from 20% to 25%.
Our past two surveys also sought to understand if grantmakers directly support the costs necessary for nonprofits to collaborate. The 2014 findings suggest that grantmakers are now less likely than in 2011 to fund the costs of collaboration or managing strategic relationships among grantees. In 2011, 38% of respondents reported never or rarely funding the costs of collaboration or managing strategic relationship among grantees. In 2014, it got even worse—53% said they never or rarely provide this kind of support.
As the drum beat for collaboration has grown louder, it’s surprising (and a bit worrisome) that direct philanthropic support for collaboration appears to be in decline. Our research partners at Harder+Company hypothesized that improving economic conditions may play a role. Foundations may have seen collaboration as a way to make limited resources go farther in order to withstand the tough economic conditions. Given the rebounding economy, maybe funders see this kind of support as less important.
It is also interesting that general operating and multiyear support are going up at the same time that support for collaboration is going down. Might funders be increasingly providing organizations with flexible, long-term grants as a strategy to support the collaborative work they need to do? If so, that’s a positive instinct. Regardless, if funders expect their grantees to collaborate, they have to be willing to underwrite the costs of doing so. Otherwise it’s an unfunded mandate that is unlikely to succeed.
For the first time this year, we asked a question about what kinds of support funders were providing to enable collaboration. The most common approach is to organize collaborative meetings or events for grantees. Nonprofits who participated in our listening sessions appreciated when grantmakers do this work well.
Collaborate with one another. Most grantmakers (69%, which was the same in 2011) reported developing strategic relationships with other grantmakers. Those who are cultivating such relationships are overwhelmingly motived by achieving greater impact, followed by an interest in tapping the expertise of other grantmakers. The least common reason for collaborating with fellow grantmakers was to minimize burden on grantees.
That such a strong percentage of grantmakers recognize both the importance of and motivations for collaborating with one another is a promising result. However, this further highlights the divide between what grantmakers are willing to support for themselves and what they are willing to fund for their grantees. As more grantmakers engage in collaborative partnerships hopefully the case for supporting similar work for their grantees will grow stronger.
Create an enabling environment for collaboration. In addition to directly supporting nonprofit collaboration and engaging in collaboration themselves, we were also curious about whether grantmakers are doing what they can to create an environment conducive to successful collaboration.
- By seeking and using input. Asking for and using feedback from key stakeholders lays the foundation for collaboration. At last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US are asking for grantee feedback. Additionally, grantmakers have become more likely over time to engage external voices in decision-making and strategy setting. They were most likely to seek external perspectives on foundation strategy (63% do so sometimes, often or always) and the majority of respondents now seek advice from a grantee advisory committee about policies, practices and program areas (52% up from 42% in 2011). This is good news.
- In how they engage with grantees. Survey participants were asked how important certain funding practices were to their success. Fully 92% of respondents indicated that it is important that staff build relationships with grantees so that grantees can be open about their challenges. A slightly lower but still substantial percentage (89%) indicated that it’s important to provide opportunities for staff members to spend time outside the office with representatives of recipient communities or grantees. Given that strong and trusting relationships are an important ingredient to successful collaboration, this sense of priority is encouraging. However only 63% thought it was important to their success to have staff with experience working at nonprofits like those they fund. Nothing really beats having walked in someone else’s shoes, so it is my hope that more and more foundations will recognize the importance of hiring program officers with nonprofit leadership experience in the years ahead.
I’m curious what you make of these survey findings, so please let us know what you think:
- Do you have ideas for why philanthropic support for collaboration might be declining? Do you think there’s any relationship to the increases in multiyear and general operating support?
- For grantmakers: To what extent are you creating an environment that enables collaboration inside your organization? How are your practices smoothing the way for your grantees to collaborate more effectively?
- For nonprofits: Are you talking with funders about what it takes to collaborate and what your real needs are?
Photo Credit: GEO
It is obvious to most in this country that our political system is quite broken. A gridlocked Congress, a shilling mainstream media, a checked-out electorate, and the list goes on. But last week I saw some hope.
I participated in a really interesting gathering in Baltimore hosted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of their Madison Initiative (a $50 million project to “support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States”) Hewlett brought together 90 nonprofit and government leaders, consultants, journalists, heads of think tanks, and other foundation leaders to connect and analyze.
It was a fascinating few days. Through conversations and design-thinking sessions we were encouraged to stretch our thinking about solutions to the often depressing state of American government. I met some inspiring people who are creating solutions to our broken political system. (A few have agreed to be interviewed on the blog, so stay tuned.)
I am only tangential to this world of political reform, so for me it was interesting to see how conversations happening here can inform social change more broadly.
A few things occurred to me over the course of the three days about what effective social change requires:
Networks AND Institutions
Networks, loose connections of people and groups, exist outside of our 200+ year-old political institutions, but social change happens when networks organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt. This happened in the civil rights movement, recent global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.
Millennials AND Boomers
Echoing Robert Egger’s guest post this past summer on this blog, both Millennial and Boomer generations have a deep commitment to social change and the critical mass necessary to make it happen. But they would be even more effective at creating social change if they worked together, instead of against each other. Millennials need to recognize that Boomers fought for system change in their day (civil rights, women’s rights) and Boomers need to recognize that Millennials are creating similar kinds of system change, just with new tools and technologies. The two must find connections and collaborate more often. And I think Gen Xers (of which I am one) can play a critical role in translating between the two generations.
This is a huge country and sometimes that reality gets in the way of change. Red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Eastern time zone vs. Western time zone, coastal vs. flyover states, there are many ways to slice our country. It amazes me how often people focus on geographic differences instead of common values and goals. But true change comes when we break down those walls and have a conversation based on shared values rather than opposing frames of reference. The only way we move beyond impasse is for each side to listen with a completely open mind (free of assumptions and stereotypes) to the other side. And occasionally leave our comfort zone and meet others where they are.
At the end of the day, political reform is no different than any other social change we seek. To create positive change we must move beyond the dichotomies. We have to think much bigger. Perhaps the answer to our political woes is the same as the answer to our other social challenges, as E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Kathleen Enright, founding president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a diverse community of more than 450 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results.
Prior to GEO, Kathleen was at BoardSource, where she was responsible for building public awareness of the importance of strong nonprofit boards. Prior to joining BoardSource, Kathleen was a project manager for the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation where she directed a Ford Foundation funded project to encourage collaboration between nonprofits and local governments.
Kathleen speaks and writes regularly on issues of nonprofit and grantmaker effectiveness at national and regional gatherings of executives and trustees and in various publications including Investing in Leadership: Inspiration and Ideas from Philanthropy’s Latest Frontier and Funding Effectiveness: Lessons in Building Nonprofit Capacity. She is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: GEO has been around for 15 years working to “advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to achieve better results.” In that time, has the work gotten harder or easier? Is the foundation community more effectively contributing to nonprofit results?
Kathleen: We have some new data on that exact question. GEO’s fourth national study of staffed grantmaking organizations is due out next month. The headline is that while the field is moving in the right direction on many fronts, we still have a long way to go.
We appear to have reached a “tipping point” on a few issues. At long last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US report seeking and using grantee feedback to inform their work. As good practices like this one become more common — even expected — it’ll become harder and harder for holdouts to justify the status quo. Similarly, on general operating support — one practice that has stubbornly held steady for years — we’re finally seeing movement in the right direction.
The reality is that there’s a lot of work still to be done. In our last survey we learned that during the economic downturn — when nonprofits needed flexible, reliable, long-term dollars the most — many foundations backpedaled on things like funding multiyear grants. That the new survey shows we’re back to pre-recession levels is a positive step, but we have a long way to go until we’re able to flip the default setting in philanthropy. Achieving this goal means making it so that multi-year, general operating support is the assumption and program officers and grantees need to make a specific case for why a program-restricted or short-term grant makes sense.
Nell: According to the most recent State of the Sector Survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 41% of nonprofit leaders cite long-term financial stability as a top challenge, yet only 9% of them feel they can have an open conversation with funders about operating reserves. How do we bridge that gap and make it easier for nonprofit leaders and funders to talk openly about and invest effectively in financial stability? Do you think foundations’ appetites for capacity investments are growing, or waning, and how do we make capacity investing more appealing to funders?
Kathleen: Our field study will expand on this point as well, but the perception gap is huge. Funders declare themselves willing to talk about financial health, but grantees still don’t feel safe to do so. My takeaway here is that foundations need to do much more to signal to grantees that they are open to having such a discussion. Closing this perception gap won’t happen in one go. We need to find ways to normalize these conversations, including the questions or fears a grantee might have. We need to be conscious that sometimes our funding practices act as nonverbal cues that close down conversations about financial stability. It’s hard to believe a funder is earnest about discussing financial health if they aren’t already doing the basics, like offering flexible, long-term support. Ensuring that nonprofits feel empowered to have these conversations will only happen through word and deed.
It really comes down to a fundamental shift in how many funders think about nonprofits. When a funder thinks about grantees as merely suppliers who offer what amounts to an appealing product that leads to a bit of tunnel vision. However, when grantees are seen as crucial actors in efforts to create lasting change on the complex social challenges a funder cares about, they are much more likely to take a broader, long-term perspective.
In terms of the appetite for capacity investments, we held a series of “listening sessions” with nonprofit leaders last year to learn more about their experiences with capacity-building. Most staffed foundations in the US do provide some sort of capacity building support, so some of what we wanted to uncover is how to make the most of those investments. Based on those sessions and 15 years of experience on this question, we believe that by taking an approach that is contextual (tailored to the unique needs of the grantee), continuous (taking the long view), and collective (considering how the parts add up), grantmakers will be well positioned to provide capacity building support in ways that effectively support nonprofits to achieve lasting impact.
Nell: In recent years there have been studies and efforts aimed at getting more donors to channel donations to nonprofits that can prove results. How optimistic are you that we can change donor, particularly foundation, behavior toward funding based on results? And what will it take to get there?
Kathleen: It’s reasonable for foundations to want to make sure their funding leads to impact. And with technology making data collection easier, it’s natural that there’s a lot of buzz in the field about evidence and results. But it’s complicated terrain.
Not only do we lack a shared agreement on what proof or evidence means, most grantmakers and their nonprofit partners are focused on complex social problems with no easy answers. There was an excellent article in Forbes on the limitations of what the authors call “moneyball philanthropy,” where too great on an emphasis is placed on a clear or measurable cause and effect between the work and the impact. The bottom line is that if foundations only fund those things with “proven” results, they’ll miss opportunities to support important work on systems that has the potential to be game-changing.
Job number one in our view is to understand what’s working, what’s not and how we can continuously learn and improve. It often means taking risks and understanding what went wrong. The reality is that many nonprofits are ill-equipped to build the appropriate information infrastructure or conduct evaluations because they haven’t received the financial support to enable them to build that capacity.
So before we move too far in the direction of funding only based on results, grantmakers must consider how we can help grantees build their sophistication around evaluation. It’s a first step — and an incredibly powerful one — to help nonprofits grow their impact. This may mean providing flexible funding or tailored funding to support the development of evaluation plans, staff training or paying for third party evaluators. GEO members like the Bruner Foundation, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Mile High United Way have worked diligently over many years to strengthen nonprofit capacity for evaluation. Their work suggests that such investments often have much farther-reaching positive effects on the organizations they support. We produced a short video on the Hartford Foundation’s work to build grantee evaluation capacity (which actually draws from the Bruner Foundation’s impressive body of work) that you can find here.
Nell: Foundation money only accounts for about 2% of all the money flowing to the nonprofit sector, which is a fairly small piece of the funding pie. Is there a role, and if so what is it, for foundation leaders to lead other larger sources of funding in the sector (government, individual) toward more effective giving?
Kathleen: Institutional philanthropy has incredible insights and wisdom that could be enormously helpful to help steer other dollars intended for the public good. One of our newest board members, Peter Long, President and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, is an advocate for creating more “open source philanthropy”. His idea is that, as a field, we’ll be able to make faster progress if we’re generous with our thinking. What if every funder interested in improving health outcomes could benefit from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s wealth of knowledge? This is especially important for newcomers, as building this open knowledge base both gives them a place to start from as well as gives them an opportunity to build our collective knowledge. Being “experts” in philanthropy is a role that foundations can — and should! — embrace.
Another way foundations can show leadership is by pooling resources to address complex issues. The Washington Families Fund is an example of just how powerful it is when foundations come together and work with public entities. As a public-private partnership, the Fund is capitalizing on the resources of foundations — including GEO members like the Campion Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medina Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Seattle Foundation — coupled with the on-the-ground capacity of government entities like the Washington State Department of Commerce to reduce homelessness in their region by 50 percent by 2020. Examples like these demonstrate just how powerful public-private partnerships can be.
Photo Credit: GEO
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