In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Kate Barr, Executive Director of Nonprofits Assistance Fund, whose mission is to foster community development and vitality by building financially healthy nonprofit organizations. Kate has led the organization’s growth as a premier resource for training, strategic financial counsel, and financing for nonprofit organizations in Minnesota. Kate enjoys helping nonprofits consider the relationship between their mission and program goals and their financial and organizational strategy. She frequently writes and speaks on nonprofit financial and strategy and is lead blogger for Balancing the Mission Checkbook.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Nonprofits Assistance Fund is all about helping nonprofit leaders become more financially savvy. Why do you think strategic financial management is so important for nonprofit leaders and what holds some nonprofit leaders back from achieving it?
Kate: I think about it this way: if strategic direction in general is important for nonprofit organizations, then strategic financial management is equally important as a component of that direction and vision. When a nonprofit develops a strategic plan they are also adopting a financial strategy. Too often, though, that financial strategy is underdeveloped because the vision and strategic goals don’t incorporate the business model that’s required to support the plan. At Nonprofits Assistance Fund we unpack the financial aspect of a nonprofit business model into four inter-connected components: revenue mix; cost of effective programs; infrastructure; and capital structure. I see the biggest obstacle to understanding financial strategy is the singular focus that many nonprofit leaders place on revenue, revenue, revenue. If we could just raise enough money, they think, it will all work out. In reality the business model is more complex than that. The extreme revenue pressures that many nonprofits have faced over the last few years have uncovered the vulnerability of business models. Fortunately, savvy leaders are stepping back to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their financial strategy and being more intentional about identifying and creating a business model that can work.
Nell: A few months ago you wrote a rebuttal to the Center of Philanthropy’s recent survey that claimed nonprofit managers lack solid financial knowledge. What would you say is the actual extent of financial knowledge among the leaders of the nonprofit sector? And what can we do to improve it?
Kate: Yes, I was critical of the study because the findings were based on an extremely narrow test of knowledge to define financial literacy. As we said in the column, the report did not make a connection between the “lack of financial knowledge” based on the survey and the health and vitality of the nonprofits and their missions in the community. Frankly, the fact that so many nonprofits have been able to respond to huge increases in demand for service without going over the cliff is testament to some pretty remarkable financial skills. The direct answer to the question, though, is that the financial knowledge is mixed. Anyone with financial management responsibility needs to understand the terminology of nonprofit finance and know how to read and make use of financial information. Leaders of nonprofits need to have both technical knowledge – what I would categorize as financial management skills – and leadership capacity to navigate changes to their business models. There has been a lot of progress in building financial management skills as the field has become more professionalized. There are many training opportunities for skill building, both in person workshop and online learning (including Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s training workshops and webinars). Financial leadership capacity requires more than a few classes. It takes experience, knowledge, and guts to align mission, strategic plan, and financial structure in a way that build sustainable community impact. I think the ideal nonprofit leader combines passion for the mission with excitement for the business challenge.
Nell: There is a phenomenon in the nonprofit sector that when business people join a nonprofit board they often leave their financial and business acumen at the door fearing it could muddy the charitable work of the organization. Why do you think this is and what can we do to overcome that tendency?
Kate: I’ve seen two different dynamics when this happens with board members: wishful thinking and misunderstanding. The wishful thinking problem arises when board members believe that nonprofits operate outside of the market and that their good work can be performed with minimal cost and simple revenue streams. The misunderstanding is just another version of the “nonprofits should operate more like businesses” myth. Nonprofits are businesses. This “advice” underestimates the complexity of nonprofits as business enterprises. Board members can’t be effective unless they understand how the enterprise works and what the board’s role is in planning and governing. Overcoming this tendency starts with board leadership and carries through recruiting, orientation, and ongoing board development. The executive director or CEO has an important role to work with the board chair or governance committee to prepare and support board members’ ability to understand and build the business.
Nell: One of the most exciting developments in the last year or so is the growing interest in and experimentation with social impact bonds, or pay for success bonds, a public/private funding vehicle for nonprofits based on outcomes. Minnesota has already begun to experiment with a $10 million pilot. What, if anything, has Minnesota learned so far and what do you see as the future for this new financial vehicle?
Kate: There is a lot going on in efforts to develop models and financial structures to pay for results, including social impact bonds, pay for success contracting, and the Minnesota pay for performance pilot. The Minnesota state legislature approved a $10 million state appropriation bond to test a pay for performance approach for some state funded programs. The Minnesota pilot is the first experiment to use an actual bond offering as the financial structure. The advisory committee started meeting early this year and has just issued a Request for Information for nonprofit service providers in workforce development and supportive housing. What we’ve learned so far in developing the Minnesota pilot is that every question leads to three more questions. Part of the complexity stems from the goals. In each of the models in development there are actually multiple goals: identifying program designs that work; saving the state money; attracting new funds; and sharing or transferring financial risk. Any one of these goals requires capacity to deliver and appropriate measures for success. Combining all four goals, as most of the models do, creates something of a bear to design and evaluate. Some of the open questions in Minnesota include: the methodology for the economic measure of success; the role of evaluator; the time-frame for measuring and valuing ROI to the state; access to the data that will be used for monitoring; the market for the bonds; and the appropriate level of risk for nonprofits to bear. The Minnesota pilot does not transfer the financial risk to the bondholders in the same way as the SIB model so there is also a working capital gap for the service providers. We are assessing what will be needed for our loan fund to help with that. As for the future, while there is great enthusiasm for these ideas and pilot projects we have to keep in mind that this is all still early stage with lots of lessons to be learned before we even know if these can attract significant new funds.
Nell: One of the big debates in the nonprofit sector centers around a distinction between program and administrative (or “overhead”) expenses. Rating agencies are just starting to realize that this distinction is damaging to the nonprofit sector. But how do we really move beyond this and get a majority of funders, regulators and others to recognize the danger of evaluating nonprofits based on how they spend money versus how they achieve results?
Kate: Is this even really a debate anymore? There’s pretty universal agreement that the functional expense ratio doesn’t measure nonprofit effectiveness, efficiency, or accountability. The challenge now is communication and education. This one ratio has so dominated every nonprofit financial measurement that we are forced to try and undo decades of practice. Nonprofits bought into the ratio, too, and reinforced it with pie charts and donor messages about how “every dollar goes to program”. Is it any surprise that donors listened and believed us? It took years to create the “standard” that expense ratio is the most useful measure for nonprofit financial results. Unfortunately it’s going to take time to re-educate. We have to start within the nonprofit field itself. There are still many nonprofits that promote their low overhead ratio in fundraising because, they claim, it helps them to attract and retain donors. It’s easy to calculate and communicate. Rather than battle the monster that we helped to create, I think we need to change gears, replace the ratio with more meaningful information about impact and financial health, and raise expectations for results. I really appreciate that Financial Scan, the new product from Guidestar and Nonprofit Finance Fund, doesn’t even include the functional expense ratio on the financial health dashboard or accompanying analysis reports. None of the other ratios – that are much more useful – are quite as simple, though. We’re going to be having this “debate” for some time to come.
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.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. Goodwill is such an interesting case because the organization has been practicing social entrepreneurship since long before it became cool, which I’ve talked about before. Goodwill started in 1902 in Boston and in 2010 provided jobs and job training to 2.4 million people with a budget of $4 billion. Gibbons earned his B.S. in industrial engineering from Purdue University, and a M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, where he was the first blind person to graduate with a master’s in business administration.
You also can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Goodwill has employed a social enterprise model for over a century, long before social entrepreneurship was a buzzword. What made Goodwill so forward-thinking?
Jim: Goodwill is often referred to as “the original social enterprise” particularly by leading social entrepreneurs in the field such as Jim Fruchterman. Goodwill’s roots are deeply established in the belief of the human potential of dignity and self-sufficiency, and in an early learning that the people we serve want a “hand up, not a hand out.” Our founder, Reverend Edgar J. Helms, engrained in our culture his strongly held belief that we must challenge the status quo and be “dissatisfied until every person with a disability or disadvantage has an opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.” This drives the entrepreneurial spirit that exists at every independent, community-based Goodwill agency, allowing them to continually adapt and reinvent themselves in order to meet the needs of local communities.
Nell: How do you think an “old-fashioned” nonprofit like Goodwill fits into this growing social innovation movement? How do you make sure Goodwill is part of that movement and doesn’t get left behind?
Jim: The Goodwill brand is a household name and fortunately still leads efforts in social entrepreneurism, community collaborations and innovation. By staying ahead of the curve, we don’t fall behind. Goodwills are relentless in their desire to understand and meet the needs of the diverse local communities in which they operate. Goodwills challenge themselves to remain relevant and meaningful to the three million people we collectively serve each year. Goodwills across the United States and Canada have found the sweet spot of uniting enterprise with caring, ensuring that our social enterprise model is optimized in a way that empowers people and builds communities that work.
Nell: Goodwill has many more competitors these days than it did 10 years ago, particularly from for-profit competitors. How do you manage the competitive landscape and is it having a negative effect on your model?
Jim: As a market leader in this space, Goodwill always keeps its eye on external forces. We use our social enterprise model to advance millions of people who might not otherwise have the tools or help to succeed in life. We admire legitimate and credible nonprofits that leverage similar models to achieve their mission. While we do not condone the practices of those who market themselves to the public as something they are not, we welcome fair and honest competition, as we have earned the trust and support of more than 66 million customers as well as the people we serve every day. Goodwill earns the trust of shoppers by providing excellent value for their hard earned money. In addition, we earn the trust of donors through the assurance that we maximize the value of their donations in order to return the most benefit to the people we serve in local communities. At Goodwill, your donations generate opportunities for people to achieve economic stability, and build strong families and vibrant communities by offering job training, employment placement services and other community-based programs, such as financial education and youth mentoring. In addition, 84 percent of Goodwill’s revenues go directly into these programs, so members of the public can be sure that their donation(s) will have a direct impact on the people in your community. Last year, Goodwill’s retail enterprise revenues grew more than 12.5 percent, indicating that the public, even with increased for-profit competition, still values and trusts Goodwill.
In addition, we plan to remain a market leader through responsible community leadership. Across the United States and in Canada, we are working with municipalities and local governments to ensure that misleading donation bins are clearly marked so that the public is aware of whether or not their donations go to help someone in need, or if they simply add to a company’s profits. We also teach donors to check out a charity’s legitimacy and revenue information about overhead and administrative costs by contacting their attorney general or secretary of state’s office, a charity rating agency such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar, or online resources such as GreatNonprofits or Philanthropedia.
Nell: What do you do at Goodwill to continually innovate and reinvent the model? How is it possible to continue to innovate at a 100+ year old organization?
Jim: It’s not only possible to innovate, it’s necessary if we want to remain a leader in our market. At Goodwill, we don’t think of innovation as the creation of the next iPhone, but rather as the next idea that allows us to serve the communities we’re a part of in the most meaningful and impactful way. For example, at the Goodwill Industries of South Florida (Miami), they innovate every day and put thousands of people with disabilities back to work. People with disabilities enrolled in their programs learn apparel manufacturing, flag manufacturing, document destruction, and janitorial services. The Goodwill offers a broad range of flexible business solutions to private and public companies, while helping their employees achieve their independence. And it doesn’t stop there. We are committed to customizing the assistance workers need to achieve their peak performance, and we encourage them to continue to advance in their careers.
In Winston-Salem, NC, and Eugene, OR, (Goodwill Industries of Lane and South Coast Counties), we deploy ’Prosperity Centers’ that optimize community resources and drive community collaboration for the benefit of the people. Prosperity Centers are dedicated to assisting people in the community to succeed financially. That doesn’t just mean helping workers find jobs; it means giving them all the tools they need to build financial security and independence once they have a job, including resume-writing assistance, skills assessment, career counseling, access to computer and high-speed internet, and help with interviewing skills and financial counseling. At each of these centers, financial professionals talk to participants about their financial goals, and help them come up with a personal plan to meet those goals, whether that’s regularly paying their bills on time, reducing personal debt, starting savings to go to school, or investing in a big purchase like a car or home. With like-minded agencies partnering together, they are able to harness their resources, eliminate redundancies, strengthen their impact, focus the delivery of their services to meet the needs of local communities, and have a meaningful impact on their citizens.
At the San Francisco Goodwill, we’ve deployed the “Back On Track” program. A partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the Family Services Agency, “Back On Track” provides intensive case management to individuals who have been arrested for a non-violent, first-time drug sale felony. Goodwill provides job readiness workshops, case management, career advising, life skills workshops and job training and education placement. For every individual we train, we save the government an estimated $20,000 in jail/prison costs. This program has a less than 10 percent recidivism rate – compared to a 75 percent rate with other programs.
In Cincinnati, the Ohio Valley Goodwill Industries, paves an example for other service organizations that provide services to veterans. One hundred percent of the veterans they serve are homeless, and many have physical disabilities or mental health issues such as PTSD and TBI. Each veteran has a case manager who works with him or her to develop an individualized program plan. The Goodwill provides transitional housing for these veterans and strives to provide services to them in a holistic manner in order to achiever lasting success, a return to family, community and self-sufficient living. All of these innovative examples are shared across the Goodwill network, and modified and adapted to best meet the needs of local communities.
Nell: Goodwill is pretty active in the social media space and in fact you do a fair bit of Tweeting yourself (@jdgibbons). How have you integrated social media into your mission? What does it allow you to do?
Jim: Goodwill is a networked enterprise where the local Goodwills make up the heart and soul of the brand, and they participate in social media with aligned brand messages that communicate their local activities and impact. We’ve integrated social media into our global and national communication strategies in a powerful way because it’s an awesome tool for educating people about our brand. And we’re giving attention to having real conversations at the level that is important to our stakeholders and builds relationships with them.
Nell: You were recently appointed by President Obama to the White House Council for Community Solutions, which is a pretty interesting group working on bringing the public, private and nonprofit sectors together to solve problems. What is that group working on and what results are you seeing so far?
Jim: It’s exciting to work with a group of leaders from a variety of sectors to raise awareness on how collaborations solve problems in a profound way. Recently, the Council announced its commitment to expand job opportunities for youth through the White House Summer Jobs+ initiative. The initiative is a call-to-action for businesses, nonprofits and the government to provide opportunities for youth to obtain life skills, education, training, and social supports that are relevant for long-term employment, and to work together to provide pathways to employment for youth ages 16-24 (referred to as ‘opportunity youth’) who are low-income or face disadvantages to finding employment and related opportunities.
Goodwill will be supporting the Summer Jobs+ program by hiring 1,200 youth ages 16 to 24. Goodwills across the country will also provide more than 3,200 youth with life skills services, including communications, time management and teamwork; more than 2,300 youth will receive work skills services. In addition, 2,000 youth will be provided learn and earn opportunities, where they will gain the ability to acquire their first paid employment position, either through the form of paid internships or permanent positions that provide on-the-job training at Goodwill locations. Thousands of additional youth will also be provided with virtual career mentoring and exploration services.
The Summer Jobs+ initiative was created in response to research that shows that at least one in six young people ages 16-24 are disconnected from the two systems that offer the greatest hope for their future: school and work.
In our ongoing blog series, 10 Great Social Innovation Reads, below are my top 10 picks (ok, if you really count it’s 11, but consider it added value) for what really stood out in the world of social innovation in April. But I’d love to hear what you think the best reads last month were. Please add your favorites from the past month in the comments.
- Are Better Days Ahead for Fundraising? It could be, according to a new fundraising survey and this infographic.
- But maybe not, since according to new IRS data (that disputes the annual GivingUSA survey) Americans gave about 20% less during the recession than before it.
- What Can Junk Food Teach Philanthropy?: Sean Stannard-Stockton from Tactical Philanthropy takes a look at how junk food is marketed and wonders if we could apply the same principles to get more people to become philanthropists.
- An interesting controversy has been brewing around the social enterprise darling, TOMS Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes away for every pair purchased. But some have begun to argue that this type of cause-related marketing is actually quite harmful. The Triple Pundit blog summarizes the debate: B1G1 Virus and the Cause Marketing Paradox.
- There are two new generations of donors on the horizon, Millennials and Generation Z. Do you know what you need to about Millennials?: What do – and don’t – we know about Millennial donors?
- And Is Your Nonprofit Connecting with Generation Z?
- The Nonprofit Finance Fund has been building a treasure trove of information, discussion, tools etc on social impact bonds, a revolutionary way to fund nonprofit impact through government, all in an effort to make them a reality in America.
- The Path to Sustainability: Bob Ottenhoff from GuideStar gives a great argument about the lifecycles of nonprofits and how revenue must move from foundation support to some sort of market support over time.
- From the Philanthropy411 blog comes a great list of resources for nonprofits entering, or looking to enhance their presence in, the world of social media: 20 Social Media Resources for Nonprofits
- Impact Market Failure: Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation challenges funders to start funding organizations that can achieve impact and address the failure of the impact funding market.
Photo Credit: susivinh
Last month we kicked off a new, monthly Social Velocity blog interview series where I interview leading thinkers and doers in the social innovation space. Our inaugural interview was with Kevin Jones co-founder of both Good Capital, one of the first venture capital funds that invests in social enterprises, and the Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) which marks its third year with the upcoming October event.
This month’s Social Velocity interview is with Clara Miller, President, CEO and founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national leader in nonprofit, philanthropic and social enterprise finance. Directly and with others, NFF has leveraged $1 billion of capital investment into nonprofits, and provided over $200 million in direct loans. Clara Miller was named among The NonProfit Times “Power and Influence Top 50″ four years in a row and is a board member of GuideStar and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.
Nell: You and the Nonprofit Finance Fund have initiated this idea of equity capital for nonprofits, or money to “build” organizations rather than the tradition funding to “buy” services. Do you think the idea of equity capital for nonprofits is catching on?
Clara: First of all, I should say that many people have contributed to the idea of a nonprofit version of equity over the years. My NFF colleague George Overholser has been a field leader. He focuses almost exclusively on the version we call “growth” capital, which is used to rapidly build organizations, changing what they do through major investment undertaken around a single set of metrics, business plan, and ideally, with all funders acting in concert.
And yes, I do think the broader notion of “equity”—and for that matter, the importance of the balance sheet in its entirety—is catching on, especially among major foundations, capital campaign veterans and those familiar with these concepts in the for-profit world. The broader concepts of “building” organizations and “buying” services, and how financial roles differ, are resonating strongly with both organizations and funders. We have a foundation partner that has simply put the question, “is this a “buy” grant or a “build” grant?” on the program officers’ intake checklist.
Nell: How do traditional nonprofit capital campaigns, which are predominantly focused on raising money for new buildings, fit into all of this?
Clara: We think these “growth capital” and “equity” principles comprise an ideal way to think about (and operate) a successful capital campaign. Our early work in the 1980s (when we were Nonprofit Facilities Fund, and exclusively financed “community facilities” with loans) revealed that a rash of problems would almost invariably follow capital campaigns for facilities: cash crises, burnout, funder fatigue, “night of the living dead” program operations, the need to lease excess space at below-cost rent…you get the idea. It was a real eye opener. We learned a lot about the need for truly unrestricted “growth capital,” in addition to funds focused (and often restricted) to build and fit out the facility. Among the NFF-documented lessons: that facilities projects typically need 3 to 4 times the bricks and mortar cost for working capital to cover program and administrative growth needs; that the building frequently changed the business model radically, but planning never covered the whole enterprise; and that putting large amounts of cash into an illiquid asset while expanding operations was problematic on a number of levels. Also, many of these building projects came with opportunity costs: organizations weren’t investing in new technology, upgrading skill sets, or replenishing cash reserves.
Beyond facilities projects, capital campaigns frequently focus on other (typically illiquid) parts of the balance sheet: building an endowment, or on the acquisition of, for example, a program asset (such as a painting or piece of medical equipment). Thinking holistically about improving or acquiring illiquid assets, via a campaign for growth capital, can better the situation.
Nell: The for-profit sector currently enjoys a broader and deeper array of financial vehicles than does the nonprofit sector (seed funding, angel investors, growth capital, stacked deals, etc.) do you anticipate that the capital market for nonprofit organizations will become more robust and what will it take for that to happen?
Clara: I’ll push back a little and say that the vast majority of both nonprofits and for-profits (that are small, with less than $200K in revenue) have approximately the same level of access to similar financing vehicles: sweat equity, seed/angel funders/investors (friends and family, the first foundation grants, etc.), credit card debt, bank loans, retained earnings, etc. Then there is “growth capital” or “capital grants,” which a very small proportion can access in either sector. And while large for-profits are much, much larger than large nonprofits, large nonprofits have reliable access to some highly sophisticated funding and financing vehicles that for-profits don’t (and vice versa). Some very large nonprofits have access to for-profit subsidiary ventures and investments—and some are highly sophisticated (universities investing in development of intellectual property and associated products, CDFIs with venture funds, public media with development and sales of program assets, and others). And on the debt side, much of nonprofits’ “capital market” is for-profit-run (bank debt, investments, tax-exempt bonds, etc.)
The most important barrier to enterprise scale (for either sector) is not so much lack of access to capital as it is a scalable, focused business model with reliable net revenue. Once you have those—or evidence that they are possible—capital will flow.
But that said, we’re talking about a couple of “market wide” dysfunctions. The first is that despite highly resourceful managers, sophisticated board members and billions of dollars of revenue and capital funds, there is no tradition of “enterprise finance” in the sector. “Pretty bad ‘best practices’” designed to make nonprofits more efficient and fiscally prudent cost the sector dearly. Confusion about the direct funding of programs (it’s not possible, most of the time you need to fund an enterprise to deliver programs) means capital is mixed up with revenue, growth with regular operations, and “build” grants with “buy” grants (and a variety of hybrids!). This wreaks financial havoc in growing organizations. Missions—along with the public—suffer.
The second problem is that there’s no really reliable signaling mechanism for organizations to fold their tents, pass their programs to another organization, and go out of business. In the for-profit world, that would be financial failure; in our world, that’s not so straightforward: so we hang in there, meaning resources that might go to a stronger program remain tied up. It also means that the biggest and richest players have (and, largely, keep) the vast lion’s share of resources (even more pronounced than in the for-profit world).
Finally, there is a problem with access to charitable revenue. Promising, mid-sized organizations—especially those serving low-income people (and therefore lacking access to the traditional source of capital in the sector, individual donors) have a difficult time building the operation they need to grow. Foundations are the logical path here, and having foundations embrace “enterprise friendly” practices—including growth capital and build-buy understanding—can go a long way toward changing that dynamic. Establishing a field-wide understanding of basic enterprise finance principles will help insure that growth capital campaigns become true innovation with long-term staying power, rather than a short-term novelty.
Nell: Growth capital for nonprofits is mostly only available to larger nonprofits that have the capacity to prove the results of their model. Do you think growth capital will increasingly become available to the bottom 80% of nonprofits (those with a budget less than $1 million), and how and when do you see that happening?
Clara: Our goal is not that all organizations of every size and business model have access to growth capital and pursue aggressive growth goals ASAP. That’s neither possible nor desirable in either the for-profit or the nonprofit worlds. In both sectors, some business models may not be scalable, and that’s ok—in fact, it’s good. Nobody wants their favorite neighborhood clam shack or Italian restaurant to go public or become a Pizza Hut. Diversity is good; and most people like things about both large and small enterprises. This is true in any sector, where economies of scale and preservation of quality are frequently subject to the laws of diminishing returns. Growth capital is not for everyone, and it is only one tool in the enterprise tool box.
The more important revolution is to make broadly accessible the tools and principles of enterprise finance—with a clear understanding of the realities of the commercial proposition of the sector (i.e., there’s a reason we have a nonprofit sector). There are well-managed and poorly managed (and capitalized) enterprises of all sizes and tax statuses, and there are scalable and non-scalable ones as well. Most critical on the scaling front is that our sector embraces and deploys the broad set of principles that make enterprises of any size or shape effective in reliably achieving great results. Trouble arises when a specific social benefit or innovation is so compelling that we all want the maximum number of people to benefit from it: Our failure to use the principles of growth capital and proper scaling techniques to assure results while growth proceeds is (and has been) tragic for the social sector, and a change in practice can help.
Nell: How do you think the Social Innovation Fund will change the capital landscape for nonprofits?
Clara: I think the SIF already has raised the profile of the ideas around growth capital and scaling discussed here. And it certainly has the attention of a group of large foundations, a significant number of whom are applying as intermediaries. I think it took courage for them to apply, and courage for the SIF to get developed. At the beginning there will be some fits and starts, and government procurement can be dicey (especially when it’s trying to be capital rather than revenue), and foundations are trying to make it work in this way for the first time. That said, it’s very exciting for us to see “growth capital,” which is the core concept, being given a whirl by both the White House and the Foundation world.
Nell: Venture philanthropy funds (that provide growth capital to nonprofits) and social venture capital funds (that provide capital to double bottom-line businesses) currently don’t interact very much in the marketplace. Do you see an opportunity for greater integration of nonprofit and for profit social investing? And if so, what will it take to get there?
Clara: I think there is increasingly frequent interaction between for-profit and non-profit business models (and entrepreneurs) on the conceptual level, and that’s being translated into some compelling platform-agnostic enterprise structures to accomplish social ends in many sectors—health care, research, arts and culture, media, housing—are all examples. And interactions may not be best between two enterprises that are both at the “venture” or “start up” stage. A start-up nonprofit may want to partner with a fully-scaled for-profits (and this is common), while a fully-scaled nonprofit may want to create (or house) a venture for-profit to help reach certain social goals.
On the “deal” level, I think there’s a reason to maintain a bright line between the nonprofit and for-profit tax status. I favor crisply defined hybrids (of which there are a variety) over mushiness (we’re a for-profit but we are good people doing socially beneficial work) because they are more likely to stand the test of time and skepticism, and since ownership and tax structures have bright-line legal and moral duties attached to them.
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