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Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?

mythEver since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStarCharity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.

More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.

But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.

Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?

I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.

For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:

  • Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
  • Engage a more invested board of directors
  • Use money and other limited resources more strategically
  • Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
  • More effectively manage to outcomes
  • Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit

So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.

At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.

If you want to learn more about funding nonprofit organization building, download the Power of Capacity Capital E-book or the Raising Capacity Capital Webinar.

Photo Credit: liquidnight

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Shifting More Money to Social Good

Hope NeighborI’m really excited to announce that, as promised, I’m starting to move the Social Velocity Interview Series to video interviews, via Google Hangouts (for those interviewees who are willing). I launch next week with an interview, on the Social Velocity Google+ page, with Hope Neighbor, CEO of Hope Consulting and author of the Money for Good reports exposing an $15 billion opportunity to direct more private money to high performing nonprofits.

In 2010 and 2011 Hope, and her team of partners (like GuideStar and Charity Navigator) and funders (like The Gates Foundation and The Hewlett Foundation), conducted comprehensive studies of donor behavior, motivations, and preferences for charitable giving in order to understand how to effectively influence giving behaviors.

Money for Good I found that 90% of donors say how well a nonprofit performs is important, but only 30% of donors actively try to fund the highest performing nonprofits. So there is a disconnect.

In Money for Good II, Hope and her team set out to figure out what it would take to change donor behavior and direct more money to high performing nonprofits. What they found is that more information about performance and more “Consumer Reports” style reporting could encourage more donors to switch their giving to higher performing nonprofits.

This is all fascinating and helps inform the on-going question, “How do we funnel more money to social change?” Needless to say I have lots of questions for Hope.

Here is my list of questions for Hope, but I imagine since it’s a conversation the questions will evolve:

  1. With Money for Good you are hopeful that we can change donor behavior and shift more money to high performing nonprofits. But what will it take beyond providing more (and better information) to donors? How do we create incentives for donors to change?

  2. Money for Good estimates that $15 billion could shift to high performing nonprofits, but that is only 5% of the total private money flowing to nonprofits. And only 12% of all money flowing to the nonprofit sector comes from the private sector, so we are really only talking about shifting 0.6% of all the money in the sector to high performing nonprofits.  Is that piece of the pie worth the kind of donor behavior change effort required? What about expanding the overall pie (only 2% of the annual Gross Domestic Product has historically gone to the nonprofit sector)? Is there any hope of growing the 2%?

  3. Where does impact investing fit in all of this? Typically only 5% of a foundation’s money is directed to social change efforts. What about the opportunity to encourage foundations to tap into their corpus and do more program-related and other mission-related investing?

  4. 

How do we ensure that more information means better information? What if low performing nonprofits simply start mimicking high performing reporting? How do we ensure that accurate performance evaluation is conducted and reported across the sector? And how do we fund that?

  5. What about the problem of donors misconstruing information? For example, if nonprofits provide more financial information, and donors still have a bias against overhead spending, could that just shift more money to nonprofits with lower overhead, not necessarily higher performance?

Watch for the interview on the Social Velocity Google+ page next week.

And stay tuned for more video interviews soon!

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Debunking the Nonprofit Overhead Myth: An Interview with Laura Zumdahl

Laura ZumdahlIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Laura Zumdahl, Vice President of Nonprofit Services at Donors Forum. Donors Forum provides networking, education, leadership and advocacy for philanthropists and nonprofits in Illinois. Laura provides leadership to Donors Forum’s efforts to strengthen nonprofits. I wanted to talk to Laura and Donors Forum primarily because of their innovative work bringing nonprofits and philanthropists together to talk about the real costs (including administrative costs) of creating social change through their Real Talk about Real Costs effort I highlighted earlier this year.

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

Nell: What was the impetus for Real Talk about Real Costs and what is your ultimate goal with the project?

Laura: We’ve long known “overhead” has been a challenge in the nonprofit sector. Over the past few years, we’ve been engaged in some conversations and education about overhead and the “starvation cycle” that encumbers nonprofits, but it had been in fits and spurts.

In 2012 Donors Forum decided we needed to do more to directly address the issue with our membership and see what kind of change we could make locally on this tough issue. So we launched a “Community of Practice” focused on bringing together a group of dedicated funders and nonprofit leaders to tackle the issue over the course of a year through education, sharing of stories, and collective action to move the needle on funding nonprofit overhead.

Ultimately, we want to see change in the sector related to funding the full cost of service delivery. We want nonprofits to be able to understand and articulate their true costs of delivering their missions, and we want funders to understand those costs and fund organizations accordingly. We want funders to invest in the impact they can have with their dollars, not just a limited portion of a program that doesn’t include the real costs. For nonprofits to have a greater impact, they need to have their mission fully-funded.

Nell: The underlying assumption behind Real Talk about Real Costs is that it is possible to get nonprofits and funders to talk openly and honestly with each other. But that is something that rarely occurs in the sector because of the power imbalance between grantor and grantee. How do you overcome that imbalance and get to open, honest, productive conversation?

Laura: The power dynamic you articulated is often a huge barrier for authentic, productive conversations between grantors and grantees. We recognize that as part of the challenge of this work and know that we are only going to make change by helping people to shift that in their own work and experience so they can understand the perspective of the “other”.

When we first started this effort we formed a community of practice comprised of about 30 leaders – half grantors and half grantees. This community spent a year coming together every six weeks or so to learn more about overhead cost issues, hear each others’ stories about the challenges related to their work, and develop relationships. We intentionally focused on helping them to create a trusting and safe space where they could understand and learn from each other. It’s not easy to get to open and honest conversation when power dynamics are at play, but we saw this happen when we were deliberate about getting a commitment from participants to engage in this way and create a space for them to develop relationships and trust to allow these conversations to take place.

Nell: What are your plans, or do you have any plans, to take these conversations to a national level? How do we encourage these conversations beyond Illinois?

Laura: We do! We are continuing to work with our national partner, The Bridgespan Group, on the ongoing conversations at the local level in Illinois. We plan to launch another community of practice later this year, which will continue this work that has evolved over the past few years. We also are working with other great national partners, such as Guidestar and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), to take the conversations to a national level and encourage change in other locations, not just Illinois.

We need to encourage these conversations across the country – and that happens when people take the risk to build relationships that enable authentic conversations so stories can be shared and nonprofits and funders can work together to make change on how we address the issue of overhead costs in the sector.

Nell: What do you make of Guidestar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s recent Pledge Against the Overhead Myth? How do you think their efforts will affect donor actions?

Laura: We were thrilled to see Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance make such a strong statement to the donors of America. Their recognition of how overhead rates can be wrongly used as a measure of effectiveness helps to raise awareness about this misconception and the importance of donors investing in impact.

Their leadership on this issue and the pledge that they’ve asked donors to commit to is an important step in helping to clarify the myths that have long surrounded overhead costs. They are looked to by many donors for signs of what to consider when selecting nonprofits to invest in, and their plea to donors to consider the real cost of outcomes and impact of an organization – not just a ratio that doesn’t tell the whole story – is a clear directive that we hope will affect both individual and institutional donors substantially.

Nell: What do you think it will take to really move the needle and get a majority of donors to recognize and invest in real nonprofit costs?

Laura: Change is hard when you are trying to affect behavior in a whole sector, so it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a long process of affecting change in some areas that can build and eventually influence others to reconsider how they invest in real costs. We believe that if we can take the lead on making change in Illinois and share that experience with others, it’ll eventually help to influence behavior in other geographic areas across the country – hopefully leading to a wide-spread sector shift somewhere.

Several years ago nonprofits and funders weren’t talking about this issue together – and now, in some small pockets – they are. That’s a step in the right direction. And those of us in the sector need to support this work by making a personal commitment to address the myths around overhead whenever we can so we are part of making change happen.

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Revolutionizing Online Philanthropy: An Interview with Brian Sasscer

brian-sasscerIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Brian Sasscer, Senior Vice President of Strategic Operations at The Case Foundation. Brian is responsible for the Case Foundation’s web presence strategy and overseeing the Foundation’s operations. His passion for his job is fueled by a desire to continually push new technologies and for-profit thinking into the nonprofit sector.

I wanted to talk to Brian because of the very exciting new Giving Graph project they announced last March at SXSW. The Giving Graph would help the social sector use data and technology to connect people to causes they are passionate about in a seamless way.

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

Nell: When you presented about the Giving Graph at SXSW last March it was just an idea. Where does it stand now? Is the Case Foundation moving forward to execute on the concept?

Brian: The Case Foundation has been thrilled by the positive response we’ve received since introducing the concept of the Giving Graph in March. We’ve had multiple conversations with folks from the tech and social good community that have surfaced some exciting opportunities to help advance the project. For example, we were approached by Rayid Ghani, who served as Chief Data Scientist from the 2012 Obama for America campaign. He is spearheading The Erich & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship program at the University of Chicago. This new program is bringing together 36 aspiring students in the fields of computer science, programming and statistics to seek out opportunities to use data science as a tool to solve complex social issues. The Giving Graph was selected as one of the projects collaborators and these students will experiment with over the summer.

Through conversations with other nonprofits, for-profits, foundations and technology companies, we’ve made great connections and relationships that have helped us understand the possibilities the graph could provide for a stronger infrastructure within the social good sector. Specifically, we have opened dialogue with the Gates Foundation, as well as Guidestar CEO Jacob Harold. Michael Lewkowitz of Igniter is another individual who has done an exceptional job of exploring the concept of an impact graph, and understanding the landscape of this data play in the social good sector.

We also reached out to other organizations such as Network for Good and Global Giving in an effort to survey the space and understand the big data players in social good data. There are a number of talented individuals who share our vision of helping to further develop a concept that supports and encourages growth in the social sector. As for the Graph itself, we will continue our discussions and experimentation with the University of Chicago fellows assigned to the project with a goal to produce key findings from the experiment sometime in the fall.

Nell: You have sought a good deal of public input on the concept of the Giving Graph. How has that input altered the initial concept?

Brian: We have received excellent feedback from the public related to the SXSW presentation and our blog post. The majority of the input we have received is from thought leaders, nonprofits and foundations, for-profits, and other individuals already working in the data space as it relates to the social sector. Their feedback has validated the need for a tool like this for the sector. The first part of the Giving Graph concept itself was focused on identifying the key players in the data space for social good, understanding the space, and analyzing data location in the social good sector. Through research and discussions with other organizations, we have concluded that our end vision and goal is aligned with the goals of numerous other projects.

We found one project that is working to reform the sector from an information infrastructure point of view, another is helping to facilitate data-sharing amongst organizations, and another is working to match social good opportunities to an individuals interests. Each project can support and build off the others, propagating the number of resources available for the social good sector. From our findings, we have validated our concept and identified different projects out there that satisfy different components of our vision. The hope is to bring these different initiatives together and see this concept come life.

Nell: Do you think something like the Giving Graph could cause an appreciable increase in the amount of philanthropic dollars available in the sector, or would it simply alter where philanthropic dollars get spent?

Brian: We think the Giving Graph concept has the potential to drive both outcomes – both shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as increasing the overall dollars being given to philanthropic causes. We believe the Giving Graph could help identify new spaces for social good and new campaigns and programs to live in those spaces – leading to potential shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as bringing in new audiences that would help bring more dollars to the space. And by leveraging data to more effectively connect individuals with causes and organizations that are relevant to them, we can increase the potential for both financial contributions as well as people to give back in other ways – whether spreading the word about a particular campaign or organization, or volunteering in some capacity.

Nell: A huge challenge of any new social media application is getting a critical mass of people to actually start using it. How do adoption rates factor into your plans?

Brian: That is absolutely correct – the Giving Graph concept will be a collaborative effort in many ways. One aspect is the data. In addition to tapping into different data sources, partnerships among additional organizations will be necessary. We need a series of nonprofits, for profits, cross-sector foundations, and other companies to contribute and share information into this graph to maximize the potential. This can be a challenging component, as data in today’s world is very valuable. Nevertheless, we have started conversations with various organizations about sharing data for the benefit of the graph and we’re optimistic. We’re at a turning point in data sharing, as organizations are becoming less reluctant to share than they have been in the past.

Another aspect of the project is end-users, and they appear in various ways. It could be a program manager at a nonprofit who is identifying a program to implement at her organization. In another instance, it is a college student trying to find out a local seminar to attend based on his charitable interests. For individuals, we are not going to put a front end on this database. The idea is that applications/platforms will be able to tap into this graph and ultimately provide users the ability to plug in their information, and for platforms to then integrate this information into the larger graph.

So absolutely, critical mass from both a data and usage point of view will play an important role in this project. It will take a lot of relationship building and trust, especially around data. The web is transforming into an experience that truly knows the end-users. The Giving Graph is unique because it not only represents another way for the web to understand end-users, it also provides the ability to give insight into and improve the entire social sector as well.

Nell: Why did the Case Foundation decide to spend time and resources on creating a new technology for the overall philanthropic sector? How does this effort fit into the Foundation’s larger and longer-term goals?

Brian: Our founders Steve and Jean Case were responsible for bringing America online decades ago. They believe in the potential of technology, and particularly the Internet, to connect people together to drive positive social change. The Case Foundation has a storied history of investing in and leveraging new technology platforms for social good – from our investments in online giving platforms like Network for Good, Causes and MissionFish, to programs like the Make it Your Own Awards and America’s Giving Challenge. Our intent is not to create the graph ourselves, but rather to seed the conversation and collaborate with our partners to provide the sector with a new tool in their tech for good arsenal. We think this Graph concept has the potential to change online philanthropy and revolutionize the sector, sparking innovation in ways akin to the commerce and entertainment industries.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2013

10 Great Social Innovation ReadsJune was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.

Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

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

  1. The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.

  2. This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”

  3. Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.

  4. Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!

  5. But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.

  6. Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.

  7. The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.

  8. The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.

  9. If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.

  10. There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”

Photo Credit: mindfire3927

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3 Things Philanthropists Can Do To Move Nonprofits Forward

speedtrainCould it be that philanthropists and nonprofits are starting to have real conversations about what nonprofits need? I was encouraged by GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance‘s open Letter to the Donors of America earlier this week asking donors to stop focusing on nonprofit overhead expenses.

At the same time, (as I mentioned earlier) the Donors Forum in Illinois is hosting a series of discussions about getting donors to understand the real costs of running nonprofits.

It is so exciting to see a national conversation emerge about what donors can do differently.

To that end, I think there are 3 key things that philanthropists can do to move nonprofits forward:

  1. Create Financially Sustainable Nonprofits
    The majority of nonprofits lack a sustainable financial engine that strategically and effectively supports their mission. Grantmakers could provide nonprofits the runway necessary to find the right financial model for their organizations. Two-phase capacity capital funding could do this. Phase one would be a capacity capital planning grant to analyze a nonprofit’s current money-raising activities and come up with a plan for transforming those into a sustainable financial model. Phase two would be a capacity capital grant to make the investments necessary (staffing, technology, systems) to revamp the nonprofit’s financial model. The end result would be that nonprofits with a great solution to offer suddenly have the ability to grow the solution in a sustainable way.

  2. Fund Management Expertise
    Nonprofit leaders often come to their positions with a passion for the cause and specific program-related expertise, but a lack of critical management experience. As a result, nonprofit leaders often exist in a reactive, as opposed to strategic mode; are challenged by financial decision-making; struggle with poor board engagement; have limited external partnerships; can’t articulate their value proposition; and lack strategic filters to guide decisions about the future. Management coaching is often a given in the for-profit world, but nonprofit management coaching is only starting to be explored, even though it holds tremendous potential for the sector. It can provide desperately needed strategic perspective, problem solving and expertise that can supplement and ultimately build the management abilities of a program expert who would otherwise struggle to bring a great solution to scale. If more funders provided management support dollars, more nonprofit leaders could grow their solutions.

  3. Seek Real Conversations with Nonprofits
    But these two hurdles will never be cleared if the communication impasse between grantors and grantees is not addressed. There is an often unspoken catch-22 in the nonprofit sector where nonprofit leaders are not comfortable asking funders for what they really need, while funders lack enough on-the-ground experience to recognize and address nonprofit challenges. This lack of honest, open conversation holds the sector back from producing effective funding partnerships and prevents grantors and grantees from marshaling resources to their highest and best use. There need to be many more conversations like the Donors Forum, hosted by intermediaries, where nonprofit leaders and philanthropists can come together to talk openly about what the sector really needs.

We suddenly have a real opportunity to address the obstacles standing in the way of more social change. But to get there, donors and nonprofits have to recognize and openly address what holds the sector back. More effective philanthropy stems from more productive partnerships between philanthropic and nonprofit leaders and a willingness to remedy together the hurdles in the way.

Photo Credit: applejan

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The Savvy Nonprofit Business Model: An Interview with Kate Barr

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.

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Technology for Good: An Interview with Craig Newmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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