February focused (at least in my mind) on innovations in philanthropy. A new growth capital fund for nonprofits, radical philanthropists, trends in charitable giving, and philanthropy’s role in creating the future. Add to that a bold move by a nonprofit to wrest a lucrative city recycling contract from a for-profit company, research on Millennials’ hopes for the future, and a call for presidential candidates to take a lesson from history. It was a great month.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change for the month of February. And if you want a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also see past months’ lists of 10 Great reads here.
- There was a really exciting development in philanthropic support of nonprofit capacity in February. Ten donors led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation joined together to form Blue Meridian Partners, which will award $1 billion worth of unrestricted, performance-based grants, via 5 to 10-year investments of up to $200 million per nonprofit. According to Edna McConnell Clark Foundation president Nancy Roob, this venture is a new way to invest in high-performing nonprofits, because as she puts it: “Without large, long-term investments of growth capital for organizations with proven results, we’ll continue to salve but not solve our big social challenges.” Yep.
- And speaking of innovations in philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy provides a really interesting profile of philanthropist Farhad Ebrahimi and his Chorus Foundation, which although a relatively small foundation is taking an unusual approach to environmental giving by using a spend-down plan, providing long-term general support grants, and practicing mission investing.
- In analyzing Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report and comparing it to other available data both in the US and Canada, Amy Butcher of The Nonprofit Quarterly finds some interesting insights about how philanthropy is evolving.
- But perhaps it isn’t evolving quickly enough. Minnesota Council on Foundations President Trista Harris recently attended the Abundance 360 Summit about the technology of the future and was disappointed at the lack of a philanthropy presence. As she puts it, “Change in the world and our communities is happening at a breathtaking rate, driven by access to infinite information and exponential increases in computer processing speeds. This accelerating rate of change makes the challenging work of doing good even more difficult. Foundations are trying to make the world a better place, but we are often using yesterday’s information to do so. What if we could predict the future and prepare for the realities that will soon impact our communities? I believe it is our responsibility, as philanthropic leaders, to learn the skills necessary to understand and create the future.”
- Pew Research does an excellent job of unearthing data that relates to the issues of the day. In February I was especially interested in their report that while Millennials are less confident than Gen X or Baby Boomers about America’s future, so were their parents and grandparents when they were young.
- And while we are on the topic of history…Every once in awhile New York Times columnist David Brooks really strikes a chord. In February he used his column to pen a letter to several of the remaining presidential candidates encouraging them to use a “Roosevelt Approach,” as Brooks describes: “Many Americans feel like they are the victims of a slow-moving natural disaster…it’s a natural disaster caused by structural forces — globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism. A great nation doesn’t divide in times of natural disaster. It doesn’t choose leaders who angrily tear it apart. Instead, it chooses leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower…they were…able to set an emotional tone that brought people together and changed the nature of Americans’ relationships with one another. During their presidencies, the bonds of solidarity grew stronger and the country more formidable. They were able to cultivate a deep sense of unity, responsibility and sacrifice.”
- Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Daniela Papi-Thornton, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, is quite critical of what she calls, “Heropreneurship,” when social entrepreneurs who have little experience or training are generously funded to solve complex social problems. According to her: “Unfortunately, all too often, the people who get the funding to try their hand at solving global challenges haven’t lived those problems themselves….We’re wasting limited resources on shallow solutions to complex problems, and telling our students it’s OK to go out and use someone else’s time and backyard as a learning ground, without first requiring that they earn the right to take leadership on solving a problem they don’t yet understand.”
- Nonprofit Tech for Good offers a nice list of 36 apps and online tools for nonprofits.
- In an interesting decision, the Minneapolis city council voted to award the city’s 5-year recycling contract to a nonprofit, instead of the for-profit that manages recycling for most of the country. Writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly, James Araci sees an exciting trend: “It’s a smart move for nonprofits to shift perceptions of America’s waste from a commodity to be sold to countries like China to an engine of local job creation and environmental benefits.”
- And finally, head of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, Kate Barr takes aim at the nonprofit overhead myth by encouraging nonprofit leaders to change their own language and thinking: “If we in the nonprofit sector want to bust the overhead myth and bring attention to the things that really matter, then it’s our responsibility to take the lead by communicating differently and better. In order to take that lead, don’t wait for the question to come in and then argue why the [overhead] ratio isn’t important or meaningful. We have to replace it.” Sing it, Kate!
Photo Credit: jwyg, cropped version of “Work with schools : after a book talk, showing boys gathered…” from New York Public Library
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.