Note: I’m heading out of the office for the next week and a half, but in my absence I want to offer a couple of blog posts from the Social Velocity archives. The one below appeared on the blog in February 2011. Enjoy!
I’m a huge believer in questions. Sometimes asking good, hard questions is the only way to get to the bottom of something, to analyze potential options, to find the right path.
So too in the nonprofit sector hard questions can play a pivotal role. It is critically important that we move away from an unwritten rule that “charities” are doing good things that shouldn’t be questioned, to a place where nonprofits are continually asking themselves whether they are making most effective use of resources and providing real solutions.
These are the 5 questions I’d like to see nonprofits asking themselves:
- Do we know if we are accomplishing anything? Because nonprofit organizations can’t simply look at a profit and loss statement to see progress, determining success is much more difficult than in the for-profit world. Yet a nonprofit organization cannot just translate community resources into activities and call it a day. Nonprofits are increasingly forced to demonstrate the change their work creates in the community. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit must conduct large evaluation projects. Rather, I’m arguing that a nonprofit must create a solid strategy for creating change and then find a way (as cheaply and simply as possible) to determine whether they are delivering on that strategy.
- Are we adapting to our external environment? Gone are the days when a nonprofit enjoyed a core group of donors that funded delivery of the same services to the community year after year. In this ever-changing, increasingly fast-paced world, nonprofits must constantly analyze the trends in their external environment (funding, competitors, community needs) and effectively adapt to those trends in order to survive and thrive.
- Is our board helping or hurting? A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most important asset, expanding its footprint in the community, bringing in resources, driving a bold direction, ensuring accountability and transparency. Or it can be a group of people who show up to network, meddle in minutiae, and bog the organization down. A nonprofit’s board needs to take a hard look at itself, as individual members and as a group, to determine if they are an effective governing body or not, whether they are moving the mission forward, or just getting in the way.
- Do we really need that new building? Time and again nonprofit organizations launch a capital campaign as a way to get their name out in the community, get the board motivated, bring big donors in the door, and seek significance and importance. But the result is often an organization crippled by resources draining away from the mission. Board and leadership needs to ask themselves if a new building is directly tied to achievement of mission. There are other, better ways to build your brand, rally the board and donors, and raise big dollars, like a growth or capacity capital campaign, which can actually result in more social impact and financial sustainability over the long term.
- Are we using money as a tool? Nonprofit boards often shy away from discussions about money, ignoring tools like financial reports, budget reviews and fundraising net-revenue analysis, in order to focus meetings on programs and mission. But money is an incredibly effective tool for making programs and mission happen, and nonprofits need to create and implement an integrated financial strategy that feeds into the overall organization’s plan. Money, if used strategically and effectively, can help your nonprofit do so much more.
To move forward, the nonprofit sector needs to do away with safe, routine conversations and start asking some hard questions. Indeed questions are sometimes the only route to open up possibilities, try new approaches and find a better way.
Photo Credit: Wade Rockett
If you want to raise more money, chart a strategic direction, make your nonprofit more effective, get your board engaged, and achieve your mission, you need a theory of change. A theory of change is basically an argument for how your nonprofit turns community resources (money, volunteers, clients, staff, materials) into positive change in the community. Articulating this simple argument can dramatically increase your nonprofit’s effectiveness and financial sustainability. In order to help your nonprofit create a theory of change, I’m delighted to announce that we are releasing today our newest Step-by-Step Guide, Creating a Theory of Change.
More and more donors and board members want to understand how the nonprofit they are involved with creates social change. A theory of change helps your nonprofit do that.
A theory of change can strengthen your nonprofit in many ways:
- As the backbone of a case for support or other fundraising collateral. With a theory of change, you can articulate the impact you are working to achieve, in a compelling way.
- To revise the vision and mission of your organization, making them stronger and more compelling.
- As a filter for new opportunities as they arise. Do new opportunities fit within your theory of change? If not, perhaps you should not pursue them.
- To guide your strategic planning process. If you understand the organization’s overall theory of change and what you exist to do, it is much easier to chart a future course.
- To get board members and other volunteers, friends and supporters engaged, committed, and excited about your work. If people understand the bigger picture, they will be more inclined to give more time, energy, and other resources to the work.
- To help staff understand how their individual roles and responsibilities fit into the larger vision of the organization. This can increase staff morale, productivity, communication and overall commitment to the organization.
The Creating a Theory of Change Guide is organized around the parts of a Theory of Change. In each of the 8 sections of this guide there is a series of questions, which you will answer. Your answers to these questions become the basis for your final theory of change.
The sections of the guide are:
- Community Need
- Final Theory of Change
- Next Steps
You can find out more about the Creating a Theory of Change guide here. And for information on our other Step-by-Step Guides, like the Financing Plan Guide, Business Plan Guide, or Case for Investment Guide, check out our Tools page.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Mario Morino. Mario is co-founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, and chairman of the Morino Institute, a nonprofit focused on technology for social change. His career spans more than 45 years as entrepreneur, technologist, and civic and business leader. He also recently wrote Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, which I recently reviewed here on the blog.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In your book Leap of Reason, you tell the leaders of the nonprofit sector that they need to make a fundamental shift in how they conduct business. Have you gotten any push back from nonprofits or philanthropists? Or has all of the response to the book been positive?
Mario: We are pushing for some hard changes, so we expected some hard reactions. But to our surprise, the response from nonprofit, for-profit, and public-sector leaders alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
We’ve asked ourselves why we’re not getting more push back. There are probably several factors at work. For one thing, the people who have taken the time to read the book are probably those who are more inclined to be receptive to this message. Those who are natural critics—for instance, those who believe mission and metrics are mutually exclusive or that discipline inhibits charismatic, entrepreneurial leadership—may not have read it. And so that shoe may drop at some point. The more we push beyond those already singing in the choir, the more constructive push back we’ll get.
I’d like to think that another factor is the way we presented the case. We made a forceful case, but we weren’t strident in our tone. We have a strong appreciation for the reasons why these management approaches have not been more widely adopted in the social sector. We sought to focus on what to do versus placing blame.
Nell: Do you think the majority of nonprofits will adopt an outcomes-management approach? And if so, when? What will be the tipping point?
Mario: Even when you take into account all of the work on outcomes, accountability, and mission-effectiveness over the past 15+ years, only a small slice of nonprofits (or government agencies, for that matter) have adopted an outcomes-management approach. So I fear that we’re in for only incremental adoption, unless our sector finds a way to seize the opportunity in this era of scarcity. This funding crisis can enervate or energize us. I really hope it’s the latter. In other words, I really hope this crisis will lead people to look much harder at what they do and how they can do it more efficiently and effectively. I hope it will cause them to go beyond incremental improvement and fine-tuning to rework fundamentally what it is they do.
Nell: It seems that this is a charge you are very much willing to lead. Beyond writing the book, what are you doing to lead the effort to create this fundamental shift in the nonprofit sector?
Mario: I would certainly like to join others in advancing this shift in the social sector and even lead in some areas. But I don’t think I’ve earned the stature to be the leader of a movement of this type. Even with 15+ years in the social sector, some still see me as a newbie!
As I said in the book, to help kick things off I would welcome helping to convene a select group of early adopters who have “been there and done that” and those most instrumental in helping them. I hope that a collective leadership will emerge and offer the beginning of an effort that could put our sector on a different and much more rapid trajectory.
As others began to follow their example, the network effect might well start to take hold. Imagine universities incorporating the outcomes-management mindset and discipline into nonprofit leadership curricula. Imagine funders offering outcomes-management grants to nonprofit leaders who show a real predisposition to use information well, and hiring seasoned staff members who have the expertise to provide strategic counsel and assistance to grantees. Imagine nonprofit leaders and staff joining together in peer-learning networks to share, learn, and push one another. Imagine government funders encouraging and rewarding successful outcomes management through new types of contracts and awards. A cadre of leaders and doers could help spark all of these things—and in doing so, spark a real movement.
Nell: What role can and should philanthropists, both foundations and individual donors, play in the effort to shift the nonprofit sector toward an outcomes approach?
Mario: Funders generally don’t provide the kind of financial support and strategic assistance that nonprofits need to make the leap to the outcomes-management discipline. While a lack of funding is by no means the only barrier, I know many nonprofit leaders who would take up the challenge in a heartbeat if funding, advice, and encouragement were available. The hard truth is that far too many funders have been conditioned to insist that every dollar “support the cause” through funding for programs. They don’t want “overhead” to dilute their grants.
To make the leap to outcomes management, nonprofits need creative funders, like the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, that are willing to help them manage smarter through greater use of information on performance and impact—rather than forcing them to meet myriad evaluation and reporting requirements that too often do little to help the organization learn and improve. They need funders who understand that making the leap requires more than program funding, and more than the typical “capacity-building” grant. They need funders who are willing to make multi-year investments and offer strategic assistance to help nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
Nell: What does an outcomes approach look like for a social service nonprofit with an annual budget of $100,000? How does this approach apply across the sector?
Mario: It’s hard to adopt this approach if you’re in an organization that small. It would be folly to expect a nonprofit with that budget to have formal outcomes systems, metrics, and the like. That said, I’ve never thought quality and “goodness” were functions of size. Shouldn’t every nonprofit, regardless of its size and infrastructure, have a clear sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, a thoughtful strategy for how it’s going to do so, and some sense of how it will know if it gets there? It’s perfectly understandable that such a small organization may never have crafted a “theory of change” in a formal way, but the organization’s leader needs to have this framework embedded in his or her mind. If not, what’s the rationale for asking others to contribute time and money to support the nonprofit’s work? What’s the basis for asking intended beneficiaries to put faith and trust in the nonprofit’s services?
Nell: What do you think will happen to nonprofit organizations that don’t adopt a managing to outcomes approach? What does the future look like for them?
Mario: They will continue on as they have—at least for a while.
The fiasco with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute is a cautionary tale. Mortenson had a great story, and for a while his donors took it on faith that his organization was delivering on his grand promises in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, it appears the organization turned out to be better at fattening Mortenson’s book royalties than building quality programs.
I don’t mean to suggest that all nonprofits are like Mortenson’s! Far from it. But I do mean to suggest that in an era of scarcity, there will be more pressure on nonprofits to show that they are delivering on their promises. More public and private funders will finally look under the hood and ensure things are working well.
If the leaders of a nonprofit organization are really serious about creating change, there are some things they must have in place. I spend my days talking with a variety of nonprofit organizations, and the problems that bring them to Social Velocity all fall into these broad categories:
- An inability to raise enough money
- A lack of strategic direction
- An inability to “move the needle” on a social problem
- A disconnected, disengaged, ineffective board of directors
- Lack of sufficient organization infrastructure
In my mind, the solution is so simple. If every nonprofit had 4 key things in place, those problems would go away. Here’s what I think every nonprofit has to put in place:
1. A theory of change. Nonprofit organizations exist to meet some sort of social need or problem. Unlike for-profit organizations, nonprofits can’t simply use their financial bottom line as a barometer of success. Rather, a nonprofit must articulate what they exist to do. A theory of change, or logic model, allows a nonprofit to state (to internal board and staff, and to external funders, volunteers, supporters) how they take community resources and turn them into social change. Without a theory of change, a nonprofit cannot convince anyone to be part of their work, let alone measure whether that work is actually resulting in anything.
2. A strategic plan. And I don’t mean a “pretend” strategic plan where board and staff went through the motions to create something they could show to funders and put up on their walls. I mean a real strategic plan that is built on the logic model and guides the day-to-day work of the organization, is compelling and inspiring, and results in real solutions to social problems. A good strategic plan allows a nonprofit organization to understand and articulate their contribution to a larger community marketplace and then craft organization goals around that knowledge. Without a good strategic plan a nonprofit is just twisting in the wind, probably doing a lot of work, but to what end?
3. A financing plan. It is not enough to have big goals and a plan for the future, a nonprofit must understand the price tag associated with their strategic plan and how they are going to bring enough money in the door to finance that plan. And a good financing plan analyzes all potential sources of money, lays out a clear road map for bringing that money in the door, and fully integrates the securing of money into the other work of the organization.
4. A pitch for capital. Capital is money to build the nonprofit organization infrastructure, as opposed to revenue which helps the nonprofit provide more services. Most nonprofits simply go out and raise revenue, but few go out and raise money to build a stronger, more effective and efficient organization. This kind of money is capacity capital. If more nonprofits put together a pitch to convince funders to invest in organization building we would start to see many more effective solutions to social problems grow. In the for-profit world we understand that you can’t just sell widgets. You need an infrastructure behind those widgets (staff, technology, systems, sales, etc), but in the nonprofit sector we insist on starving organizations and forcing them to spend every last dime on services, with no money for infrastructure. With a compelling pitch for capacity capital, that can change.
I don’t think I’m oversimplifying things. The nonprofits that will emerge from this recession stronger, more effective, and better able to really tackle and solve the many problems facing us are those organizations that have taken a step back and put in place the building blocks that will move them forward.
Photo Credit: 5mal5
There is a growing discussion among social impact organizations and those who fund them about how to measure impact. It is indeed a very slippery endeavor.
Mario Marino, Chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners (a venture philanthropy fund in Washington D.C. that makes growth capital investments in nonprofits) has been encouraging nonprofits to measure outcomes for years. Indeed one of the fundamental characteristics of venture philanthropy is a reliance on metrics and outcomes for investment to happen. He recently wrote a post arguing that he is “increasingly worried that the vast majority of funders and nonprofits are achieving, at best, marginal benefit from their efforts to implement outcomes thinking.” He argues that in an zealous pursuit of metrics we have left common sense and “softer” impact behind and encouraged nonprofits to move away from the impact they were working towards.
To add further confusion to the outcome measurement discussion, the Gates Foundation’s Melinda Tuan studied 8 approaches to measuring cost vs. social impact, or the value that nonprofit organizations create versus the cost of their activities. The results of the study were disheartening; none of the approaches they studied was a magic bullet, all had significant drawbacks, which led them to conclude: “Integrated cost approaches to measuring and/or estimating social value are still in the nascent stages of development due to the lack of maturity in the field of social program evaluation.”
And there are other camps working towards outcome measurement, like those debating about whether randomized control trials (a research methodology where a random group of program participants is tracked and compared to a random group of cohorts who did not participate in the program) are feasible for nonprofits. And on the social business side, the GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network) is developing standards for measuring and communicating the social impact of investments known as The Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS). And that’s just a start.
This whole social impact measurement endeavor is incredibly important because if we can figure out a way to measure which social change efforts work, and which don’t, we can allocate resources accordingly and, in theory, get closer to solutions to social problems.
But I think we need to first take a step back. As is so often the case in efforts to build nonprofit capacity, effectiveness and infrastructure (including, in this case, the ability of nonprofits to evaluate their work) the focus is on the largest, most resourced nonprofit organizations. Let’s remember that more than 80% of nonprofit organizations have budgets under $1 million (see the Nonprofit Almanac). Budgets that small leave very little room for funds to support randomized control trials or other kinds of outcome measurements.
But an even bigger roadblock is the fact that many nonprofit organizations have not articulated their theory of change, or their logic model. Many nonprofit organizations are doing good work, but they don’t necessarily have an articulated strategy around that good work. A logic model helps an organization understand and articulate how they believe that they translate resources (inputs) into social impact, or change in a community. This understanding allows the organization to better articulate (to potential funders, volunteers, supporters, partners), and create strategy around, their work. A potential logic model for an English as a Second Language after-school program could be as follows:
One of the first steps Social Velocity undertakes with clients who want to increase organization capacity, sustainability, revenue, growth, or really any kind of progress, is to create a logic model with the organization. The majority of nonprofits that I encounter don’t have an articulated logic model or theory of change. It may seem like an academic exercise, but I would argue that it is absolutely critical to just about anything a nonprofit does. In order to understand their place in the community, the value that their work adds, how additional inputs (like funding) can increase impact, and their strategy for delivering services, they need to articulate this process.
But the larger debate about outcome measurement ignores the fact that the majority of nonprofit organizations have not completed step 1 in outcome measurement: articulating a strategy for using resources to create outcomes. Once this is articulated, we can talk about how to measure whether that strategy is actually coming to fruition.
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