In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, the nation’s largest network of nonprofits.
The National Council of Nonprofits helps nonprofits identify emerging trends, engage in critical policy issues, exchange proven practices across state lines, and advance their missions through advocacy. Previously, Tim served as a partner at a large law firm (helping prosecute the impeachment of a Governor and leading the firm’s government relations practice), Solicitor General and then Chief Deputy Attorney General (leading his state to win several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court), and founder of the Center for Leadership, Ethics & Public Service (championing ethical leadership and civic engagement).
Nell: Historically, “advocacy” has been a dirty word in the nonprofit sector. Organizations have been afraid of getting into trouble with the IRS for pursuing too much lobbying behavior. But that seems to be changing. What are your thoughts on how involved in advocacy 501(c)(3) organizations can and should be?
Tim: Yes, it’s perplexing that using words like “advocacy” and “lobbying” could get a nonprofit employee’s mouth washed out with soap. But seriously, advocacy is not just a right for nonprofits that is protected by the First Amendment; it’s a profound responsibility and effective tool to advance nonprofit missions.
Nonprofits provide a way for Americans to come together to solve problems, large and small. And they often do so through advocacy: simply standing up and speaking out for something they believe. Americans came together through nonprofits to advocate successfully in securing the right of women to vote (via suffragist groups), establishing Social Security (spearheaded by Townsend Clubs), desegregating schools (leadership by NAACP), securing civil rights (Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and undertook much of his work as President of the nonprofit Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and so much more.
But advocacy is not just for social movements. Advocacy includes standing up for your nonprofit’s right to be paid reasonably for services it provides under a government contract. Advocacy includes telling the story of your nonprofit’s impact to a reporter. We see advocacy as the answer to one key question: who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?
A barrier many nonprofits run into comes from what I call the “3 As” –uninformed academics, accountants, and attorneys who advise nonprofit boards by passing along false lore that there “might be legal problems” if a nonprofit does “too much” lobbying. Nonprofit staff come back from advocacy training fired up, but boards extinguish that passion based on false lore. After hearing stories like this from across the country, we’ve decided to turn advocacy training around. The traditional approach of “it’s legal” sought to counter the false lore, yet too often it led people to focus on arcane issues more remote than the fine print on your airline ticket or apps that you never read. Therefore, we now focus on “why” advocacy is essential to mission advancement and “why” nonprofits need to be engaged at the state level to protect against government attacks on tax exemptions, nonprofit independence, and charitable giving incentives.
As part of our effort to get nonprofits past those old barriers, we’ve joined together with Alliance for Justice, BoardSource, Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and Knight Foundation to create Stand for Your Mission, a free website that provides nonprofit board members with information they need to be effective advocates in advancing nonprofit missions.
Nell: The National Council of Nonprofits has been on the forefront of the movement to get government to recognize the importance of funding nonprofits’ indirect costs. The recent OMB ruling mandating a minimum 10% indirect rate on most government grants and contracts with nonprofits seems like a watershed moment, but 10% is still pretty low and many nonprofits don’t understand the implications or how to benefit. What are your plans at the Council of Nonprofits to continue to move this issue forward?
Tim: As you noted, the 10% of modified total direct costs is just the minimum. For tens of thousands of nonprofits, just getting to 10% will make a huge difference. In its most recent State of the Sector Survey, Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 57% of nonprofits are being paid indirect cost rates of 9% or less. And Urban Institute found that of nonprofits reporting a problem, a quarter said that governments were paying them zero for indirect costs.
Now compare those paltry sums against research from Bridgespan showing that a more accurate range is about 25 to 35%. Certainly each case is different, but being reimbursed nothing or just 5% year after year when your real legitimate costs are always higher is debilitating, eroding effectiveness. Delivering sustained impact is impossible. So getting those nonprofits up to just the minimum will enhance sustainability to make a difference in their communities.
Importantly, 10% is just the floor. If a nonprofit is properly allocating costs and documenting its indirect costs, it can receive reimbursement for whatever those costs are, whether they are 20, 30, or even 40%. Getting paid for the true costs of delivering services can reduce burdens on nonprofits to fundraise for the difference, which frees funders from having to subsidize governments and allows nonprofits to dedicate more time to missions instead of diverted to filling funding gaps.
Seeing the OMB Uniform Guidance go into effect is just the beginning and underscores the importance of nonprofit advocacy. The mere issuance of OMB’s mandate doesn’t mean that the tens of thousands of local, state, and federal employees scattered across multiple departments, agencies, divisions, and offices will follow it or apply it properly. First, they need to become aware of it (which still has not happened), then receive training (same), and apply it consistently (same). Plus, states and localities often have contrary laws and policies on their books, requiring advocacy to change them to conform. OMB’s mandate involves a giant systems change, but the federal government still has not informed the system of what is required and the need to change policies and practices to abide by it.
David Thompson and Beth Bowsky on our team have been conducting dozens of in-person presentations and webinars across the country to ensure nonprofits are aware of their rights and how to advocate for proper implementation of the Uniform Guidance. Plus, we have been working with multiple state and local government associations to spread the word, and written numerous published pieces, including an overview, “Know Your Rights … and How to Protect Them,” that highlights potential compliance challenges.
In addition, we’re creating a series of short training modules for nonprofits to better understand their indirect costs. The key is for nonprofits with government grants and contracts to stand up for their rights to fair indirect cost reimbursement and to let their local state association of nonprofits and us know when governments are not living up to their obligations. Working through our network gives a nonprofit cover (so it isn’t fighting alone and having to worry about backlash) and strength in numbers to protect those rights.
Nell: This issue is also part of the larger movement to overcome the Overhead Myth in the nonprofit sector, the idea that “overhead” (or indirect costs) are bad and should be limited as much as possible. How close are we to truly overcoming this myth both among nonprofit donors and nonprofit leaders (who often keep themselves in these handcuffs)?
Tim: We still have a long way to go. OMB’s Uniform Guidance is a huge step forward because the federal government has now expressly acknowledged that indirect costs are legitimate and necessary. The sector needed a powerful external validating voice to overcome decades of treating mythology as orthodoxy. It’s inspiring to see that many private grantmakers have now adjusted their own policies or started to re-examine their past policies that unfairly limit payment for indirect/overhead costs.
However, the anti-overhead culture is deep seated and will take a long time to root it out. That’s true on both the funding side and the nonprofit side, given the powerful disincentives against claiming full costs. Nonprofits were forced to keep overhead artificially low by underinvesting in their infrastructure, staff training, and many other necessary expenses. Until we get so-called “watchdog” groups and reporters to stop using overhead ratios as false proxies for nonprofit efficiency (and get them to stop reporting overhead ratios as if they are a problem), and until all nonprofits are communicating with donors about their impact and what it truly costs to deliver that impact, everyone will still have work to do.
Nell: In both of these areas (advocacy and overhead) and in many others, nonprofits are treated like a second-class citizen. How do we get to a place where the critical role nonprofits play in our economy and in solutions to social challenges is recognized, and nonprofits are fully supported with the tools they need to be successful?
Tim: First and foremost, nonprofits must embrace our role as the place Americans come to solve problems and resolutely assert our role as advocates for the people and our communities. We often are on the front-line of vexing social challenges, giving us front-row seats to see the problems and the solutions. Who are we to hoard knowledge of solutions that could help our fellow neighbors? With the knowledge we hold and the clout we have (10% of the American workforce), we deserve a seat at policymaking tables. We need to proudly stand up, step forward, claim our space, and speak out for government to leverage its resources to solve problems at their source.
We need to tell the full story, not just of how many people were fed or acres preserved, but also the economic impact of the sector as a whole. For instance, CalNonprofits (the state association of nonprofits in California) published Causes Count about the economic clout of California’s nonprofits, and Donors Forum (the state association of nonprofits and grantmakers based in Illinois) released research on Social Return on Investment, showing the economic and social value of dollars invested in nonprofits.
As for being “fully” supported, that’s much more difficult. According to Nonprofit Finance Fund, last year – for the second year in a row – a majority of nonprofits didn’t have the resources to meet demand for their services. That’s going to be tough to turn around, especially as many nonprofits continue to be sliced by government budget cuts. Even as studies boast that individual giving is getting back to pre-Recession levels, that doesn’t make as much of a difference as most people think. Despite the focus on individual giving, it makes up only 9.3% of the sector’s overall revenue. Foundations are an even smaller percentage: 1.9%. Government grants and contracts make up a much larger portion – 32.3% – of the sector’s revenues. That’s why our focus in this area is so important.
Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits
Almost two years ago three nonprofit rating organizations launched the Overhead Myth campaign aimed at eradicating “the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.” Call me an optimist, but I think it might be working. I see more nonprofit leaders and funders discussing the radical idea that overhead might not be a bad thing. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps there is progress.
The bad news, however, is that the Overhead Myth is only one of many (way too many) destructive nonprofit myths. So in this new year, let’s look at those additional myths that hold the nonprofit sector back.
As we all know, a myth is a story that everyone believes, but is actually not true. Here are the 5 most egregious myths I see in the nonprofit sector:
- Good Nonprofits Don’t Make a Profit
For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. The best a nonprofit should hope for is to break even, and if they do run a profit, they should not be fundraising. To the contrary, a nonprofit with operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct evaluations to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. For a donor it is far better to invest in an organization with the people and systems necessary to effectively tackle a social problem than an organization that is barely getting by. The best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.
- There Are Too Many Nonprofits
I’m so tired of the refrain (mostly by funders) that there are “too many” nonprofits. Does anyone complain about how many tech startups there are? This myth comes from the fact that the sector is undercapitalized which causes organizations to compete for scarce resources. So let’s fix that problem instead. To be sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring two nonprofits that address similar needs together in order to save costs, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. The process of merging two organizations is itself incredibly time-intensive and costly, and, honestly, rarely do funders invest the amount of resources required to ensure a successful merger. Every nonprofit should regularly assess their Theory of Change and how they fit into the external market place of social problems and competitors working on similar problems. If a nonprofit finds that they are no longer adding unique value to that marketplace, then they should reorganize, merge, or disband, whichever makes most strategic sense.
- Nonprofits, Unlike Businesses, Are Inefficient
This myth takes many forms: “nonprofits are too slow,” “nonprofits should sell more products or services”, “nonprofits should run more like a startup,” and the list goes on. The underlying assumption is that the for-profit world is inherently smarter, more strategic, more nimble and more effective. But the truth is that all three sectors (business, government, and nonprofit) have their stars (like Apple), their screwups (like Lehman Brothers) and the multitude in between. Inefficiency in the nonprofit sector is merely a symptom of a larger problem, which is the persistent lack of adequate capital to fund enough of the right staff, technology, systems, evaluation, marketing required to address the intractable problems nonprofits are trying to solve. Let’s talk about that instead.
- Nonprofits Are Outside the Economy
This is the myth that nonprofits are “nice to have” and make everyone feel good, but are not a critical component of our lives or our economic system. But the fact is that the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the U.S. workforce and accounts for 5% of GDP. And the number of nonprofits grew 25% from 2001-2011, while the number of businesses only grew by 0.5%. As government continues to slough off services to nonprofits, those numbers will only continue to grow. The nonprofit sector is not tangential to the economy, but rather an instrumental part of it.
- Nonprofits Have No Role In Politics
501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change (Robert Egger has written extensively on this). But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.
Being mired in the demoralizing and debilitating cloak of these myths wears the nonprofit sector down. We must follow the Overhead Myth’s example and start uncovering the other myths that hold the sector back. Because the power of a myth is greatly diminished when we openly admit that the myth is only that — a myth.
Photo Credit: We Shall Overcome, Rowland Scherman, National Archives
The nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it have been changing dramatically over the past several years, and there’s plenty more change to come. This month’s Social Velocity webinar, Embracing the Future of the Nonprofit Sector, will help nonprofit leaders and board members understand how the sector is changing and what they can do to keep up.
Here are some of the future trends facing the nonprofit sector that we’ll cover in this webinar:
- More Demand for Outcomes
There is a growing demand for nonprofits to 1) articulate what results they hope their work with achieve and 2) track whether those results are actually happening.
- Decreasing Emphasis on Nonprofit “Overhead”
More and more people are realizing that you can’t just invest in programs without the staff, infrastructure and fundraising to make those programs happen.
- More Advocacy for the Sector
as a Whole
The nonprofit sector has long been a fractured grouping of organizations of various sizes, business models, and issue areas. But that tide is starting to turn. We are starting to see the sector organize, mobilize and build the confidence necessary to claim its rightful place.
- Savvier Donors
Because nonprofits are getting more savvy, donors are as well. In addition to an increasing demand for proof of outcomes, donors are starting to realize that in such a stark economic environment those nonprofits that don’t have adequate infrastructure simply will not survive, let alone be able to adequately address the social problem they were organized to solve.
- Increased Efforts to Rate and Compare Nonprofits
We are increasingly evaluating nonprofits based on the results they achieve, not on how they spend their money. And to do that a whole infrastructure for evaluating and rating nonprofits is emerging and will continue to evolve as we get smarter about focusing resources on the most effective nonprofits.
These are exciting times for the nonprofit sector. This webinar will help you understand and embrace these trends.
Embracing the Future of the Nonprofit Sector
A Social Velocity On Demand Webinar
Photo Credit: Adolf de Meyer
There is something really interesting going on in the world of nonprofit advocacy. And I don’t mean advocacy for a specific cause. Rather, I’m talking about advocating for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Three new efforts underway in recent months are vying to be the voice of the nonprofit sector. And the firestorm brewing is interesting to watch.
Robert Egger kicked it off a year ago when he formed CForward an advocacy organization that champions the economic role of the nonprofit sector and supports political candidates who include the nonprofit sector in their plans to rebuild the economy. You can read my interview with Robert about why he launched CForward here. Robert’s video about the need to advocate for the nonprofit sector is below (or here if you are reading this in an email):
And then in the last couple of months there have been two similar movements to better advocate for the nonprofit sector. Dan Pallotta released a new book last month called Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Change the World where he announces the creation of his new entity, the Charity Defense Council, which is also aimed at advocating for the nonprofit sector, via five efforts:
- An “anti-defamation league” to respond to and rectify inaccurate reports about the sector in the media
- Big public advertising campaigns for the sector
- A “legal defense fund” to challenge unproductive laws against the sector
- Work to create a “National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise” to support the sector
- Grassroots organizing of the sector as a whole, including a national database of every nonprofit in the country
And then the third grand effort to advocate for the nonprofit sector comes from Independent Sector, the organization formed in 1980 to “advance the common good by leading, strengthening, and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community.” Their new report “Beyond the Cause,” which interviewed 100 nonprofit organizations, recommends the creation of a national organization (probably run by Independent Sector) to push a nonprofit agenda, costing $20 million over 4 years. For Independent Sector the key issues that such an entity would address are:
- Changes that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status
- Threats to charitable tax deductions for donors
- A need to clarify advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations
- Changes to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations
- Burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits
- Lack of government-financed research on the nonprofit world
While CForward seems to be largely supported in their work, both Pallotta’s and Independent Sector’s efforts are drawing fire. Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, writes a scathing review of Pallotta’s new book and advocacy effort and concludes that “Mr. Pallotta is selling is himself—as both the nonprofit world’s messiah and its advertising agency,” and suggests that people support CForward and Independent Sector instead of Pallotta’s Charity Defense Council.
Similarly, Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, dislikes Independent Sector’s effort to coalesce the nonprofit sector arguing that “nonprofits will never share a broad consensus about which issues are most important. The best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”
It is really a fascinating and multi-layered debate. I strongly agree that the nonprofit sector is often dismissed in the policies of the day. But if organizations like Independent Sector have been working to create a common voice for the sector for more than 30 years with little improvement, I’m not sure what will change. Especially if 3 separate entities are all singing different verses of the same tune. They will be competing for dollars, mind-share, and the ears of policy makers. But I am a huge advocate for fixing a broken sector, so let’s see how this all plays out.
What do you think? How do we get policy makers to recognize the importance and value of the nonprofit sector?
I’m a little late getting the June 10 Great Reads list out this month because I was on vacation. But June didn’t disappoint, with some great articles that make us think about things in new ways, from how philanthropists fund, to how “nonprofit” is defined, to how homelessness and food insecurity can be solved, to how Millennials give and much more.
Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in June, but please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see more than just this list of 10, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.
- A new debate raged on the “old” topic of defining the nonprofit sector. Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy started it off with this 6-part series on articulating the value of the nonprofit sector. And along the same lines, Mark Hecker at the UnSectored blog wrote this really thought-provoking piece about the language of social good.
- From The Atlantic comes a great article about the enormous opportunity of impact investment, “How Financial Innovation Can Save the World.”
- The on-going drumbeat to get nonprofits to advocate for their own sector in Congress gets louder with “Nonprofits Missing From Big Battles (in Congress)” and a united movement among San Francisco nonprofits to push for more city funding.
- David Henderson is easily one of the greatest thinkers in the social sector space and he takes issue with a new app designed to “solve” homelessness. His post really begs the question, “To What End?”
- Always at the ready with fantastic financial tools for the nonprofit sector, the Nonprofit Finance Fund releases a list of Top 10 Finance Essentials for nonprofits and, not to forget that the philanthropy that funds nonprofits also needs to change, they also have a list for nonprofit funders.
- In The Washington Post, Sarah Kliff explores new experiments and studies about how to solve urban food deserts.
- As a mother of two young boys I agree there is definitely something to emulating how kids play, as Philip Auerswald argues at the Harvard Business Review blog: To Innovate, Play with Pieces Off the Game Board
- The third annual Millennial Impact Report, about how the millennial generation connects with nonprofits, was released and lots of people had things to say about the data, including 3 New Truths About Millennials and How Millennials Connect, Involve and Give.
- At the Center for High Impact Philanthropy blog Jen Landres describes how philanthropists can have much greater impact by being “unsexy” in their giving.
- Decrying the over-emphasis on capital campaigns in the arts world, Rebecca Thomas and Rodney Christopher argue that “scores of organizations jeopardize the long-term vibrancy of their programs because they focus on getting the building built rather than having a healthy organization inside it.” Amen to that!
Photo Credit: Frank Starmer
In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.
Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.
- First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot. Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.
- This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”
- Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.
- And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.
- Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.
- Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”
- At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.
- And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”
- There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.
- In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).
Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer