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 year is winding down, and I will be taking some time off to enjoy friends and family (as I hope you are too). But before I go, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular posts on the blog this year, in case you missed any of them.
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with you amazing social change leaders. I am grateful for the amazing work you are doing to create a better world. And I appreciate you being part of the Social Velocity community.
I wish you all a happy, relaxing holiday season, and a wonderful new year. I’ll see you in 2015!
- Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?
- 7 Rules For Brilliant Nonprofit Leaders
- How to Move Your Nonprofit Board From Fundraising to Financing
- Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful
- 5 Questions Every Nonprofit Leader Should Ask
- Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get In Their Own Way?
- 3 Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged
- 5 Ways Great Strategy Can Transform a Nonprofit
- Does Your Nonprofit Know How To Attract Big Donors?
- It’s Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo
As summer draws to a close and my own downtime ends, it occurs to me that there is a real need, in our increasingly always-on world, for leaders to find time for quiet reflection, to reconnect with their core.
And particularly in the nonprofit world, where a leader is constantly bombarded with suggestions – from funders, board members, staff, fellow leaders, Facebook friends – it is critical that she find regular solitude to analyze and plan the best way forward.
Indeed true leadership lies not in finding the lowest common denominator among a disparate group of supporters, volunteers and staff, but rather in analyzing all options and then driving the most effective way forward (even if it is unpopular). Real leadership is not about giving the people around you what they want. It is about doing what is best and what is right. And often you find that path through time alone to think.
Perhaps thoughtful, reasoned leadership has taken a hit in recent years. Our push toward social technology has created a culture of extreme extraversion and constant noise. Dave Eggers 2013 novel, The Circle, describes a world where companies like Google and Facebook have taken over. He offers a chilling view of social media taken to the extreme with destructive group think and no room for solitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of social media, but I also think there is tremendous value in regular, silent retreat.
And I’m not alone. Amid the broad adoption of an increasingly social way of life, we are, in certain pockets, beginning to realize that quiet has its place as well. Some politicians, finally turned off by the constant screaming of our increasingly partisan political system, have begun turning toward inner reflection to find a better way. Steven Pressfield describes the importance of getting away from it all and “letting the well fill up overnight.” And even social media mavens, Beth Kanter and Arianna Huffington have both recently begun promoting solitude and reflection.
Could it be that we are realizing that while new tools to make us more social have their place in the work of social change, individual reflection is also quite necessary. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing and crowdthinking all have an important role to play, there is also tremendous value in a leader spending time, alone, to process the world around her and then emerge with a plan.
Nonprofit leaders are often working on large, intractable social problems. Those problems require the right way forward, not the most popular way forward. As a social change leader you must claim your very real need to turn off the noise. Amid the quiet you may just discover the necessary path. And perhaps also, the will to lead us there.
Photo Credit: Sebastien Panouille
Ever since last year’s release of the Letter to the Donors of America it seems there is an increasing drumbeat against the “Overhead Myth,” the idea that nonprofits must keep their overhead and administrative costs as low as possible. The fact that we are now openly talking about overhead as a myth is very encouraging.
But I think it will take a good deal of time before donors actually embrace the idea that nonprofits should stop starving their organizations of the resources they need to create and execute effective programs.
To move donors along, nonprofit leaders must lead this conversation with their own donors. Those nonprofit leaders who need more money to build a stronger, more effective and sustainable organization behind their work should educate themselves, their board members, and their donors about capacity capital.
“Capacity capital” is a one-time infusion of significant money that can be used to strengthen or grow a nonprofit organization. Capacity capital is NOT the day-to-day operating money nonprofits are used to raising and employing. Rather, capacity capital is money to build a stronger, more sustainable organization.
A nonprofit could use capacity capital in many ways, for example to:
- Plan and execute a program evaluation
- Plan and launch an earned income stream
- Create a strategic financing plan
- Hire a seasoned Development Director, or other revenue-generating staff
- Purchase a new donor database
- Improve program service delivery
- Upgrade website, email marketing, and/or social media efforts
- Launch a major gifts campaign
But raising capacity capital is not like traditional fundraising. It involves determining how much capacity capital you need, creating a compelling pitch, deciding which prospective funders to approach, and educating those prospects about the power of capacity capital. In so doing, you are not only raising the money you so desperately need, but you are also leading your part of the nonprofit sector away from the overhead myth.
The Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide can show you how to raise capacity capital for your nonprofit.
Here is an excerpt from the guide…
Section 1: Create a Capacity Building Plan
You cannot raise money without a plan for how you will spend it. Funders need to be convinced that you did your homework and have a clear, actionable, measurable plan for how you will invest capacity capital dollars to result in a stronger organization that can deliver more impact.
To get there, start by answering these questions:
- What is holding our nonprofit back from doing more and being more effective?
- What could we purchase to overcome these hurdle(s)?
- If we were able to purchase these items how would we use them and over what time frame?
- What can we reasonably expect to be the changes in our effectiveness and/or impact because of these things we purchased and implemented?
With your answers to these questions, put together a plan.
Start by creating 1-3 goals around the hurdles you identified in #1 above. For example, you may have identified in #1 that you don’t have adequate staff to raise enough money to achieve your mission.
So your capacity plan goals might be:
- Create an overall money strategy to raise $450,000 per year.
- Hire a Development Director to implement the plan.
- Secure the technology and materials necessary to raise this money (database, website, etc.)
Or, if you are a much smaller nonprofit, your goals might be more modest:
- Create an overall money strategy to raise $100,000 per year.
- Train the board on their role in fundraising.
- Upgrade our website to attract online donations.
Once you’ve developed your goals, make a laundry list of activities and purchases necessary to make each goal a reality. In some cases you may need outside help to determine how to get there. For example, you may not know how to put together an overall money strategy to raise $450,000, so you may have to hire a fundraising consultant to help you create that strategy. Also note roughly how long each activity will take.
So, your list of activities with a timeline for each might look something like this:
Goal 2: Train the board on their role in fundraising
- Discuss and get buy-in from board on a fundraising training (October)
- Find a date/location (October)
- Research fundraising trainers (November-December)
- Hire a trainer (January)
- Hold training (February)
- Follow up with each individual board member on the next steps resulting from the training (March-April)
Once you have listed all of the activities to achieve each goal of your capacity plan, highlight activities that would require new purchases. Research a ballpark figure for what each one would cost and then attach that figure to those highlighted items, like this…
Photo Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
As I mentioned earlier, I am building a video library of topics that can spur discussion among your board and donors. So, to add to that library, today I’m talking about why we need to get over overhead.
Traditional wisdom is that nonprofits should keep “overhead” (administrative, fundraising, systems, technology, staffing) costs as low as possible. This is a really destructive idea, and we need to move beyond it. But we will only get there if nonprofit leaders across the country start having that conversation with their board members and donors. Because if we can move beyond overhead, we will have a much stronger, more effective nonprofit sector.
The transcript of the video is also below. And you can view all of the Social Velocity videos on the Social Velocity YouTube channel.
To learn more about getting over overhead and raising capacity building dollars for your nonprofit, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide.
Hi I’m Nell Edgington from Social Velocity. Today I want to talk about why nonprofit board members and donors need to get over overhead.
So overhead is the idea that nonprofit organizations can separate what they spend on programs and services, the mission work of the organization, versus what they spend on infrasturucture, staffing, systems, fundraising function, administrative costs. All of those things in the second bucket are typically considered “overhead.”
Now overhead, I think, is a very meaningless distinction in the nonprofit sector, and we need to move beyond it.
It’s meaningless because you can’t have exceptional programs and services if you don’t have solid staff behind them, if you don’t have evaluation systems to figure out if you are making a difference, if you don’t have a fundraising function to bring the revenue in the door to make those programs and services operate, if you don’t have the infrastructure, the technology, all of the things that you need to make those programs and services run well.
We also need to get over overhead because if you think in terms of overhead as a nonprofit organization you will not seek, nor will you attract, the funding to invest in infrastructure, the funding that so many nonprofit organizations desperately need, the funding for capacity building, for strong staff, for great technology and systems, for evaluation programs, etc. If you think in terms of overhead you are going to keep those costs as low as possible and you won’t try to bring the money in the door to support your capacity as an organization.
Finally, we need to get over overhead because if as a nonprofit organization we are measuring our work in terms of how much we spend on overhead and keeping that as low as possible, we are not measuring our work based on whether we are actually making a difference, whether we are actually creating social change. And we need to move to a place where we are evaluating nonprofit organizations based on their results, based on the social change and the outcomes that they are achieving, not how they spend their dollars.
So those are the reasons I think overhead is very destructive in the nonprofit sector, and I hope that you will talk with your board and donors about how we need to get over overhead. Good luck!
I am really in to Slideshare lately. I uploaded my first Slideshare presentation, Calculating the Cost of Fundraising, last month and people seemed to really like it. So I plan to create regular Slideshare presentations and share them on the Social Velocity Slideshare site.
Today’s Slideshare is 7 Ways to Kiss Fundraising Goodbye. Traditional nonprofit fundraising is broken. It lock nonprofits in an endless cycle of chasing low return activities. A much better approach is to create a sustainable financial model that aligns well with your mission and core competencies. Nonprofits must move from Fundraising to Financing.
If you want to move your nonprofit from a Fundraising to a Financing approach, download the Build a Nonprofit Financing Plan Step-by-Step Guide.
Wrangling a group of volunteers who have competing and often conflicting interests is an exhausting job. It’s no wonder that nonprofit leaders often want to throw up their hands and soldier on without the rag tag group that’s supposed to further, as opposed to impede, the work.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. An “engaged board” is not an oxymoron. It is actually attainable. But you don’t get there by cajoling, guilting, ignoring or dismissing your board.
You get there by marshaling this critical army to grow your resources, your community of supporters, your results. Because an engaged board raises more money, recruits and trains other engaged board members, connects your nonprofit to key people and organizations necessary to achieve the mission, puts your nonprofit above their self interest, and ultimately leads your organization to greater results and impact.
There are very clear steps you can take to build an engaged board:
- Create a clear idea of the specific skills, experience and networks board members should possess
- Continually focus the board on the big picture
- Get them ALL to raise enough money
- Help them embrace money as an effective tool
- Make them understand and be able to articulate the impact of your nonprofit
- Create a commitment among them to build the organization
- Encourage them to ask hard questions
- And more…
You can help them become the board of directors they were meant to be.
An engaged board understands and fully embraces their charge. They have extremely high standards, and they hold themselves, their fellow board members and their nonprofit to those standards. They are constantly pushing, striving, and building the nonprofit to whom they are devoting their service. An engaged board may be an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you want to build an engaged board, the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle can help you get there. The Bundle includes:
- The “Getting Your Board to Raise More Money” Webinar
- The “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” E-book
- The “How to Build a Fundraising Board” Webinar
Here’s what some people who have already downloaded the board tools had to say about them:
“This was very concrete and actionable – gave specific suggestions regarding engaging board members. This was very useful. Well done.”
“This really opened my eyes to new possibilities – thank you so much!”
“This was one of the best and most helpful and informative webinars I’ve been on. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of beginning to get our board energized and on track and I will use the slides to help me prepare for our upcoming board retreat.”
An ineffective board is not just a frustration for the executive director. Sadly it is a HUGE missed opportunity. Your board could be so much more. When you effectively engage your board of directors, you grow your resources and ability to create social change exponentially.
You can download the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle here.
Photo Credit: Dr. Strangelove
I’ve written before about how hard it sometimes is for nonprofit leaders to ask for help. Donors, board members, regulators, and others put enormous pressure on nonprofit leaders to do it all with little (if any) help.
So in an effort to help nonprofit leaders convince those around them about the benefits of getting help, I’ve developed five benefit sheets describing the advantages of building a stronger nonprofit organization.
Whether or not you are interested in working with me, these benefit sheets describe the return on investing in nonprofit organization building efforts like leadership coaching, strategic planning, board engagement. Obviously I feel very strongly that nonprofits need to build stronger, more effective organizations, but that’s often a difficult case for nonprofit leaders to make.
I hope these benefit sheets can help you make that case:
Nonprofit Leader Coaching
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A leadership coach becomes your strategic partner helping you analyze your challenges and concerns, think through staffing decisions, overcome fundraising hurdles, address board management struggles, and brainstorm new approaches. Coaching provides tremendous benefits including: increased board and donor engagement, more productive staff, greater financial sustainability, and clearer strategic thinking. Download the Nonprofit Leader Coaching benefit sheet.
In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world, great nonprofit strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity. Without an overall strategy, a nonprofit is relegated to the world of “doing good work,” instead of the world of “making a real difference.” And these days more and more funders, supporters, advocates, partners and decision makers are requiring that nonprofits do more than just good work.
Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform your nonprofit. It can create momentum, attract deeper funding, filter future decisions, become a management tool, and ultimately realize more social change. Download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
It can often seem impossible to get your board’s attention, let alone get them all pointing in the same, effective direction. But if managed strategically, your board can be an unstoppable army moving your nonprofit forward.
If you take a big step back and develop a groundbreaking board, you can dramatically increase your ability to: reach new audiences, grow your programs, forge new external partnerships, raise more money, increase exposure to key decision makers, build community investment and engagement. Download the Board Engagement benefit sheet.
Financial Model Assessment
It happens all the time. A nonprofit leader wants to expand her services to meet growing demand, or is frustrated with a stalled fundraising effort, or doesn’t know where to diversify her fundraising efforts. She wants to raise more money, but doesn’t know how.
A Financial Model Assessment can be game changing. It uncovers how all aspects of your organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through your doors, including strategy, mission & vision, leadership, program delivery & impact, marketing and partnerships. It can give your nonprofit a deep understanding of where you need to focus your efforts and a clear road map for growing your financial sustainability. Download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.
Unlike a traditional fundraising plan, a financing plan is an integrated, thoughtful, and strategic way to help your nonprofit raise enough money to achieve your programmatic and organizational goals. Instead of asking the question: “How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?” you start asking the question: “How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
A financing plan galvanizes board and staff to bring enough of the right kinds of money in the door to make your nonprofit’s goals a reality. It creates a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit so that you can survive and thrive. Download the Financing Plan benefit sheet.
If you are trying to make the case for a stronger nonprofit organization download these benefits sheets and share them with your board, donors, staff. And if you would like to talk about these organization building processes in more detail, let me know.
Photo Credit: Johnathan Nightingale
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