nonprofit business model
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Hilda Polanco. Hilda is the founder and CEO of FMA – Fiscal Strength for Nonprofits, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits and foundations develop the fiscal capacity they need to fulfill their missions, including stronger operations and fiscal management, improved foundation grant-making capacity, and increased staff financial knowledge.
In addition to leading FMA, Hilda serves on the NYC Human Services Coalition’s special commission to study the closure of high-profile human services organizations. She was a founding member of the selection committee of the New York Nonprofit Excellence Awards and has served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Department of Health Policy and Management, as well as on the faculty of the Donor’s Forum of Chicago.
Nell: Your career has been about strengthening the financial capacity of the nonprofit sector. Why do you think nonprofits struggle so much with financial sustainability?
Hilda: All businesses struggle with sustainability, as it turns out, but in the case of nonprofits, there are several additional challenges: I think of these challenges as follows:
- Missions that compete with the business model for attention, creating an unclear vision of what it costs to deliver services and what the revenue and expense drivers are to delivering these services.
- A lack of focus on the balance sheet, and instead a focus only on annual operating results
- An insufficient focus on longterm financial planning
- A lack of common understanding of the meaning of sustainability, among nonprofits and the funders that support them
Mission-driven leaders who are so important to the nonprofit sector are not often motivated by the “business” of delivering services. They care about the issues, the causes, the communities. As a result, they may not understand what a nonprofit’s business model is, or they may have absorbed a popular mistaken notion about nonprofits — that they should not strive to preserve surpluses. In order to be sustainable, an organization needs to understand its revenue and expense drivers and strive to strengthen its financial position over time.
An additional challenge is pricing. This is commonly subsumed under a discussion of “overhead,” but that term conceals some of the details of the problem. Organizations will face challenges to their sustainability if they are pursuing work or lines of business without fully understanding the cost when compared with what funds they are raising. Where there is a gap between what they raise and what it costs to perform the work, a “structural deficit” takes hold. A structural deficit is not one you can cure with a targeted fundraising appeal –as you could, say, to replace your roof or buy a new school bus. A structural deficit is one that persistently drains resources from the organization until the underlying problem is corrected. It’s a roof that, by design, will collapse every single year.
Having a focus on the balance sheet means having a focus on establishing healthy reserves. We drill our clients constantly on their Liquid Unrestricted Net Assets (or LUNA, for short). LUNA describes an organization’s available reserves for addressing strategic opportunities or unexpected expenses. They appear on the balance sheet. Too many organizations reckon their financial standing by simply comparing income and expenses for a given year. They need to look at a balance sheet. A strong balance sheet allows a leader to address the organization’s future needs. A weak balance sheet creates uncertainty. And this raises the issue of capital. There are several ‘kinds’ of capital—funding that is raised or preserved for different uses, for growth or innovation, for example.
It’s not just nonprofit leaders who need to understand this. Foundation program officers, major donors, and all buyers of nonprofit services need to share in this viewpoint, to arrive at a common understanding of what nonprofit sustainability looks like. The market for nonprofit services is sort of unusual in that we expect the funders, as much as the nonprofit leaders—to be self-reflective about their role in the transaction.
Funders should not expect their grantees to deliver quality services without understanding the full cost of the enterprise. And sometimes, they need to engage in a substantive discussion about business models so they can come to a shared understanding. Funders can have a different conversation with grantees, even if they are only funding a project. The conversation should not be just about what they are “buying”, but also about the organization’s overall capacity. Rather than focusing exclusively on this moment, the question should be “How can we be sure that you will have the capacity to achieve your target outcomes over time?”
What should they be doing to remedy the situation? This isn’t easy to solve. In many ways, it goes against how we think about our roles in a buying and selling relationship. Think about how strange this is: If you value the service your local coffee shop provides, it would be like prodding its owner to charge you more for your coffee so they could stay in business and serve the community who counts on that coffee each and every day!
Of course, the future is unknown. Sustainable nonprofits need to be planning for at least a two year horizon. Decisions made this year will have an impact on future years and preparing for those future years is much more effective with a longer horizon to strategize, rather than pretending that life happens in one year increments in isolation from the following year. For example, new hires, raises, multi-year grants that may come to an end in the coming year. These are all examples of business assumptions that should be taken in the context of their impact on future operations. More broadly, an organization must revisit its financial model over time, understanding what may have changed in the funding ecosystem or what competing organizations are doing.
Nell: There are two parts to financial sustainability: bringing money in the door and then using that money effectively. There have been some strides toward changing cultural norms around how nonprofits use money (with the Real Costs project and the Overhead Myth campaign), but what about on the bringing money in the door side? How do we get smarter about that?
Hilda: Efforts to raise funds for “services” have created a tendency to raise money for particular programmatic activities, rather than for the mission and outcomes of the organization as a whole. When an organization can articulate its target outcomes, and know what financial resources will be required to achieve these, the conversation can shift to an investment in the organization’s vision, rather than the purchase of specific activities. These are requests for investments of capital.
We see a growing trend in capital campaigns lead by a “funder prospectus” – a vision for the organization’s outcomes, with a request for investment in these outcomes; a way to focus the conversation differently. And with a funder prospectus, multiple funders can come to the table to support a common strategy – rather than create parallel strategies to suit the goals of the funder, rather than the goals of the organization. These campaigns can be for the sustainability of current operating levels, or the funding for growth.
Another issue to keep in mind is the concentration vs. diversification strategic conversation. There are a lot of consultants advising nonprofits to diversify their revenue sources, and not put “all their eggs in one basket.” This can be good advice under some circumstances, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Diversification sometimes means building a much more complex—and potentially fragile—business model. For many organizations, concentrating on one revenue source can help focus, strengthen, and build the business model. For example, the skills and capacity to successfully raise funds from foundations and corporations is different from special events, major donors, or government grants. Without sufficient activity in each, the business model may not be able to support the required levels of diverse skill sets. It is somewhat of a balance – a diverse revenue strategy means a diverse skill set and capacity to succeed; often not found in a common staff position or limited organizational infrastructure.
And lastly, there is the need to balance between raising funds for current operations, vs. raising funds for new and “innovative” programming. Here’s where the “shiny object syndrome” can undermine an organization’s sustainability. The Development Director is excited about new programs, but the organization isn’t raising the necessary funds to cover core programming. Years ago, an Executive Director I know lamented to me: “If I hear ‘innovation’ one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. What happened to tried and true?” This notion of balance need not be confined to the leadership of an organization. Indeed, in healthy and sustainable organizations, this sense of balance is shared across the organization. The development team and program leaders should, effectively, understand the organization’s financial model just as much as the finance team. It is particularly important for development leaders to be able to articulate a coherent and compelling financial story of the organization as a whole, not just respond to the new ideas a funder may be focused on.
Nell: What role does research to understand what works and what doesn’t play? There seems to be a dearth of research in the sector about effective financing models. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, how do we change that?
Hilda: I agree that there’s not much research, and there should be more.
And the first step toward research is sharing knowledge and lessons learned as these are happening rather than waiting for longer term research and evaluation. We need to build more of a shared understanding of the universe of possibilities. For example, what are Program Related Investments (PRI’s)? We hear about PRIs from time to time, but what are some early lessons learned? Who is making them effectively? More esoteric investments like Social Impact Bonds have made a splash, but there’s little understanding of the risks organizations take on by accepting this type of investment and the lessons learned in getting them off the ground.
Funders who are funding in a more holistic way can help the sector by educating other funders about it. Can a foundation make an investment in an organization’s operating reserves rather than operations? What does that look like?
Funders who are willing to experiment and share their experiences can play an important role here.
Photo Credit: FMA
One of my predicted “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017” is that we will see “More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires.” In other words, I think (hope) in this new year that nonprofit leaders and their funders will work to figure out how to make nonprofits more financial sustainable.
Financial sustainability means that both the way money comes in the door (revenue) and the way money goes out the door (expenses) happen in a smart, strategic way. When they do, you have a robust financial model.
In my mind, one of the first steps toward that sustainability is for nonprofit leaders to look inward. While there are many reasons for the financial instability that plagues the nonprofit sector — from the Overhead Myth, to restricted funding, to lack of financial training — nonprofit leaders sometimes perpetuate the dysfunction themselves with an unhealthy attitude toward money.
Nonprofit leaders must embrace money as a tool — rather than a scourge — that can help them better achieve their mission.
So in this new year, in order to get closer to financial sustainability in your own nonprofit, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions about money:
- Do I embrace money as a tool to achieve our mission?
As the ultimate cheerleader of your nonprofit’s board and staff, you must ask whether you yourself fully embrace money. Money has long been viewed as a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector. We don’t want too much of it (for fear of scaring off donors); we don’t want to ask people for it (for fear of rejection); we don’t want to make our board go out and get it (for fear they will bolt). But it is your role as leader of your nonprofit to eschew those outdated notions and instead recognize that a smart, well-executed money strategy can be instrumental to achieving your mission.
- Do we know our actual costs?
Not just the full costs to run each of your programs (which is important), but the overall costs of executing on your strategic plan. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leaders I meet who a) don’t have a strategic plan in place or b) if they do, they haven’t tied it to money. You simply will not accomplish anything if you don’t analyze and plan for what it will truly cost to accomplish your goals as an organization. So start by using this Bridgespan tool to figure out the full costs of your programs and then add to that the other organizational and infrastructure costs necessary to achieve your overall strategic goals.
- Do we have a financial model?
So that’s how money flows out of the organization, but to fully flesh out your financial model you need to plan for how money will flow into the organization. The funny thing about money is that if you are smarter and more strategic about it, you will attract more of it. So instead of hoping and praying that enough money will show up at your doorstep, create an overall financial strategy that includes your tactics for how you will attract each applicable revenue line (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) that flows into your financial model.
- Does our board understand and contribute to our financial model?
Once you’ve figured out your financial model, you must get your board fully involved in it. A nonprofit will never be financially sustainable if money is left solely to the staff to figure out. That means the board needs to understand revenue and expenses, over the long-term, and how they apply to the overall strategy of the organization. And it is not enough for them just to understand it, they must contribute (in many and various ways) to the successful implementation of that financial model.
- Do we ask funders to support the effective execution of our financial model?
You can’t just have a great financial strategy on paper, you also need to invest in the structure and systems necessary to execute on that strategy. That means you have to hire talented money-raising staff, acquire functional technology, develop capable donor systems, create compelling marketing and communications. Those elements make up your money-raising function, and in order to make it effective you have to invest in those elements. So figure out what that will cost and convince some funders to pay for it.
It’s time to get over your money issues. You will not achieve financial sustainability unless you fully embrace money as a critical conduit to the social change you seek.
Photo Credit: Daniel Borman
Change is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.
But I’m hungry for more.
And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:
- What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.
- Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.
- Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.
- Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.
- How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.
It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.
Photo Credit: Paul Thompson
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.