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nonprofit capacity capital

Taking Philanthropic Risks: An Interview with Chris Earthman

Chris EarthmanIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Chris Earthman, Executive Director for the Aragona Family Foundation. For the last 8 years Chris has also worked for Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwestern US. Chris has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including helping to establish the Micron Technology Foundation (NYSE: MU), the corporate social responsibility vehicle for the largest private employer in Idaho.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: As head of a regional family foundation, how do you and your board view some of the innovations happening in the social sector like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, etc.?

Chris: I find it refreshing that innovation is happening in our sector, though I’m a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake among funders. The family foundation I currently run is a spend-down foundation, and that’s a decision our trustees made consciously in order to see the fruits of social investments now vs. spending significantly less in order to maintain a corpus indefinitely. There is ample discussion out there among funders, but (and I’m as guilty as anyone) very rarely much action to back it up. We’re trying to selectively dip our toe into the water in terms of funding social innovations, infrastructure, ecosystem improving organizations, selective M&A activity among our grantees and discussing the idea of mission-related investing.

Nell: Speaking of mission-related investing (where a foundation invests part of their corpus into for-profit social enterprises that give both a social and financial return to the foundation), it’s a pretty radical concept for most foundations. What do you think it would take for the idea of mission-related investing to take off for smaller foundations across the country?

Chris: Let me preface my comments with the fact that we are a spend-down foundation and therefore have not made a meaningful investment allocation to mission-related investing, so I’m by no means an expert here. However, I think there need to be more visible intermediaries and investment products targeting the social impact market. We’ve seen some great progress over the last few years with groups like Sonen Capital, but it’s still a very nascent industry. One of the biggest barriers we’ve come across is the difficulty in quantifying the social return in a format that is comprehensible to trustees. That is starting to change with ratings intermediaries like GIIRS, but recognition and uptake are essentially non-existent among most of the foundations that I interact with. I know that you and many others have opined on the progress here, but it’s still not something that is on many regional/ smaller Foundation’s radars. It may take a few forward thinking Foundation trustees to step up and take a chance to show others that it’s ok to think outside of the endowment model mindset.

Nell: Much of your non-Foundation time is spent working for a venture capital firm where the idea of Mergers and Acquisitions is second nature; however this is a fairly uncommon concept in the nonprofit world. Do we want to see more of it in the nonprofit sector and if so, how do we make that happen?

Chris: Given the fragmentation of the nonprofit ecosystem across the country and the large proportion of small organizations , I think there is certainly an opportunity for more instances of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), particularly in cases where organizations need to grow above the $500K/ yr threshold. However, my experience is that TRUE collaboration—the accretive kind where you can quantify cost savings and/or program growth and ultimately better outcomes/ social change—is very rare in the nonprofit world simply because there are few external catalysts to get the discussion started and ultimately finished.

We’ve funded a few different M&A efforts over the last couple of years and my takeaway is that the M’s work much better than the A’s. I hate to keep pointing the finger back at myself and fellow funders, but there is a certain level of risk aversion where we’d rather ensure a successful purchase of additional direct services vs. really giving organizations what they need to grow. I’ve seen too many truly innovative nonprofits unable to successfully scale past the $300-500K/yr revenue threshold because of the required organizational capital required to make that pivot.

But I’m by no means idealistic here. While M&As sound sexy, there are many times where poor execution, interpersonal dynamics, Board conflicts, bad timing, or any number of external factors out of your control result in an outcome that may actually harm the organizations seeking to gain efficiencies through scale and collaboration. There are integration costs, donor overlap, brand/ identity battles, etc. that always take much more time, effort, and money before you see any of the accretive results that initially drove the decision to bring the organizations together. The same goes for the appetite of funders to backstop Executive Director salaries and/or fund transaction costs related to a merger discussion. In my opinion, lack of funder appetite is probably one of the biggest barriers to more M&A in our sector.

Nell: As a rule foundations are less interested in making capital investments in nonprofit organizations (funding things like infrastructure, systems, technology, evaluation). Why do you think that is and what can help move philanthropists to understand the need for capacity capital?

Chris: I think there are two reasons:

  1. The idea of “expressive philanthropy” is fairly well ingrained and many folks start out their philanthropy work wanting to “put their stamp” on a particular cause or portfolio of organizations. The challenge is that many foundations knee jerk into a risk-averse grants process that may or may not fit with their place in the ecosystem. Part of this is based on the endowment model of funding, which more often than not results in a formal, tedious grant application process. This may not be the best way to identify and screen potential grantees!

    Let me acknowledge that I spent the first few years of my career as a grant writer, so I completely understand the time and effort that go into these proposals. This experience informs (or biases) my “anti-process” grantmaking strategy wherein we prefer to put the “search cost” onus on myself as a funder and try to respect the time and effort of the ever lean development dollars being spent by grant seeking organizations. It may sound like an arrogant “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach to grantmaking, but I’ve found that making the grant process donor-centric vs. grantee centric allows the system to operate more efficiently.

  2. While philanthropic dollars should be fungible, the ability to restrict funds creates a tiered system of revenue for grantees. It always strikes me as a little odd that funders get so hung up about funding direct services vs. infrastructure and overhead and restrict their funding to such a degree. Ask any VC how their portfolio companies use their investments and you’ll find more often than not it pays for the critical growth functions like Sales and Marketing. You can’t grow without infrastructure, and unfortunately our current giving culture is much less amenable to that. I’d even go so far as to say the framework/ process that most funders use to select their grantees are, by their very nature, skewed towards less risk and greater restriction. Therein lies one of the structural problems in our industry. Even something as simple as separating the motivation of our giving (“we really like your yy program initiative…”) from the structure of our giving (“…so here’s an unrestricted grant to spend where you feel it is most needed”) makes a huge difference for the lives of our grantees. It also shows the Executive Director that you value their ability as a manager to make decisions from the inside.

Nell: How do we get funders to get take more risk with their investments and be willing to fund things that have a higher risk, like growth capital, mergers, research & development, but could result in huge social payoff?

Chris: Similar to my earlier comments about impact investing and grant processes, I think funders need to see more celebrated instances of both success AND failure. Another solution is using less restrictive grant processes that are a better fit with the size and scope of your particular foundation. The fact that you can restrict grants does not automatically mean that you should. Until we embrace the idea that its ok to take a risk with our funding (and have a process that embraces this), even if it doesn’t turn out the way we planned, we’ll be much closer to creating an environment ripe for some of the larger social change that motivates our philanthropic giving in the first place.

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Is Earned Income Right for Your Nonprofit?

Earned income, or the sale of goods and services, is a somewhat misunderstood and unexplored financial opportunity for nonprofits. Yet there are countless examples of nonprofit organizations that sell goods or services to supplement their revenue, like the Girl Scouts, Goodwill, museum gift shops, hospitals, charter schools.

If you’ve ever wondered if earned income might be an opportunity for your nonprofit to raise unrestricted revenue, download our “Evaluating Earned Income” webinar. This webinar is part of our ongoing Financing Not Fundraising webinar series that shows nonprofits how to create a more sustainable financial engine for their organization.

Earned income is not right for every nonprofit, but every nonprofit should at the very least analyze whether earned income is a potential opportunity.

This webinar will help nonprofit leaders:

  • Understand what earned income is and when it is most successful
  • Learn about other nonprofits and their earned income businesses
  • Evaluate whether earned income is a possibility for their organization
  • Determine if their organization is ready to explore earned income
  • Understand the steps in launching an earned income stream

Evaluating Earned Income Webinar

The registration fee will get you:

  • A link to a recording of the webinar, which you can watch as many times as you like
  • The PowerPoint slides from the webinar
  • The ability to ask additional follow-up questions after the webinar

And if you missed last month’s sold out Raising Capacity Capital webinar, we are did repeat of that webinar. Capacity capital is the money that every nonprofit needs, but most find so hard to raise. Capacity capital can help your nonprofit to:

  • Hire a development director
  • Launch an earned-income stream
  • Expand your programs
  • Evaluate your impact
  • Train your staff

It is money for infrastructure and organization building. If you want to move your organization out of the starvation cycle, you have to learn how to raise capacity capital.

The Raising Capacity Capital webinar will show you how to:

  • Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
  • Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
  • Break the goal into donor ask amounts
  • Identify prospective donors
  • Give your board a role in the campaign
  • Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need

Raising Capacity Capital Webinar
On Demand

Download Now

Photo Credit: www.girlscouts.org

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10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Nonprofit Board

Again and again, I’ve heard people say that innovation will never become part of the nonprofit sector — that nonprofits are too set in their ways. Or that the sector is too broken to emerge anew. And a particular area of dysfunction that people point to is the volunteer group that leads the nonprofit sector: the board of directors. But that attitude is unacceptable. There is great danger in dismissing the nonprofit board. The new Social Velocity e-book released today, “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” sets that attitude on its head.

Sure, boards tend to be inefficient, dysfunctional and broken. Yet there is tremendous potential for innovation. Indeed, without innovation at the board level, the broader movement to solve social problems is doomed.

A groundbreaking board can lead the reinvention of the nonprofit sector. A groundbreaking board demands more from itself, its nonprofit and the sector as a whole. It leads the nonprofit it serves to greater financial sustainability, more effective use of resources, and ultimately more social change. Through its excellence, a groundbreaking board can transform the nonprofit they serve, the community the nonprofit impacts, and ultimately the sector itself.

This 28-page e-book examines the 10 traits that define a groundbreaking board. Each of the 10 chapters of this book describe in detail how a groundbreaking board operates:

  1. Defines Itself: The board as a whole decides what it should do and how.

  2. Assembles the Right People: A groundbreaking board doesn’t leave recruitment up to chance or circumstance.

  3. Drives Strategy: A groundbreaking board leaves the day-to-day operations of their nonprofit to the staff and instead grapples with the big picture, strategic, visionary questions of the organization.

  4. Ensures Mission, Money & Competence Alignment: A groundbreaking board ensures that the nonprofit they serve is positioned for greatest success.

  5. Craves Impact: A groundbreaking board shows up because they care deeply about the change their nonprofit is making in the world.

  6. Raises Money: A groundbreaking board understands that every single board member must be responsible for helping to bring money in the door.

  7. Wields the Money Sword: The groundbreaking board continually analyzes the financial model of the organization and monitors the ability of that model to deliver on mission.

  8. Pursues Excellence: The groundbreaking board never rests on its laurels, but constantly strives to improve itself and the nonprofit it serves.

  9. Builds the Organization: A groundbreaking board never stands in the way of organization building, in fact they are their nonprofit’s biggest advocates for that critical support.

  10. Asks Hard Questions: A groundbreaking board understands the harsh realities of the nonprofit sector and is honest and transparent about the state of their nonprofit.

It doesn’t have to be so hard. The nonprofit board can be reinvented and in so doing become a powerhouse for social change.

Download the e-book.

Photo Credit: haydnseek

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Financing Not Fundraising: The Critical Alliance Between Executive & Development Directors

In this month’s post in the on-going Financing Not Fundraising blog series I’m talking about creating a productive partnership between a nonprofit’s leader (the Executive Director or CEO) and a nonprofit’s chief revenue generator (typically the Development Director).  If your nonprofit is going to start financing instead of fundraising, you must work to forge an effective Executive Director and Development Director relationship.  If you are fully integrating money and mission, then your ED and DD should be planning, talking about, debating, and integrating their work on a daily basis. If that’s happening, the organization has a much better chance for long-term financial sustainability.

If you are new to the Financing Not Fundraising blog series, the series is about how nonprofits must break out of the FUNDRAISING (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) box and instead create a broader, more strategic approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.

If a nonprofit’s Executive Director can fully embrace, support and promote the work of the Development Director, the organization can become much more financially sustainable. There are several clues that a productive partnership between a nonprofit’s Executive Director and Development Director exists:

  • The Executive Director charges the Development Director with leading all revenue activities that the organization pursues (public, private and earned income) instead of limiting the Development Director’s role to just private income streams (individual, foundation, corporate).

  • The Executive Director asks the Development Director to create an ambitious, comprehensive annual financing plan in conjunction with the organization’s overall strategic plan and then to  monitor that plan to successful implementation.

  • The Executive Director creates the organization’s revenue budget through an open and honest negotiation with the Development Director and based on the Development Director’s annual revenue plan, as opposed to simply telling the Development Director how much to raise.

  • The Executive Director continually works to educate the entire board and staff about how critical money is to the work of the organization and how each member of the board and staff has a role to play, as opposed to leaving all revenue-generating efforts up to the Development Director.

  • The Executive Director makes a constant and conscious effort to encourage the Program and Development Directors to work together, understand each other’s viewpoint, support each other’s goals and empathize with each other’s roadblocks. The Executive Director treats both positions, and both departments, as equally critical to the success of the organization.

  • The Executive Director works closely with the board chair to make sure every board member is meeting their give/get requirement and doesn’t leave the Development Director to try to strong arm board members to contribute.

  • The Executive Director encourages and helps secure funding for the Development Director’s requests for the additional infrastructure (donor database, staffing, materials, technology) required to deliver on the ambitious goals of their revenue plan.

  • As with each member of their staff, the Executive Director evaluates the Development Director’s performance on an annual basis and sets performance goals for the Development Director for the coming year based on the overall strategic plan of the organization.

As the leader of a nonprofit organization it is up to the Executive Director to forge an effective partnership with their chief fundraiser. An ED that buries their head in the sand and leaves money up to their Development Director will eventually find their Development Director gone, their funding diminishing and their long-term financial outlook bleak.

If you want to learn more about applying the concepts of Financing Not Fundraising to your nonprofit, check out our Financing Not Fundraising Webinar Series, or download the 27-page Financing Not Fundraising e-book.

Photo Credit: USAJFKSWCS

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Could Philanthropic Equity Revolutionize the Nonprofit Sector?

Today I guest blogged on the About.com Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog, at the request of the blog’s author, Joanne Fritz. The topic is one that is near and dear to my heart, philanthropic equity. “Philanthropic equity” is just a fancy term for the kind of money the nonprofit sector so desperately needs and every nonprofit leader should understand. Below is an excerpt from the post, but you can read the whole post here:

There is a fairly new concept in the nonprofit world that has the power to completely transform the sector. “Philanthropic equity” (or “growth capital”) is just a fancy term for the money many nonprofit organizations desperately need.

Philanthropic equity is a one-time infusion of significant money that can be used to strengthen or grow a nonprofit organization. It can be money that grows a successful program to other clients, other cities, other regions. Or it can be money that strengthens the organization and makes it more sustainable.

But before you can understand philanthropic equity properly, you must understand a critical distinction about money. There are two kinds of money, revenue and capital…

You can read the entire post on the About.com Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog here.

Photo Credit: Glyn Lowe Photos

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Preventing Social Change Burnout

Perhaps it is the nature of trying to solve the intractable, but social change leaders are heading for burnout. I see it more often lately. A nonprofit leader  gives me a dazed look, rubs her temples with exhaustion, throws her hands up in the air, seriously considers just giving up.

The exhausting, endless hamster wheel nonprofit leaders live on is just not sustainable. At some point they will give out.

But the leaders who are driving social change are the very people we need to persevere. Because if they give up, where does that leave those who so desperately need the solutions they are providing?

Here are some things social change leaders can do to overcome burnout:

  • Get Brutally Honest. With your donors, with your board members. Stop telling people what they want to hear and start being honest about the limits of your time, your staff’s capacity, your program’s scope. And stop chasing rabbit holes for your board or donors. You know what the reality is, so stop hiding it.

  • Stop Fundraising. The thing that burns executive directors out more than anything is the endless, dysfunctional fundraising cycle. But if you could switch to a more effective strategy for bringing money in the door, and start to engage others (board members, donors, volunteers) to help, you would have a much smaller burden on your shoulders.

  • Raise Capacity Capital. Executive directors are tasked with way too much. Most nonprofit staffers are doing the jobs of 2 or 3 people. That’s fine for awhile, but not long term. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to raise some money to hire key staff, or buy effective technology. That’s capacity capital.

  • Get Inspired. Social change can be very inspiring. When you hit a wall, read about other leaders and the hurdles they faced, visit your own program and see the change that is happening every day, ask your staff and board why they are involved, ask donors why they give.

  • Forgive Yourself. One thing I absolutely love about social change leaders is their undying commitment to the cause. So many of them have a deep calling for the work they do. But that can also have a dark side. They can become so passionate that they think taking a day off would be to let down the cause. They sometimes picture themselves as Superman and deny their human need for rest and regeneration. But the only way to create lasting change is to make it sustainable. You need to know when to say when.

  • Get Some Help. You may be born to lead change, but a true leader knows how to engage others. You cannot do it all. Recruit and retain a staff to whom you can confidently delegate. Recruit a board that steps up to take key pieces off your plate. Ask your donors to tap into their networks to do some fundraising for you. This is not a one person show, rather you need to view yourself as a cheerleader, organizer, and leader of a vast army of people who are making social change happen.

When you feel your eyes glaze over, your head start to spin, a yearning for the family you haven’t seen in weeks, it’s time to take a step back. You are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t burnout after the first 5 miles. Long-term change takes time. Pace yourself.

Photo Credit: gb_packards

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Why Nonprofit Overhead is Destructive

It’s that time of year when donors make key decisions about their end of year giving. But a recent post on the Social Earth blog advising donors about questions they should ask nonprofits perpetuates thinking that actually hurts, rather than helps the nonprofit sector. The author, Tarini Chandak, asks “How do you know where your charitable dollars are going? Are they going to the cause you want to support or are they going to administrative and fundraising expenses?” In reinforcing old, and destructive binary thinking about program vs. overhead expenses, Tarini is doing nonprofits and their donors a real disservice.

Tarini lists 4 key questions she thinks every donor should ask of the nonprofits they consider donating to:

As various charities vie for your charitable donations, there are many questions you can ask them directly, including:

  1. How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?
  2. How efficient is their fundraising? What is their cost-per-fundraised-dollar ratio?
  3. Is the charity run properly? How efficient and effective is their human capital? Management team?
  4. Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?

I think questions #2 and #3 are excellent, but questions #1 and #4 perpetuate thinking that holds the nonprofit sector back.

Let’s start with Question #1: “How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?” As I’ve written before, the distinction between program (or “cause”) and administrative expenses is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst. If a nonprofit organization is creating change, then everything they do is in support of that change. How can a program run if there is no financial engine (fundraising) to fund it? If there is no building or space to house it? If there is no financial management or regular audits? If there is no regular evaluation of whether the program is making a difference? How can you possibly separate “program” from “overhead?” We must move beyond this distinction and encourage nonprofits to raise (and donors to give) more capacity capital, or the money that nonprofits so desperately need to create effective and efficient organizations.

Tarini’s Question #4 “Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?” is equally troublesome because it reinforces the backward notion that nonprofits should not have a reserve fund. As I (and others) have written before, we have to get away from the nonprofit taboo that operating reserves are wrong. Nonprofits cannot plan for the future, have a sustainable financial model, experiment with program changes, take risks, or any of the other things that are absolutely necessary to creating social change, without some operating reserves. If nonprofits are continually forced to go month to month without any cushion they will never emerge as strong, sustainable organizations capable of creating lasting change.

We must move away from thinking that encourages nonprofits to scrape by without the tools and infrastructure they desperately need. We must stop measuring nonprofit performance with meaningless financial metrics and instead evaluate nonprofits on their ability to deliver change. If a nonprofit is creating real change, does the minutia of how they spend money really matter?

Photo Credit: just_a_name_thingie

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