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nonprofit capacity

How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Your Board

Dr._Strangelove“Honestly, some days I think I would be so much better off without a board,” said an exasperated executive director to me recently.

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.

Nonprofit BoardIf 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 Create a Groundbreaking 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

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2014

reading catCould it be that the nonprofit sector is coming into its own? Increasing prominence in the economy coupled with a growing (we hope) recognition of the need for stronger organizations, the nonprofit sector may be hitting its stride. Add to that some interesting discussions about the effect of crowdfunding and a “revitalizing” Detroit and you have a pretty good month of reading in the world of social innovation.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from March. But add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see more of what I’m reading, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also see my favorites from past months here.

  1. It appears that the nonprofit sector is beginning to take center stage in a new economy. The rise of the “sharing economy,” where products and services are shared by many rather than owned by one (think Netflix, Car2Go, HomeAway), apparently holds tremendous opportunity for the nonprofit sector. So says Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times, “We are…entering a world partly beyond markets, where we are learning how to live together in an increasingly interdependent, collaborative, global commons.” Erin Morgan Gore (writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) would agree.

  2. But at the same time, NPR describes a growing individualism in America and an emerging “Opt-Out Society.”

  3. And lest you forget why we do this social change work, Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, describes some “menacing mega-trends” facing America and our political system’s inability to keep up.

  4. We continue to be fascinated by the Millennial generation and this infographic very nicely puts to rest some myths about them.

  5. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ashley Woods questions whether the recent focus on revitalizing Detroit is helping or hurting long-time residents.

  6. Crowdfunding is increasingly gaining interest, but can it actually increase money flowing to social change? A new infographic by Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, describes some recent crowdfunding results for nonprofits. And Beth Kanter digs deeper into the data.

  7. The CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Robert Ross makes a compelling argument for why foundations need to move beyond funding new solutions and instead get into the advocacy and community organizing game: “Philanthropy has to recognize that community power, voice, and advocacy are, to use a football analogy, the blocking and tackling of winning social change.”

  8. Are funders beginning to understand the need to invest in nonprofit capacity building? Some recent research by The Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that, not surprisingly, nonprofit leaders think funders don’t understand their need for help with sustainability. But some new data from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations finds that funder appetite for capacity building might be growing.  And Rodney Christopher from the F.B. Heron Foundation makes the case for support of capacity building, “Failing to pay attention to nonprofits as enterprises will undermine impact over time.”

  9. But Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund places a big part of the burden of overcoming the nonprofit overhead myth squarely on the shoulders of nonprofit leaders themselves.

  10. Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and contributor to the White Courtesy Telephone blog, very thoughtfully breaks down how to understand philanthropy’s relationship to social change. Well worth the read.

Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida

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The Benefits of a Stronger Nonprofit Organization

helpI’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

Nonprofit Staff Coaching One-SheetNonprofit leaders have a Herculean list of tasks, and all of it  with little support along the way. It is easy to see why the position of nonprofit leader is such a lonely one.

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.

 

 

Strategic Planning

SV-strategic-planIn 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.

 

 

Board Engagement

SV-board-engagementIt 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

SV-financial-assessIt 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.
 

 

Financing Plan

SV-financing-planUnlike 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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Emerging From the Nonprofit Starvation Tunnel

TunnelNonprofits are always starving for resources. It’s a concept so ubiquitous that it’s almost a truism. But it doesn’t have to be.

For those nonprofit leaders brave enough, capacity capital can be the key to emerging from the continuous nonprofit starvation cycle.

Next month I will be speaking at the Securing the Future Conference in Cincinnati about capacity capital. Beyond looking forward to meeting a new group of nonprofit leaders, board members and donors, I’m particularly excited about introducing them to what I think has the potential to be a transformative concept for the nonprofit sector.

The topic of my speech is “The Power of Capacity Capital,” and in it I will convince the audience that you no longer have to run a nonprofit to the bone, continually starving the organization of the staffing, infrastructure, and systems that you need to effectively deliver social change.

Capacity capital is the money that so many nonprofits need, but most find so hard to raise. It is money for infrastructure and organization building. It is a one-time investment of significant money that can fund a program evaluation, a new data gathering system, revenue-generating staff, leadership coaching, and the many other things nonprofits require in order to be effective leaders of social change.

If you want to move your organization out of the starvation cycle, you have to learn how to raise capacity capital.

For those of you who won’t be at the Securing the Future Conference, but want to learn more about capacity capital – whether it’s right for your nonprofit and how to go about raising it – you can download my on-demand webinar, Raising Capacity Capital.

capacity webinarThe 60-minute Raising Capacity Capital on-demand 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
  • Develop a campaign goal
  • 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

Like all of the Social Velocity on-demand webinars, you can watch this webinar whenever and however many times you would like.

You really don’t have to continue to live in starvation mode. There is a path toward a stronger, more effective nonprofit organization. Capacity capital can help you get there.

Photo Credit: panthera-lee

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Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?

mythEver since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStarCharity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.

More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.

But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.

Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?

I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.

For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:

  • Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
  • Engage a more invested board of directors
  • Use money and other limited resources more strategically
  • Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
  • More effectively manage to outcomes
  • Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit

So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.

At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.

If you want to learn more about funding nonprofit organization building, download the Power of Capacity Capital E-book or the Raising Capacity Capital Webinar.

Photo Credit: liquidnight

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Funding Stronger Nonprofits: An Interview with Denise Zeman

Denise ZemanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Denise San Antonio Zeman. Denise has been President and CEO of Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio since 2000. A lifelong Clevelander, Denise’s career has spanned higher education, human services, healthcare and philanthropy.  Now in its 17th year of grantmaking, Saint Luke’s provides leadership and support to improve and transform health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland.

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

Nell: Saint Luke’s Foundation is different than most foundations in that you have made a conscious commitment to funding the capacity of nonprofit grantees in areas such as leadership development and outcomes measurement. Why did the foundation decide to put an emphasis on capacity funding and what have you learned from those investments?  

Denise: Just over two years ago, our Foundation board and staff held a retreat. An important topic was our frustration over the reality that the recent economic downturn had produced tremendous need in our community and volatility in our grant budget.  Specifically, this downturn highlighted for us that we were spending more when the economy was good and less when the community needed us most. These concerns were analyzed, and the culprit was determined to be our spending policy, for although we knew we could not control the world economy, we realized that we could control the way we responded to it.

We had employed a traditional 5% payout since our inception in 1997, and decided to investigate spending policies that might provide us a higher, more predictable level of spending going forward. With much trepidation, the board approved a bold new spending policy that provides for a “floor” with certain tolerance limits. We increased our spending by about $4 million and established a spending range between 5 and 7%. For the past two years our spending has been very close to 7%.

With this came a strong commitment to working with our grantees and philanthropic colleagues to move toward funding what works in order to advance a smaller set of priorities. The new priorities more narrowly define our previously broad definition of “health” to focus on three specific strategy areas: Healthy People, Strong Communities and Resilient Families.

The role of our senior program officers also shifted from a focus on managing a set of grants to a commitment to advancing a strategy. We agreed upon long and short-term outcomes that guide our grantmaking decisions, and the program team now manages their portfolios of grants in a more entrepreneurial way. In addition to making grants, their due diligence includes an in-depth analysis of the grantees’ capacity to be successful.

A thorough analysis of the literature, conversations with colleagues and focus groups with grantees revealed six strengths that the highest performing nonprofits have in common. These include strong financial management, investment in leadership, a commitment to outcomes and learning, a spirit of collaboration, excellent communications, and advocacy for good public policy.

We support and encourage our grantees to develop these capacities in a variety of ways. In our formal and informal interactions, we encourage them to think about their approach to building these capacities and we provide support to assist them in this process. We ask probing questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” in order to nurture lines of communication, demonstrate our concern for their growth and development, and most importantly, learn. And we work with our regional association, Philanthropy Ohio, to bring national content experts to our region for programs and seminars on relevant topics. We also host meetings ourselves during which we invite thought leaders such as Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), Dan Heath (Made to Stick and Switch), Fay Twersky (Beneficiary Voice), and Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy) to challenge the status quo and help us focus our efforts to build a stronger nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

In order to be able to deliver on their promise to the community, nonprofits must have a solid financial base. Our scrutiny of financial statements has increased, and with that has come a commitment to working with our grantees to improve their financial planning, monitoring, operations and governance. The Nonprofit Finance Fund and Financial Management Associates, LLC have provided local strategic financial management seminars to increase knowledge and inspire motivation to build financial capacities.

We also know that strong leaders produce great results. We therefore encourage and support comprehensive leadership development for our grantees, and we support efforts to implement leadership development practices that ensure good governance and empower professional staff to be leaders of change.

We are committed to tapping into the power of outcomes measurement as a way to support continuous learning and encourage performance improvement, and we work with our grantees to support their efforts to collect and use data to improve their outcomes for their clients. We have learned first-hand how challenging measuring impact in the social sector can be.  But we have also learned that unless we measure and move toward specific, measurable outcomes, we run the risk of spinning our wheels at best, and actually doing harm at worst. The works of Mario Morino (Leap of Reason) and David Hunter (Working Hard and Working Well) provide nonprofit and philanthropic leaders with the rationale and roadmap for making a measurable, meaningful and lasting difference for the people they serve, and we strongly encourage our grantees and colleagues to join us in embracing their approaches.

We have also learned the importance of supporting the capacity of our grantees to work with others.  We live in a nonprofit community that was built for a population of over one million people, and yet the last census revealed that our community has contracted by more than half. Our government and philanthropic resources have diminished, yet the need in our community has grown. We therefore work in partnership with our grantees and philanthropic partners to support collaboration in practice and in learning, and we have embraced the concepts of Collective Impact (Foundation Strategy Group) to inform our work.

Communication is also an area of focus for us. Borrowing from what we learned from Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, we support strategic communications that help our grantees leverage outcomes and tell effective stories to advance their missions. This is not storytelling for the sake of storytelling; rather, it is using the power of outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness and impact.

While philanthropic support for health and human services is important, it is miniscule compared to government spending. We therefore support efforts to educate policymakers on relevant issues and influence institutions, systems and community and/or individual behaviors within the funding guidelines for private foundations.

Quite simply, we believe that strong nonprofits produce the strongest results, and as funders of impact, we believe it is our role to support our grantees to be the strongest they can be.

Nell: Leadership development is a particular area of interest for the foundation. What do you think nonprofit leaders need most to become more effective and what role can philanthropists play in that?  

Denise: We view strong, resilient leadership as one of the most effective tools for achieving superior results. In our work with grantees, we have learned that organizations that take an intentional, focused approach to leadership development achieve better outcomes for the people they serve. Nonprofit leaders need boards that are uncompromising on quality and results, and these boards must both challenge and support executive leadership to drive innovation and strategic performance.

As noted in Independent Sector’s Leadership Initiative, nonprofit leaders need “time, attention and resources to engage in high-quality leadership development programming that equips them to deliver significant results.” Leaders cannot be so “in the weeds” that they lose sight of their role as keepers of the promise. We encourage our grantees to use some of our general operating support to focus on leadership development, and to extend that focus to developing the “next generation” of leaders as well.

We also provide funds for nonprofit leaders to participate in high quality leadership development programs locally and nationally. Additionally, we support an individual professional development program for each member of our foundation staff to ensure that they continue to develop their own potential as leaders.

Nell: One of the arguments some philanthropists make against providing funding for building nonprofit organizations is that it is harder to demonstrate the return from a capacity building investment than a program investment. How do you respond to that argument?  

Denise: I agree…it is hard, but we have never been an organization that avoids hard! In our work with the TCC Group last year, we learned more about what it takes to be a learning organization. We made a commitment to learning from everything we do, and we are committed to learning more about how to measure the impact of capacity building investments.

And while we are still learning, we have some specific examples that demonstrate the return on our investments in building capacity. We know, for example, that our support for outcomes and learning has helped some of our grantees build the capacity to reflect their success by implementing outcomes management software and producing results-oriented dashboards. Eight of the organizations we helped form strategic alliances have merged into four, and are serving more people with fewer resources. We also know that some of the communications-related grants we have made have enabled grantees to extend their reach in innovative ways such as electronic case management programs. And we know that policy-focused grants have allowed some of our safety net providers to come together to provide patient-centered medical homes for some of our most vulnerable citizens in advance of Medicaid expansion. While these results might be viewed as anecdotal, we believe they are building our own capacity to make a strong case for capacity building.

Nell: Funders are becoming increasingly interested in nonprofit outcomes measurement, yet few funders are willing to fund evaluations. How do we solve that chicken or the egg scenario?

Denise: I was recently invited to participate on a panel called “Do Funders Get It?” at a national conference called After the Leap. The panel responded to Nancy Roob’s stirring plenary session in which she described the phenomenal work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in supporting youth development organizations across the country to be more effective.

We posed the question “Do funders understand the resources and support nonprofits require to scale impact?” to the audience, and not surprisingly, the response affirmed the reality that most of us do not. The truth that funders want results but are reluctant to fund evaluations has been confirmed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to name just a few.

So how do we solve this dichotomy? As with any attempt at true and lasting change, there is no single silver bullet that will suddenly convince funders to change their traditional ways of grantmaking. But I do believe there is a growing receptivity to the concept of  funding for impact, and there is a role for philanthropic affinity groups and regional associations to educate their membership with concrete suggestions that funders can use with their boards, professional staffs and grantees.

Government funders are beginning to understand the importance of funding what works, and this will raise the stakes for nonprofits that rely heavily on public support. They will have to demonstrate impact or they will not receive support. This will raise the evaluation imperative to standard operating procedure, and funders that care at all about their grantees will be compelled to support building evidence that their approaches do, in fact, achieve sustainable results.

Nell: Although Saint Luke’s Foundation is a real trail blazer in the philanthropic world, philanthropy overall is rather slow to change, particularly when it comes to funding in new ways. What do you think it will take to get more funders to understand that stronger nonprofit leaders and organizations can equal more impact?

Denise: Thank you for your kind words. Our change in spending policy and approach was largely informed by Mario Morino’s admonition to “rethink, redesign and reinvent the why, what and how of our work in every arena.” He went on to suggest that we “need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving – all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.” When put that way, who could argue?

Foundations and nonprofits are about the business of improving lives. The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO. And unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail. We must be bold in challenging and supporting one another to disrupt the sector in unprecedented ways. We at Saint Luke’s Foundation have changed our approaches from spending to strategy to portfolio management, but we have stayed true to our original mission statement to improve and transform health and well-being in our community. I suppose it is fair to say that our very mission implies that we will fund what improves and transforms…and therefore we see it as being true to our mission to build highly effective provider organizations.

Photo Credit: Saint Luke’s Foundation

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The Long View on the Nonprofit Sector: An Interview with Bill Shore

Bill ShoreIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.

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

Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?

Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.

Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?

Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.

Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?

Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.

Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?

Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.

Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?

Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.

Photo Credit: Share Our Strength

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Getting Real About Nonprofit Overhead Costs

Getting Real About Nonprofit Overhead CostsThere is something pretty interesting going on in Illinois around nonprofit overhead costs. I have written many times (here and here for example) about how the distinction between “overhead” and “program” costs in the nonprofit sector is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst.

I’m really excited to see that the Donors Forum in Illinois is starting to host real conversations between nonprofits and philanthropists about the Real Costs (including administrative costs) necessary to create effective social change.

With the help of the Bridgespan Group, in March the Donors Forum brought nonprofits and philanthropists together for a one-day discussion about real costs in the nonprofit sector. They want funders to understand that it is not enough to fund only nonprofit programs. In order to create effective social change, nonprofits must also be able to fund the infrastructure, staffing, space, tools, and research costs of their work.

The image above is a graphic facilitation of the March session. The Donors Forum has also developed a great website with resources for nonprofits and philanthropists about real costs, including Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard’s seminal article in the 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle,” reports and resources about nonprofit fiscal fitness, Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s study on how philanthropy is changing, and much more.

As part of their efforts, the Donors Forum has also put together this video that helps to explain, in very clear terms, the critical importance of funding ALL of a nonprofit’s costs:

I’m excited to see where this conversation goes and whether more nonprofits and philanthropists start having open, honest conversations about what it really takes to create lasting social change. I’m hoping to interview Valerie Lies, President and CEO of the Donors Forum, later this year about this initiative and where they hope to go from here. So stay tuned.

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