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nonprofit capital campaign

New Guide: Creating a Capacity Capital Campaign

Capacity CapitalThere is a new kind of money that every nonprofit leader should understand and many should go out and raise. Capacity capital is the money that nonprofits so desperately need to build strong, effective, sustainable organizations that can create more social change. It is a one-time investment of money to add new technology, an evaluation system, a new revenue function – ultimately money to grow or strengthen the organization.

Today I’m excited to release our newest step-by-step guide Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign which shows how to take the ideas in the Power of Capacity Capital book to create your own capacity capital campaign. This new guide shows you step-by-step how to plan for and launch a campaign to raise organization-building dollars. (You can see the other step-by-step guides, e-books, and other tools on the tools page of the website here).

A nonprofit could use capacity capital in many ways, for example to:

  • Plan and execute a program evaluation
  • Plan and launch an earned income stream
  • Create a strategic financing plan
  • Hire a seasoned Development Director, or other revenue-generating staff
  • Purchase a new donor database
  • Improve program service delivery
  • Upgrade website, email marketing, and/or social media efforts
  • Launch a major gifts campaign

If those organization-building elements were in place, a nonprofit could start:

  • Doing a better job of delivering their program
  • Raising more revenue annually through a more effective fundraising function
  • Securing more external support because they can prove program results

But raising capacity capital is not like traditional fundraising. It involves determining how much capacity capital you need, creating a compelling pitch, deciding which prospective funders to approach, and educating those prospects about the power of capacity capital.

The Launch a Capacity Capital Step-by-Step Guide will show you how.

This guide is organized into sections. Each section will require you to do some thinking, writing and planning. As you work your way through this guide you will be creating your capacity capital campaign.

Sections:

  1. Create a Capacity Building Plan
  2. Determine a Capacity Capital Dollar Goal
  3. Break the Goal into Investment Levels
  4. Develop a Capacity Capital Ask
  5. Create a Prospect List
  6. Demonstrate the Return On Investment

You can download the guide here.

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5 Hard Questions Every Nonprofit Should Ask

Note: I’m heading out of the office for the next week and a half, but in my absence I want to offer a couple of blog posts from the Social Velocity archives. The one below appeared on the blog in February 2011. Enjoy!

I’m a huge believer in questions. Sometimes asking good, hard questions is the only way to get to the bottom of something, to analyze potential options, to find the right path.

So too in the nonprofit sector hard questions can play a pivotal role. It is critically important that we move away from an unwritten rule that “charities” are doing good things that shouldn’t be questioned, to a place where nonprofits are continually asking themselves whether they are making most effective use of resources and providing real solutions.

These are the 5 questions I’d like to see nonprofits asking themselves:

  1. Do we know if we are accomplishing anything? Because nonprofit organizations can’t simply look at a profit and loss statement to see progress, determining success is much more difficult than in the for-profit world. Yet a nonprofit organization cannot just translate community resources into activities and call it a day. Nonprofits are increasingly forced to demonstrate the change their work creates in the community. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit must conduct large evaluation projects. Rather, I’m arguing that a nonprofit must create a solid strategy for creating change and then find a way (as cheaply and simply as possible) to determine whether they are delivering on that strategy.

  2. Are we adapting to our external environment? Gone are the days when a nonprofit enjoyed a core group of donors that funded delivery of the same services to the community year after year. In this ever-changing, increasingly fast-paced world, nonprofits must constantly analyze the trends in their external environment (funding, competitors, community needs) and effectively adapt to those trends in order to survive and thrive.

  3. Is our board helping or hurting? A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most important asset, expanding its footprint in the community, bringing in resources, driving a bold direction, ensuring accountability and transparency. Or it can be a group of people who show up to network, meddle in minutiae, and bog the organization down. A nonprofit’s board needs to take a hard look at itself, as individual members and as a group, to determine if they are an effective governing body or not, whether they are moving the mission forward, or just getting in the way.

  4. Do we really need that new building? Time and again nonprofit organizations launch a capital campaign as a way to get their name out in the community, get the board motivated, bring big donors in the door, and seek significance and importance. But the result is often an organization crippled by resources draining away from the mission. Board and leadership needs to ask themselves if a new building is directly tied to achievement of mission. There are other, better ways to build your brand, rally the board and donors, and raise big dollars, like a growth or capacity capital campaign, which can actually result in more social impact and financial sustainability over the long term.

  5. Are we using money as a tool? Nonprofit boards often shy away from discussions about money, ignoring tools like financial reports, budget reviews and fundraising net-revenue analysis, in order to focus meetings on programs and mission. But money is an incredibly effective tool for making programs and mission happen, and nonprofits need to create and implement an integrated financial strategy that feeds into the overall organization’s plan. Money, if used strategically and effectively, can help your nonprofit do so much more.

To move forward, the nonprofit sector needs to do away with safe, routine conversations and start asking some hard questions. Indeed questions are sometimes the only route to open up possibilities, try new approaches and find a better way.

Photo Credit: Wade Rockett

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Reinventing the Nonprofit Capital Campaign

Note: This post originally appeared on the About.com Nonprofit blog.

In a previous article on About.com, I discussed the idea of capacity capital, an incredibly exciting new funding vehicle for nonprofit organizations. Capacity capital is the money that nonprofits so desperately need to build strong, effective, sustainable organizations that can create more social change. It is a one-time investment of money to add new technology, an evaluation system, a new revenue function–ultimately money to grow or strengthen the organization. And it is infinitely more effective at achieving social impact than a traditional bricks and mortar capital campaign.

There are many perceived benefits to a bricks and mortar capital campaign. They can be a vehicle for asking for bigger gifts, a way to get in front of the community and be “noticed,” and a method for energizing the board and giving them something to do.

But there are often huge downsides to these campaigns. Often the cherished new building has much higher ongoing maintenance costs that were not factored into the campaign. A capital campaign can also cannibalize regular annual donors. And most detrimental, a new building often does not increase the nonprofit’s ability to create more social change. Does an in-school mentoring program really need a big, new headquarters? Do the costs for a nicer, larger office space directly result in more children being mentored or mentored more effectively?

What if instead of raising millions of dollars for a new building, a nonprofit raised that much money, through a capacity capital campaign, for the things they really need to create more social change:

  • New technology
  • New online fundraising software
  • A new donor database
  • Highly skilled and experienced development staff
  • A program evaluation study
  • A more effective program-delivery system

If those organization-building elements were in place, a nonprofit could start:

  1. Doing a better job of delivering the program
  2. Raising more revenue annually through a more effective fundraising function
  3. Securing more external support because they can prove program results

Instead of depleting the organization through cannibalized donors and increased on-going maintenance costs (as a traditional capital campaign does), a capacity capital campaign actually strengthens the organization and allows it to achieve more social impact, more effectively.

Before your organization decides to embark on a traditional capital campaign, take a big step back and ask your staff and board some hard questions:

  • What are we hoping to gain from this capital campaign?
  • Will this new building contribute to an increase in outputs (services) or outcomes (changes to our clients’ lives)?
  • Are there other items we need more than a new building in order to effectively do our work?

Nonprofits need to stop raising millions of dollars on physical monuments such as buildings, annexes, and new wings and instead start raising millions of dollars for the capacity elements that will actually help them create more social change. That would be revolutionary.

Learn more about financing, not fundraising and the new normal that is transforming older fundraising methods into new ones more suitable to a fast moving, digital, and results-oriented 21st century.

Photo Credit: Glyn Lowe Photoworks

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5 Hard Questions Nonprofits Should Ask

I’m a huge believer in questions. Sometimes asking good, hard questions is the only way to get to the bottom of something, to find the right path, to understand motivations, to analyze potential options. So too in the nonprofit sector hard questions can play a pivotal role. It is critically important that we move away from an unwritten rule that “charities” are doing good things that shouldn’t be questioned, to a place where nonprofits are continually asking themselves hard questions to ensure that they are making most effective use of resources and providing real solutions.

These are the 5 questions I’d like to see nonprofits asking themselves:

  1. Do we know if we are accomplishing anything? Because nonprofit organizations can’t simply look at a profit and loss statement to see progress, determining success is much more difficult than in the for-profit world. Yet a nonprofit organization cannot just translate community resources into activities and call it a day. Nonprofits are increasingly forced to demonstrate the change their work creates in the community. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit must conduct large evaluation projects. Rather, I’m arguing that a nonprofit must create a solid strategy for creating change and then find a way (as cheaply and simply as possible) to determine whether they are delivering on that strategy.

  2. Are we adapting to our external environment? Gone are the days when a nonprofit enjoyed a core group of donors that funded delivery of the same services to the community year after year. In this ever-changing, increasingly fast-paced world, nonprofits must constantly analyze the trends in their external environment (funding, competitors, community needs) and effectively adapt to those trends in order to survive and thrive.

  3. Is our board helping or hurting? A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most important asset, expanding its footprint in the community, bringing in resources, driving a bold direction, ensuring accountability and transparency. Or it can be a group of people who show up to network, meddle in minutiae, and bog the organization down. A nonprofit’s board needs to take a hard look at itself, as individual members and as a group, to determine if they are an effective governing body or not, whether they are moving the mission forward, or just getting in the way.

  4. Do we really need that new building? Time and again nonprofit organizations launch a capital campaign as a way to get their name out in the community, get the board motivated, bring big donors in the door, and seek significance and importance. But the result is often an organization crippled by resources draining away from the mission. Board and leadership needs to ask themselves if a new building is directly tied to achievement of mission. There are other, better ways to build your brand, rally the board and donors, and raise big dollars, like a growth or capacity capital campaign, which can actually result in more social impact and financial sustainability over the long term.

  5. Are we using money as a tool? Nonprofit boards often shy away from discussions about money, ignoring tools like financial reports, budget reviews and fundraising net-revenue analysis, in order to focus meetings on programs and mission. But money is an incredibly effective tool for making programs and mission happen, and nonprofits need to create and implement an integrated financial strategy that feeds into the overall organization’s plan. Money, if used strategically and effectively, can help your nonprofit do so much more.

To move forward, the nonprofit sector needs to do away with safe, routine conversations and start asking some hard questions. Indeed questions are sometimes the only way to open up possibilities, try new approaches and find a better way. Start asking some deeper, more probing, game-changing questions.

Photo Credit: e-magic

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Can’t Small Nonprofits Raise Capital Too?

In our two part interview with George Overholser of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, George made an argument that gave me and some of my readers pause. He argued that only the largest nonprofits can really benefit from his “radical” idea of using a capital campaign to build their organization (instead of a building). But with Social Velocity I have seen small and medium-sized nonprofits raise capital to grow their impact or  build a stronger, more sustainable organization, albeit on a smaller scale.

George believes that raising capital for building an organization is currently only feasible for the largest nonprofits, as he argued:

Only a small percentage of nonprofit organizations actually aspire to undergo major growth, or any of the other disruptive transformations that are inextricably linked to a capital investment…Still, what about the small organizations that DO aspire to undergo a big transformation?…I believe that it is absolutely vital that we come up with a way to better capitalize these smaller organizations. Sadly, though, at this stage of capital market evolution, it is still quite expensive to prepare for a successful nonprofit equity campaign. Unless several million is being raised [the costs are] prohibitively high. This constrains us to campaigns of $5 million or more, which, in turn, constrains us to organizations that are already pretty large.

This argument got me and some of my readers thinking. As one reader wrote:

As the ED for a very small nonprofit (<300K) I am greatly disheartened to essentially read “yes, we can cure the large guys, but for the rest of you -80% – well good luck! No answers for you yet.” WOW…Really is education and awareness for buyers to support the whole organization vs. its programs enough? (Although I agree wholeheartedly, a needed step) I believe there has to be a way to “create compelling ‘asks’ for equity capital” that is less expensive. There has to be way to finance a small organization’s desire to meet the needs of the community which could mean doubling their impact. We are asked to relearn, redo, change our practices to support (finance) the organization’s mission to change the world, but is no one considering the relearning, redoing or changing the expensive processes/methods so all nonprofits can benefit?

I agree wholeheartedly, and that need–to strengthen and grow smaller nonprofits–is why I launched Social Velocity. There is a category of capital that smaller nonprofits, who aren’t interested in or able to achieve major growth, can access. It can be capital to grow a successful program to other clients, other cities, other regions. Or it can be capital to strengthen and make more sustainable the organization.  For example, as any small nonprofit will tell you, it is nearly impossible to get a funder to pay for a Development Director, a donor database, marketing collateral, a new website and so on. These are the tools that will allow the “sales team” to raise the income necessary to run programs. What if these smaller nonprofits could hold a mini-capital campaign to raise the capital necessary to increase the enterprise’s ability to raise income. Or to purchase technology to increase operational effectiveness?  Or to grow, not to scale, but significantly?

True, a $5 million equity capital campaign is beyond all but the largest, most sophisticated nonprofits. But there is still the vast majority of organizations that are struggling within the vicious starvation cycle of not having the right elements of their built enterprise necessary to effectively deliver or grow programs. Yet money can be raised to build out that enterprise.

Social Velocity has worked with a number of small to medium sized nonprofits to create a pitch for capital to help the organizations strengthen their revenue function, grow programs, and so on (read about this here, here and here). The idea is the same as George’s, but on a smaller scale. With a good plan and the right pitch, any nonprofit can raise the capital required to achieve more social impact through a strong, sustainable, bigger enterprise. A nonprofit equity campaign is not just for the largest and wealthiest nonprofits. The principle can be applied to even the smallest nonprofit, and in that way, George’s radical idea could become revolutionary.

Photo Credit: Stuart Conner

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A Radical Spin on Capital Campaigns: An Interview with George Overholser, Part 2

George OverholserAs promised, today we are bringing you Part 2 of our interview with George Overholser from the Nonprofit Finance Fund. You can read Part 1 here.

Nell: You have argued before that to transform the nonprofit capital market we need a few capital deals at the top of nonprofit market. How do you think the bottom 80% of nonprofits (those with budgets under $1M) fit into a transformed nonprofit capital market?

George: I absolutely believe that the nonprofit capital market needs to extend everywhere, not to just the high profile “darlings” that seem to get all of the attention, but also the millions (!) of smaller nonprofits that truly make up the lion’s share of our vital nonprofit sector.

So why focus first on multi-million dollar growth plans? This is an excellent question!

One part of my response comes in the form of a reminder. Remember: MONEY AND CAPITAL ARE NOT THE SAME THING. Every nonprofit needs money to operate. But quite appropriately, only a small percentage of nonprofit organizations actually aspire to undergo major growth, or any of the other disruptive transformations that are inextricably linked to a capital investment. Very few for-profit companies with revenues of $1 million or less are interested in taking on equity. Nor should they! Small is beautiful! They are the bedrock of our economy. The same goes for our smaller nonprofits.

Still, what about the small organizations that DO aspire to undergo a big transformation, perhaps to double their ongoing impact, for example? Why not focus on them?

Well, I believe that it is absolutely vital that we come up with a way to better capitalize these smaller organizations. Sadly, though, at this stage of capital market evolution, it is still quite expensive to prepare for a successful nonprofit equity campaign. Unless several million is being raised, the hundred thousand or more dollars of required planning, documentation, due diligence, marketing, reporting and campaign management expense is prohibitively high. This constrains us to campaigns of $5 million or more, which, in turn, constrains us to organizations that are already pretty large.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised. There are hundreds of professional fundraising consulting firms that assist with traditional capital campaigns, involving billions of dollars each year. But they, too, are unable to justify their fees unless the campaigns involve a lot more money than most “small” nonprofits are prepared to take on.

I hope that some day there will be a less expensive way to create compelling “asks” for equity capital, but that day has not yet arrived.

As a field, we are still in the very early days of showing how (learning how!) philanthropic equity can help organizations thrive. As such, it seems prudent to focus initially on the limited number of comparatively high-profile organizations that seem best prepared to implement their social impact growth plans. This has led equity funders to partner, at least initially, mostly with organizations that have already shown they can scale. To date, NFF has worked on 16 transactions, involving $310 million of new philanthropic equity raised. Every one of those 16 organizations went into their campaigns armed with track records that showed, compellingly, that they already know how to grow, and are now prepared to accelerate. So far, in just two or three years, the group that we track closely has more than tripled its level of program execution, while also more than doubling the long-term business models that will sustain the execution once the equity runs out. If results like these can be kept up, I expect it will help to attract more and more equity-like funders that serve an ever-broadening range of high-performing nonprofit organizations.

Nell: You have argued in the past that the reason a nonprofit market for growth capital has not materialized is because nonprofit accounting does not allow for a distinction between money to build the organization (investments) and money to maintain services (revenue). But beyond the accounting issues there is also a fundamental lack of understanding about finance in the sector. What do you think will change that?

George: I envision an evolution where funders become more and more specialized. Most funders, I envision, will migrate towards playing the role of BUYER. They will be the real connoisseurs that search among providers to learn what works best. Then, without seeking to change those providers, they will fund the providers to do what they do so well. Collectively, the buyers will be an important part of the field’s overall portrait of sustainability. I would include government as being among the most important buyer-type funders, but so, too, would be the many philanthropic funders who seek the most effective existing ways to achieve social impact with their money.

I would expect a smaller number of funders to focus on playing the role of BUILDER — they are financiers, really, or banks. These financial specialists will play a niche role. Because nonprofits can only take on a limited amount of equity, the BUILDER funders will actually have to compete against each other to “win” the right to invest in the most promising nonprofit firms. And the way they will win in this competition is by offering not just money, but also very sound financial know-how, to the organizations they partner with.

Lots of accomplished BUYERS, a smaller number of accomplished BUILDERS. I sometimes explain this line of thinking by describing what happens when you go into a flower shop – suppose you want them to send flowers to your mom in Florida. Clearly, the vast majority of money that flows into this flower shop is money in exchange for flowers (BUYER-type money). Only a very small percentage of the money that flows into the flower shop comes in the form of capital – a bank loan, perhaps, or, in the early days, an initial equity stake. Thus, the vast majority of check-writers are interested in FLOWERS and the benefits that flowers bring. Only a very small minority of check-writers are interested in BALANCE SHEETS and the other technical details of finance.

I am hopeful that nonprofit equity accounting will allow funders to be better at self-selecting into their chosen areas of expertise. Most will need to be BUYERS of program execution. A smaller number of funders will emerge as the financially-oriented BUILDERS that are needed to provide philanthropic equity and growth stewardship.

Nell: Do you think there is something to be gained by having the bottom 80% of nonprofit organizations better financed, more knowledgeable about finance and with more access to patient capital? What needs to happen to get there?

George: This may sound strange, but I believe that the key to helping most nonprofits to thrive has more to do with improving our BUYING behaviors than to do with finding more capital. To me, the problem is not so much that the bottom 80% lacks access to the capital they would need to maintain healthy balance sheets. Rather, they find themselves chronically saying “yes” to funding arrangements that cause them to deplete these capital reserves. The capital can be raised — but the unhealthy buyer relationships cause the capital to evaporate.

It’s hard to place blame for this phenomenon. Taken one at a time, most of the grants that an organization relies upon make a lot of sense. But, collectively, when multiple funders converge upon an organization with differing theories of change, or expectations that someone else will pay for overhead, or a hunger for customized reporting, special tweaks to the program, and long conversations about small checks, organizations can’t help but burn through whatever small cushions of capital they may have squirreled away.

We need to raise consciousness among BUYERS that whole enterprises — not just programs — should be kept in mind when they make their grants.

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A Radical Spin on Capital Campaigns: An Interview with George Overholser, Part 1

George OverholserIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we are talking with George Overholser, Founder and Managing Director of NFF Capital Partners, a division of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. George is a recognized leader in the field of capitalizing high-performing nonprofit organizations. Since its launch in 2006, NFF Capital Partners has served as advisor on transactions involving over $250 million of charitable investment.

We had such a great conversation with George that we have broken it into two parts. Part 1 is below and Part 2 will be posted next week.

You can also read our past interviews with Clara Miller, Kevin Jones, Lucy Bernholz and Paul Tarini.

Nell: George, you have a pretty radical idea for getting nonprofits out of the hand-to-mouth starvation fundraising cycle, which you describe as expanding a traditional capital campaign so that the entire balance sheet of a healthy organization gets funded, not just buildings and endowments. How does a nonprofit break out of the mindset that they can only raise large amounts of money for a tangible building or endowment?

George: Ha! Please don’t tell my mom that I’m a radical! In truth, the concept of “Philanthropic Equity” may feel a bit radical, but really it is just an extension of tried and true nonprofit capital campaign techniques that have been with us for generations. Every year, billions of dollars are raised (often tens of millions at a time) to support capital campaigns for permanent, tangible things like buildings and endowments. Philanthropic equity suggests there is a third permanent, tangible thing that lends itself well to a capital campaign: not a building, not an endowment, but a business plan and management team that, if well-capitalized, will build an enduring and effective nonprofit organization.

This isn’t about just money. It’s about capital. And what makes capital different from all of the other money that flows into an organization? Precisely put, capital is all about turning a one-time infusion of money into benefits that recur over and over again. An endowment gets raised once and then provides subsidy every year, forever! Constructing a new building costs $5 million, once. But it wouldn’t be a good capital investment unless the building went on to house effective programs for years and years to come.

And so, the key shift in mindset is for an organization to envision very crisply how it intends to sustain ongoing program execution, once the equity has run out. It needs to paint a “portrait of sustainability” around which the philanthropic equity is raised.

But there’s a catch! The portrait cannot simply involve repeating equity capital campaigns over and over again. That would be cheating! Equity funders, who seek “perpetuities of impact”, would catch on pretty quick.

For example, imagine an internet-based nonprofit that plans to be sustained entirely by its online fundraising pitches. When originally launched, the organization has not yet built its web site, and so the online sustainability model is not ready to work. This is where philanthropic equity comes in. Philanthropic equity (from OFF-line funders) pays the bills while the site is first being built. It also subsidizes the organization in the early years of operation, before a critical mass of online donors has been established.

Once these changes (a new site, a critical mass) have been accomplished, the organization becomes self-sustaining, and — this is key — the site doesn’t need to raise any more philanthropic equity. In this way, a one-time infusion of $5 million in OFF-line philanthropic equity can give rise to $10 million per year of recurring ONLINE revenues that keep the program thriving year after year.

Nell: Why has this idea not caught on throughout the nonprofit sector? And how do we reach that tipping point?

George: Clara Miller is right: “Accounting is destiny!” And I believe that a change in nonprofit accounting practices would be our most effective way to move towards the next nonprofit capital market tipping point. These need not be official changes to GAAP (the federal standards), although that would be GREAT! As we’ve seen with our 16 philanthropic equity clients, an awful lot can be accomplished simply by adjusting the way today’s standard accounting rules are used to track equity.

Until recently, there was simply no way to distinguish nonprofit “equity” as being different from all the other types of money that flow into a nonprofit organization. There was no way to keep tabs on (a) who is and is not an equity investor, (b) how much equity has been consumed by the organization so far, or (c) whether or not the organization continues to take on more equity, in which case it has not yet achieved its chosen “portrait of sustainability”.

In recent years, we and others have begun to learn that equity accounting actually CAN be applied to nonprofits. Unlike for-profit accounting, it doesn’t track who has first dibs on the distribution of profits — after all, this is philanthropy, and there is no financial return to be had. But it DOES track whether or not the organization has achieved its chosen portrait of sustainability. It DOES answer the question of how much equity has been consumed so far. And, like any good naming opportunity, it DOES document who deserves the financial credit for having built an enduring institution.

Why does this matter?

This isn’t just window dressing, or simply a gimmick for creating more pseudo naming opportunities. Most of all, it is about changing incentives, and, therefore, it is about changing behaviors among key funders. That’s because clear accounting allows equity stakeholders to stay keenly focused, in a measurable way, on protecting the nonprofit’s FUTURE ability to have ongoing impact. (Just as someone who paid for a building is keenly focused on knowing it won’t be crumbling to pieces any time soon!)

Equity accounting also places the equity stakeholders into a single pool. It helps to point out that equity investors act in concert with one another, at the enterprise level, to comprise the nonprofit’s capital structure.

Thus, equity stakeholders (if you are lucky enough to have them!) provide a vital counterbalance to all of the other stakeholders, most of whom act alone (not in concert with others), most of whom seek nearer term results than the equity stakeholders, and most of whom need not contemplate the long-term consequences that their near-term desires may imply.

Please don’t get me wrong! These non-equity stakeholders (I often call them BUYERS) are the lifeblood of any sustainability plan. As BUYERS, who seek to exchange their hard-earned dollars for effective program execution, it is right and good that they demand certain accountabilities. Otherwise, our sector would not be performance-driven:

  • I am asking you to turn my money into effective program execution, and I would prefer you to have low overhead.
  • Please tell me how many tutoring sessions will happen as a result of my grant — the more the better!
  • Please customize your program to address the particular needs and communities that my foundation has charged me to serve.
  • I don’t need you to tell me about your other funders. Just write a report about my grant and what it accomplished. Again, the more you can accomplish during the grant period, the better!

But for an organization to thrive, it needs a counterbalance to the BUYERS. Equity stakeholders, (when they exist!), provide this counterbalance because they measure success in terms of how much impact the organization makes over the long run. Their presence—and their money—make it POSSIBLE for the organization to push back against unhealthy funding relationships… until healthy and enduring ones can be found. They ask questions like:

  • How do we avoid accepting underfunded program grants?
  • How do we resist the temptation to add too many new program features?
  • What can we invest in today that will make us more compelling in the future, even if it bloats our overhead for a while?
  • Can we really afford to keep a sub-par person in this key management role?
  • How can we grow more quickly (without imperiling the long-term health of the organization)?
  • When we look at the organization holistically, taking all of the funder relationships, program designs, infrastructure, balance sheet — you name it! — into account, does it feel like it will thrive and endure?
  • If we write a bigger equity check, will that make it easier for the management team to resist distractions in the critical early days? Will they be more likely to build an enduring institution?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with George next week.

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A Revolution in Nonprofit Finance: An Interview with Clara Miller

Last month we kicked off a new, monthly Social Velocity blog interview series where I interview leading thinkers and doers in the social innovation space. Our inaugural interview was with Kevin Jones co-founder of both Good Capital, one of the first venture capital funds that invests in social enterprises, and the Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) which marks its third year with the upcoming October event.

This month’s Social Velocity interview is with Clara Miller, President, CEO and founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national leader in nonprofit, philanthropic and social enterprise finance. Directly and with others, NFF has leveraged $1 billion of capital investment into nonprofits, and  provided over $200 million in direct loans. Clara Miller was named among The NonProfit Times “Power and Influence Top 50″ four years in a row and is a board member of GuideStar and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.



Nell: You and the Nonprofit Finance Fund have initiated this idea of equity capital for nonprofits, or money to “build” organizations rather than the tradition funding to “buy” services. Do you think the idea of equity capital for nonprofits is catching on?

Clara: First of all, I should say that many people have contributed to the idea of a nonprofit version of equity over the years.  My NFF colleague George Overholser has been a field leader.  He focuses almost exclusively on the version we call “growth” capital, which is used to rapidly build organizations, changing what they do through major investment undertaken around a single set of metrics, business plan, and ideally, with all funders acting in concert.

And yes, I do think the broader notion of “equity”—and for that matter, the importance of the balance sheet in its entirety—is catching on, especially among major foundations, capital campaign veterans and those familiar with these concepts in the for-profit world.  The broader concepts of “building” organizations and “buying” services, and how financial roles differ, are resonating strongly with both organizations and funders.  We have a foundation partner that has simply put the question, “is this a “buy” grant or a “build” grant?” on the program officers’ intake checklist.

Nell: How do traditional nonprofit capital campaigns, which are predominantly focused on raising money for new buildings, fit into all of this?

Clara: We think these “growth capital” and “equity” principles comprise an ideal way to think about (and operate) a successful capital campaign.  Our early work in the 1980s (when we were Nonprofit Facilities Fund, and exclusively financed  “community facilities” with loans) revealed that a rash of problems would almost invariably follow capital campaigns for facilities: cash crises, burnout, funder fatigue, “night of the living dead” program operations, the need to lease excess space at below-cost rent…you get the idea.  It was a real eye opener. We learned a lot about the need for truly unrestricted “growth capital,” in addition to funds focused (and often restricted) to build and fit out the facility.  Among the NFF-documented  lessons: that facilities projects typically need 3 to 4 times the bricks and mortar cost for working capital to cover program and administrative growth needs; that the building frequently changed the business model radically, but planning never covered the whole enterprise; and that putting large amounts of cash into an illiquid asset while expanding operations was problematic on a number of levels.  Also, many of these building projects came with opportunity costs: organizations weren’t investing in new technology, upgrading skill sets, or replenishing cash reserves.

Beyond facilities projects, capital campaigns frequently focus on other (typically illiquid) parts of the balance sheet: building an endowment, or on the acquisition of, for example, a program asset (such as a painting or piece of medical equipment). Thinking holistically about improving or acquiring illiquid assets, via a campaign for growth capital, can better the situation.

Nell: The for-profit sector currently enjoys a broader and deeper array of financial vehicles than does the nonprofit sector (seed funding, angel investors, growth capital, stacked deals, etc.) do you anticipate that the capital market for nonprofit organizations will become more robust and what will it take for that to happen?

Clara: I’ll push back a little and say that the vast majority of both nonprofits and for-profits (that are small, with less than $200K in revenue) have approximately the same level of access to similar financing vehicles: sweat equity, seed/angel funders/investors (friends and family, the first foundation grants, etc.), credit card debt, bank loans, retained earnings, etc.   Then there is “growth capital” or “capital grants,” which a very small proportion can access in either sector.  And while large for-profits are much, much larger than large nonprofits, large nonprofits have reliable access to some highly sophisticated funding and financing vehicles that for-profits don’t (and vice versa).  Some very large nonprofits have access to for-profit subsidiary ventures and investments—and some are highly sophisticated (universities investing in development of intellectual property and associated products, CDFIs with venture funds, public media with development and sales of program assets, and others).  And on the debt side, much of nonprofits’ “capital market” is for-profit-run (bank debt, investments, tax-exempt bonds, etc.)

The most important barrier to enterprise scale (for either sector) is not so much lack of access to capital as it is a scalable, focused business model with reliable net revenue.  Once you have those—or evidence that they are possible—capital will flow.

But that said, we’re talking about a couple of “market wide” dysfunctions.  The first is that despite highly resourceful managers, sophisticated board members and billions of dollars of revenue and capital funds, there is no tradition of “enterprise finance” in the sector.  “Pretty bad ‘best practices’” designed to make nonprofits more efficient and fiscally prudent cost the sector dearly.  Confusion about the direct funding of programs (it’s not possible, most of the time you need to fund an enterprise to deliver programs) means capital is mixed up with revenue, growth with regular operations, and “build” grants with “buy” grants (and a variety of hybrids!).  This wreaks financial havoc in growing organizations. Missions—along with the public—suffer.

The second problem is that there’s no really reliable signaling mechanism for organizations to fold their tents, pass their programs to another organization, and go out of business.  In the for-profit world, that would be financial failure; in our world, that’s not so straightforward: so we hang in there, meaning resources that might go to a stronger program remain tied up.  It also means that the biggest and richest players have (and, largely, keep) the vast lion’s share of resources (even more pronounced than in the for-profit world).

Finally, there is a problem with access to charitable revenue.  Promising, mid-sized organizations—especially those serving low-income people (and therefore lacking access to the traditional source of capital in the sector, individual donors) have a difficult time building the operation they need to grow.  Foundations are the logical path here, and having foundations embrace “enterprise friendly” practices—including growth capital and build-buy understanding—can go a long way toward changing that dynamic.  Establishing a field-wide understanding of basic enterprise finance principles will help insure that growth capital campaigns become true innovation with long-term staying power, rather than a short-term novelty.

Nell: Growth capital for nonprofits is mostly only available to larger nonprofits that have the capacity to prove the results of their model. Do you think growth capital will increasingly become available to the bottom 80% of nonprofits (those with a budget less than $1 million), and how and when do you see that happening?

Clara: Our goal is not that all organizations of every size and business model have access to growth capital and pursue aggressive growth goals ASAP.  That’s neither possible nor desirable in either the for-profit or the nonprofit worlds.   In both sectors, some business models may not be scalable, and that’s ok—in fact, it’s good.  Nobody wants their favorite neighborhood clam shack or Italian restaurant to go public or become a Pizza Hut.  Diversity is good; and most people like things about both large and small enterprises. This is true in any sector, where economies of scale and preservation of quality are frequently subject to the laws of diminishing returns.  Growth capital is not for everyone, and it is only one tool in the enterprise tool box.

The more important revolution is to make broadly accessible the tools and principles of enterprise finance—with a clear understanding of the realities of the commercial proposition of the sector (i.e., there’s a reason we have a nonprofit sector). There are well-managed and poorly managed (and capitalized) enterprises of all sizes and tax statuses, and there are scalable and non-scalable ones as well.  Most critical on the scaling front is that our sector embraces and deploys the broad set of principles that make enterprises of any size or shape effective in reliably achieving great results.  Trouble arises when a specific social benefit or innovation is so compelling that we all want the maximum number of people to benefit from it: Our failure to use the principles of growth capital and proper scaling techniques to assure results while growth proceeds is (and has been) tragic for the social sector, and a change in practice can help.

Nell: How do you think the Social Innovation Fund will change the capital landscape for nonprofits?

Clara: I think the SIF already has raised the profile of the ideas around growth capital and scaling discussed here.  And it certainly has the attention of a group of large foundations, a significant number of whom are applying as intermediaries.  I think it took courage for them to apply, and courage for the SIF to get developed. At the beginning there will be some fits and starts, and government procurement can be dicey (especially when it’s trying to be capital rather than revenue), and foundations are trying to make it work in this way for the first time.  That said, it’s very exciting for us to see “growth capital,” which is the core concept, being given a whirl by both the White House and the Foundation world.

Nell: Venture philanthropy funds (that provide growth capital to nonprofits) and social venture capital funds (that provide capital to double bottom-line businesses) currently don’t interact very much in the marketplace. Do you see an opportunity for greater integration of nonprofit and for profit social investing? And if so, what will it take to get there?

Clara: I think there is increasingly frequent interaction between for-profit and non-profit business models (and entrepreneurs) on the conceptual level, and that’s being translated into some compelling platform-agnostic enterprise structures to accomplish social ends in many sectors—health care, research, arts and culture, media, housing—are all examples.  And interactions may not be best between two enterprises that are both at the “venture” or “start up” stage.  A start-up nonprofit may want to partner with a fully-scaled for-profits (and this is common), while a fully-scaled nonprofit may want to create (or house) a venture for-profit to help reach certain social goals.

On the “deal” level, I think there’s a reason to maintain a bright line between the nonprofit and for-profit tax status.  I favor crisply defined hybrids (of which there are a variety) over mushiness (we’re a for-profit but we are good people doing socially beneficial work) because they are more likely to stand the test of time and skepticism, and since ownership and tax structures have bright-line legal and moral duties attached to them.

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