I hope you all find time over the holidays to relax, unwind and spend time with friends and family. Thank you all for reading and contributing to the Social Velocity blog this year. I really appreciate all of my readers and look forward to talking with you in the new year. Happy Holidays!
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2011 were:
- 5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors
- The Financing Not Fundraising Blog Series
- 10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November
- The Problem with Strategic Planning
- 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2011
- 4 Things Every Nonprofit Needs
- What is Social Innovation?
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan
- 7 Things Board Members Can Do to Raise More Money
- Why Nonprofit Overhead is Destructive
Photo Credit: Charline Tetiyevsky
My annual predictions for the coming year are probably a bit more wishful thinking than actual prediction. It’s hard to say if my predictions for 2011 became a reality for the sector as a whole. But I am ever an optimist and continue to think that the nonprofit sector is getting smarter, more effective, and better able to create real, lasting change in our communities. I truly believe that our challenging economy offers nonprofits a real opportunity to reinvent themselves.
So here are my predictions (hopes) for what the nonprofit sector will move towards in 2012:
- More Open, Engaging Organizations
Smart nonprofits are getting better at engaging armies of supporters. In order to do that, they have to cede some control. Nonprofits that can allow volunteers, donors and advocates to engage their friends in their own way will unleash a growing army of support for their organizations. Those nonprofits that continue to control the message and the method, that only engage their donors when they need money, and ignore the increasingly networked world will wither on the vine.
- Smarter Boards
I am an endless optimist when it comes to nonprofit boards of directors. Boards are, for the most part, dysfunctional, but I believe that they are getting smarter and more effective. I think boards will start asking more and better questions, increasingly put themselves to their highest and best use, focus more on strategic issues as opposed to day-to-day tasks, empower their staff leadership to take the organization in more innovative directions, and start putting their money (and their networks) where their mouth is. Because this new harsher environment absolutely necessitates a smart, strategic, innovative board.
- More Honest Communication Between Nonprofits and Their Donors
Oh yes, I do, I do believe it. The nonprofit sector’s proclivity to endlessly beat around the bush, tell donors what they want to hear, and sugar-coat the truth will start to wane in the new year. Because the reality is that a severely under-resourced nonprofit sector is the new normal. That truth is harder and harder to hide. Nonprofits need more money for infrastructure, more and better staff, technology. And they need their donors to step up to the plate and fund it. Those nonprofits that continue to fear their donors will continue to struggle. Those that take the leap and tell donors how it is, how it REALLY is, will propel themselves out of the starvation cycle.
- More Strategic Approaches to Solving Social Problems
It’s increasingly meaningless for nonprofits to talk about the “good work” they do. In order to attract donors, nonprofits must be able to articulate what they do and how it results in change. This necessitates an overall strategic approach to their work. From creating a theory of change, to developing on a comprehensive strategy, to raising the money required to execute on that strategy, to aligning money and mission, to evaluating their efforts, to translating their evaluation into a compelling story, nonprofits have to get more strategic. Those organizations that take a step back and create, and fully integrate their organization into, a long-term plan will be much more successful and sustainable.
- More Financed Nonprofits
As part of this more strategic approach, nonprofits will (must) move towards a broader, more strategic approach to funding their work. They will realize that the hamster wheel of chasing receding dollars in a scattered approach just isn’t going to cut it anymore. As the fundamental economic restructuring that we are currently experiencing continues, nonprofits must create a financial model for their work. The financial status quo just will no longer work in the nonprofit sector.
I’m not a fortune teller, but I am an optimist. I have tremendous hope for our great nonprofit sector. We may be in the depths of an on-going, structurally transformative recession, but it in no way is the death knell for the nonprofit sector. It is simply an opportunity for nonprofits to get smarter, more honest, more open, more strategic, and more sustainable. And that’s exciting.
Photo Credit: riptheskull
There was an overwhelming reaction to my post last week, 5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors. I received more comments on that post than any other blog post in the 3 year history of the Social Velocity blog.
It seems there was a sort of collective sigh of relief in being told that it’s ok to be honest with donors. There were some amazing comments from readers, you can read all of the comments here. But I wanted to highlight a few in particular.
Some readers have been telling their donors the truth for awhile, like Sharon:
I have been honest with my donors for years, but I know I am in the minority, because some of my donors appear shocked when I explain the truth. I hope many more non profits accept this truth, because it’s only when the majority of us pull together that we will see real change.
And this from Linda,
Thank you so very much. This is a conversation that we often have in our world. Amen to transparency and truth. Well done!
And others recounted their own experiences of working with donors who don’t get it, like Curtis:
We recently had someone offer us $1,400 and they had this huge laundry list of expectations. At our new location $1,400 barely covers the electric bill for a single month.
I am so on board with being real with funders and board members about what it takes to run our program! I had to inform my board that my staff can not be paid with in-kind donations!
I get the sense that there are many nonprofit leaders out there who want to be up front and honest with donors. Maybe they just need permission to do so.
Perhaps Marjorie says it best. The nonprofit sector needs to stand up for what they really need in order to be successful at solving social problems:
In an era of shrinking federal & state funding for human services, it’s tempting to feel relieved at “flat funding”. Trying to make that work just leads to substandard services delivered (in the case of nursing homes, day care, etc) by front-line staff without a living wage or health insurance. Rather than enable the illusion that the nonprofit sector can miraculously make it work, there are times we need to say that WE CAN’T DO IT without appropriate funding … and let public funders and policy-makers deal with the consequences of their budget decisions.
Thanks so much for the comments, everyone, and keep them coming! You are an inspiration to me. Stand up for your work, for your organizations, for your staff, and tell donors what they really need to hear.
Many of the ills of the nonprofit sector can and should be solved by educating and strengthening nonprofit leaders, staffs and boards, but there is also work to be done with nonprofit donors. Those private individuals, foundations and corporations that support the nonprofit sector also need to change their approach if nonprofits are ever going to emerge from the starvation cycle.
There are some key things nonprofit donors need to do differently in order to make their gifts go farther:
- If you want something, fund it. Over and over again a foundation or individual donor will tell a nonprofit that they want to see a program evaluation, or a strategic plan, or a stronger financial model, but they refuse to fund it. This automatically puts a nonprofit into a catch-22 of needing a key element to get funding, but not having the funding to get the key element. It’s an unwinnable situation and no donor should put a nonprofit in that position.
- Invest in a management team you believe in, then back off. Foundations in particular tend to attach unnecessary strings (endless reporting requirements, benchmarks) to the grants they make. In theory, these strings exist in order to ensure a good investment. But in reality, the only way results will happen is if there is a great plan and a talented team to execute on it. If you are worried about a nonprofit’s ability to execute, then you probably aren’t comfortable with an investment in that team. Either invest elsewhere, or back off and let them perform.
- Don’t expect big things from a little gift. Donors sometimes get a big head about the gifts they make. They expect a nonprofit to expand a $1 million program with a $5,000 gift, or create a brand new program from one donor’s one-year investment. Those are ridiculous, and possibly hubris-filled, expectations. You get what you pay for. Invest accordingly.
- Understand that you hold the power and use it benevolently. Because you are writing the checks, you have the power in this funder/fundee relationship. A nonprofit leader will never be able to be completely open and honest with you for fear that you will take your money elsewhere. Recognize that fact. Don’t put undue pressure on the organization, don’t ask for special favors, and be as hands-off as possible.
- Don’t just buy services, build organizations. It might seem more exciting to have all your gifts go to support direct services, but realize that those services will be stronger and more sustainable if there is a healthy, effective organization behind them. That means a nonprofit needs a capable, well-trained and paid staff; adequate equipment, systems and space; and efficient technology. Occasionally think about supporting those infrastructure items so that your program gifts can go even further.
- Get others to give. If you are a philanthropist, chances are you know other philanthropists. Share your knowledge of the great management teams and infrastructure gifts you make. Don’t invest in a vacuum. Actively recruit your friends and colleagues to build on your investments.
If we really want to change the nonprofit sector we have to change the donors who support it. It is no longer enough just to write a check and be done with it. If you really care about the organizations you support, you’ve got to step up and make more thoughtful, necessary, smarter investments.
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com
Nonprofit leaders sometimes suffer from small, or short-term, thinking. It makes sense that they would. The sector’s funding, structures and standards are set up to encourage, if not reward, small, risk-averse thinking. But small thinking can actually be a bigger risk to an organization and ultimately to the solution it exists to achieve. To really reach solutions, at the scale that we increasingly need, nonprofit leaders must break free from short-term thinking and lead by example into the world of big, long-term, game-changing approaches.
Here are few ways that small thinking actually jeopardizes a nonprofit and the solution it is working towards:
- Not creating a growth plan when there is obvious need for the solution. Someone started a nonprofit for a reason–a need existed. Either the nonprofit is working to significantly get rid of that need, or they are just getting by. I understand that we are in the midst of a recession, but if you don’t have a big vision and big, bold plans to get there, who will be inspired to invest in a big way?
- Not pushing your donors to give much, much more. Connected to creating bigger plans is stretching your donors further. Nonprofits at times seem afraid to upgrade donors. They are happy if a donor simply returns for another year. But with a little research into the capacity of a donor, and a compelling plan for what you would do with an increased investment, the money is sure to follow.
- Not adequately investing in an earned income stream with a demonstrated market. A nonprofit may have done the research and made an attempt at selling a new product or service, but they are afraid of taking the plunge and significantly going after that market. The end result is that a competitor finds the market the nonprofit identified and the opportunity is gone.
- Not hiring, and paying for, the best and brightest staff available. Sometimes nonprofit organizations pay salaries well below the going rate, even within the nonprofit sector. It is no surprise, then, that the staff they do recruit lack the experience, vision or skills to take the organization to the next level. If you want big results, you need to recruit people who have the ability to plan and execute in a big way.
- Not investing in next generation tools for doing your work. So many nonprofit organizations exist on a shoe string, but the advent of free-ware and social media has leveled the playing field immensely. Now you can have a state of the art sales team for very little upfront cost. You can spread your message, garner support, find advocates, track them and customize your communication with them all for the investment of some staff time. Climb on board this new train, experiment and see where it leads.
These are challenging times, to be sure. But the worst thing to do is to lock yourself in a box of your own making. Challenge your donors, your board, your staff, your volunteers to do more, to be more, to achieve more. Paint the big picture, instead of the small one, and see where it leads.
Photo Credit: ilovememphis
A new year is always a time to re-evaluate things, to forge a new approach, to finally change something that just isn’t working anymore. In the nonprofit world, how nonprofits and their major donors interact could stand a new approach. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be open and honest with those who fund your work, as Ann Goggins Gregory has pointed out. And sometimes nonprofits feel beholden to donors who are taking the organization in the wrong direction, in this case blogger David Henderson encourages nonprofits to “fire bad donors.”
This disconnect between nonprofits working to solve problems and the donors who fund them can sometimes seem a vicious, unending cycle.
But with a new year comes a new opportunity to alter this pattern. Here’s what nonprofit leaders can do to create the donors they really need:
- Inspire your donors. Make your ask for money from a place of impact, not need. Talk about your bold, ambitious strategies for change. Describe an opportunity so compelling, so invigorating, so inspiring that donors can’t help but reach for their pocketbook and follow where you lead. Part of your job as a nonprofit leader is to paint such a clear, desirable picture of a future goal that it becomes a magnet for the resources needed to get there.
- Ask for more. It’s not a donor’s job to automatically give you as much as they possibly can. Rather, it’s your job to convince them to give until it hurts. When a donor gives you less than you asked for, or less than it’s really going to cost, push back. Don’t just thank them and walk away. If they truly can’t or won’t give more, ask them to help you find a funding partner. If you want donors who share the burden of your work, treat them as such. Encourage them to give more, bigger, better. Not just with their pocketbook, but with their rolodex too. Be honest with them about how they could really make a difference and at what level.
- Command respect as an expert. Donors sometimes carry a hubris that they know best how to spend the dollars they invest in an organization. Work to forge a partnership with your donors that recognizes you and your organization as the solution provider. A donor’s ideas and insights as an investor should be welcome, but at the end of the day you know what is best for your organization, its mission and the impact you are working to achieve. Make sure your donors know that.
- Stop apologizing for administrative costs. Educate your donors about how significant social change can’t be bought on a shoe string. If your donors are committed to the work your organization is doing, then they must invest in the personnel, space, technology, fundraising and other needs that are integral to that work. Don’t let funders only fund “direct program expenses,” as if such a thing even existed. Don’t let your donors make meaningless distinctions that end up crippling your organization financially.
- Educate donors about capacity capital. To take the last point even further, capacity capital (or money for personnel, technology, systems, space) is a new concept for philanthropists who tend to like to fund programs alone. But capacity capital could actually have a much higher social return on investment for donors because it strengthens an organization so that it can create more impact in perpetuity. But donors won’t understand that on their own. You need to make that case. Figure out what it will actually cost to hire the staff, secure the space, buy the technology you need. Then educate your donors about how funding those things could transform your organization and your impact.
It’s exhausting when you lack the donors you really need. But you can’t just wait around hoping they’ll see the light. It’s up to you to transform a mediocre or troublesome donor into a competent and willing partner in change.
Photo Credit: WTL Photos
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