Nonprofit Finance Fund
The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) today released the results of their fifth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey. This year almost 6,000 nonprofits responded and the results point to a nonprofit sector that is shifting fundamentally, where traditional funding sources (like government dollars) are shrinking, while demand for services is increasing. Nonprofit leaders must adapt their business models in order to keep up.
As NFF CEO Antony Bugg-Levine put it:
Nonprofits are changing the way they do business because they have to: government funding is not returning to pre-recession levels, philanthropic dollars are limited, and demand for critical services has climbed dramatically. At the same time, 56 percent of nonprofits plan to increase the number of people served. That goal requires systemic change and innovation– both within the sector, and more broadly as a society that values justice, progress and economic opportunity.
With demand increasing and traditional resources drying up, something has got to give. Nonprofits are finding that they must get more strategic about using money and determining the impact of their work.
Some of the most interesting findings from the 2013 survey are:
- 42% of survey respondents report that they do not have the right mix of financial resources to thrive and be effective in the next 3 years.
- Over the next twelve months, 39% plan to change the main ways they raise and spend money.
- 23% will seek funding other than grants or contracts, such as loans or investments.
- For the first time in the five years of the survey, more than half (52%) of respondents were unable to meet demand for their services last year (up from 44% in 2009), and 54% say they won’t be able to meet demand this current year.
As one survey respondent put it, it is time to move from the reactive to the strategic:
Our greatest challenge is financial stability and sustainability. We must be more effective to raise 50% more money than we did two years ago—with the same number of staff members, but using all the skills and talents each staff member brings to the table to maximize our efforts. Our budget is to the bone, and our staff is overstretched….We…must learn how to work proactively and strategically… and stop playing catch up, as we have for most of our existence.
Because NFF has been doing this survey for the past 5 years they can start to look at trends over time. They’ve developed a pretty cool Survey Analyzer Tool that lets you slice and dice the data by geography, sector, budget, and more.
I encourage you to dig in and take a look at the data. You can find all of the survey reports and tools at the Nonprofit Finance Fund website here.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Kate Barr, Executive Director of Nonprofits Assistance Fund, whose mission is to foster community development and vitality by building financially healthy nonprofit organizations. Kate has led the organization’s growth as a premier resource for training, strategic financial counsel, and financing for nonprofit organizations in Minnesota. Kate enjoys helping nonprofits consider the relationship between their mission and program goals and their financial and organizational strategy. She frequently writes and speaks on nonprofit financial and strategy and is lead blogger for Balancing the Mission Checkbook.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Nonprofits Assistance Fund is all about helping nonprofit leaders become more financially savvy. Why do you think strategic financial management is so important for nonprofit leaders and what holds some nonprofit leaders back from achieving it?
Kate: I think about it this way: if strategic direction in general is important for nonprofit organizations, then strategic financial management is equally important as a component of that direction and vision. When a nonprofit develops a strategic plan they are also adopting a financial strategy. Too often, though, that financial strategy is underdeveloped because the vision and strategic goals don’t incorporate the business model that’s required to support the plan. At Nonprofits Assistance Fund we unpack the financial aspect of a nonprofit business model into four inter-connected components: revenue mix; cost of effective programs; infrastructure; and capital structure. I see the biggest obstacle to understanding financial strategy is the singular focus that many nonprofit leaders place on revenue, revenue, revenue. If we could just raise enough money, they think, it will all work out. In reality the business model is more complex than that. The extreme revenue pressures that many nonprofits have faced over the last few years have uncovered the vulnerability of business models. Fortunately, savvy leaders are stepping back to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their financial strategy and being more intentional about identifying and creating a business model that can work.
Nell: A few months ago you wrote a rebuttal to the Center of Philanthropy’s recent survey that claimed nonprofit managers lack solid financial knowledge. What would you say is the actual extent of financial knowledge among the leaders of the nonprofit sector? And what can we do to improve it?
Kate: Yes, I was critical of the study because the findings were based on an extremely narrow test of knowledge to define financial literacy. As we said in the column, the report did not make a connection between the “lack of financial knowledge” based on the survey and the health and vitality of the nonprofits and their missions in the community. Frankly, the fact that so many nonprofits have been able to respond to huge increases in demand for service without going over the cliff is testament to some pretty remarkable financial skills. The direct answer to the question, though, is that the financial knowledge is mixed. Anyone with financial management responsibility needs to understand the terminology of nonprofit finance and know how to read and make use of financial information. Leaders of nonprofits need to have both technical knowledge – what I would categorize as financial management skills – and leadership capacity to navigate changes to their business models. There has been a lot of progress in building financial management skills as the field has become more professionalized. There are many training opportunities for skill building, both in person workshop and online learning (including Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s training workshops and webinars). Financial leadership capacity requires more than a few classes. It takes experience, knowledge, and guts to align mission, strategic plan, and financial structure in a way that build sustainable community impact. I think the ideal nonprofit leader combines passion for the mission with excitement for the business challenge.
Nell: There is a phenomenon in the nonprofit sector that when business people join a nonprofit board they often leave their financial and business acumen at the door fearing it could muddy the charitable work of the organization. Why do you think this is and what can we do to overcome that tendency?
Kate: I’ve seen two different dynamics when this happens with board members: wishful thinking and misunderstanding. The wishful thinking problem arises when board members believe that nonprofits operate outside of the market and that their good work can be performed with minimal cost and simple revenue streams. The misunderstanding is just another version of the “nonprofits should operate more like businesses” myth. Nonprofits are businesses. This “advice” underestimates the complexity of nonprofits as business enterprises. Board members can’t be effective unless they understand how the enterprise works and what the board’s role is in planning and governing. Overcoming this tendency starts with board leadership and carries through recruiting, orientation, and ongoing board development. The executive director or CEO has an important role to work with the board chair or governance committee to prepare and support board members’ ability to understand and build the business.
Nell: One of the most exciting developments in the last year or so is the growing interest in and experimentation with social impact bonds, or pay for success bonds, a public/private funding vehicle for nonprofits based on outcomes. Minnesota has already begun to experiment with a $10 million pilot. What, if anything, has Minnesota learned so far and what do you see as the future for this new financial vehicle?
Kate: There is a lot going on in efforts to develop models and financial structures to pay for results, including social impact bonds, pay for success contracting, and the Minnesota pay for performance pilot. The Minnesota state legislature approved a $10 million state appropriation bond to test a pay for performance approach for some state funded programs. The Minnesota pilot is the first experiment to use an actual bond offering as the financial structure. The advisory committee started meeting early this year and has just issued a Request for Information for nonprofit service providers in workforce development and supportive housing. What we’ve learned so far in developing the Minnesota pilot is that every question leads to three more questions. Part of the complexity stems from the goals. In each of the models in development there are actually multiple goals: identifying program designs that work; saving the state money; attracting new funds; and sharing or transferring financial risk. Any one of these goals requires capacity to deliver and appropriate measures for success. Combining all four goals, as most of the models do, creates something of a bear to design and evaluate. Some of the open questions in Minnesota include: the methodology for the economic measure of success; the role of evaluator; the time-frame for measuring and valuing ROI to the state; access to the data that will be used for monitoring; the market for the bonds; and the appropriate level of risk for nonprofits to bear. The Minnesota pilot does not transfer the financial risk to the bondholders in the same way as the SIB model so there is also a working capital gap for the service providers. We are assessing what will be needed for our loan fund to help with that. As for the future, while there is great enthusiasm for these ideas and pilot projects we have to keep in mind that this is all still early stage with lots of lessons to be learned before we even know if these can attract significant new funds.
Nell: One of the big debates in the nonprofit sector centers around a distinction between program and administrative (or “overhead”) expenses. Rating agencies are just starting to realize that this distinction is damaging to the nonprofit sector. But how do we really move beyond this and get a majority of funders, regulators and others to recognize the danger of evaluating nonprofits based on how they spend money versus how they achieve results?
Kate: Is this even really a debate anymore? There’s pretty universal agreement that the functional expense ratio doesn’t measure nonprofit effectiveness, efficiency, or accountability. The challenge now is communication and education. This one ratio has so dominated every nonprofit financial measurement that we are forced to try and undo decades of practice. Nonprofits bought into the ratio, too, and reinforced it with pie charts and donor messages about how “every dollar goes to program”. Is it any surprise that donors listened and believed us? It took years to create the “standard” that expense ratio is the most useful measure for nonprofit financial results. Unfortunately it’s going to take time to re-educate. We have to start within the nonprofit field itself. There are still many nonprofits that promote their low overhead ratio in fundraising because, they claim, it helps them to attract and retain donors. It’s easy to calculate and communicate. Rather than battle the monster that we helped to create, I think we need to change gears, replace the ratio with more meaningful information about impact and financial health, and raise expectations for results. I really appreciate that Financial Scan, the new product from Guidestar and Nonprofit Finance Fund, doesn’t even include the functional expense ratio on the financial health dashboard or accompanying analysis reports. None of the other ratios – that are much more useful – are quite as simple, though. We’re going to be having this “debate” for some time to come.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Karina Mangu-Ward. Karina is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts a social enterprise for innovation and adaptive change across the arts sector. She leads the strategy and development of ArtsFwd.org, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation. Her interest is in bringing adaptive capacity and innovation from the margins of dialogue in the arts sector to the center.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: ArtsFwd is about encouraging and profiling innovation in the arts. But innovation is such a loaded and overused word, what does it mean to ArtsFwd and what do you think is true innovation?
Karina: Innovation is definitely a buzzy word, so we try to be careful about how we use it. ArtsFwd is a project of EmcArts, a non-profit that works with arts organizations across the country to strengthen their adaptive capacities and advance the practice of innovation. So we’re primarily concerned with organizational innovation, which EmcArts has defined as instances of organizational change that: 1) result from a shift in underlying assumptions, 2) are discontinuous from previous practices, and 3) provide new pathways to creating public value.
So we’re not talking about creativity, which is more of an individual pursuit, or inspiration, which is about a momentary spark. The stories we tell on ArtsFwd are about organizations working to build their capacity to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment through the process of innovation, which requires a cross-functional team working together over a sustained period of time to develop, test, and optimize genuinely new approaches.
Nell: Why do you think innovation is particularly important in the arts world and why now?
Karina: In the past 10 years, unprecedented changes in our operating environment have placed radical new demands on our arts organizations. We’re seeing changes in patterns of public participation, technological access to the arts, generational and demographic shifts, new forms of resource development, and many more factors. Now more than ever, it’s apparent that the “muscles” arts leaders exercise to promote organizational stability need to be balanced by equally strong muscles around adaptive capacity. We believe that organizations can build those muscles, and an ultimately an organizational culture that is intrinsically flexible and responsive, by in investing in incubating innovation.
While a few training opportunities exist to support adaptive change, like those offered by EmcArts’ Innovation Labs and New Pathways for the Arts programs, the nonprofit cultural field lacked an arena for timely, field-wide conversation and peer-to-peer learning around these new practices. In order to pick up on the remarkably innovative work underway in some organizations, so that individual examples of success can become new norms in the field, there was an urgent need for a field-wide learning platform. In response to this need, EmcArts created ArtsFwd a place for arts leaders to learn from each other about building adaptive capacity and the power of effective innovation.
Nell: What are some of the most innovative things you’ve seen in the arts?
Karina: I love the story of how the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco transformed their visitor experience from “come, look, leave” to “immersive.” There’s a lot of discussion right now about how the arts sector can move from thinking about audiences as passively receptive to actively engaged, and I think YBCA is at the bleeding edge of this work. They’ve changed the museum’s hours, handed curatorial duties over to junior staff, redesigned their website around big ideas instead of logistics, and started a new personalized arts education program called YBCA:You. Check out our short documentary and written profile about how they did it .
The Wooster Group’s Video Dailies Blog is a great example of putting technology to work to build audiences in a way that is genuine to the artistic core of the organization. I think that’s really hard to do. The Wooster Group had to rethink their assumptions about organizational structure by inviting the entire staff to participate in a lateral way in the creation of a daily short video that truly blurs the line between marketing and art. Check out their profile on ArtsFwd.
One that we haven’t covered on ArtsFwd is the Portland Museum of Art’s Object Stories. With this project, they invited visitors to bring a personally meaningful object with them into a booth at the museum and record a story about it. The booth took a series of pictures and creates an audio slideshow, which became part of an exhibit at the museum and an online gallery. It’s a beautiful example of creating an authentically participatory experience that spans the divide between visitor and creator.
Nell: People often say that when economic times are hard charitable dollars to the arts are the first to go because the arts are more “expendable” than social services and other more basic needs. How do you respond to that idea?
Karina: I’m (obviously) predisposed to think that defunding the arts is a great way to shoot ourselves collectively in the foot. But what I find really exciting right now is that we’re seeing a lot of innovative arts groups partnering with social service and urban development organizations to improve their communities. The arts have always been a part of making our communities (and lives) livable, so it’s inspiring to see the connection between arts and direct services forged more deeply.
For example, on ArtsFwd we’re following what’s happening at Adventure Stage Chicago, a theater organization that was created within the Northwestern University Settlement House (NUSH), a century old social service provider, as they join forces to incorporate the arts into social services delivery. Artful practices are being integrated in NUSH’s Head Start program, summer camps for kids, and adult programs, including their food bank, and senior program. Anyone who receives services was invited to co-create a new theater piece about “home,” which was performed in the Adventure Stage auditorium in Spanish, the native language for most of the community. We have a multimedia profile about their process premiering on ArtsFwd in our Innovation Stories section. Stay tuned!
Also, there’s a lot of talk about placemaking happening right now, and I’m encouraged to see the arts taking a vital role in that conversation. For example, Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis is working on a project called Irrigate, which is an artist-led creative placemaking initiative that will help turn the six miles surrounding a new light rail under construction in an underdeveloped and undervalued part of Saint Paul into a welcoming place. The project brings together infrastructure development, a diverse community, and artists in a cross-sector collaboration.
Nell: Arts organizations in particular have struggled because of increasing competition for an audience’s time. How do you think the arts can overcome those trends? And are some areas of the arts better positioned to overcome it?
Karina: What I’m seeing in the arts sector right now is a shift from thinking about the abundance of new technologies and channels for entertainments as competition, to thinking about them as opportunities for cooperation. After all, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts indicated that 74% of Americans are engaging with arts, yet only 35% are doing so through professional “benchmark” arts organizations. There’s a huge territory of interest to cultivate, if we can find ways of connecting and engaging.
Nina Simon is doing great work in this area right now and writing about it with refreshing openness on her blog Museum 2.0. For example, she experimented with having a puzzle, unrelated to the artistic work, in the galleries to engage visitors for a long period of time, though not directly with the art. She was testing the idea that by bringing potentially “competing” activities into the gallery you increase the length of time someone is in a artful environment and therefore the chances that they will have a meaningful experience with the art. There was some interesting push back on that experiment from artists, which you can read about here.
This in the same vein, City Lights Theater Company in San Jose is experimenting with Tweet Seats, or seats where audience members are encouraged to tweet, which defuses the competition for attention while also generating publicity for the show. If you can’t fight ‘em, make ‘em work for you, right?
Nell: The Nonprofit Finance Fund is in the process of a pretty interesting “Change Capital for the Arts” project where they are helping arts organizations raise capital to revamp their organizations. What do you think about the concept of change capital and do you see more arts organizations going after it?
Karina: We’re encouraged by this move from old capitalization, i.e big endowment campaigns, to more frequent injections of smaller amounts of capital to bridge the inevitable gap between prototyping and the sustainability of a new strategy.
We certainly see a hunger for this kind of “risk” or “change” capital in the organizations applying to our Innovation Labs, which is why we provide a $40,000 grant for prototyping during the program. This kind of seed money helps managers resist the pressure to monetize or fossilize new programs too soon, giving them the breathing space for innovations to grow and embrace a culture of adaptive capacity. Note: the deadline for Round 2 of the Innovation Lab for Museums is May 15th.
I was encouraged to hear Ken Foster, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts talk eloquently in this ArtsFwd podcast about setting up a $200,000 fund within the organization’s annual budget to encourage innovation and risk. Throughout the year, any staff member can apply to the fund with an innovative idea. All they need a champion from senior staff (not necessarily from their own department) and to fill out a short application. Small grants are awarded in a rolling basis.
This kind of change capital is the money we need a lot of right now. The failure of funders to provide it is one of the reasons why innovation has not had a larger impact on the field.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony Bugg-Levine is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary dedicated to mobilizing and deploying capital effectively to build a just and vibrant society. In this role, Mr. Bugg-Levine oversees more than $225 million of capital under management and a national consulting practice, and works with a range of philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. He is the co-author of the newly released Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money While Making a Difference.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You’ve recently taken over the helm of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a pioneer in cutting-edge ideas for better capitalizing the nonprofit sector, like growth capital. What’s next for NFF? Where do you go from here?
Antony: I am humbled and excited to be given the responsibility to lead an organization with such a strong legacy and talented staff. After 31 years of working with nonprofits and funders, Nonprofit Finance Fund understands as well as anyone how we can best raise and use financial resources to create sustainable organizations that together weave the fabric of just and vibrant communities.
Honing and sharing these insights is more important than ever. As the economic crisis has turned into an intractable employment crisis, the communities we work with and the organizations that serve them are facing unprecedented challenges. Business as usual is no longer going to work. But business-as-unusual is increasingly exciting. The crisis has created new opportunities by shaking loose long-held barriers that kept the worlds of social change and business firmly apart.
NFF is well-poised to help ensure that these new opportunities bear fruit, by doing what we have always done–bringing a data-driven approach to identifying what works, and working deeply and closely with social change organizations while communicating effectively with capital providers. We will have more details on our specific strategic direction in early 2012 but are very excited about the possible directions we can take. In many ways, this is our time and we hope to be worthy of these opportunities.
Nell: You recently wrote a book with Jed Emerson about impact investing that charts the field and where it might be going. But the field of impact investing, especially in places like the Social Capital Markets Conference, seems to separate itself from philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. How can and should impact investing and philanthropy collide and what will make that happen?
Antony: Advocates of impact investing have done a great job in the last few years explaining how for-profit investment can be both a morally legitimate and economically effective tool to address intractable social and environmental challenges.
But many of these challenges have been intractable precisely because neither markets nor governments have figured out how to address them. So impact investors will have to collaborate with philanthropists, nonprofits and governments to create comprehensive solutions when no one piece can work alone. At NFF we are increasingly seeing the power and necessity of a “total capital” approach where, for instance, we provide impact investing capital in the form of loans, human capital in the form of (grant-funded) consulting support, and government assistance in the form of subsidy or loan guarantee. This is particularly important as the unemployment crisis places increased demands on already strained organizations. For example, to support a set of leading arts organizations, we secured a PRI from the Mellon Foundation that enabled us to provide loans alongside technical assistance to leading arts organizations. We are now developing a similar integrated approach to support social service agencies such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Nell: The vast majority of money is still bifurcated with for-profit investing on one side and charitable donations on the other. What will it take to change that and get more capital to social change organizations?
Antony: When I began this work at the Rockefeller Foundation almost five years ago I thought we were in the deal-making and infrastructure building business: that a few compelling examples of how impact investing can work and the development of networks and measurement standards to facilitate collaboration would be enough to allow impact investing to take off. But now I realize how impact investing threatens deeply-held mindsets of a bifurcated worldview that insists the only way to solve social challenges is through charity and the only purpose of investing is to make money.
To overcome this belief will require more than analysis and anecdote. Instead we need to build new systems to support the new aspirations. We need:
- a regulatory and legal framework that recognizes and incentivizes the contributions impact investors can make;
- educational systems that train young professionals to adapt investment tools to social purpose;
- measurement systems that allow us to assess and compare the blended value investments generate;
- nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises equipped to navigate the increasingly complicated strategic options that impact investors present; and,
- a philanthropic system organized around the question “How can we deploy all our assets to address the social issues we care about?” rather than “How do we give well?”
Nell: What is your idealized financial future for the social change sector? What level and kind of change would you ultimately like to see?
Antony: I envision a day when we organize the social change sector around the problems we seek to solve rather than the tools we happen to hold. Instead of fetishizing the moral or practical supremacy of grant-making or investing, in this world we will recognize that each has a role to play, and they are often most powerful when taken together. Exciting examples are already taking hold. In California, the California Endowment organized a multi-sector coalition to put an end to the “food deserts” that left many poor communities without easy access to purchase healthy food. This collaboration resulted earlier this year in the launch of the FreshWorks Fund that has mobilized grant capital, bank capital, impact investing capital and intellectual capital to bring new grocers into underserved communities. At NFF, we are applying a similar approach in the ArtPlace initiative, which is using arts as an engine for economic development in the US. This initiative has mobilized substantial commitment from private foundations, the US government and commercial banks.
Nell: How much of a panacea for social problems is impact investing? Can double bottom-line investing truly revolutionize how money flows to solving problems? Will it overtake government and philanthropic investment in social problems? And should it?
Antony: Impact investing is not a panacea. We cannot create and sustain a just and vibrant society unless we recognize that many organizations generate social value that cannot be monetized, and instead must be supported through charity and government. But we also must not ignore the vast potential in the trillions of dollars of for-profit investment capital currently lying on the sidelines of the social change agenda.
The global capital markets hold tens of trillions of dollars. Unlocking just one percent for impact investment will bring multiples of the approximately $300 billion in total annual charitable giving in the US. So impact investing can create a huge difference in how quickly or comprehensively we can address those social challenges where lack of money is the main issue.
Impact investing can also be revolutionary by accelerating new discipline in how we identify, assess, and manage our social change agenda. At their best, investors bring a rigor and discipline in allocating scarce resources to their most productive use, where there is a market-based solution. Impact investing will help spur a movement to link social spending to outcomes that a set of organizations can achieve, rather than just the outputs any one organization can deliver. We need to be careful, however, to recognize exactly where these new approaches will work and where simplistic and reductionist thinking will divert resources away from worthy causes or leave behind worthy organizations.
Since I was on vacation for a couple of weeks in August and pretty much unplugged, I’m probably not qualified to list the 10 greatest reads in social innovation for the month of August, but I’m still going to give it a shot. As always, please add what I missed to the comments.
You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.
- Guest blogger on the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Jed Emerson, a pioneer in the impact investing arena, argues that impact investing is at risk of missing a key opportunity to move the field forward.
- Strategic finance is one of the hardest things for many nonprofit leaders to master, but also one of the most critical. Nonprofit Finance Fund explains how to approach it.
- Sea Change Capital Partners and Lodestar Foundation are partnering to create a new fund to pay for nonprofit collaboration and mergers. A pool of merger money is a great new addition to what is a pretty big hole in the nonprofit capital market.
- From the Harvard Business Review blog comes the argument that sometimes it can be good for business to fire some customers. This concept should apply to nonprofits’ donors as well.
- One of the biggest hurdles to nonprofit performance measurement is a lack of money to make it happen. On the Social Currency blog, Angela Francis explains how nonprofits can find the money for evaluation through capacity capital.
- The biggest news in August was nonprofit Jumo’s merger with for-profit GOOD. Antony Bugg-Levine (who was just announced as the new CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund yesterday) explains how this merger is just the beginning of a real blurring of sector lines to come.
- On August 24th, US Secretary of Education @arneduncan held a Twitter Town Hall to answer questions about America’s public education system and his ideas for reform. You can see the Tweets at #askarne or read the highlights here. He plans to hold another Twitter Town Hall soon.
- The Future Generations blog offers a great framework and examples of that often touted, but rarely understood, concept: “scale.”
- In the wake of Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple, Cliff Kuang offers a reflection on Jobs as a supreme innovator and great user of technology.
- From the tech blog, A Smart Bear, comes a lesson for entrepreneurs (and social entrepreneurs too) when being an expert is harmful.
Photo Credit: afunkydamsel
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Rebecca Thomas. Rebecca Thomas is Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national leader in nonprofit, philanthropic and social enterprise finance. She has strategic responsibility for national initiatives, funder partnerships and new online and next-generation services that advance the organization’s profitability, visibility and impact. Rebecca serves as a spokesperson and advocate for NFF regionally and nationally, and is the co-author of Case for Change Capital in the Arts and Financial Reporting Done Right, part of a larger publication series on capitalization in the arts.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Your “change capital” project works with 10 arts organizations to help them raise capital to transform their organizations. Why did you decide to focus on arts organizations? What is unique about their need for change capital?
Rebecca: Through the Leading for the Future Initiative, NFF is investing $1 million of change capital in each of ten performing arts organizations that are adapting their programs, operations and finances in ways that contribute to long-term health and vibrancy (click here for the list of participating organizations). The source of this capital is the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which partnered with us in 2007 to develop the program as a way of responding to the tectonic shifts taking place in the artistic landscape. These shifts (in demographics, technology, and audience expectations, to name a few) were underway in the arts sector well before the economy went south and jeopardized arts philanthropy and public funding. Because business as usual is no longer an option for this sector, the need for change capital to fund creative re-alignment is particularly pronounced.
Arts sector aside, the majority of nonprofit organizations are mis-capitalized, meaning they lack enough of the right kinds of financial resources to adapt to changes taking place in their external and internal environments. The field often focuses on the lack of capital—certainly a reality for many organizations—but capital is equally often misplaced. Consider the organization with an aging facility and permanently restricted endowment but only two weeks of cash. It may not be undercapitalized but it is certainly mis-capitalized!
The arts sector has, more than many other sectors, suffered from an institutional mindset that equates success with the accumulation of fixed assets, often at the expense of liquidity and flexible capital. The result is that too many organizations are in a starvation cycle, unable to fully pay for their current programs and infrastructure, let alone to invest in meaningful and lasting change.
Nell: Do you have plans to expand to other types of nonprofit organizations with this project?
Rebecca: Our program, which runs through 2013, is limited to the 10 current participants, which were chosen through a multi-phased application and selection process. Given the nature of capital, programs like LFF are expensive and require one or more funders who are willing and able to commit sizable sums of money. The field is fortunate that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation had the resources and vision to create this program with us. The principles of this program certainly apply to every sector, and we aim to do similar innovative initiatives with funders and nonprofits in other fields (for example, healthcare and charter schools) that we think would benefit from an investment of change capital.
We’ve found that education about the relationship among mission, capacity and financial health is often a precursor to the establishment of a capital initiative of this kind. NFF partners frequently with foundation program staff and nonprofit leaders to introduce the concepts of change capital, reliable revenue and liquid, adaptable balance sheets. From efforts like these have arisen deeper partnerships. For example, we have capital-investment programs with the Kresge and Andrew W Mellon Foundations that, respectively, provide financing for cash reserves and working capital. Change capital is just one of several forms of flexible capital that organizations need, for purposes ranging from risk management to rapid scale to stabilization.
Nell: As part of this project you are demonstrating how nonprofits can adjust their financial reporting to allow for a very necessary distinction between revenue and capital. Do you see nonprofits adopting this fairly significant change? What will it take to change accounting standards to recognize this distinction across the sector?
Rebecca: One of the things we learned early on in this work is that changing the financial reporting—to separate capital flows from recurring revenue—would not be an easy sell, for understandable reasons. Executive directors are reluctant to take a chance presenting new formats to donors who don’t understand the technique, and many board members aren’t inclined to re-learn nonprofit accounting principles. Moreover, NFF’s suggested methodology is not required by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, and auditors don’t always feel comfortable suggesting novel formats, even when they provide heightened clarity.
Notwithstanding these challenges, nonprofits that periodically raise and deploy capital—whether for investing in fixed assets, building a reserve, or implementing a change strategy—should take the straightforward step of separating capital from ongoing operating revenue and expenses, at least in managerial reporting. Financial Reporting Done Right explains in greater detail how this is done, but suffice it to say that when capital and revenue are conflated, an organization’s reports do not present a realistic view of operating performance. Unintentionally misleading information can lead to poor planning and decision making by nonprofit leaders, boards and funders.
Longer term, it will take aggressive education and advocacy efforts to convince nonprofit executives, board members and funders of the value of producing transparent financial reports and audits that reveal business model economics separate from capital infusions. Nonprofits will need to be convinced that they won’t be penalized for producing statements that may, at times, show temporary weakness in operating results during a change or growth period.
Nell: What can and should funders do to make change capital a reality for more nonprofit organizations?
Rebecca: Funders can start by encouraging their grantees’ efforts to adapt in the face of shifting environmental and internal realities. Nonprofits need to know that their supporters view these efforts as important, recognize the risks involved in attempting change, and are willing to provide flexible funding without judgment.
Also, funders can provide support for the development of a rigorous strategy and financial roadmap for change, both of which should be in place before a sizable investment of change capital is made. This planning should include the preparation of financial projections for the period of change and program and financial metrics (identified by the grantee!) to measure progress and guide course corrections. Because change takes time and can be costly, funders should consider aggregating their resources to support a grantees’ change strategy – and any funder “pool” should embrace one standard of reporting.
I want to stress that not every organization is a good candidate for change capital. Many are too financially fragile to invest in transformative efforts and first need capital to recover from previous setbacks. Some characteristics of “change capital-ready” organizations include: an enterprise perspective that sees the organization as more than the sum of its programs; a strong, stable and collaborative management team and board; a commitment to strategic planning, self-reflection, and continued learning; a culture of risk-taking and adaptation in the face of obstacles and new information; a track record of surplus performance and adequate liquidity; and a continuous focus on results and the use of data to inform decision making.
Nell: How open do you think philanthropists are to the idea of building versus buying services? Is the idea catching on for funders? What will it take to make the idea widespread?
Rebecca: The importance of role clarity can’t be understated. Both individual donors and institutional funders need to be clearer about whether they are investors in nonprofit enterprise health (“builders”), annual supporters of nonprofit services (“buyers”), or both. Among venture philanthropists and their ilk, this concept has gained much momentum in recent years. NFF Capital Partners collaborates with such investors in their efforts to scale high-performing nonprofit organizations. Through NFF’s grantmaker training programs, which reach a broader audience, we are also seeing a deeper understanding of this concept, although its application remains uneven. Ben Cameron, Program Director of the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation also deserves a lot of credit for understanding and embracing this concept, and then stepping forward to be the learning example for an entire sector.
Time, education, and openness to change will be required for field-wide change. More stories about how nonprofits are successfully (and not so successfully) deploying capital to scale, change or restructure their operations would also help.
But let’s remember that not every philanthropist can or should be a builder. The field would benefit greatly from more buyers who provide (or partner with others to provide) unrestricted support that covers the full costs of program delivery, rather than limited program support or expansion at the margins.
Nell: What challenges are your change capital clients finding during this journey? Are they successfully raising change capital across the board, or are some faring better than others? Why?
Rebecca: Several of our clients have sought to raise change capital outside of this program as they seek to fully realize ambitions that carry a price tag larger than $1 million. A few have raised funds that serve a similar purpose without calling these dollars “change capital.” What we’ve heard from many of our clients is that foundations and boards either don’t have the resources to provide capital at this scale or don’t fully understand the concept. While grantmakers are increasingly embracing other improvements in practice –such as supporting reserve-building efforts, encouraging surplus management, and providing general operating support – few are yet providing flexible capital to be invested in implementing and sustaining enterprise-level change.
I want to make one last point. We set up the Leading for the Future program to enable our 10 participants to embrace innovation and experimentation as they adapt their business models in response to new challenges and opportunities. But programs like this one are not about change for change’s sake. Change capital is not the same as an “innovation grant.” The capital is meant to be deployed in ways that lead to more reliable net revenue (read: surpluses) to sustain each change strategy once the capital is fully spent.
And, at the end of the day, it’s worth remembering that financial stability is only a means to the end of greater nonprofit effectiveness and impact.
In our ongoing blog series, 10 Great Social Innovation Reads, below are my top 10 picks for the best reads in the world of social innovation in May.
But I’m sure I missed some great stuff, so please add your favorites from the past month in the comments.
- Three new books released recently argue in various ways that philanthropists need to get better at giving money away. The Economist gives us the skinny: Giving for Results.
- News organizations are having to reinvent their funding models, some of their innovative ideas for bringing money in the door could spark some thinking in the nonprofit world: Going beyond grants: Eight new ways news nonprofits are raising revenue.
- The Dowser blog argues that recent efforts to re-imagine the great American city aren’t bold enough: Creating the Sustainable City: Are Imagination and Leadership Enough
- Newsweek investigates the philanthropic investments billionaires have made in American public schools and claims that the results of those investments have come up quite short: Back to School for the Billionaires
- New Google research on people’s use of smartphones holds some interesting lessons for nonprofits.
- Any entrepreneur, social or not, has to fight moments of depression on the road to social change, the A Smart Bear blog tells us how to Fight Mini-Burn Out.
- From Amy Sample Ward, nonprofit social media maven, comes a great post about crowdsourcing versus community-sourcing and how and when nonprofits should take advantage of each.
- In a recent interview, Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, argues that nonprofits need to rethink how they position themselves in order to really “move the needle”
- Nonprofit Tech 2.0 gives us Six Online Fundraising Tools You May Never Have Heard Of
- The Nonprofit Finance Fund is doing something pretty exciting with capital. They are directing $10 million in “change capital” to 10 performing arts organizations to help them “prepare for future growth and make changes to the way they operate.” NFF has a special page with resources and case studies about what they are doing: The Case for Change Capital in the Arts.
Photo Credit: Robby van Moor
There’s a new blog I discovered recently that I’ve grown to really like. Against the Grain, written by Rick Moyers of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, is about challenging nonprofit boards to be more effective. Recently Rick has been writing about the need for nonprofit operating reserves. Operating reserves are simply an amount of set aside money that a nonprofit has accessible in times of crisis, budget shortfall, etc. In Rick’s most recent post on the topic, he explains how nonprofits can go about building operating reserves. And to him, it’s quite simple. But I would argue that Rick ignores a pretty ingrained nonprofit financial taboo against running a surplus.
Rick argues that creating operating reserves is fairly easy: “The most reliable way to build reserves is by operating at a modest surplus (bringing in more money than you spend) consistently over time.” And the way he suggests doing this is to have “the fiscal discipline to make hard choices and the ability to resist putting all “extra” money immediately into expanded programs and services.”
But Rick ignores the fact that in much of the sector it is unseemly for a nonprofit to operate a surplus. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen nonprofit leaders massage the budget projections accompanying a funding proposal in order to show break even or a loss in a given year. It is somehow inappropriate to show funders that the organization is too far into the black. And how many board meetings have been lost to a discussion about why money is sitting in a bank account instead of serving more people? Board members become quite uncomfortable when “too much” money is sitting idle. Because the question is always: if money exists, why isn’t it being plowed into more programs?
Indeed, it seems the majority of nonprofit organizations don’t enjoy much of a surplus. The 2011 Nonprofit Sector Survey conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 60% of nonprofits reporting had less than 4 months of expenses as operating reserves and 28% of nonprofits had less than 1 month of reserves, which is essentially breakeven. Rick found similar results in a survey his foundation conducted in the Washington area.
But money sitting in a bank account serves a very real purpose for a nonprofit. It means the organization doesn’t live hand to mouth, no longer continually puts out fires, and stops expending energy on just keeping the doors open. Operating reserves allow an organization to evolve to the next level where they can think strategically, take some risks, streamline their business model, innovate their solution, and weather economic uncertainty all in the name of delivering bigger, better social impact.
So the nonprofit sector must get over the surplus taboo. It’s ok to run a surplus, in fact, a surplus means that the organization is better positioned to deliver more impact down the road. The key to financial sustainability, and ultimately significant social impact, is strategic financial management. And operating reserves are a first step to getting there.
Photo Credit: Jason Tester
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