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Nonprofit Finance Fund

The Fundamental Flaws in How We Finance the Nonprofit Sector

NFF SurveyToday the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) released the results of their sixth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey and the data underlines a growing crisis in the financial sustainability of our nonprofit sector.

56% of nonprofit leader respondents reported that they were unable to meet demand for their services in 2013, this is the highest rate since the survey’s inception six years ago. And the scary part is that this inability to meet demand is not because of a temporary down period in the economy, but rather because of deeper dysfunctions in how we funnel money to the sector. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of NFF put it, “The struggles nonprofits face are not the short-term result of an economic cycle, they are the results of fundamental flaws in the way we finance social good.”

The survey gathered responses from more than 5,000 leaders from U.S. nonprofits of all sizes, domain areas, and geographies.

The top challenge by far for nonprofit leaders, with 41% of them reporting it, is “achieving long-term financial stability.” And this is evidenced in several ways:

  • More than half of nonprofits (55%) have 3 months or less cash-on-hand.
  • 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
  • Only 9% can have an open dialogue with funders about developing reserves for operating

These struggles with financial sustainability stem in large part from a lack of understanding among funders of the true costs of social change work. Roughly 53% of nonprofit respondents’ funders rarely or never fund the full costs of the programs they support. And for approximately 24% of respondents their government indirect cost rate (the amount government allows for indirect, or “overhead” expenses) declined over the last 5 years, while about 47% of respondents are subject to a government indirect rate of 9% or less. That is nearly impossible.

For the first time, the survey included questions about impact measurement, a growing interest among funders, ratings agencies and others in the sector. But these questions just further underline the financial Catch-22 in which nonprofit leaders find themselves. 70% of nonprofit leaders report that half to all of their funders want to see proof of the impact of their programs, but 71% of nonprofit leaders also report that funders rarely or never fund the costs of impact measurement.

At the end of the day, government and private funders are putting greater demands on nonprofits whose services are increasingly needed, all while funding is becoming more difficult to secure. It’s a vicious downward spiral.

More than ever this survey demonstrates a need for the nonprofit sector and those who fund it to take a hard look at how the social sector is financed. We are not sustainably financing the social change work we so desperately need. And if we don’t address that, the downward spiral will simply continue.

Here are some fundamental changes to the financing of the nonprofit sector that I’d like to see:

  • Government must move to a more reasonable indirect rate. No one can deliver an effective program with only 9% allocated to administration and other “overhead” costs.
  • Funders who want to see impact measures need to step up and fund the work and systems necessary to make it happen.
  • Nonprofit leaders and funders need to have more open and honest conversations about the hurdles standing in the way of the work.
  • Nonprofit leaders need help figuring out sustainable financial models.

In the six years of NFF’s comprehensive and unparalleled view into the world of nonprofit leaders the story is not getting better. Let’s hope this data serves as a wake up call for the social sector. We must collectively realize that if we really want social change we have to figure out how to finance it effectively and sustainably.

 

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What Do You Think of the State of the Nonprofit Sector?

Nonprofit Finance FundIt’s that time of year again – the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s annual State of the Sector Survey of nonprofit leaders.

If you are a nonprofit leader struggling with increasing demand for services amid diminishing funding, if you are frustrated with funders’ lack of understanding of the challenges you face, if you want the sector to recognize the hurdles and get better at addressing them, you need to voice your perspective by taking the survey.

The Nonprofit Finance Fund is one of the country’s leading community development financial institutions (CDFI) making millions of dollars in loans to nonprofits and pushing for fundamental improvement in how money is given and used in the sector.

They started the annual State of the Sector survey when the recession hit in 2008. Collective efforts to understand the extent of the challenges the economic restructuring was having on the nonprofit sector were decentralized and largely anecdotal. NFF’s survey is an effort to bring information about the nonprofit community together so that it can be used to address these challenges. You can view the results from past surveys here.

The anonymous survey takes 10-15 minutes to complete and asks about your organization’s recent financial and management challenges. The knowledge gathered through the annual survey is shared with funders, government officials, nonprofits, media, lending institutions, and many others through conferences, policy recommendations, and other efforts. And now with more than 5 years of Sector Survey data, we can analyze and understand trends and begin to make a larger argument about what nonprofits need and what funders and policymakers must do differently to support their work.

The survey really is the only effort of its kind to take the pulse of the sector. And I am excited to see how the results are increasingly used to advocate for some significant improvements to the state of the sector.

This year’s Sector Survey will be open to responses until February 17th, so if you are a nonprofit leader, click here to take the survey and let your voice be heard. The results of this year’s survey will be available in early April.

Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund

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Moving Social Finance Forward: An Interview with Ted Levinson

Ted LevinsonIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ted Levinson. Ted is the Director of Lending at RSF Social Finance, a San Francisco-based financial services non-profit dedicated to transforming the way the world works with money. Levinson manages RSF’s flagship $75 million Social Investment Fund which provides debt capital to US and Canadian social enterprises.

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

Nell: RSF Social Finance is really the leader in the social finance market, you’ve been doing this long before anyone started talking about a “social capital marketplace.” Given that long history, how do you view the current state of the social capital market? Are we where we need to be to funnel enough and the right kinds of capital to social change efforts? And if not, how do we get there?

Ted: RSF has a twenty-nine year operating history, but it’s still early days for the field of social finance. The industry is at the same stage of development as natural food stores were thirty years ago – we’re established, we’re growing, we’re doing good work, and yet we’re still considered a fringe movement. I believe we are on the cusp of mainstream acceptance which will mean a much broader audience of impact investors (especially young people and unaccredited investors) and far greater demand for social capital from the growing number of social enterprises that are just now becoming investment-ready.

There’s been a shift in society’s view of natural food stores – we’ve overcome our fear of the bulk bins and now all grocery stores look more like natural food stores. I expect the same thing to happen with our conventional financial institutions which are just now beginning to pay attention to social finance.

What the field really needs is to expand the financial products available to social enterprises and address some of the existing gaps. Frustrated social entrepreneurs may disagree, but I think the angel capital and large-scale venture capital spaces are meeting the needs of for-profits. Incubators, business plan competitions and seed funds are providing modest amounts of funding to emerging non-profits and for-profits. RSF and some of our friends including Nonprofit Finance Fund, Calvert and New Resource Bank are addressing the middle market market.

The big voids in social finance include:

  • True “risk capital” for non-profit social enterprises. We need more foundations willing to place bets on high-potential organizations.
  • Bigger finance players or (better yet) a more robust consortium of social finance organizations that can band together to meet the $5 million + needs of high growth social enterprises such as Evergreen Lodge, Playworks and other organizations that are reaching scale.

I believe the field will get there but we’re playing “catch-up” now and social entrepreneurs are an impatient bunch.

Nell: RSF does something pretty revolutionary in that you combine philanthropic giving with impact investing, whereas these two sides of the social capital marketplace have not yet really found a way to work together in any large scale or significant way. Why do you think that is? And what needs to change in order to encourage foundations and impact investors to work more closely together?

Ted: We call our approach of combining debt and philanthropic dollars “integrated capital,” and we think it’s going to have a profound effect on impact investors, philanthropists and the social enterprises it serves.

Most non-profit social enterprises rely on a combination of earned revenue and gift money. There’s no reason why a single transaction can’t bridge these two forms of capital. With integrated capital we can leverage philanthropic grants or loan guarantees to push high-impact loan prospects from the “just barely declined” category into the “approved” category. In fact, even some for-profit social enterprises are eligible for this. Our loan to EcoScraps – a fast-growing, national, composting business was made possible by a foundation that shared in some of RSF’s risk.

Integrated capital is possible because RSF works with individuals and foundations that have overcome the prevailing view that how you invest your money and how you give are distinct activities. We’re also fortunate to work with an enlightened bunch of people who recognize that philanthropic support for social enterprises isn’t a crutch or a sign of a failed enterprise.

Our work at RSF is driven by a belief that money ought to serve the highest intentions of the human spirit. Conscientiously investing money, giving money and spending money can all further this goal.

Nell: What do you make of the emerging social impact bond movement? Is this a social finance vehicle that you think will work?

Ted: I’m deeply hopeful and deeply skeptical of the future of social impact bonds. I’m hopeful because our government is notoriously risk-adverse and slow to adopt new ways of improving education, reducing recidivism, or curbing our runaway health care costs. I think spending money on early interventions could go a long ways towards improving these fields societal challenges, but paying now to save in the future is at loggerheads with the short-term view which prevails in politics. Social impact bonds are a clever way to push the risk on to investors who are willing to take a longer view for the potential of a big upside.

I’m also a fan because social impact bonds are an alternative to the financial engineering which brought us collateralized debt obligations. They demonstrate that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on financial innovation.

That being said, I’m skeptical that this market can ever reach a stage where transactions costs can drop enough to make it economically viable. Bringing together the multiple parties that are required for such a transaction (the government, the investor, the non-profit, a monitoring entity, a social finance organization, an attorney and possibly a foundation) just seems unaffordable to me.

Nell: What sets the nonprofits and social enterprises you invest in apart? What characteristics do you look for in the investments you make?

Ted: All of our borrowers fall into one or more of three focus areas – sustainable food systems, the environment and education & the arts. These borrowers all have capable, committed management who recognize that financial sustainability is a prerequisite for lasting change. Our best borrowers have strong communities supporting them whether it is donors, customers or suppliers.
Evaluating these stakeholders is a key component of our underwriting process at RSF.

Our experience demonstrates that performance improves when social enterprises engage all of their stakeholders. RSF’s long-standing support of fair trade is an example of this commitment. We also regularly expect borrowers to solicit their community members to join RSF’s investor community as a precondition to approval. We take community seriously at RSF!

Our borrowers are all addressing major social or environmental problems such as a lack of adequate housing for developmentally disabled adults (Foundation for the Challenged), inefficiencies in the wind industry (FrontierPro) and poverty and environmental degradation from rice farming (Lotus Foods.) As social enterprises, they’re primary activities are DIRECTLY making the world a better place. We believe our borrowers have the potential to scale their organizations and make a real dent in these problems, or become a model for others to do the same.

For example, we were one of the first lenders to Revolution Foods when they were operating out of a defunct fast food restaurant in Alameda, CA. Today they deliver over 200,000 healthy meals a day to public school children.

Similarly, we think DC Central Kitchen’s model of combining culinary training for adults with barriers to employment with a robust meals business (they deliver 5,000 meals a day to schools and homeless shelters) is a winning approach that can be replicated throughout the country.

Nell: Some have argued that nonprofit leaders lack a level of sophistication when it comes to financial strategy and use of financial tools. Obviously you find nonprofits and social enterprises that are able to effectively employ sophisticated financial vehicles, so how do you respond to that argument?

Ted: Rather than argue I prefer to let the results of our borrowers speak for themselves. DePaul Industries, for example, is a $30 million non-profit that employs over a thousand disabled Oregonians. The Portland Business Journal ranked them one of the most admired companies in the state and they did this all with 98% earned revenue. Network for Good processes over $150 million of online donations every year while Digital Divide Data has a decade of year over year revenue growth in the field of impact outsourcing.

I see no lack of financial sophistication in the non-profit sector. I do, however, see a lack of risk-taking, which can sometimes be misinterpreted as unsophistication when compared with the for-profit world. It’s a shame this mentality is so pervasive because of the importance and urgency of the work that so many non-profits do. Many icons of industry have biographies filled with risky expansion, leverage, false starts and failures. We need to de-stigmatize failure in the non-profit sector and adopt that same boldness which has led to so many of the biggest successes in the commercial world.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: August 2013

relaxed_reading_by_ouzo_portokali-d2zbw08It becomes increasingly obvious to me the longer I am in this space that philanthropy must change just as much, if not more, than nonprofits. And perhaps change is on the horizon, particularly with some key debates happening in the philanthropic world lately.

The biggest of which this month was the showdown between Bill Schambra and Paul Brest (among others) about whether philanthropy should be “strategic.” Add to that the on-going discussion Peter Buffett started last month about philanthropy as “conscience laundering,” and the growing drum beat against the nonprofit overhead ratio, and August was a mind-opening (I hope) month in the world of social innovation.

Below is my list of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in August. But please add to the list in the comments.

And you can see an expanded list by following me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

As always, the 10 Great Reads lists from past months are here.

  1. First up, Crystal Hayling offers some great advice for new philanthropists, but I would say her advice translates to experienced philanthropists as well. If we want to get better at solving social problems, we have to raise the bar on philanthropy.

  2. The big debate this month was about how “strategic” philanthropy should be, whether the best philanthropy comes from a community or scientific approach. Bill Schambra, from the Hudson Institute, and Hewlett folk Paul Brest and Larry Kramer went back and forth and back, and of course others chimed in. For me, the most thoughtful response was from  Scott Walter. It was an interesting debate, but I think at the end of the day they are saying roughly the same thing, with which I heartily agree, philanthropy has to get better at actually solving problems.

  3. As I mentioned last month, Peter Buffett wrote a highly provocative rant against philanthropy in July. And this month the debate raged on with some very interesting counterpoints from nonprofit leader Dan Cardinali here and from Nandita Batheja on the Idealist blog here. Buffett’s piece is certainly doing what any good writing should, provoking people to question their assumptions and think in new ways, even if they don’t fully agree.

  4. Adding to his growing opus, Bill Shore again argues that nonprofits must get bolder in their social change goals. This time Darell Hammond from KaBOOM! and Amy Celep from Community Wealth Partners join in.  But Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philathropy doesn’t heartily agree.

  5. More and more data points to the fact that women are becoming a major philanthropic force. It will be interesting to see how they change the face of philanthropy as we know it.

  6. It’s always important to get a different perspective, and Brian Mittendorf at the Counting Charity blog provides a really interesting counterpoint analysis to recent concerns about the Clinton Foundation’s financial management.

  7. I have to admit it, I LOVE a good contrarian, and Arik Hesseldahl is one this month with his great post suggesting that there may be too much hype around Big Data (the idea that the enormous amount of data now available could yield tremendous improvements to the world as we know it). Although he is talking about Big Data’s promise for business and government, there is an equal amount of hype around what Big Data can do to solve social problems. As with everything, there is no magic bullet, so we would do well to understand Big Data’s limitations.

  8. There is much work to be done bringing the “old” world of philanthropy together with the “new” world of impact investing, so I love to see the two at work together, like Nonprofit Finance Fund’s new project helping the Maine Community Foundation launch an impact investing program.

  9. And then there was something completely different. If we are to ensure that the next generation cares as much, if not more, about fixing social issues, we must raise compassionate children, which gets harder to do in an increasingly segmented society. Perla Ni offers 5 ways to Raise a Compassionate Child In the Age of Entitlement.

  10. And lest we forget why we do this social change work, April Greene from Idealist reminds us.

Photo credit: ouzo-portokali

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July 2013

10 Great Social Innovation ReadsSince I was out of the office for part of July and checked out of social media (which I highly recommend!), the below list is in no way comprehensive. But it is what caught my eye in the world of social innovation in July (when I was paying attention). More than ever, please add what I missed in the comments below.

And, as always, you can see more of what caught my eye by following me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. In a highly provocative op-ed, Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, wrote a pretty scathing rant against today’s philanthropy, calling it “conscience laundering — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Needless to say, much argument followed, including Howard Husock’s post arguing that Buffett is “far too pessimistic about what philanthropy, well-conceived, can accomplish.”

  2. Dan Cardinali, CEO of Communities in Schools and an emerging voice on the importance of measuring nonprofit outcomes, wrote a third piece in his series on redefining the nonprofit sector. This one explores the need for nonprofits to “hold ourselves accountable to objective measures and quantifiable outcomes.”

  3. And another nonprofit leader trying to shake things up, Bill Shore of Share Our Strength, offers the provocative “We Just Don’t Have the Money, and Other Fibs We Tell Ourselves“.

  4. Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund provides additional fodder to the conversation with his post “Navigating Tough Trade-offs in the Era of Scarcity.”

  5. Lucy Bernholz, philanthropy truth teller and future seer, offers three ways we can reinvent philanthropy in this great, short video brain dump.

  6. Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, talks with Paul Carttar, former Director of the Social Innovation Fund, about what he learned there. It remains to be seen what impact the Social Innovation Fund will have, but as Paul says, government can and must play a role in social innovation, “The challenge for everybody — for government and for philanthropy — is to understand what each has to offer.”

  7. The New York Times uses Think Impact (which encourages entrepreneurship in third world communities) to provide an interesting case study of the dilemma of deciding whether to be a for-profit or nonprofit social change organization.

  8. Ever provocative, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy argues that the approach MBA programs take in teaching philanthropy “denies the reality that nonprofits and philanthropy work to address the problems that have defied markets…and, in many cases, are a result of market failure.”

  9. Writing on the Pioneers Post blog, Jeremy Nicholls takes issue with the word “impact” and encourages us to think about “value” instead.

  10. The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy found that in 2011 American foundations increased unrestricted giving by 50% (from 16% of all grant dollars going to support general operating in 2010 to 24% in 2011). Now that’s an exciting trend!

Photo Credit: josue64

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2013

10 Great Social Innovation ReadsJune was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.

Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.

  2. This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”

  3. Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.

  4. Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!

  5. But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.

  6. Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.

  7. The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.

  8. The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.

  9. If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.

  10. There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”

Photo Credit: mindfire3927

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The State of the Nonprofit Sector in 2013

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.50.38 AMThe 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

 

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The Savvy Nonprofit Business Model: An Interview with Kate Barr

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.

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