nonprofit financial strategy
One of my predicted “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017” is that we will see “More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires.” In other words, I think (hope) in this new year that nonprofit leaders and their funders will work to figure out how to make nonprofits more financial sustainable.
Financial sustainability means that both the way money comes in the door (revenue) and the way money goes out the door (expenses) happen in a smart, strategic way. When they do, you have a robust financial model.
In my mind, one of the first steps toward that sustainability is for nonprofit leaders to look inward. While there are many reasons for the financial instability that plagues the nonprofit sector — from the Overhead Myth, to restricted funding, to lack of financial training — nonprofit leaders sometimes perpetuate the dysfunction themselves with an unhealthy attitude toward money.
Nonprofit leaders must embrace money as a tool — rather than a scourge — that can help them better achieve their mission.
So in this new year, in order to get closer to financial sustainability in your own nonprofit, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions about money:
- Do I embrace money as a tool to achieve our mission?
As the ultimate cheerleader of your nonprofit’s board and staff, you must ask whether you yourself fully embrace money. Money has long been viewed as a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector. We don’t want too much of it (for fear of scaring off donors); we don’t want to ask people for it (for fear of rejection); we don’t want to make our board go out and get it (for fear they will bolt). But it is your role as leader of your nonprofit to eschew those outdated notions and instead recognize that a smart, well-executed money strategy can be instrumental to achieving your mission.
- Do we know our actual costs?
Not just the full costs to run each of your programs (which is important), but the overall costs of executing on your strategic plan. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leaders I meet who a) don’t have a strategic plan in place or b) if they do, they haven’t tied it to money. You simply will not accomplish anything if you don’t analyze and plan for what it will truly cost to accomplish your goals as an organization. So start by using this Bridgespan tool to figure out the full costs of your programs and then add to that the other organizational and infrastructure costs necessary to achieve your overall strategic goals.
- Do we have a financial model?
So that’s how money flows out of the organization, but to fully flesh out your financial model you need to plan for how money will flow into the organization. The funny thing about money is that if you are smarter and more strategic about it, you will attract more of it. So instead of hoping and praying that enough money will show up at your doorstep, create an overall financial strategy that includes your tactics for how you will attract each applicable revenue line (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) that flows into your financial model.
- Does our board understand and contribute to our financial model?
Once you’ve figured out your financial model, you must get your board fully involved in it. A nonprofit will never be financially sustainable if money is left solely to the staff to figure out. That means the board needs to understand revenue and expenses, over the long-term, and how they apply to the overall strategy of the organization. And it is not enough for them just to understand it, they must contribute (in many and various ways) to the successful implementation of that financial model.
- Do we ask funders to support the effective execution of our financial model?
You can’t just have a great financial strategy on paper, you also need to invest in the structure and systems necessary to execute on that strategy. That means you have to hire talented money-raising staff, acquire functional technology, develop capable donor systems, create compelling marketing and communications. Those elements make up your money-raising function, and in order to make it effective you have to invest in those elements. So figure out what that will cost and convince some funders to pay for it.
It’s time to get over your money issues. You will not achieve financial sustainability unless you fully embrace money as a critical conduit to the social change you seek.
Photo Credit: Daniel Borman
In an earlier post I talked about the common mistakes many nonprofits make in their fundraising plans. The biggest mistake is that they create a fundraising plan, not a financing plan. If you are serious about raising enough money to accomplish your goals, you need to create an overall Financing Plan for your organization. To help you do just that, I’m delighted to offer a repeat of our popular “Creating a Financing Plan” webinar. This webinar sold out when I offered it earlier this year. And here’s what one of those participants had to say about it:
“I loved the reframing of financing for desired results instead of funding for operations…your message to wed money to the mission was a big AHA moment, and I am now figuring out how to bring this to life for staff and Board.”
A financing plan is different than a typical fundraising plan for many reasons. Here is how they differ:
- A fundraising plan asks “How much can we accomplish with the money we can raise?” but a financing plan asks “How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
- A fundraising plan sets goals only for private revenue streams (foundation grants, individual gifts), but a financing plan includes goals for ALL money flowing to the organization (government grants, earned income, etc).
- A fundraising plan is for one year, whereas a financing plan is a strategy for attracting money for multiple years into the future.
- A fundraising plan has little to do with a nonprofit’s strategic plan, but a financing plan is based on what the nonprofit needs in order to meet the goals of their strategic plan.
- A fundraising plan is created only by the fundraising staff with no input or knowledge from the rest of the organization, but a financing plan is created with the whole organization’s input (board and staff).
- A fundraising plan only includes activities that raise money for programs, but a financing plan includes strategies for raising infrastructure dollars as well.
The “Creating a Financing Plan” webinar will help nonprofit leaders understand the steps to creating a financing plan for their organization. Webinar participants will learn how to:
- Set goals for ALL revenue streams flowing to the organization
- Determine the infrastructure dollars they need to raise
- Tie their financing plan to their strategic plan
- Create tactical steps to make the plan a reality, with activities, deliverables, people responsible, timeline
- Divide tasks by staff and board members
- Develop ways to monitor and revise the plan going forward
And remember, all of our webinars are available as recordings right after the live webinar, so even if you can’t make the time of the live webinar, you can still register and have access to all of the content.
I hope to see you there!
Creating a Financing Plan Webinar
The registration fee will get you:
- A link to a recording of the webinar, which you can watch as many times as you like
- The PowerPoint slides from the webinar
- The ability to ask additional follow-up questions after the webinar
Photo Credit: theurchiness
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.
The struggles and challenges nonprofits face all come down to one key problem: a misalignment of mission, money and core competencies.
For any organization three things must be aligned: 1) their mission, or reason for existing 2) their core competencies–what they do better than anyone else in the world, and 3) their resource engine–all the ways in which they sustain themselves financially. So that an organization, at equilibrium looks like this:
The mission is supported by the organization’s core competencies which both feed into how it generates money.
Jim Collins calls this the “Hedgehog Concept,” Mark Moore, a professor at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, calls it “The Strategic Triangle.” It’s such a simple and powerful concept, but it seems to be one that is often left on the bookshelf, a better theory than practice.
But how transformative would it be if this concept were dusted off and applied to the challenges a nonprofit faces? When one or two of these three elements are out of alignment, chaos can ensue.
Mission is misaligned: A nonprofit that can generate money and operates great programs, but can’t bring it all together in a coherent single purpose, this is otherwise known as “mission creep.”
Core competencies are misaligned: A nonprofit that has a great, clear idea of what they want to do (mission) and can raise money around it, but can’t deliver. This is reminiscent of the dot com era when there were countless businesses with fabulous ideas that successfully raised VC and angel money, but didn’t really have a core competency or product to deliver and eventually went bust.
Resource engine is misaligned: This final misalignment is probably the one nonprofits are most familiar with. A nonprofit has a great mission and can produce great results, but they can’t find a way to make the organization financially sustainable. FORGE, a nonprofit working with African refugee camps, which I wrote about before, is a great example of this misalignment. Their mission and programs are solid, but they struggled with the right financial engine (switching from individual fundraising to web-based fundraising without having the core competencies to make the switch). The end result was a $100K deficit.
And there are various other combinations of misalignment where two, or all three, areas are out of sync. But often it is the financial piece that causes the most problems. Financial misalignment is so difficult for nonprofits to overcome because the sector is undercapitalized. It can seem impossible to nonprofit leaders, who tend to be focused on the program and mission they are trying to deliver, to connect a sustainable financial engine to their work. And indeed, many foundations and government funders will pay for programs and mission, but not a sustainable overall organization. The incentives do not reward an organization in alignment.
But there are solutions. If an organization can take a step back and look at all three elements and how they fit together they can start to make strides toward better integrating all three activities:
- A nonprofit’s mission needs to be one that they can generate financial support around, but it also needs to be something that they can deliver on better than anyone else.
- The financial support a nonprofit generates needs to complement, not detract from, their mission and core competencies, and
- The nonprofit must integrate what they do really well with their mission and financial model.
You can no longer leave the fundraising staff alone and hope for the best. You can no longer let the board say fundraising is not their role. You can no longer create a strategic plan without a corresponding financial plan. Money, mission and competence must all be at the table finding a way forward together.
If you want to learn more about creating a sustainable financial engine for your nonprofit, download the Develop a Financial Model Tool Bundle.