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nonprofit leaders

Nonprofit Leaders Have the Power to Create Capacity Funding

nonprofit capacity capitalI was in a meeting with a group of nonprofit leaders the other day, and one of them voiced an often-heard complaint: “There just aren’t many foundations funding nonprofit capacity building.”

I was instantly reminded of my mother’s admonishment when I would come home from school with complaints about a classroom rule or a frustrating teacher. She would say, “Well, you have a mouth on you, don’t you?” Her quip was intended to encourage me to stop complaining about an inadequacy (however small, in my case) and do something to change it.

While I am the first to bemoan the lack of adequate resources in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders themselves do have some agency to turn the tide and find funding to create more effective and sustainable organizations.

Rather than searching for donors who already express an interest in funding nonprofit capacity (like fundraising staff and systems, program evaluation, technology), it is actually more effective if a nonprofit leader takes it upon herself to create her own capacity funders.

But that requires a process, like this:

Move From Scarcity to Abundance Thinking
You can’t hope to solve your capacity challenges without thinking that they are, in fact, solvable. Many nonprofit leaders are so used to going without that they don’t allow themselves and their staffs to envision what could make things better. So start by brainstorming with your staff the hurdles standing in your way (lack of fundraising staff, inadequate technology, poor long-term planning, disengaged board of directors). Then list the kinds of investments you could make to solve those challenges (new staff positions, new technology and systems, strategic planning, board training) without constraining those potential solutions due to their costs.

Create a Capacity Building Plan
Once you have articulated what is standing in your way and the potential solutions to those hurdles, create a plan for overcoming your nonprofit’s challenges. Because funders often see capacity funding as more “risky” than traditional programming support, a nonprofit leader interested in securing capacity building funds must put together a clear plan for the need, solutions, costs and execution plan for capacity support. Clearly articulate what capacity changes you need to make, why, what those changes will help you accomplish, and over what timeframe.

Create a Capacity Building Budget
Attached to your capacity building plan must be the dollars necessary to implement the plan. What would it cost for a new donor database, a program evaluation, or your other needed capacity investments? Do the research and then create the capital requirements, over an adequate timeframe (2-3 years), for the capacity building needs you have. Now you know how much capacity capital you need to raise.

Brainstorm Capacity Donors
Just as you would with a traditional capital campaign, create a list of potential donors to whom you will pitch this “capacity capital campaign.” This is where the real magic happens — when you turn traditional donors into capacity building donors, perhaps without them even knowing it. A good capacity building donor is someone (a major individual donor, board member, or foundation funder) who is already a donor to your nonprofit and can be convinced (through your excellent persuasion skills) that an investment in your capacity building plan (above) will actually help your organization do even more of the things they love.

Work the Prospect List
Just as you would in a major donor campaign, begin meeting one-on-one with these prospective capacity building donors to share your capacity building plan and articulate how critically important these capacity building investments are to the future of your work together. Make a clear, compelling argument about how greater organizational capacity will help you further the mission that these donors love. Connect greater effectiveness and sustainability directly to more programming, more people served, more outcomes achieved.

Demonstrate the Return on Their Investment
Once you’ve secured them, provide those donors who become capacity builders a regular update on the progress of your capacity building efforts. And I have seen tremendous results that nonprofits can report on these types of capacity investments. One of my clients was able to translate $65,000 worth of capacity building investments in strategic planning, board development, fundraising training and leader coaching into 300% growth in the number of people they reached with their services. Another client turned $350,000 worth of capacity building investments in a new donor database, fundraising staff and training, and donor research into a $1.4 million annual increase in fundraising. If you make enough and the right kind of capacity investments, you can see gains in programming, efficiency, and fundraising effectiveness, so share those wins with those who invested in them. And believe me, your capacity donors will be hungry for more.

Instead of continuing to complain about a lack of capacity funding in the nonprofit sector, let’s fix it. A big part of the solution lies in nonprofit leaders planning for and initiating capacity building conversations with their current donors. And in so doing, nonprofit leaders themselves can change philanthropy for the better.

To learn more about turning your donors into capacity funders, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.

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What is the Value of a Nonprofit Leader’s Time?

clockIt never ceases to amaze me how often nonprofit leaders give away their expertise and their time – for free.

Here’s just the most recent example I’ve encountered.

A leader of an education nonprofit, let’s call her “Amy,” was approached by a group of funders who wanted to start a similar program in a different city. They had already identified a potential leader of the effort, but this leader, let’s call him “Mark,” was pretty inexperienced in working with school districts and in managing a large scale nonprofit effort.

So the group of funders asked if Amy would be willing to help Mark. This would involve Amy sitting in on some community meetings and providing one-on-one coaching on a regular basis to Mark.

Because Amy’s nonprofit also received funding from some of these funders, she felt obligated to comply. And let me be clear, Amy was offered absolutely no compensation for her time, effort and expertise.

There are several things wrong with this situation.

First, although this group of funders found tremendous value in Amy’s expertise, they did not assign any financial value to that expertise. They sought her out, and indeed already determined that their effort would be hampered without Amy’s guidance. However, they also assumed (perhaps subconsciously) that this nonprofit leader was so passionate about the education space, that she would be more than willing to donate her time.

Second, Amy herself did not assign a financial value to her time. She was complicit in the funders’ assumption that, while her time has huge social change value, it has no financial value. But the two must correlate. Amy’s time is a limited resource. And thus she must calculate the financial value of that resource.

But, third, nonprofit leaders don’t necessarily have the tools to calculate the value of their time.

In the hopes that other nonprofit leaders don’t get caught in Amy’s predicament, here’s a quick three-step process for calculating the financial value of your time as a social change expert, based on the financial value your organization assigns to your time.

  1. Determine Your Annual Cost: Take your annual salary and add the monetary value of your annual benefits (healthcare contribution, social security contribution, etc.). Typically benefits are calculated at an additional 25% of your salary. So, if your annual salary is $85,000 you would multiply that by 1.25 to get the total of your salary plus your annual benefits: $85,000 x 1.25 = $106,250.

  2. Determine Your Hourly Cost: Then, divide that salary + benefits number by the average number of working hours in a full-time position (so 52 weeks a year at 40 hours per week is 2,080 hours per year). I know you probably work more than 2,080 hours in a year, but this is just a general full-time number of hours. So, in this example, your hourly rate would be $106,250 / 2,080 = $51.08. Or $51 per hour, just to make it easy.

  3. Determine Your Hourly Value: If you are feeling bold, you can add a profit margin to this number, just as anyone who is paid to offer their expertise (lawyer, consultant, doctor) does. The idea here is that if someone pays you $51 for an hour of your expertise, you are only breaking even. But if you actually want to make a bit of profit that you can plow back into your organization, you could add in a little margin. So perhaps you round up to $65 per hour.

Now, you have a number you can use.

If Amy had been armed with such a calculation, when the group of funders came to her, she could have estimated the number of hours required (including community meetings, coaching, etc.) and then presented it to the funders. Perhaps the hours totaled 50 over the course of a 12-month period. This would have a financial value then of 50 x $65 per hour = $3,250, which I would argue is still a very conservative valuation.

So that group of funders would need to make a payment to Amy’s nonprofit (above their normal contributions) of $3,250 in order for her to agree to their request.

(And now that you have a way to calculate the hourly value of your time, you can also use it to determine the value of your time spent on other things — for example, fundraising activities like this.)

I can hear nonprofit leaders and funders gasping, “How dare you suggest that a nonprofit leader ‘charge’ a funder for her time.” And others might worry that funders would be offended by the request and end their other contributions to Amy’s nonprofit.

But shouldn’t nonprofit leaders be aware of (and transparent about) the costs embedded in how they are spending (and being asked to spend) their time? Nonprofit leaders and funders could then have a more illuminating conversation. Perhaps Amy’s group of funders won’t want to invest $3,250 in starting up Mark’s new nonprofit. If that is the case, then they probably weren’t very committed to the new effort in the first place. Far better to know that up front rather than after Amy sunk 50 hours into something that has nothing to do with her organization.

It’s time for nonprofit leaders (and their funders) to recognize the financial value of the social change expertise those leaders possess and invest accordingly.

Photo Credit: David Lofink

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Nonprofit Leaders, You Are Not Alone

nonprofit leaderOne of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”

While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.

We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.

When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:

What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.

How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.

Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.

I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.

If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

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The Importance of Taking Time Off

hammockThere was a very disturbing report last week. An NPR poll found that half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week don’t take all or most of the vacation they’ve earned. And among those who do take vacations, 30% say they do “a significant amount” of work while on vacation.


I cannot stress enough how important it is to the critical social change work we are all doing to take a break every once in awhile. And I mean really take a break and reconnect with those things that make us human, not machine. I don’t care what your job is and how critically important the work you do is, you will do it more effectively if you are a whole person. And you become and stay a whole person when you take time away from that job.

And because I believe in practicing what I preach, I’m about to take my own advice and disconnect from the world of social change (and social media) for the next few weeks. Instead I will be relaxing, playing with my kids, reading, hiking, and just being.

But in case you’ve already taken your time off (good for you!) and you want some things to read while I’m out, here are a few things to explore:

I’ll be back to writing the blog in mid-August. In the meantime, I hope you all find some space to breathe, to think, and to reconnect with what you are meant to do. Because believe me, we need you back in the Fall inspired and ready for the hard work ahead.

Photo Credit: Five Furlongs

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How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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We Must Rise

leadersIt has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.

But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.

We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”

I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster  to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.

As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:

“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”

A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.

As Martin Luther King said:

The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).

Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.

At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”

And so we must rise.

Photo Credit: pixabay

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2016

social changeI’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.

But if you want a longer list of what caught my eye this month, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:

    “Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”

  2. And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.

  3. Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.

  4. While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”

  5. And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”

  6. So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.

  7. A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

  8. Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.

  9. Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.

  10. Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.

Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons

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Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader

leadershipNote: Earlier this month I was asked by the Philanthropreneurship Forum to write a piece about nonprofit leadership, which follows. The piece originally appeared on the Forum here.

The new millennium has been a difficult one. A struggling global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap are just a few of the social problems we face. And as our social challenges mount, and the government increasingly offloads services, the burden shifts to the nonprofit sector.

Now more than ever nonprofit leaders must step up to the plate. In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to find and deliver on solutions. It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real, lasting social change.

In my mind, here is what the new nonprofit leader should look like:

Unlocks the Charity Shackles
“Charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. “Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world. While charity was an afterthought, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do. And nonprofit leaders must confidently and assertively articulate the critical importance of their work and why it requires real investment, because social change is about changing larger systems. So it takes real, significant investment of resources, not the pennies that charity requires.

Moves From Misplaced Gratitude to Impregnable Confidence
In the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work. If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment (with a delinquent board member or a meddlesome funder), she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships. Nonprofit leaders must rise from bended knee with confidence in themselves, their staff, and their social change work to articulate what they really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And they get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in the way.

Lives, Breathes and Leads Strategy
Real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy. To get there a nonprofit leader must ask board and staff to answer some key strategic questions like:

  • What change do we want to create?
  • Where do we fit in the external environment?
  • How do we measure if that change is happening?
  • What are the right activities to get to there?
  • What is the most sustainable financial model to get there?
  • What people and networks do we need with us?

These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. But that is true leadership.

And part of that strategy may involve a (formerly feared) move into advocacy. 501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change. But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and many already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.

Uses Money as a Tool
Without money, a compelling, inspiring, world-changing vision for social change is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, and without a smart plan for how a nonprofit will secure and use money there is no mission. So instead of dreaming up magic bullet fundraising schemes, a nonprofit leader must develop an overall financial model for her work that fully integrates with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And because money is so central to mission, you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions.

Embraces the Network
If instead of building an institution, a nonprofit leader built networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change. A true leader leaves her ego, and the ego of her organization aside in order to assemble all necessary resources (individuals, institutions, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of thinking just about her organization, her staff, her mission, her board, her donors, the nonprofit leader must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside her walls, the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can. A nonprofit leader understands that the network approach — particularly for nonprofits that are so resource-constrained — can create a much larger effect than a single entity can.

I believe that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is an ability to inspire others to greatness beyond what they thought possible. A true leader asks us to rise above our current circumstances – and in the nonprofit sector where more and more is being asked of organizations with less and less, those circumstances are often dire — to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. It is with that kind of real leadership that lasting social change can happen.

Photo Credit: Chuck Abbe

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