It seems that October had two primary themes: moving nonprofits to measure outcomes and the evolution of philanthropy. The drum beat that nonprofits must find a way to measure what change they are creating has been growing louder, and every nonprofit leader would be wise to listen and understand this new trend. But in order to get to a place where most or all nonprofits are measuring outcomes, philanthropists must start paying for measurement. It is interesting to watch this all evolve.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in October in the world of social innovation. And as always, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or my newest social media network, ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- There were several great articles about the need for nonprofits to prove the change they are creating. Steve Boland at Nonprofits Assistance Fund kicked if off by encouraging nonprofits to compare their resources to the outcomes they achieve. The New Philanthropy Capital blog encouraged nonprofits to approach measurement with theory, courage and creativity. And on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog, Lauren Gilbert provided a case study of BELL and how they measured outcomes.
- And then to the ultimate question, “Will funders pay for measurement?”. Beth Kanter asks the question What is the Funder’s Role in Supporting Good Measurement? and Mario Morino (author of Leap of Reason) weighs in. And Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, argues “Foundations must step up and support robust nonprofit performance management systems.” Oh yes, please.
- Writing in the New York Times Paul Sullivan explores how the advent of impact investing is pushing philanthropists to measure the impact of their dollars.
- Even though the premier social entrepreneurship conference, Social Capital Markets, was in September, there were two great round-up blog posts about how SoCap moved the conversation about investing in social entrepreneurship forward. First was Jeff Raderstrong’s argument that we need to beware of the hype around impact investing and focus on solutions to social problems. And Christine Egger wrote a fabulous post on the Idealist blog about new ways to think about, fund & inform social change.
- There were a couple of great posts about (the really sexy topic of) nonprofit budgeting. It may sound dry, but a nonprofit’s budget is an incredibly powerful tool for creating social change, so the more organizations that can harness that tool, the better. On the Nonprofit Finance Fund blog, Peter Kramer demonstrates how to connect your budget to your overall organization strategy. And Kate Barr argues that breakeven budgeting is the “biggest barrier to nonprofit financial health.” Amen to that!
- Two great pieces this month from Lucy Bernholz who always makes us think, especially about the future. First is her piece on libraries and the future and then her laundry list of things we can no longer assume about the world around us.
- I always love a well done infographic and PhilanTopic offers one with their Nonprofits’ Impact on the Economy.
- Writing on the Social Earth blog Ashok Kamal reminds us that the work of social change is an exhausting roller coaster and we all need some “inspiration capital” to keep us going.
- Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, describes that for the millennial generation, innovation is the status quo and they are “poised to bring the social and business worlds closer together – tying profit to social change, and strong local communities to a new global society.” Let’s hope!
- It looks like the old is becoming new again as cities revive the idea of public, inner city markets.
Photo Credit: x1klima
Last week I spoke at the Women’s Collective Giving Network (WCGN) national conference about the power of a theory of change. The WCGN is an affiliation of women’s philanthropic groups across the country. The members pool their money and give grants to nonprofit organizations. It is critically important that they, along with every nonprofit organization, understand and embrace the power of a theory of change.
With increasing competition for social change dollars it is absolutely crucial that nonprofit organizations develop their own theory of change. A theory of change is basically an argument for why a nonprofit organization exists. It describes how an organization uses community resources (money, volunteers, clients) to perform a set of activities which result in changes to the clients’ lives (outcomes) and changes to broader communities, institutions, or systems (impact).
Essentially a theory of change describes how a nonprofit creates social change.
So a very basic theory of change for a literacy program would look like this:
It used to be enough for a nonprofit to talk about what they produced (or outputs), such as meals served in a soup kitchen, hours spent reading to a child, beds provided in a homeless shelter, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world where there are fewer and fewer dollars and more and more nonprofits fighting for those dollars, philanthropists, government funders and others are increasingly asking the question “To What End?” So what if you created outputs, did anything really change because of your work? Did the lives of those in your program change and did our community change?
That’s where a theory of change comes in. If you can articulate what change you hope your organization is creating, then with that fundamental building block in place you can:
- Chart a strategic direction
- Prove your results
- Secure more support for your organization
And ultimately achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: sustainable community change.
A theory of change is the fundamental building block that makes all of this happen, like this:
A theory of change is so fundamental because you cannot chart a strategic direction if you don’t know what you are trying to change. And you can’t prove that you’ve changed something unless you have articulated what it is that you want to change. And you certainly can’t get funders, volunteers, and key decision makers to support you if you can’t tell them what you are trying to change and whether you are actually doing it. So the only way to truly create long-term social change is to start with a theory of change. Which is why I encourage every nonprofit organization to go through the exercise.
If you need help crafting your own theory of change, check out our Creating a Theory of Change step-by-step guide, or if you need customized help to chart a strategic direction, check out our Strategic Planning consulting services.
Photo Credit: Kristymp
Note: I’m heading out of the office for the next week and a half, but in my absence I want to offer a couple of blog posts from the Social Velocity archives. The one below appeared on the blog in February 2011. Enjoy!
I’m a huge believer in questions. Sometimes asking good, hard questions is the only way to get to the bottom of something, to analyze potential options, to find the right path.
So too in the nonprofit sector hard questions can play a pivotal role. It is critically important that we move away from an unwritten rule that “charities” are doing good things that shouldn’t be questioned, to a place where nonprofits are continually asking themselves whether they are making most effective use of resources and providing real solutions.
These are the 5 questions I’d like to see nonprofits asking themselves:
- Do we know if we are accomplishing anything? Because nonprofit organizations can’t simply look at a profit and loss statement to see progress, determining success is much more difficult than in the for-profit world. Yet a nonprofit organization cannot just translate community resources into activities and call it a day. Nonprofits are increasingly forced to demonstrate the change their work creates in the community. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit must conduct large evaluation projects. Rather, I’m arguing that a nonprofit must create a solid strategy for creating change and then find a way (as cheaply and simply as possible) to determine whether they are delivering on that strategy.
- Are we adapting to our external environment? Gone are the days when a nonprofit enjoyed a core group of donors that funded delivery of the same services to the community year after year. In this ever-changing, increasingly fast-paced world, nonprofits must constantly analyze the trends in their external environment (funding, competitors, community needs) and effectively adapt to those trends in order to survive and thrive.
- Is our board helping or hurting? A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most important asset, expanding its footprint in the community, bringing in resources, driving a bold direction, ensuring accountability and transparency. Or it can be a group of people who show up to network, meddle in minutiae, and bog the organization down. A nonprofit’s board needs to take a hard look at itself, as individual members and as a group, to determine if they are an effective governing body or not, whether they are moving the mission forward, or just getting in the way.
- Do we really need that new building? Time and again nonprofit organizations launch a capital campaign as a way to get their name out in the community, get the board motivated, bring big donors in the door, and seek significance and importance. But the result is often an organization crippled by resources draining away from the mission. Board and leadership needs to ask themselves if a new building is directly tied to achievement of mission. There are other, better ways to build your brand, rally the board and donors, and raise big dollars, like a growth or capacity capital campaign, which can actually result in more social impact and financial sustainability over the long term.
- Are we using money as a tool? Nonprofit boards often shy away from discussions about money, ignoring tools like financial reports, budget reviews and fundraising net-revenue analysis, in order to focus meetings on programs and mission. But money is an incredibly effective tool for making programs and mission happen, and nonprofits need to create and implement an integrated financial strategy that feeds into the overall organization’s plan. Money, if used strategically and effectively, can help your nonprofit do so much more.
To move forward, the nonprofit sector needs to do away with safe, routine conversations and start asking some hard questions. Indeed questions are sometimes the only route to open up possibilities, try new approaches and find a better way.
Photo Credit: Wade Rockett