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nonprofit outcomes

How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Your Board

Dr._Strangelove“Honestly, some days I think I would be so much better off without a board,” said an exasperated executive director to me recently.

Wrangling a group of volunteers who have competing and often conflicting interests is an exhausting job. It’s no wonder that nonprofit leaders often want to throw up their hands and soldier on without the rag tag group that’s supposed to further, as opposed to impede, the work.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. An “engaged board” is not an oxymoron. It is actually attainable. But you don’t get there by cajoling, guilting, ignoring or dismissing your board.

You get there by marshaling this critical army to grow your resources, your community of supporters, your results. Because an engaged board raises more money, recruits and trains other engaged board members, connects your nonprofit to key people and organizations necessary to achieve the mission, puts your nonprofit above their self interest, and ultimately leads your organization to greater results and impact.

There are very clear steps you can take to build an engaged board:

  • Create a clear idea of the specific skills, experience and networks board members should possess
  • Continually focus the board on the big picture
  • Get them ALL to raise enough money
  • Help them embrace money as an effective tool
  • Make them understand and be able to articulate the impact of your nonprofit
  • Create a commitment among them to build the organization
  • Encourage them to ask hard questions
  • And more…

You can help them become the board of directors they were meant to be.

An engaged board understands and fully embraces their charge. They have extremely high standards, and they hold themselves, their fellow board members and their nonprofit to those standards. They are constantly pushing, striving, and building the nonprofit to whom they are devoting their service. An engaged board may be an anomaly, but it doesn’t have to be.

Nonprofit BoardIf you want to build an engaged board, the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle can help you get there. The Bundle includes:

  • The “Getting Your Board to Raise More Money” Webinar
  • The “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” E-book
  • The “How to Create a Groundbreaking Board” Webinar

Here’s what some people who have already downloaded the board tools had to say about them:

“This was very concrete and actionable – gave specific suggestions regarding engaging board members. This was very useful. Well done.”

“This really opened my eyes to new possibilities – thank you so much!”

“This was one of the best and most helpful and informative webinars I’ve been on. It was exactly what I was looking for in terms of beginning to get our board energized and on track and I will use the slides to help me prepare for our upcoming board retreat.”

An ineffective board is not just a frustration for the executive director. Sadly it is a HUGE missed opportunity. Your board could be so much more. When you effectively engage your board of directors, you grow your resources and ability to create social change exponentially.

You can download the Build an Engaged Board Tool Bundle here.

Photo Credit: Dr. Strangelove

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Funding Stronger Nonprofits: An Interview with Denise Zeman

Denise ZemanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Denise San Antonio Zeman. Denise has been President and CEO of Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio since 2000. A lifelong Clevelander, Denise’s career has spanned higher education, human services, healthcare and philanthropy.  Now in its 17th year of grantmaking, Saint Luke’s provides leadership and support to improve and transform health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland.

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

Nell: Saint Luke’s Foundation is different than most foundations in that you have made a conscious commitment to funding the capacity of nonprofit grantees in areas such as leadership development and outcomes measurement. Why did the foundation decide to put an emphasis on capacity funding and what have you learned from those investments?  

Denise: Just over two years ago, our Foundation board and staff held a retreat. An important topic was our frustration over the reality that the recent economic downturn had produced tremendous need in our community and volatility in our grant budget.  Specifically, this downturn highlighted for us that we were spending more when the economy was good and less when the community needed us most. These concerns were analyzed, and the culprit was determined to be our spending policy, for although we knew we could not control the world economy, we realized that we could control the way we responded to it.

We had employed a traditional 5% payout since our inception in 1997, and decided to investigate spending policies that might provide us a higher, more predictable level of spending going forward. With much trepidation, the board approved a bold new spending policy that provides for a “floor” with certain tolerance limits. We increased our spending by about $4 million and established a spending range between 5 and 7%. For the past two years our spending has been very close to 7%.

With this came a strong commitment to working with our grantees and philanthropic colleagues to move toward funding what works in order to advance a smaller set of priorities. The new priorities more narrowly define our previously broad definition of “health” to focus on three specific strategy areas: Healthy People, Strong Communities and Resilient Families.

The role of our senior program officers also shifted from a focus on managing a set of grants to a commitment to advancing a strategy. We agreed upon long and short-term outcomes that guide our grantmaking decisions, and the program team now manages their portfolios of grants in a more entrepreneurial way. In addition to making grants, their due diligence includes an in-depth analysis of the grantees’ capacity to be successful.

A thorough analysis of the literature, conversations with colleagues and focus groups with grantees revealed six strengths that the highest performing nonprofits have in common. These include strong financial management, investment in leadership, a commitment to outcomes and learning, a spirit of collaboration, excellent communications, and advocacy for good public policy.

We support and encourage our grantees to develop these capacities in a variety of ways. In our formal and informal interactions, we encourage them to think about their approach to building these capacities and we provide support to assist them in this process. We ask probing questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” in order to nurture lines of communication, demonstrate our concern for their growth and development, and most importantly, learn. And we work with our regional association, Philanthropy Ohio, to bring national content experts to our region for programs and seminars on relevant topics. We also host meetings ourselves during which we invite thought leaders such as Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), Dan Heath (Made to Stick and Switch), Fay Twersky (Beneficiary Voice), and Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy) to challenge the status quo and help us focus our efforts to build a stronger nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

In order to be able to deliver on their promise to the community, nonprofits must have a solid financial base. Our scrutiny of financial statements has increased, and with that has come a commitment to working with our grantees to improve their financial planning, monitoring, operations and governance. The Nonprofit Finance Fund and Financial Management Associates, LLC have provided local strategic financial management seminars to increase knowledge and inspire motivation to build financial capacities.

We also know that strong leaders produce great results. We therefore encourage and support comprehensive leadership development for our grantees, and we support efforts to implement leadership development practices that ensure good governance and empower professional staff to be leaders of change.

We are committed to tapping into the power of outcomes measurement as a way to support continuous learning and encourage performance improvement, and we work with our grantees to support their efforts to collect and use data to improve their outcomes for their clients. We have learned first-hand how challenging measuring impact in the social sector can be.  But we have also learned that unless we measure and move toward specific, measurable outcomes, we run the risk of spinning our wheels at best, and actually doing harm at worst. The works of Mario Morino (Leap of Reason) and David Hunter (Working Hard and Working Well) provide nonprofit and philanthropic leaders with the rationale and roadmap for making a measurable, meaningful and lasting difference for the people they serve, and we strongly encourage our grantees and colleagues to join us in embracing their approaches.

We have also learned the importance of supporting the capacity of our grantees to work with others.  We live in a nonprofit community that was built for a population of over one million people, and yet the last census revealed that our community has contracted by more than half. Our government and philanthropic resources have diminished, yet the need in our community has grown. We therefore work in partnership with our grantees and philanthropic partners to support collaboration in practice and in learning, and we have embraced the concepts of Collective Impact (Foundation Strategy Group) to inform our work.

Communication is also an area of focus for us. Borrowing from what we learned from Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, we support strategic communications that help our grantees leverage outcomes and tell effective stories to advance their missions. This is not storytelling for the sake of storytelling; rather, it is using the power of outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness and impact.

While philanthropic support for health and human services is important, it is miniscule compared to government spending. We therefore support efforts to educate policymakers on relevant issues and influence institutions, systems and community and/or individual behaviors within the funding guidelines for private foundations.

Quite simply, we believe that strong nonprofits produce the strongest results, and as funders of impact, we believe it is our role to support our grantees to be the strongest they can be.

Nell: Leadership development is a particular area of interest for the foundation. What do you think nonprofit leaders need most to become more effective and what role can philanthropists play in that?  

Denise: We view strong, resilient leadership as one of the most effective tools for achieving superior results. In our work with grantees, we have learned that organizations that take an intentional, focused approach to leadership development achieve better outcomes for the people they serve. Nonprofit leaders need boards that are uncompromising on quality and results, and these boards must both challenge and support executive leadership to drive innovation and strategic performance.

As noted in Independent Sector’s Leadership Initiative, nonprofit leaders need “time, attention and resources to engage in high-quality leadership development programming that equips them to deliver significant results.” Leaders cannot be so “in the weeds” that they lose sight of their role as keepers of the promise. We encourage our grantees to use some of our general operating support to focus on leadership development, and to extend that focus to developing the “next generation” of leaders as well.

We also provide funds for nonprofit leaders to participate in high quality leadership development programs locally and nationally. Additionally, we support an individual professional development program for each member of our foundation staff to ensure that they continue to develop their own potential as leaders.

Nell: One of the arguments some philanthropists make against providing funding for building nonprofit organizations is that it is harder to demonstrate the return from a capacity building investment than a program investment. How do you respond to that argument?  

Denise: I agree…it is hard, but we have never been an organization that avoids hard! In our work with the TCC Group last year, we learned more about what it takes to be a learning organization. We made a commitment to learning from everything we do, and we are committed to learning more about how to measure the impact of capacity building investments.

And while we are still learning, we have some specific examples that demonstrate the return on our investments in building capacity. We know, for example, that our support for outcomes and learning has helped some of our grantees build the capacity to reflect their success by implementing outcomes management software and producing results-oriented dashboards. Eight of the organizations we helped form strategic alliances have merged into four, and are serving more people with fewer resources. We also know that some of the communications-related grants we have made have enabled grantees to extend their reach in innovative ways such as electronic case management programs. And we know that policy-focused grants have allowed some of our safety net providers to come together to provide patient-centered medical homes for some of our most vulnerable citizens in advance of Medicaid expansion. While these results might be viewed as anecdotal, we believe they are building our own capacity to make a strong case for capacity building.

Nell: Funders are becoming increasingly interested in nonprofit outcomes measurement, yet few funders are willing to fund evaluations. How do we solve that chicken or the egg scenario?

Denise: I was recently invited to participate on a panel called “Do Funders Get It?” at a national conference called After the Leap. The panel responded to Nancy Roob’s stirring plenary session in which she described the phenomenal work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in supporting youth development organizations across the country to be more effective.

We posed the question “Do funders understand the resources and support nonprofits require to scale impact?” to the audience, and not surprisingly, the response affirmed the reality that most of us do not. The truth that funders want results but are reluctant to fund evaluations has been confirmed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to name just a few.

So how do we solve this dichotomy? As with any attempt at true and lasting change, there is no single silver bullet that will suddenly convince funders to change their traditional ways of grantmaking. But I do believe there is a growing receptivity to the concept of  funding for impact, and there is a role for philanthropic affinity groups and regional associations to educate their membership with concrete suggestions that funders can use with their boards, professional staffs and grantees.

Government funders are beginning to understand the importance of funding what works, and this will raise the stakes for nonprofits that rely heavily on public support. They will have to demonstrate impact or they will not receive support. This will raise the evaluation imperative to standard operating procedure, and funders that care at all about their grantees will be compelled to support building evidence that their approaches do, in fact, achieve sustainable results.

Nell: Although Saint Luke’s Foundation is a real trail blazer in the philanthropic world, philanthropy overall is rather slow to change, particularly when it comes to funding in new ways. What do you think it will take to get more funders to understand that stronger nonprofit leaders and organizations can equal more impact?

Denise: Thank you for your kind words. Our change in spending policy and approach was largely informed by Mario Morino’s admonition to “rethink, redesign and reinvent the why, what and how of our work in every arena.” He went on to suggest that we “need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving – all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.” When put that way, who could argue?

Foundations and nonprofits are about the business of improving lives. The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO. And unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail. We must be bold in challenging and supporting one another to disrupt the sector in unprecedented ways. We at Saint Luke’s Foundation have changed our approaches from spending to strategy to portfolio management, but we have stayed true to our original mission statement to improve and transform health and well-being in our community. I suppose it is fair to say that our very mission implies that we will fund what improves and transforms…and therefore we see it as being true to our mission to build highly effective provider organizations.

Photo Credit: Saint Luke’s Foundation

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NextGen Family Philanthropy: An Interview with Katherine Lorenz

Family foundations prepare for next generation.In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. In late 2012, Forbes Magazine named Katherine “One to Watch” as an up-and-coming face in philanthropy. She also serves on the board of directors of the Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Philanthropy, Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, and the Association of Small Foundations.

Nell: There is a lot of interest in the next generation of philanthropists—Millennials who stand to inherit the largest wealth transfer in history. How do you think this next generation of philanthropists will be different than their predecessors and why?

Katherine: I do believe this next generation of philanthropists will be different than their predecessors. People tend to become interested in a specific issue or cause based on a personal experience—something that impacts their lives profoundly. It is only natural that this next generation of philanthropists will do their philanthropy differently; they grew up in a world that looked very different than the world their parents and grandparents grew up in. Things like 9/11 and social media were formative experiences for Millennials, so it should not be surprising that they will think differently than previous generations—just as the Great Depression had such an impact on the way their grandparents lived their lives and did their philanthropy.

A recent study by 21/64 and the Johnson Center on Philanthropy about next gen donors showed that this generation is more clearly driven by impact and effectiveness in their philanthropy than generations before them. They also want to be more hands-on in their engagement with an issue or an organization—they want to serve on boards or get involved in a more concrete way than just writing a check. They look at financial resources as only one tool in the toolbox, and seek to bring many other resources at their disposal to create change in the world.

Nell: Do you believe that next gen donors will actually divert more money to organizations that can prove they’ve created social change? Are we going to see the needle move in terms of funneling more money to proven social change efforts under their watch?

Katherine: I am not sure if we will actually see Millennial donors divert more resources to organizations that can prove they are creating social change. While I do believe this generation will ask for more metrics, and want to know the impact they are having more than previous generations, I think this group will also be open to taking more risks as they search for innovative solutions. In taking more risks, there will be more failure but also potential for more significant social change if the risk pays off. In sum, I think next gen donors will risk more and fail more than previous generations, although this should create more innovative methods that address the issues they care about.

Nell: What is your view on how family philanthropy evolves over time? For example, your grandparents’ generation’s understanding of and opinions about climate change are quite different than views about climate change now. How do changing views affect a philanthropic approach over time?

Katherine: I think that family foundations evolve with generational changes more in how they address issues than in what they address. Often a family holds very strong beliefs and values, and those are passed down from generation to generation. For example, my grandfather funded sustainability issues for more than 40 years, primarily funding large institutions or creating new institutions, and trying to bring businesses into the conversation. While climate change was an issue he cared about, the larger picture of how the earth will sustain a growing population with finite resources drove him. Those values and interests are acutely present in his children and grandchildren, although how we do philanthropy to address these issues is slightly different.

With more science available, it is clear that climate change is very clearly the biggest threat to a sustainable planet, and we are using different tools than my grandfather did to address the issue—more grassroots organizations, more policy and advocacy work, and less of a focus on big institutions. Our values around this topic very much came from my grandfather’s passion, but our approach in addressing the issue is quite different. I think a difference in generational approach is common in family foundations.

Nell: How do you think philanthropy could be more effective and better help nonprofits create change? What shifts in the philanthropic landscape are you particularly excited about seeing?

Katherine: I think one of the biggest problems in the non-profit sector stems from the relationship between the donors and their grantees. Donors often ask grantees to do special reporting or won’t pay for overhead expenses or ask them to do something outside of their current strategy. Grantees are often compelled to do these things in order to obtain funding, although sometimes they spend more time trying to please donors than doing the work at hand. Donors have unrealistic expectations of grantees, and non-profit leaders usually spend more time fundraising than working on the issue they were funded to address.

I would really like to see donors and grantees operate more like partners, and less like one is doing a favor for the other in exchange for funding. I would like to see donors fundamentally shift the conversation from a focus on lowering overhead costs to a focus on maximizing social benefit. Who cares if overhead is high if the organization is actually making a dent in the issue they’re trying to solve?

One shift I see in the philanthropy world that excites me is the growing number of groups that exist to help donors be more effective. Donor education is growing in popularity. Inheritors are realizing that doing philanthropy well is a serious job and requires training. As the field of donor education grows and formalizes, I think we will see donors doing a better job of allocating resources for social benefit.

Photo Credit: Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2014

The_Crystal_BallAmong other obvious things, December is a time for reflection on the past year and predictions for the coming year. There have already been some great forecasts about what 2014 will bring the social change sector (here, here, and here). And as is my tradition, I want to add my thoughts about the trends to watch in the coming year. (If you want to see how I did in past years, you can read my nonprofit trends posts for 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Here’s what I think we should watch for in 2014:

  1. Growing Wealth Disparity
    Evidence increasingly reveals that despite our best efforts the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, not shrinking. This growing disparity means that the work nonprofits do to address the ramifications of these inequities is in growing demand. The problems are simply too big and getting bigger every minute. At the same time government resources are shrinking so the greater burden for solutions is increasingly placed on the shoulders of the nonprofit sector. As problems get worse and money gets tighter the social change sector will take center stage.

  2. Greater Nonprofit Sector Confidence
    As the nonprofit sector is asked to do more and more, nonprofits will no longer be a “nice to have” but an absolute essential component of any way forward. We will move squarely away from the idea of “charity” and toward an economy and a mindset that fully integrates the social. No longer sidelined as a small piece of the pie, the nonprofit sector will be recognized for the undeniable and pivotal role it plays in our economy, our institutions, our systems. As such, the nonprofit sector will stop apologizing for the resources it needs to do the job. The sector will rise up and take its rightful place as a critical force in shaping a sustainable future.

  3. Increased Movement Toward High Performance
    As resources become tighter and we look to the nonprofit sector to solve mounting problems, public and private funders will increasingly want to see the return on their investments. And that can only be done by understanding what results a nonprofit is achieving. The growing push this year away from financial metrics and toward outcome metrics will continue to grow. Nonprofits will have to learn not only how to articulate the outcomes they are working toward, but more importantly, how to manage their operations towards those outcomes.

  4. More Capacity Investments
    And if we are going to get smarter about achieving results in the social change space, more donors will start to recognize that they have to build the capacity of that space. There is no end to the list of capacity-building needs of the sector.  From investing in more sustainable financial engines, to funding evaluation and performance management systems, to financing nonprofit leader coaching, philanthropists will increasingly recognize that if we are going to expect more from the nonprofit sector we must make sure they have the tools to do the job. A handful of savvy foundations and individual donors have already made capacity investments, and as those investments pay off, more donors will follow suit.

  5. Accelerated Effort to Enlarge the 2% Pie
    For the past four decades private contributions to the nonprofit sector have not risen above 2% of the U.S. gross domestic product. In recent years there have been attempts to grow that pie. And the big question whenever a new funding vehicle enters the space (like crowdfunding most recently) is whether it will be the magic bullet to shatter that glass ceiling. But we are not there yet. As social challenges continue to grow, the wealth gap continues to widen, and a new generation of donors comes of age, there will be increasing pressure to channel more money (not just the same money through a new vehicle) toward social change.

Photo Credit: John William Waterhouse

 

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Starting a Movement Toward Higher Performing Nonprofits

Athlete_at_starting_blockThis week I attended the After the Leap conference in Washington D.C. and was blown away. As I mentioned in a post earlier this year, the conference was organized by Social Solutions and PerformWell partners Child Trends and Urban Institute and builds on the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011, and the companion book Working Hard & Working Well by David Hunter published this year.

This first-ever conference was an attempt to bring the nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders who are on the cutting edge of the movement to create a higher-performing social sector together to, as Mario put it “grow a critical mass who can mobilize for greater change.”

What’s Government’s Role in Nonprofit Performance?
Day 1 focused on government’s role in driving social sector performance management. A fascinating panel of government agency leaders, moderated by Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation, discussed various efforts at the federal, state and local government levels to drive evidence-based policy and practice. But some in the audience and Twitter-verse wondered whether government could really be the impetus for a greater push towards measuring and managing outcomes in the nonprofit sector.

How Do You Get Buy-In For Change?
From the big, systemic view, the day quickly shifted for me to the organization-level with the fantastic panel on “Getting Buy-In” from staff, board and funders for a shift towards performance management. Isaac Castillo from DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, Bridget Laird from Wings for Kids, and Sotun Krouch from Roca explained how they had moved their nonprofits toward articulating and measuring outcomes. The most effective approach seemed to be to ask “Don’t you want to know whether the work we are doing is helping rather than hurting?” Isaac made the urgency to move toward performance management clear, “If you haven’t started doing performance management yet, in 12-18 months you will start losing funding to those who are.”

Can We Convince Funders to Invest?
Day 2 of the conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote address by Nancy Roob from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that really served as a call to action for the foundation world. Nancy painted a pretty stark picture of the disconnect she saw between how much money we’ve spent on solving social problems in the last decades and how much actual progress we’ve made. She blamed this disconnect on “our piecemeal approach to solutions.” As she bluntly put it, “We are woefully under-invested in what we already know works.” She laid out 5 steps funders can take to move away from piecemeal and toward transformational social change:

  1. Make bigger, multi-year investments
  2. Provide more upfront, unrestricted, flexible capital
  3. Invest in nonprofit evidence building
  4. Scale what works with innovation, and
  5. Adopt an investor mindset

But for Nancy, it’s not just up to funders, nonprofits also need to change. She urged nonprofits to:

  1. Shed the charity mindset
  2. Focus on the larger context
  3. Create a performance management culture, and
  4. Ask for help to achieve performance

From there, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy led a panel with Carol Thompson Cole from Venture Philanthropy Partners and Denise Zeman from Saint Luke’s Foundation asking “Do Funders Get it?” While a few funders are willing to invest in helping nonprofits articulate, measure and manage to outcomes, most are not. The panel suggested that some of this reluctance stems from funder’s lack of humility and fear of what they might find. Audience members suggested that it might also be funders’ lack of performance expertise. (You can read Phil Buchanan’s blog post giving more detail on this panel here.)

From there I attended a breakout session “Funder Investment Strategies to Strengthen Nonprofit Performance Management Capacity” where Victoria Vrana from the Gates Foundation and Lissette Rodriguez from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and two of their grantees discussed how they worked together to fund and create performance management systems.

The final panel of the day brought an impressive group of nonprofit CEOs together (Mindy Tarlow from Center for Employment Opportunities, Sam Cobbs from First Place for Youth, Cynthia Figueroa from Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Bill McCarthy from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and Thomas Jenkins from Nurse-Family Partnership) to talk about how they each had built a performance management system at their organizations, the hurdles they encountered, how they funded it, and where they are now.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Mario Morino rounded out the conference with an inspiring call for us to build momentum. He outlined some new ideas coming out of the conference that he’d like to see developed by 2020, including:

  1. A “Manhattan Project” of social sector evidence
  2. A National Commission on Nonprofit High Performance
  3. An Aggregated Growth Capital Fund to deploy billions to solve entrenched national problems
  4. A Performance Academy for Social Impact
  5. Presidential Performance-to-Impact Awards
  6. Social Sector Center for Quality Improvement
  7. A Solutions Journalism Network to “lift up the hope spots” in the country
  8. Leap Learning Communities in local settings connected in a national web

This was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in years. The caliber of the presenters and audience was amazing. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of the next generation of the social sector. Buoyed by the ability to see the writing on the wall, this group is determined to lead the fundamental, and critical, shift towards a more effective sector.

You can read the Twitter feed from the conference here and learn more about the movement here.

The urgency of this movement became increasingly clear through the course of the two days. Our country is witnessing mounting disparity and crippling social challenges. It is increasingly up to the social sector to turn the tide. And the time is now. As Mario charged at the end of the conference “If we don’t figure out how to build high performing nonprofits, nothing else matters. This is the last mile. Our nation depends on it.”

Photo Credit: tableatny

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November 2013

read_book_by_kakao_bean-d4oaprwThere was a lot of talk in November about how we actually make the shift toward measuring outcomes in the nonprofit world. And the resounding theory was that we should start with funders and funding for evaluation. Let’s hope philanthropists are listening!

And speaking of funding, there were some fascinating articles about the financing of public parks and how philanthropic, corporate and public money all affect a very public good.

At the end of the day it’s always about money isn’t it?

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in November. But as usual, please add what I missed in the comments.

And if you want to see an expanded list of interesting reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+. You can also find past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. A fascinating article in The New Yorker unpacks some recent developments with the funding of New York City parks, the delicate balance between private philanthropy and public goods, and how both contribute to or detract from equality.  Exploring a similarly murky delineation between public goods and corporate profit, this article from The Atlantic Cities describes a new trend in corporately-financed public parks.

  2. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christina Triantaphyllis and Matthew Forti argue that NGOs need to move from overhead measures to cost-per-impact measures. And funders need to help that shift happen.

  3. Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy would agree, it seems. As he puts it, “Until foundations really step up and support nonprofits’ data collection, assessment, and improvement, we will not get the best out of our collective efforts.” Tell ‘em, Phil!

  4. But maybe the solution is more systematic. Ever the visionary, David Henderson offers an idea to make the shift toward impact by tying charitable deductions to outcomes. Crazy or brilliant?

  5. The nonprofit sector really needs to get over its inferiority complex, and to help, the University of San Francisco’s MPA program developed this great infographic on The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector.

  6. From the HubSpot blog comes some tips for how nonprofits can use social media to really engage people, and The Guardian in the UK offers the 5 characteristics of the top 30 nonprofit CEOs on social media.

  7. On the How Matters blog Jennifer Lentfer argues that the “social good industry” wrongly assumes “that in the developing world, nothing exists, i.e. that there’s a blank slate upon which our interventions can be built.”

  8. There are some great reports and data analysis tools recently released. For a start, you can dig into the foundation landscape, analyze nonprofit financial performance, or understand how content marketing and technology are being used for social good.

  9. Speaking of technology for social good, crowdfunding is becoming a bigger funding source for social causes, raising $2.7 billion in 2012. Lucy Bernholz rounds up the research on this emerging and not fully understood funding vehicle.

  10. And finally, a really cool example of truly public art has emerged in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo Credit: kakao-bean

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The Long View on the Nonprofit Sector: An Interview with Bill Shore

Bill ShoreIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.

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

Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?

Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.

Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?

Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.

Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?

Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.

Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?

Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.

Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?

Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.

Photo Credit: Share Our Strength

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: October 2013

10 Great Social Innovation Read Oct 2013It was really hard to narrow down to 10 great reads this month. People wrote some really compelling (even more than usual) things in October. And some longer pieces in particular were quite thought-provoking. Some asked searing questions like “Is arts innovation really innovative?” and “Is  increasing income disparity making us less empathetic?” and “Can philanthropy fix our broken democracy?” And that’s just a start. Lots to think about.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in October. But please add what I missed in the comments.

And if you want to see an expanded list of interesting reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+. You can also find past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. The conversation about the overhead myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should be evaluated based on how much they spend on overhead (fundraising and administrative expenses), still rages on. First Paul Hogan from the John R. Oishei Foundation reframes the argument to include general operating and program support.  Then Heather Peeler from GEO reports on a panel at a recent gathering of Social Innovation Fund grantees and grantors discussing what funders can do to build more sustainable organizations. And Julie Brandt writes a ringing endorsement of the overhead myth movement arguing that “Donors need to focus on evaluating charities based on leadership, transparency, governance, and results.”

  2. But lest you think that everyone agrees, Tiziana Dearing raises some good points about nonprofits not yet having the necessary resources or tools to boil outcomes down to short term ratios or ratings. As she says, “Everyone has more work to do.”

  3. There were some great examples of nonprofits using social media in interesting ways. From the Social Media BirdBrain blog comes 4 Best Examples of Nonprofit Video Storytelling and from the HubSpot blog, 10 Nonprofits That Are Totally Nailing Pinterest Marketing.

  4. And speaking of innovatively using media to move social change forward, this infographic on America’s school dropout problem demonstrates a concise and compelling way to explain a complex problem.

  5. Part of the potential solution to America’s education problems might lie in new science. An interesting new school within Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project is using neuroscience to teach children in new ways.

  6. If you really want to unpack the buzz around “innovation,” particularly in the arts, take a look at this really interesting, thought-provoking 6-essay series at Culturebot questioning innovation and the arts, what’s working and what isn’t. It is well worth your time and is guaranteed to make you think.

  7. On the Idealist blog, April Greene wisely counsels those entering the social change space, that if you want to pursue your dreams, don’t tell your mother. Such good advice, ha!

  8. Richard Eisenberg provides some really interesting analysis of recent data and what it tells us about how generations approach giving differently.

  9. Writing in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman worries that the widening income gap may be creating a widening empathy gap because “social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” Very scary.

  10. President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci writes a passionate plea that philanthropy help fix a quite broken (as particularly evidenced in October’s federal government shutdown) American political system.

Photo Credit: ekelley89

 

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