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nonprofit overhead

Understanding The Full Costs of Nonprofits: An Interview with Michael Etzel

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Etzel. Michael is a partner in The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that consults to nonprofits and philanthropists, provides leadership development support, and develops and shares insights — all with the goal of scaling social impact.

Since joining Bridgespan in 2006, Michael has focused on effectiveness across the full spectrum of social innovation financing, advising corporate, institutional, and family philanthropists and investors. Much of Michael’s work explores what it takes to use tools of innovative finance and impact investing to solve pressing social problems. His work and research in philanthropy also focuses on the question of what it takes to deliver results as a new approach to ending the nonprofit starvation cycle.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: In your research and writing you have focused a lot on what you call “Pay-What-It-Takes-Philanthropy,” the radical idea that different nonprofit solutions have different business models and thus require different costs and investments. This concept is so accepted in the for-profit world that it is a truism, but why is it a radical idea for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders?

Michael: It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why business models and capabilities matter. Every nonprofit operates with an underlying business model and set of capabilities critical for program delivery. Failure to understand an organization’s business model frequently leads to underinvestment in core capabilities, and, as one program officer put it, “a hollowing out of civil society institutions.” We can’t have resilient, durable civil society organizations that deliver successful programs unless they operate from a position of financial strength.

As you highlight, segmentation and analysis of comparable performance data is common practice in the for-profit world. Leaders like Clara Miller, president of The Heron Foundation and former CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, have long called for this kind of thinking in the social sector. But this type of comparison requires transparent and consistent data, something hard to come by. As one nonprofit executive reminded me, “If you think you can analyze a nonprofit through IRS 990 filings, you are in outer space.”

Yet, I wouldn’t say this a radical idea. Organizations like DataArts and CoMetrics show how this is possible. For example, DataArts gathers a variety of comparable revenue, cost, and performance data for arts and cultural organizations, and provides tools for reviewing that data. This provides grantees and grant makers with actionable data to inform management or funding decisions with an eye to effectiveness and efficiency. CoMetrics addresses a more diverse set of enterprises, providing software platforms and tools that enable those enterprises to collect, display, and compare financial, operational, and impact data against their peers. This bottom-up approach gathers data across organizations running the same type of business in the same field to form groups relevant for comparative assessment and learning.

Bridgespan’s preliminary analysis to date has shown that different types of nonprofit organizations have different cost structures based on their business model. Segmenting nonprofits by business model can help us compare similar organizations. When it comes to indirect costs, for example, nonprofit research labs have a median indirect cost rate of 63%, nearly two and a half times the 25% median rate of direct service organizations.

We plan to push ahead this year to refine and deepen our understanding of segmentation and how it applies to nonprofit cost structures and capital needs. Having this information will benefit funders and grantees alike when it comes to funding discussions.

Nell: You work with both nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, so you likely see both sides of this dysfunction. What do you think it will take to move the field to a place where those with potential solutions to social problems have enough and the right kinds of money to see their solutions come to fruition?

Michael: Nonprofits exist in a complicated marketplace, seeking capital from a broad range of funders. As in any marketplace, some influential market makers set the rules. The practice of setting limits on indirect costs in project grants to nonprofits/NGOs has its antecedents in the US government’s approach to funding R&D at universities during the post-World War II era. The federal government has changed practice dramatically since 1958, embracing the “fair share” approach—that federal agencies pay their fair share of true costs, including indirect costs.

Among private foundations, indirect cost rate policies have been common for decades. A RAND report from the 1980s captured the variety of policies at that time: “many foundations customarily pay full indirect cost as budgeted in a proposal. Other foundations may pay only a portion of… or specify a cap on the support of indirect costs.” More recently, our research has shown that many large foundations set a cap of 15% or lower on indirect costs. Yet, among the 20 large nonprofits we sampled, indirect costs comprised between 21% and 89% of total costs, with the median at 40%.

I offer this history because I see the indirect cost conversation changing. For decades, much of this conversation has been driven by nonprofit and NGO leaders’ concerns about caps on indirect cost reimbursement. But funders have begun to engage more deeply in this conversation over the last several years. In 2013, Forefront (formerly Donors Forum) convened a cross section of staff from smaller Midwest foundations to discuss barriers and potential solutions to funding indirect costs. In 2015, the three California Regional Associations of Grantmakers launched the Real Cost Project (now the Full Cost Project) with the dual goals of increasing the number of funders providing real-cost funding and building the skills and capacity of grantmakers.

Having philanthropic leaders at the table is important to overcoming the reality of power dynamics. In the same breath, it’s also important to see this issue for what it is—a complex systems issue. Acknowledging this complexity helps approach this issue from a place of empathy for funders that want to do the right thing, and nonprofits that want to own and manage the costs of delivering impact.

Funders have the opportunity to ask grantees their true costs of programs and to be prepared to pay their fair share of the operational and financial support it takes to deliver those programs. Meanwhile nonprofits can focus on knowing their costs and advocating for them. Funders cannot pay their fair share if grantees don’t tell them what it is!

Nell: Beyond researching and consulting on these topics, you also serve on the board of two nonprofit organizations. What has been your on-the-ground experience as a board member trying to put these concepts to practice?

Michael: Creating space for a conversation among peer board members has been important in establishing a shared understanding of the issues—and why sometimes the executive director very rightly chooses to say “no” to a grant that doesn’t cover true costs.

The reality of this “complex marketplace” also hits home—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That puts a big burden on the executive director and finance team to effectively report and manage costs.

Photo Credit: The Bridgespan Group

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Nonprofit Capacity Building Works: An Interview with Kathy Reich

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Kathy Reich. Kathy leads the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative both in the United States and in 10 global regions. BUILD is an essential part of the foundation’s strategy to reduce inequality, a strategy arising from the conviction that healthy civil society organizations are essential to driving and sustaining just, inclusive societies. To that end, Kathy guides Ford’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to supporting the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements.

Before joining Ford in 2016, Kathy was director of organizational effectiveness and philanthropy at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she led a cross-cutting program to help grantees around the world strengthen their strategy, leadership and impact.

Kathy has long been a friend of the Social Velocity blog. You can read my interview with Kathy when she was at the Packard Foundation here and a guest blog post she wrote for the blog here.

You can also read interviews with other social changemakers here.

Nell:  You recently moved from the Packard Foundation to the Ford Foundation in order to launch their BUILD initiative, which is all about strengthening organizations. What are your goals with this new initiative and what successes have you seen so far? And what are you finding in terms of the areas where nonprofits need most help?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has two big goals in mind for BUILD. First, we want to foster a measurably stronger, more powerful set of civil society organizations and networks working to address inequality around the world. Second, we aim to build understanding within the Ford Foundation, and ultimately throughout the field of philanthropy, about how strengthening key institutions can advance social justice.

The foundation has committed $1 billion over five years to BUILD because we believe that the fight against inequality needs resilient, durable, and fortified civil society institutions. Individuals and ideas also are critical, but the key role of institutions as drivers of sustained social change is a core, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of social justice work.

Each of the BUILD grantee organizations and networks will receive five years of support, at levels higher than what they have historically received from the Ford Foundation. Much of this support will be as flexible as we can legally make it; most grants will include generous general support. The remainder of each BUILD grant will provide support for nonprofit organizations and networks to strengthen their strategies, leadership, management, and finances. Each BUILD grantee will develop and then implement its own institutional strengthening plan. Although Ford Foundation staff will consult on drafts of these plans, the grantee will be “in the driver’s seat” in determining their institutional strengthening priorities and how best to address them.

So far we’ve made about 90 BUILD grants, and honestly it’s a bit early to say how well they are working. We do know where organizations are planning to spend the money. The vast majority of BUILD grantees, 79 percent, are choosing to strengthen their core operations, investing in areas such as financial management, fundraising, communications, evaluation, and HR. About two-thirds also are investing in strengthening capacities critical to social justice work, such as legal, research, network building, and advocacy. Close to half are investing in strengthening their strategic clarity and coherence, 36 percent are investing in leadership development and governance, and 32 percent are choosing to deepen their organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s important to note that BUILD is not the Ford Foundation’s only investment in strengthening nonprofit institutions. BUILD is part of FordForward, the Ford Foundation’s multi-pronged effort to make philanthropy part of the solution to inequality in a deep and lasting sense. In addition to BUILD, two other aspects of FordForward focus on strengthening nonprofits. The foundation is giving more general support grants across all program areas, with a goal of making general support our default type of grant whenever possible. We also are increasing overhead rates on project grants to a minimum of 20 percent, to more adequately address the indirect costs of executing projects and programs.

Nell: This is a pretty innovative approach to capacity building, how do you plan to share what you learn with other funders and with the sector overall?

Kathy: We’re planning a robust evaluation and learning strategy, although we’re really just getting started. Our hope is to share some early findings by year’s end. We’ll be focusing on three sets of key questions throughout the five-year initiative:

  • Do BUILD grants work? Do the organizations and networks that receive this funding become stronger and more durable over time? And if so, what if any impact does that have on the organization’s effectiveness?
  • If the BUILD approach works, what about it works? Is it the general operating support, or a specific kind of organizational strengthening, or something else?
  • Have we changed the way we do business at Ford, moving away from one-year project grants in favor of larger, more flexible grants?

Along with our evaluation and learning plan, we’re also developing a communications strategy to share what we learn with the field and engage in dialogue with others. We’ll be publishing evaluation results, speaking at conferences, and making active use of social media.

Nell: Both the Ford Foundation and the Packard Foundation are rare funders in that they are very committed to creating strong nonprofit organizations through heavy investment in capacity building. Do you think philanthropic and government funders are starting to follow your lead? Or what will it take to make that happen?

Kathy: Well, we certainly hope they are! It’s important to acknowledge that capacity building grantmaking is not new; in launching BUILD, we’ve learned from and appreciate the work of leaders in this field like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, as well as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation.

Over time, we hope that the ranks of capacity building funders will grow. We hope that BUILD will influence other donors by contributing to the evidence base that nonprofit capacity building works—that stronger, more durable, and more resilient organizations and networks are more effective at achieving their missions.

We also hope to contribute to the evidence base about what kinds of capacity building work best for organizations and networks of different types and sizes, working on different issues in diverse geographies. That’s a tall order, but one of the great things about being a global funder and being able to invest significant resources in BUILD is that we’re able to try this grantmaking approach with a broad range of institutions.

Nell: The Ford Foundation made a very public move two years ago to focus their efforts on fighting inequality. But that goal has arguably become harder given the political winds. How does a foundation like Ford navigate achievement of their desired impact in a potentially more difficult external environment?

Kathy: The Ford Foundation has worked in the U.S. and around the world for more than 70 years, and we’ve seen a lot of upheaval during that time. We’re acutely aware of the challenges facing our work, but we’re moving ahead with optimism and with what my boss Darren Walker calls “radical hope.”

BUILD is a big part of that hope. I believe strongly that in uncertain times, a BUILD approach to grantmaking is one of the smartest choices a foundation can make. By giving our grantees multi-year general operating support, we are giving them the resources and the flexibility to pivot their work quickly in the face of new realities. By also giving them thoughtful and flexible institutional strengthening support, we are enabling them to invest in their own leadership, strategy, management and operations at a time when they have to be at the top of their games.

Photo Credit: Ford Foundation

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How Funders Can Help Overcome the Overhead Myth

Note: In April I will be moderating a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference about what funders can do to support nonprofit sustainability. To promote that panel and the conference, the Center for Effective Philanthropy asked me to write a post for their blog, which is reprinted below. You can see the original post at the CEP blog here.

 

Among the many myths that pervade the nonprofit sector, the Overhead Myth is perhaps the most destructive. It is the erroneous idea that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low, which leads to anemic organizations that are not as effective as they could be.

In fact, the disparity between the nonprofit and for-profit sector in investment in strong organizations is striking. As just one example, research from the Foundation Center found that in 2011, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million. Or, viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.

But the reality is that nonprofit organizations are no different than for-profit organizations in terms of overhead. Last summer a 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).

Some nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders are recognizing that we must move beyond the Overhead Myth and start building stronger nonprofit organizations. This is partly due to the Overhead Myth campaign, launched in 2014 by GuideStar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance with their famous “Letter to the Donors of America” and follow up “Letter to the Nonprofits of America,” which argue that nonprofit leaders and funders must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate — and instead focus on a nonprofit’s results. So the idea is that instead of evaluating the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization based on how it spends money, funders would move to evaluate the effectiveness of a nonprofit based on the results it achieves.

This campaign has gained some traction. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits, which means more money for things beyond direct program costs.

But unfortunately, we are far from overcoming the Overhead Myth. An article just this month in Philanthropy Daily extoled the virtues of the Salvation Army because “the most effective nonprofits are those with lean management. The Salvation Army is a constructive example of an effective charity with very low overhead.” And a recent article in Forbes profiled five nonprofit leaders advising other nonprofit leaders about how to keep overhead costs low.

There is still much work to be done in recognizing the need for and investing in strong, effective nonprofit organizations.

Which is where progressive funders, like those who will be attending the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston in April, come in. If a critical mass of funders could start supporting nonprofits to create strong and effective organizations, we could perhaps overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all.

But what does that look like? In my mind, funders can lead the effort to eradicate the Overhead Myth by:

  • Working with their nonprofit grantees to uncover the full costs of their work. Instead of hiding or severely limiting non-program costs, nonprofit leaders must fully analyze, report on, and fund ALL of the expenses necessary to achieve results.
  • Uncovering the capacity constraints that impact their grantees. Funders must actively work with their grantees to determine what is standing in the way of building stronger, more effective organizations — and then fund the solutions to those hurdles.
  • Moving from program-specific funding to unrestricted, general operating support of the organization.
  • Investing in the revenue-generating functions of their grantees. It takes money to create mission, so we need more investments in sustainable financial models, which includes (among other things) smart plan development, recruitment of effective revenue-generating staff, and training of board members on their role in the financial model.

The good news is that there are already funders who are doing these things. For example, there is the collaboration of California grantmakers who lead the Real Cost Project aimed at helping grantmakers understand “what it would take to fund the real costs of the organizations they support — that is all of the necessary investments for a nonprofit organization to deliver on mission and to be sustainable over the long term.”

So to help move this conversation and work further, I will be moderating a breakout session at the 2017 CEP Conference titled “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability,” where Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, Vu Le, nonprofit blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, and Pia Infante, co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, will be discussing how foundations can start advocating for and investing in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations.

If nonprofits and those who fund them could overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all, it could be a watershed moment for social change.  It would be the point at which we move from a nonprofit sector that is just trying to get by to a nonprofit sector that is armed with the people, infrastructure, and systems necessary to deliver on lasting social change.

I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an exciting conversation.

Photo Credit: Mike Baird

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10 Most Popular Posts of 2016

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for all of us to take some time off to relax, be with friends and family, and most importantly rest up for the year ahead.

2016 was rough, folks. So now it is critical that you take some time off to reconnect with your core.

But before I head out myself for some time off, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular Social Velocity posts from this year, in case you missed any of them. And, if you are so inclined, you can also read the 10 most popular posts from 201120122013, 2014 and 2015.

I so appreciate you, dear readers. You are an amazing group of social change leaders who inspire me and give me hope for the future. Indeed, when it is darkest you help me see the light. We need you now more than ever, social change leaders, so please take good care of yourselves and come back to 2017 ready to get to work.

Happy Holidays!

The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2016 were:

  1. Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?
  2. 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make
  3. Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)
  4. Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix
  5. How is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?
  6. 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]
  7. Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader
  8. A Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy Is Not Enough
  9. 5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have
  10. The Network as Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio

Photo Credit: nicoleleec

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Investing in Stronger Nonprofits: An Interview with Linda Baker

linda-baker-524x643In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Linda Baker. Linda is the Director of Organizational Effectiveness at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

In this role, she leads the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team as they invest in grantees to build their core strengths and maximize their impact. Through these investments, the OE team aims to build healthier, better connected organizations and networks ready to bring about greater change in the areas the foundation cares most about. The OE team works in collaboration with the four program grantmaking areas of the foundation, and also engages with the broader field on capacity building and good philanthropic practice.

Linda has also served the foundation as program officer in the Local Grantmaking and Children, Families and Communities programs, and as an analyst and associate editor in the Center for the Future of Children.

If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: You recently took over leadership of the Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program. What are your plans for the future of this program? Where do you see opportunities for change or growth in the work Packard does to build stronger nonprofits?

Linda: It is an incredible honor to lead the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team. I’m proud to be a part of a foundation that actively embraces a commitment to effectiveness by helping our nonprofits partners strengthen their fundamentals so they can better achieve their missions.

The best capacity-building grantmaking happens in open and authentic conversation with nonprofits. At the Packard Foundation, this means that changes in OE funding are driven through continuous listening to our nonprofit colleagues about where they are strong and where they would like to grow – as leaders, organizations, and networks. While many of the funding requests remain similar to the past (like support for strategic planning and fund development planning), a few topics have recently become more prevalent. For example, as nonprofits and leaders focus on movement building and their ability to be flexible and strategic in an ever-changing environment, we are hearing more requests for funding on leadership development and diversity, equity and inclusion. We have also seen an increase in interest in projects that focus on nonprofits better understanding their financial situation and increasing their financial resilience.

I’m also excited about our participation in the Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative that supports nonprofits in seeking systematic and benchmarkable feedback from the people they seek to help. This collaborative believes that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference in the world if we are more open—if we share what we are learning and are open to what others want to share with us, including our nonprofit partners and the people we seek to help. It is early days, but the possibilities are promising.

Nell: The Packard Foundation is way ahead of the pack in terms of actively investing in stronger nonprofit organizations. What do you think holds other foundations back from providing capacity building support (like planning, leadership development, evaluation, etc.)? And what can be done to get more foundations funding in these areas?

Linda: This work is incredibly important. People are the engine of change, and they need appropriate training, tools and support to get their work done. The good news is that momentum seems to be building. Last year we talked with twenty foundations who reached out to us on this work—and we are always happy to provide insight to our peers in this way. I’m also encouraged by the standing-room-only crowds at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conferences, which often focus directly on the importance of capacity building.

An increasing number of our peers have embraced this approach to grantmaking. Both the Hewlett Foundation and the Meyer Foundation have OE programs similar to ours. The Ford Foundation’s BUILD program works to support institutional strengthening in a big way. Many others support the capacity of leaders – we particularly admire the work of the Haas Jr. Fund in this area.

JPMorgan Chase and the Aspen Institute recently issued a report discussing roles and opportunities for business in nonprofit capacity building. And the 2016 GEO publication on capacity building is full of examples of foundations providing capacity building support to nonprofit partners.

For any foundations on the fence, we will soon be releasing our 2016 Grantee Perception Report data that shows that our grantees who receive OE support rate the foundation as more responsive and a better partner. Data from our evaluation last year shows that one to two years after their OE support ended, nearly 80% of grantees reported significant increases in capacity and 90% reported continued investments in capacity building a year after grant completion. We are confident that these investments build lasting change.

Another bright spot is the feedback work of the Fund for Shared Insight that I mentioned earlier, which is investing in stronger nonprofit organizations through experimenting with investments in feedback loops. Shared Insight provides grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.

Nell: You have been actively involved in the Real Costs effort to get funders and nonprofits to understand and articulate the full costs (program, operating, working capital, fixed assets, reserves, debt) of the work nonprofits do. How do you see that movement progressing? Are minds changing? Are we, or when will we, reach a critical mass of nonprofits and funders embracing full costs?

Linda: As you and your readers know, this question is fundamentally about the relationship between funders and nonprofits. Nonprofits that have trusting relationships with their funders and an understanding of what it takes to run their organization can talk with funders about what it truly costs to deliver outcomes over the long term. In response, funders with a nuanced understanding of a nonprofit’s financial requirements will be able to structure grants more effectively to achieve those outcomes.

The move for funders to understand the financial resources nonprofits require for impact is gaining steam. I’ve been encouraged by the level of interest and conversation in California alone, and I know conversations are happening nationally too. The Real Cost Project in California is gearing up for the next phase, and we are pleased to be supporting that work and to be thinking about these ideas at the Packard Foundation. I am hopeful that California funders will continue to embrace the conversation and consider how funders can strip away unnecessary processes and promote transparent dialogue about how to best support the work of nonprofits.

One part of the challenge is that we are going up against misguided notions that good nonprofits should not invest in their infrastructure or their people. These ideas are embedded in our culture, and it takes time to change perspectives. If we can get a critical mass of foundations to join the conversation and consider what they can do to improve, and ensure that nonprofits have the tools to understand the financial requirements needed to get to outcomes, that will be progress.

Nell: You and your team at Packard OE have created a great Organizational Effectiveness Knowledge Center website with a deep set of resources for building stronger nonprofit organizations. Foundations are sometimes hesitant to offer resources (beyond money) to nonprofits, but you have made a conscious choice to move in this direction. Why and what could other foundations learn from your experiences here?

Linda: Thank you! We created the Knowledge Center to share our perspective and resources about improving organizational and network effectiveness with the goal of helping nonprofits, our consulting partners, and other funders make their work even stronger. The Knowledge Center is a place for us to share our perspective on a number of topics from network development to leadership and coaching to evaluation, and discuss the latest in the field from conferences and publications.

In addition to providing grantmaking support, we believe that sharing this information will increase our impact on the nonprofit sector and advance the capacity building field. Change does not happen in silos, and we don’t want our nonprofit partners to spend time reinventing the wheel. So, we decided to create a space to exchange what we’re learning and the resources available to help support organizations in this work.

We hope that the Knowledge Center will be a place to exchange learning and reflections, and we encourage users to engage with us by commenting on your experience with these topics or submitting resources that you would like us to consider sharing. And, while you’re there, leave us a comment to let us know what you think of the Knowledge Center and how we can improve.

Photo Credit: David and Lucile Packard Foundation

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Nov 2016

reading in darkI don’t have to tell you that November was rough.

A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots —  a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.

  2. Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy.  From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”

  3. And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.

  4. Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.

  5. But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”

  6. Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.

  7. And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.

  8. Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!

  9. Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.

  10. Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals.  Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July & Aug 2016

social changeSince I was on vacation in late July and early August, I’m combining the last two months of great reads into one. The summer of 2016 certainly was a dark one. From continuing police violence against black men, to the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it seemed we were becoming a nation truly divided. And tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana that was largely ignored by the media was heartbreaking to watch.

But, there were also moments of hope. From new research showing that donors are increasingly interested in investing in what works; to philanthropic leaders calling for better partnerships among the public, private and nonprofit sectors; to a way to move the conversation away from “overhead,” the summer months made for some very interesting reads.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in July and August. But let me know in the comments what else I missed while I was out.

If you want a longer list of reads, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And you can read previous months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. More police violence against black men and the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge arguably broke the country’s heart in July. Ira David Socol traced Americans’ growing fear of “the other” over the past few decades and how it has contributed to where we are today. And Pew Research offered some data about how Americans see the Black Lives Matter movement. While Heinz Endowment President Grant Oliphant called for an end to the violence, in an incredibly moving series of blog posts where he wrote:  “We are called — by everything our diverse faiths teach us, by everything we believe about ourselves and our country — to come together as one people, whether we bravely wear the blue or have come to fear those who do. We are called by all that is good in our hearts to see ourselves in all the fallen, all the lives lost, all the families grieving, all the communities struggling to make sense of their brokenness. We are better than this violence. Deep down in our souls we know this. We are so, so much better than this.” And President Obama gave an incredibly moving speech at the funerals for the Dallas police officers, where he encouraged us all to, “With an open heart…worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.”

  2. But the Black Lives Matter Movement is not just aimed at addressing police violence, the Movement recently released a K-12 education platform designed to fix “a U.S. public-school system…so broken that college is never an option for many young people of color.”

  3. Amid these deepening divides and a growing wealth inequality, Andy Carroll from Exponent Philanthropy argues that philanthropy can no longer be expected to solve everything. Rather, we need partnerships among the public, business and nonprofit sectors to address our growing challenges.

  4. And then there was the tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana. Despite the fact that it was the largest natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the media and philanthropy largely ignored the disaster.

  5. Curtis Klotz from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund offers a phenomenal graphic to use in changing the conversation from “nonprofit overhead” to “core mission support” at your nonprofit.

  6. And speaking of how nonprofits use money, FASB (the Financial Accounting Standards Board) just released some significant updates to their standards for nonprofit accounting. The changes impact net asset classes, investment returns, expenses, liquidity and availability of resources, and presentation of operating cash flows. Every nonprofit leader should understand these important changes.

  7. Founder of Family Independence Initiative, Mauricio Lim Miller argues that just as businesses constantly use technology to understand consumer behavior, nonprofits should tap into technology to “let the people they serve dictate what works best.” And Melissa Chadburn might agree with Mauricio’s premise that fighting poverty requires a better understanding of the causes of that poverty given her scathing piece, “How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty.”

  8. Penelope Burk’s annual fundraising study revealed that more donors are interested in results than ever before. Five years ago, only 16% of donors surveyed gave based on a nonprofit’s results vs. a whopping 41% this year.  And research from MobileCause shows that Millennials and GenXers are now the vast majority of the U.S. workforce so if you want to reach them as donors you better be online and mobile.

  9. Ever the trailblazers in foundations interested in building nonprofit capacity, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation unveiled a fabulous new online Knowledge Center with tons of resources for improving nonprofit organizational effectiveness.

  10. Jim Schaffer questions how “philanthropic” the digital giants Amazon, Facebook and Google actually are. And Lucy Bernholz warns nonprofits of the dangers of trusting Facebook’s new fundraising offerings.

Photo Credit: radness.com.au

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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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