Just a few years ago, the only measure for a nonprofit’s effectiveness was the percent they spent on overhead expenses. If a nonprofit spent a magic 20% or less on non-program expenses they were deemed worthy of donations. This destructive way of evaluating nonprofit organizations has been losing favor over the last few years as rating agencies like Charity Navigator have recognized the need for a broader evaluation of nonprofit effectiveness. New measures have started to include outcome and impact elements.
But all of this begs the ultimate question which is how do we create a system for measuring and comparing nonprofits across the many social issues and operating models that make up the sector? Because however faulty the overhead percentage measurement was, at least it allowed a comparison of apples to apples. You could see how one nonprofit stacked up against another. But if each nonprofit organization is now creating their own theory of change, and their own outcome and impact measurements, how do we compare those to another nonprofit’s outcome and impact measures?
Enter a host of efforts to solve that very problem. One of these efforts is Markets for Good. They aim to create an infrastructure for evaluating nonprofit effectiveness based on outcomes and impact. You can watch their video explaining their efforts below, or if you are reading this in an email click here to watch the video.
And there are many other efforts to move the nonprofit sector toward measuring outcomes instead of spending practices. These include Idealistics, GiveWell, Philanthropedia among many others. But it’s not clear yet how any of these efforts will be able to analyze and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts because there are many pieces to that puzzle.
To truly be able to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts, we have to:
- Encourage nonprofit organizations to develop a theory of change, because you can’t measure whether an organization has created change if they have no idea what they are trying to change in the first place.
- Give nonprofits resources with which to measure whether their theory of change is actually coming to fruition. Measuring outcomes and impact takes time and money.
- Separate a single nonprofit’s efforts to create change from other forces working on the same social problem so that we can understand the effectiveness of a single organization.
- Create a standardized system for comparing the ability of one nonprofit organization to create change to another’s ability to create change.
- Connect such a system for measuring nonprofit effectiveness to systems already being created for for-profit social entrepreneurs (like GIIRS) so that those with money to invest in social change efforts can compare the social return they would get in a for-profit and/or nonprofit setting.
- Communicate the results of those measures to philanthropic and social investors so they can make more informed, more results-focused investments, whether those be to nonprofit or for-profit social change organizations.
To me, comparing the ability of organizations to create social change is an enormous nut to crack. But it is an incredibly worthy endeavor. I applaud Markets for Good and the many other efforts working to create a system for understanding and comparing social change efforts. It will be fascinating to watch this space develop.
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt
I hope you all find time over the holidays to relax, unwind and spend time with friends and family. Thank you all for reading and contributing to the Social Velocity blog this year. I really appreciate all of my readers and look forward to talking with you in the new year. Happy Holidays!
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2011 were:
- 5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors
- The Financing Not Fundraising Blog Series
- 10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November
- The Problem with Strategic Planning
- 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2011
- 4 Things Every Nonprofit Needs
- What is Social Innovation?
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan
- 7 Things Board Members Can Do to Raise More Money
- Why Nonprofit Overhead is Destructive
Photo Credit: Charline Tetiyevsky
It’s that time of year when donors make key decisions about their end of year giving. But a recent post on the Social Earth blog advising donors about questions they should ask nonprofits perpetuates thinking that actually hurts, rather than helps the nonprofit sector. The author, Tarini Chandak, asks “How do you know where your charitable dollars are going? Are they going to the cause you want to support or are they going to administrative and fundraising expenses?” In reinforcing old, and destructive binary thinking about program vs. overhead expenses, Tarini is doing nonprofits and their donors a real disservice.
Tarini lists 4 key questions she thinks every donor should ask of the nonprofits they consider donating to:
As various charities vie for your charitable donations, there are many questions you can ask them directly, including:
- How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?
- How efficient is their fundraising? What is their cost-per-fundraised-dollar ratio?
- Is the charity run properly? How efficient and effective is their human capital? Management team?
- Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?
I think questions #2 and #3 are excellent, but questions #1 and #4 perpetuate thinking that holds the nonprofit sector back.
Let’s start with Question #1: “How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?” As I’ve written before, the distinction between program (or “cause”) and administrative expenses is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst. If a nonprofit organization is creating change, then everything they do is in support of that change. How can a program run if there is no financial engine (fundraising) to fund it? If there is no building or space to house it? If there is no financial management or regular audits? If there is no regular evaluation of whether the program is making a difference? How can you possibly separate “program” from “overhead?” We must move beyond this distinction and encourage nonprofits to raise (and donors to give) more capacity capital, or the money that nonprofits so desperately need to create effective and efficient organizations.
Tarini’s Question #4 “Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?” is equally troublesome because it reinforces the backward notion that nonprofits should not have a reserve fund. As I (and others) have written before, we have to get away from the nonprofit taboo that operating reserves are wrong. Nonprofits cannot plan for the future, have a sustainable financial model, experiment with program changes, take risks, or any of the other things that are absolutely necessary to creating social change, without some operating reserves. If nonprofits are continually forced to go month to month without any cushion they will never emerge as strong, sustainable organizations capable of creating lasting change.
We must move away from thinking that encourages nonprofits to scrape by without the tools and infrastructure they desperately need. We must stop measuring nonprofit performance with meaningless financial metrics and instead evaluate nonprofits on their ability to deliver change. If a nonprofit is creating real change, does the minutia of how they spend money really matter?
Photo Credit: just_a_name_thingie
Last May I launched a new ongoing blog series that profiles Social Velocity’s work with Charlotte Chamber Music, a small performing arts organization that has a big vision, but lacks the capital to get there. Charlotte Chamber Music enlisted Social Velocity’s help last Spring to create a strategic plan and a capacity capital pitch to raise the money to execute on their big plan. You can read the whole series here.
Capacity capital (or “philanthropic equity”) is the money so many nonprofits desperately need. Capacity capital is dramatically different from the day-to-day operating revenue for which nonprofits are always fundraising. Capacity capital doesn’t fund delivery of nonprofit services (beds for a homeless shelter, new productions in an opera house, books for an after-school program). Rather, capacity capital builds the organizational infrastructure of the nonprofit (technology, systems, administrative or fundraising staff, materials) that allows the organization to become more effective or grow. But you cannot simply go out and ask for capacity capital. First, you must develop a compelling, inspiring, actionable and measurable plan for what you would do with the capacity capital.
After several months of working with Charlotte Chamber Music we had a strategic plan that staff and board were excited about and invested in. But it’s not enough to have a great strategic direction and goals and objectives to get there. You have to make the plan operational. That means you have to tie the big plan to the day-to-day activity of the organization and the price tag need to get there.
The next step in the process was to develop:
- An annual operational plan built from the strategic plan, and
- A budget
To do this, Executive Director Elaine Spallone needed to create milestones for each year of the plan. She needed to articulate what had to be accomplished in each year of the plan. This allowed her to start to break the big 3-year plan into annual chunks. Once she was happy with those milestones, she created a laundry list of activities that had to be accomplished in the first year in order to hit the first milestone. Once she was happy with that comprehensive list of activities, she tied each activity to a deliverable, a deadline and a person responsible.
As Elaine said:
Creating the operational plan was intense in the time investment and level of detail required, but worth every minute spent in its creation. It is especially gratifying to check off items and see the progress made. To be fair, it can also be frustrating to realize what is not moving forward. But the good news there is that those issues are clear, and can be articulated, shared and modified.
At the same time, she needed to project revenue and expenses over the period of the strategic plan. It’s not enough to have big goals, you need to understand the price tag associated with those goals (expenses) and how the money (revenue) will flow into the organization to meet those expenses. So Elaine created a 3-year revenue and expense projection that was tied to the goals and objectives of the plan.
Once she had these two key pieces in place (annual operational plan and 3-year budget) she could begin to put some key monitoring pieces in place to ensure that the strategic plan was being executed on. These monitoring pieces are:
- Each monthly staff meeting is tied to the deliverables of the operational plan that are due that month
- Each monthly board meeting includes a dashboard report on the status of the goals of the plan
- At the end of each fiscal year, Elaine will create the next year’s annual operational plan tied to the strategic plan
- Annual employee evaluations will be tied to an employee’s performance on their part of the operational plan
- Each annual budget will be tied to the costs of the annual operational plan
So now that Charlotte Chamber Music had an inspiring, investable strategic plan and a budget and operational plan to ensure that the plan would actually come to fruition, they were ready to go out and raise the capacity capital they needed.
In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about how we created a capacity capital pitch and a strategy for going after prospective funders.
In part 11 of our ongoing blog series, Financing Not Fundraising, I’m talking about being brutally honest with your donors. If nonprofits are going to truly break free from the vicious fundraising cycle, they must find the courage to tell funders how it really is. And since board members are a nonprofit’s closest supporters and (I hope) donors, you need to stop telling them these lies as well.
If you are new to the Financing Not Fundraising blog series, the series is about how nonprofits must break out of the narrow view that traditional FUNDRAISING (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) will completely fund all of their activities. Instead, they must create a broader, more strategic approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change. You can read the entire series here.
If you want to learn more about how to apply the concepts of Financing Not Fundraising to your nonprofit, check out the Financing Not Fundraising On Demand Webinar Series
If you want to break free of the exhausting cycle of fundraising, a key step is to start being brutally honest with funders. Here are the top 5 lies you have to stop telling donors:
- X% of your donation goes to the program
The distinction between “program expenses” and “overhead” is, at best, meaningless and, at worst, destructive. You cannot have a program without staff, technology, space, systems, evaluation, research and development. It is magical thinking to say that you can separate money spent on programs from money spent on the support of programs. Donors need to understand, and you need to explain to them, that “overhead” is not a dirty word. A nonprofit exists to deliver programs. And everything the organization does helps to make those programs better, stronger, bigger, more effective.
- We can do the same program with less money
No you can’t. You know you can’t. You are already scraping by. Don’t accept a check from a donor who wants all the bells and whistles you explained in your pitch, but at a lower cost. Explain the true costs, including administrative costs, of getting results. Politely, but firmly, explain to them that an inferior investment will yield an inferior result. If they simply can’t afford the price tag, then encourage them to find fellow funders to co-invest with.
- We can start a new program that doesn’t fit with our mission or strategy
Yes that big, fat check a donor is holding in front of you looks very appealing. But if it takes your organization in a different direction than your strategy or your core competencies require, accepting it is a huge mistake. Nonprofits must constantly ensure that money and mission are aligned. Otherwise the organization will be scattered in countless directions with an exhausted staff and confused donor base. Don’t let a donor take you down that road.
- We can grow without additional staff or other resources
Nonprofit staff truly excel at working endless hours with very few resources. They have perfected the concept of doing more and more with less and less. But someday that road must end. Nonprofit leaders have to be honest with donors when their staff and resources are at capacity. Because eventually program results will suffer and the donor will receive little in return for their investment.
- 100% of our board is committed to our organization
If that’s true, then you are a true minority in the nonprofit sector. Every nonprofit board I know has some dead wood. Members who ignore fundraising duties, don’t contribute to meetings, miss meetings, take the organization on tangents are always present. It’s a fact that funders want to see every board member contributing. But instead of perpetuating the myth that 100% is an achievable reality, be honest with funders. Tell them that you continually analyze each individual board member’s contributions (financial, intellectual, time) and have a clear plan for addressing deficiency, including: coaching, peer pressure, training, asking for resignations. Getting to 100% is probably never realistic, it is far better to demonstrate that you are tirelessly working toward 90%.
Stop the madness. We need to stop telling funders what they want to hear and then cursing them behind their backs when they set unrealistic expectations. Funders must be made to understand the harsh realities of the nonprofit sector if they are ever to be expected to help bring change.
If you want to learn more about applying the concepts of Financing Not Fundraising to your nonprofit, check out the Financing Not Fundraising On Demand Webinar Series, or download the Financing Not Fundraising E-books.
If you’ve been a fan of our popular, ongoing blog series, Financing Not Fundraising, you’ll want to participate in our upcoming Financing Not Fundraising webinar. The webinar will give you the tactical steps for breaking free of the unrelenting fundraisng handcuffs and bringing more money in the door.
Fundraising in the nonprofit sector doesn’t work anymore. In fact, traditional fundraising is holding the sector back by keeping nonprofits in the starvation cycle of trying to do more and more with less and less. What nonprofits need is a financing strategy, not a fundraising strategy. That means that nonprofits have to break out of the narrow view that traditional FUNDRAISING (individual donor appeals, events, foundation grants) will completely fund all of their activities. Instead, nonprofits must work to create a broader approach to securing the overall FINANCING necessary to create social change.
This webinar will show nonprofits what this financing approach looks like, including:
- How to align your nonprofit’s mission with the money needed to deliver on it
- Why a message of impact results in more money
- How to understand the critical difference between revenue and capital
- Why overhead isn’t a dirty word anymore
- How and why to calculate the net revenue of money raising activities
- When to explore new revenue streams
If your staff, your board, and your donors are worn out, if you’ve been following the Social Velocity Financing Not Fundraising blog series and you want to learn more, or if you want to put this new approach in motion, join us for this webinar.
Last Thursday I was a guest on Michael Chatman’s The Giving Show, a weekly radio show about philanthropy. I was delighted to talk with Michael and his listeners about how nonprofits need to rethink the ways they bring money in the door. If you missed the show, you can still listen to the podcast here.
Michael and I talk about:
- How nonprofits need to finance, not fundraise for, their social impact
- The difference between revenue and capital, and why it’s such an important distinction for nonprofits
- When earned income is right for a nonprofit
- The opportunity the recession poses for nonprofits
- Why nonprofits must let go of the status quo
- How to educate donors to be organization builders
- Where innovation is happening in the nonprofit sector
- The convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors
- Why overhead is NOT a dirty word
And much more. You can listen here.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Mario Morino. Mario is co-founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, and chairman of the Morino Institute, a nonprofit focused on technology for social change. His career spans more than 45 years as entrepreneur, technologist, and civic and business leader. He also recently wrote Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, which I recently reviewed here on the blog.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In your book Leap of Reason, you tell the leaders of the nonprofit sector that they need to make a fundamental shift in how they conduct business. Have you gotten any push back from nonprofits or philanthropists? Or has all of the response to the book been positive?
Mario: We are pushing for some hard changes, so we expected some hard reactions. But to our surprise, the response from nonprofit, for-profit, and public-sector leaders alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
We’ve asked ourselves why we’re not getting more push back. There are probably several factors at work. For one thing, the people who have taken the time to read the book are probably those who are more inclined to be receptive to this message. Those who are natural critics—for instance, those who believe mission and metrics are mutually exclusive or that discipline inhibits charismatic, entrepreneurial leadership—may not have read it. And so that shoe may drop at some point. The more we push beyond those already singing in the choir, the more constructive push back we’ll get.
I’d like to think that another factor is the way we presented the case. We made a forceful case, but we weren’t strident in our tone. We have a strong appreciation for the reasons why these management approaches have not been more widely adopted in the social sector. We sought to focus on what to do versus placing blame.
Nell: Do you think the majority of nonprofits will adopt an outcomes-management approach? And if so, when? What will be the tipping point?
Mario: Even when you take into account all of the work on outcomes, accountability, and mission-effectiveness over the past 15+ years, only a small slice of nonprofits (or government agencies, for that matter) have adopted an outcomes-management approach. So I fear that we’re in for only incremental adoption, unless our sector finds a way to seize the opportunity in this era of scarcity. This funding crisis can enervate or energize us. I really hope it’s the latter. In other words, I really hope this crisis will lead people to look much harder at what they do and how they can do it more efficiently and effectively. I hope it will cause them to go beyond incremental improvement and fine-tuning to rework fundamentally what it is they do.
Nell: It seems that this is a charge you are very much willing to lead. Beyond writing the book, what are you doing to lead the effort to create this fundamental shift in the nonprofit sector?
Mario: I would certainly like to join others in advancing this shift in the social sector and even lead in some areas. But I don’t think I’ve earned the stature to be the leader of a movement of this type. Even with 15+ years in the social sector, some still see me as a newbie!
As I said in the book, to help kick things off I would welcome helping to convene a select group of early adopters who have “been there and done that” and those most instrumental in helping them. I hope that a collective leadership will emerge and offer the beginning of an effort that could put our sector on a different and much more rapid trajectory.
As others began to follow their example, the network effect might well start to take hold. Imagine universities incorporating the outcomes-management mindset and discipline into nonprofit leadership curricula. Imagine funders offering outcomes-management grants to nonprofit leaders who show a real predisposition to use information well, and hiring seasoned staff members who have the expertise to provide strategic counsel and assistance to grantees. Imagine nonprofit leaders and staff joining together in peer-learning networks to share, learn, and push one another. Imagine government funders encouraging and rewarding successful outcomes management through new types of contracts and awards. A cadre of leaders and doers could help spark all of these things—and in doing so, spark a real movement.
Nell: What role can and should philanthropists, both foundations and individual donors, play in the effort to shift the nonprofit sector toward an outcomes approach?
Mario: Funders generally don’t provide the kind of financial support and strategic assistance that nonprofits need to make the leap to the outcomes-management discipline. While a lack of funding is by no means the only barrier, I know many nonprofit leaders who would take up the challenge in a heartbeat if funding, advice, and encouragement were available. The hard truth is that far too many funders have been conditioned to insist that every dollar “support the cause” through funding for programs. They don’t want “overhead” to dilute their grants.
To make the leap to outcomes management, nonprofits need creative funders, like the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, that are willing to help them manage smarter through greater use of information on performance and impact—rather than forcing them to meet myriad evaluation and reporting requirements that too often do little to help the organization learn and improve. They need funders who understand that making the leap requires more than program funding, and more than the typical “capacity-building” grant. They need funders who are willing to make multi-year investments and offer strategic assistance to help nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
Nell: What does an outcomes approach look like for a social service nonprofit with an annual budget of $100,000? How does this approach apply across the sector?
Mario: It’s hard to adopt this approach if you’re in an organization that small. It would be folly to expect a nonprofit with that budget to have formal outcomes systems, metrics, and the like. That said, I’ve never thought quality and “goodness” were functions of size. Shouldn’t every nonprofit, regardless of its size and infrastructure, have a clear sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, a thoughtful strategy for how it’s going to do so, and some sense of how it will know if it gets there? It’s perfectly understandable that such a small organization may never have crafted a “theory of change” in a formal way, but the organization’s leader needs to have this framework embedded in his or her mind. If not, what’s the rationale for asking others to contribute time and money to support the nonprofit’s work? What’s the basis for asking intended beneficiaries to put faith and trust in the nonprofit’s services?
Nell: What do you think will happen to nonprofit organizations that don’t adopt a managing to outcomes approach? What does the future look like for them?
Mario: They will continue on as they have—at least for a while.
The fiasco with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute is a cautionary tale. Mortenson had a great story, and for a while his donors took it on faith that his organization was delivering on his grand promises in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, it appears the organization turned out to be better at fattening Mortenson’s book royalties than building quality programs.
I don’t mean to suggest that all nonprofits are like Mortenson’s! Far from it. But I do mean to suggest that in an era of scarcity, there will be more pressure on nonprofits to show that they are delivering on their promises. More public and private funders will finally look under the hood and ensure things are working well.
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