In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?
Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.
As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.
It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.
Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?
Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.
Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?
Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.
Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?
Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?
Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.
If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.
From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.
Photo Credit: Youth Villages
I’ve been working with several clients lately to create a strategic plan, and I love the moment when the real value of the strategic plan and the process of creating one becomes blatantly obvious.
It’s the point at which board, staff, funders start to see the possibility that the plan holds for the nonprofit and the social change they seek. They get really excited about bringing that future to fruition.
But that only happens when you create a really smart, thoughtful strategy — a good strategic plan, instead of a poor one.
Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform an organization, in at least 5 fundamental ways. It will:
- Create Momentum
It’s not the final plan that energizes people, rather it’s the process of analyzing the external environment in which a nonprofit operates, making some hard decisions about where to focus resources, articulating the value the nonprofit provides, connecting the dots between individual actors and the larger vision. If done well, the work done during the strategic planning process really energizes board and staff. And when they start talking with people outside the organization (funders, volunteers, stakeholders) about the plan, those outsiders become energized too. To really tap into people’s potential you must inspire them to larger heights and help them understand their role in reaching those heights. A great strategic planning process does that.
- Attract Deeper Funding
The difference between a nonprofit just scraping by and a nonprofit with a sustainable future is strategy. If you want to attract larger, longer-term funding, particularly from major donors, you simply must have a future strategy in place. People and organizations that make large gifts to a nonprofit are in effect investing in the future of that organization. And if you can’t articulate your future plans in a thoughtful, compelling way, funders won’t make that larger investment.
- Filter Future Decisions
If you create your strategic plan correctly it becomes a tool for analyzing and making decisions about future opportunities. Most nonprofits are regularly fielding new opportunities (new funding streams, new programs to develop, new alliances to forge), but without an overall strategy it’s difficult to know which opportunities to pursue. A great strategic plan doesn’t tie an organization’s hands, rather it becomes a tool — a lens — through which you can thoughtfully analyze future decisions and make the best moves for your organization. One of my clients uses growth criteria we developed during their strategic planning process to determine when and where to add new sites. These criteria ensure that they are growing in a strategic, not reactive, way.
- Become a Management Tool
When done right, a strategic plan can drive the operations of the organization and the activities of the board and staff. At the board level, you can regularly track progress on the goals and objectives of the strategic plan through a dashboard (like the one at top of this post). At the staff level, you can monitor the activities and deliverables of the plan through an operational plan. An effective strategic plan doesn’t sit on the shelf, but rather is a living, breathing guide to the daily work and decisions of the organization. It’s not a final product, it’s a way of life.
- Realize More Change
At the end of the day you operate your nonprofit in order to address a social issue, to see some sort of change to a social problem. But the only way you will truly create that change is if you have a strategy that puts all of your limited resources (money, staff, board, volunteers) to their highest, best, most focused use. A great strategic planning process forces you to do the analysis, conduct the research, make the hard decisions, and track your progress so that at the end of the day you actually are making a difference.
Honestly, I don’t know how you operate a nonprofit without a strategy in place. In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world great strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity.
If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page.
Although the definition of a “startup” is an organization that has been around for only a few years, there are many nonprofits that are still in startup mode despite their 20+ years of existence.
But the good news is that you don’t have to wait around for a knight in shining armor to save you from the endless startup existence, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
The power to begin scaling the startup wall is actually in your hands. Here are the steps to begin:
- Create Your Business Plan
Probably a big part of the reason that you are still struggling as a startup (more than) several years in is that you haven’t strategically connected operations and financing to your mission. A business plan that answers questions like “How will you finance the business?” and “Who are your target customers (clients AND funders)?” and “What’s the right staffing structure?” and “What are the goals of the business?” and much more. Just because the profits from your business enterprise go back into the organization (nonprofit) instead of into the pockets of the owner or stakeholders (for-profit) doesn’t mean you don’t need a business plan. Figuring out how to align money, mission and operations is the first step to a stronger future.
- Grow Your List of Champions
If your nonprofit’s inner circle consists of a founder and a few friends you will never grow. You have to convince people beyond those who already love you to internalize the work of the organization and become actively involved as board members, advisors, fundraisers. But you cannot target anyone and everyone. You have to identify people whose values connect with your work and your mission. And they have to have some specific skills, experience and networks that will help your organization move forward. But if you’ve only ever had your friends behind you, how do you convince outsiders to become champions and board members? Keep reading…
- Develop a Value Proposition
If you are unable to articulate among internal board and staff what your nonprofit is hoping to accomplish and the value it provides the community, how can you possibly convince others to become involved? The first step in really taking things to the next level is to develop that value position, or a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change is basically an argument for why your nonprofit exists — how you take community resources (inputs) and create changes to program participants’ lives (outcomes). To move from merely getting by to really making strides, you must create this argument.
- Convince Others to Give
Once you have your Theory of Change in place you need to make a compelling argument for how more inputs (funding) will help you create more outcomes. A case for investment is a logical, reasoned argument that helps you to make this case convincingly. Once completed, pieces of your case for investment can be used in fundraising appeals, on your website, in thank you letters, in marketing campaigns and much more. It is the fundamental building block to attracting more dollars to your nonprofit.
It doesn’t have to be a rule that the vast majority of nonprofits subsist in an endless startup mode. If you need some help finding your way out of startup mode, download the Nonprofit Startup Tool Bundle.
Photo Credit: Chad K
There is a new nonprofit that nicely demonstrates the challenge of identifying a social problem and then developing the right strategy for solving that problem. Code.org’s sole aim is to solve the impending shortage of computer programmers. Because we have grown increasingly dependent on technology in our everyday lives, while our schools have not adequately prepared our children to keep up, we are facing an enormous shortage of people who can create the technology we desperately need.
Projections estimate that by 2020 we will need 1.4 million computer programmers, but will only have 400,000 computer science graduates, creating a 1 million person gap. And 9 out of 10 schools aren’t currently teaching computer programming. This is a huge problem.
Enter code.org. The nonprofit was founded earlier this year with two stated goals:
- Spread the word that there is a worldwide shortage of computer programmers, and that it’s much easier to learn to program than you think.
- Build an authoritative database of all programming schools, whether they are online courses, brick+mortar schools or summer camps.
They have an impressive team and list of supporters, many of the darlings of the technology startup world. And they’ve already attracted the attention of the national media and have a very savvy media presentation including some pretty cool videos.
Code.org is fascinating to me, not just because I agree that connecting how we educate our children with the skills they will need in the future is a huge issue, but also because code.org demonstrates the strategic struggle facing every social change agent. The struggle lies in identifying a social problem and then creating the right solution to the problem you’ve identified.
There are many ways you could attack the problem of a shortage of future computer programmers. You could decide to:
- Advocate for changes to the public education system
- Create new training sites around the country
- Develop coding games for kids
- Create a marketing campaign that encourages more kids to try coding
- Develop a database of available training programs
So far code.org has decided to focus on the last two. But it begs the question, why those two?
In identifying a social problem and then choosing a possible way to attack it, social change leaders must ask the following questions:
- What is the most effective entry point for changing this problem? For code.org they think the entry point is kids themselves, getting them to demand coding training, as opposed to changing education policy or increasing the supply of coding locations.
- How do we use our unique assets to address that entry point? Code.org’s biggest asset is their long list of technology celebrity supporters, so they are tapping into those people (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) to show kids how cool coding is. If, instead, code.org had a unique ability to move education policy forward, or proprietary coding software that more quickly delivered results they could have decided to go those routes.
- How do we structure our organization to deliver the solution? Right now code.org is a website with a series of videos and a growing database of training locations. So they don’t need a lot of staff or structure. If, however, they had decided to set up new training sites around the country or advocate for public education changes in every state, they would have needed a much larger operation with more locations and staffing.
- How will we measure if our solution is working? Code.org has clearly delineated where they need to be. By 2020 they want to see 1 million more computer programmers. So they have to figure out how many more college students they need in computer sciences, how many more high school students they need who can code, how many more middle school students who are dabbling in code and so on. I’m hoping they have metrics all along the way and the ability to see if the numbers are actually growing.
Code.org has very clearly defined a critical social problem and they have marshaled an impressive army of supporters to work toward change. It remains to be seen, however, whether they have asked the right questions and selected the right path for making that change a reality.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) today released the results of their fifth annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey. This year almost 6,000 nonprofits responded and the results point to a nonprofit sector that is shifting fundamentally, where traditional funding sources (like government dollars) are shrinking, while demand for services is increasing. Nonprofit leaders must adapt their business models in order to keep up.
As NFF CEO Antony Bugg-Levine put it:
Nonprofits are changing the way they do business because they have to: government funding is not returning to pre-recession levels, philanthropic dollars are limited, and demand for critical services has climbed dramatically. At the same time, 56 percent of nonprofits plan to increase the number of people served. That goal requires systemic change and innovation– both within the sector, and more broadly as a society that values justice, progress and economic opportunity.
With demand increasing and traditional resources drying up, something has got to give. Nonprofits are finding that they must get more strategic about using money and determining the impact of their work.
Some of the most interesting findings from the 2013 survey are:
- 42% of survey respondents report that they do not have the right mix of financial resources to thrive and be effective in the next 3 years.
- Over the next twelve months, 39% plan to change the main ways they raise and spend money.
- 23% will seek funding other than grants or contracts, such as loans or investments.
- For the first time in the five years of the survey, more than half (52%) of respondents were unable to meet demand for their services last year (up from 44% in 2009), and 54% say they won’t be able to meet demand this current year.
As one survey respondent put it, it is time to move from the reactive to the strategic:
Our greatest challenge is financial stability and sustainability. We must be more effective to raise 50% more money than we did two years ago—with the same number of staff members, but using all the skills and talents each staff member brings to the table to maximize our efforts. Our budget is to the bone, and our staff is overstretched….We…must learn how to work proactively and strategically… and stop playing catch up, as we have for most of our existence.
Because NFF has been doing this survey for the past 5 years they can start to look at trends over time. They’ve developed a pretty cool Survey Analyzer Tool that lets you slice and dice the data by geography, sector, budget, and more.
I encourage you to dig in and take a look at the data. You can find all of the survey reports and tools at the Nonprofit Finance Fund website here.
Photo Credit: Nonprofit Finance Fund
A reader of my blog post earlier this month, From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance, took issue with my argument that nonprofit leaders need to be more bold. He believes that I, and others, should stop telling nonprofit leaders to chart bolder goals because nonprofit leaders simply don’t have the time or resources. I think his comments and our subsequent exchange (you can read the whole comment string here) illustrate the self-imposed limitations that hold some nonprofits back.
In his comment on my blog post, Dan Owens argues that nonprofits are not at fault for limiting their goals. Nonprofits’ very lack of resources holds them back, and it is unreasonable to try to push nonprofits to be more bold:
Nonprofits everywhere are working incredibly hard to solve some of the toughest challenges our society has to offer. Even truly great nonprofits…are stretched to capacity, and even those who embrace all the latest trends and business models cannot solve all the problems they seek to address. The money doesn’t exist, and without sustained and increased federal funding for nonprofits and those they serve, we will not be able to solve the problems we hope to achieve, including childhood hunger…Nonprofits need more resources. You’re right in saying that nonprofit leaders often design plans based upon last year’s fundraising figures. But they have very good reasons to be afraid, and to worry for the future and the clients they serve. They don’t have the freedom and money to make those “pie in the sky plans”…most nonprofit have to fight and scrap for every dollar they have, contributed, earned or applied for. And then they have to do it all again the next year. Is it any wonder they operate as they do?
But my point with the blog post, and really my point with the entire blog and Social Velocity in general, is that nonprofits have to break out of the starvation cycle of never having enough to do more. Instead of embracing the fact that the nonprofit sector is incredibly under-resourced, nonprofits must see past that and envision a future where they have everything they need to accomplish bold social change. It is the very act of turning scarcity on its head that creates abundance, as I point out to Dan:
You have clearly delineated many of the funding problems inherent in the nonprofit sector. There is no doubt that nonprofits need more resources. But the only way that will happen is if nonprofits become more bold, not just with “pie in the sky plans” (which I, by the way, think are absolutely critical) but also by being more bold with funders, government regulators…board members. My whole point with the Financing Not Fundraising series, and really this blog overall, is that nonprofits must break out of the cycle of “fighting and scrapping for every dollar they have.” That is an unsustainable scenario. Instead of accepting the shortcomings of the current funding for the nonprofit sector, let’s get bold about asking for more. But that request must be made in the name of bold goals for social change.
Still seeing the current hurdles standing in the way of bold goals in the nonprofit sector, Dan wonders if the solution might lie in separating nonprofit leaders from the day-to-day work of their organizations so that they have the time and space for envisioning true social change:
I believe one of our greatest challenges is to get those in the nonprofit sector with the real knowledge (usually EDs working on the ground) to have the time and space to work up the bold (and yes, fearless) ideas. Everywhere I have worked I have had the all-too-rare conversation with the ED or program director who can articulate the overall bold vision but cannot see how that can be achieved within the current framework and particularly without harming those they currently serve- because the disruptive innovation necessary would take resources away from current programs…I heard a great speaker recently who [had a great idea for change] but she never really had the chance to build the idea out until she took a few weeks off from her job and was able to really focus on specifics and practical considerations. Perhaps that is what we need more of — sabbaticals, and then planning to implement the bold ideas.
Again, I believe this is the wrong approach. Bold action must be part of the day-to-day work of the organization. We can no longer separate big picture strategy from the day-to-day work of the nonprofit sector. Every effort, every resource, every staff member must be engaged in the larger vision of social change. It must become part of the everyday culture of the nonprofit sector, not just the purview of the elite few at the top, or an exercise conducted a few times per year.
If we are going to truly break free of the hamster wheel and make social change a reality, we must make bold vision part of every day life in the sector.
What do you think? Do the resource constraints of the nonprofit sector stand in the way of big, bold goals?
Photo Credit: cdrussorusso
There was a really interesting article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently about a Los Angeles nonprofit for aging Hollywood actors that was in danger of closing its doors but is now raising hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a rags to riches story that demonstrates how nonprofit leaders who embrace change when change is necessary can completely transform an organization.
Arguably the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) is not your average nonprofit organization. Set up in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Mary Pickford it asked actors to donate spare change to help fellow actors down on their luck. MPTF later expanded to become a $100 million organization that serves 150,000 needy actors with healthcare, housing, and retirement services. And although MPTF enjoys a budget with a few more zeros than the average nonprofit, their approach to change can serve as a model for other nonprofits.
In the early 2000s MPTF lost its way. Financial hardship forced the organization to consider closing one of its retirement centers which drew the ire of celebrities like George Clooney. But unlike other nonprofits that lose their way and have to eventually close, Hull House being the most recent and troubling example, MPTF turned things around.
Here’s what the MPTF story teaches nonprofits about embracing the challenge of change:
- Remove What Stands In Your Way
In order to survive it’s critical that nonprofits do something not easy for the sector: recognize and address the obstacle. Whether it’s an unmovable executive director, a deficient board, a broken financial model, or a distracting funder, a nonprofit must face the challenge head on. MPTF realized that they needed new leadership and replaced the fund’s president in 2010. Hull House’s board, however, refused to address changing the organization’s financial model despite seeing glaring financial issues for several years.
- Force Honest Conversations
When George Clooney voiced his dismay at MPTF’s decisions, new MPTF president Bob Beitcher approached Clooney and listened to his concerns. Beitcher explained that they were facing closure of the center because of financial dire straits. Over time he turned Clooney’s concerns into passion for the organization and eventually convinced him to c0-chair MPTF’s capital campaign. Hull House board and staff, on the other hand, kept conversation light. The staff sugar-coated financial reports and the board failed to ask hard questions. It is essential that nonprofits tackle difficult conversations in order to emerge stronger.
- Create a Financial Runway
MPTF had a practice of keeping several months of operating reserves on hand. Hull House, by contrast, lived on the edge — to the point of holding negative $2.3 million in net assets in June of 2007, long before the recession really hit. So when it did, they were in big trouble. Nonprofits (and funders!) must get over the taboo against operating reserves. You simply cannot survive, let alone create social change, if you don’t have the financial runway to do so.
- Connect Mission to Money
MPTF now enjoys a large donor base, but that wasn’t always the case. In order to get there they articulated to specific potential donors why their work was so critical and why they should get involved. They are currently raising millions of dollars because they have connected the dots for a specific target audience between their need for investment and the impact they are creating. Nonprofits need to articulate what they are trying to change and then find donors for whom that change is attractive.
The closure of such a stalwart and venerated nonprofit institution like Hull House should have been a wake up call for the nonprofit sector. If it could happen to Hull House, it could happen to any organization. But it doesn’t have to. Instead of blaming the recession, the board, fundraising, or anything else, nonprofits need to embrace the challenge of change.
If you need help addressing a challenge facing your nonprofit, let me know.
Photo Credit: Mary Pickford, 1924 from fotopedia
The term “strategic plan” has become so misused and abused in the nonprofit sector that it has almost become meaningless. So many organizations have undergone a poor strategic planning process. But the fact remains that to be truly effective at creating social change a nonprofit organization MUST have a strategy for the future and a plan for how they will get there.
There are some very clear ways that a good strategic plan differs from a poor one:
- A good strategic plan starts from an in-depth understanding of the outside community marketplace in which the nonprofit operates (trends in clients, funders, competitors, etc). Whereas a bad strategic plan is created in a vacuum among only board and staff. One nonprofit told me that at a board retreat years ago, board members were asked to write their goals for the organization on post-it notes, which were then tacked all over the room and voted on. And like that, their strategic plan was born.
- A good strategic plan forces the organization to articulate its value proposition, i.e. how the organization uniquely uses community inputs to create significant social value (change to a social problem). A poor strategic plan fails to articulate a value proposition and assumes that everyone outside the organization loves it and understands its value just as much as everyone inside the organization.
- A good strategic plan puts everything on the table and allows no sacred cows. Board members with pet interests are reigned in and staff members who are not contributing are encouraged to realign themselves with the new plan. A poor strategic plan only deals with the easy or non-controversial issues and leaves the difficult questions aside.
- A good strategic plan makes sure that the strategy for programs is aligned with the organization’s business and financial model so that the resulting strategic plan includes programs, financing and operations in an integrated way. A poor strategic plan focuses only on programs and assumes that the money will somehow follow.
- A good strategic plan includes a tactical plan so that the broad goals are broken down into individual steps to get there. This allows the organization to monitor and revise the plan on an on-going basis. A poor strategic plan has no tactical plan or monitoring system attached to it. Once approved, staff or board don’t see it again and it certainly doesn’t drive the day-to-day activity of the organization.
- A good strategic plan is inspiring and compelling to potential funders. It sets forth a bold vision for the future and a specific road map for getting there, which inspires confidence and investment. A poor strategic plan is boring, maintains the status quo, and elicits only nominal external support.
It’s not enough to go through the “strategy” motions. A real strategic plan is bold, compelling, tactical, well-financed, integrated and inspiring. It gets everyone (staff, board, funders, volunteers, clients) moving forward in a common direction from which real change flows.
If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take Social Velocity clients through, go here.
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com