nonprofit starvation cycle
The other day I met with a nonprofit leader (let’s call her June) who has a great idea for an earned income venture that fits directly with her mission, but she doesn’t have the start-up capital to launch. When she explained this to me, she threw up her hands as if to say, “I’m powerless to move forward.”
But from my vantage point she has all the pieces necessary to raise the start-up capital and launch, she just isn’t putting them together. It’s a common refrain — nonprofit leaders complain about being in a catch-22 of not having enough money to raise enough money. But the answer is often right in front of you. To break free from the starvation cycle, assemble the assets you already have in order to raise capacity capital, which is the topic of today’s post in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising blog series.
The nonprofit starvation cycle is one nonprofit leaders know only to well. Nonprofit organizations rarely have the technology, staff, and systems to function effectively. So they scrape by trying to wring one more drop out of a completely dry rock. But instead of waiting for funders to fix the situation, it is up to nonprofit leaders themselves to break free. And you break free by raising capacity capital.
Capacity capital is a one-time investment of significant money that can help build or strengthen a nonprofit organization so that it can create more social change. Capacity capital funds things like technology, systems, a program evaluation, revenue-generating staff, start-up costs for an earned income business. It is money that strengthens the organization so that it can do more.
But often nonprofit leaders, like June above, don’t recognize that everything they need to raise capacity capital and break free from the starvation cycle is in right in front of them. Here are the necessary pieces:
A Plan. You know what you need in order to do more, so put together a change plan and figure out what elements you need (technology, systems, staffing) and what they will cost. Do your homework so you can speak intelligently about what it will take to get you from point A to point B. June has a great business plan for her venture and knows exactly how much she needs in start-up costs.
Donors Who Love You. When raising capacity capital you want to go after donors who already love what you are doing and want to see more. You must convince them that a one-time investment of capacity capital will enable you to do even more of what they already love. June has a great network of long-time donors, which she could convince to become capacity capital donors.
A Connection Between Capital and More Impact. Make a convincing argument to those donors that capacity capital will create more of what they already love. For example, having a great Development Director in place can bring hundreds of thousands of new dollars each year which means many more people will be touched by your organization. Or explain how an evaluation of your program will allow you to focus your resources on highest impact activities. June could describe how a profitable earned income venture could increase financial sustainability while delivering more impact.
June has all of these pieces. She has a great plan for an earned income business that could significantly contribute to a more sustainable financial engine and thus allow her nonprofit to reach more people, a clear articulation of how much capital she needs and for what, and a committed group of donors who love the organization. For her, and for most nonprofits, it is simply a question of connecting the dots.
If you want to learn more about the power of capacity capital, download the Enormous Opportunity of Capacity Capital e-book, the Creating a Capacity Capital step-by-step guide or the Raising Capacity Capital webinar.
Photo Credit: PublicDomainPictures
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
Perhaps it is the nature of trying to solve the intractable, but social change leaders are heading for burnout. I see it more often lately. A nonprofit leader gives me a dazed look, rubs her temples with exhaustion, throws her hands up in the air, seriously considers just giving up.
The exhausting, endless hamster wheel nonprofit leaders live on is just not sustainable. At some point they will give out.
But the leaders who are driving social change are the very people we need to persevere. Because if they give up, where does that leave those who so desperately need the solutions they are providing?
Here are some things social change leaders can do to overcome burnout:
- Get Brutally Honest. With your donors, with your board members. Stop telling people what they want to hear and start being honest about the limits of your time, your staff’s capacity, your program’s scope. And stop chasing rabbit holes for your board or donors. You know what the reality is, so stop hiding it.
- Stop Fundraising. The thing that burns executive directors out more than anything is the endless, dysfunctional fundraising cycle. But if you could switch to a more effective strategy for bringing money in the door, and start to engage others (board members, donors, volunteers) to help, you would have a much smaller burden on your shoulders.
- Raise Capacity Capital. Executive directors are tasked with way too much. Most nonprofit staffers are doing the jobs of 2 or 3 people. That’s fine for awhile, but not long term. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to raise some money to hire key staff, or buy effective technology. That’s capacity capital.
- Get Inspired. Social change can be very inspiring. When you hit a wall, read about other leaders and the hurdles they faced, visit your own program and see the change that is happening every day, ask your staff and board why they are involved, ask donors why they give.
- Forgive Yourself. One thing I absolutely love about social change leaders is their undying commitment to the cause. So many of them have a deep calling for the work they do. But that can also have a dark side. They can become so passionate that they think taking a day off would be to let down the cause. They sometimes picture themselves as Superman and deny their human need for rest and regeneration. But the only way to create lasting change is to make it sustainable. You need to know when to say when.
- Get Some Help. You may be born to lead change, but a true leader knows how to engage others. You cannot do it all. Recruit and retain a staff to whom you can confidently delegate. Recruit a board that steps up to take key pieces off your plate. Ask your donors to tap into their networks to do some fundraising for you. This is not a one person show, rather you need to view yourself as a cheerleader, organizer, and leader of a vast army of people who are making social change happen.
When you feel your eyes glaze over, your head start to spin, a yearning for the family you haven’t seen in weeks, it’s time to take a step back. You are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t burnout after the first 5 miles. Long-term change takes time. Pace yourself.
Photo Credit: gb_packards
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
Many of the ills of the nonprofit sector can and should be solved by educating and strengthening nonprofit leaders, staffs and boards, but there is also work to be done with nonprofit donors. Those private individuals, foundations and corporations that support the nonprofit sector also need to change their approach if nonprofits are ever going to emerge from the starvation cycle.
There are some key things nonprofit donors need to do differently in order to make their gifts go farther:
- If you want something, fund it. Over and over again a foundation or individual donor will tell a nonprofit that they want to see a program evaluation, or a strategic plan, or a stronger financial model, but they refuse to fund it. This automatically puts a nonprofit into a catch-22 of needing a key element to get funding, but not having the funding to get the key element. It’s an unwinnable situation and no donor should put a nonprofit in that position.
- Invest in a management team you believe in, then back off. Foundations in particular tend to attach unnecessary strings (endless reporting requirements, benchmarks) to the grants they make. In theory, these strings exist in order to ensure a good investment. But in reality, the only way results will happen is if there is a great plan and a talented team to execute on it. If you are worried about a nonprofit’s ability to execute, then you probably aren’t comfortable with an investment in that team. Either invest elsewhere, or back off and let them perform.
- Don’t expect big things from a little gift. Donors sometimes get a big head about the gifts they make. They expect a nonprofit to expand a $1 million program with a $5,000 gift, or create a brand new program from one donor’s one-year investment. Those are ridiculous, and possibly hubris-filled, expectations. You get what you pay for. Invest accordingly.
- Understand that you hold the power and use it benevolently. Because you are writing the checks, you have the power in this funder/fundee relationship. A nonprofit leader will never be able to be completely open and honest with you for fear that you will take your money elsewhere. Recognize that fact. Don’t put undue pressure on the organization, don’t ask for special favors, and be as hands-off as possible.
- Don’t just buy services, build organizations. It might seem more exciting to have all your gifts go to support direct services, but realize that those services will be stronger and more sustainable if there is a healthy, effective organization behind them. That means a nonprofit needs a capable, well-trained and paid staff; adequate equipment, systems and space; and efficient technology. Occasionally think about supporting those infrastructure items so that your program gifts can go even further.
- Get others to give. If you are a philanthropist, chances are you know other philanthropists. Share your knowledge of the great management teams and infrastructure gifts you make. Don’t invest in a vacuum. Actively recruit your friends and colleagues to build on your investments.
If we really want to change the nonprofit sector we have to change the donors who support it. It is no longer enough just to write a check and be done with it. If you really care about the organizations you support, you’ve got to step up and make more thoughtful, necessary, smarter investments.
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com
Ask a nonprofit executive director their biggest challenge and most will say securing enough resources. It can seem a vicious cycle: a struggling nonprofit needs to raise money to build their capacity, but they have to have enough capacity in place to raise that money. So they continue to struggle.
A reader of the Social Velocity blog, an executive director of a smaller nonprofit, recently emailed me interested in Social Velocity’s consulting help to grow their ability to bring money in the door. However, the organization is so strapped that they don’t currently have the money to hire Social Velocity. So they are stuck in the vicious cycle: not enough money to raise enough money.
But there is a way out.
The clients we work with are all small and medium nonprofits that are at some sort of inflection point. They too have realized they need to do something different in order to grow their impact and/or become more financially sustainable. Yet, the trouble is they can’t make that change without some outside help.
So they have gotten smart. They have embarked on a series of steps to secure enough investments to hire Social Velocity to help them create a stronger, more effective nonprofit. These are the steps they went through:
- Gather Champions: The executive director identifies a few board members who believe as strongly as they do in the desire for some sort of change to the organization and the need for help to get there.
- Create a Vision for Change: Together these few leaders agree on their vision for change, for example: stronger financial footing for the organization, expanded programs, a more effective board. They may have no idea how to get there, but they all agree on a desired change.
- Make a Roadmap: They meet with Social Velocity to get more clarity around the kind of change they want and what it would take to get there. Once I have a clear sense of where the organization is and what it would take to get them to their vision for change, I put together a detailed proposal listing activities, deliverables, timeline and cost so that they have a very clear roadmap for the investment required to make change happen.
- Find Prospects: The small group identifies 3-5 people (board members, current major donors, volunteers or other friends of the organization) as potential investors in securing Social Velocity’s assistance. These people possess 3 key criteria that make them likely prospects to fund this capacity-building effort:
- Connection: They are already close to the organization, whether as a current donor, volunteer, board member or friend. They know the organization well.
- Concern: They strongly believe in the organization and the work it is doing and want to see the organization do more and better.
- Capacity: They have the capacity to make at least a $3-5,000, one-time investment in the organization so that it can get to the next level.
- The nonprofit’s vision for change
- The plan (Social Velocity proposal) for getting to that vision for change
- The investment required
- Whether they would like to make an investment
The end result has been nonprofit organizations, that had for years been stuck in the vicious cycle of never having enough money to do enough, finally breaking free with a plan and the investment to make some significant changes to their organizations. You can read our ongoing blog series, Raising Money to Grow On, about one of these clients who did exactly what I’ve outlined above. And you can also read a past blog post about how you can make your donors organization builders.
Nonprofits must break free from the idea that they just have to hobble along with dwindling resources, continuing to squeeze another drop out of a completely dry rock. If you have a core group of people who love your work and want to see you do more, you possess the key to building your own capacity.
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com
Last fall I wrote a blog post arguing that small nonprofits need access to philanthropic equity (money to build their organizations) just as much as larger, more sophisticated nonprofits do. My post was in response to George Overholser’s Social Velocity blog interview where he argued that philanthropic equity (or growth capital) campaigns, where a nonprofit is raising money to build the infrastructure of the organization, are not feasible for small nonprofits. George’s argument and my subsequent post set off a chain of events that led Social Velocity to work with Charlotte Chamber Music to plan and prepare for a philanthropic equity campaign. Over the course of the next several months I will give you an insider’s view of our work with CCM in order (I hope!) to prove my argument that philanthropic equity campaigns can and should be accessible to any nonprofit that has a vision for something bigger and the determination to put that vision to action. Today is the first post in this Raising Money to Grow On series.
In George Overholser’s September 2010 Social Velocity interview he argued that philanthropic equity campaigns just aren’t feasible for small nonprofits:
What about the small organizations that DO aspire to undergo a big transformation?…I believe that it is absolutely vital that we come up with a way to better capitalize these smaller organizations. Sadly, though, at this stage of capital market evolution, it is still quite expensive to prepare for a successful nonprofit equity campaign. Unless several million is being raised [the costs are] prohibitively high. This constrains us to campaigns of $5 million or more, which, in turn, constrains us to organizations that are already pretty large.
A Social Velocity blog reader, Elaine Spallone, Executive Director of Charlotte Chamber Music took issue with George’s argument and responded in the comments:
As the ED for a very small nonprofit (<$300K) I am greatly disheartened to essentially read “yes, we can cure the large guys, but for the rest of you -80% – well good luck! No answers for you yet.” WOW…Really is education and awareness for buyers to support the whole organization vs. its programs enough? (Although I agree wholeheartedly, a needed step.) I believe there has to be a way to “create compelling ‘asks’ for equity capital” that is less expensive. There has to be way to finance a small organization’s desire to meet the needs of the community, which could mean doubling their impact. We are asked to relearn, redo, change our practices to support (finance) the organization’s mission to change the world, but is no one considering the relearning, redoing or changing the expensive processes/methods so all nonprofits can benefit?
Since that is exactly why I launched Social Velocity, to help smaller nonprofits benefit from new ideas like philanthropic equity, Elaine and I began to talk about the challenges that Charlotte Chamber Music was facing.
Elaine felt that CCM was stuck. As a small, but beloved arts organization they had a great product, but they couldn’t get beyond the vicious cycle of never having enough money, never being able to expand their presence and impact. They had a solid board, and a great vision for the future, but lacked philanthropic equity to build the organization to achieve that vision. They had been talking to consultants about conducting a capital campaign to raise money for a permanent artistic director and a new or refurbished building. As Elaine recalls:
At first, we thought we had to launch a major campaign to raise funds for an Artistic Director- that was our major missing piece, and we seemed lost as to how to make that leap in securing significant funds. That is where we were stuck — for over a year.
But I counseled Elaine that they couldn’t get unstuck until they created a strategic direction and plan to get there that included the various infrastructure elements they needed to get to the next step. Again, Elaine recounts:
What Nell helped to clarify in the beginning is that investing in infrastructure will change our picture. It’s not just about one person [an artistic director]. We were a step ahead of ourselves. To get there, we needed to create the compelling plan for philanthropic equity…we were missing a huge step by not having a detailed plan for our future.
I suggested that they launch a philanthropic equity campaign, to raise money for an artistic director, fundraising infrastructure, technology, systems, all the things they needed to build a more effective, sustainable organization. But, before they think about a philanthropic equity campaign, they needed a compelling strategic direction and a plan for getting there. Because people don’t invest significant money in an idea, they invest in a coherent, compelling, executable, exciting, measurable plan for the future.
We put together a proposal for how Social Velocity could help Charlotte Chamber Music create
- A compelling, investable strategic plan, and
- A pitch and prospect strategy to raise the philanthropic equity needed to execute on that plan.
Elaine then went to her board and a few key major donors to make the case that in order to get out of the vicious starvation cycle, expand their impact, and become the top-tier arts organization they knew they could be, they had to invest in an organization-building process. A couple of key donors stepped up to make the investment to hire Social Velocity.
In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss how we went about creating a compelling, investable strategic plan and the pivotal moment when Charlotte Chamber Music realized that they had a tremendous opportunity to develop a new model for the 21st century arts organization.
Photo Credit: naitokz
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I started Social Velocity because I saw a real hole in the nonprofit sector. Small and medium nonprofits working on social change lacked access to expertise and resources to strengthen and grow their solutions. The Teach for Americas of the world were building impressive organizations and replicating their solution far and wide. But they were doing so with the help of venture philanthropy funds, national consulting firms and broad and deep networks of experts and money. They were the lucky ones.
But there are some equally impressive solutions housed in much smaller, less resourced nonprofit organizations that aren’t really seeing the light of day. Because these organizations don’t know how to put a growth plan together, figure out how to finance the impact they want to have, or create a compelling ask for money to build, their solutions are not reaching as far as they could.
Social Velocity exists to help those small and medium-size nonprofits who want to be entrepreneurial, who want to grow their programs, who want to get their board engaged and invested, who want to raise money to build their organization, who want to break out of the starvation cycle. I’m very passionate (and opinionated) about the fact that the bottom 80% of nonprofits need help to become stronger, better, more effective and sustainable at creating social impact.
So in order to reach more nonprofits, Social Velocity has a growth plan ourselves. And that growth plan involves creating tools, trainings, e-books, guides, worksheets, templates and other things that nonprofits can download in order to start thinking and doing things differently.
We’ve already made our step-by-step guides available for download, and our blog often has tips and tools to get started, but we want to do more. Some of our initial ideas for tools include:
- A sample pitch for growth capital
- An earned income analysis worksheet
- A step-by-step tip sheet to get your board fundraising
- A financial plan outline
- An exercise to understand your nonprofit’s place in the external market
- Sample language to start messaging around impact
- Questions to guide your case for support creation
- An investment range chart to break down a growth capital fundraising goal
But I want your input. How can we help you take social innovation ideas and put them into action? What kinds of tools would help you go from wanting to grow your programs to starting to put the plan in place? What guides would allow you to move from being intrigued by the idea of philanthropic equity to putting together your own fundraising campaign to raise money to hire more staff, buy more computers, etc.? What’s holding you back from being able to do things differently and move out of the starvation cycle?
Let me know what tools you’d like to see, either below in the comments, or on our Facebook site. Thanks for your help!
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