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nonprofit strategy

When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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Planning for Nonprofit Success: An Interview With David Grant

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with David Grant.

David is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and past chair of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. He now consults nationally with nonprofits, foundations, and schools and is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.

He is also a member of the Leap Ambassadors, a 100+ community of nonprofit thought leaders, progressive funders, policy makers, and instigators who believe “performance matters.”

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

Nell: Your book, The Social Profit Handbook, is about assessment, but your central chapter is titled “Mission Time.” Is this akin to the time spent on research and development in for-profit companies?

David: Yes, it is. I would compare it to any time set aside for strategic thinking and reflection on what we are learning from experience. I invoke Steven Covey’s famous Urgent/Important matrix and equate mission time with “Quadrant II,” where we deal with important matters when they are not urgent.

Effective nonprofit leaders often think strategically. The case I make for mission time in my book is that this should be an ongoing collective exercise. I believe there should be more time set aside for staffs and boards, singly and together, to be much more specific about what success will look like for their organization, so they can plan backwards from that shared vision.

I think it’s the most important practice nonprofit organizations can adopt if they are serious about getting better at what they do – which is creating social profit. At its best, I think mission time also includes the voices and perspectives of the people being served by a nonprofit organization. Can you imagine a company conducting R&D without checking in with clients and customers?

Nell: “Planning backwards” is another phrase you use frequently in the book. Is that what you are saying should happen during mission time? And if this practice is as important as R&D is in the for-profit sector, why don’t we see more of it in the social sector?

David: Those are great questions. Let me start with “planning backwards.” I see this phrase as critical to the practice of formative assessment – the kind of assessment whose purpose is to improve performance, not audit it or judge it. I think too many of us view assessment as summative; we think it comes at the end and that somebody gives us a grade. The central argument of my book is that when an organization takes assessment into its own hands, embraces its formative purpose, makes time for it and gets good at planning backwards, they not only improve their workplace culture, they go much further towards fulfilling their mission. In short, they create more social profit.

But here’s where the challenges of assessing and measuring success come in. If you describe what matters most to you – things like increasing a young person’s sense of hope and confidence; improving relationships and building trust between former adversaries; inducing an aesthetic response through great art; inspiring a long-term commitment to equity or a healthy environmental – people say, “You can’t measure that.”

What they are really saying is, “there is no standard unit of measure that applies to that.” Ok, fair enough – that’s why we need to get good at qualitative assessment. We need to be able to respond with confidence, “If you can describe it, you can measure it.” That’s why I spend so much time in my book talking about qualitative assessment rubrics as effective tools for this process. The rubric invites us to describe as specifically as possible along a spectrum what we mean by success, in relation to our criteria for success. It is as if we were creating the test we want to give ourselves a year from now, and we can plan backwards from how we want to score on that test. You can see how that can’t happen without mission time.

Your other question about why we don’t see more mission time, more planning backwards, and more rubrics in the nonprofit sector is one I think about a lot. I don’t think there is a single answer. Part of it is mindset – we tend to focus on programs and direct mission-based actions in the world instead of on building strong organizations and internal practices. Part of it is resources – we are stretched so thin that it is hard to get out of a mode of urgency. Part of it is our habits – we are used to certain kinds of meetings that often don’t make enough room for group education, reflection, and decision-making. Part of it is funding patterns – donors prefer program support to general operating or infrastructure support.

Ironically, I believe mission time and planning backwards make their own cases. But we have to take the time first in order for the case to be made.

Nell: In your previous role as CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, you launched a capacity building initiative for your grantees. What results did you see from doing so and what do you think holds other foundations back from doing something similar?

David: It’s interesting you should ask that this week, because even though I’ve been gone from the Dodge Foundation for seven years, I just saw something I would attribute, at least in part, to those capacity building efforts. I was working with a national gathering of arts service organizations, and we were examining several of their strategic plans to see how they addressed the concept of sustainability. The first two defined it narrowly as financial stability. But then a New Jersey-based organization, a long-time Dodge grantee, defined it holistically, citing elements of governance, human resources, assessment systems, and ongoing capacity building as critical to sustainability, in addition to maintaining financial vitality. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this organization, alone among this national group, had just completed a successful, million dollar capital campaign.

I remember when I was still reading proposals that the groups that participated in our capacity building workshops were much clearer about what they were trying to do, more straightforward about the challenges they faced, and more cognizant of their own needs as a vehicle that carried the pursuit of their mission over time.

What holds foundations back from capacity building? Well, I imagine some might feel it is too indirect as a social investment; others might worry this kind of support carries with it a promise of ongoing funding. All I can say is that I think Dodge got more bang for our bucks in this part of our funding portfolio than in any other.

Nell: One of the projects you are working on is Artists Thrive, which is about developing assessment tools for the arts. What are the goals of this project and how could it be a model for other social issue areas?

David: The Artists Thrive project is the brainchild of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, CT and its grantees. It started with creating an assessment tool for those who work with artists – essentially the grantees in Tremaine’s program called “Marketplace Empowerment of Artists.” But it quickly expanded to consider a much larger system and asked: “What would it look like to have thriving artists in thriving communities?” and “Who would need to do what to achieve that vision?”

A group of six arts leaders have been running with these questions for over a year, with me in a support role. We have launched a series of rubrics, with the spectrum of success defined from bottom to top as “Artists Give Up,” “Artists Struggle,” “Artists Survive,” and “Artists Thrive.” The initial rubric, as I said, looked at the mental models and the actions of those who work with artists. The second looked at the range of attitudes and actions of artists themselves. The third will be for funders, describing how different philanthropic practices affect artists and their communities. Those are the front-line players, so to speak, but we plan to look at how others can contribute to the realization of the thriving artists/thriving communities vision as well – mayors, corporate leaders, planning commissions, educators, etc.

As far as models go, I think we already have some fantastic models of rubrics that deal with issues on a national scale, like the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, which I describe in my book, or more recently, the Whole Measures for Urban Conservation (2017), which is described on The Nature Conservancy’s website..

Nell: Our country is currently divided along many lines, however in your work as a consultant you often lead groups made up of people that bridge these divides in order to create change in their communities. What are some examples of change you have seen recently in your work? And more broadly, what gives you hope in these challenging times?

David: I wish I were doing more of the kind of work you mention. In fact, I had this fantasy during the 2016 primary election cycle that one of the candidates would brandish my book on stage during a debate and say, “What this country needs is a good rubric!”

But I did see an exercise in cooperation recently that I found really heartening. It was in Delaware, where members of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) and the Delaware Grantmakers Association (DGA) created a working group to write a rubric titled, “Grantmaker and Nonprofit Relationship for Creating Community Impact.” The title identifies their shared purpose — why their relationship matters.

The DANA/DGA draft rubric evokes a spectrum of performance (the columns of the rubric) in four short words: “Transactional,” “Engaged,” “Partnership,” and “Transformative.” As far as criteria to be measured along that spectrum (the rows of the rubric), the task force went to the critical dimensions of the relationship: the Alignment of beliefs in the purpose of the relationship; the Mutuality of feeling about its importance; the levels of Trust and Transparency in their interactions; and the quality of their Communication. Given that structure, it is no surprise that the draft rubric is both honest about disappointments and aspirational in its description of the possible.

This is an example of what gives me hope whenever I see it – systems thinking. As David Peter Stroh writes, “In conventional thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must optimize the parts. In systems thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must improve the relationships among the parts.” It strikes me that at the highest level of the DNA/DGA rubric, it will not be just a relationship that has been transformed; it will be the State of Delaware. All from carving out the mission time and learning how to use it!

Photo Credit: Social Profit Handbook

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Do Your Programs Contribute to Mission AND Money?

There is a tool that I think is incredibly helpful to nonprofit leaders trying to figure out where to focus their resources and how to plan for the future. Indeed it is typically one of the first activities in the strategic planning process I use with my clients.

The Program Matrix helps a nonprofit board and staff analyze their portfolio of programs to understand their overall mission and money mix.

Because those two elements — mission and money — are inextricably bound in an effective nonprofit organization. You simply cannot achieve your mission without an operation that attracts and uses money sustainably.

The Program Matrix looks like this:

And, here’s how to fill out yours.

List Your Programs
A nonprofit leader makes a list of all their mission-related programs and initiatives. But don’t include organization-building work, like pure fundraising activities, or board development. While those activities are absolutely critical to your success, they are a means to an end. For example, conducting a fundraising appeal has the goal of raising money to plow into programs. So in Program Matrix, we want to look at just the mission-related programs.

Plot Your Programs on the Matrix
Once you have that list of programs, plot each individual program on the matrix based on that program’s ability to contribute to:

  1. Social Impact: The social change outcomes you are working toward, which are found in your Theory of Change (on the x axis), and

  2. Financial Returns: The financial sustainability of the organization (on the y axis). A program that can attract enough money not only to cover its own direct and indirect costs, but also to subsidize other programs would be above the line (“positive”), whereas a program that cannot attract enough money to cover its own costs would be below the line (“negative.”)

Analyze the Results
Once you have plotted your entire portfolio of programs on the matrix, take a look at where they fall in the four boxes. These are:

  1. Worthwhile: The program significantly contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it drains financial resources from the organization. A nonprofit will always have programs in this box, and that’s fine.

  2. Sustaining: The program doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it does provide a surplus of financial resources to the organization, which is great.

  3. Beneficial: The program contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes AND it provides excess money that can be plowed into “Worthwhile” programs — this is the best of both worlds.

  4. Detrimental: The program doesn’t contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, AND it drains financial resources from the organization — this is the worst of both worlds.

Once filled out, the Program Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address. First, any “Detrimental” programs should be significantly reconfigured, given to another organization to run, or abandoned. Second, in order to ensure financial sustainability, make sure that there are enough “Sustaining” and “Beneficial” programs to subsidize the “Worthwhile” programs. If not, you need to get strategic about developing programs that can offset the financial drain of the “Worthwhile” programs.

Repeat the Analysis Often
Once you’ve completed the Program Matrix analysis, rinse and repeat. On a regular basis (at least annually) board and staff should take a look at an updated Program Matrix and make any necessary programmatic adjustments. And any time you are thinking about adding a new program, redo the Program Matrix to include your best guess of where this new program will fall, so that you can understand its impact on the overall social impact and sustainability of your new portfolio of programs.

Armed with the power of the Program Matrix, nonprofit leaders can create a mix of programs that ensure achievement of their social change goals in a sustainable way.

Photo Credit: ParentingPatch 

 

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7 Questions to Move Your Nonprofit to Financial Sustainability

Financial sustainability seems to be the Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector. Everyone wants it, but few know how to find it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I firmly believe that financial sustainability is attainable for any nonprofit, as long as board and staff are willing to ask the right questions and do the hard work.

In fact, there is a roadmap to nonprofit financial sustainability, which includes several components. Because a nonprofit’s board, their strategy, their vision and mission, their marketing efforts, their programs, all contribute to or detract from their ability to attract and use money well.

But often nonprofits struggle in so many areas (disengaged board, poor fundraising results, non-existent strategy, ineffective marketing) that it can be difficult for a nonprofit leader and board to know where to start in order to become more financially sustainable. So I’ve developed a list of questions that assess where a nonprofit is on that path and where staff and board should focus their efforts.

This mini-assessment of 7 questions is listed in priority order, so once one area is addressed, you can move on to the next. For example, you may have your “Vision” and “Strategy” all figured out, so next you need to tackle “Program Delivery,” and so on.

So to see where your nonprofit is on the path to financial sustainability, answer these 7 questions:

  1. Long-Term Vision: Do board and staff agree on the ultimate goals of the organization — what you are trying to accomplish in the world? If not, then articulate your Theory of Change, which will help you come to a shared long-term vision.

  2. Strategy: Have board and staff together articulated a strategy — how you will marshall staff, volunteers, programs, activities — to move toward that long-term vision? If not, then create a multi-year strategic plan that ties your long-term vision to the activities and resources necessary to get there.

  3. Program Delivery and Impact: Do your programs work with the people you hope to benefit or influence in your long-term vision? If not, review your target populations and analyze each of your programs’ ability to move toward your vision.

  4. Financial Model: Have you articulated how money will flow into the organization and how that money will be used to make your long-term strategy a reality? If not, then develop a long-term financing plan that articulates how much money you need, over what timeframe, and the tasks in each revenue area necessary to meet (and hopefully exceed) those expenses.

  5. Staff Effectiveness: Do you have the right staff expertise structured in the right way to deliver on your strategy? If not, analyze your staffing structure and capabilities and how they relate to what you need.

  6. Board Engagement: Do the vast majority of your board members embrace your mission and actively participate in moving it forward? If not, set clear expectations, establish accountability, and engage them one-on-one.

  7. External Relationships: Do you have the right partnerships and engagement with the right external people and organizations necessary to deliver on your strategy? If not, seek to understand the world outside your walls, develop a marketing strategy, and build the networks you need.

If you are interested in a deeper analysis of how to move your nonprofit forward on the path to financial sustainability, check out the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for clients.

Photo Credit: Jeff Power

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Why Nonprofits Need Both Leaders and Managers

In the nonprofit sector the words “leader” and “manager” are sometimes tossed around interchangeably. But the fact is that they are two very different, and equally necessary, elements to an effective and sustainable nonprofit organization.

A leader provides an inspiring, motivating big strategy for staff and board to get behind. She asks hard questions and constantly pushes the organization and its people to do more, try harder, expand their reach, think bigger. A leader makes sure that people are engaged and invested in the work and creates a team environment where each person feels part of something much larger than herself. And in this way, a leader inspires board and staff to do more and be more than they ever thought possible.

Whereas, a manager creates systems that allow the organization to get things done and holds board and staff accountable. He makes sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be, has the tools they need to get the job done, and is held responsible for their part. The manager executes the path that the leader has articulated.

So in an ideal scenario, the two — leader and manager — work as a perfect team. One strategizes, propels, and inspires. The other creates systems and accountability to bring the strategy to fruition.

It doesn’t matter if you are a large nonprofit or a tiny one. And it doesn’t matter if the roles of “leader” and “manager” are contained in one person or multiple people, as long as everyone is clear about who is which, and when. Sometimes, in larger nonprofits, the leader and the manager will be contained in two different people, or in several people (senior management team, board chair and CEO). And other times the executive director of a small nonprofit may need to play the role of leader and manager in equal measure.

However you do it, in order to be effective and sustainable as a nonprofit, both your board and your staff need to be led and managed well.

Ask yourself these questions to see if your nonprofit lacks leadership, management, or both:

Leadership

Management

If you answered “No” to some or all of these questions, your nonprofit may lack some key leadership or management capabilities. If that is the case, step up as a leader and encourage a hard conversation about where your nonprofit is lacking and how to fill those gaps.

And if you need some help figuring out what your nonprofit lacks or how to fill those gaps, check out the coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staffs, or download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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Nonprofit Leaders, Get Outside Your Walls

It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders form their organizational strategy, their fundraising pitch, or their program model inside their nonprofit’s own walls. In order to be successful, you must understand the market in which you operate. And in order to understand it, you must go investigate it.

It is a simple fact that nonprofits must compete for funding, for clients, for volunteers, for staff, for board members, for mindshare, for policymaker will and commitment. So you must understand the market in which you work – what’s happening out there and how you fit in.

Ongoing market research can help you understand how your clients and potential clients think, what your funders want now and in the future, what your competitors and collaborators are doing and where they might be going, and how the very problems you exist to solve might be changing over time.

And there is another huge benefit to this data gathering — it forces you to expand and strengthen your network, because in the very act of finding out what’s happening outside your walls, you will forge new and deeper connections with others out there. So while market research should definitely be part of your long-term strategic planning process, it is also something you should continue to do on at least an annual basis.

Market research is where you test the assumptions baked into your work. You are seeking to find the answers to questions like:

Competitors/Collaborators

  • How are the efforts of other groups in our space changing over time?
  • How are these other groups funded?
  • What are their program delivery models?
  • What are their plans for the future?
  • Where are there opportunities for alliance?
  • How do they define the social problems they are working on?

External Context

  • What other social, technological, economic, demographic, political, regulatory shifts are happening outside our walls that might affect the problem(s) we are working on?

Target Populations

Of those people or groups you are trying to influence or benefit (like your clients) find out:

  • What are the demographic (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.) characteristics of these groups?
  • What are their psychographic (attitudes, interests, goals, etc.) characteristics?
  • How can we best reach them and change their attitudes and/or behavior?
  • What specific subsets of these populations can we have the greatest impact on?

Funding

  • How might our various funding streams (government, earned income, private donations, etc.) change over time?
  • What might our current or future funders want in the future?
  • What appeals to them about our solution?
  • What appeals to them about alternative solutions?

Before embarking on any market research, think through questions like these and figure out which are most applicable to your situation. This becomes your market research list.

Then determine how you will find the answers to those questions. Very few nonprofits can afford a comprehensive market study, so it will likely be up to your staff to do the digging. This can include activities like:

  • Web research on your competitors, collaborators, funders.
  • One-on-one interviews with current and potential funders, collaborators and competitors, experts in your field.
  • Surveys of your current or potential clients, members, influencers, funders, volunteers.
  • Review of existing research on the social issues on which you work.

And don’t assume that you will do this type of market research only once. Rather, you want to make it a regular part of operations (at least annually, if not more often), so it shouldn’t be overly burdensome. Make it easy and interesting for you and your staff to get beyond your walls and better understand the market in which you work.

Armed with new and ongoing knowledge about your market, you will be better able to design effective programs, attract additional support, articulate your nonprofit’s unique value, grow your network, and much more. So get out there!

Photo Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wartime Social Survey

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Is Your Nonprofit Stuck In A Rut?

The other day I was talking with a nonprofit leader and was suddenly struck by how much his story echoed so many of the stories I hear from nonprofit leaders.

See if your nonprofit fits some or all aspects of the scenario he faces:

  • His board is passionate about the mission and wants to be helpful, but they don’t really contribute much to the financial model.
  • His staff and board want to expand services, but they can’t grow their budget past where it has been for years.
  • Their funding is fairly dependent on just a couple of sources.
  • Their funders support specific projects, rather than the organization or mission as a whole.
  • Their strategic plan hasn’t been updated in 5 years.
  • The board worries whether some of what the nonprofit does duplicates other efforts out there.
  • Board and staff don’t have a common way to articulate what the nonprofit is and does.
  • Their nonprofit is just barely getting by and has no cash reserves.

They, like so many nonprofits, are stuck in a rut.

They want to accomplish something much bigger and better but continue to spin their wheels against what they have always done. It’s really a chicken or the egg scenario. A nonprofit is unable to grow their services, their board, and their supporters because the organization has limited resources. And so they keep soldiering on, same as it ever was.

But let’s face it folks, in times like these, the status quo just isn’t going to work anymore.

Luckily, there is a way out.

When I encounter a nonprofit leader like the one above who has a real desire to break out of this pattern, I suggest a Financial Model Assessment. A Financial Model Assessment analyzes every aspect of the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategy, Program Delivery and Impact, Staffing, Board, Marketing, External Partnerships) in order to understand how each element helps or hurts their financial sustainability and their ability to achieve results. It then analyzes all current and potential revenue streams to find opportunities for sustainable growth. Finally, the Assessment gives very detailed recommendations for creating a more effective and sustainable organization.

I am a firm believer in a holistic approach. You simply cannot bemoan a lack of financial resources and call it a day. You must dig deep and figure out how everything you do contributes to or detracts from your current reality.

But because nonprofit leaders are usually consumed by putting out fires and worrying when the next check will come, they don’t have the ability to take a big step back and figure out how all of the pieces can and should fit together. So a Financial Model Assessment allows a nonprofit board and staff to understand what is holding their organization back from becoming financially sustainable AND achieving more mission-related results.

Once I’ve written my final Assessment, I lead a change discussion among board and staff. We delve into the Assessment and discuss how and why I came to the conclusions I did. This is often a galvanizing moment for the nonprofit — a moment when board and staff finally understand together a way forward that can allow them to be smarter, more strategic, more sustainable and ultimately achieve more results.

If you are interested in big change and need help navigating how to get there, download the Financial Model Assessment Benefit Sheet that describes the process in more detail. And if you’d like to read about other nonprofits who undertook a change process, check out these case studies.

Photo Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia

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Moving Toward a Network Mindset: An Interview with Jane Wei-Skillern

jane wei-skillernIn this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jane Wei-Skillern.

Jane is the co-author of the groundbreaking 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Networked Nonprofit,” and a leading researcher on networks for social change. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and has also served on the faculties of the London, Harvard, and Stanford Business Schools.  For the past 15 years, her research has focused on high impact nonprofit networks, network leadership and network cultures.

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

Nell: Jane, you and Sonia Marciano arguably coined the term “networked nonprofit” with your 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article of the same name. But is the idea of creating and using networks to create social change necessarily new to the space? How is a networked nonprofit different now than in the past, or what has changed?

Jane: In our article, we were most interested in the ways in which leaders and organizations catalyzed and engaged in collaborations successfully. Thus, the focus in the article was much more on the culture, or the norms and values, of what makes collaborations succeed, rather than a strict definition or structure of what collaborations should look like.

The concept of partnerships, collaboration, alliances, networks, or any number of other terms we could use, are of course nothing new in the nonprofit sector. In fact, we are not particular about the terminology that is used to describe collaborative efforts or whether they choose to use the term “networked nonprofit” at all. These lessons were drawn from detailed case studies of successful networks, many of which had been operating for years or decades before we studied them as researchers.

At the same time, we used the term “networked nonprofit” to describe a particular approach to collaboration, one that was oriented around social impact above all else, that emerged from the bottom up by community members in the field, as a way to address problems more effectively, rather than collaboration for collaboration’s sake. The networks were unique in that while they might have been catalyzed by a few instrumental actors initially, all participants worked in true partnership, as peers and equals to drive toward field level impact.

Consequently, they were able to achieve significant commitment, investment and support from participants, and generate leverage on resources and capacity, to achieve mission impact much more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. It is this experience and wisdom about what was working well in the field that we wanted to bring attention to, especially at a time when so many in the field were struggling to scale impact through individual social entrepreneurs/social enterprises by proliferating program/organization innovations, building organizational capacity, scale, and brands.

Nell: How is the concept of a network different than or related to the concept of a social movement, like BlackLivesMatter? Are social movements the same or different than networks? 

Jane: I believe that the concepts that enable social movements to succeed are very similar to those that would enable networked nonprofits to succeed.  Social Movement scholars and analysts have highlighted four stages of successful social movements which were succinctly described in this article. These four stages are:

  1. A community forms around a common goal
  2. The community mobilizes resources
  3. The community finds solutions (what I call “fourth options”)
  4. The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment

In this respect, networked nonprofits are very similar. The network emerges around a common goal, rather than a particular program or organizational model. The community mobilizes the resources from throughout the network, and based on existing relationships in the community.  The solution is emergent and comes from the community members themselves, rather than being pushed from the top down. And finally, once a network is up and running and proves itself to be effective, it becomes the primary vehicle for change, rather than the individual organizations themselves.

Nell: You recently launched a new site offering resources to those interested in becoming a networked leader. What is your goal with this new site?

Jane: The stated mission of the website is: “To champion network leaders, and the networks that they serve, to nurture change on the challenges that dwarf us all.” It’s an interesting story about how we came to create this website together.

In early 2016, I had the opportunity to work with Children and Nature Network to share my research on network leadership through a series of webinars with their network members. Through this project I got to know Amy Pertschuk, co-founder of Children and Nature Network, who found the ideas so compelling that she offered her services pro bono to help develop a web site to share resources.

Initially, Amy asked if we should create a domain name focused on me and my research. I immediately realized that that would be too limiting. In order to achieve leveraged and scalable impact through this website, I absolutely needed to practice what I preach and make the site much less about me and much more about championing network leaders and the networks of which they are a part.

It also made sense to reach out to some of my most inspiring and trusted colleagues who have deep experience leading, developing, and writing about networks themselves to develop the website jointly. We have all worked to build this site to support experienced and aspiring network leaders. The resources on the site have been collected and curated by a community of practitioners and network supporters working to increase the impact of social sector leaders and organizations by promoting the principles of successful networks.

Nell: Is the networked approach right for every nonprofit, or does it apply better to certain types of leaders or organizations? And how can a nonprofit leader interested in this approach move forward with it?

Jane: I like that you emphasize that it is an approach rather than a structure or model. Sometimes people think that they need to reorganize or restructure in order to be a network. Instead, I view it as a mindset and leadership approach that can be used by people in all types of organizations, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors. Though I do believe that it is particularly relevant in the social sectors where the primary objective is, or should be, to generate social value that is not owned or captured by any single entity, in contrast to private sector organizations whose objective is to generate shareholder value.

The network leadership principles focus on: mission before organization; governance through trust-based relationships, rather than top down controls; promotion of others rather than oneself; and building of constellations rather than stars. These can be applied at all levels of an organization, from the executive suite to leaders out in the field. It is a shift from traditional leadership approaches that focus on the charismatic individual who has formal authority to get things done, to a more open-sourced approach to addressing social problems.

Network leaders start with the mission and engage others (especially those they seek to serve) to mobilize resources to support them doing what they would have wanted to do for themselves. It is a significant departure from doing ‘to’ and instead working with others as peers, equals, and true partners.

Photo Credit: Harvard Business School

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