One thing the nonprofit sector desperately needs is more people asking hard questions. A lot of time is spent skirting issues or sugar coating situations. If nonprofit leaders instead forced some challenging conversations, with hard questions as the impetus, the sector could become more effective. And the place to start is with a nonprofit leader questioning herself.
I’ve written before about questions to ask your board, and questions to ask your nonprofit, and questions to ask before you pursue a new opportunity, but there are also some key questions a nonprofit leader should ask herself.
On a fairly regular basis a nonprofit leader should ask:
- Am I Leading or Managing?
A manager shuffles resources around, waits to be told what to do, and focuses on checking things off her list. But a leader crafts a larger vision for her organization, articulates what her nonprofit is trying to accomplish, and then marshals all the resources at her disposal (board, staff, funders, partners) toward that vision. And when some of those resources won’t align to the vision (board members who aren’t performing, donors who want to veer off course) she confidently tells it like it is. A manager will deploy resources, but a leader will ensure that the deployment results in social change.
- How Can I Address My Weaknesses?
A great leader recognizes when he is falling short and where he needs complementary abilities. A leader who doesn’t know how to fundraise hires a rockstar Development person, or gets fundraising training. A leader who struggles with strategic decisions finds a leadership coach. A leader who can’t build an effective board, asks fellow nonprofit leaders for counsel. Most importantly, if there are costs associated with addressing his weaknesses, a leader raises the money he needs, instead of doing it on the cheap.
- Am I Selling Myself (and My Nonprofit) Short?
I see so many nonprofit leaders not fighting for what their organization really needs. From not articulating the true costs of their nonprofit to funders, to allowing the board to shirk their fundraising responsibilities, to addressing capacity constraints with a band-aid, to burning out from long hours with not enough staff, nonprofit leaders are constantly giving their organizations, and themselves, short shrift. A true leader finds the confidence to stand up for herself and her organization and demand what is truly required to achieve the vision for change.
- Which Other Leaders Should I Align With?
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders exist in a bubble. They may collaborate with others on a programmatic level, but they are not regularly analyzing the larger marketplace in which they operate (emerging competitors, new technologies, changing needs) and figuring out with which other leaders impacting the field (policymakers, organization heads, advocates, influencers) they should forge alliances. Social change requires much more than any single organization can accomplish. It is critical that nonprofits become fully networked in their area of social change. A nonprofit leader makes that happen.
- Am I Still The Right Person for The Job?
This is such a hard question. But if you simply don’t have the skills (or the energy) to lead the right road ahead, then you must step aside. Don’t hold your organization and the vision back because of your ego. If you are a true leader, you have assembled a whole army of board, staff, supporters and allies that can continue to move forward in your wake. It’s not easy to recognize or admit, but if you really care about the cause and want to see real change happen, then you should regularly be assessing this.
A true nonprofit leader drives the vision, marshals resources, forges alliances, inspires support, and, ultimately, leads the charge toward social change. Because now more than ever we need real social change leaders. People who are willing and able to find the best way forward and the confidence, smarts, and humility to lead us there.
If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: iwona_kellie
As summer draws to a close and my own downtime ends, it occurs to me that there is a real need, in our increasingly always-on world, for leaders to find time for quiet reflection, to reconnect with their core.
And particularly in the nonprofit world, where a leader is constantly bombarded with suggestions – from funders, board members, staff, fellow leaders, Facebook friends – it is critical that she find regular solitude to analyze and plan the best way forward.
Indeed true leadership lies not in finding the lowest common denominator among a disparate group of supporters, volunteers and staff, but rather in analyzing all options and then driving the most effective way forward (even if it is unpopular). Real leadership is not about giving the people around you what they want. It is about doing what is best and what is right. And often you find that path through time alone to think.
Perhaps thoughtful, reasoned leadership has taken a hit in recent years. Our push toward social technology has created a culture of extreme extraversion and constant noise. Dave Eggers 2013 novel, The Circle, describes a world where companies like Google and Facebook have taken over. He offers a chilling view of social media taken to the extreme with destructive group think and no room for solitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of social media, but I also think there is tremendous value in regular, silent retreat.
And I’m not alone. Amid the broad adoption of an increasingly social way of life, we are, in certain pockets, beginning to realize that quiet has its place as well. Some politicians, finally turned off by the constant screaming of our increasingly partisan political system, have begun turning toward inner reflection to find a better way. Steven Pressfield describes the importance of getting away from it all and “letting the well fill up overnight.” And even social media mavens, Beth Kanter and Arianna Huffington have both recently begun promoting solitude and reflection.
Could it be that we are realizing that while new tools to make us more social have their place in the work of social change, individual reflection is also quite necessary. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing and crowdthinking all have an important role to play, there is also tremendous value in a leader spending time, alone, to process the world around her and then emerge with a plan.
Nonprofit leaders are often working on large, intractable social problems. Those problems require the right way forward, not the most popular way forward. As a social change leader you must claim your very real need to turn off the noise. Amid the quiet you may just discover the necessary path. And perhaps also, the will to lead us there.
Photo Credit: Sebastien Panouille
Ever since last year’s release of the Letter to the Donors of America it seems there is an increasing drumbeat against the “Overhead Myth,” the idea that nonprofits must keep their overhead and administrative costs as low as possible. The fact that we are now openly talking about overhead as a myth is very encouraging.
But I think it will take a good deal of time before donors actually embrace the idea that nonprofits should stop starving their organizations of the resources they need to create and execute effective programs.
To move donors along, nonprofit leaders must lead this conversation with their own donors. Those nonprofit leaders who need more money to build a stronger, more effective and sustainable organization behind their work should educate themselves, their board members, and their donors about capacity capital.
“Capacity capital” is a one-time infusion of significant money that can be used to strengthen or grow a nonprofit organization. Capacity capital is NOT the day-to-day operating money nonprofits are used to raising and employing. Rather, capacity capital is money to build a stronger, more sustainable organization.
A nonprofit could use capacity capital in many ways, for example to:
- Plan and execute a program evaluation
- Plan and launch an earned income stream
- Create a strategic financing plan
- Hire a seasoned Development Director, or other revenue-generating staff
- Purchase a new donor database
- Improve program service delivery
- Upgrade website, email marketing, and/or social media efforts
- Launch a major gifts campaign
But raising capacity capital is not like traditional fundraising. It involves determining how much capacity capital you need, creating a compelling pitch, deciding which prospective funders to approach, and educating those prospects about the power of capacity capital. In so doing, you are not only raising the money you so desperately need, but you are also leading your part of the nonprofit sector away from the overhead myth.
The Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide can show you how to raise capacity capital for your nonprofit.
Here is an excerpt from the guide…
Section 1: Create a Capacity Building Plan
You cannot raise money without a plan for how you will spend it. Funders need to be convinced that you did your homework and have a clear, actionable, measurable plan for how you will invest capacity capital dollars to result in a stronger organization that can deliver more impact.
To get there, start by answering these questions:
- What is holding our nonprofit back from doing more and being more effective?
- What could we purchase to overcome these hurdle(s)?
- If we were able to purchase these items how would we use them and over what time frame?
- What can we reasonably expect to be the changes in our effectiveness and/or impact because of these things we purchased and implemented?
With your answers to these questions, put together a plan.
Start by creating 1-3 goals around the hurdles you identified in #1 above. For example, you may have identified in #1 that you don’t have adequate staff to raise enough money to achieve your mission.
So your capacity plan goals might be:
- Create an overall money strategy to raise $450,000 per year.
- Hire a Development Director to implement the plan.
- Secure the technology and materials necessary to raise this money (database, website, etc.)
Or, if you are a much smaller nonprofit, your goals might be more modest:
- Create an overall money strategy to raise $100,000 per year.
- Train the board on their role in fundraising.
- Upgrade our website to attract online donations.
Once you’ve developed your goals, make a laundry list of activities and purchases necessary to make each goal a reality. In some cases you may need outside help to determine how to get there. For example, you may not know how to put together an overall money strategy to raise $450,000, so you may have to hire a fundraising consultant to help you create that strategy. Also note roughly how long each activity will take.
So, your list of activities with a timeline for each might look something like this:
Goal 2: Train the board on their role in fundraising
- Discuss and get buy-in from board on a fundraising training (October)
- Find a date/location (October)
- Research fundraising trainers (November-December)
- Hire a trainer (January)
- Hold training (February)
- Follow up with each individual board member on the next steps resulting from the training (March-April)
Once you have listed all of the activities to achieve each goal of your capacity plan, highlight activities that would require new purchases. Research a ballpark figure for what each one would cost and then attach that figure to those highlighted items, like this…
Photo Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
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.
I’ve recently witnessed some behavior from nonprofit leaders that made my jaw drop:
- A board chairman convinced the rest of his board to turn away a donor who wanted to give the nonprofit a significant amount of money to fund organizational capacity (strategic planning, coaching, fundraising training) because he felt the nonprofit already knew how to do the work internally for free.
- An executive director who was really struggling with wrangling her board and developing a strong financial model bravely asked a close foundation donor for advice and support. When the foundation offered to fund some leadership coaching, the executive director rejected the offer for fear her board would think she didn’t know how to do her job.
- A board charged their nonprofit’s Development Director with increasing revenue in a single year by 30%. When she asked for a donor database to help more effectively recruit new and renew current donors the board said “No” because they felt she should already be able to do that without the aid of new technology.
More often than not it is nonprofit donors who hold back efforts to build stronger, more sustainable nonprofits by not providing enough capacity capital. I talk about that all the time (like here, here and here).
But sometimes, and more shockingly, nonprofit staffs and boards stand in their own way.
It takes courage for a nonprofit leader to admit that she doesn’t know how to do something and needs help. I am reminded of a fascinating interview I heard on NPR earlier this fall with Leah Hager Cohen who recently wrote the book, In Praise of Admitting Ignorance. She describes the freedom that comes from admitting when you simply don’t know how to do something. That moment of honesty can lead to transformation, as she says, “I think those words can be so incredibly liberating…They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don’t know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.”
I would love to see nonprofit leaders take this advice to heart. Once you have the courage to admit (to your board, to your donors, to your staff) that you don’t know how to do everything, you just might finally get the help you so desperately need.
Nonprofit leaders have been given the Herculean task of: developing and managing effective programs, managing a diverse and underpaid staff, crafting a bold strategic direction, creating a sustainable financial model, wrangling a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruiting and appeasing a disparate donor base. All with little support along the way. It is easy to see why the position of nonprofit leader is such a lonely one.
So instead of continuing to bear that enormous burden, take a step back and admit that you simply don’t know how to do it all. You need help, guidance, advice, support, organization building. If you are lucky enough to have funders, board members or others outside the organization that want to help, admit (to yourself, to your board, to your donors) that you need that help. And don’t let anyone (including, and especially, yourself) stand in your way.
If you’d like to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staff click here, and if you’d like to schedule a time to talk about how I might help move your organization forward, let me know.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
It becomes increasingly obvious to me that the nonprofit sector suffers from a lack of confidence. Centuries of being sidelined as “charities” while the real work of the world (business) took center stage has made the nonprofit sector continually apologize for the work they do and how they do it.
Nowhere is this more true than in the financing of their work.
But for the nonprofit sector to start to demand a seat at the big money table, nonprofits must stop apologizing for needing money. To truly begin to use money as a tool, nonprofit leaders have to stop regretting their need of it and start demanding that they receive enough and the right kinds of money to successfully accomplish their work, which is the topic of today’s installment in the ongoing Financing Not Fundraising series.
Note that this post is included in the recently released Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book.
You can’t simply decide to stop feeling bad about asking for money. Instead you have to find the confidence to identify and secure the right financing for your work.
Ask for Change, Not Your Organization
You shouldn’t be asking for money for your organizational needs, rather you should be asking for money as a vehicle to help your organization create social change. Everyone is uncomfortable when asking for a handout. If instead you are asking for resources to make positive social change, which a donor cares about, it is much more powerful, compelling and confidence-inspiring.
Find the Right People
It surely can be awkward asking for money if you are asking the wrong person. Don’t fall into the trap that many nonprofits do by thinking that anyone with money is a potential donor to your nonprofit. People give based on values, therefore you only want to target people for whom your mission and your work resonate deeply. No matter who your target is (an individual, a foundation, a corporation) think about whether they have the Capacity to give at the level you need, have a Connection to someone at your nonprofit, and have a Concern for your nonprofit’s mission. Being strategic about who you are targeting makes you much more confident when you finally make the ask.
Tie Money to Your Goals
If you know as an organization what you are trying to accomplish and how much that will cost, you will have much more confidence asking for money. Instead of just asking for money, you will be asking for the financing necessary to accomplish your strategic goals. If you have a smart organizational strategy you can confidently ask a potential donor to invest in a solid, well-thought out plan for creating change to a problem they care about. And that’s much less awkward than asking someone to just give, right?
Take Out the Middle Man (or Event)
So many nonprofits sidestep the awkwardness of asking for money for their mission by holding a big gala event instead. The thinking is that if they camouflage the ask inside twinkly lights, great music and food, and a loud band that people won’t mind opening their wallets. Aside from the very real fact that you are leaving money on the table, events simply enable the lack of confidence I am describing. Instead of feeling so guilty about asking for money that you run your board and staff ragged by staging a huge event, take out the middle man and identify, cultivate and solicit donors who truly care about your work and will give more significantly through a major donor campaign.
Share Your Results
If your nonprofit is truly creating social change, then you can very confidently ask others to join you as partners in making that change continue to happen. Collect, analyze and share the results of your nonprofit’s programs. Demonstrate the change that you are creating and that donors care about. With solid results to point to, you can confidently ask other people to invest in your successful work. At the end of the day, if your nonprofit is creating positive community value then you should confidently be asking for the money necessary to make that value grow.
Stop apologizing for needing the financing necessary to do the work and start finding and confidently inviting interested investors to partner with you. In so doing you will be moving your nonprofit from fundraising to financing.
Photo Credit: myguitarzz
I am delighted to announce today’s release of the newest volume in the Financing Not Fundraising e-book series, Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3.
The idea behind Financing Not Fundraising is that the traditional way nonprofit leaders, boards and donors have approached funding the work of nonprofits doesn’t work anymore. Traditional nonprofit fundraising forces nonprofits to work harder and harder for a smaller and smaller return. Nonprofits must break free from this vicious cycle and take a much more strategic approach to securing the overall financing necessary to achieve their goals.
The first step in this process is to fully integrate money with the mission and core competencies of the organization. In creating such a strategic financial model for her organization, a nonprofit leader will be setting her organization on a path towards financial sustainability, growth, and ultimately change to the social problem her nonprofit attempts to address.
The Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book expands on the basic elements of the Financing Not Fundraising model and helps those nonprofit leaders who are ready to start moving away from fundraising to really dive into this new approach.
Contained in this e-book are new ways of thinking, new tools of analysis, new questions to ask. All with the intent of pushing your staff, your board, even your donors, to fund your work in a more effective and sustainable way.
Here are the chapters in the Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 3 E-book:
- Overcome Nonprofit Taboos
- Remove Money Hurdles
- Find and Keep a Great Fundraiser
- Recruit a Money Raising Board
- Set a High Board Fundraising Bar
- Enlighten Your Donors
- Break Free From the Starvation Cycle
- Create Donor Personas
- Calculate Opportunity Costs
- Stop Apologizing
- Get Started
If you are tired of hitting your head against the unmovable fundraising wall, I invite you to explore a new way of sustainably financing the critical work you do.
Earlier this month, there was a great post by Linda Wood from the Haas Fund bemoaning the fact that 73% of nonprofit leaders in a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy study said they lack resources to build their leadership skills. And the recent Meyer Foundation Executive Director Listening Project found that nonprofit leaders’ biggest challenges are fundraising, human capital management and board of directors management — all leadership challenges.
This doesn’t surprise me at all.
I constantly witness the lack of support nonprofit leaders receive for building their leadership skills. Leading a nonprofit is an incredibly demanding task and the challenges are only growing. Nonprofit leaders are expected to magically solve the world’s problems, on a shoestring, while herding a disparate group of volunteers, funders, clients.
Which is why I think nonprofit leader coaching holds so much promise for the sector. If a struggling nonprofit leader had a strategic partner who could help her think through staffing, fundraising, board management and strategic decisions, instead of having to figure it out all on her own, it could be transformative.
Nonprofit leader coaching is one-on-one strategic counsel from someone with deep management, financial, and strategy expertise. With a strategic coach, a nonprofit leader can find solutions to issues like how to:
- Create the most effective staffing structure for growth
- Recruit and engage an effective board
- Diversify and grow funding streams aligned with the nonprofit’s specific mission and operations
- Analyze strategic opportunities for the organization
- Develop effective collaborations that build on the organization’s assets
The return on investment of coaching can be really exciting. Let me give you some examples:
Increased Board Fundraising
Fundraising is such a tricky business. Often nonprofit boards are fairly ineffective at it, largely because they and their nonprofit leader don’t know how to focus the board’s efforts. This was true for one of my clients whose board didn’t understand fundraising and was confused about their role. Through coaching, both with the executive director and board members, the board now understands how each of them individually can contribute to bringing money in the door. They also understand how to focus their efforts on the most profitable activities and now have the skills and knowledge to move the organization’s financial strategy forward. As a result, the board has dramatically increased the number of new donors to the organization.
Clearer Strategic Thinking
Nonprofits are constantly bombarded with new opportunities, new partnerships, new funding ideas. A coach can help a nonprofit leader think through how a new opportunity might fit with the overall organization strategy, ask hard questions and analyze the costs and benefits. In this coaching role, I encourage nonprofit leaders to take a step back and examine all of the implications of a decision, how it might draw resources away, what impact it will have on the larger work, how it moves the organization closer to or farther away from strategic alignment, and so on. Coaching can get nonprofits away from group think and towards making smarter, more strategic decisions.
More Productive Staff
Management of staff is one of the hardest jobs of being a leader in any setting, but I think it’s particularly tricky in the nonprofit sector where resources are tighter and nonprofits are often encouraged to play nice at all costs. In coaching around staff challenges, I help a leader create an effective staffing structure for the organization, analyze and resolve staff conflicts, and make sure all staff are playing to their strengths.
Strategic coaching is not right for every nonprofit leader because it takes a real commitment to change, a willingness to analyze situations, and an openness to making difficult decisions.
But coaching is right for a leader who:
- Leads an organization that is ready for change
- Is open to trying new approaches
- Wants to have difficult, but important, conversations with board, staff and funders
- Needs a thinking partner to help make strategic decisions
- Recognizes that she doesn’t have all of the answers
- Is ready to build her leadership skills
Photo Credit: PhilanTopic
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