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NonProfit Times

Nonprofits as Equal Partners in the Economy: An Interview with Robert Egger

Robert EggerIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Robert Egger. Robert is the Founder and President of the DC Central Kitchen, the country’s first “community kitchen”, where food donated by hospitality businesses and farms is used to fuel a nationally recognized culinary arts job training program. In addition, Robert is the Founder and President of the just launched CForward, an advocacy organization that rallies employees of nonprofits to educate candidates about the economic role that nonprofits play in every community, and to support candidates who have detailed plans to strengthen the economy that includes nonprofits. Robert was included in the Non Profit Times list of the “50 Most Powerful and Influential” nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009, and speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement and social enterprise.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You have argued that nonprofits need to more assertively demonstrate how they are changing things (jobs created, dollars saved by society, etc), but this necessitates an understanding of and ability to articulate and track performance. Do you think the nonprofit sector as a whole is ready for that?

Robert: I don’t think we have a choice. There are external forces that will not allow organizations to go-it-alone, or do what they’ve always done, indefinitely, any longer. The “era of extra” in America, when our manufacturing economy produced enough extra money to sustain (however anemically) the hundreds of thousands of nonprofits, has passed. Plus, donors are more and more demanding of groups now. They want results.

And while many groups may struggle to move beyond antidotes to better articulate their already amazing economic results, there are assets available in every community that can help speed up the transition.

EVERY university and college is brimming with a generation raised doing service, and they would readily embrace the opportunity to help groups measure, and then use new media outlets to market themselves, with gusto.

There are also well-skilled Baby Boomers surging into the sector, equally anxious to be part of rocking their community. The only thing we have to fear is the fear of opening up to change and embracing new ideas. That will be particularly hard for older leaders, or founders who have so much invested in their vision or systems. I understand that trepidation… up to a point.

To be honest, human service nonprofits ask for that kind of courage everyday from the people we serve. Since 1989, we at the DC Central Kitchen have asked that of the recovering addicts and ex-cons who come looking for a second or third chance at change. Shouldn’t we in the sector be equally willing to let go of old habits and be open to new ways of making money? I think so.

Nell: You have worked in social services, feeding and finding jobs for the homeless. Are social problems like hunger, homelessness, poverty ever solvable without fixing the underlying infrastructure inequalities that caused them in the first place? How can and should a nonprofit work to solve something that has a much larger underlying cause?

Robert: I divide my time 49/51.

49% is spent helping colleagues at The Kitchen, or any nonprofit, work stronger, better, faster. But that’s all I’ll give to traditional charity, no matter how bold the effort.

Why? Because grant-funded charity cannot solve the problem. It’s beyond the ability of nonprofits—socially, politically and economically.

That’s why I devote 51% of my energy to forwarding tactics and strategies that help us as a sector (and we as a country) develop the civic courage, economic open-mindedness and political will required to finally root out, root causes.

That was why I Co-Convened the first Nonprofit Congress in 2006. I wanted to challenge the canard that the sector is too diverse to find common ground. I wanted to help inspire groups to climb out of their individual silos and embrace our shared opportunity to change the rules of the game, versus continuing to play by outdated (and economically flawed) dictates.

Most of all, I wanted us to be directly involved in the wide-open Presidential race of 2007 and the dozens of Governor’s races of 2010. I wanted to challenge candidates to vie for our votes, not take them for granted. I still believe that this is the strategy we need to take.

That is why, on Nov 4th, I launched CForward, a PAC (political action committee) for nonprofits. Our goal—to openly support and help elect a new generation of legislators who show up on day one, fully invested in partnering with nonprofits to strengthen the economy.

Admittedly, CForward is a long term strategy for change, but I advance immediate, on-the-ground tactics with equal audacity.

One of many ideas I think could move the dime involves mergers. Not in the two-become-one model, although that’s essential in the current economic climate. No, I’m talking about merging things that matter. If, for example, the top 25 nonprofits in any town merged their banking business and shopped their combined cash-flow, they could leverage their assets and advocate for seats on the board of the bank and work for access to capital (rather than remain encumbered by the grant system).

Another version–what if we developed a “nonprofit seal of approval” for businesses? We could suggest that if citizens wanted to decrease the need for charity, or lower taxes—they could support businesses that we identified as providing good wages, healthcare or other benefits that would decrease demand for services and increase independence. Imagine if we directed our 90 million volunteers to see daily commerce as philanthropy!!

That’s what interests me. What resources do we have and how we can use them differently?

Nell: You are sometimes viewed as a renegade in the nonprofit sector, in that you are not happy with the status quo and you challenge nonprofits to do more and better. Since the nonprofit sector is such a consensus-driven, collaboration-oriented one, have your opinions served you and your work well or ill?

Robert: The better question is; “Has consensus served the sector well?” I genuflect to the power of being open and inclusive, but I think consensus has been used as an excuse for inactivity. Fraternity has been used as a shield to stifle critical review of groups or ideas whose time has passed. The perceived lack of unifying forces has left us fighting each other for scraps. And our silo mentality has left us politically weak at the very moment we should be advocating for a more pronounced role in strengthening the economy. We are 10% of America’s economy. There are 100 million people who work at, or volunteer with, a nonprofit. Of greater potential is the 90 million strong Millennial generation that has been raised doing service and who are now beginning to flood out of schools. They are out of work. They are poor, pissed-off and plugged in. And they are our natural allies in pursuing new policies.

In short—why should we occupy the streets when we can take over the town.

If the organizations that purport to lead the sector can’t bridge the barriers that divide us and help us find common ground to build upon, then I say it’s time for new leadership.

Nell: You have strong opinions about what nonprofits should do differently, but what about philanthropists and government? Where do they fit into what needs to change in the social sector?

Robert: We are ALL trapped by charity.

It is rooted in all faith traditions and deeply ingrained in the American experience. Yet, it is driven by the “redemption of the giver, versus the liberation of the receiver” power dynamic. That flawed flow cascades down from government and foundations to nonprofits, and from nonprofits down to those we “serve”. None are truly liberated, and each resents the other. What’s important to recognize is that it’s not the players who are flawed, it’s the game itself.

I work for the day when nonprofits are viewed, rightly, as equal partners in the American economy. For those who would scoff at that idea, I suggest they ask any Chamber of Commerce what makes a town or state attractive to business. You know what they will include on ANY list? Quality healthcare. Vibrant arts & culture. Access to higher education. Strong communities of faith. A clean environment and recreational space for families.

ALL nonprofits!!

Our work enables businesses to make profit, yet, we settle with token grants. We are told that we cannot be openly political when businesses can post placards in their windows for candidates who they feel represent their interests. I say it’s time to re-negotiate.

I believe our country’s economic future rests on re-aligning the sectors, and being bold enough to see opportunity beyond current constraints or lines of demarcation that divide our resources when we should be aligning our assets.

Nell: What do you think about the recent growth of double-bottomline investing and for-profit social enterprises? Do you view for-profit social entrepreneurs, and those who invest in them, as competitive or additive to the nonprofit sector?

Robert: I believe the only sustainable future for philanthropy is for cause and commerce to be interwoven.

We still cling to two ideas about money—Friedman’s notion that business exists to make money for investors, and Carnegie’s idea (still foolishly forwarded by Gates and Buffet) that you should give money back at the end of your life, often attempting to offset the damage made by the very pursuit of profit.

Both are boring, outdated, and flawed ideas…and each rests on the participation of a benign consumer, blinded by the role their purchases make in maintaining the status quo of the day.

For me, social enterprise isn’t about nonprofits making money; it’s about consumers awakening to the power of pennies. It’s Capitalism 2.0.

Gandhi used the boycott of table salt to get the British crown to the negotiating table. Dr King used the boycott of the dimes it took to ride the busses of Montgomery to crack racism in America. Chavez used the boycott of table grapes to finally get land owners to give migrant workers basic sanitation and access to education for their children.

Social enterprise builds on that proven power but flips the energy to a “buy-cott” , where we reward and incentivize corporate behavior we know will begin to offset the need for charity. It uses market forces to compel other businesses, however reluctant, to follow suit or fail based on how they make their money everyday.

Social enterprise opens that door.

But I’m also very deeply invested in new ideas about how we incentivize investment and performance in nonprofits.

For example, If you invested $1,000 in Microsoft in 1986, you now have over $500K in the bank. Yet, if you invested that same sum in the Grameen Bank, which has elevated millions of people out of poverty with micro-loans, all you were eligible for was a one-time tax deduction, because it’s a charity. Why not a new tax system where you could earn an increasing tax deduction based on the same return-on-investment formula as a dividend check if an organization can show verifiable economic return? Imagine regular people being able to attain wealth by investing in groups that make the community economically stronger or more civically secure? I do…and that’s why I think social enterprise is so exciting. It says you can develop a strong society and a vibrant, open economy at the same time.

But to move beyond social enterprise or micro-credit or empowerment driven nonprofits being a novelty, we need to elect people who understand that power, and turn to the nonprofit sector and offer opportunities and partnerships to see it grow.

That’s why I launched CForward…to work with other citizens who work at nonprofits to elect people who have that kind of foresight and courage. It’s not as hard as you might imagine, and it is so much closer than you think.

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A Revolution in Nonprofit Finance: An Interview with Clara Miller

Last month we kicked off a new, monthly Social Velocity blog interview series where I interview leading thinkers and doers in the social innovation space. Our inaugural interview was with Kevin Jones co-founder of both Good Capital, one of the first venture capital funds that invests in social enterprises, and the Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) which marks its third year with the upcoming October event.

This month’s Social Velocity interview is with Clara Miller, President, CEO and founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national leader in nonprofit, philanthropic and social enterprise finance. Directly and with others, NFF has leveraged $1 billion of capital investment into nonprofits, and  provided over $200 million in direct loans. Clara Miller was named among The NonProfit Times “Power and Influence Top 50″ four years in a row and is a board member of GuideStar and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.



Nell: You and the Nonprofit Finance Fund have initiated this idea of equity capital for nonprofits, or money to “build” organizations rather than the tradition funding to “buy” services. Do you think the idea of equity capital for nonprofits is catching on?

Clara: First of all, I should say that many people have contributed to the idea of a nonprofit version of equity over the years.  My NFF colleague George Overholser has been a field leader.  He focuses almost exclusively on the version we call “growth” capital, which is used to rapidly build organizations, changing what they do through major investment undertaken around a single set of metrics, business plan, and ideally, with all funders acting in concert.

And yes, I do think the broader notion of “equity”—and for that matter, the importance of the balance sheet in its entirety—is catching on, especially among major foundations, capital campaign veterans and those familiar with these concepts in the for-profit world.  The broader concepts of “building” organizations and “buying” services, and how financial roles differ, are resonating strongly with both organizations and funders.  We have a foundation partner that has simply put the question, “is this a “buy” grant or a “build” grant?” on the program officers’ intake checklist.

Nell: How do traditional nonprofit capital campaigns, which are predominantly focused on raising money for new buildings, fit into all of this?

Clara: We think these “growth capital” and “equity” principles comprise an ideal way to think about (and operate) a successful capital campaign.  Our early work in the 1980s (when we were Nonprofit Facilities Fund, and exclusively financed  “community facilities” with loans) revealed that a rash of problems would almost invariably follow capital campaigns for facilities: cash crises, burnout, funder fatigue, “night of the living dead” program operations, the need to lease excess space at below-cost rent…you get the idea.  It was a real eye opener. We learned a lot about the need for truly unrestricted “growth capital,” in addition to funds focused (and often restricted) to build and fit out the facility.  Among the NFF-documented  lessons: that facilities projects typically need 3 to 4 times the bricks and mortar cost for working capital to cover program and administrative growth needs; that the building frequently changed the business model radically, but planning never covered the whole enterprise; and that putting large amounts of cash into an illiquid asset while expanding operations was problematic on a number of levels.  Also, many of these building projects came with opportunity costs: organizations weren’t investing in new technology, upgrading skill sets, or replenishing cash reserves.

Beyond facilities projects, capital campaigns frequently focus on other (typically illiquid) parts of the balance sheet: building an endowment, or on the acquisition of, for example, a program asset (such as a painting or piece of medical equipment). Thinking holistically about improving or acquiring illiquid assets, via a campaign for growth capital, can better the situation.

Nell: The for-profit sector currently enjoys a broader and deeper array of financial vehicles than does the nonprofit sector (seed funding, angel investors, growth capital, stacked deals, etc.) do you anticipate that the capital market for nonprofit organizations will become more robust and what will it take for that to happen?

Clara: I’ll push back a little and say that the vast majority of both nonprofits and for-profits (that are small, with less than $200K in revenue) have approximately the same level of access to similar financing vehicles: sweat equity, seed/angel funders/investors (friends and family, the first foundation grants, etc.), credit card debt, bank loans, retained earnings, etc.   Then there is “growth capital” or “capital grants,” which a very small proportion can access in either sector.  And while large for-profits are much, much larger than large nonprofits, large nonprofits have reliable access to some highly sophisticated funding and financing vehicles that for-profits don’t (and vice versa).  Some very large nonprofits have access to for-profit subsidiary ventures and investments—and some are highly sophisticated (universities investing in development of intellectual property and associated products, CDFIs with venture funds, public media with development and sales of program assets, and others).  And on the debt side, much of nonprofits’ “capital market” is for-profit-run (bank debt, investments, tax-exempt bonds, etc.)

The most important barrier to enterprise scale (for either sector) is not so much lack of access to capital as it is a scalable, focused business model with reliable net revenue.  Once you have those—or evidence that they are possible—capital will flow.

But that said, we’re talking about a couple of “market wide” dysfunctions.  The first is that despite highly resourceful managers, sophisticated board members and billions of dollars of revenue and capital funds, there is no tradition of “enterprise finance” in the sector.  “Pretty bad ‘best practices’” designed to make nonprofits more efficient and fiscally prudent cost the sector dearly.  Confusion about the direct funding of programs (it’s not possible, most of the time you need to fund an enterprise to deliver programs) means capital is mixed up with revenue, growth with regular operations, and “build” grants with “buy” grants (and a variety of hybrids!).  This wreaks financial havoc in growing organizations. Missions—along with the public—suffer.

The second problem is that there’s no really reliable signaling mechanism for organizations to fold their tents, pass their programs to another organization, and go out of business.  In the for-profit world, that would be financial failure; in our world, that’s not so straightforward: so we hang in there, meaning resources that might go to a stronger program remain tied up.  It also means that the biggest and richest players have (and, largely, keep) the vast lion’s share of resources (even more pronounced than in the for-profit world).

Finally, there is a problem with access to charitable revenue.  Promising, mid-sized organizations—especially those serving low-income people (and therefore lacking access to the traditional source of capital in the sector, individual donors) have a difficult time building the operation they need to grow.  Foundations are the logical path here, and having foundations embrace “enterprise friendly” practices—including growth capital and build-buy understanding—can go a long way toward changing that dynamic.  Establishing a field-wide understanding of basic enterprise finance principles will help insure that growth capital campaigns become true innovation with long-term staying power, rather than a short-term novelty.

Nell: Growth capital for nonprofits is mostly only available to larger nonprofits that have the capacity to prove the results of their model. Do you think growth capital will increasingly become available to the bottom 80% of nonprofits (those with a budget less than $1 million), and how and when do you see that happening?

Clara: Our goal is not that all organizations of every size and business model have access to growth capital and pursue aggressive growth goals ASAP.  That’s neither possible nor desirable in either the for-profit or the nonprofit worlds.   In both sectors, some business models may not be scalable, and that’s ok—in fact, it’s good.  Nobody wants their favorite neighborhood clam shack or Italian restaurant to go public or become a Pizza Hut.  Diversity is good; and most people like things about both large and small enterprises. This is true in any sector, where economies of scale and preservation of quality are frequently subject to the laws of diminishing returns.  Growth capital is not for everyone, and it is only one tool in the enterprise tool box.

The more important revolution is to make broadly accessible the tools and principles of enterprise finance—with a clear understanding of the realities of the commercial proposition of the sector (i.e., there’s a reason we have a nonprofit sector). There are well-managed and poorly managed (and capitalized) enterprises of all sizes and tax statuses, and there are scalable and non-scalable ones as well.  Most critical on the scaling front is that our sector embraces and deploys the broad set of principles that make enterprises of any size or shape effective in reliably achieving great results.  Trouble arises when a specific social benefit or innovation is so compelling that we all want the maximum number of people to benefit from it: Our failure to use the principles of growth capital and proper scaling techniques to assure results while growth proceeds is (and has been) tragic for the social sector, and a change in practice can help.

Nell: How do you think the Social Innovation Fund will change the capital landscape for nonprofits?

Clara: I think the SIF already has raised the profile of the ideas around growth capital and scaling discussed here.  And it certainly has the attention of a group of large foundations, a significant number of whom are applying as intermediaries.  I think it took courage for them to apply, and courage for the SIF to get developed. At the beginning there will be some fits and starts, and government procurement can be dicey (especially when it’s trying to be capital rather than revenue), and foundations are trying to make it work in this way for the first time.  That said, it’s very exciting for us to see “growth capital,” which is the core concept, being given a whirl by both the White House and the Foundation world.

Nell: Venture philanthropy funds (that provide growth capital to nonprofits) and social venture capital funds (that provide capital to double bottom-line businesses) currently don’t interact very much in the marketplace. Do you see an opportunity for greater integration of nonprofit and for profit social investing? And if so, what will it take to get there?

Clara: I think there is increasingly frequent interaction between for-profit and non-profit business models (and entrepreneurs) on the conceptual level, and that’s being translated into some compelling platform-agnostic enterprise structures to accomplish social ends in many sectors—health care, research, arts and culture, media, housing—are all examples.  And interactions may not be best between two enterprises that are both at the “venture” or “start up” stage.  A start-up nonprofit may want to partner with a fully-scaled for-profits (and this is common), while a fully-scaled nonprofit may want to create (or house) a venture for-profit to help reach certain social goals.

On the “deal” level, I think there’s a reason to maintain a bright line between the nonprofit and for-profit tax status.  I favor crisply defined hybrids (of which there are a variety) over mushiness (we’re a for-profit but we are good people doing socially beneficial work) because they are more likely to stand the test of time and skepticism, and since ownership and tax structures have bright-line legal and moral duties attached to them.

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