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Saint Luke’s Foundation

Funding Stronger Nonprofits: An Interview with Denise Zeman

Denise ZemanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Denise San Antonio Zeman. Denise has been President and CEO of Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio since 2000. A lifelong Clevelander, Denise’s career has spanned higher education, human services, healthcare and philanthropy.  Now in its 17th year of grantmaking, Saint Luke’s provides leadership and support to improve and transform health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland.

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

Nell: Saint Luke’s Foundation is different than most foundations in that you have made a conscious commitment to funding the capacity of nonprofit grantees in areas such as leadership development and outcomes measurement. Why did the foundation decide to put an emphasis on capacity funding and what have you learned from those investments?  

Denise: Just over two years ago, our Foundation board and staff held a retreat. An important topic was our frustration over the reality that the recent economic downturn had produced tremendous need in our community and volatility in our grant budget.  Specifically, this downturn highlighted for us that we were spending more when the economy was good and less when the community needed us most. These concerns were analyzed, and the culprit was determined to be our spending policy, for although we knew we could not control the world economy, we realized that we could control the way we responded to it.

We had employed a traditional 5% payout since our inception in 1997, and decided to investigate spending policies that might provide us a higher, more predictable level of spending going forward. With much trepidation, the board approved a bold new spending policy that provides for a “floor” with certain tolerance limits. We increased our spending by about $4 million and established a spending range between 5 and 7%. For the past two years our spending has been very close to 7%.

With this came a strong commitment to working with our grantees and philanthropic colleagues to move toward funding what works in order to advance a smaller set of priorities. The new priorities more narrowly define our previously broad definition of “health” to focus on three specific strategy areas: Healthy People, Strong Communities and Resilient Families.

The role of our senior program officers also shifted from a focus on managing a set of grants to a commitment to advancing a strategy. We agreed upon long and short-term outcomes that guide our grantmaking decisions, and the program team now manages their portfolios of grants in a more entrepreneurial way. In addition to making grants, their due diligence includes an in-depth analysis of the grantees’ capacity to be successful.

A thorough analysis of the literature, conversations with colleagues and focus groups with grantees revealed six strengths that the highest performing nonprofits have in common. These include strong financial management, investment in leadership, a commitment to outcomes and learning, a spirit of collaboration, excellent communications, and advocacy for good public policy.

We support and encourage our grantees to develop these capacities in a variety of ways. In our formal and informal interactions, we encourage them to think about their approach to building these capacities and we provide support to assist them in this process. We ask probing questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” in order to nurture lines of communication, demonstrate our concern for their growth and development, and most importantly, learn. And we work with our regional association, Philanthropy Ohio, to bring national content experts to our region for programs and seminars on relevant topics. We also host meetings ourselves during which we invite thought leaders such as Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), Dan Heath (Made to Stick and Switch), Fay Twersky (Beneficiary Voice), and Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy) to challenge the status quo and help us focus our efforts to build a stronger nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

In order to be able to deliver on their promise to the community, nonprofits must have a solid financial base. Our scrutiny of financial statements has increased, and with that has come a commitment to working with our grantees to improve their financial planning, monitoring, operations and governance. The Nonprofit Finance Fund and Financial Management Associates, LLC have provided local strategic financial management seminars to increase knowledge and inspire motivation to build financial capacities.

We also know that strong leaders produce great results. We therefore encourage and support comprehensive leadership development for our grantees, and we support efforts to implement leadership development practices that ensure good governance and empower professional staff to be leaders of change.

We are committed to tapping into the power of outcomes measurement as a way to support continuous learning and encourage performance improvement, and we work with our grantees to support their efforts to collect and use data to improve their outcomes for their clients. We have learned first-hand how challenging measuring impact in the social sector can be.  But we have also learned that unless we measure and move toward specific, measurable outcomes, we run the risk of spinning our wheels at best, and actually doing harm at worst. The works of Mario Morino (Leap of Reason) and David Hunter (Working Hard and Working Well) provide nonprofit and philanthropic leaders with the rationale and roadmap for making a measurable, meaningful and lasting difference for the people they serve, and we strongly encourage our grantees and colleagues to join us in embracing their approaches.

We have also learned the importance of supporting the capacity of our grantees to work with others.  We live in a nonprofit community that was built for a population of over one million people, and yet the last census revealed that our community has contracted by more than half. Our government and philanthropic resources have diminished, yet the need in our community has grown. We therefore work in partnership with our grantees and philanthropic partners to support collaboration in practice and in learning, and we have embraced the concepts of Collective Impact (Foundation Strategy Group) to inform our work.

Communication is also an area of focus for us. Borrowing from what we learned from Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, we support strategic communications that help our grantees leverage outcomes and tell effective stories to advance their missions. This is not storytelling for the sake of storytelling; rather, it is using the power of outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness and impact.

While philanthropic support for health and human services is important, it is miniscule compared to government spending. We therefore support efforts to educate policymakers on relevant issues and influence institutions, systems and community and/or individual behaviors within the funding guidelines for private foundations.

Quite simply, we believe that strong nonprofits produce the strongest results, and as funders of impact, we believe it is our role to support our grantees to be the strongest they can be.

Nell: Leadership development is a particular area of interest for the foundation. What do you think nonprofit leaders need most to become more effective and what role can philanthropists play in that?  

Denise: We view strong, resilient leadership as one of the most effective tools for achieving superior results. In our work with grantees, we have learned that organizations that take an intentional, focused approach to leadership development achieve better outcomes for the people they serve. Nonprofit leaders need boards that are uncompromising on quality and results, and these boards must both challenge and support executive leadership to drive innovation and strategic performance.

As noted in Independent Sector’s Leadership Initiative, nonprofit leaders need “time, attention and resources to engage in high-quality leadership development programming that equips them to deliver significant results.” Leaders cannot be so “in the weeds” that they lose sight of their role as keepers of the promise. We encourage our grantees to use some of our general operating support to focus on leadership development, and to extend that focus to developing the “next generation” of leaders as well.

We also provide funds for nonprofit leaders to participate in high quality leadership development programs locally and nationally. Additionally, we support an individual professional development program for each member of our foundation staff to ensure that they continue to develop their own potential as leaders.

Nell: One of the arguments some philanthropists make against providing funding for building nonprofit organizations is that it is harder to demonstrate the return from a capacity building investment than a program investment. How do you respond to that argument?  

Denise: I agree…it is hard, but we have never been an organization that avoids hard! In our work with the TCC Group last year, we learned more about what it takes to be a learning organization. We made a commitment to learning from everything we do, and we are committed to learning more about how to measure the impact of capacity building investments.

And while we are still learning, we have some specific examples that demonstrate the return on our investments in building capacity. We know, for example, that our support for outcomes and learning has helped some of our grantees build the capacity to reflect their success by implementing outcomes management software and producing results-oriented dashboards. Eight of the organizations we helped form strategic alliances have merged into four, and are serving more people with fewer resources. We also know that some of the communications-related grants we have made have enabled grantees to extend their reach in innovative ways such as electronic case management programs. And we know that policy-focused grants have allowed some of our safety net providers to come together to provide patient-centered medical homes for some of our most vulnerable citizens in advance of Medicaid expansion. While these results might be viewed as anecdotal, we believe they are building our own capacity to make a strong case for capacity building.

Nell: Funders are becoming increasingly interested in nonprofit outcomes measurement, yet few funders are willing to fund evaluations. How do we solve that chicken or the egg scenario?

Denise: I was recently invited to participate on a panel called “Do Funders Get It?” at a national conference called After the Leap. The panel responded to Nancy Roob’s stirring plenary session in which she described the phenomenal work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in supporting youth development organizations across the country to be more effective.

We posed the question “Do funders understand the resources and support nonprofits require to scale impact?” to the audience, and not surprisingly, the response affirmed the reality that most of us do not. The truth that funders want results but are reluctant to fund evaluations has been confirmed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to name just a few.

So how do we solve this dichotomy? As with any attempt at true and lasting change, there is no single silver bullet that will suddenly convince funders to change their traditional ways of grantmaking. But I do believe there is a growing receptivity to the concept of  funding for impact, and there is a role for philanthropic affinity groups and regional associations to educate their membership with concrete suggestions that funders can use with their boards, professional staffs and grantees.

Government funders are beginning to understand the importance of funding what works, and this will raise the stakes for nonprofits that rely heavily on public support. They will have to demonstrate impact or they will not receive support. This will raise the evaluation imperative to standard operating procedure, and funders that care at all about their grantees will be compelled to support building evidence that their approaches do, in fact, achieve sustainable results.

Nell: Although Saint Luke’s Foundation is a real trail blazer in the philanthropic world, philanthropy overall is rather slow to change, particularly when it comes to funding in new ways. What do you think it will take to get more funders to understand that stronger nonprofit leaders and organizations can equal more impact?

Denise: Thank you for your kind words. Our change in spending policy and approach was largely informed by Mario Morino’s admonition to “rethink, redesign and reinvent the why, what and how of our work in every arena.” He went on to suggest that we “need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving – all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.” When put that way, who could argue?

Foundations and nonprofits are about the business of improving lives. The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO. And unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail. We must be bold in challenging and supporting one another to disrupt the sector in unprecedented ways. We at Saint Luke’s Foundation have changed our approaches from spending to strategy to portfolio management, but we have stayed true to our original mission statement to improve and transform health and well-being in our community. I suppose it is fair to say that our very mission implies that we will fund what improves and transforms…and therefore we see it as being true to our mission to build highly effective provider organizations.

Photo Credit: Saint Luke’s Foundation

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