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scale

Guest Post: Philanthropy Must Get Better at Funding Scale

philanthropy and scaleNote: Second in my list of esteemed guest bloggers this summer is Adin Miller. Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, but his post is his personal viewpoint, not necessarily that of his employer.  Here is his guest post:

 

Readers of the Social Velocity blog know of Nell’s clarion call for nonprofit financing not fundraising and her conviction that the current mode of nonprofit growth through fundraising is bankrupt. Today I want to examine another area I consider broken, namely the ineffective way in which philanthropy identifies and grows emerging organizations and projects – the domain of scaling innovation. I’ll focus on the Jewish federation system, in which I currently work, and then pull back out to the larger philanthropic sector.

To begin, let’s define innovation funding as the practice of funding an innovative venture – a new emerging organization or an iteration of an existing program within an established organization – that does not yet have evidence-based documentation of its approach but that points to the potential to generate significant social benefit. In my work, I also focus on the stages of funding an innovative venture goes through as it morphs into a scaled up nonprofit. Funding is generally aligned with the following stages:

  • Pre-proof of concept
  • Proof of concept
  • Pilot stage funding
  • Early stage funding
  • Second stage funding, and
  • Mezzanine stage funding.

By the time the organization has approached mezzanine funding, its annual budget will be growing from the $1 – 5 million level per year to the $10 – 50 million level per year.

The Jewish federation system represents one of the oldest philanthropic engines in the United States and Canada, tracing its history back to 1895. The system includes 153 Jewish Federations (local independent fundraising and grantmaking nonprofits) and over 300 Network communities (volunteer driven federations), which raise funds and distribute resources among programs serving the Jewish community. Per the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), each year the federation system raises and distributes “more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs,” placing it among “the top 10 charities on the continent” in terms of grantmaking.

One would think that as units in an overarching system that the local federations would share a common agenda. And that’s true to a large extent – there is commonality of purpose (funding Jewish overnight camps, for instance), ongoing support for local Jewish organizations, and consistent funding support in Israel and other global Jewish communities. However, where the system fails to deliver is in scaling up innovative ventures.

Much of that failure in funding innovation is attributable to a confluence of factors such as limited geographic scope and funding periods. With the exception of international funding, for instance, each local federation fences its funding to the geographic area in which it operates. As such, a local federation won’t fund an emerging innovative venture unless it has a presence within the funder’s geographic area. That holds true even if the innovative venture has developed the best new approach to addressing a critical area of need because it operates on the other side of the figurative (and in some cases literal) river.

Additionally, many federations provide limited funding windows lasting between three to five years. The funding period is usually sufficient to help an innovative venture establish some basis to prove its concept. But it also forces these innovative ventures to focus on sustainability instead of continued growth, a syndrome similar to the starvation cycle experienced by more established organizations. This failure by the funders to adopt a long-term strategy to not only fund but also finance the continued growth of a successful innovative venture tends to prematurely end its ability to scale efforts and generate more impact.

The situation for the innovative venture is further exasperated if it concludes that continued growth can only be achieved through expansion to new locations. By virtue of each federation working independently, without an intentional approach to working collaboratively to scale an innovative venture, the “system” establishes unique markets. And each unique local market forces the innovative venture to reestablish its market opportunity. That involves seeking independent funding for each location, repetitive due diligence scrutiny (because, as we know, funders don’t proactively share due diligence data amongst themselves), and a faint hope that sustained funding or financing will materialize after the initial funding period ends.

In short, this is not an efficient method for scaling innovative ventures. It has generated pockets of nonprofit incubators in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. And any number of innovative ventures emerge each year – there’s even a handy guidebook to track some of the most promising ones. But there is no methodology or intentional effort on a national scale to support these innovative ventures at all stages of their potential development (from pre-proof of concept to mezzanine funding). In some sense, growth is based on a hope and prayer that another funder will step in and continue to fund the innovation venture as it looks to scale.

You can take my above critique and substitute the words “community foundations” for “federations” and you will see the same issues in the larger philanthropic sector. Just as the federation system does not effectively scale innovative ventures, neither do community, local family, and private foundations.

The absence of a coordinated national strategy to support the ongoing growth and potential impact of innovative ventures highlights the inherent inefficiencies of the philanthropic sector. The Social Innovation Fund was one potential hope that could address this challenge. But its focus remains centered on those ideas that have already generated evidence-based results. The newly announced White House initiative on impact investing with pooled resources of $1.5B might also point to a new opportunity, but it’s too early to tell.

So, what’s the potential solution to supporting scaled growth of innovative ventures?

One idea, which I first came across in the energy technology sector through a blog post published in 2011 by the Breakthrough Institute, would involve establishing an independent nonprofit investment bank to offer a range of financial tools (grants, loans, etc.) to help not only fund but also finance the growth of an innovative venture. If the federation system could pool 1% of its annual grantmaking budgets into this bank, that would create a $30 million annual fund. And if community foundations could do the same, we’d have an almost $50 million annual fund (this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that community foundations’ assets now total $66 billion and giving is nearly at $5 billion per year).

A second idea would involve creating a framework by which funders would actually work together to lower the structural and financial barriers limiting the continued growth and impact of innovative ventures.

Both ideas require more thinking and a willingness by philanthropic communities to come together to explore possible solutions. The investment bank would certainly require local funders to give up some autonomy of decision-making and local application of funding in order to provide resources for greater social benefit. The second idea would require a national or prominent organization to take the lead in organizing a coalition and developing the framework.

And if all else fails, perhaps we should consider a petition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to share its resources in more unique ways (this coming on the day the foundation received $2.1 billion from Warren Buffett).

At the end of the day, we should allow innovative ventures to succeed and fail on their own merits, instead of as result of a broken funding model.

Photo Credit: 401k2012

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How Do We Scale Social Change?

This week I attended the 5th annual Social Impact Exchange Conference in New York City. It was an interesting gathering of funders, change makers and intermediaries all grappling with how to reach and sustain scaled social solutions.

“Scale” is such a challenging concept, and as I mentioned earlier, there are many entities struggling with exactly what scale means. According to Heather McLeod Grant (author of Forces for Good) whose keynote address kicked off the conference, “scale” is no longer about growing individual organizations or addressing individual issues, but rather about building movements and networks.

The idea of a networked approach to social change is not a new one (see the great Stanford Social Innovation Review article from 2008 by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano on this approach), but Heather underlined the importance of a more integrated and aligned approach to creating social change. I would have liked to see this idea taken further, perhaps with some of the Transformative Scale discussion that is happening elsewhere, included in this discussion.

There were some real highlights of the conference for me. First was the luncheon panel on the Black Male Achievement Movement and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Tonya Allen of The Skillman Foundation was a hard hitting moderator of Shawn Dove, from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, William Snipes from Pipeline Crisis/Winning Strategies, and Andrew Wolk from Root Cause.

The group had a fascinating conversation about the movement to address “a whole generation of young men being pushed to the side.” As Snipes so eloquently put it, “This is a problem about who we are as a society, whether or not we are going to survive. The road we are on is not sustainable. We cannot continue to incarcerate one third of a community. This is an impractical way to run a society.”

The panel described and debated the complexity of addressing a huge systemic problem and how they have launched a movement to do just that. It was a candid and thought-provoking exchange.

Jacob HaroldAnother highlight was GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold’s talk on their exciting efforts to transform the nonprofit information landscape (Jacob is describing this landscape in the picture at the left).

GuideStar’s goal is to address the “two elephants in the philanthropic room:” 1) some nonprofits are better than others (they create more impact per dollar spent), and 2) some donors are better than others (they create more impact per dollar given).

To address these “elephants,” GuideStar is collecting and analyzing deeper information about nonprofits and then distributing that information so that donors make better investments. (More on this next month when I interview Jacob as part of the Social Velocity Interview Series.)

The other real highlight of the conference for me was the keynote address on financial sustainability from Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Antony defined financial sustainability as “Repeatable and reliable revenue that exceeds ongoing operating costs, coupled with the ability to fund periodic investment in adaptation and growth.” In other words, a financially sustainable nonprofit brings enough reliable revenue in the door and can, when needed, raise capital for change and growth.

And that capital piece is often overlooked by nonprofits and funders. Antony described 5 types of capital helpful to nonprofits:Antony Bugg-Levin

  1. Change Capital to position an organization for growth.
  2. Working Capital to handle fluctuations in cash flow.
  3. Recovery Capital to address shocks to an organization (natural disaster, fire, etc.)
  4. Risk & Opportunity Capital to develop a new program or different approach.
  5. Endowments which can provide some unrestricted money, but should not be considered reliable revenue.

Antony also described 5 things that funders do and 5 things that nonprofits do to derail sustainable growth (pictured at right.)

I also enjoyed participating in the “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale” panel with my colleagues Dana O’Donovan from Monitor Institute, Megan Shackleton from the Einhorn Family Trust, Heidi Shultz from the Helmsley Charitable Trust and Craig Reigel from the Nonprofit Finance Fund. We had a great discussion with very thoughtful and engaging audience questions about how to create sustainable financial models and how philanthropy can help move that forward.

The Social Impact Exchange assembled a smart, talented group of people to grapple with how we fund and grow solutions to the wicked problems we face. It was a thought-provoking couple of days.

 

 

 

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The Tricky Work of Scaling Nonprofits

Social Impact ExchangeThe idea of “scale,” or growing to a point at which you are solving the underlying social problem, is a tricky one in the nonprofit sector and something that is a growing topic of conversation.

Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched a new 8-week blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last month about what he calls “Transformative Scale.”

Bradach asked leaders and thinkers in the scale movement – like Risa Lavizzo-Mourey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Billy Shore from Share Our Strength, Wendy Kopp from Teach for All, and Nancy Lublin from Do Something – to contribute their insights to the series. Bradach is doing this because he believes we have not yet figured out how to grow solutions to a point at which they are actually solving problems. As he wrote in his kick-off post to the series:

Over the past couple of decades, leaders have developed a growing catalog of programs and practices that have real evidence of effectiveness. And they’ve demonstrated the ability to successfully replicate these to multiple cities, states, even nations in some cases, reaching thousands or even millions of those in need. Despite all this progress, today even the most impressive programs and field-based practices rarely reach more than a tiny fraction of the population in need. So we find ourselves at a crossroads. We have seen a burst of program innovation over the past two decades; we now need an equivalent burst of innovation in strategies for scaling.

One of the places where scale has been an on-going topic of conversation is the annual Social Impact Exchange’s Conference on Scaling Impact. Now in its fifth year, this conference next month in New York City brings together “funders, advisors and leaders to share knowledge, learn about co-funding opportunities and develop a community to help scale top initiatives and build the field.” The conference is organized, in part, by the Growth Philanthropy Network, which “is creating a philanthropic capital marketplace that provides funding and management assistance to help exceptional nonprofits scale-up regionally and nationally.”

I’m excited to be attending this year’s conference and participating in a panel called “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale.” From my perspective, one of the biggest hurdles to scale is a financial one. Very few nonprofits have yet figured out how to create a sustainable financial model, let alone how to create one at scale. And this hurdle exists for many reasons, including: lack of sufficient capital in the sector, lack of sufficient management and financial acumen among nonprofit leaders, an unwillingness among funders to recognize the full costs of operation. So I’m excited to be part of this important conversation about how we can actually create financially sustainable scale.

It will be interesting to see how the conversations at the Scaling Impact conference – led by rockstars in the field like Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund; Tonya Allen from the Skillman Foundation; Heather McLeod Grant, author of Forces for Good; Paul Carttar from The Bridgespan Group; and Amy Celep from Community Wealth Partners – will relate to the perspectives of those writing in the “Transformative Scale” blog series. I wonder where there will be overlap and where there will be disagreement or even controversy. Scale is an incredibly difficult nut to crack. And as Bradach rightly states, no one has figured it out yet.

I will be posting to the blog during the conference about what I’m hearing and where there are common threads or separate camps.

I hope to see you there!

Image Credit: Social Impact Exchange

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2014

social innovationControversy about whether Millennials will spend money differently than their parents to create change, arguments for greater philanthropic risk, examples of innovation in the arts, use of “Moneyball” in conservation and policymaking efforts, and the lure of online media to create social change. What more could you want from a month of social innovation reading?

Below are my 10 favorite reads from April. Please add to the list in the comments. If you want to see a bigger list, follow me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also see all of the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Man, I love a good controversy. In April the Obama administration invited Millennial philanthropists to the White House to discuss next generation philanthropy. And The New York Times sent Millennial reporter (and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune) to cover it. Well, Jim Newell from The Baffler doesn’t buy the argument that Millennials are going to use money differently than their predecessors. But Jed Emerson and Lindsay Norcott think Millennials will actually take impact investing mainstream.

  2. And staying on the controversy train just a bit longer, William Easterly takes issue with celebrity famine relief efforts that ignore (and potentially make worse) the lack of democracy causing famine in the first place.

  3. Because achieving scale is incredibly difficult work, Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched an 8-week series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog exploring how we achieve it. 16 thought leaders will “weigh in with their insights, struggles, and questions regarding the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.”

  4. It seems that the arts, perhaps more than other issue areas, are on the front lines of innovation in order to stay relevant. And this month really brought those struggles home. First, the Houston Grand Opera has seen dramatic growth in audiences, bucking a declining trend elsewhere, by appealing to broader audiences. Perhaps the San Diego Opera could have learned something from Houston since their declining audiences (and poor governance decisions) have put them in danger of closing their doors. And ever at the ready with examples of how arts organizations are innovating and adapting, ArtsFwd released two case studies on how the Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theater Companies have embraced adaptive change.

  5. What’s with Moneyball (the movie and book about using data to drive major league baseball strategy) everywhere lately? Using data and smart strategy the Nature Conservancy is getting more effective at conserving bird habitats.  And David Bornstein thinks the federal government is getting into the game as well with an increase in data-driven policy making.

  6. The Pew Research Center just released a book, and corresponding interactive site, about the changing demographic face of America and how it could affect everything, “Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

  7. Should philanthropy embrace more risk? Philanthropist Laurie Michaels founder of Open Road Alliance, which provides funding to help nonprofits overcome unforeseen roadblocks or leverage unanticipated opportunities, thinks so. Michael Zakaras interviews her in Forbes. As she puts it, “Very few people in the finance industry predicted the economic collapse in 2008, and yet we ask NGOs to submit a plan that will be stable for several years, which is an impossibility in the best of circumstance.” Amen!

  8. On the NPEngage blog, Raheel Gauba answers the fascinating question: “If Google were a nonprofit, what would its website look like?”

  9. And speaking of nonprofits online, the PhilanTopic blog released an infographic summarizing the 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study about nonprofit online activity.

  10. Moving on to other forms of media, I love what’s happening with video games and the innovators who are adapting them to help solve social problems. Who knew that playing Minecraft could actually change the world?

Photo Credit: Mikel Agirregabiria

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: August 2012

There was much discussion in August about money. We heard that foundations should be more open to risk and should engage with nonprofits to find the best solutions. And we found out some fascinating information about how Americans give. And there were some exciting developments in the newest social sector funding vehicle, the social impact bond. What a great month!

Below are my top 10 picks for what’s worth reading in August in the world of social innovation. But please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see more of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

Here’s August’s 10 Great Reads in Social Innovation:

  1. It looks like social impact bonds are starting to take off in America. This innovative social financing partners private investors, public bonds and nonprofit organizations to solve social problems. Goldman Sachs has gotten on board with a $10 million investment in a New York City program to reduce prison recidivism rates.

  2. Writing in the New York Times, Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman breaks down the factors contributing to a 15% poverty rate in America and what needs to change to improve it.

  3. I can’t tell you how many times I hear complaints from nonprofit leaders that social media won’t really improve fundraising. Try these on for size. Geri Stengel (guest posting on Beth Kanter’s blog) shows how the Genocide Intervention Network found major donors through social media, HubSpot offers 7 Creative Ways Nonprofits Can Use Social Media to Drive Donations and Kivi Leroux Miller explains How Social Media and Fundraising Fit Together.

  4. Guest blogging on the PhilanTopic blog, Derrick Feldmann argues “We need donors who are truly willing to embrace risk and invest significant dollars in potential solutions that may not yield immediate results but get us closer to our ultimate objective, even if it’s only by demonstrating what doesn’t work.” Amen to that! And Rodney Foxworth seems to agree.

  5. On the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog Sheetal Singh writes that there is a new active, engaged citizen movement in America, but that nonprofits are missing the opportunity to participate. She argues that “nonprofits need to realize that the “new citizens” are no longer passive recipients of their services; they demand engagement and inclusion. If nonprofits don’t adapt to this paradigm, they will be left out of the conversation.”

  6. One of my new favorite bloggers, Mark Hecker, does it again with a great post encouraging nonprofit and government leaders to be “fearless” in setting goals that will knock social change out of the park.

  7. A new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy reveals how Americans give to charity. It turns out you give more if you have less or live near those who have less. But there is much more data to explore on their website. Fascinating.

  8. Forbes uses the World Wildlife Fund of The Netherlands as a case study to demonstrate the Five Steps to Growing Your Social Impact.

  9. Lucy Bernholz takes issue with foundation application processes and calls instead for a model “where foundations and nonprofits are working together – from idea generation through proposal, implementation and assessment – to actually solve problems.” Wow, imagine that.

  10. The Gates Foundation blog demonstrates how support of public libraries is a critical part of transforming developing countries.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Archives

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2012

In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.

  1. First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot.  Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.

  2. This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”

  3. Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.

  4. And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.

  5. Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.

  6. Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”

  7. At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.

  8. And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”

  9. There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.

  10. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).

Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer

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Unlocking New Philanthropic Capital: An Interview with Dennis Cavner

Dennis CavnerIn this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Dennis Cavner. Dennis is an investment advisor and philanthropist who, along with a few other philanthropists in Austin, has launched a new philanthropic investment vehicle called Innovation+. Through an extensive due diligence process over the last 6 months, Innovation + has identified and vetted a large group of nonprofits ready for significant growth and selected two which they will introduce to prospective growth investors. Their model  is a compelling variant on venture philanthropy that seeks to unlock untapped philanthropic capital. It will be interesting to watch.

You can read all of the interviews in our Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Explain Innovation + to me. What is it, and how does it work?

Dennis: Innovation + is a new community effort designed to enable transformational social impact. Our goal is to match proven social innovation with human and financial capital to change the world. We seek to identify a small number of nonprofit organizations that are uniquely poised for significant growth, thoroughly vet those organizations and their growth plans, and then select the most promising candidates for investment. We will make a multi-year commitment to each organization we select, assist in the refinement of their plans, help secure funding and additional human resources, and monitor the organization during an execution phase of 3-5 years. Our selection process is not a contest, rather it is a very thorough process of evaluation that results in a partnership between Innovation + and the community organization.

Nell: Why did you, Bill Forsberg and Suzi Sosa, decide to launch Innovation +? What did you think was lacking in the Austin philanthropic market and what are you hoping it will do for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors?

Dennis: Austin has substantial untapped potential in its non-profit market. There are outstanding organizations, already achieving meaningful impact, that are poised for a strategic investment that can bring about a transformational leap in results and scale. We believe there are substantial pools of social capital that remain uncommitted due to a lack of coordinated effort to identify and vet the most promising opportunities. Our intention is to prove this hypothesis and catalyze a community of venture philanthropists who see this potential for radical positive change for our community and our world. Bill, Suzi and I have all had experience with high growth organizations and came together in this effort over the past year. Over the past twelve years I’ve had the great fortune of involvement with the Livestrong organization (the Lance Armstrong Foundation) as a board member, Chairman, and one of the architects of the Founders Circle that provided the early growth capital for that organization. I’ve seen Livestrong grow from two staff members and an annual budget of $250,000 to generate almost $400 million for the cancer cause and have a profound effect on millions of cancer survivors around the world. If you can make the right investment of time and money at the right time, it is amazing how you can impact people’s lives.

Nell: How are the traditional philanthropists you are talking to viewing this new form of philanthropy? Are they receptive or skeptical or both? What will it take to get them on board?

Dennis: Our target market is “nontraditional” philanthropists: successful entrepreneurs who have done well and want to give back, but who lack the time or other resources necessary to identify and vet the best high growth potential organizations. Not surprisingly, they love the Innovation + approach: find really smart people who are doing proven innovative work, then supply the resources necessary to replicate or scale that model for greater impact. Traditional philanthropists are also very receptive, as they appreciate the extensive due diligence and growth plan evaluation that we are bringing to the process. Our team of community activists bring to the table a broad array of skills and experience from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Nell: What are you looking for in the nonprofits you select? What is the magic combination of characteristics?

Dennis: We are focused on identifying organizations that have high growth potential. To achieve that growth we believe that they must be doing innovative work in their fields, that their models are capable of expansion or replication, and that their leadership is both capable and driven to succeed. We are not interested in startups, so we seek a group that can demonstrate that their innovative work is effective. A sustainable funding model is essential, and we favor organizations that have components of earned revenue in their mix. Strong community partnerships and a clear picture of the partnerships necessary to achieve growth are very important. There is a consensus among our group that leadership is THE key component for a successful growth partner.

Nell: How do you think your model fits into other innovative models of philanthropy around the country?

Dennis: There are some really great things going on around the country, and I am encouraged by all of the creative new efforts. Some will be very successful, others not so much. Experimentation is necessary to find new solutions in a changing world. The Innovation + model is somewhat akin to an investment banking model. We identify a high growth potential organization, vet them very carefully, help them subscribe the financial and human capital needed to execute their plan, then monitor and report. We are not a fund, where investors commit their capital and then we decide where it is invested. Rather, we present an opportunity to a funder and they can either invest or pass, depending upon their interest and appetite. We may partner with nonprofits that are serving the needs of the community in the areas of health care, education, animal welfare, the environment, or other sectors. We are not limited by geographic scope, per se, and favor growth opportunities that have the potential for national expansion. These are audacious goals, but we believe in the power of community to achieve amazing things.

Nell: What do you think is holding philanthropy back from becoming more innovative?

Dennis: I actually believe that we are in the midst of great innovation in philanthropy. It is occurring in pockets, and Austin is one of the key development labs that will lead the way. In addition to the Livestrong example, I can cite the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas and their Dell Social Innovation Competition, the RISE conference for entrepreneurs and social innovators, and a vibrant and creative business community that will respond positively to innovation. As we have discovered with Innovation +, Austin has a growing number of amazing nonprofits that are inventing new and effective ways of meeting the needs of the community. We are in an era of declining government ability to provide essential support to our citizens, yet the needs continue to grow. Nonprofits and businesses must do a better job of filling the gap of these unmet needs. The formation and deployment of capital in new and more effective ways is critical to achieving that goal, and I believe that Innovation + can help lead the way.

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A New Social Innovation Project Comes to Texas

There is something underway in Texas that I’m pretty excited about.  The OneStar Foundation, the Texas state office of nonprofit capacity building and social innovation and administrator of the state’s AmeriCorps grant, has just launched a new project called the Texas Social Innovation Initiative (TSI). TSI is a partnership with Root Cause, a national organization supporting social innovation and headquartered in Boston.

The TSI creates an opportunity and a marketplace for socially innovative nonprofit organizations to present a compelling case for support to scale their programs.  OneStar will pick six nonprofit organizations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to receive consulting, networking and other assistance to create an investor pitch for growth capital to scale their results-driven program. The award for each nonprofit totals about $25,000 in money and services.  The project is modeled on Root Causes’ Social Innovation Forum, where nonprofits are given strategy consulting, executive coaching, and introductions to social investors.  Their goal is to “build a philanthropic investment community that will invest and re-invest resources based on performance, in order to increase progress in solving pressing social problems.”

OneStar’s TSI will similarly offer this introduction to social investors when the project culminates in June with a Fast Pitch event where these six nonprofits will present their growth pitches to Dallas Social Venture Partners and other individuals with money to invest in nonprofits.

Aside from the fact that it is so exciting to see this kind of social innovation activity in Texas, I’m particularly excited about this project because Social Velocity is involved.  We helped to review applications (which were amazing by the way–I was so impressed with what these nonprofits are accomplishing) from the 60+ nonprofits who applied.  And Social Velocity will be one of the consultant teams working with the six nonprofits to craft their growth plans and pitches.  I love helping a nonprofit organization take the results they are achieving  and translate those into a compelling ask of people who have money to invest.  Bridging that gap between work that creates social change and those who have money to invest in social change is a thrilling experience.

The six social innovators that will participate in this year’s TSI will be notified by OneStar today, and announced publicly at the Governor’s Nonprofit Leadership Conference on December 9th.  The work crafting their pitches will begin in January.  If the project is a success, there is potential to expand it to other parts of the state.  That would be amazing.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


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