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social change

How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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We Must Rise

leadersIt has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.

But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.

We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”

I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster  to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.

As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:

“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”

A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.

As Martin Luther King said:

The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).

Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.

At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”

And so we must rise.

Photo Credit: pixabay

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2016

social change

May offered some interesting insights into the world of social change. From a plea by nonprofit infrastructure groups for more funding, to some criticisms of philanthropy’s unwillingness to invest in rural economies or provide a realistic runway to nonprofits, to digital’s impact on journalism, to the evolving sharing economy, to a call for more nonprofit board resignations, to a way to break the nonprofit starvation cycle, there was a lot to read.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in May. But you can always follow me on Twitter (@nedgington) for a longer list.

And if you are interested in past months’ 10 Great Reads lists, go here.

  1. Perhaps the biggest news of the month was the letter written by 22 groups, which provide support to the entire sector (like the National Council of Nonprofits, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and GuideStar), asking foundations to provide more funding for the nonprofit ecosystem. GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold (here) and National Council of Nonprofits CEO Tim Delaney (here and here) explain why this issue is so important.  But Pablo Eisenberg disagrees.

  2. National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Executive Director Aaron Dorfman takes philanthropy to task for not investing enough in rural communities, where change is needed most. As he puts it: “The philanthropic sector continues to neglect rural communities. A changing national economy, entrenched racial inequity and foundations’ reliance on a strict interpretation of strategic philanthropy has meant philanthropic resources for rural communities are few and far between, just when the opportunities for change are most urgent. This has to change if we want to see progress on the issues we all care about.”

  3. Piling on to the criticism of philanthropy, Laurie Michaels and Maya Winkelstein from Open Road Alliance, encourage their fellow philanthropists to help nonprofits deal with risk and disruption. As they put it: “Most grant budgets are designed with zero cushion even when the nonprofit is working in tough conditions that can turn the simplest obstacle into an unmanageable issue…any unexpected but inevitable change or deviation in the budget is potentially catastrophic. The nonprofit’s inability to fluidly adapt the budget to manage these roadblocks, however minor, can jeopardize even the largest of undertakings…Risks alone are threatening, but when the concept of risk goes unacknowledged, undiscussed, and unaddressed, those risks are more likely to become realities. All this adds up to lower impact, turning manageable events into liabilities.”

  4. Maybe female philanthropists can turn the tide. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released some fascinating new research about how women are changing philanthropy. And Megan O’Neil, writing in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains how nonprofits must adapt in order to tap into this growing philanthropic force.

  5. Journalism is changing rapidly, due in part to the growth of digital. Research shows that different social media platforms connect people to news in different ways, and long-form journalism is seeing a resurgence thanks to mobile.

  6. And it’s not just journalism that digital is changing. The Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offers 16 Must-Know Stats About Online Fundraising and Social Media and 5 Ways the Internet of Things Will Transform Fundraising.

  7. The growth of the “sharing economy”, where consumers rent or borrow goods and services rather than buy them, has huge implications for the social change sector. Pew Research outlines 8 key findings about how Americans relate to the sharing economy and interviews NYU professor Arun Sundararajan about how the sharing economy is evolving.

  8. Nonprofit Law blogger Gene Takagi pulls no punches in offering 12 Reasons Why You Should Gracefully Resign from a Nonprofit Board. Yes, yes, yes, to more accountability, honest conversations, and clear expectations on nonprofit boards.

  9. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  Jeri Eckhart-Queenan, Michael Etzel, and Sridhar Prasad discuss the findings of a new Bridgespan Group study that analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations. What they found, not surprisingly, is that indirect rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).  The authors argue that if more nonprofits understand and report their true costs, nonprofits could break the starvation cycle: “It’s clear that philanthropy’s prevailing 15 percent indirect cost reimbursement policy does not take into account the wide variation in costs from segment to segment. Doing so would have far-reaching effects on philanthropy and grantees. If nonprofits committed to understanding their true cost of operations and funders shifted to paying grantees what it takes to get the job done, the starvation cycle would end.”

  10. A nonprofit dashboard is a good way to monitor and report on a nonprofit’s effectiveness and sustainability over time. Hilda Polanco, CEO of FMA, explains how to create a great one.

Photo Credit: Omarfaruquepro

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Where Does Your Nonprofit Fit In the Market?

nonprofit puzzleAs much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, which means that nonprofits, like everything else, must compete for customers and resources. Therefore it is critical that you understand where your nonprofit fits in the market.

While a business has one customer, a nonprofit has at least two distinct customer groups:

  1. Those who benefit from a nonprofit’s work (clients), and

  2. Those who fund that work (donors, government contractors, etc).

So it is absolutely critical that nonprofit leaders understand what unique value their work brings to these customers. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

A nonprofit organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a community need (or set of social problems) apart from their competitors or collaborators, like this:

Marketplace Map

 

But don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that a nonprofit shouldn’t collaborate.

On the contrary, nonprofit leaders must forge strategic alliances that help move the social change they envision forward. However, when they create those alliances, they must be crystal clear about what their organization brings to the table, versus what a potential ally brings to the table. Thus, a marketplace mapping exercise is absolutely critical to charting a way forward.

In order to create their marketplace map, a nonprofit’s board and staff must answer these three key questions:

  1. Core Competencies: What superior assets (expertise, relationships, etc.) do we possess as an organization that are not easily replicable?

  2. Community Needs: What community needs/social problems are we attempting to address?

  3. Competitors/Collaborators: What other entities are working on some/all of those same problems?

The social change sector has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to understand this external marketplace of competitors/collaborators against their own core competencies in order to understand the unique value that their nonprofit can contribute.

From this marketplace mapping exercise, some key strategic questions will emerge for the nonprofit, such as:

  • Where do our core competencies and activities end, and where do others’ begin?
  • Is our nonprofit better positioned than other entities to conduct all of the activities (from our Theory of Change) that we currently do? Should some activities be left to those who do it better?
  • Are there core competencies that we must develop in order to better address the community needs we’ve identified?
  • Are there collaborators/competitors that we should be more strategic about aligning with?

Creating a Marketplace Map, much like creating a Theory of Change, is an incredibly useful exercise that gets your board and staff thinking in bigger, more strategic ways about your work. And those more strategic conversations can help lead to a more effective and sustainable path forward.

If you want to learn more about how I work with clients to develop their strategic plan, download the Strategic Plan benefit sheet.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2016

social changeI’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.

But if you want a longer list of what caught my eye this month, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:

    “Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”


  2. And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.

  3. Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.

  4. While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”

  5. And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”

  6. So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.

  7. A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

  8. Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.

  9. Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.

  10. Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.

Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons

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What Will Be Philanthropy’s Next Chapter?

antique-typewriter-keysI am often asked by nonprofit leaders, “Where are the funders who understand what nonprofits really need?” Well, they were at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference (#2016GEO) last week in Minneapolis.

After attending the conference and curating a great group of bloggers who recapped each day (you can read Phil Buchanan’s Day 1 post here, Trista Harris’ Day 2 post here, and Mae Hong’s Day 3 post here), I have lots of my own thoughts percolating and wanted to share my takeaways from a great conference.

GEO is made up of 500+ member foundations that strive to be better philanthropists. They are a thoughtful bunch who seek to invest better in the nonprofits leading social change. As Linda Baker from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation said in her session on Real Costs for Real Outcomes, “We want to have authentic, trusting relationships with our grantees. We want them to have the impact they want to have in the world because that’s the only way we will have impact. It’s critical to our success.”

And that, in essence, is what GEO and its member foundations are all about. They view themselves and their money in service to those nonprofits creating social change. It is a different model than the traditional philanthropic model of nonprofits in supplication to those who hold the purse strings.

And because GEO is on the cutting edge of where philanthropy is and should be going, the conference this week encouraged philanthropists to push their work in some exciting new directions.

Here is what I saw emerging at the conference:

 

GEO panelPhilanthropy Must Embrace the National Call for Equity
From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to student protests on college campuses, there is a growing demand across the country for equity — a level playing field — for all. And philanthropy has to get better at responding to this in the moment. As Alicia Garza founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement said in her session, “Philanthropy is missing the opportunity to support the very change they are set up to resource.”

And the plenary panelists Peggy Flanagan, Michael McAfee, Doug Stamm and Starsky Wilson would perhaps agree and take it even further, encouraging philanthropist to re-examine the institutional racism inherent in the system. As Michael McAfee said, “I am deeply frustrated at our leadership. At the moment where consciousness about equity is elevated, we shift our priorities, our initiative, we do something to avoid the real work for this moment. We could do something if we could be more courageous.” In this moment where our country is grappling with issues of equity, philanthropy must step up and invest in the hard work of change.

 

grantmaking

Philanthropy Must Invest in Stronger Organizations

GEO members have always been on the forefront of understanding that it takes strong organizations to create real outcomes, but this conference took that to another level. From a session on unrestricted operating support, to one on supporting fundraising capacity, to one on funding nonprofits’ real costs, GEO was pushing its members, and philanthropy as a whole, to recognize that real change will only come when we support organizations, not just programs.

As one attendee put it, “The project funding paradigm ignores the health of the nonprofit organization in which the project lives.” Yes, absolutely. GEO members are recognizing–and perhaps leading the rest of philanthropy to begin recognizing–that you cannot have effective programs, strong outcomes, and ultimately social change without strong, effective organizations behind them.

And that means that philanthropy can and should lead the way in funding the full costs, including program AND operating costs, along with working capital, fixed assets, reserves, and debt. And at the same time, philanthropy must be a partner with nonprofits in figuring out how to overcome their capacity constraints, like lack of fundraising expertise, lack of management knowledge, and lack of adequate systems and infrastructure.

 

Vu Lee

Philanthropy Must Humble Itself 

There is no doubt that GEO members are a humble bunch; they view their role as supportive to the real work of social change, which is different than traditional philanthropy that viewed itself as all knowing. But, perhaps there is still work to be done.

Vu Lee, blogger from Nonprofit With Balls and Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, spoke eloquently of philanthropy’s “trickle down” approach to working with communities of color and encouraged philanthropists to take a better approach: “We have to start changing philanthropy’s perception of what communities of color are. Instead of infantalizing communities of color, recognize that communities have the solution, they are the solution, they are the light.”

And Deepak Bhargava from Center for Community Change spoke of the typical grantor/grantee relationship being similar to a feudal relationship, where the philanthropist is the Lord and the nonprofit is the serf. Instead, he encouraged the social sector to move to a place of “public friendship” between grantor/grantee where both sides are:

  • United by a vision of big change
  • Accountable to each other
  • Thinking of themselves as custodians of organizations leading to a better place
  • Engaging in creative, generative conflict

He spoke of this ideal as something that we must “persuade a new generation of philanthropists is possible.”

And perhaps this new philanthropy is possible. GEO certainly seems to think so. So let’s hope that this new vision for philanthropy is embraced by the growing GEO membership and that that membership in turn leads philanthropy as a whole to a more effective way of investing in social change.

As Alicia Garza put it, “Effective grantmaking is moving resources to change agents AS change is happening and getting out of the way.” Amen!

Photo Credits: publicdomainpictures.net, #2016GEO

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GEO Guest Post: What Philanthropy Wants To Be

mae hongNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. The third blogger is Mae Hong, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Her guest post is below. And for a full rundown on the conference check out #2016GEO.

I can’t get the Buffalo Springfield lyrics out of my head:

“There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.”
“Hey, What’s that sound?”

These were the sounds coming out of GEO’s 2016 National Conference in Minneapolis this week:

Philanthropy Embracing a New Lexicon
Values. Trust. Transparency. Reflection. Love. These are the words that were heard over and over in the plenaries, breakout sessions and hallways. I can remember a time when these words were considered squishy for our field. I would have been embarrassed to go to a workshop on these topics. But if this year’s conference brochure were a word cloud, these would leap out in 200+ point font. Noticeably scarce (though not entirely absent) were words like Measurement. Tools. Strategy. Systems. Performance. Our willingness to incorporate the former words is an acknowledgement that the latter are meaningless without them. Closing plenary speaker Heidi Brooks summed it up this way: “What you love is a big clue to how you can be most effective.”

Courageous Nonprofit Leaders Telling Us What They Really Think of Funders
GEO holds the voices and experiences of nonprofit practitioners in the highest regard, and nearly every session strived to incorporate a nonprofit perspective. Most nonprofit leaders, when invited to address a gathering of hundreds of funders, are predictably and understandably meek. I suspect it is a physiologically-based survival instinct not to provoke anyone with the power to harm. But speakers like Vu Le, Alicia Garza, Deepak Bhargava and Michael McAfee spoke in no uncertain terms about what we as a sector need to do differently: “Stop using communities of color.” “Rewrite the social contract between funders and grantees.” “Grantmakers need to get out of the way.” “Philanthropy doesn’t have room for my energy.” Their words demonstrated a conviction that they have a bigger stake in their work than whether any potential funders will be offended. Good for them. I wish every nonprofit leader were so confident, and that we as funders would help build that confidence in them.

Funders Sighing a Collective, “Finally . . . We’re Talking About Equity.”
GEO’s work for the last three years would inevitably lead here. Research, publications and conferences around stakeholder engagement, movements, and networks all pointed to one indisputable truth: philanthropy cannot be effective unless it confronts equity. No single topic at the conference had as much air time and real estate as this. Funders who had the prescience years ago to see that this would be the looming issue for our sector expressed relief and appreciation to have the space to unpack and understand equity, no matter how messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable these conversations would inevitably get. The morning before the conference began, GEO held a meeting to kick-off a newly formed Advisory Group to help it think through its role on this topic. Chaired by Rev. Starsky Wilson (GEO board member and the moderator for Tuesday’s stunning plenary on the topic), this group will guide GEO in how to best support the field to embrace equity as an essential precursor to effectiveness.

So do these sounds mean that “There’s something happening here?” Can we sustain our conference-induced resolve to translate these ideas into lasting behavior change as a field? Or will this become, as my fellow GEO board member Peter Long, President of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, likes to say, “philanthropy’s latest belly button?”

To keep my optimism high, I am reminded of a scene from the 1996 movie, Jerry Maguire. Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy Boyd, after a successful date with Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) is gushing to her sister the following morning: “I love him for the man he wants to be. I love him for the man he almost is.”

Well, Philanthropy – here’s to finding love in who we want to be . . . who we almost are.

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When Individual Donor Fundraising Goes Well

Fundraising Bright SpotsThis week the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund released the second in their series of reports about fundraising.  Their Fundraising Bright Spots report, by Kim Klein from Klein & Roth Consulting and Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, joins their Beyond Fundraising report, released last month.

These two reports are part of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s larger “Resetting Development” effort “to ‘learn out loud’ about how to…help put the sector on a surer path to sustainability and long-term success.” Given my concerns about their Beyond Fundraising report, the Haas, Jr. Fund very graciously asked me to review this latest report.

This new report analyzes 16 social change organizations that have been successful at individual fundraising to determine what the sector can learn from them.

I am always a huge fan of case studies. I think there is much to be gained by looking at others who have done things well, so I applaud the Haas, Jr. Fund for moving from theory into practice to see what is working in individual fundraising.

But first, we have to understand this report for what it is. This report only looks at nonprofits that have been successful with individual donor fundraising, which is just one of several ways that nonprofits bring money in the door. And the report only looks at “progressive organizations with limited budgets and small staffs.” So I would argue that this report and the case studies contained within it will only be applicable to similar types of nonprofits that have individual fundraising as part of their financial model.

Nevertheless, the report finds four themes present in these 16 social change organizations, which are that fundraising:

  1. Is core to the organization’s identity
  2. Is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers
  3. Succeeds because of authentic relationships with donors
  4. Is characterized by persistence, discipline, and intentionality

Many, if not all, of these themes make up the “culture of philanthropy” that the Beyond Fundraising report described.

There were several things I liked about the Bright Spots report.

First, I love the report’s focus on making fundraising part of the job of an entire organization’s board and staff. Two case studies in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, demonstrate how major donor fundraising should be shared among senior staff and board members. For example Jewish Voice for Peace “has 57 portfolio managers from across the staff, board, and volunteers who together manage 600 major donor relationships in addition to other roles they play within the organization.”

Indeed the report points out that in these 16 organizations the head fundraiser’s role is to marshal staff, board and other organization resources toward fundraising, which I love: “Time and again, we heard from the development directors at these organizations that their job is to coordinate, to teach, to coach, and to inspire. The individuals in this role are highly relational and they take deep satisfaction in enabling staff, board, volunteers, and members to be successful fundraisers.”

Second, I really appreciate the Breast Cancer Action case study, which emphasizes creating a give/get fundraising requirement for the entire board:

At Karuna [Jaggar]’s first in-person board meeting as the new executive director, she laid out her desire to establish a board give-and-get policy to her board members, each of whom had been told explicitly upon recruitment that they did not have to participate in fundraising…After an in-depth discussion, they set a give-and-get policy of $10,000 per board member. “Maybe we lost some potential board members who felt they couldn’t do it,” said [board chair] Tracy [Weitz], “but only in the first year. Now, our veteran board members can share their fundraising stories with prospective members and say, ‘I’ve been fine, and you’re going to be fine.’” It’s important to note that BCAction does not prioritize personal wealth now more than it did before this policy change, but rather invests the time to support board members’ success, regardless of personal financial capacity, in the fundraising program.”

Yes! That’s exactly the way to get every board member involved in fundraising, of which I am a huge proponent.

Third, the Bright Spots report points out the need to fully integrate marketing and fundraising in a nonprofit: “A critical aspect of building and refining an individual donor program is tending to the intersection of communications and fundraising…development and communications are inextricably linked and staff driving these efforts work extremely collaboratively.” Agreed, fundraising can not sit on the sidelines of anything an organization does, but must be fully integrated throughout the organization.

Now, let’s get to where I think the report falls short.

First, I would have liked to understand better how these 16 organizations were selected as “bright spots.” I think in holding up organizations as exemplars it is critical to understand in what ways they are exemplars. While the beginning of the report describes what these organizations have in common: “a deep commitment to and strong track record with raising money from individuals,” and “individual support is a consistent part of their overall revenue strategy,” and the report highlights some of their individual donor fundraising successes, it is unclear why these 16 organizations in particular are held out as bright spots.

In my mind, I would select case study organizations that achieved: individual giving growth year over year, and/or higher than average donor retention rates, and/or more profitable than average fundraising activities, and/or demonstrated long-term financial viability. While some of the 16 organizations had significant individual donor growth, not all of them did, so I’m not sure what selection metrics were used. I would like to understand how the Bright Spot organizations’ fundraising metrics compare to their most fundraising-successful peers.

It is particularly important to understand what makes these organizations bright spots when the report points out that some of the 16 social change organizations are struggling with scaling or making sustainable their individual fundraising efforts:

“We heard from the Bright Spot leaders who want to grow their organizations that they are grappling with how to scale this organizational highly relational approach to fundraising. And many of them acknowledge how dependent their success is on long-time leaders, despite their distributed approach to fundraising…Many of the Bright Spots will soon have to adapt to very long-time leaders moving on.”

Second, the report does not make a clear distinction between small donor fundraising (one-to-many cultivation and solicitation of donors) versus major donor fundraising (one-to-one cultivation and solicitation). I wonder if the four themes that the report uncovers differ, and if so how, between fundraising activities targeting many small donors versus fundraising activities targeting a few large donors.

Third, the report touches briefly on the 16 organizations’ fundraising systems and use of data and metrics, but not in a robust way. I would have loved to understand better the kinds of systems these bright spot organizations use and what metrics they are tracking and trends they are seeing. While I understand the report’s overall emphasis on some of the “soft” skills of fundraising (“authentic relationships with donors,” “culture of philanthropy”) I also think that understanding the “hard” skills (systems, metrics) is key to replicating fundraising success (and overall financial sustainability).

Fourth, just as the Beyond Fundraising report did, the Bright Spots report continues to leave the problems (and in this case, the successes) with fundraising largely in the hands of individual nonprofits and their leaders. I am still hungry for case studies and research about how nonprofits (and their funders) can overcome the more systemic financial flaws inherent in our social change sector.

In the end, I would say that the Bright Spots report gives us a glimpse into a piece of what works to bring money in the door. For social movement, individual donor fundraising at small nonprofits, the Bright Spots report provides some important and useful insights. But for more broadly understanding what contributes to overall financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector, this report falls short.

But as I have said before, I don’t fault the Haas, Jr. Fund for exploring these issues. Indeed, they are one of very few funders contributing to the knowledge base about what creates a more financially sustainable nonprofit sector. We just need more of them.

Photo Credit: Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

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