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social change

Is Your Nonprofit Stuck In A Rut?

The other day I was talking with a nonprofit leader and was suddenly struck by how much his story echoed so many of the stories I hear from nonprofit leaders.

See if your nonprofit fits some or all aspects of the scenario he faces:

  • His board is passionate about the mission and wants to be helpful, but they don’t really contribute much to the financial model.
  • His staff and board want to expand services, but they can’t grow their budget past where it has been for years.
  • Their funding is fairly dependent on just a couple of sources.
  • Their funders support specific projects, rather than the organization or mission as a whole.
  • Their strategic plan hasn’t been updated in 5 years.
  • The board worries whether some of what the nonprofit does duplicates other efforts out there.
  • Board and staff don’t have a common way to articulate what the nonprofit is and does.
  • Their nonprofit is just barely getting by and has no cash reserves.

They, like so many nonprofits, are stuck in a rut.

They want to accomplish something much bigger and better but continue to spin their wheels against what they have always done. It’s really a chicken or the egg scenario. A nonprofit is unable to grow their services, their board, and their supporters because the organization has limited resources. And so they keep soldiering on, same as it ever was.

But let’s face it folks, in times like these, the status quo just isn’t going to work anymore.

Luckily, there is a way out.

When I encounter a nonprofit leader like the one above who has a real desire to break out of this pattern, I suggest a Financial Model Assessment. A Financial Model Assessment analyzes every aspect of the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategy, Program Delivery and Impact, Staffing, Board, Marketing, External Partnerships) in order to understand how each element helps or hurts their financial sustainability and their ability to achieve results. It then analyzes all current and potential revenue streams to find opportunities for sustainable growth. Finally, the Assessment gives very detailed recommendations for creating a more effective and sustainable organization.

I am a firm believer in a holistic approach. You simply cannot bemoan a lack of financial resources and call it a day. You must dig deep and figure out how everything you do contributes to or detracts from your current reality.

But because nonprofit leaders are usually consumed by putting out fires and worrying when the next check will come, they don’t have the ability to take a big step back and figure out how all of the pieces can and should fit together. So a Financial Model Assessment allows a nonprofit board and staff to understand what is holding their organization back from becoming financially sustainable AND achieving more mission-related results.

Once I’ve written my final Assessment, I lead a change discussion among board and staff. We delve into the Assessment and discuss how and why I came to the conclusions I did. This is often a galvanizing moment for the nonprofit — a moment when board and staff finally understand together a way forward that can allow them to be smarter, more strategic, more sustainable and ultimately achieve more results.

If you are interested in big change and need help navigating how to get there, download the Financial Model Assessment Benefit Sheet that describes the process in more detail. And if you’d like to read about other nonprofits who undertook a change process, check out these case studies.

Photo Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: January 2017

In January it seemed as though we moved into social change hyper drive.

With the inauguration of a new president, a litany of controversial executive orders, numerous efforts to block or minimize them, and advice for or frustration with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors’ responses, the world of social change moved at warp speed.

Add to that lots of predictions and advice for the nonprofit sector, and some small, but inspiring efforts to feed and comfort those in need and January was a very busy month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in January, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington, and if you want to see past months’ lists go here.

  1. Some still struggled to understand the 2016 election. Continuing his 4-year series on the smaller cities of America for The Atlantic, James Fallows argued that while Americans distrust national policy and institutions they still have faith in local government: “City by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”  And Eytan Oren offered some insight into how social media and major technology companies took civic engagement to a new level in the 2016 election.

  2. A few days before Trump was inaugurated, President Obama gave a farewell speech that focused on the need for greater civic engagement, and he and Michelle Obama launched a new foundation to help deliver on those ideas. And Pew Research crunched the numbers on how America changed over his 8-year term.

  3. Quite quickly after his inauguration, President Trump signed several executive orders, and a “resistance” movement that is rather unprecedented in U.S. history mobilized in response.   thing the resistance movement has going for it is their savvy use of social networks.

  4. In particular, Trump’s executive order banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority countries created some soul-searching in the philanthropic sector. Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan expressed frustration about a seeming silence among philanthropic leaders on Trump’s immigration ban, asking “What’s the point of being in charge of society’s risk capital if you don’t take risks at a moment like this?” But 50 philanthropic leaders signed a strong statement against the ban.

  5. Amid all of the uproar surrounding the immigration ban, there was light in small places. A group of people from New Jersey launched a supper club that creates community among and raises money for Syrian refugees.

  6. Because January started a new year, there were the usual posts predicting what the new year will bring for philanthropy and nonprofits.

  7. But this year was different because several writers argued that the nonprofit sector needs to move more strongly into advocacy. And there was lots of other advice about how nonprofits should approach the Trump era, from building resilience, to messaging more effectively in a “post-truth” world, to making America “good” again, to answering 12 “Ifs”.

  8. A rather more sweeping bit of advice for the social change sector came from Pablo Eisenberg who argued that the organization Independent Sector should no longer be an association of both nonprofits and foundations, but just nonprofits. The HistPhil blog asked him to elaborate on the history of that important institution.  

  9. BoardSource, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals partnered to release a new method for evaluating a nonprofit’s fundraising effectiveness. The method looks at three metrics in a nonprofit organization: the fundraising net revenue, the cost of fundraising, and the dependency quotient (the percent of the budget funded by the nonprofit’s top 5 donors). Because let’s remember, as Rick Moyers pointed out, Development Directors Are Not Miracle Workers.

  10. Finally, a tangent into something small and really cool. The idea of little free libraries that have been cropping up on people’s front lawns has gone in a new direction. Mini food pantries have started helping neighbors in need.

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen

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Speak Out and Be Counted

I had an ache in the pit of my stomach all weekend long. I get a stomach ache whenever something is very, very wrong. Friday’s Executive Order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries is so very wrong, and so fundamentally un-American.

I am an American because my ancestors at one point or another immigrated to this country because they thought it would offer better opportunities and/or more tolerance. And I have spent my career working in and with the nonprofit sector, which is fundamentally about giving voice and support to the oppressed.

For these reasons (and so many more) this executive order is completely anathema to me.

By yesterday my stomach was aching for some sort of salve. So here’s what I did:

  • I called my members of Congress — both of my Senators and my Representative, at both their D.C. and local offices to ask them to stand up against this immigration ban. And I will continue to do so every day. Several of their voicemail boxes were already full, so I took some comfort in the fact that others are as upset as I am. But I will not rest on that knowledge, I’ll keep trying to leave my own message.

  • I donated to the ACLU, who by the way, received $24 million in online donations from 350,000 people over the weekend (six times their normal annual online donations!). So again, there is comfort in numbers.

  • I emailed a message of solidarity to my client, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which is an amazing group working tirelessly (and much harder these days) for the civil rights of American Muslims.

  • I’m continuing to follow resistance hashtags on Twitter like the 80+ alternative Twitter handles for the various government agencies that are no longer allowed to Tweet information at odds with the administration, and the #ThisIsYourLand and #Resistance hashtags, as well as the growing social movement of protest and resistance.

  • I will continue to work to encourage the nonprofit sector — the moral compass of this great country — to be bold and speak out against anything that goes against the fundamental values of our country.

As Charles Blow wrote yesterday in the New York Times:

“America will not stand for this, so if obsequious conservative politicians or lily-livered liberal ones won’t sufficiently stand up to this demagogic dictator, then the American people will do the job themselves. Over the weekend, protesters spontaneously popped up at airports across the country to send an unambiguous message: Not in our name; not on our watch. It is my great hope that this will be a permanent motif of Trump’s term. If no one else is going to fight for American values, it falls to the American people themselves to do so.”

Yes, that is right. As Americans, we’ve been training for this since we had our first civics lesson back in middle school.

And as social change leaders, we all have an obligation to speak up.  As Greg Oliphant put it “There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”

If you too felt sickened by the events of this past weekend, get engaged — speak out and be counted. Do not sit back and wait for someone else to do it.

Not in our name. Not on our watch.

Photo Credit: Miraage.clicks

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Will the Women’s March Usher In a New Era of Civic Engagement?

Perhaps like many of you, I participated in the Women’s March on Saturday. In my hometown of Austin, Texas I stood with my husband and two teenage sons amid a sea of 50,000 other people, and I suddenly wondered whether we are witnessing the birth of a new era of civic engagement.

Saturday was to me an amazing and previously unseen (in my lifetime) display of citizen participation. Whatever your political views, when 2 million+ people take to the streets in a single day, you have to admit that something is going on.

As one of my East-coast based colleagues said in an email on Saturday morning:

“I’m on a bus to DC this morning with my wife and daughter.  The excitement is palpable  on the I-95 corridor as thousands of buses are lined up to enter the Capital. The buses are filled with patriots, patriots with a lovers quarrel with their country.  It should be an exhilarating day for the promise of America.”

And as I looked around at the thousands and thousands of smiling faces around me on Saturday, I too felt my patriotism swell. It was perhaps the beginning of a more inclusive and engaging democracy — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social change).

It is too soon to tell where this will take us. It could be that the nonprofit sector will be called to lead this movement. Indeed, many of the speakers across the country on Saturday urged people to join and support nonprofit organizations. And many new organizations are cropping up amid this new energy, while, as I’ve mentioned before, many nonprofit organizations have seen donations soar since the election.

As Josh Marshall wrote last week, these times demand something much more from us — something more than any of us have ever been asked to give. And we must rise to the challenge:

“We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need. This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.”

So while I spent much of November and December full of dread about what the future may bring, I now have a burgeoning sense of hope. Perhaps our democracy isn’t crumbling. Maybe instead we are being asked, each one of us, to remake it stronger, more inclusive and more energetic than ever before.

These are certainly interesting times.

Photo Credit: National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon

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Now is The Time for Bold Nonprofit Leaders

Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.

You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.

As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:

“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”

Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.

What does that look like?

Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.

Embrace Advocacy
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.

Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.

Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.

Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.

As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.

Photo Credit: Andy Spearing

 

 

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Dec 2016

Let’s be honest, December was about just trying to make it through the end of 2016.

But where there is darkness there is also light. And many of the discussions and posts in December actually uncovered a lot of bright spots in an otherwise very trying year. From the success of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to a surge in donations to nonprofit journalism, to potential progress on climate change, to the future of philanthropy, there was much promise. Perhaps I was just looking for it,  but I saw lots of hope in December.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in December, but please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. In perhaps the best blog post title ever, “8 Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t a Total Garbage Fire” Marie Solis reminds us that there was actually some exciting progress in 2016.

  2. For example, the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline found success when the US Army Corps of Engineers decided not to approve an easement to allow construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe. And Tate Williams, writing on Inside Philanthropy, finds lessons for philanthropy in this social movement: “Supporting movements like Standing Rock likely means challenging grantmaking norms, loosening up requirements, taking chances, and moving much faster than foundations may be accustomed to.”

  3. December also saw a glut of donations to nonprofit journalism outlets, like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, to name a few.  And indeed, in the wake of the Trump election, funders like the Omidyar Network are increasing support for civic technology, solutions aimed at getting people more civically engaged.

  4. It looks like despite the new administration’s anti-environmental leanings, clean energy will continue to grow. Backing this trend, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates, announced a $1 billion fund to finance zero-carbon clean-energy technologies. And David Roberts writing in Vox argues that cities, rather than the federal government, may actually need to lead the clean energy effort: “Now that the US federal government is getting out of the climate protection business, at least for four years, [cities] are more important than ever…Cities generate most of the world’s economic activity, innovation, and cultural ferment. They also generate a growing share of its carbon emissions…Urban areas are also first in line to feel the effects of climate change…If they hope to avoid worse to come, cities will need to almost entirely rid themselves of carbon over the next few decades.”

  5. Writers at The New York Times offer two ways to move on from 2016, start small and lift up those around you.

  6. The Hewlett Foundation celebrated their 50 year birthday with a symposium on the history of philanthropy. In addition to the interesting #Hewlett50 Twitter feed, the foundation commissioned this very interesting paper from Benjamin Soskis and Stanley Katz  (of HistPhil blog fame) on the past 50 years of philanthropy.

  7. Aaron Dorfman, President of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a call to action for philanthropists in the Trump era.

  8. A new report from The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reveals that Generation X and Millennial donors are giving less than their Boomer and Silent Generation counterparts did at their age, but women’s influence on philanthropic decisions is growing.

  9. And a small, but very positive thing that came out of the presidential election is that it has brought philanthropic thought leader and curmudgeon Albert Ruesga out of his writing retirement. His latest post on the need for philanthropy to recognize class divides is particularly enlightening. As he puts it: “To introduce and champion class consciousness is to acknowledge that the ‘structures’ we seek to change—if we’re enlightened grantmakers—are often structures put in place to serve the purposes of an economically defined class…So while we might wish to remain class-neutral, the structures that keep people in poverty unfortunately will not. How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions that, in spite of our best intentions, perpetuate class privilege? How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? I don’t deny these challenges, but I’m convinced that ignoring the effects of class is acting in bad faith. It’s treading water while strong currents continue to carry us and our neighbors further downstream.”

  10. Finally, if you are looking for an actual book to read in the new year, Michiko Kakutani reviews reporter David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog which chronicles the rise in popularity of pen, paper, books, records and all things non-digital. Sign me up!

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

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Climbing Out Of The Rubble Of 2016

If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.

But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.

Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).

But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.

I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us.  But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.

And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:

“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”

That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.

Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

So check your attitude at the door.

The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.

Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann

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10 Most Popular Posts of 2016

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for all of us to take some time off to relax, be with friends and family, and most importantly rest up for the year ahead.

2016 was rough, folks. So now it is critical that you take some time off to reconnect with your core.

But before I head out myself for some time off, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular Social Velocity posts from this year, in case you missed any of them. And, if you are so inclined, you can also read the 10 most popular posts from 201120122013, 2014 and 2015.

I so appreciate you, dear readers. You are an amazing group of social change leaders who inspire me and give me hope for the future. Indeed, when it is darkest you help me see the light. We need you now more than ever, social change leaders, so please take good care of yourselves and come back to 2017 ready to get to work.

Happy Holidays!

The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2016 were:

  1. Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?
  2. 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make
  3. Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)
  4. Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix
  5. How is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?
  6. 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]
  7. Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader
  8. A Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy Is Not Enough
  9. 5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have
  10. The Network as Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio

Photo Credit: nicoleleec

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