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social change

When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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What I Learned From My Time Off

I am back from vacation, and as I suspected it would, the space has given me a new lease on life. I have returned with more energy, more hope, more perspective, and less worry.

As I said before I left, I really encourage you also to take some time off this summer. Reject the pervasive notion that we must be always on and create some space for yourself to recharge.

Perhaps as an added incentive, I offer you some of the perspective that my time away gave me.

On my vacation I traveled to Europe, and I have to say, Europeans seem so much more relaxed than Americans. Now I spent only two weeks there, so this is far from a scientific observation, but the pace just seemed less harried. People walk more slowly than they do in America, taking more time with their strides, observing their surroundings, pausing to chat with friends. Meals take much longer and require that you specifically ask your waiter for the bill because they don’t want to rush you. The lack of a relentless pace allowed me to take a deep breath and live more in the moment. I’m trying to take that slower pace back to work with me.

Europeans also move their bodies and get outside much more than Americans, it seems. There are so many more bikes and pedestrians on the roads. In fact, in Berlin every street has a dedicated bike/pedestrian lane, and often one for each. And the biker or walker always has the right of way over the car. It is obvious that while cars are important, the healthier, more environmentally friendly forms of transportation are more valued. I found that the increased amount of walking and biking made me feel healthier, but also gave me a new perspective on my surroundings. Removing the separation of the car window, I became much more cognizant of and part of my world.

I also spent a lot of time exploring museums and monuments in order better to understand European history. Because we were in London and Berlin, our historical exploration tended to focus on World War II and the Cold War. And for some strange reason I found the people and places from that period of history strangely comforting. Our current times often feel overwhelmingly uncertain and grim. But those anxieties pale in comparison to the second half of the 20th Century, which was particularly hard on the people of Europe — from the rise of Nazism, to the violence and destruction of World War II, to the displacement and fear of the Cold War. Yet the European people somehow found a way to get through it. In fact, the DDR Museum, which chronicles social history in East Germany under communist rule, demonstrated how East Berliners, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by the Berlin Wall, found creative ways to build lives for themselves despite the limits of their surroundings. It was, to me, a testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure, adapt and survive. And it was a particularly heartening message for me in our 2017 world.

The geographic and historical space my time away provided helped me realize that my little world is fairly insignificant. There is a much larger world and a much longer history out there. And so I emerge more relaxed, more present and with a greater appreciation for focusing on what I can control and letting the rest just be.

Photo Credit: October 1961. Children keep their friendship across the barbed wire border between East and West Berlin. From the booklet “A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall.” The Central Intelligence Agency.

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This Summer, Create Some Mental Space

Well, summer is here and with it comes my usual desire to take a big breath. Particularly this year I’m feeling the need for some mental space. Over the past 6 months, we have all been working so hard amid a seemingly endless onslaught of challenging news and developments. And it doesn’t look like its going to slow down any time soon. I’m exhausted, and I imagine you are too.

So here is my plan for this summer. I am going to take a deep breath, gain some perspective, and recharge. And here’s how.

First, and most importantly, I’m taking some time off. And I mean really off. I’m taking two weeks away from the blog, social media, email, work. I plan to linger over my coffee in the morning while just thinking (not doing) for hours.

I’m going to travel. I don’t know about you, but for me, there is no better way to make my crazy world seem not so crazy than by completely changing my perspective. I want to see how others pass their days, how the sunlight looks in a new location, what makes other people laugh, how different geographies eat and drink.

I’m going to laugh. And the easiest way to make that happen is to spend more time with my teenage boys. They have such a (to me) unique perspective and are constantly making me see the humor in the world. They also have seemingly limitless optimism. Perhaps their limited years of experience give them hope for the future. And now more than ever, I need their youthful enthusiasm.

I’m going to read beyond my normal interests. I need a break from always learning about new social change approaches, and plan instead to dig into art, biography, beach fiction. I am desperate for new and different perspectives.

I’m going to explore history. I have always loved learning more about the past, but now more than ever, I find it very soothing. As a human race we have faced seemingly intractable problems before and somehow we have always found a way to muddle through. We are incredibly resilient, and the struggles we have faced and overcome are an unending source of inspiration to me. So I plan to visit museums, read histories, and watch documentaries that take me to another time and help me understand that this too shall pass.

I hope that you, too, find some space this summer. Please, please, please, don’t be like the more than half of American workers who don’t use their vacation. Life is too short and too hard to spend it always working.

I’ll see you soon!

Photo Credit: Jsarasota 

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When Humor Overcomes Hate

If the news (fake or otherwise) is getting you down lately, you need look no further than my fair city of Austin, Texas to restore your faith in humanity.

Austin is a quirky mix of conservatives to the North and progressives to the South and somehow we all (for the most part) get along. Last week our Mayor, Steve Adler, gave a pitch perfect reaction to some of the vitriol and divisiveness that is increasingly prevalent across the country.

A local movie chain, The Alamo Drafthouse, reserved a few screenings of the new Wonder Woman movie for women only and it caused a backlash among some men. One particularly irate man sent a hate-filled email to the Mayor asking him to intervene. The man’s email read, in part:

I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret it’s decision. The notion of a woman hero is a fine example of women’s eagerness to accept the appearance of achievement without actual achievement. Women learn from an early age to value make-up, that it’s OK to pretend that you are greater than you actually are. Women pretend they do not know that only men serve in combat because they are content to have an easier ride. Women gladly accept gold medals at the Olympics for coming in 10th and competing only against the second class of athletes. Name something invented by a woman!

However, instead of taking the easy path and berating the man, the Mayor instead wrote a funny, hopefully anger-reducing response:

Dear Mr. Ameduri,

I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other!

Can you imagine if someone thought that you didn’t know women could serve in our combat units now without exclusion? What if someone thought you didn’t know that women invented medical syringes, life rafts, fire escapes, central and solar heating, a war-time communications system for radio-controlling torpedoes that laid the technological foundations for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS, and beer? And I hesitate to imagine how embarrassed you’d be if someone thought you were upset that a private business was realizing a business opportunity by reserving one screening this weekend for women to see a superhero movie.

You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account. And in the future, should your travels take you to Austin, please know that everyone is welcome here, even people like those who wrote that email whose views are an embarrassment to modernity, decency, and common sense.

Yours sincerely,
Steve Adler

These are tense, divisive times where technology has made it easier for us to sometimes let our darker natures surface. I am hopeful that we are cresting the wave of anger and polarization, and are beginning to return to a place of reason where we all acknowledge that we are different, but fundamentally the same.

Photo Credit: Erika Wittlieb

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2017

May was another fascinating month in the world of social change. There are some interesting shifts happening among the institutions and movements working to improve black lives, new polls point to a surging American liberalism (not conservatism), the suburbs are no longer the route to the American dream, anti-hunger efforts may actually be perpetuating the problem, and a librarian who questioned the impact of Little Free Libraries received quite a backlash.

Below are my picks of the 10 best social change reads in May. But feel free to add to the list in the comments. And you can see a longer list by following me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been exhausting for the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered some questions for philanthropist to think about after those first 100 days. And Trump’s budget recommendations, if adopted by Congress, could have pretty damaging effects on the nonprofit sector and the foundations that fund them.

  2. A more specific impact \ that the Trump Administration could have on the nonprofit sector would be to eliminate the Johnson Amendment. The 60 year old Amendment has prohibited churches and nonprofit organizations from any political campaigning. Robert Egger, founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, debated whether the repeal of the amendment would be a good or bad thing for the sector.

  3. Despite the fact that state and federal government is being led largely by Republicans right now, it looks like American populism may have a liberal, as opposed to conservative, bent according to some new polls. Ruy Teixeira from Vox analyzed recent poll data and argued that America is actually witnessing a liberal surge:  “Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress and most states…owes much more to the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, structural GOP advantages in Congress, and poor Democratic strategy than to the actual views of the American public.”

  4. And that populism that is sweeping the country is beginning to target philanthropy. David Callahan argued that the underlying elitism of philanthropy must be laid bare: “America is in the midst of an epic backlash against elites, one that’s put a reality TV maestro in the White House. So far, philanthropy has been insulated from this broader convulsion, but there are good reasons for the sector to engage in its own introspection about elite power…There’s not yet much discussion about the bigger question regarding how much sway private philanthropy—and a growing class of savvy “super-citizens”—should have over public life in a democratic society like ours.” And Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry argued on the HistPhil blog that the populist surge is posing at least 3 challenges to foundations.

  5. There is something interesting happening in the efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. The NAACP fired its president Cornell William Brooks after only 3-years in the hopes that the organization could become more responsive to changing external circumstances. But Cyndi Suarez wondered whether this 100+ year old institution can adapt to and engage with growing social movements like Black Lives Matter.  And earlier in the month she described how BLM itself is evolving amid changing times.

  6. Jay A. Winsten from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health described how a national media strategy, even in today’s very fractured media environment, can move social change forward.

  7. Some new data in May showed giving differences between genders and generations, and the  Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco created a nice infographic on The Current and Future State of Philanthropy.

  8. Something really interesting happened when a Toronto librarian questioned the claim that Little Free Libraries, the small birdhouse-like boxes of free books cropping up in neighborhoods around the country, are actually increasing literacy. People got really mad.

  9. Writing in CityLab, Richard Florida painted a pretty bleak picture of how the suburbs, once the destination for the growing middle class, are now crumbling: “Suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.”

  10. Finally, there’s a new book to add to your reading list: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher argues that anti-hunger nonprofits are perpetuating the underlying wealth inequality that causes hunger by aligning with corporations that are exacerbating poverty through low wages and job cuts.

Photo Credit: kyle rw

 

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We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Well, to be honest, I am often thinking about leadership. I’m perpetually fascinated by it in all of its forms — the good, the bad, the ugly. In particular, lately I’ve been mulling on Nancy Koehn’s definition of leadership. She spoke at this Spring’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference on what history can teach us about leadership. And what she discussed has really stayed with me.

For Koehn, leadership is not something inherent in any one person, rather leaders are created when they face a critical event and make a conscious decision to step up to the plate: “Leaders make themselves capable of doing extraordinary things…A true leader has to decide to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

I completely agree. Leaders are not born, they are made. And a leader is made when she or he decides to stand up and do the hard, right thing.

It is, at its essence, a purely selfless act. Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is often difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular. But the true leader, as opposed to the blind follower, makes a decision to step up. Steven Pressfield calls this distinction between the true leader and the blind follower the “amateur versus the professional mindset.” The “amateur” takes the easy path and expects someone else to get them what they need, but the “professional” understands that they must step up and do the hard, right thing. The “professional” says: “I will expect no opportunity and no remuneration until I have first created value for someone else.”

I believe that our country is in the midst of a leadership crisis. No matter your political beliefs, our democracy is facing a critical event. Those we have elected to represent us are faced with a decision about whether they will step up and defend the equal power of our three branches of government or whether they will not. As Max Boot wrote on Twitter:

 

 

 

And as always, history provides an analog. As American Revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These are definitely interesting times. Only history will tell where we will land. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in 1966, interesting times demand something from us:

“The temptation [is] to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us…Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society.”

Now is the time for true leaders to emerge. And it is not just a moment for our political leaders to step up. Every single one of us must take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we have the courage, the fortitude to lead us forward.

Because in this moment in our history, as Nancy Koehn put it, “We need great, courageous leaders like we need oxygen and water.”

Photo Credit: Winston Churchill on V-E day, IWM Collections.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2017

April saw a debate about whether or not crowdfunding is transforming philanthropy, critiques of Harvard Business School, a report on the lack of philanthropy in the Deep South, a first-person account of the effects of founder’s syndrome, and tools to help more funders engage in advocacy. Add to that a new Supreme Court Justice, some new data about fundraising, and two fascinating new books, and April was a very interesting month in the world of social change.

Below are my 10 favorite reads about nonprofits and philanthropy in April, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And, as always, for a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. The dramatic growth of person-to-person crowdfunding efforts may be fundamentally transforming philanthropy argued Ben Paynter in an interesting long read in FastCompany. As he puts it: “[This] vast pool of money [is] fundamentally shifting who is funding charitable work and how that work gets done.” But Eduardo Andino would seem to disagree. Writing in Philanthropy Daily he argues that crowdfunding is not all that different or disruptive: “As has always been the case, Americans give money when they see an organization with a mission they believe in or a person whose need moves them. GoFundMe simply allows more Americans to encounter more people in need of immediate assistance than ever before.”

  2. A new report on the state of philanthropy in the Deep South showed the dramatic discrepancy in per capita funding there versus other areas of the country. As Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly described the findings of the report: “Funders do not invest in homegrown power-building efforts in the Black Belt because they are not drawn in the image of the more-built-up grantees they know well and favor.”

  3. Now is definitely the time for more philanthropists to engage in advocacy, and to help in that effort The Foundation Center released a suite of tools for funders interested in advocacy collaborations.

  4. Two new (and diametrically opposed) books came out in April. First, Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport (reviewed by Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times) took a hard look at Harvard Business School, which McDonald argued bred a greedy generation of corporate leaders. And for a completely opposite worldview, check out the new edition of The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life by Piero Ferrucci (reviewed by Mirielle Clifford on the PhilanTopic blog), which could be a balm for our divisive times.

  5. Linda Wood, Senior Director of Leadership Initiatives at the Haas Jr. Fund, encouraged other foundations to invest in the capacity not just of individual organizations, but also larger social movements. As she put it: “We need to be more attentive to the interplay between the strength and agility of leaders and organizations and the dynamics of their broader movements.” And Patrick Guerriero discussed the evolution of the social movement that resulted in marriage equality.

  6. I think I could probably very happily spend hours digging into Pew Research data. It is fascinating stuff, especially their recent 10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world in 2017.

  7. Speaking of data, there was new fundraising data on donor retention and how more effective an in-person (versus email) solicitation is.

  8. An anonymous nonprofit staff member in the United Kingdom wrote a scathing critique in The Guardian of their nonprofit’s founder who has stayed at the organization too long.

  9. April saw the nomination, confirmation, and swearing in of a new Justice on the Supreme Court, and Michael Wyland provided an analysis of what the implications of a court with Justice Gorsuch could mean for the nonprofit sector.

  10. And finally, if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by these challenging times, look no further than Steven Pressfield who wrote: “You were born for adversity. It’s in your DNA as much as it’s in the DNA of a shark or an eagle or a lion…Our stubby little ancestors left us not just the ability to endure adversity, but the capacity to thrive under conditions of adversity.” Yes!

Photo Credit: Andy Roberts

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3 Things I Wish Funders Would Ask Nonprofits

I think we can all agree that most philanthropists truly want to be helpful to the nonprofit recipients of their dollars. However, because of the inherent power imbalance, it is often challenging, if not impossible, for a funder and a grantee to have a candid conversation about what it will really take to achieve the social change that they both seek.

I think part of the answer may lie in funders initiating more productive conversations with their grantees about what truly holds a nonprofit back from becoming more sustainable and effective at creating social change.

So here are some questions that funders, who hope to help their most beloved grantees achieve their mission, can employ:

  1. What holds you back?
    Rather than hearing this most critical question asked of them, nonprofit leaders often hear a very different question from their funders: “Why don’t you grow your programs?” In fact in the most recent Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey, 49% of nonprofit leaders said they could have an open dialogue with their funders about expanding programs, but only 17% said they could have a conversation with funders about organizational change or adaptation.  Instead of pressuring nonprofit leaders to grow, funders should ask about the capacity constraints that are holding those nonprofits back. And once a nonprofit leader reveals what those constraints are, funders and nonprofit leaders together should brainstorm how to overcome those hurdles, with capacity capital.

  2. What would it really cost to achieve your long-term goals?
    Nonprofit leaders are rarely asked what their long-term goals are, let alone what it would take to achieve them. For so long the incentives in the nonprofit sector have encouraged nonprofit leaders to hide their full organizational and infrastructure costs and operate on a short-term view. So they rarely give themselves the luxury of planning for the long-term, let alone calculating what the long-term might cost. Instead, funders should encourage the leaders of the nonprofits they fund to take the longview (perhaps starting with a Theory of Change), and to include ALL the costs (program, infrastructure, reserves, staffing and systems) necessary to get there.

  3. What other funders or influencers can we introduce you to?
    Beyond actual money, there is much more that philanthropists could be doing to support their grantees. Whether they realize it or not, funders often are connected to other key people who could help move a nonprofit’s mission forward. That might include other funders in the same issue area, or policymakers with an influence on the nonprofit’s mission, or others with a role in whether or not a nonprofit’s desired outcomes will come to fruition. Instead of being overly protective of their desirable network, funders should actively make connections for those nonprofits that they want to succeed.

I know I’m an optimist. These are hard questions for funders to ask and equally hard questions for nonprofit leaders to candidly answer. But the only way we are going to move beyond the power dynamic and an under-resourced nonprofit sector is if funders and nonprofit leaders have more open and honest conversations about what it will really take to move social change forward. So get talking.

Photo Credit: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios

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