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Social Finance

Guest Post: Nonprofits Must Be Able to Adapt

antony bugg-levineNote: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post… 

When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.

What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.

In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.

So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?

Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.

Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.

Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.

Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:

  • “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
  • “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
  • “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
  • “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”

Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.

New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.

Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”

Measure outcomes.
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.

Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.

Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.

Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.

There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.

It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.

It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.


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Social Velocity Summer 2015 Guest Bloggers

As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.

And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).

I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.

Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!


antony bugg-levineAntony Bugg-Levine
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.

UPDATE: Here is Antony’s guest post.



Kelly Born
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.

UPDATE: Here is Kelly’s guest post.


phil buchananPhil Buchanan
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does.  He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.

UPDATE: Here is Phil’s guest post.


kathy reichKathy Reich
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.

UPDATE: Here is Kathy’s guest post.


david hendersonDavid Henderson
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.

UPDATE: Here is David’s guest post.

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A Monster List of Resources For Nonprofit Innovation

Since today is Halloween I wanted to continue a tradition I started last Halloween of providing a list of resources about nonprofit innovation. I’ve created the list below by culling from our constantly evolving and much larger list of resources on the Social Velocity website. Below I’ve handpicked the tools I think are most useful for wielding the money sword, connecting to the larger social innovation movement, and finding inspiration. Please add to the list in the comments of this post.

Happy Halloween!

Wielding the Money Sword

Connecting to the Social Innovation Movement

Finding Inspiration

What have I missed? What books, conferences, articles, tools do you find inspiring and insightful? Add to the list in the comments.

Photo Credit: dimland

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The Future of Financing Social Change: An Interview with Antony Bugg-Levine

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony Bugg-Levine is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary dedicated to mobilizing and deploying capital effectively to build a just and vibrant society. In this role, Mr. Bugg-Levine oversees more than $225 million of capital under management and a national consulting practice, and works with a range of philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. He is the co-author of the newly released Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money While Making a Difference.

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

Nell: You’ve recently taken over the helm of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a pioneer in cutting-edge ideas for better capitalizing the nonprofit sector, like growth capital. What’s next for NFF? Where do you go from here?

Antony: I am humbled and excited to be given the responsibility to lead an organization with such a strong legacy and talented staff. After 31 years of working with nonprofits and funders, Nonprofit Finance Fund understands as well as anyone how we can best raise and use financial resources to create sustainable organizations that together weave the fabric of just and vibrant communities.

Honing and sharing these insights is more important than ever. As the economic crisis has turned into an intractable employment crisis, the communities we work with and the organizations that serve them are facing unprecedented challenges. Business as usual is no longer going to work. But business-as-unusual is increasingly exciting. The crisis has created new opportunities by shaking loose long-held barriers that kept the worlds of social change and business firmly apart.

NFF is well-poised to help ensure that these new opportunities bear fruit, by doing what we have always done–bringing a data-driven approach to identifying what works, and working deeply and closely with social change organizations while communicating effectively with capital providers. We will have more details on our specific strategic direction in early 2012 but are very excited about the possible directions we can take. In many ways, this is our time and we hope to be worthy of these opportunities.

Nell: You recently wrote a book with Jed Emerson about impact investing that charts the field and where it might be going. But the field of impact investing, especially in places like the Social Capital Markets Conference, seems to separate itself from philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. How can and should impact investing and philanthropy collide and what will make that happen?

Antony: Advocates of impact investing have done a great job in the last few years explaining how for-profit investment can be both a morally legitimate and economically effective tool to address intractable social and environmental challenges.

But many of these challenges have been intractable precisely because neither markets nor governments have figured out how to address them. So impact investors will have to collaborate with philanthropists, nonprofits and governments to create comprehensive solutions when no one piece can work alone. At NFF we are increasingly seeing the power and necessity of a “total capital” approach where, for instance, we provide impact investing capital in the form of loans, human capital in the form of (grant-funded) consulting support, and government assistance in the form of subsidy or loan guarantee. This is particularly important as the unemployment crisis places increased demands on already strained organizations. For example, to support a set of leading arts organizations, we secured a PRI from the Mellon Foundation that enabled us to provide loans alongside technical assistance to leading arts organizations. We are now developing a similar integrated approach to support social service agencies such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Nell: The vast majority of money is still bifurcated with for-profit investing on one side and charitable donations on the other. What will it take to change that and get more capital to social change organizations?

Antony: When I began this work at the Rockefeller Foundation almost five years ago I thought we were in the deal-making and infrastructure building business: that a few compelling examples of how impact investing can work and the development of networks and measurement standards to facilitate collaboration would be enough to allow impact investing to take off. But now I realize how impact investing threatens deeply-held mindsets of a bifurcated worldview that insists the only way to solve social challenges is through charity and the only purpose of investing is to make money.

To overcome this belief will require more than analysis and anecdote. Instead we need to build new systems to support the new aspirations. We need:

  • a regulatory and legal framework that recognizes and incentivizes the contributions impact investors can make;
  • educational systems that train young professionals to adapt investment tools to social purpose;
  • measurement systems that allow us to assess and compare the blended value investments generate;
  • nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises equipped to navigate the increasingly complicated strategic options that impact investors present; and,
  • a philanthropic system organized around the question “How can we deploy all our assets to address the social issues we care about?” rather than “How do we give well?”

Nell: What is your idealized financial future for the social change sector? What level and kind of change would you ultimately like to see?

Antony: I envision a day when we organize the social change sector around the problems we seek to solve rather than the tools we happen to hold. Instead of fetishizing the moral or practical supremacy of grant-making or investing, in this world we will recognize that each has a role to play, and they are often most powerful when taken together. Exciting examples are already taking hold. In California, the California Endowment organized a multi-sector coalition to put an end to the “food deserts” that left many poor communities without easy access to purchase healthy food. This collaboration resulted earlier this year in the launch of the FreshWorks Fund that has mobilized grant capital, bank capital, impact investing capital and intellectual capital to bring new grocers into underserved communities. At NFF, we are applying a similar approach in the ArtPlace initiative, which is using arts as an engine for economic development in the US. This initiative has mobilized substantial commitment from private foundations, the US government and commercial banks.

Nell: How much of a panacea for social problems is impact investing? Can double bottom-line investing truly revolutionize how money flows to solving problems? Will it overtake government and philanthropic investment in social problems? And should it?

Antony: Impact investing is not a panacea. We cannot create and sustain a just and vibrant society unless we recognize that many organizations generate social value that cannot be monetized, and instead must be supported through charity and government. But we also must not ignore the vast potential in the trillions of dollars of for-profit investment capital currently lying on the sidelines of the social change agenda.

The global capital markets hold tens of trillions of dollars. Unlocking just one percent for impact investment will bring multiples of the approximately $300 billion in total annual charitable giving in the US. So impact investing can create a huge difference in how quickly or comprehensively we can address those social challenges where lack of money is the main issue.

Impact investing can also be revolutionary by accelerating new discipline in how we identify, assess, and manage our social change agenda. At their best, investors bring a rigor and discipline in allocating scarce resources to their most productive use, where there is a market-based solution. Impact investing will help spur a movement to link social spending to outcomes that a set of organizations can achieve, rather than just the outputs any one organization can deliver. We need to be careful, however, to recognize exactly where these new approaches will work and where simplistic and reductionist thinking will divert resources away from worthy causes or leave behind worthy organizations.

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My Favorite Blogs

I just updated the blogroll on the Social Velocity website. You can see the brand new list under “My Favorite Blogs” on the right hand side of the Blog page, and I’m also including it below for those of you on the RSS feed.

These blogs are my favorite in the social/entrepreneurship/financing worlds. By my “favorite” I mean that these blogs:

  • Consistently create pithy posts that make me think, as opposed to just regurgitate a press release or old argument
  • Include new ideas and arguments
  • Cover the social entrepreneurship, nonprofit, philanthropy, start up, social finance, and/or social business worlds
  • Seed or contribute to larger, interesting discussions in the blogosphere

So here is my list of favorite blogs:

But I always love to be introduced to new blogs, so please tell me your favorite blogs in the comments. If your favorite blogs become mine, I’ll add them to my list.

Photo Credit: Don Cheps

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The Social Capital Markets Conference

In the emerging field of social innovation there are a plethora of conferences here and abroad.  Some are better than others.  One that I am particularly looking forward to is September’s Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco.  This is only the second year of the conference, which brings together social investors, foundations, social entrepreneurs, social venture funds and others interested in expanding the capital available to social entrepreneurs.

In the inaugural conference last year, 600 people from 26 countries attended.  In fact, there was a last minute rush of conference registrations shortly after the financial market collapse, painting an interesting picture of traditional finance migrating to social finance.

The purpose of the conference is to create “a new kind of capital market, a new way of doing business that takes into account people, planet and profit.”  In essence they are attempting to build momentum and action around creating a capital marketplace for social good–financial vehicles for social entrepreneurs both profit and nonprofit.

Whereas last year’s conference focused mainly on for profit social entrepreneurs, this year’s conference is adding some sessions on what conference founder Kevin Jones calls “our nonprofit cousins.”  For example, the opening keynote address will be about how the Obama Administration and its Office of Social Innovation is working to scale high-functioning non-profit organizations to create change. And I’m even getting into the game by moderating a panel about some of the capital tools nonprofit social entrepreneurs have used to go to scale.

I think SoCap provides an excellent venue for bringing all of those working towards expanding the capital available to social entrepreneurs together.  My hope is that this conference goes beyond great examples and great networking and actually helps make more money available to social entrepreneurs, whether they are creating profit or not.

If you are interested in the social capital market space, you don’t want to miss this conference.

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The Convergence of Social and Finance

If you are interested in the dramatic shifts the economy is currently undergoing and what it means for the long term, take a look at the article “Notes from the Leading Edge of Social Finance,” in the Fall issue of Green Money Journal written by Don Shaffer.  Don Shaffer is the CEO of RSF Social Finance, a 20+ year-old, leading-edge, San Francisco foundation that makes loans and grants to nonprofits. He is also the former interim head of Investors Circle, a 200+ member giving circle of venture capitalists who invest in businesses working towards a sustainable economy (social and environmental issues). Don gives a very interesting overview of where the economy is heading, and I think he is right on.

He argues that we are no longer content with an economy focused solely on individual gain, rather there is a new convergence of financial, social and environmental gain, where what is good for the investor is also good for society as a whole. Ultimately he sees the new economy “harnessing the striving energy and entrepreneurial drive of the American people to move more towards collaboration and partnership, instead of maximum individual gain, while honoring the power of free markets.” Here’s an excerpt:

International microfinance is drawing a lot of interest this year from U.S. investors. For good reason, it’s great to see direct investment going to small, growing entrepreneurial ventures in the developing world. But what about our neighbors? As the wealth divide continues to widen in this country, both in urban and rural areas, we are asking ourselves at RSF, “How can our clients best support small and medium-sized, privately held companies in the U.S. that have strong community development and ecological sustainability goals?”…We are creating a learning community that asks hard questions about money and how we use it, acknowledging that money is simply a form of energy that creates a relationship between human beings. What is true wealth…What is the right balance between investment and philanthropy…What does it look like to re-imagine money to serve our highest aspirations? What, specifically, will it take to develop a network of risk and liquidity appropriate financial vehicles that are completely different from the products of Wall Street?

These thoughts and questions are very similar to the conversations that were going on at the Social Capital Markets Conference earlier this month and that are going on around the country.  We are witnessing a pretty dramatic shift, and it is fascinating.

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Thursday, October 23rd, 2008 Innovators, Social Enterprise, Social Investing No Comments


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