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Making Nonprofit Giving Smarter: An Interview With Jacob Harold

Jacob HaroldIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, the clearinghouse of information on nonprofits. Jacob came to GuideStar from the Hewlett Foundation, where he led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. Between 2006 and 2012, he oversaw $30 million in grants that, together, aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving. Jacob was just named to the 2014  NonProfit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: It has been over a year since the Letter to the Donors of America about the overhead myth. Where are we today in getting donors (and board members) to understand that overhead is a destructive mindset? 

Jacob: I’m glad to report that the response to the first overhead myth letter far exceeded our expectations. Hundreds of articles have been written about the letter. It comes up almost every time I hold a meeting or give a talk. For at least a few people, I think it’s been a deep affirmation of something they’ve known a long time. And, indeed, many others in the field have been working on this: the Donors Forum, Bridgespan, the National Council on Nonprofits, and others.

But we also know that we have a long road ahead of us. The overhead myth is deeply ingrained in the culture and systems of the nonprofit sector. It will take years of concerted effort for us to fully move past such a narrow view of nonprofit performance to something that reflects the complexity of the world around us. But it’s essential if we want to ensure we have a nonprofit sector capable of tackling the great challenges of our time.

Nell: The Letter to the Donors of America was obviously focused on the donor side of the problem, but how do we also change the mindset of those nonprofit leaders who perpetuate the Overhead Myth in their reporting, conversations with donors and board members, etc.?

Jacob: This is a critical aspect of the challenge. Every year nonprofits send out something like one billion pieces of direct mail to donors that prominently display their organization’s overhead ratio. It’s no wonder that donors think that’s a proxy for performance—we’ve trained donors to think so!

That’s why the CEOs of Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance and I are currently working on a second overhead myth letter—this one to the nonprofits of America. We’re still finalizing the text, but in it we will be calling on nonprofits to be more proactive about communicating the story of their programmatic work, their governance structures, and the real costs of achieving results. And, more, we want to recruit nonprofits to help us retrain donors to pay attention to what matters: results. In the end, that means that nonprofits have to cut the pie charts showing overhead versus program—and instead step up to the much more important challenge of communicating how you track progress against your mission.

Nell: At the Social Impact Exchange Conference you announced some pretty exciting plans with the GuideStar Exchange to, in essence, create a marketplace of information about nonprofits so that the best nonprofits receive more resources. Talk a little about your plans for the Exchange, and most importantly, how you plan to bring nonprofits and donors there.

Jacob: The GuideStar Exchange is our mechanism for collecting data directly from nonprofits. By going straight to nonprofits we can build on the data we already have from the IRS Form 990. The 990 is a regulatory document, it’s not meant to offer a comprehensive view of nonprofits and their programs—that’s what we’re trying to do with the Exchange. And it also lets us get information much more quickly!

So far we’ve had great success. More than 100,000 nonprofits have shared data with us through the GuideStar Exchange and more than 38,000 have reached one of what we call our participation levels—Bronze, Silver, or Gold. But we have a long way to go if we want to approach a comprehensive view of the marketplace. So we’re adding new incentives for nonprofits to share data through the Exchange, building new ways to distribute that data through other channels and improving the user interface to make the process easier. Right now we’re collecting quantitative financial data and qualitative programmatic data but later this year we’re going to release a tool for collecting quantitative programmatic data, too.

This comes back to the overhead myth campaign. If we’re going to ask donors to go beyond the overhead ratio when considering nonprofits, we have to offer an alternative. GuideStar Exchange is a critical part of that alternative: a chance for nonprofits to tell their story in a structured way that forces them to articulate in clear terms what they’re trying to accomplish, how they’ll get there, and how they’ll measure progress along the way.

Nell: The Money for Good reports that came out a couple of years ago rather discouragingly found that the majority of donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. With the GuideStar Exchange you obviously think that is changeable, so how do we go about changing donor interest and behavior?

Jacob: Well, I had a different read of that data. It is absolutely true that the Money for Good research showed that most donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. But it also showed that a significant portion—about 15%, depending on how you cut the data—do. That may not seem like much, but that represents 30 million people responsible for close to $40 billion in annual giving. So there’s already a huge unserved market, even if it represents a small portion of the entire system of philanthropy.

And at GuideStar we see this every day. We have 7 million unique users a year. And that’s just on our website, our data was used another 22 million times on other platforms last year through just one of our distribution mechanisms. So people want data. And as we get more and more programmatic data—data that is oriented towards results against mission—I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to unlock new behaviors among donors, nonprofit executives, journalists, and others. The nonprofit sector is about to enter a new phase, and I think it’s going to be remarkable.

Photo Credit: GuideStar

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How Do We Scale Social Change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Tricky Work of Scaling Nonprofits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope to see you there!

Image Credit: Social Impact Exchange

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Funding Social Innovation: An Interview with Paul Tarini

In the July installment of the Social Velocity interview series we are talking with Paul Tarini of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. You can read our previous Social Velocity blog interviews with Clara Miller and Kevin Jones.

Paul Tarini is the head of the Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, which actively seeks innovative projects that can lead to fundamental breakthroughs in health and health care.  Because the Pioneer team is dedicated to thinking and talking about new ideas and groundbreaking approaches, including those from nontraditional sources and fields, Pioneer enables the Foundation to make conceptual leaps and take risks in grantmaking that would otherwise not be possible. Since funding is so critical to making social innovation a reality, we thought Paul would have a unique perspective on what funders can do to incentivize social innovation.

Nell: The Pioneer portfolio strikes me as a more risk-tolerant approach to giving than typical foundations are used to. Why is RWJF more comfortable with the risks inherent in this kind of portfolio of projects?

Paul: RWJF is comfortable with the higher risk, unconventional, future-facing ideas Pioneer supports because it first identified a specific niche that needed to be filled within the institutional ecology.  We call that ecology our Impact Framework.  It was conceived of at a time when RWJF was thinking hard about how we organized our work.  The Impact Framework helps us understand our grantmaking as a whole, so, not just what do the grants in a particular area add up to, but what does the whole enterprise add up to.  As we were thinking about the impact we wanted to have, we knew we needed to work in fewer, more focused teams that were/are accountable for specific outcomes.

But we realized that while focus brings power and discipline, it also can be limiting.  We wanted a way to look out beyond the work of these targeted teams.  We were thinking about how to stay relevant for the long run as a philanthropy that operates on a national scale.  We felt that in addition to the targeted work being done, we needed a place devoted to the exploration of new ideas, where we could bring in new concepts, work with different people, and support more unconventional and future-facing ideas.  Such work could help RWJF stay fresh, bring in new ideas and new grantees, continue to grow, stay ahead of the curve.  And, if we found some real winners, health and health care would benefit from the outcomes of those projects.

Out of this came Pioneer.  Here are some examples of the work we’ve supported…We funded a natural resources economist to work on the problem of antibiotic resistance (Don’t approach it as an infectious diseases problem; think about our stock of antibiotics as a natural resource that needs to be managed and develop new policy from that perspective; we’ve been funding research into whether and how digital games can be effective therapeutic interventions (Can a game that uses a breathing tube as the controller that moves characters around the screen help kids with cystic fibrosis improve their breathing therapy?); we’ve funded early work exploring whether there are specific health strengths which, if strengthened more, could serve to forestall disease and mitigate effects once disease strikes.  We’re also supporting work that builds platforms that could produce lots of new knowledge and improve care, including Kaiser Permanente’s Research Program on Genes, the Environment and Health; and, efforts to link electronic health records databases with millions of patient records in order to learn much faster about what works for patients (Rapid Learning).

Nell: I understand that the Pioneer program has a rolling unsolicited application process, but I imagine you probably need to do a good bit of on-the-ground scoping and cultivation of ideas in order to get the most promising projects into the portfolio. How do you create a deal flow for innovative projects?

Paul: This is a constant challenge for us.  We do have an open door, and we do accept unsolicited proposals at any time. But most of the proposals that come in through this door are not good fits for Pioneer. We were set up to explore unconventional and untested approaches to problems, to bring in ideas from other disciplines, to look to the future.  We were not set up to support projects that promise incremental improvements, however important those improvements may be.  We look for projects with the potential for transformative change, the kind of change that can reach beyond a single discipline or group.  Most of what comes in unsolicited doesn’t meet that standard.  Finding ideas takes work.  And because we look for ideas across the breadth of health and health care, we can’t focus on just one haystack to look for needles.  We network.  We connect with interesting people at conferences, we go to events, we take meetings and phone calls, we visit people.  We are experimenting with other ways to source ideas.  We’ve had some success with open-source competitions, though the back end, taking a winning idea and creating a fundable project, takes time.  We are putting a lot of time and energy into social media right now as another way to build networks and find ideas.  Half of me wishes there was an easier way to find ideas, but I suspect that easier would also mean more passive on our part and passive is really boring.

Nell: You currently only invest in nonprofit projects, correct? Do you see the potential for investing in for-profit or hybrid organizations, through mission-related investing, down the road, particularly as social entrepreneurship grows and for-profit solutions to healthcare issues become more prevalent?

Paul: While the majority of our investments, our funding, are in the form of grants to nonprofit organizations, there is nothing that precludes us from supporting for-profit entities.  The largest award to come out of Pioneer to date—$15.6 million—went to a for-profit, Archimedes, Inc. However, before we can make an award to a for-profit, we need to clearly establish that RWJF’s dollars are going to fund an activity with a clear charitable purpose that relates to our mission.   This is just an additional test we need to meet.  The challenge we face on Pioneer is less about whether an entity is a nonprofit, a hybrid, or a for-profit.  Our challenge is whether that entity is doing work that isn’t merely an improvement, but is doing something unconventional, disruptive and future-facing and could produce breakthroughs in health and health care.  If we’re convinced the work meets that standard, we can usually figure out how to fund it.

Nell: What is holding philanthropy back from becoming more innovative and/or risk tolerant?

Paul: People who spend more time observing philanthropies are better suited to answer this question than I am.  That said, I think it’s hard to ask this question about philanthropy as a sector.  Philanthropies have a lot of latitude; you can’t assume they are fairly similar and that we can generalize our way to an answer.  In the same way there are differences between a business that employs 200 people and one with 20,000, there are big differences between a multi-billion-dollar philanthropy and a small community foundation.  Political contexts differ, staff sophistication differs (bigger isn’t always more sophisticated), boards and donors have varying levels of influence, so I think there’s a range of reasons — philanthropy by philanthropy — for being less risk-tolerant.

If I had to pick one reason, it would be that there’s no inherent reason for a philanthropy to be innovative and highly risk-tolerant.  A lot of good can come—and has come—from philanthropies that are cautious.  As I noted above, the decision at RWJF to have a portfolio that takes on more risk came from an institutional recognition of the long-term value to us—and to the field—of such investments.  So the niche-in-the-institutional-ecology point is important here. Also, frankly, our ecology is much larger than most, and so it can be more diverse.  Other philanthropies would need to work though their own reasons to embrace more risk-taking.

Nell: The nonprofit capital market overall is fairly immature compared to the capital market of the for-profit world. Do you see other foundations creating new giving programs or financial vehicles to expand the types of capital available to nonprofits?

Paul: There is a great discussion and a lot of effort being devoted to maturing the nonprofit capital market.  More money, philanthropic and otherwise, is examining and entering this space; and, more nonprofits are thinking about what they need to do to operate in this space.  It’s very exciting and I definitely think we’ll see more of that over time.  But I also think it will be years before we see a robust capital market for nonprofits.  As much interest as there is in moving into this space, the amount of money there and the portion of nonprofits positioned to take advantage of such a capital market is still relatively small compared with traditional ways of financing and operating.

Also, I think it will take a while to understand when it makes sense for nonprofits to access capital markets and when more traditional sources of philanthropic funding are more appropriate.  Philanthropies need to understand better—given what they’re trying to achieve—when a traditional grant makes the most sense and when some other financial vehicle does.

Nell: What do you think is the potential for greater partnerships between foundations and individual investors to bring more capital to social entrepreneurs, particularly in the healthcare sector?

Paul: Good question.  For large foundations such as RWJF, I think we need to consider carefully when looking at when individual investors as funding partners makes sense.  The projects we fund, by their nature, tend to be large.  The effort involved in soliciting individual investors might not be worth the result unless we are looking at folks who have considerable wealth at their disposal.  It’s a lift when you’re trying to aggregate a bunch of $100,000 contributions to reach $5 million; fundraising is not a core competency of ours.  I do think, though, that efforts such as the Social Impact Exchange, where individual dollars would flow directly to the organizations that need them, make a lot of sense.  So I think the opportunities for individual investors to participate as true funding partners on projects with RWJF are probably limited, though we are open to them if they make sense.  But there are definitely opportunities for foundations such as RWJF to help individual investors find groups that are worthy recipients.

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