Stanford Social Innovation Review
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Fay Twersky. Fay, an expert on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, serves as the Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In that capacity, she oversees five functions including cross-foundation support, evaluation and organizational learning as well as grantmaking in support of organizational effectiveness and a strong philanthropic sector. Prior to Hewlett, Twersky was at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, designing and developing their Impact Planning & Improvement division.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: As head of the Effective Philanthropy group at Hewlett you obviously think a lot about how nonprofits and philanthropy can work better together. There is a very real power imbalance between those doing the work (nonprofits) and those funding that work (philanthropists). How can we overcome that power imbalance so that there are fewer hurdles standing in the way of the work?
Fay: If we are being totally honest, I am not sure that we ever fully overcome the power imbalance. But, the first step is, simply to be more honest. Candor and openness can go a long way. One the funder side, if funders are more open and candid about what we can and cannot do with respect to funding, if we clearly communicate about our priorities, strategies, goals, and funding criteria, that will help a lot. If we listen to nonprofits with open ears and keep an open mind, that will help build more productive relationships. If our funding is fair and flexible, and we recognize through our support that nonprofits need overhead to run a high performing organization, our grantees might experience us as more respectful and fair.
On the nonprofit side, I think it is also essential to be more honest. Actually, what I really mean here is to be more realistic – more realistic about expected results, about timeframes and what it takes to run an effective organization. In addition to saving lives, reducing carbon emissions, or improving reading skills, nonprofits also have to pay the rent and buy computers. Be honest with yourselves and your funders about what is required to run a top notch nonprofit. We need to know. We also need to know if we are making the wrong assumptions or ill-conceived decisions.
Nonprofits are often complicit in the funding game of over-promising and under-delivering. It may be that funders have more power to change that expectation, and we should, but nonprofits can also do their part by regularly educating us on the art of the possible.
The truth is, we need each other in order to create the change we seek in the world.
Nell: One of the goals of the Effective Philanthropy group is to improve the overall effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. That is a big undertaking. How do you go about that?
Fay: Not alone!
The philanthropic sector is growing at a tremendous rate. In 1990, there were 32,000 foundations in the United States. Today, there are 115,000. And, that number is likely to continue to grow. And those foundations are dedicated to a huge diversity of needs. The Hewlett Foundation views our philanthropy grantmaking as a highly leveraged way to improve all of philanthropy—so that the many areas of need are funded and supported in smart and sustainable ways.
We have a modest budget for grantmaking to improve the sector, and we pursue two strategies to achieve that goal. Our first strategy focuses on producing and disseminating knowledge about how to do philanthropy well. Our grantees in this portfolio include groups like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Foundation Center. We are hosting a convening of our knowledge grantees this month to seek their input into our strategy going forward and any changes we should consider. Our second strategy is brand new and currently in development. One of our primary goals with this new strategy is to pursue grantmaking collectively with other funders. The strategy will likely focus on ways to promote more openness among foundations. More on that later in 2014 as it develops.
Nell: Another aspect of your work is to make grants to nonprofits for organizational effectiveness, or in other words, capacity building. But few foundations recognize the need to invest in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations. What is Hewlett doing to convince more philanthropists to invest in organizational effectiveness?
Fay: We think it is essential to support nonprofits to be high performing organizations, and not projects for hire. We do this by providing flexible general operating support when we can and also through organizational effectiveness grants – grants that are explicitly targeting improvements to the strategic and operational aspects of an organizations. These are typically smaller grants, but, according to our grantee perception report survey results, they are greatly appreciated by our grantees. A lot of the credit for our program really goes to the Packard Foundation, on whose program ours is modeled.
We regularly consult with colleagues in philanthropy about how we approach our work and sing the praises of our OE grants, but we know that there is still a long way to go among foundations overall. I don’t know the numbers, but I am hopeful that we are seeing a positive trend as there does seem to me to be more interest in supporting organizational capacity. This year, we are conducting our first ever comprehensive evaluation of our organizational effectiveness grantmaking program, and we are committed to widely sharing the results and any resulting refinements to our approach.
Nell: There is a growing push to encourage nonprofits to evaluate their work. But there is a chicken or the egg situation where nonprofits can’t find the funding to create performance management systems, and so they can’t demonstrate the value of their work in order to secure more funding. How do we solve that?
Fay: There is so much I could say about this topic having worked on all sides of this equation–in a nonprofit, as an evaluation consultant and as a funder. But, I will limit myself to a couple of points.
First is funding. Foundations need to provide funding for measurement. Nonprofits must build it in as a line item in every budget. Measurement is not a nice to have. It is a need to have. Just like rent.
Second is mindset. Measurement is not for punishment, but for learning. Funders need to approach it this way too. This is related to your first question, about removing hurdles in the funder/grantee relationship. If funders want to have more honest relationships with our grantees, we have to encourage the sharing of news about disappointing results and be prepared to provide continued support for course correction. Not every time of course.
I have had several different experiences that relate to mindset. One was as a funder with a reluctant nonprofit. This was a situation where I had questions and concerns about a particular program we were funding and suggested to the CEO that they conduct a formative evaluation of the program and that we would fund the full costs of the evaluation. He was reluctant and protective of his program. He in a sense fell in love with the program instead of its purpose. After several conversations, he was still unwilling to engage in an evaluation and given that circumstance, which I experienced as a lack of openness to learn, we stopped funding that program. It is essential for all of us to have the courage to learn and change.
I have had many more wonderful experiences with supporting nonprofits to measure results. The best of these do not just deliver good news. They are evaluations that produce information for nonprofits to learn from, to be challenged by and to catalyze improvement. And, when nonprofits share those lessons with us, we get smarter. Because most of the knowledge out there is within reach of the nonprofit organizations. And, as they say, knowledge is power. Perhaps the secret to this funder grantee relationship is recognizing that true power imbalance should rightly tip in the nonprofit’s favor.
Photo Credit: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
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
There was a lot of talk in November about how we actually make the shift toward measuring outcomes in the nonprofit world. And the resounding theory was that we should start with funders and funding for evaluation. Let’s hope philanthropists are listening!
And speaking of funding, there were some fascinating articles about the financing of public parks and how philanthropic, corporate and public money all affect a very public good.
At the end of the day it’s always about money isn’t it?
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in November. But as usual, please add what I missed in the comments.
- A fascinating article in The New Yorker unpacks some recent developments with the funding of New York City parks, the delicate balance between private philanthropy and public goods, and how both contribute to or detract from equality. Exploring a similarly murky delineation between public goods and corporate profit, this article from The Atlantic Cities describes a new trend in corporately-financed public parks.
- Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christina Triantaphyllis and Matthew Forti argue that NGOs need to move from overhead measures to cost-per-impact measures. And funders need to help that shift happen.
- Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy would agree, it seems. As he puts it, “Until foundations really step up and support nonprofits’ data collection, assessment, and improvement, we will not get the best out of our collective efforts.” Tell ’em, Phil!
- But maybe the solution is more systematic. Ever the visionary, David Henderson offers an idea to make the shift toward impact by tying charitable deductions to outcomes. Crazy or brilliant?
- The nonprofit sector really needs to get over its inferiority complex, and to help, the University of San Francisco’s MPA program developed this great infographic on The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector.
- From the HubSpot blog comes some tips for how nonprofits can use social media to really engage people, and The Guardian in the UK offers the 5 characteristics of the top 30 nonprofit CEOs on social media.
- On the How Matters blog Jennifer Lentfer argues that the “social good industry” wrongly assumes “that in the developing world, nothing exists, i.e. that there’s a blank slate upon which our interventions can be built.”
- There are some great reports and data analysis tools recently released. For a start, you can dig into the foundation landscape, analyze nonprofit financial performance, or understand how content marketing and technology are being used for social good.
- Speaking of technology for social good, crowdfunding is becoming a bigger funding source for social causes, raising $2.7 billion in 2012. Lucy Bernholz rounds up the research on this emerging and not fully understood funding vehicle.
- And finally, a really cool example of truly public art has emerged in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo Credit: kakao-bean
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Perla Ni, CEO of GreatNonprofits. Perla was the founder and former publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the leading journal on nonprofit management and philanthropy. Prior to her work at SSIR, Ni co-founded Grassroots Enterprise, later acquired by global public relations firm, Edelman. A frequent speaker on nonprofits and philanthropy, she has been named a “Top Game Changer” by the Huffington Post.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: GreatNonprofits is an interesting spin on the growing nonprofit ratings market in that you gather consumer reviews of nonprofits. Why do you think what donors, volunteers, and clients have to say about a nonprofit is important to potential donors?
Perla: We think people with direct experience with a nonprofit, especially the nonprofit’s beneficiaries, are in the best position to tell us about the difference that that nonprofit has made in their life or their community.
In the seven years that we’ve been doing this, we have learned a couple of things about collecting beneficiary feedback. It’s not only the right thing to do – to empower the voice of beneficiaries so that they are treated with dignity – it is also the smart thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do because it is highly correlated with actual program outcome. We’ve seen the linkage between effective outcomes and organizations that collect and listen to their beneficiaries.
Although there are ongoing conversations about the best metrics for judging quality, there is agreement that, for almost every sector, consumer satisfaction and feedback drive quality through transparency and competition.
A trend toward human-centered design, where products are designed and rapidly iterated upon with feedback generated from users, is another example of how client responsiveness leads to improved outcomes.
GreatNonprofits has been collecting feedback about a wide variety of health, human service, arts and education organizations.
Nicole Molinaro, former executive director of Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County, a Pennsylvania-based dropout prevention program serving at-risk youth, found great value in constituent feedback, “What interested us in being open to reviews from our constituents is really the desire to improve our services. Without hearing feedback about what we’re doing well and what we can do better, we really can’t make improvements in how we serve our kids.”
Due in part to feedback submitted by students, the organization added a student lounge as a safe, accessible place for the students to spend time in before and after programs.
In a recent GreatNonprofits survey of nonprofits, we found that a large number of nonprofits are listening to beneficiary feedback and some are taking action.
- 78% share reviews with board members
- 72% share reviews with staff
- 54% share reviews with volunteers
- 49% share reviews with donors
- 23% share reviews with clients
- 26% say reviews have impacted their operations
In fact, in Learning for Social Impact, a report for donors and foundations by McKinsey & Company, the number one recommendation given to funders is for them to “hear the constituent’s voice.”
These rich, detailed and concrete experiences from people who have actually experienced the work of the nonprofit—been fed by the food bank, helped by the after-school program—are a better way to discover the most effective charities than through tax forms. According to our survey of our users:
- 90% of donors say that reading reviews of clients help them understand the work of the nonprofit
- 80% of donors say that it influences their decision to give
Nell: How does a great customer experience (a review from a volunteer that had a great experience with a nonprofit) translate into a nonprofit’s ability to create social change? Or should or does a donor care about that?
Perla: In the excellent article “Listening to Those Who Matter Most, The Beneficiaries” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the authors show that, in the studies about school performance and patient outcomes, there is a high degree of correlation between listening to the student/patient and success.
Donors care about real world outcomes–how is my money helping?
Nell: What do you make of the growing debate about what information donors want and actually use in making their funding decisions? Do you think how donors make their giving decisions and what information they use to make those decisions has or is changing?
Perla: It starts with the donor. Donors want to improve the world, to make a difference. And the donors typically want to spend their time and money effectively. How do you find a nonprofit that is aligned with your passion and making a real difference on the ground?
Well, it requires listening to the voices of people on the ground – the ex-felon in a job training program, the student receiving mentorship, the volunteer who organized the environmental conference, the donor who visited the school in Cambodia – who have seen the first-hand impact of nonprofits.
These are not the usual people that donors listen to – they may be different from us in so many ways – income, class, geography, or race.
And if the donor wants to empower real, tangible changes in the lives of people and communities they want to improve, he/she needs to have the discipline to do that. It’s part of the first rule of philanthropy “don’t do something about me, without me.”
It’s a radical discipline, transparency and accountability that we must hold each of ourselves to, including the donor.
We don’t see this discipline as just funding decision-making. We see this as community engagement. The donor and the beneficiaries needs to be part of this philanthropic marketplace together to share insights on what works, what doesn’t yet and what could help to make a greater difference.
Nell: You were also the founder of the Stanford Social Innovation Review which is currently celebrating its 10th year. 10 years in to this world of social innovation what do you think we have to show for it? Have we gotten better at solving social problems?
Perla: If you Google “social innovation,” you get 648 million search results. This wasn’t at all the case 10 years ago! We pretty much invented that term.
One of the accomplishments, I think, is that social issues are no longer ghettoized as nonprofit issues. It’s not just a nonprofit problem or a business problem or a technology problem. Social innovation, which was always focused on finding new ways to solve problems, agnostic of the approach of the sector, is broadening our framework and ways that we network to achieve our goals. Now published by the incredibly prolific Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, SSIR reaches business people, foundations, technology leaders, and nonprofits. Social innovation is about bringing an open, entrepreneurial outlook to enterprises – start-up and mature organizations alike. We’d also like to think that it helped popularize other concepts such as social entrepreneurship, which has blossomed into an area of study in school, as well as create a new kind of career identity. At the core is a belief in not being complacent, not doing the same old same old, or talking to the same people. It’s really about creating a broad mindset for ideas and different people.
Nell: Much speculation has occurred about what effect millennial donors will have on philanthropy, because of the huge wealth transfer they will enjoy, their large numbers and the new ways they are sharing information about their giving. What are your thoughts on how or if Millennial donors will change philanthropy?
Perla: Millenials are more civic-minded, more public about their giving and more likely to be bifurcated in their giving – give locally and internationally.
They may find the idea of donating to their parents’ alma mater or their parents’ charity as rather stuffy. They are a more connected, shop local, eat local, biking/walk generation – and so they are more drawn to the idea of helping their local community. They are also well-traveled and more connected internationally, so they have a high interest in giving internationally as well.
There is something pretty interesting going on in Illinois around nonprofit overhead costs. I have written many times (here and here for example) about how the distinction between “overhead” and “program” costs in the nonprofit sector is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst.
I’m really excited to see that the Donors Forum in Illinois is starting to host real conversations between nonprofits and philanthropists about the Real Costs (including administrative costs) necessary to create effective social change.
With the help of the Bridgespan Group, in March the Donors Forum brought nonprofits and philanthropists together for a one-day discussion about real costs in the nonprofit sector. They want funders to understand that it is not enough to fund only nonprofit programs. In order to create effective social change, nonprofits must also be able to fund the infrastructure, staffing, space, tools, and research costs of their work.
The image above is a graphic facilitation of the March session. The Donors Forum has also developed a great website with resources for nonprofits and philanthropists about real costs, including Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard’s seminal article in the 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle,” reports and resources about nonprofit fiscal fitness, Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s study on how philanthropy is changing, and much more.
As part of their efforts, the Donors Forum has also put together this video that helps to explain, in very clear terms, the critical importance of funding ALL of a nonprofit’s costs:
I’m excited to see where this conversation goes and whether more nonprofits and philanthropists start having open, honest conversations about what it really takes to create lasting social change. I’m hoping to interview Valerie Lies, President and CEO of the Donors Forum, later this year about this initiative and where they hope to go from here. So stay tuned.
April was all data, all the time. From big data, to performance data, to how donors use data to improve programs, to whether donors even care about data. It’s enough to make your head spin. But many people were cautioning to keep the end goal in mind. Data is only data, its ultimate use is to create social change.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in April. But let me know in the comments what I missed. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or my newest addition, Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Writing on the Full Contact Philanthropy blog, David Henderson argues that we must understand the limitations of data, as he says “Decisions we make should be informed by data, but data does not make decisions for us.”
- Daryn McKeever from the Gates Foundation seems to agree arguing that we need to move from Big Data to Big Wisdom, using data to make better decisions. And David Brooks writing in the New York Times seems to fall into the same camp.
- The Stanford Social Innovation Review is celebrating their 10 year anniversary and as part of the festivities are running a series of essays about how social innovation has evolved and where it’s going. Part of that series is Tim Ogden’s controversial (I think) post claiming that contrary to growing belief donors don’t care about impact any more than they ever did.
- As a counterpoint, the recent NextGen study from the Johnson Center on Philanthropy found some pretty significant changes in how the newest donors, Millennials, do philanthropy. Michael Moody and Sharna Goldseker, authors of the report, break down how they think donors are changing.
- And adding to the conversation about whether donors care about outcomes, a debate raged between William Schambra from the Hudson Institute and Ken Berger from Charity Navigator. William argues that moving the nonprofit sector to outcomes measurement would lose other, more important and less tangible benefits (civic engagement, social bonds) that the sector promotes. But Ken argues that measuring outcomes is absolutely critical to helping the nonprofit sector create more change.
- During April’s annual Skoll World Forum a new Social Progress Index launched, a measure for comparing different countries abilities’ to “provide for the social and environmental needs of their citizens.” The hope is that the index will help guide social investment decisions. It will be interesting to watch how it evolves.
- For a really interesting case study on use of data, The National Center for Arts Research interviews Kate Levin, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs about how they use data to make the case for investments in culture.
- I have been fascinated to watch New Orleans’ renaissance via social innovation in the years following Katrina. Two recent articles (here and here) highlight exactly how the city is coming back and the role social innovation is playing in that comeback.
- Albert Ruesga, Chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and editor of the White Courtesy Telephone blog, writes a fairly scathing (but in a nice way) post about how philanthropists need to start having more difficult, honest conversations in order to move the sector forward. His post was in response to Caroline Preston’s February Chronicle of Philanthropy article in a similar vein and the impetus for a panel discussion in DC along the same lines. They promise to keep this conversation going. Let’s hope, because we need more cruelty, or at least honesty, in the sector.
- As I said last month, crowdfunding is apparently the next new shiny thing. And April continued the drumbeat with many more articles, the most interesting of which was Dowser’s list of 10 New Platforms for Crowdfunding.
Photo Credit: o5com
I’ve been out exploring the Western states of the country (which I HIGHLY recommend) for the last few weeks, so my blog posts have been sparse, and my 10 Great Reads for July a bit delinquent, so please forgive me.
Below are the 10 things that got me thinking last month. You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads here. As always, please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below.
- In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Paul Connolly argues that foundation support of fundraising capacity has limited returns. Although I completely agree that you cannot build fundraising capacity without building the capacity of other aspects of the organization, I think he takes this a bit too far. It is critical that more donors, not less, support the organizational capacity, as opposed to just the programs, of nonprofits.
- Talk about innovative, arts groups try the airline company pricing approach to ticket sales.
- From the Harvard Business Review blog comes a great idea: A Gap Year for Grown-ups. Far beyond the author’s argument about the benefits to the individual, something like this could dramatically increase the ranks of national service programs.
- An MBA myself, I love the fact that more MBA students are turning to social enterprise.
- The Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog gives us 11 examples of innovative nonprofit websites that are designed for the social web.
- Khan Academy, an education website, is being used to teach kids in new, interesting, and controversial ways.
- From one of my favorite blogs, Full Contact Philanthropy, comes an argument about how even simple evaluation can help create more effective programs.
- Extending Mario Marino’s argument in Leap of Reason, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy argues that foundations need to provide support to nonprofits working on performance measurement.
- And echoing Leap of Reason’s core argument, Paul Light argues in a Washington Post OpEd that “nonprofit leaders have to get better at measuring the value they produce.”
- Guest blogging on the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Tony Wang argues that philanthropy needs to be more critical of itself.
Photo Credit: Infrogmation
It amazes me how much the funder, government, and even sometimes nonprofit leadership, bias against nonprofit capacity building holds the sector back. It seems like such a simple thing: in order to get more results you need to devote time, energy and resources to organization building. In order to find the resources required to deliver programs, you need to invest in fantastic fundraisers. In order to track program results, you need a system which includes technology and staff. In order to have a fantastically talented staff, you need a human resources function that takes the time to vet great candidates. A nonprofit cannot exist on direct program dollars alone.
The idea that the vast majority of nonprofit funding should go to direct program expenses is ludicrous. Why is there even a distinction between program and non-program expenses? Doesn’t a nonprofit exist to deliver programs? And doesn’t that mean that everything they do helps to make those programs better, stronger, bigger, more effective? Why is capacity such a dirty word?
I met with a nonprofit Development Director earlier this month who has had a really hard time convincing their CEO and board to let them spend money on a donor database and some fundraising materials. Yet, at the same time the Development Director is expected to raise millions of dollars in revenue. That sounds completely crazy, doesn’t it? But in the world in which I work that is often the rule rather than the exception. Infrastructure, capacity, fundraising, marketing, and operations dollars are somehow bad, dirty, not necessary, dismissed.
Which is why the recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Bridgespan Group’s Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard was such a breath of sanity-infested fresh air. If you are nonprofit staffer, board member, donor, or volunteer, I really encourage you to read the whole article. They have studied what they call the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle”–nonprofit organizations’ continual drive to do more and more with less and less– and come up with a path out of the insanity.
What seems like such an obvious statement, its almost a truism–“Organizations that build robust infrastructure—which includes sturdy information technology systems, financial systems, skills training, fundraising processes, and other essential overhead—are more likely to succeed than those that do not”–is so often overlooked by nonprofit organizations. But I think most nonprofit leaders would tell you that they would love to spend money on infrastructure, that they absolutely understand the return on investment, but funders and board members have a hard time allocating money to those projects.
In their work with nonprofits at Bridgespan Group, Gregory and Howard uncovered three reasons for this inability to build capacity in the nonprofit world:
- Funders have unrealistic expectations about how much it costs to run a nonprofit
- Nonprofits need to conform to these unrealistic expectations in order to receive funding
- Nonprofits underreport infrastructure expenditures on tax forms and in fundraising materials
The end result is a vicious circle where few fund or spend money on infrastructure in the nonprofit space: “This underspending and underreporting in turn perpetuates funders’ unrealistic expectations. Over time, funders expect grantees to do more and more with less and less—a cycle that slowly starves nonprofits.”
The solution, Gregory and Howard argue, is to begin at the source of this vicious cycle: the funders. They argue if funders can be educated about the true costs and infrastructure necessary to build organizations to solve social problems, then we can break out of this destructive cycle. I strongly agree with that. It is difficult for nonprofits to turn to the hand that feeds them and tell them that they need more in order to do more, but such conversations are absolutely critical if we are to get beyond the starvation cycle.
But funders aren’t the sole impediment. Gregory and Howard argue that nonprofits play a part in this dysfunctional view of capacity, and there are a number of things that they can do to turn things around. Nonprofit leaders should analyze their real overhead costs and infrastructure needs, educate their boards about these real needs and then engage their board in communicating these needs with funders. And board members are just as culpable. They must encourage nonprofit leaders to develop strategies to address their true infrastructure needs and then take responsibility for encouraging funders (often board members’ friends and colleagues) to be realistic about what is required to make the nonprofit highly functioning.
I actually think that funders are much more receptive to these capacity conversations than some nonprofits give them credit for. My work at Social Velocity is all about organization building, and I often encourage nonprofit leaders to tell their board members and their closest donors what they really need to succeed. I have found that those donors who really believe in an organization will understand when a compelling case that it takes resources to take an organization to the next level is put before them.
I think the bottomline is that we have to stop playing games. Stop underreporting infrastructure costs, stop telling funders its ok to ask nonprofits to do more with less, stop telling the public that direct program costs are better than indirect program costs, stop telling boards of directors that its ok to ignore infrastructure needs. It’s a difficult conversation, there is no doubt, but what’s the alternative? We all know how a starvation cycle ends.