theory of change
This month’s Reader Question is about convincing people to give. A reader wants to know why it’s so hard to get people to understand that their nonprofit’s work is important.
Here’s the question:
I am tired of trying to convince people who don’t understand the importance of our work to give us money. It’s so obvious that the work we are doing in the community is important. How do I get people to understand?
And here’s my response:
You can see other reader questions and my responses on the Reader Questions page of the website.
And if you have a question you’d like to see me answer on the blog, submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Reader Question.” I look forward to hearing from you!
As I mentioned earlier this week, I participated in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Chat on Tuesday with Karina Mangu-Ward from ArtsFwd. We were talking about how to connect money and mission. The Live Chat was a lot of fun, and we got some great questions from the audience. Below is an excerpt from the Chat. If you want to see more you can read the entire transcript of the chat at the Chronicle site here.
Here’s an excerpt from the Chat:
TB Asks: How would you suggest starting to rein in an organization what has started to chase dollars vs. trying to fulfill it’s mission? In my organization’s case this includes having acquired multiple other programs and is looking to take over more. They are good programs, but the alignment to mission is marginal and that ability to be financially stable as an organization is threatened. The CEO is all in, the board is apathetic. As the development officer I’m not sure what I can do to get the train back on the tracks. Thoughts?
I would start by bringing everyone together with a theory of change…
A theory of change articulates how a nonprofit translates community resources into change to a social problem…
Without that you will just be chasing dollars and programs. A theory of change can also excite and inspire a disengaged board and staff…
It can serve as a rallying point for the organization to determine what they are trying to accomplish and what resources they need (financial model) to be able to accomplish those things.
TB – One of the things that I’ve seen organizations struggle with the most…
is having difficult conversations….
conversations that require staff and board to let go of the old way of doing things….
to challenge their assumptions about how much money they need and for what…
i completely agree with Nell that having a framework for change is essential…
change doesn’t happen quickly. It’s incredibly difficult work, and acknowledging that it’s a process that organizations must learn and get good at is essential.
You can read the transcript of the full chat here.
Photo Credit: Chronicle of Philanthropy
When Mario Morino’s book Leap of Reason came out in 2011 I called it a Call to Arms for the Nonprofit Sector, because I believe Mario was challenging the nonprofit sector to undergo a complete shift from “doing good work” to becoming a performance management sector. And in recent year we are witnessing an ever-increasing effort to get nonprofits to demonstrate the results of their work. The companion to Leap of Reason, Working Hard and Working Well by David Hunter was released last week, and it makes an interesting follow up.
David has the same no-nonsense, tell it like it is, style that I love about Mario. David writes that his book “is a response to my perception that the social sector has failed, so far, to live up to its promise.” But he doesn’t just blame the nonprofits, he also finds fault with their funders and says his book is also “an admonishment to those funders who demand performance in which they don’t invest, results for which they don’t pay, and accountability from which they exempt themselves.” Ah, how true!
As David explains it, performance management has been given a bad rap in the nonprofit sector because it has so often been “compliance management,” something that was shoved down nonprofit throats by government or private funders seeking to limit the risk of their investments, rather than something that nonprofits themselves designed in order to create more effective social change.
David provides numerous nonprofit case studies that illustrate this new performance management mindset. My favorite was the Our Piece of the Pie case study, a broad social services nonprofit in Connecticut that had a watershed moment when they decided to focus their services just on youth. From that difficult and courageous decision, the nonprofit eventually transferred 600 clients, 30 employees and $1million to 3 local nonprofits that were a better fit for those outlier programs. As David explained, “It is rare for an organization to reach such strategic clarity…and even rarer to have the courage to challenge the continued relevance of its legacy programs and services.” Absolutely! When a nonprofit focuses their efforts on what they do best, instead of what they have always done, it can transform the organization and ultimately result in better outcomes.
The aim of David’s book is to leave a detailed model for nonprofits and consultants to use to create performance-based organizations. My favorite part of his model is “result-focused budgeting” where he takes nonprofits and funders to task for using “a shoestring budget that is inadequate to support the capacity building needed for high performance.” Amen to that! You simply CANNOT create high quality outcomes when you lack organizational capacity. The two will not coexist.
David spends the bulk of the book describing in detail the 4-day theory of change workshop he uses with nonprofits. While I applaud the probing nature of his model and its focus on creating clarity and metrics, I have some problems with the approach. His model assumes an organization can determine mission, vision, strategic direction and performance metrics in an isolated room over 4 days. But the reality is that nonprofits can no longer create their value proposition in a vacuum. A nonprofit must get outside the organization and understand the external marketplace of changing demographics, community needs, and competing solutions in order to then chart their course.
At the end of the day, though, I think David’s book adds tremendous value to the sector. He demands that nonprofits start asking hard questions and making difficult decisions. Ultimately David is encouraging nonprofits to move from “compliance management” to true performance management where they chart their own course and determine what it is they exist to do and whether they are doing that, not in order to garner more funding, but in order to ensure that they are actually making a difference for their clients.
A new report from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64 gives us the first real glimpse into the minds of the next generation of philanthropists, and it’s fascinating. These are not your father’s philanthropists. Millennial and GenX donors (wealthy individuals, or individuals who will inherit wealth, born between 1964-2000) will control more philanthropic dollars than any previous generation. And more importantly, they think about giving in very different ways than their parents or grandparents did. Which means nonprofits need to pay attention.
This next generation of philanthropists is so critical because it’s estimated that $41 trillion will transfer from the Baby Boom to these next generations in the next 40 years. And since much of this wealth could become philanthropic, some have predicted “a new golden age of philanthropy.”
But it’s not just the unprecedented wealth that makes this new generation of philanthropists so important, it’s the fact that they want to fundamentally change philanthropy. According to the report: “They want to make philanthropy more impactful, more hands on, more networked.”
The key findings from the report are that these NextGen donors are:
- Focused on Impact. “They see previous generations as more motivated by a desire for recognition or social requirements, while they see themselves as focused on impact, first and foremost.”
- Giving Based on Values. “They fund many of the same causes that their families support and even give locally, so long as that philanthropy fits with their personal values.”
- Looking to Be Engaged. “Giving without significant, hands-on engagement feels to them like a hollow investment with little assurance of impact.”
- Paving Their Own Way. “While they respect their families’ legacies and continue to give to similar causes and in similar ways as their families, they are also eager to revolutionize philanthropy.”
This report is further proof of the major trends changing the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Given where the sector is heading, there are three things nonprofit leaders should understand and embrace:
- Outcomes are here to stay. In order to compete for funding you must be able to prove the results of what you are doing, what change you are creating. NextGen donors are doing their homework and want to understand what impact their dollars will have. To stay relevant, you need to start by creating a theory of change and then figure out how you can being managing to outcomes.
- Giving has gone social. NextGen donors rely heavily on their social networks to make decisions, including their giving. And they offer their knowledge of worthy causes to their friends as well. So if you aren’t part of the social network you will be left behind. Start to open your organization to become a networked nonprofit and watch your support and influence grow.
- Donors are more than a checkbook. This next generation of donors doesn’t want to just write a check, have their name on a wall and be done with it. They want to really get to know the causes in which they invest. And the word “invest” is an apt one. These donors want to give money, time, mind-share, networks to things they believe in. And if you can employ that passion and investment effectively you will get so much more than just dollars. So figure out how to engage donors in much deeper, more meaningful ways.
This is a really exciting time for philanthropy and ultimately for the nonprofit sector it funds. But it’s up to nonprofit leaders to understand these fundamental shifts and adapt accordingly.
Photo Credit: www.nextgendonors.org
As I’ve said many times before, it’s no longer enough for nonprofits to do “good work.” Funders, policy makers, board members are increasingly demanding that nonprofits explain what change they exist to create. With increasing competition for social change dollars it is absolutely crucial that nonprofit organizations develop their own theory of change. This Social Velocity webinar “The Power of a Theory of Change” can help you do just that.
A theory of change is basically an argument for why a nonprofit exists. It describes how an organization uses community resources (money, volunteers, clients) to perform a set of activities which result in changes to the clients’ lives (outcomes) and changes to broader communities, institutions, or systems (impact).
Essentially a theory of change describes how a nonprofit creates social change.
It used to be enough for a nonprofit to talk about what it produced (or outputs), such as meals served in a soup kitchen, hours spent reading to a child, beds provided in a homeless shelter, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world where there are fewer and fewer dollars and more and more nonprofits fighting for those dollars, people are increasingly asking the question “To What End?” So what if you created outputs, did anything really change because of your work? Did the lives of those in your program change and did the community change?
That’s where a theory of change comes in. If you can articulate what change you hope your organization is creating, then with that fundamental building block in place you can:
- Chart a strategic direction
- Prove your results
- Secure more support for your organization
And ultimately achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: sustainable community change.
The “Power of a Theory of Change” webinar will help you:
- Understand what a theory of change is and how it can help your nonprofit
- Develop your nonprofit’s own theory of change
- Connect your mission to your new theory of change
- Learn how to use your theory of change to chart a strategic direction
- Use your theory of change to attract more funding
- Help your board understand its power
And remember, all Social Velocity webinars are available as recorded downloads, so even if you can’t make this date and time you can still register for the webinar and get access to all of the content.
Photo Credit: frank.itlab.us
There is a way off of the exhausting nonprofit hamster wheel of trying to do more and more with less and less. If your nonprofit can articulate the value you provide, strengthen your organization, develop a groundbreaking board, chart a strategic direction, and attract more support, you will set yourself up to achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: lasting change to a social problem.
It’s a process where your nonprofit assembles 5 building blocks that each build on the next one:
- Articulate Your Nonprofit’s Value
It is no longer enough for nonprofits to do “good work.” Funders, policy makers, board members, and others are increasingly demanding that nonprofits explain what value they provide a community and what change they exist to create.
- Strengthen Your Organization
Once you know your value, you must build your organization. Nonprofits can no longer scrape by without the staff, infrastructure, technology and systems they need to deliver results-driven programs. They must create a plan to strengthen their organization and raise capacity capital to implement it.
- Develop a Groundbreaking Board
A strong organization requires a groundbreaking board to lead it. A nonprofit’s board of directors is absolutely critical. Without their leadership, investment and excitement it will be impossible to build community support and create change. A groundbreaking board provides strategic direction, brings money in the door, connects the organization to key decision makers and ultimately leads the organization to success.
- Chart a Strategic Direction
But without a clear future direction a nonprofit is living in the world of just doing good work. A nonprofit that puts together a thoughtful, comprehensive plan for the future will attract more support, increase staff and board investment, and ultimately create more social change.
- Attract More Support
Once these four elements are in place, a nonprofit is ready to attract more support. In an increasingly competitive funding environment it is more important than ever that nonprofits develop a long-term financing plan for their organization. A plan that determines how the organization will bring enough money in the door to achieve their mission.
These 5 elements build on each other and, once assembled, look like this:
The consulting services I provide are tailored to assist nonprofits wherever they are in this process. From developing a theory of change, to raising capacity capital, to revamping the board, to creating a strategic plan, to developing a financing plan. I help nonprofits make the leap from just getting by to creating sustainable social impact.
In order to help you determine where you are in this process and where you need help, we have organized the Consulting page of the Social Velocity website by this 5-stage process.
But there are also nonprofits that are so new or so small that they simply aren’t ready for outside help. Over the past two years I’ve been developing a whole suite of tools for these smaller, younger nonprofits. The e-books, webinars, and step-by-step guides on our Tools page all fit into this 5-stage process as well. So you can determine where you are in the process and what you need in order to move forward.
Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff
As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, I spoke at the Women’s Collective Giving Network’s national conference last week about the Power of a Theory of Change. I have been doing a lot of speaking to nonprofit conferences, boards, donors and other groups around the country this year, and I love it. I get really excited about helping people see things in new ways.
If you’d like to see a clip from my Power of a Theory of Change speech, you can view it below, or by clicking here to watch if you are reading this in an email.
Some of the other topics I speak about to nonprofit boards, staffs, donors, conferences include:
- Financing not Fundraising
- Where Nonprofits Fit in the Social Entrepreneurship Movement
- The Future of the Nonprofit Sector
- Jump Starting Your Board
- Creating a Financing Plan
- Messaging Impact
- Creating a Succession Plan
- Leading Honest Conversations Between Funders and Nonprofits
- The Critical Connection Between Mission and Money
If you’d like to learn more about my fees and availability for speaking to your group, email email@example.com.
Just a few years ago, the only measure for a nonprofit’s effectiveness was the percent they spent on overhead expenses. If a nonprofit spent a magic 20% or less on non-program expenses they were deemed worthy of donations. This destructive way of evaluating nonprofit organizations has been losing favor over the last few years as rating agencies like Charity Navigator have recognized the need for a broader evaluation of nonprofit effectiveness. New measures have started to include outcome and impact elements.
But all of this begs the ultimate question which is how do we create a system for measuring and comparing nonprofits across the many social issues and operating models that make up the sector? Because however faulty the overhead percentage measurement was, at least it allowed a comparison of apples to apples. You could see how one nonprofit stacked up against another. But if each nonprofit organization is now creating their own theory of change, and their own outcome and impact measurements, how do we compare those to another nonprofit’s outcome and impact measures?
Enter a host of efforts to solve that very problem. One of these efforts is Markets for Good. They aim to create an infrastructure for evaluating nonprofit effectiveness based on outcomes and impact. You can watch their video explaining their efforts below, or if you are reading this in an email click here to watch the video.
And there are many other efforts to move the nonprofit sector toward measuring outcomes instead of spending practices. These include Idealistics, GiveWell, Philanthropedia among many others. But it’s not clear yet how any of these efforts will be able to analyze and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts because there are many pieces to that puzzle.
To truly be able to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts, we have to:
- Encourage nonprofit organizations to develop a theory of change, because you can’t measure whether an organization has created change if they have no idea what they are trying to change in the first place.
- Give nonprofits resources with which to measure whether their theory of change is actually coming to fruition. Measuring outcomes and impact takes time and money.
- Separate a single nonprofit’s efforts to create change from other forces working on the same social problem so that we can understand the effectiveness of a single organization.
- Create a standardized system for comparing the ability of one nonprofit organization to create change to another’s ability to create change.
- Connect such a system for measuring nonprofit effectiveness to systems already being created for for-profit social entrepreneurs (like GIIRS) so that those with money to invest in social change efforts can compare the social return they would get in a for-profit and/or nonprofit setting.
- Communicate the results of those measures to philanthropic and social investors so they can make more informed, more results-focused investments, whether those be to nonprofit or for-profit social change organizations.
To me, comparing the ability of organizations to create social change is an enormous nut to crack. But it is an incredibly worthy endeavor. I applaud Markets for Good and the many other efforts working to create a system for understanding and comparing social change efforts. It will be fascinating to watch this space develop.
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt
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