302 posts categorized "Nonprofit Management"

[Review] 'Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector'

November 28, 2017

The nonprofit sector has never faced more difficult challenges — or had the potential to create greater impact — than it does today, argue William F. Meehan III, director emeritus of McKinsey & Company, and Kim Starkey Jonker, president and CEO of King Philanthropies, in their new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. But for nonprofits — by 2025 projected to need up to $300 billion more annually beyond currently expected revenues in order to meet demand — to benefit from the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in U.S. history (an estimated $59 trillion expected to change hands between 2007 and 2061), they will have to "earn the right to expand [their] role and maximize [their] impact" in what Meehan and Jonker refer to as the coming "Impact Era."

Book_engine_of_impact_3dDrawing on a number of surveys, including the 2016 Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector; a variety of Stanford Social Innovation Review articles, business and nonprofit management books, and Meehan's course on nonprofit leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Jonker's experience overseeing the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit LeadershipEngine of Impact outlines the challenges nonprofits currently face — lack of impact data, transparency, and sustainable operational support; donors' tendency to give impulsively to well-known organizations rather than high-impact ones; ineffective boards — and then explores a number of tools that nonprofits can use to address those challenges. They do not include venture philanthropy or impact investments, which Meehan and Jonker, somewhat "controversially," are skeptical of. Instead, they urge nonprofits to embrace the "essentials of strategic leadership" — mission, strategy, impact evaluation, insight and courage, funding, talent/organization, and board governance — which, when brought together thoughtfully and intentionally, create an engine of impact that drives organizational success.

Quoting liberally from business management expert Peter Drucker, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton (an early mentor of Meehan's), Good to Great author Jim Collins, and other luminaries, the authors illustrate each component of strategic leadership with concrete examples often drawn from the work of Kravis Prize winners such as the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), BRACLandesa, and Helen Keller International. And while they concede that some of them may be obvious, they are quick to note, based on survey results, that they are not all well understood or effectively implemented.

They emphasize, for example, the importance of a well-crafted mission statement, and caution organizations against mission creep, even if avoiding the latter means saying no to a new funding source. Indeed, saying "no" seems to be a critical part of strategic leadership, in that the urgent need to achieve maximum impact in a time of enormous challenges and limited resources is too important for nonprofit leaders to be distracted by non-mission-aligned activities — or by debates over semantics (e.g., "theory of change" vs. "logic model"): "if you ever find yourself caught in a debate about these terms' usage," Meehan and Jonkers write, "we suggest you leave the room immediately. We do."

One somewhat puzzling note is Meehan and Jonker's warning against setting up a straw man in the debate over quantitative vs. qualitative data while seeming to do just that — as if nonprofit and foundation leaders in 2017 are all either purely "analytics" or "poets" and don't recognize and value, to some degree, both types of data, as do Meehan and Jonker, who urge their readers to make all impact measurements "quantifiable" but to only "count what counts." It's also important, in their view, to invest in evaluation — the sooner in the process the better — in that such investments create feedback loops that can drive improvement and advance strategic thinking. Alas, according to the Stanford survey, few funders require (or fund) impact measurement, and only 57 percent of nonprofit executives and staff regularly use findings from evaluations to refine their theory of change or adjust their overall strategy. Taking such a step, as well as making unpopular decisions and saying no when necessary, requires insight and courage, write Meehan and Jonker — qualities exhibited by the likes of successful social entrepreneurs such as Drayton, Landesa founder Ron Prosterman, and AIL founder Sakena Yacoobi. Indeed, they are the kind of essential leadership qualities that "even inexperienced" funders can recognize, the authors write, and as such they should be included in funders' grantmaking criteria.

Once an organization has built its engine of impact, that engine needs fuel, which is where talent, funding, and board governance come in. Meehan and Jonker argue for a "team of teams" model that "emphasizes decentralized autonomy, meritocracy, and a sense of partnership"; minimizes bureaucracy; maximizes talent development and leadership opportunities; and, they believe, will become "the new standard for nonprofits, foundations, and even for-profit global businesses." They also urge organizations to get "the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the key seats before [figuring] out where to drive the bus"; to compensate high-performing leaders well; and to see succession planning as the "inherently difficult" but important function that it is.  

The board plays a critical role in all of these areas, as it does in ensuring that mission-focused goals, strategies, and impact measurement systems are in place. Therefore, boards themselves must be designed for transparency and efficient decision making, while board members must bring their "work, wisdom, and wealth" to bear on the organization's efforts. The latter, in Meehan and Jonker's view, is no minor detail: "board members should give at a personal stretch level and should prioritize [their] organization within their charitable giving" — a reasonable, if somewhat audacious, demand. 

"Audacious" also is what strategic nonprofit leaders need to be when it comes to securing funding. After their own board members, the authors advise, nonprofit leaders and development staff should target individuals, who account for the bulk of charitable giving in the U.S., rather than foundations, whose grants typically are project-based and more often than not fail to cover the cost of evaluations, leadership development, and capacity building (especially in the area of fundraising). Meehan and Jonker focus on what they call "plutophilanthropy," the kinds of major gifts from ultra-wealthy donors that have long benefited colleges and universities, medical centers, and high-profile cultural institutions. Social service providers should invest in educating and cultivating donors with the wherewithal to make such gifts by engaging their families and networks, developing individualized cultivation plans, and, for younger philanthropists, fostering a strong sense of community.

So, how many U.S. nonprofits are ready to follow Meehan and Jonker's advice and "tune" their impact engine with the aim of scaling their efforts? Believe it or not, only one in ten (11 percent). Not sure where your organization falls? The book offers a "readiness-to-scale matrix" (supplemented with a diagnostic on the book's website) for assessing whether an organization lacks a well-built engine and fuel ("Scale Jail"); has a proven engine but needs to secure a good fuel source ("Field of Dreams"); provides a specific service to a specific population and thus has no reason to scale ("Small Is Beautiful"); has a poorly built engine but receives significant funding "because the leaders...excel at creating the kind of buzz that fills the atmosphere at social sector conferences" ("The Waterfall"); or has "earned the right to scale their impact by creating a well-built, proven impact model and by finding the fuel they need to sustain growth" ("The Promised Land"). Cute labels aside, the authors showcase options for increasing an organization's impact without increasing its size, measuring its cost-efficiency, and leveraging technology to expand service delivery — if not necessarily increase donations.  

As the repeated use of the phrase "earn(ed) the right to scale" makes clear, Meehan and Jonker believe that only nonprofits that can demonstrate, through quantifiable measurement, their impact and capacity to maximize it, should — and will — thrive in the Impact Era. What's more, their sense of urgency is palpable throughout the book. While none of the concepts they present are revolutionary, they have been reinvigorated and realigned for this moment. Which makes Engine of Impact an energizing, if sobering, read for nonprofit leaders, board members, and funders alike. If the book elides the fact that donors rarely base their giving on impact data ("[W]e hope that situation will soon change"), it is nevertheless an optimistic book whose authors are confident that "in a nation and a world divided...a nonprofit sector poised to bring unprecedented resources and, for the first time ever, a set of robust tools that will support the fact-based decision making that maximizing impact requires" will succeed in creating the change the world desperately needs.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

 

Best Practices for Implementing New Software

October 16, 2017

Puzzle_cooperation_250If your foundation or charity is thinking about implementing new software, it's essential that it have a well-thought-out technology strategy in place before proceeding. Such a strategy should include a holistic view of the pros and cons of the software under consideration, buy-in from key stakeholders, and a focus on ROI as well as costs.

Of course, any software implementation should be a team effort that has been blessed by leadership and is conducted in real partnership with the software implementer. Settling on a software solution that solves one problem for a single department without thinking through the entire organization's technology needs and ecosystem can lead to more problems than it solves, including:

  • a fatal lack of buy-in from staff and management;
  • technology needs that go unaddressed;
  • duplication of effort; and
  • lack of systems integration.

Selecting a vendor based on a solution's cosmetic features while ignoring the implementer's competence and capacity can also cause problems. And because many foundations and nonprofits are laser-focused on initial costs and frequently ignore longer-term return-on-investment (ROI) calculations, especially when it comes to choosing a firm to implement a solution, organizations often end up with software that is inexpensive but does nothing to drive impact or improve their bottom lines.

Long story short? Software solutions that appear to be inexpensive at first glance can result in significant unaccounted-for costs during the implementation process. Which is why forward-thinking organizations look for solutions that can help them advance their mission and yield a better-than-average return on investment.

Here are five types of software that are useful for foundations and grantmaking charities:

  1. CRM: Provides a holistic view of the constituent experience across the entire organization.
  2. Fundraising: Gives a clear view of performance and yield (including data enrichment services), processes donations, and helps empower your organization's “evangelists” to raise money on your behalf.
  3. Financial: Provides in-depth record keeping and custom reports that allow you to drill down into your finances.
  4. Grants management and impact measurement: Identifies, tracks, and measures the impact of grants and gifts (both cash and in-kind) against concrete outcomes.
  5. Analytics: Is used to harness the power of data and connect with constituents, highlight areas of operational improvement, and generate insights into potential organizational investments.

So how can organizations set themselves up for long-term success once they've chosen one or more of the above solutions? Here are five best software implementation practices:

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (June 2017)

July 05, 2017

Don't know if you all agree, but it's unanimous here at PND: Whoever invented the four-day weekend deserves a medal. We've got a busy July lined up, but before we get too far into it, we figured this would be a good time to look back at the blog content you found especially interesting in June, including new posts by Rotary International's John Hewko, Battalia Winston's Susan Medina, DataViz for Nonprofit's Amelia Kohm, regular contributor Kathryn Pyle, and the Center for Social Impact Communication at Georgetown University. Enjoy!

What have you read/watched/heard lately that got your attention, made you think, or charged you up? Feel free to share in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

The Diversity Gap in the Nonprofit Sector

June 06, 2017

Diversity logoThe lack of diversity at the highest levels of the country's corporations has become a popular topic of debate, thanks in part to a number of high-profile stories focused on the technology industry.

If there has been less criticism of the nonprofit and foundation sectors, neither is exempt from the problem. Earlier this year, Battalia Winston analyzed the leadership teams of the largest foundations and nonprofits in the United States and found that they, too, suffer from homogeneity. We found, for instance, that while 42 percent of the organizations we surveyed are led by female executive directors, 87 percent of all executive directors or presidents were white, and that there was only minimal representation of African Americans (6 percent), Asian Americans (3 percent), and Hispanics (4 percent) in those positions.

Our findings, which we've published in a white paper, The State of Diversity in Nonprofit and Foundation Leadership, are similar to those presented in a number of recent studies. A 2015 study by Community Wealth Partners, for example, found that only 8 percent of nonprofit executive directors were people of color, while a 2013 study conducted by D5 found that 92 percent of foundation executive directors were white.

While one would think that nonprofits and foundations — particularly those that support underserved communities and minorities — would prioritize diversity within their leadership ranks, attracting and recruiting diverse talent is easier said than done, especially at the leadership level. If organizations want to create sustained diversity at the top, they need to continuously cultivate a talent pipeline of diverse high-potential candidates, both internally and externally.

For any number of reasons, building a pipeline of diverse talent can be particularly challenging for nonprofits and foundations. First, the talent pool of diverse candidates is still significantly smaller than the pool of white candidates. According to a 2016 study by Young Invincibles, racial disparities in rates of higher education attainment continue to widen: between 2007 and 2015, the gap between the share of white adults with postsecondary degrees and Latinos and African Americans with postsecondary degrees increased by 2.2 and 0.4 percentage points, respectively.

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[Infographic] The State of Donor Retention 2017

April 29, 2017

The folks at nonprofit management and fundraising software company Bloomerang recently surveyed 775 nonprofit organizations (mostly) in the U.S. and Canada "to see where they stand on the issue of donor retention" — and are sharing some of the key findings in a nice little infographic on their website (and below):

Infographic_state-of-donor-retention-in-2017

No real surprises here. The vast majority (99 percent) of the surveyed respondents have heard the term "donor retention" (up from 98 percent in 2014, the last time Bloomerang conducted the survey), while two-thirds (67 percent) track their donor retention rate (up from 55 percent in 2014). Maybe more interesting are the reasons nonprofits give for NOT tracking donor retention:

  • don't have the tools (20 percent)
  • don't know how (16 percent)
  • aren't sure what they would do differently if they knew their rate (14 percent)
  • no one has ever asked to see it (13 percent)
  • don't care about the metric (1 percent)
  • "other”

What about your organization? Is donor retention something you and your colleagues think about and track? And if not, why not? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

To learn more about the importance of donor retention and why it's a critical metric for your nonprofit, check out our Sustainable Nonprofit archive, where you'll find any number of articles on the topic — and lots of material on other topics of interest!

Groundwork for Good Fortune: The Real Power of Strategic Planning

April 14, 2017

Strategic-Planning2It's the phone call every nonprofit leader dreams of. "I'd like to give you a very large sum of money." At first I thought it might be a scam, but when I realized the caller was the real deal — a philanthropist who cared deeply about education — a new question came to mind: How would we spend that much money?

Fortunately, we had just concluded a twelve-month strategic planning process, had a board-vetted plan for growth ready to go, and were able to submit that plan to the donor with only minor revisions. Several weeks later, we received our first-ever seven-figure gift.

To quote the Roman philosopher Seneca, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Nonprofit organizations often treat strategic planning as a luxury, opting to focus on more pressing, day-to-day matters. And because, as time-management guru Steven Covey has framed it, strategic planning is entirely Quadrant II (important but not urgent), its inherent value is easily overlooked.

The concept of deliberate strategic planning goes back at least as far as the late 1960s, which is when John Argenti published his landmark Corporate Planning and when companies began engaging in SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The nonprofit sector embraced strategic planning in the 1980s and 90s, as the number of registered 501(c)(3)s began to explode, "charities" became more professionalized, and the competition for grant dollars increased. In 1993, Patrick J. Burkhart and Suzanne Reuss published Successful Strategic Planning: A Guide for Nonprofit Agencies and Organizations, one of the first books to help nonprofits with their long-range planning.

Still, apart from the occasional discussion at a staff meeting or board retreat, organized strategic planning often takes a backseat to the day-to-day work of running an organization. Yes, schools use strategic planning to shape and guide their capital campaigns, but for nonprofits that don't mount major fundraising campaigns, setting aside time for strategic planning can be seen as more burden than blessing.

At Oliver Scholars, the time and effort that went into strategic planning paid off handsomely when we were asked by our angel donor for a well-thought-out growth plan. Is your nonprofit prepared? The following ten tips can help your organization get the most out of its next strategic planning process:

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Embracing Partnerships to Widen Impact

December 09, 2016

Piecing_it_togetherAs the executive director of The Blue Card, a national nonprofit that assists Holocaust survivors, I have seen nonprofits having to adapt to the consequences of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a rapidly accelerating digital revolution, and a renewed emphasis on corporate social responsibility, all of which have forced them — and us — to rethink how we communicate and execute on our missions.

Through this period of change, we've managed to grow our operating budget by 40 percent and expanded our outreach from nineteen to thirty-two states, even as our full-time headcount has remained in the single digits. At the same time, my colleagues and I have seen the needs of survivors we support increase, as they struggle with health issues and ever-rising healthcare costs. For many of them, the difficulty of navigating the public health system and the stresses they face as a result of financial pressures are exacerbated by the psychological and emotional scars they bear. That's why finding a way to provide outreach services to our constituents has been as important as helping them with financial support.

Indeed, if we learned anything from the economic downturn of 2008-09, it's that it is just as important to diversify one's operational strategy as it is one's fundraising strategy. By forging partnerships and taking advantage of synergies with a variety of public- and private-sector agencies, we've been able to increase our programmatic offerings while keeping our operational structure lean and nimble.

And along the way, we've learned a few things about how collaboration and partnerships can be used to help extend an organization's reach:

Don't be afraid. While charitable giving rose smartly in 2015, so did the number of registered nonprofits. Which means the competition for dollars and support from foundations, associations, corporations, and individual donors is as great as ever.

It's important to remember, however, that nonprofits focused on the same problem or cause invariably share the same goal. And that collaborating with an organization or organizations with a mission and goals that align with yours doesn't mean the support you receive has to suffer. On the contrary, you just may find that funders are willing to increase their support if they know the extra dollars won't be used to underwrite duplicative services or programs.

In 2013, for example, The Blue Card began working with the Association of Jewish Family & Children's Services (AJFCA), a membership network of Jewish family service agencies across the United States and Canada. Through AJFCA, we were able to cultivate relationships with social workers and agencies around the country that often are the first point of contact for the elderly, and today we receive referrals from more than seventy agencies in the AJFCA network.

In addition, we've identified organizations in other countries that do similar work and have formed relationships with many of them, making it possible for those agencies to refer donors to us who wish to help Holocaust survivors living in America.

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[Review] 'The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout'

November 04, 2016

Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman are successful nonprofit tech pioneers, social media experts, in-demand trainers and speakers, and the authors of several books. Both have also experienced professional burnout and view self-care as a critical aspect of any nonprofit professional's job, especially if she or he is engaged in mission-based social change work.

Bookcover_Happy Healthy NonprofitIn The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, Kanter and Sherman address the problem of burnout with, as blogger Vu Le writes in the book's introduction, "their signature humor, piercing insight, and concrete advice." In the process, they also present "a compelling argument for why we burn out and why it is important for all of us to take care of ourselves and each other...."

To avoid something like burnout, you have to understand its causes and symptoms. That is the focus of the book's first chapter. In addition to common problems such as general work-related stress, the ubiquity of technology, and information overload, certain aspects of nonprofit work contribute to burnout, write Kanter and Sherman. Many of them fall under the rubric of the "nonprofit starvation cycle," a "vicious" dynamic that begins with funders' unrealistic expectations about how much money it takes to staff and operate a nonprofit and results in nonprofits "misrepresenting their costs while skimping on vital systems." Other challenges unique to nonprofit work include the "scarcity mindset" (the belief that there is not enough of what your nonprofit needs to go around), the "indispensability myth" (a pronounced correlation between work and one's identity), and underinvestment in leadership development. Together, write Kanter and Sherman, these factors can lead to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of personal effectiveness and accomplishment.

Having examined the causes of burnout, they then address the issue of self-care, which they break down into "Five Spheres of Happy, Healthy Living." Sphere 1 is the individual's relationship to him or herself — mentally, physically, and spiritually; if any aspect of this sphere is neglected, all others suffer. Sphere 2 is our relationship with others, including family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and people in our communities (both online and off). Sphere 3 is our relationship to our environment (both indoors and out). Sphere 4 is our relationship to work and money (but also includes our relationships with co-workers). And Sphere 5 is our relationship to technology (continuous exposure to which can negatively affect your well-being).

The next step for Kanter and Sherman is self-assessment. In researching the book, they reviewed a number of existing assessment instruments and then, based on that review, developed four new tools and worksheets: the Nonprofit Burnout Assessment (to help you recognize whether you're on the path to burnout); Your Current Reactions to Stress (to help you gauge positive and negative behaviors in response to stress); a Current Self-Care Behaviors and Stress Triggers Reflection Worksheet (an addendum to the previous assessment); and Individual Self-Care Assessment and Checklists (which enable you to assess your self-care habits and practices against the "Five Spheres" framework). According to Kanter and Sherman, self-assessment, when conducted honestly, helps us identify stress triggers in our lives, negative and positive responses to those triggers, and areas where we may need to set boundaries. With that information in hand, we can then build healthier routines and habits.

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Does It Count, If You Don't Count It? The Future of Social Impact Measurement

October 19, 2016

Solutions_outcomes_signpostOutcomes. Impact. Results. In the for-profit world, all are key to the long-term viability and health of an organization. Today, in the giving sector, we are seeing the same concepts around performance and measuring outcomes take center stage. 

But as the conversation around best practices for results-focused giving continues to gain traction and the ability to demonstrate the results of giving becomes more important, organizations and individuals across the philanthropic spectrum, from foundations to nonprofits to corporations, to the individual change agents that support them, are struggling to define a common language for performance measurement and reporting. 

While that language may not yet exist, players across the giving sector can agree that being able to demonstrate social impact involves many of the same elements as good storytelling.

Needless to say, the power of good storytelling has been a feature of politics, business, and our dinner tables for as long as any of us can remember. That's because the best stories get to the heart of their subject and leave the listener feeling moved — whether to act, reflect, or investigate the subject matter. And while a story focused on a single individual, if told well, can grab our attention, when the story relates to something bigger or greater than ourselves, it is even more powerful.

Across the giving sector, we see champions for social good who understand that strong stories, powerfully told, can make a difference. Nonprofits, foundations, and corporations alike are harnessing the power of storytelling to share the impact of their work, to draw people to their mission, and to inspire action. But once social impact begins to be viewed through a storytelling lens, it becomes clear that crafting a compelling story about impact starts with a focus on measurable results. In other words, a donation or giving campaign that doesn't lead to the measurement and reporting of results is like a story without an ending. 

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Weekend Link Roundup (September 3-5, 2016)

September 05, 2016

Ball_and_racket_headOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Corporate Social Responsibility

The landscape of corporate philanthropy is changing — for the better. Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Culture Shift Labs, looks at one Wall Street firm determined to change the existing stock-buyback paradigm.

Disaster Relief

In aftermath of the recent flooding in Louisiana, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate's Rebekah Allen and Elizabeth Crisp look at how crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe are disrupting the traditional disaster relief funding model.

Education

In the New York Times, Christopher Edmin, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and the author of For White Folk Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, challenges the idea that the answer to closing the achievement gap for boys and young men of color is to hire and retain more black male teachers.

Fundraising

Wondering how to get the public solidly behind your cause? Of course you are. Regular PhilanTopic contributor Derrick Feldmann shares some good tips here.

Higher Education

As the call for institutions of higher education to diversify their curricula grows louder, maybe it's time, writes the University of Texas' Steven Mintz on the Teagle Foundation site, for colleges and university "to embrace the Great Books spirit and delve into the most problematic aspects of our contemporary reality through works that speak to our time and perhaps all time."

Impact/Effectiveness

The Organizational Effectiveness program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has launched an Organizational Effectiveness Knowledge Center designed to be a space where nonprofits, funders, and others can "exchange learning, resources, and reflections about improving nonprofit organizational and network effectiveness."

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Why Collaborate?

August 04, 2016

CollaborationCollaboration in the social sector takes many different forms and can be approached in a variety of ways, but before nonprofits address the what and how of organizational partnerships, they should consider the most important question of all: Why?

Everybody loves collaboration — in theory. I mean, who doesn't believe that two or more nonprofits working together to achieve common goals is a good thing? To not think that would be churlish, right? But put aside the feel-good factor for a moment and let's be honest: collaboration is not a good in itself unless it serves a definite purpose.

Nor is collaboration always the answer. A nonprofit has any number of strategies to choose from to advance its mission, and partnering with others is just one of them. But when considering which strategies to pursue, it can be helpful to think about certain kinds of partnerships as lending themselves to certain types of goals.

Collaboration

Although I've already used the term "collaboration" in a broad sense to refer to organizations that agree to work toward a common goal or purpose, it can also refer more specifically to the most common types of partnership, which tend to be limited in duration and degree of organizational integration. Some of the goals that can be advanced through collaboration include:

  • Pooling expertise or resources in co-sponsored or shared support of a time-limited effort.
  • Amplifying a policy message around a shared cause or issue through joint advocacy.
  • Creating and sharing collective wisdom and knowledge through collaborative learning.
  • Leveraging networks of like-minded organizations to tackle social issues requiring sustained, coordinated action.

Alliance

Alliances tend to be more formal and longer term than collaborations (though they need not be permanent), while still allowing a significant level of organizational autonomy. This type of partnership can be useful for advancing goals such as:

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[Review] Mission Control

August 01, 2016

In Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World, Liana Downey argues that many well-intentioned nonprofit organizations lack focus and, motivated by a need to be everything to everyone, end up being less effective than they could or should be. Most of us have encountered this kind of "mission creep" in one form or another. It could be a local food pantry that, after noticing that many people who are coming for food have other needs, "starts offering referrals to homeless shelters and...providing job training" without taking the time to assess whether it is "the best organization to be meeting these needs." While that organization may have "gone wide in its services, and...helped people along the way," no one is sure whether the "increase in the breadth of services enabled it to better meet the initial need." In other words, are there still people in its community going hungry?

MissionControl-3D_FINALThose are difficult and important questions, and in Mission Control Downey has created a "step-by-step guide" for nonprofits that want to avoid mission creep, find their focus, and change the world.

Downey begins her book with a chapter on how to "Prepare for Success" that looks at whether now is the right time for your nonprofit to find its focus and develop an action plan to increase its impact, who should be involved in the process , how much time your organization should spend on the process, and whether you need external help (in the form of a facilitator, advisor, or consultant).

Having determined that it is indeed a good time for your organization to find its focus, the next step is to "get the facts." And that means asking a series of questions about your clients (who are they, what do they want, etc.), your organizational structure (how many employees/volunteers, your fixed and variable costs, funding sources and reserves), and how the broader environment in which your organization operates affects its work (who are your competitors, who are your funders, who are the key players in the policy arena, etc.).

With the answers to the above in hand, it's on to the crux of Downey's process: establishing a clear, achievable goal "that will help you make decisions, motivate your team, and increase your impact." A goal is not the same thing as a mission, nor is it a vision or value statement. While both those things are important, she writes, "they are not the real differentiator between organizations that achieve great things and those that don't." That's the function of an ambitious and actionable goal.

As Downey walks readers through a series of steps designed to help their organizations craft such a goal, she makes it clear that every organization has the capacity to create meaningful change — so long as its efforts are grounded in facts. Or, as she puts it: "Good intentions, hard work, and intelligence are not enough to change the world. To succeed you must focus your efforts on the interventions that actually work."

In the chapter "Identifying Your Strengths," for example, she invites readers to reflect on what their organizations already do well and encourages them to take stock of its capabilities and assets. And in one of the "Cynic's Corner" sidebars sprinkled throughout the book, she shares an anecdote about a nonprofit whose culture was so rigid and hierarchical, it didn't even ask its volunteers about their skills and experiences — capabilities that could have advanced the organization's mission in very real ways. 

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The Strategic Thinker-Leader

July 27, 2016

Rodin_thinker-leaderFor those who read my "5 Reasons Why 'Strategic Doing' Beats Strategic Planning" post, it will come as no surprise that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, critiquing, and doing strategy. Truth be told, strategy is a bit of an obsession for me, more creative art and less a science, despite what the bean-counters and McConsultants would have you believe.

Like other creative arts, truly great strategy is the product of inspiration. And inspiration comes to us in its own good time rather than during scheduled meetings: while we’re arguing with a friend, thinking about a problem, noticing something we’d missed before, even while we sleep. (Okay, maybe that’s just me…)

More to the point, strategy isn't a thing, a plan, a committee, or a document. It's a way of thinking about change — a way of imagining that demands action. Because, at the end of the day, strategy is nothing more than a language for translating ideas into outcomes.

So what makes for great strategy, and how do you get there? When do you know you've nailed it? And, perhaps most challenging, can the art of strategy be taught? I don’t have the definitive answers to those questions. Maybe great strategy is like pornography: you know it when you see it, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart. That said, allow me to share a few observations from my years in the trenches about the what and how of strategy.

If strategy is nothing more than an organized way of thinking about change, then "doing strategy" should be built through a sequence of cognitive steps — a disciplined intellectual process that transforms what is to what could be and leads to a clear, compelling end-state vision.

So what does that disciplined and orderly thought experiment I call strategy look like? Like any other disciplined intellectual process, strategic thinking is built around a sequence of questions:

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Mission-Driven Architecture

June 08, 2016

Womens-opportunity-centersIt's not unusual for architecture and engineering firms to work on a pro-bono basis or for a reduced fee on "mission-driven" projects. In such cases, firms often are willing to trade profit for the reward of doing work that is rewarding in other ways. Some firms also take on such projects because the work is likely to raise their profile and, down the road, benefit their bottom line. Most importantly, populations in need also benefit. Schools and clinics are built where there were none, local people are employed and taught marketable skills, and the project — if planned well and executed efficiently — gives a boost to the local economy that is felt long after the construction dust has settled and the architects and engineers have moved on.

That said, I believe communities in developing countries would be better served if my fellow professionals and their NGO partners approached many of these projects differently and incorporated, from the outset, new thinking about how they are budgeted.

In the traditional budgeting model, firms wait for an RFP to come in over the transom or for an organization to come calling with a project (and budget) in mind. The problem with that, more often than not, is that the budget is woefully inadequate: whether it's a school, a clinic, or some other piece of critical local infrastructure, it typically includes only enough for the "basics," with little or no thought given to the kinds of "nice-to-haves" that would enable the project to serve the community in a more sustainable way. Systems for recycled rainwater, thoughtful waste management, proper siting to take advantage of passive solar — all too often, such considerations are non-starters in the budgets we see.

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Building Nonprofit Sustainability Through Digital Apps

June 07, 2016

NPO-Mobile-AppsProduct-based income strategies are challenging for nonprofits because of the costs associated with inventory. Either your organization has to shell out significant capital to keep the products you hope to sell in stock, or you have to partner with a company that will manage the inventory for you. In most cases, the company will take a portion of your sales to cover their costs and turn a profit before turning over the remainder of the proceeds (if any) to you – in effect, turning your carefully cultivated army of volunteers into a second sales team working to boost its own P&L statement.

With a digital product like an app, on the other hand, a nonprofit bears the one-time cost of product development and then is able to sell the product in perpetuity – or what passes for perpetuity in the digital age -- without having to worry about costs associated with building and maintaining inventory. In the digital marketplace, once an app has been created, selling a hundred thousand copies doesn't cost you any more than selling ten thousand copies.

What's more, having an app on a supporter's mobile device creates a new channel through which you can communicate with that supporter as conveniently as you can with email but without the "noise" created by the hundreds of emails most of us receive on a daily basis. Push notifications that directly target users of an app can quickly mobilize your user base, alerting them to new petitions, challenge grant opportunities, and other kinds of events designed to deepen donor engagement. (Note: while nonprofits are allowed to make money from the sale of digital apps, they cannot collect donations through an app. If you want to use the app to generate donations, you need to get potential supporters to click a "Donate" button that sends them to a mobile-friendly Web page where the transaction can be completed.)

So how much does it cost to develop an app? In 2014, when the team at RedRover first hit on the idea of building a digital version of our RedRover Readers program, we didn't have a clue. And asking a developer how much it costs is like asking an architect how much a new house will cost – the answer can range anywhere from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on what you want the app to do. The more complex the functionality, the more it's going to cost.

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