Over the past few days my In Box has been filled with a variety of “2016 Top 10” lists from the leading publications addressing the nonprofit sector. I took the time to review the lists from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly and the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR.)
And as I considered these lists, and the issues and topics they address, I am already thinking about the future. A year from now, when we are looking back on 2017, what will our “Top 10” list look like? What will have been the sector’s most notable accomplishments? What issues will have occupied the minds of business leaders, donors, foundations, fundraisers and chief executives? Will there have been missed opportunities, or will we surprise ourselves as a sector?
The fact is that these “Top 10” lists for 2016 are already placing a daunting agenda in front of the sector. Even without the challenges and changes anticipated to affect nonprofits and philanthropy because of the presidential election, there are numerous big issues that the sector needs to address right away. These must be confronted head-on if we are to transform the sector in meaningful ways. Three in particular come to mind:
Change the Conversation
Nonprofit organizations must adjust their fundraising and donor engagement tactics immediately. Donors are tired of jargon, and they are increasingly thirsty for concrete examples of what their investments are making possible. Both the Chronicle and SSIR’s lists prominently featured articles that focused on jargon, terminology and clarity of message. John Hennessy, Stanford University’s outgoing president and driver of its $12 Billion campaign, says, “In the end, [donors] want to know what their gift is going to do.” In fact, the more he shifted away from talking about the actual dollar goals, the more successful the campaign became. He said, “Donors are smart, and they talk.” It’s an excellent point, one that bears strong consideration. How are we enabling donors to tell our story to their peers?
Organizations must transform the conversation they routinely have with donors, investors, government leaders and the wider public. It places greater emphasis on the importance of good storytelling. Such an approach also means that nonprofits should adopt an even greater commitment to transparency and openness. This new conversation must be focused on results, impact and social change, rather than budgets and data. It must connect the nonprofit, the cause and the donor in ways that are relevant, relatable and free of jargon and terms that do more to put off donors rather than draw them in.
Shift the Model
Social impact investing is here to stay. Nonprofit organizations must examine and shift their revenue structure and business models to make way for this type of capital. Paul Klein, CEO of Impakt (a B Corp that helps nonprofits and companies benefit from social change) in an SSIR article asserts that there is still work to be done before we see real results from these efforts. Of the lessons he learned while creating a job-placement program for formerly homeless youth, was a realization that social organizations often lack the capacity to engage in this type of work. They are limited in what they can accomplish. Nonprofit leaders must be ready to operate in this new funding landscape.
Laura Callahan, founder of Upstart Co-lab, which targets impact investing on the “non-traditional audience” of artists and creative professionals was very clear in saying that nonprofits must be ready to embrace innovative approaches. In the article profiling her work in the Chronicle, “A sector that cannot accept investment capital is going to really get left behind,” she says. Grant making and investing are become increasingly blended and less distinct. Nonprofits that cannot shift their thinking to incorporate an openness to new forms of capital will miss opportunities that could transform their work.
Challenge the Assumptions
Nonprofits and funders make a lot of assumptions, many of which are holding the sector back in significant ways. Donors assume that high so-called overhead automatically means that an organization is being inefficient, and so much of their funding reflects that viewpoint, to the great frustration of nonprofit leaders. The development profession still subconsciously assumes that most households are headed up by men who are the top earners, therefore everything from materials, phone scripts and databases continue to ignore the role of women as equal players in philanthropy. Board members assume that elaborate fundraising galas are the only and best way to raise big dollars, and so they resist the seemingly risky idea of scrapping a venerable event that’s been in place for years. Leaders across the sector assume that nonprofit staff will be satisfied with low wages for the good of the cause, and yet these same leaders look puzzled when employees burn out and abandon the sector.
These are not hypothetical situations created for an ethics quiz. These are all actual issues that were explore in various articles in the Chronicle, SSIR and the Nonprofit Quarterly throughout 2016. These assumptions are stumbling blocks to the nonprofit sector’s ability to truly transform both themselves as well as society at large. What is needed now is bold leadership from funders, businesses, board members and staff. The sector cannot be afraid of risky and challenging conversations. It must confront these and many other conventions that shape decisions small and large.
Looking Forward to 2017’s Tough Tasks
The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2016 Year in Review highlighted the stories of several nonprofit leaders who were not afraid to take on some very tough tasks. They tackled big challenges, and in doing so transformed their organizations, their causes and their communities. When we look back at 2017, what will be the big challenges that we tackled as a sector? So many in the sector are already mentally gearing up to confront potential changes as a new administration takes office. We know that some big things are likely to happen in and to the nonprofit sector in 2017. What accomplishments or achievements will make us most proud a year from now? There are so many that can be considered, but from my perspective, here are a few that I would like to see in a 2017 “Top 10” list:
Nonprofits made strides in changing the conversations with donors, partners and the public, with such efforts increasing the understanding of and appreciation for what this sector accomplishes on behalf society.
Organizations used these revamped conversations to pave the way for new investments in their work.
Nonprofits built a true capacity to manage the funding of the future, engaging boards, staff, funders, businesses and community leaders in bold collaborative efforts that are exploring new approaches to many of society’s critical problems.
Nonprofit leaders took risks, and addressed assumptions and biases in ways that created wide ranging opportunities, facilitated creativity, included diverse participants, and expanded possibilities.
Organizations made thoughtful, smart moves to transform funding, hiring, engagement, and planning strategies and practices that benefited the entire sector.
The list could go on, but this should get us started. What would be on your list?
Here's to a successful and productive 2017 for the nonprofit sector! Happy New Year.
The links for the various Top 10 and Best of 2016 lists: