Renovate Your Philanthropy

Help a Nonprofit Spruce Up Its Work!

Many funders are exploring ways they can have a greater impact on their nonprofit partners.  Donors who think beyond the check and who look for additional ways to engage with organizations find themselves enjoying a much more productive and satisfying relationship with those groups they support.  These donors are using their influence, networks and other resources to help nonprofits build capacity to fulfill their mission.

The July 2017 Chronicle of Philanthropy’s cover article “Renovation Nation” explored the makeover of three large, established charities.  The major turnaround undertaken by each organization was the result of considerable culture shifts, new perspectives, and risky moves. Author Heather Joslyn included in each profile “makeover tips” based on the lessons learned by these organization’s leaders.  They included helpful and provocative suggestions such as “rethinking everything” about how you operate, “spiffing up” old programs, widening the net to find new supporters, and trimming the elevator speech down to 140 characters!   A few of the tips stood out to me, especially ones that focused on messaging, storytelling, evaluation and leadership.   

Does your philanthropy need a little renovation?  Do your nonprofit partners need a bit of sprucing up?

Consider all of the possible ways you could help the nonprofit organizations you support.  Beyond financial resources, you bring a wealth of other connections and knowledge that can be effectively leveraged to support their work.  I think that these “makeover tips” provide donors an opportunity to explore additional ways to make a difference. 

One of the “makeover tips” that caught my attention focused on “telling the story.”  It emphasized not just the organization’s story, but also the stories of those helped by the organization.  Being able tell their story in a clear and compelling way is essential.  Storytelling and messaging support effective fundraising, community engagement, staff retention, strategic planning and more.  Consider what you could do to help your nonprofit partners tell their story:

  • Connect the nonprofit to media or public relations professionals; expand their network of people who can spread the word about their work.
  • Provide funding for a refresh of the nonprofit’s collateral material and/or website, or fund media training for staff and board.
  • Host gatherings (at your home or place of business) at which program participants and staff can tell and hear each other’s stories.

Other tips focused on active listening, and they included such recommendations as “know your audience,” listening to program participants, and “seeking feedback.”  Smart organizations are always listening, fostering a culture of learning where everything is tracked, measured and assessed.  Everyone they reach is engaged and involved.  Organizations that understand their audience and that seek sustained feedback on the effectiveness of their programs can tailor their work to the needs of the community as well as pivot when situations inevitably change.  There are many ways you could help a nonprofit to be an active listener:

  • Encourage nonprofits when they allocate budget resources for surveys, evaluation initiatives, and audience feedback. They are core operational components, not fancy extras.
  • Provide funding for an outside evaluation specialist to review and assess their current programs.
  • Connect them with business professionals who can help the nonprofit to better understand how they can gather and use data more effectively.

The last notable tip was “speak out on issues,” encouraging nonprofits to serve thought leaders. High-impact organizations focus as much on leading movements as they do on delivering effective programs.  They address big-picture issues that affect their operating environment and the lives of their clients/patrons/participants.  When you support a nonprofit organization, you can be a part of enabling them to “speak out” and serve as a leader for their cause.

  • If you provide support to multiple organizations in the same community, consider hosting a gathering at which you can all discuss common interests, challenges and opportunities.
  • Provide funding for a solid professional development budget at the organization; enable staff at all levels to be active in their cause by attending conferences and seminars.  Support a nonprofit’s membership in professional organizations that connect them to peers and allies.
  • Take the time to educate yourself.  If you are interested in supporting organizations that focus on a particular topic, issue, cause or community, take the time to do your homework; learn about trends and the latest thinking, or understand the research that’s guiding current initiatives.

Smart, effective philanthropy is hard.  It’s more than writing a check to your favorite charities each December.   It’s an opportunity for you as a donor to effect real change in a community.  It’s an opportunity for you to leverage and deploy all your resources – financial, connections, expertise, and enthusiasm – in ways that enable your nonprofit partners to be successful and sustainable.

Tending to these “makeover” tasks is equally as important as tending to the direct services an organization provides each day.  When working with your nonprofit partners, be open to talking about issues such as listening, leadership or storytelling.  Encourage them to use tactics such as surveys, community conversations, media training or program evaluations.  Respond positively when nonprofits ask for funding to support these and similar efforts.

In helping your nonprofit partners to “spruce up” their programs and operations, you are strengthening the investment you make as a donor. And in turn, it’s helping you to make an even deeper impact on the community.

Marshall H. Ginn, CFRE

It’s been a year, have you moved your organization “Beyond Fundraising?”

It’s been nearly a year since the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund released “Beyond Fundraising: What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?” by Cynthia Gibson.  Designed specifically as one of the follow-up responses to the “Underdeveloped” research report from 2013, this excellent and comprehensive report explores in useful detail how nonprofits have been attempting to address the important issues raised in the 2013 report. 

Gibson reviews the forces that are driving the increasingly widespread shift to a culture of philanthropy (such as changes in the nonprofit ecosystem and the increased competition for resources,) and she articulates four distinct core components that comprise such a culture.  They are 1) Shared Responsibility for Development, 2) Integration and Alignment with Mission, 3) A Focus on Fundraising as Engagement, and 4) Strong Donor Relationships.  “Beyond Fundraising” is an outstanding report, and I highly recommend that if you haven’t already done so, check it out, download it, and immediately share it with as many colleagues as you can.

Gibson also provides a series of highly useful tools and guidelines for how any organization can jumpstart an effort to establish a culture of philanthropy. She poses some highly thought-provoking questions that can be used to create a framework for discussing these critical issues.  Of those, two of my favorite are “How can we get the board to become champions of a culture of philanthropy,” and “Does everyone in the organization understand philanthropy’s role in advancing the organization’s mission and values and have opportunities to participate in development activities?”

The board’s role in creating the success conditions for a solid, sustainable fund development program is essential.  They must both drive and model the values, attitude and commitment inherent in a culture of philanthropy.  They play a critical role in serving as ambassadors for the organization in the community.  In fact, I have often used the concept of “ambassador” as an easy entry-point for board members to discuss and ultimately embrace solid development practices.  It is also essential that board members are provided with opportunities to learn about why and how philanthropy works.  I feel that we do our board members a disservice when we focus fundraising training solely on the solicitation, rather than on the broader concept of resource development and donor engagement.   They must be shown exactly how philanthropy makes the organization’s work possible in ways that both enable them to effectively communicate this to the community, as well as to make sound, information-based decisions that affect the resource development program itself.

See Supporting the Fundraising Program – a tool for enabling board members – and staff – to fulfill these special roles.

“Beyond Fundraising” concludes with a discussion of the need for consistent and widely held indicators that can enable organizations to assess their progress toward establishing a true culture of philanthropy.  Gibson acknowledged that many people she interviewed in preparing this report agreed that developing such indicators should be a top priority for the future.  She helped to kick such an effort off by sharing suggestions of a wide range of potential powerful indicators.  It is an excellent list and merits thoughtful review and consideration.  I will highlight a few that are my favorites:

Selected Indicators from Cynthia Gibson’s “Beyond Fundraising:"

  • Executive Director/CEO – The executive director’s expectation of development staff isn’t solely to raise more money, but to help build a better understanding of the role philanthropy plays in the organization.
  • Staff – All staff – from the top to the bottom and regardless of position – see themselves as ambassadors for the organization and its philanthropic goals; they value the role of philanthropy, talk about its impact and are involved in fund development.
  • Organization – There are many opportunities for staff, board, donors and others to learn and talk about philanthropy and its impact on the organization’s mission.
  • Development Staff – The development director reports directly to the CEO, is a peer on the executive team, and attends and presents at board meetings.
  • Board – The board is committed to and involved in fund development; they are ambassadors, not bystanders.
  • Donors – The number of new, retained and upgraded donors improves each year.
  • Internal Systems – The organization invests money in strengthening its development/fundraising infrastructure, including professional development, training and technology.

Are any of these in place at your organization?  If so, what factors have led to their successful adoption?  If not, what barriers are impeding progress?  These issues should be discussed at the staff and board level on a routine basis.  They are essential to an organization’s long-term viability.

If you are a funder, are you looking for these and other similar indicators when you assess a potential grantee?   Are you being sufficiently engaged by the nonprofits you support?  Have you communicated to these organizations your needs and expectations in ways that facilitate a true, thriving philanthropic partnership?

The communities and constituents served by nonprofits organizations are counting on the services, programs, advocacy and initiatives they undertake every day.  Organizations – large and small – owe to them to make every effort to ensure that their work is sustained and supported.  Only then can nonprofits feel the most confident that they are doing what they can to make a lasting impact.

It is never too late to start building a culture of philanthropy.

What Will Our 2017 Top 10 List Look Like?

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:

https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_10_most_popular_ssir_articles_of_2016

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2016/12/29/npqs-10-big-nonprofit-philanthropic-stories-2016/

https://www.philanthropy.com/specialreport/2016-in-review-nonprofit-lead/122

https://www.philanthropy.com/specialreport/challenging-sacred-cows-and-ki/124?cid=cpfd_home