Monday, April 6, 2009

Things We've Pretty Much Established... could we perhaps stop producing expensive reports that say the same thing?

There’s rarely a day that goes by that we don’t see yet another report about something that’s already been studied to death and that many see as “stating the obvious.” So why do these studies keep getting funded, disseminated and reported on?

To save on funds—after all, everyone’s cutting back these days, right?—perhaps we could start a viral list of all the things that most of us in the nonprofit sector think are pretty much established. Then maybe we could move forward in trying to develop research studies that dig down a bit deeper on these issues—or explore others that we don’t know much about—and unearth some truly new information that helps nonprofits and funders that could benefit from it.

Here’s my start. I’m sure there are many others, so I’m hoping that others will chime in either on this blog or via some kind of viral dissemination of the list so that an information “baseline” can be established for those wanting to do or support a new study. (And, of course, if any of the following aren’t necessarily common knowledge, it’d be good to know that, too.)

Things That Have Pretty Much Been Established -- Add to the List!

  • Nonprofits want and need general support.

  • Ditto for multi-year funding.

  • Most funders are reluctant to provide either general support or multi-year funding to nonprofits.

  • Good governance by nonprofit boards can help to increase nonprofits’ effectiveness and minimize risks.

  • There is inherent tension in the grantseeker/grantmaker relationship because of power imbalances and/or disrespectful behavior (usually ascribed to grantmakers but not always).

  • Good evaluation is important but it costs money and takes time.

  • Business practices can be good to incorporate in nonprofit operations but they’re not the magic bullet.

  • Volunteers are important to nonprofits but their experiences should be meaningful and valued.

  • Thanking and recognizing donors, supporters, board members, and volunteers is important to do.

  • Many board members don’t like to fundraise, even though it’s an essential part of being a board member.

  • There is not a lot of agreement on the definition of “social entrepreneurship.”

  • Voting is only one form of civic engagement.

  • Technology is not just for administrative uses but also for program implementation but many nonprofits still aren’t able to use it effectively.

  • Communications and marketing are extremely important.

  • Measuring results is important but difficult because nonprofits have diverse stakeholders and a more amorphous “bottom line” that the private sector.

  • Advocacy can be an effective strategy for achieving mission but most funders are unwilling to support it.

  • Nonprofits are allowed to engage in advocacy, and funders are allowed to support it.

  • Mergers are easier to talk about than to actually do.



  1. How about the studies about the supposed ill-prepared next generation of leaders for the nonprofit community. How many ways can we twist the exit of baby boomers who are afraid that Gen-X has no idea how to run "their" organizations.

  2. Here are three possibles
    In hard times, those non-profit agencies most important to serving the poor have a diminished capacity to do so.

    Even in the non profit sector, the rich tend to get richer, e.g. colleges and universities.

    Relying on private philanthropy diminishes the capacity to set priorities and long term goals as giving is idiosyncratic and often trendy.

  3. Capacity-building.... (in no particular order)

    1. It's good.
    2. It needs to be tailored to and TA providers chosen by nonprofits.
    3. Nonprofits prioritize fundraising, funders/providers tend to see that as a symptom of other needs (administration, strategic planning, collaboration).
    4. Some capacities (advocacy, communications, etc.) might not make sense to build within organizations as much as shared by organizations in a similar field.
    5. More established organizations have different needs than newer, more fragile groups.
    6. Standardized (and cheaper) training/tools can help but we should have modest expectations for their impact compared with coaching, consultants, peer exchange.
    7. Speaking of peer exchange, it's the most efficient and perhaps most effective method to build capacity.

    There's many more but that's a start!

  4. This is a great exchange, thanks for including me on it. I’ll give more thought to what I could add, but here are couple thoughts that build upon your list:

    1. Social Entrepreneurship definition – not only do most organizations not agree on what it means, hardly anyone in the public understands the term at all – check out the National Conference on Citizenship's 2008 Civic Health Index findings:

    “Social entrepreneurship”
    We were thinking of citizens’ efforts to address social problems by creating new programs or organizations (including new businesses). Very few respondents had these ideas in mind. Thirty-eight percent said they did not know what this phrase meant. The Millennials were more likely than others to answer this question, although 32% of them declined. An additional 23% gave responses that we were unable to interpret or classify. Seventeen percent provided answers that suggested they were thinking about standard businesses or capitalism in general. Seven percent mentioned somehow helping other people or working in the community, which came fairly close to our conception. Four percent gave negative answers, for instance, “people stealing from me,” “That sounds like a pathetic socialist nanny state,” or “do not like, sounds republican.”

    More on the language of engagement here:

    2. Mergers – after spending nearly 2 1/2 years trying to facilitate a merger with three nonprofits while having amazing pro bono legal support (and it’s still ongoing at this point) - I would suggest the process of acquisition and dissolution vs. merging. Acquisitions allows you to just acquire assets and things you’d like your new entity to have while merging is a much more complex legal thing that requires Sec of States, boards, and lawyers to swarm around.

    As for something to add related to M&A – separating a founder from an organization is like helping a kid go to boarding school or college, the founder never wants to let go and will often over shelter or even smother its child, but it’s the role of the board to keep this in mind and provide opportunities to growth that may require separation from the original founder. A self-imposed gag rule on the founder is also often a good idea for the first 6-12 months after the divorce.

  5. Some of my favorites:
    1. Mission statements fail to communicate the purpose of the organization.
    2. Strategic plans end up in drawers (now, there is a money saver).
    3. Donor cultivation is key in hard economic times.
    4. Don't stop asking for money in difficult times and don't cut back on the fundraising staff.

  6. Of course in order for folks to stop repeating the same research over and over we need to actually have a system for archiving and searching the research that has been done. (Enter IssueLab.)

    Can you imagine academics trying to engage in research without being able to do a literature review?

    So yes - we should establish that certain things are already established - and as part of that, let's make sure people can find the reports that already exist when they need them!

    Pooling and sharing research are necessary steps in not repeating the same work over and over.

    Co-Director, IssueLab

  7. Gabriele:

    Excellent point. Hello, funders? :)

  8. How about...

    Money too often goes to the most charismatic leaders, rather than the most effective programs.

    Revenue models need to be built at the same time as service models, not as afterthoughts. Nonprofits (doing great work) spend years struggling to figure out why they can't support their work.

    Class and Race/ethnic priveledge are big challenges for the nonprofit sector (not us?!). Especially related to who gets the $$$

  9. Here's a couple...

    Collaboration, myth and reality

    Too many non profits, duplication of services. Prove it.

    Social Networking to the rescue. Prove it.

    Now I'd like to go a little further and see if the group can create a list showing places, such as Forward Together, where people are working to overcome the challenges presented by the research.

    One resource I'd offer to this is the use of computer mapping, to help understand the distribution of non profits providing similar services in the same city. Visit and see how we're hosting such a system, and using it to build collaboration and resources for tutor/mentor programs in Chicago. Is there any research on these type of efforts?

  10. Take a second and third look at your leadership especially if the founder heads the organization. There is a big difference between consistent and trusted leadership and the paralyzing fear of CAN WE CHANGE?