Should grantmakers act more like venture capitalists?

Should philanthropic foundation board members and staff act more like the venture capitalists who fund internet startups?

That’s the question our good friend Jon Stahl posed a few weeks ago. Jon’s focus was on the high level of involvement that venture capitalists often have with the companies they invest in. Lead investors typically have a seat on the board and often participate actively in the company, at least at the strategic level. Jon points out that foundation program officers, with portfolios that often run in the dozens, simply don’t have the bandwidth to engage much with their grantees.

I think it’s a great point; maybe there are ways we could refine the philanthropy model to offer grantees more support from their funders.

But the venture capital investment model has some other qualities that may or may not fit our social sector goals very well. For one thing, the VC model is designed to foster blowout success at the expense of everything else. In financial terms, a 2x ($2 returned for every 1$ invested) or even 5x return isn’t very interesting; the VC model is designed to produce 10x and 100x or even larger returns.

In fact, VCs have a lot of incentive to actually kill companies in their portfolio that don’t knock it out of the park. You probably won’t get funded in the first place unless you’ve got a great idea, a great team, and a great market, but if you don’t show aggressive growth in users or revenue pretty quickly, and then sustain that growth, the odds are decent that your VC will actually be part of shutting you down. A typical venture fund might see half or more of its companies fail outright, thirty percent performing modestly enough that the fund can get its investment back or perhaps make a small return, and only twenty percent doing really well. (The actual numbers are tough to come by, and there’s a lot of disagreement about exactly what they are, but we know that the huge hits are pretty rare and that lots of venture capital funds actually lose money).

The model might make sense on issues where our most desperate need is for a few blowout successes (and where we are comfortable killing off the groups that don’t achieve this level of success). For example, it might be perfectly reasonable for the Gates Foundation to fund malaria eradication programs using a VC-style approach, hoping that one of their high-risk-high-reward investments comes up with the solution we’ve all been waiting for.

But on lots of social sector issues, activists and funders are happy – and reasonably so – with moderate, sustained success. If a VC-style approach on malaria eradication comes at the cost of stable, sustained funding for effective malaria prevention efforts, it’s probably a much less appealing strategy. In fact, those “moderate” successes only look modest by comparison to absurdly high Google-style returns.

And on many issues there probably just isn’t a knockout punch waiting to be uncovered through high-risk entrepreneurial style investment by philanthropic donors. Preventing extinction and recovering endangered species is just hard work, politically and ecologically; there almost certainly isn’t a fantastically successful strategy just waiting to be discovered. We ought to have more sophisticated ways of measuring outcomes, and more effective ways of rewarding nonprofits that craft and implement successful strategies, but success across lots of fields won’t look like the 1,000x return that early Facebook investors walked away with. There may be some radical advocacy innovations waiting to be uncovered, but odds are good that most of our success will come through philanthropic investments with returns that look more like the equivalent of 2x, 5x, and 10x outcomes in the investment world. And even though these numbers look small compared to the superhits, they are still huge success: anytime a foundation invests $50,000 in a nonprofit and gets $100,000 or $250,000 worth of social change value out of the deal we all ought to celebrate.

The VC model also shifts enormous control over the company itself to the investors. It’s one thing for a social sector funder to have detailed expectations about how their grant will be spent, and perhaps to use the size of their grants to influence organizational decisions about staffing and strategy (which itself is enough to make many nonprofits very uncomfortable). It’s something altogether different when the funders actually control the organization itself.

Finally, the idea that funders might play a more active role in managing the organizations they fund carries as many risks as it does benefits. The best program officers offer real expertise about the issues they fund, they can draw on wide experience working with the nonprofits they fund, and can offer a higher-level strategic vantage precisely because they aren’t in the trenches on a day-to-day basis. But even the best are still at a distance from the day-to-day work, they often don’t have much experience on the other side of the funding equation, and they can be very prone to a favorable results bias.

In fact, while investors and entrepreneurs may not (and often don’t) share the same long-term vision, they measure results in a very consistent way: how much money is this company earning and how much is it worth. Philanthropic funders and the nonprofits they support may tend to have better alignment on long-term vision, but they rarely share a consistent and unambiguous approach to measuring outcomes. And this problem is only amplified by the strange power dynamics that characterize most grantmaker-grantee relationship. Deeper involvement by program officers in the nonprofits they fund comes with some real challenges.

I’m guessing the appeal of the VC model for Jon is mostly around the opportunities for nonprofit folks to learn from the experience and vantage of the funders they work with (not to mention the potential for funders to provide other kinds of resources to their grantees), and given how weak nonprofits usually are mentoring and professional development this makes a lot of sense. The trick, as is usually the case when drawing from outside models, is making sure we understand what those external models are designed to do and adjust the ways we mimic and poach from them accordingly.

There are other models worth exploring, as well. Angel investors often contribute much smaller amounts but expect much lower returns, which means that a moderate success can still be a success, and the angel investment model includes a lot of room for investor involvement and support. Crowdsourced funding models, with Kickstarter as a marquee example, might offer some insights. In many ways these models look a lot like traditional membership-oriented fundraising in the nonprofit world, but as federal law expands accessibility to true crowdsourced investment we can expect to see rapid evolution in the mechanics and structure.

I agree with Jon’s basic point that we should look at the venture capital model for ideas about improving philanthropic funding. I do think, however, that the VC model in particular has some significant limitations in a social sector context. The nonprofit world, at times, goes overboard when it pulls from other sectors, missing the nuance and context and overdeveloping some particular element that seems important. But we can learn a lot, too, by paying attention to other sectors, and we’ve got a lot to gain by poaching, adapting, and testing whatever we think might help.

Run It Like a Business

Being like a business isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Photo by Flickr user watz.

Denver Mayor Hancock vows to “run government like a business.” Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon, in the Wall Street Journal, argue that “philanthropy must be conducted like business.”

It’s a persistent if tiresome meme.

We understand the idea, of course: a nonprofit is more likely to be high-impact if it’s focused, disciplined, and outcome-focused. And we agree. But these aren’t characteristics of “business,” and the prescription shouldn’t be “run your nonprofit or government agency like a business.” Rather, they are characteristics of effective organizations regardless of sector, and the prescription ought to be: “run your organization using best practices and learning from across sectors.”

We’ve argued in this blog and elsewhere (and it’s a key argument of our forthcoming book, The Nimble Nonprofit), that nonprofits are like businesses in fundamental ways and have a lot to learn from the best practices of other sectors. There are plenty of practices common in the private sector that nonprofits would do well to draw from. (And yes, of course, the private sector can learn from nonprofits, too, but at Bright+3 our focus is on helping nonprofits improve).

But that’s very different than arguing that governments or nonprofits should be run “like a business.” In fact, for every example of a well-run, successful business you can point to others – Lehman Brothers, Enron, Kodak, Saab, Borders, Hollywood Video, MySpace, and Washington Mutual just to name a few – that exemplify poorly run businesses.

And while governments aren’t really our focus, it’s worth noting that the metaphor breaks down pretty quickly. Although part of what government does involves providing services – providing value to stakeholders – many of its responsibilities simply don’t track to conventional notions of return-on-investment: protecting rights, navigating the balance between the interests of individuals and those of groups or neighborhoods, ensuring that everyone in the community has a meaningful opportunity to participate in community decisions (if you wanted to create a slow, inefficient decision-making process, ensuring that everyone gets to play a role is a great strategy), and the like.

When it comes to government officials proclaiming that government should be run like a business, I worry that they don’t really understand the unique, non-market role of government. When nonprofit folks and philanthropists make the same assertion about nonprofits, I think they are idealizing the private sector (which has many, many more examples of poor practice and failure than it does of success).

Nonprofits (and government) have a lot to learn from best practices in the business world, and – to further complicate matters – nonprofits really are businesses in many important respects. Pretending that the laws of business physics don’t apply to nonprofits is a conceit that often undermines our ability to solve problems and effect change. But the facile “being like a business” sound bite obscures and undermines those lessons rather than highlighting then.

Be More Like a Business!

Nonprofit or for-profit, this organization's revenue trend has a problem.
Nonprofits hear the “be more like a business” refrain a lot, despite plenty of evidence that being like a business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m persuaded by Jim Collins’ analysis, which more or less argues that within the business community you’ll find the entire spectrum, from extremely effective organizations to highly dysfunctional ones, and the issue is ferreting out the practices that make the good ones good. He extends this to the social sector, and essentially makes the same argument: the challenge isn’t for social sector organizations to be like businesses but to adopt the practices of the really well run businesses, as well as the really well organizations from whatever sector. I don’t think he’s ever evaluated the public sector, but I suspect his argument would be the same . . . learn what we can from the practices of the organizations that really kick ass (and I’ll bet there’s more of this than you might think, but that’s a post for another day).

In other words, conversations that focus on how the nonprofit sector can be more like the business sector are asking the wrong question. A better question: how can nonprofits learn from the best practices of highly impactful organizations within their own sector and across the business and public sectors?

Our frequent insistence on asking the wrong question leads to two kinds of problems. On the other hand, the nonprofit sector is often so allergic to the very idea of the business sector that it runs away from it, and eschews anything that smells like it might have come from the business world (the “we don’t do things that way” reaction). The problem is that there are a bunch of practices you find among the best-run private sector organizations that nonprofits would benefit from using. It’s not “be like a business,” but “adopt the applicable practices of the best businesses.” The most successful of the private sector organizations are often strong at things nonprofits are often weak at: capacity investments, staff cultivation, and staff management among them.

And then there are nonprofits that run in the other direction, thinking that salvation lies in being like a business, and they adopt private sector practices in seemingly wholesale and indiscriminate fashion, which often produces some of the weirdest and worst dysfunctions, since it involves the hybridization of worst practices from both the nonprofit and private sectors.

Nonprofits really are, at root, businesses. They are different in some important ways from traditional profit-oriented businesses, but they are similar in many more ways. Nonprofits live and die on cash flow, for example, and they have to offer a sufficient and appropriate value proposition to their supporters. But the implication isn’t “do whatever private sector businesses do,” since that would be dumb, but rather that the laws of business physics really do apply even if you are serving a social good of some kind. The sense of nonprofit exceptionalism that pervades much of the nonprofit world, the notion that we are special and different because we are a nonprofit, is harmfully misguided. If you apply a discriminating eye toward the private sector, however strong your allergy may be, you’ll find a ton of practices and accumulated wisdom that will help your nonprofit do good, better.