Risk tolerance and recklessness among nonprofits

TechCrunch posted an Andy Rachleff piece a couple of weeks ago on the odds that an angel investor or venture capital investor will make money. The conclusion: pretty darned unlikely.

The vast majority of venture capital funds, for instance, either barely break even or actually lose money.

Why does this matter to nonprofits?

The “what can nonprofits learn from technology startups” theme has picked up steam in recent years in concert with the current technology startup boom, and is regularly a topic on this blog (see, for example, our recent exchange with Jon Stahl: “Should grantmakers be more like VCs” and “Should grantmakers act more like venture capitalists?“).

A grantmaking investment model that assumes an 80% failure rate among grantees may not be our best option. What I find most interesting about the Rachleff piece, however, and potentially most useful in the social sector context, is the risk tolerance that permeates the private investment landscape. Even the most optimistic of the experienced investors know that most of their investments will fail. They are willing, to varying degrees, to invest in organizations each of which only has a small chance of succeeding.

Fostering a Nonprofit Culture of Risk-Tolerance

Fostering a culture that genuinely encourages and supports risk-taking, within organizations and between organizations and their funders, is a real weak spot among nonprofits. Doing this means that the price of a failed project can’t be very steep. It means that organizations and funders have to provide positive feedback for smart risk-taking. Claiming to support experimentation and risk-taking but penalizing people and organizations with experiments don’t work out as planned fosters a culture of risk-aversion, not risk-tolerance.

Risk-Tolerance Doesn’t Mean Reckless

Risk tolerance shouldn’t mean encouraging reckless gambles. In fact, a smart risk-oriented strategy will include explicit expectations: clearly identifying the assumptions underlying any particular risk, having a clear process or tool for explicitly testing those assumptions and learning from the experience regardless of the outcome, ensuring that effective feedback loops use this learning to improve strategy and execution.

Innovation – both the incremental and the huge-leap-forward varieties – require people and organizations to take risks, and that only happens in a significant way when the rewards for taking those risks are high enough and the penalties for failure are gentle enough.

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

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.

Feeling the Love

I’ve been subscriber to a local cultural organization for twenty years now, and for the first time since I first joined I didn’t renew my subscription.

From the “Missed Opportunities” folder: in all those years, nearly every time the organization has ever reached out to me has been a solicitation … contribute to the organization, buy tickets for a special event, donations to special funds. No notes just thanking me for being a supporter. No acknowledgment of my long tenure as a subscriber. No invitation to offer my thoughts for the next year’s performance schedule or ideas for other events and programs. No phone calls from board members asking what I think of the organization or if I enjoyed the performance last week. No gestures of appreciation at all.

What’s so striking is how little it takes to make supporters feel appreciated. It doesn’t require fancy parties, expensive gifts, or elaborate theatrics.

For their five-year anniversary, the local cafe in a town I used to call home gave coffee mugs to all of their customers. A decade later that mug is still a cherished part of my morning coffee routine, and I eat there every time I pass thru town. Every now and again, I’ll get a call from a nonprofit staff member or board member just to thank me for supporting the organization. I’ve enjoyed the occasional “member appreciation event” over the years. After getting stuck in the dreaded “purple line” at President Obama’s inauguration and missing the event, my Congressional Representative sent me a photo of the swearing-in. It didn’t make up for missing the event, but it was a very cool gesture and required very little effort or expense.

Even more disappointing: if they couldn’t figure out how to reach out to me in some non-solicitous fashion during the many years of my support, at the very least this local cultural organization might have done so when I didn’t re-subscribe by the deadline, since retaining me as a subscriber has to be much less expensive than re-acquiring me later. Doing so would have offered them an opportunity to learn why I didn’t renew (too expensive this year), earn my gratitude if it had been because I forgot and missed the deadline, perhaps offer me a special deal because of my tenure, or suggest an alternative (“did you consider renewing with tickets in a less expensive section?”).

I’m a huge fan of this organization, but I’m not feeling the love coming back my way, which can’t help but weaken my enthusiasm for them. Even for those organizations that are the most resource constrained, you can find ways to make sure your supporters know how much you appreciate them, and that, in turn, can’t help but deepen their relationship with you.

(Photo by Flickr user candiceecidnac).

Innovation v. Effectiveness

Innovation is just a whole lot sexier than do-more-of-what-we're-already-doing.
One of the peculiarities of the philanthropic foundation world is its energetic enthusiasm for supporting innovation among the organizations they support. Everyone loves innovation, for one thing, and we know that many of the challenges we face probably aren’t solvable with traditional approaches. And funders are as susceptible to the temptations of organizational ego as everyone else … what funder wouldn’t want to get credit for breakthrough innovations in providing key community services, securing a durable change in political values, dramatic improvements in nonprofit organizational structure, or solving an important social problem?

But sometimes the right answer isn’t to create something new but to scale up something you are already doing, or to copy an approach someone else already nailed. The problem: the idea of innovation can be so sexy that it comes at the expense of effectiveness. If a funder conveys through their grant application or awards process that being innovative trumps being effective, it’s not hard to see how the nonprofits themselves might slide in the same direction. If you’re trying to solve a social change, advocacy, and community challenge, sometimes imitation actually is the best solution.

(Photo by Flickr user Jules Antonio).

Easing (and improving) the year-end email fundraising onslaught

December means the end of the year is upon us and for nonprofits (or, more notably their members and email subscribers) it’s high season for email traffic. The end of the year is a critical time for fundraising. By some measures, up to 30% of donations (online, at least) come at the end of the year. For example, Network for Good has reported that over 30% of their annual online donation processing happens in December. Online gifts in December tend to be larger. These are just a couple stats in Network for Good’s recent Holiday Guide for companies partnering with organizations (worth the read – PDF).

Woman fighting email with sword - How to avoid email fatigue in December and still raise money.
Avoid email fatigue in December and still raise money.

You will see more email than ever this December, especially the last couple weeks of the month, as organizations try to cover all their bases and leave no stone unturned. It can be overwhelming for subscribers but, like political ads on TV, lots of email works. People give to organizations they love AND know about. If they don’t think of you when making those year-end donations, even if they like what you do, you will miss out.

How do we build awareness (and passion), increase the tempo of messages and make people happy, not grumpy, about all this email?

Point out Successes

You’ve had a great year and been a fabulous steward of your donors’ gifts. Remind people of that. The end of the year is the perfect time to sum up what’s happened with the investment made by donors. Your organization has a theory of change and/or business plan. Show results. Continue reading “Easing (and improving) the year-end email fundraising onslaught”

Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors

I’ve always been struck by the different ways old and new organizations approach online communications, fundraising and organizing. The two groups could learn a lot by studying each other.

Charity:Water poster - 4,5000 children will die today from water-related diseases
Charity:Water poster with a focused and powerful idea.

Newer groups aren’t beholden to a certain way of doing things, entrenched hierarchies and well-established silos. They’re likely led and staffed by bootstrapping generalists that are truly passionate about an idea or mission and not much deterred by failures. Their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them and can stir up a hornet’s nest of much-needed action.

Organizations that have been around a while (and let’s say 15-20 years or more) have staying power. They have figured out how to get things done and sustain the business of running an organization. Relationship-building takes time and they have stuck to it – likely carving out strong relationships with the powerful in communities and government.

Most that work in and around nonprofit organizations these days would probably say that adapting to digital networks and online fundraising has been a challenge for older groups. A well-established way of doing things is challenged by the speed and apparent loss of control over message and action wrought by online networks.

Learning from Younger Groups

There is room in the nonprofit tent for both old and new organizations. But technical change is happening fast and the fabric of communities, environment, institutions is fraying before our eyes. Groups need to be at the top of their game. Continue reading “Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors”

The Nonprofit Dashboard Roadmap

Photo by Flickr user istargazer.
Dashboards have been used heavily in parts of the private sector for a long time, but they seem to be making inroads in the nonprofit and government worlds as well. The premise: just as with a car or airplane dashboard, a nonprofit staffer can quickly glance at the gauges and clearly understand the real-time status of key systems and indicators across the organization. The understanding won’t be deep – they may need to probe more thoroughly to fully understand anything they are seeing on the dashboard – but they can very quickly get a sense of how well the organization is functioning and if any problems are emerging.

In our view, dashboards have the following characteristics:

  • They are dynamic. They display information that is changing on a regular basis.
  • They rely heavily on gauges or other data visualization displays to convey information in readily understandable formats.
  • They allow for quick status assessments, although they may enable deeper inquiry

Even with these criteria, however, the dashboard concept is used to describe a diverse range of displays, each distinct in function and design from the next. As the dashboard concept takes great hold among nonprofits we are encountering some confusion among our clients about which is which and what people mean when they use the term.

We took at stab at delineating five distinct types of dashboards:

1) Business Intelligence Dashboards
These display detailed information about a particular area of an organization’s operations. Many customer relationship management systems, for example, like Salesforce and Raiser’s Edge, include dashboards to make it easier for the development staff to track fundraising activities, donations, and other performance measures. Fundraising and advocacy management tools like Convio use dashboards to display campaign status. Google Analytics, with its robust dashboard system displaying key web site metrics, is another example. Technical dashboards help specialized staff keep a close watch on what’s happening within their organizational purview. Technical dashboards are typically inward facing, so that only staff and perhaps board members can view them, but they can be outward facing as well. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s dashboard is an oft-cited example.

2) Status Dashboards
Organizational status dashboards, like the one the software company Panic described on their blog, are another variant. In contrast to technical dashboards, which tend to focus on a single functional area within an organization, status dashboards display less information from a wider range of functional areas across an organization. A status dashboard is the answer to the question: what is the critical information everyone in the organization should be able to view all the time? Rather than probing deeply into any one area of an organization’s operations, they offer a broader overview of value to everyone.

3) Accountability Dashboards
Increasingly, we are seeing dashboards used in external accountability contexts: a nonprofit or local government that wants to share its real-time performance data with its donors and its community. The Town of Oro Valley in Arizona maintains a financial dashboard displaying the town’s financial performance compared to past trends. It’s not a great example in that it is only updated monthly, and not in real-time, but it’s at least in the ballpark. Over at PlaceMatters (where I spend part of my week), we’ve been doing a lot of work on sustainability dashboards, web-based tools that openly share a community’s performance against its sustainability goals. Incidentally, we described the Indianapolis Museum of Art dashboard as a Technical Dashboard because of its depth, but it really serves as an Accountability Dashboard as well.

4) Tracking Dashboards
These can be inward or outward facing, and typically show visualizations of unfolding data streams in real-time. These aren’t organizational in nature but, rather, are tracking events that are taking place outside the organization. The data stream may have implications for an organization, but it isn’t specific to that organization. Al Jazeera’s “Region in Turmoil” dashboard shows the volume of Twitter traffic by country in the Middle East as a proxy for the level of political activity.

5) Scenario Comparison Dashboards
These are typically designed to compare likely outcomes of a range of future scenarios across a range of key metrics. For instance, MetroQuest uses dashboards to compare multiple regional development scenarios across factors. CommunityViz, a GIS-based data visualization and decision support tool, allows user to analyze the environmental and other community outcomes from a range of land use scenarios, and it uses dashboards to display those outcomes across a range of factors.

We shouldn’t entirely neglect the category of “Displays That Are Called Dashboards But Aren’t.” It probably isn’t useful to use ‘dashboard’ to refer to web pages full of relatively static narrative information, for example. One example is the recycling portion of the Emory University Sustainability Dashboard.

We would welcome your thoughts. Does this seem like the right breakdown? Are we missing anything? What are the terrific examples of each category?

To App Or Not To App

Photo by flickr user AxsDeny.
This is the question Fast Company and many others are posing more generally, but of course the question applies to nonprofits as well. Social Fish lays out a thoughtful argument against associations creating mobile apps (which I think might agree reasonably extend to other nonprofits as well): too many barriers to the app being used, popular app types don’t track to what associations can offer, and not enough members use apps at all.

Sensible arguments all the way around. SocialFish is joined by Holly Ross on the Frogloop blog and others in making the case that organizations should focus on developing mobile-friendly versions of their sites before thinking about apps. This, too, seems like sensible advice given growth in the PDA market. Although market penetration by smartphones is still small, it is growing quickly. (SocialFish also argues for focusing on social network optimization before building apps, as well.)

Mobile-friendly probably should be a priority over apps, and I think SocialFish’s take is sensible enough, but I also think that mobile apps offer sustained engagement opportunities that might just be worth the investment. For one thing, as Wired Magazine argued in their provocatively-titled headliner last year (“The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!”): we are witnessing a real shift in how people access the web, away from conventional web browsers and toward mobile devices. An increasing proportion of mobile web-based activity simply bypasses the browser altogether. While making your site mobile-friendly (if not mobile-optimized) is almost certainly worthwhile, it only captures those people who are using mobile browsers in the first place. Companies like Urban Airship are doing really well (check out this Robert Scoble interview with their CEO, Scott Kveton) precisely because of this shift in how people interact with the Web. This argument is bolstered partly by the data on app-based financial transactions. As Kveton argues, the vast majority of mobile app-generated revenue results from ongoing transactions between a mobile phone customer and a specific app . . . users of that app continue to spend money on the app in order to access new value.

Well-designed apps also can offer high-value interactions that mobile phone users actually want. Obviously geolocation tools and gamification design elements are two (sometimes combined) approaches, but mobile apps can offer very engaging experiences and value that users don’t typically find through browsers. If you can build a really compelling app, maybe you should. Finally, apps also have a built-in mechanism for repeated interactions. Every time you publish an update or some other sort of push notification for your app, like Urban Airship does, everyone who’s got the app installed gets a fresh reminder about having it, and it gives you a chance to get them excited again about whatever value your app offers.

What you get with an app, as Fast Company suggests, is a self-contained experience, but it’s clear that without a real self-contained experience value proposition for potential users a mobile app strategy isn’t likely to do much for your organization. If you can offer high-value information, relevant deals, or a genuinely engaging experience through an app, on the other hand, it may be worth the effort. If you see mobile apps as an opportunity to deepen engagement, not just as a donation-making channel, I think they offer a lot of potential.

But all that said, most of this conversation about whether to app or not skips what I think is the more fundamental question: who is your audience, and how and why exactly do you want their engagement? MobileActive does a nice job of laying out some of the right questions to ask, but they all boil down to the same questions you should ask about any potential strategy: 1) who is your audience; 2) can you build an app in which they find value and through which can increase engagement; and 3) what are the costs of building and deploying an app compared to the benefits?

Online Fundrasing Report: Sorting the Tea Leaves

Chances are, if you have an email account (and if you don’t it’s hard to imagine you’re reading this) then you have received, oh, at least a couple messages from non-profits today that involve a donation request. Maybe you opened one. Perhaps, if it is a group or cause that touches your heart or just happens to have a crazy interesting pitch, you gave.

A recent New York Times article discussed a report from Target Analytics (a division of Blackbaud) that looks at online fundraising results over time in several large non-profit organizations. The report is worth a look for non-profit leaders and fundraisers.

The highlight of the report seems to be advertised as this: online donors might give more the first time around but aren’t so loyal (and seem to give via direct mail later on).

For folks that have thought about the generational differences between online and offline donors – or knows that organizations are busy sending mail to online donors but don’t know how to move mail donors online – the report might not be surprising.

But what is there that sheds light on some of the important strategic decisions that need to be made?

Continue reading “Online Fundrasing Report: Sorting the Tea Leaves”