There’s No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability… and What To Do About It (Part 2)

By Jeffrey M. Glebocki, Strategy + Action /Philanthropy 

This post is the second in a 2-part series on the role of funders in the lively topic of sustainability in the nonprofit sector. Read part 1 >> The series is based on session presentations made by the author at two regional conferences sponsored by the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University. The author also gives a tip-of-the-hat to Vu Le, the brains behind the blog Nonprofit With Balls. 

Funders approach problem-solving with the passion to make change, to improve people’s lives, and to leave the world a better place. Yet so often how we go about the business of philanthropy complicates and restrains our work and that of our nonprofit partners—and, in fact, makes sustainability more of a mirage on the horizon, not a practical destination.

Where are funders going wrong?

Philanthropic policy and practice

We might start by considering how our policies and practices defeat nonprofit organizations before they even get started trying to meet our call for sustainability:

  • When we limit our grantmaking to 1-year awards and won’t consider multiyear grants that free up time from fundraising and increase time for problem-solving
  • When we impose a lengthy and burdensome proposal review process that eats up our partners’ time
  • When our grant application guidelines put limitations on frequency, timing, and kinds of support we will consider (No general operating grants! No capital support! No advocacy! And we only make one grant per year for any organization!)
  • When we won’t support start-up organizations
  • When we won’t recognize unsolicited proposals

Shifting interests and directions

I’ll be the among the first to stand in defense of funders articulating focused interest areas and pursuing directed strategies to catalyze change in those areas. But I’ll also be among the first to note the complications that arise when grantmakers shift their tectonic plates—and how this further makes sustainability a suspect goal.

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There’s No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability…and What To Do About It (Part 1)

By Jeffrey M. Glebocki, Strategy + Action /Philanthropy 

This post is the first in a 2-part series on the role of funders in the lively topic of sustainability in the nonprofit sector. Read part 2 >> The series is based on session presentations made by the author at two regional conferences sponsored by the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University. The author also gives a tip-of-the-hat to Vu Le, the brains behind the blog Nonprofit With Balls. 

I’ve worked as a foundation executive, senior program officer, and advisor to foundations for the past several eons. I’ve reviewed hundreds of proposals, recommended tens of millions of dollars in funding, developed grant strategies and evaluations, and partnered with public and private funders of all shapes and sizes.

And through it all, the illusion of nonprofit sustainability persists. I own up to being guilty of contributing to this illusion, and I think it’s about time to bust the myth.

First off, sustainability simply isn’t a natural state. Life (and our work) is actually about the yin and yang, the dark and light. It’s about birth and death, creation and destruction, expansion and contraction.

Consider these facts: The average life span of Fortune 500 companies is only 40 years. And only 44% of small businesses survive four years or more. Yet, we continue to expect and sometimes demand that nonprofit organizations achieve sustainability—even the nirvana of sustainability independent of our support! 

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How Leadership Succession Planning Can More Deeply Engage Family and Board Members

By Jill Blair, strategy and organizational consultant, and Jeffrey M. Glebocki, CEO, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

This post is the second in a 2-part series on leadership succession planning. Read part 1 on the importance of planning for leadership succession now. Exponent Philanthropy members can explore these themes further in an article by the same authors in our Fall 2015 issue of Essentials.

Leadership succession planning is a process, not just a set of stated expectations. It’s a conversation and exploration to generate shared understanding and clarity of roles, responsibilities, and agreements.

These conversations are also a prime opportunity to more deeply engage family and board members in philanthropy. “It takes one strike of a match to light up a kid’s interest in an issue in the world,” observes Lisa Parker, executive director of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation. “I say [leadership] succession starts in childhood. There’s a milieu of inclusiveness and exposure, so start early.”

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Why It’s Important to Start Planning for Leadership Succession Now

By Jill Blair, strategy and organizational consultant, and Jeffrey M. Glebocki, CEO, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

Passing the batonThis post is the first in a 2-part series on leadership succession planning. Exponent Philanthropy members can explore these themes further in an article by the same authors in our forthcoming Fall 2015 issue of Essentials.

“Our foundation had succession planning thrust upon us,” shares John Valliant, president of the Grayce B. Kerr Fund. “We had been talking about succession for some time, and then we were blindsided by illness and death.”

Fortunately, not every foundation faces such sudden and tragic events. But experiences of this nature are profound reminders of the importance of intentionally preparing for the future.

We know that leadership transitions are inevitable, and that they are moments of evolution and change that affect people and organizations. Leadership transitions can also be disruptive and create a sense of loss—so much so that we often choose to avoid thinking ahead and acting on that inevitability.

The good news is that we can manage transition by being prepared in the form of succession planning. There are many dimensions of succession, from changes in board members or board and staff leadership to engagement of next generations. In every case, leadership succession is fundamentally about the orderly transfer, or sharing, of power.

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Change Demands More Than Programmatic Grants

By Chris Thompson, Director of Regional Engagement, Fund for Our Economic Future & Jeffrey M. Glebocki, CEO, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

Philanthropy should support efforts that help stakeholders understand the performance of key civic systems

As grantmakers, we know the programs and projects we support are often by themselves insufficient to create the level of substantive change we hope for in the communities and issues we care about.

Yes, a well-run tutoring program can indeed change the lives of children. There are so many factors, though, that go into improving high school graduation rates—to use one common measure of systemic educational outcomes—that no one tutoring program alone can drive systems change.

Building the management capacity of local food banks, as another example, is likely to result in more efficient distribution of food, more effective use of volunteers, and better coordination between multiple providers. Again, though, the best-run agencies alone cannot shift fundamental systems change—in this case, ending hunger.

We highlight this reality not to suggest that supporting effective programs is futile, nor to dissuade funders from developing and sustaining a focus in their giving. Rather, we raise these issues as a reminder to explore how at least part of our grantmaking can be channeled to help us and our grantees better understand and influence the civic systems that shape the quality of life in our communities.

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Put Your Plans into Action – Not on the Shelf

By Jeffrey M. Glebocki, The Raymond John Wean Foundation

I once sat on the board of a nonprofit organization that had undertaken what eventually became an award-winning planning process for its property holdings. This effort engaged all staff and board and generated lots of creative energy from the surrounding community.

Within a couple months after completing the plan, staff recommended a capital improvement inconsistent with the still-fresh blueprint for the property. A lively board conversation ensued – and funds were eventually approved for a project that fell outside of the approved plan!

How does your foundation avoid falling into a behavior more common in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector than we would like to admit? Continue reading