Tag Archives: philanthropy

The original sin of nonprofit capacity builders

Back in 2011, a few weeks before I left Groundwire (R.I.P.), I was at a nonprofit conference down in southern Oregon. I was delighted to run into Dianne Russell, who runs the Institute from Conservation Leadership. Dianne’s been doing organizational capacity building work in the environmental sector for… well, pretty much forever and has always been one of those people I’ve admired as we worked over the years with many of the same great people and organizations.

So there we were in the lobby, catching up, talking about the weather, our kids, I don’t quite remember. But then out of nowhere, Dianne dropped this idea on me:

“I’ve been thinking lately,” she said (and I paraphrase slightly), “that we capacity builders have really screwed up. We’ve systematically miseducated funders about the true cost of doing the work.”

I swear that the clouds parted and a great beam of light shone down on us. (Never mind that we were indoors.) I heard the clap of thunder, but maybe it was just the sound of my jaw hitting the concrete floor.

I picked it up and said, “Oh, wow. You are… totally… right. I never thought of it that way before. How come I never thought of it that way before?

In an instant, I flashed through all of the ways I’d failed at pricing over 15 years of doing mostly-below-market-rate technology and communications consulting to environmental nonprofits:

  • Giving work away for free: FAIL. very few clients truly value what they’re not paying for, and a price of “free” makes it really easy to fail to invest in making new tools and knowledge sustainable.
  • Charging meaningful but “below-market” rates: FAIL. This is a more subtle way to fail. When you charge a meaningful amount, clients have “skin in the game” and that’s good. You have far fewer failing projects. But think back to Econ 101 — if you price below market, demand is infinite, and every unit of below-cost service you deliver is another unit of charitable subsidy you have to raise. So, while each project is great and your clients love you, you are digging a hole to hell with your good intentions.
  • Charging “the low end of market rate:” NOT A TOTAL FAIL, BUT DANG HARD. Here, your clients are happy and you’re not losing money hand over fist, but you’re trapped in the tyranny of the billable hour and the constant struggle to keep staff from being poached by higher-paying for-profits,  etc.

But, despite having experienced all of this failure modes, I hadn’t really thought about how underpricing affects funders — who, along with the nonprofits themselves, are often “the customer” for capacity building services, even though they are not “the client.”

As we tie on our superhero capes and leap into action, we often fail to calculate our true costs. And even more often, we fail to disclose that full cost either to our clients or to our funder/customers. This happens for many reasons, all of them sincere and well-meaning.

We capacity builders, with our zeal to get the work done — after all, there’s so much good work that desperately needs doing — we’re wizards at cobbling together a few bucks here, a few bucks there. And maybe we feel a little bit guilty about charging all that money to do good work.  We’ve usually got at least a touch of impostor syndrome (“we’re not really that good”) so we hem and haw and there are a thousand reasons why we just sort of don’t get around to really showing everyone who’s paying for a piece of our pie just how much the whole pie really costs.

This is all well and good and well intended. The clients are happy, the funders are happy and the capacity builder might even be pretty happy too. But over the not-so-long term, Bad Things Start to Happen:

Even if you’ve been rigorous about showing all your cross-subsidies, the cumulative effect of underpricing is that it affects what funders (and clients) are willing to pay for future capacity building engagements. This is what my economist friends call “price anchoring.” Over time it means that funders (and clients) start to believe that below cost is what it costs and, worse, that’s all it’s worth. This means that if a future capacity builder should have the temerity to charge enough to cover their full costs (including the cost of paying people competitive salaries, not burning them out with overwork, etc.), they are very likely to be told, “Sorry, that’s too expensive. Last time I only paid $BELOW-COST-PRICE.”

Let me be clear: it’s not that clients and funders are naive or that they are trying to abuse us by setting up a race to the bottom. Prices are signals and prices are stories, and our prices are telling lies that have, over time, systematically miseducated our customers (and our clients) about the underlying economic reality of the work.

The bill for this is coming due.

 

Approaching funders for program-related investments

At work, we helped put on  a great panel session on program-related investments (PRIs) [1] earlier this week. We had a packed house of 80+ folks and they asked a ton of great questions, including one from the CEO of a nonprofit with a revenue-generating social enterprise program: “As a nonprofit, who can I approach to invest in my social enterprise?”

Panelist (and my colleague) Peter Berliner offered the following answer: Foundations make PRIs for the same reasons they make grants: they see alignment between their philanthropic goals and the goals of the social enterprise. Second: they ask, “is it a reasonable business proposition?” So, it makes sense to ask for mission investments from foundations with whom you have existing relationships. Who supports your goals already?

Not only did I think this was a fantastic answer, it was almost verbatim the answer I gave for many years to nonprofits who asked me, “What foundations will be interested in funding my technology capacity needs?”

The old world connects with the new.

[1] PRIs, as the jargon goes, are foundation investments that are designed to yield below-market financial returns and accomplish social change goals.

Should grantmakers be more like VCs?

At Web of Change 2012 last week, I had an interesting conversation with Drew Bernard about nonprofit boards vs. the boards of internet startups, and the very different roles that nonprofit and VC funders play.   Drew’s a great person to chat with about these topics, because he’s worn all the hats: startup entrepreneur, angel investor, startup board member, nonprofit tech consultant and nonprofit board member.

We think that advocacy nonprofits and startups have one huge thing in common: they are both highly entrepreneurial organizations, in that, as Eric Reis puts it, they both need to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty.   Nonprofits are funded by grantmakers, startups by venture captial (VC) firms.  A typical VC firm has partners, each of whom has a portfolio of investees.  Grantmakers have program officers.

In a VC firm, each of the partners will carry a portfolio of roughly 7-12 firms, and in exchange for the firm’s investment, the partner will sit on the board of each of the firms in his or her portfolio.  VC board members not only look out for the interests of the investors, but they also serve as mentors, advisers, connection-makers and often-vigorous advocates for the startups they advise.  Even in situations where the VCs have relatively small amounts of money on the line (e.g. in angel-funded startups, which are what Drew works on), the VC board member<>startup relationship is often intense, hands-on and collaborative.  “I’m on the board of one startup right now,” Drew told me, “and I’m probably in their office at least once a week.”

Compare and contrast to the nonprofit sector.  All of the foundation program officers I know carry portfolios of roughly 20-50 grantees.  Serving on the board of an grantee is rare, and in most cases it’s done out of personal interest rather than as a part of the job.  There’s some coaching and mentoring and network-making that’s part of the relationship, but with 20-50 grantees, that’s just not a lot of program officer time per grantee.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m about the last person in the world to put VCs on a pedestal, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if a grantmaking foundation tried to use the VC model for its grantee relationships: big investments, small portfolios, intensive, supportive, hands-on involvement.