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May 24, 2011

Three Speaking Engagements: Funders, Nonprofits, and Philanthropists

This month I had the opportunity in one day to speak to a group of funders, a group of nonprofits, and a group of “get involved” philanthropists called Social Venture Partners. Thanks to the Ohio Grantmakers Forum and the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and their partners for making this happen.

The nonprofit group was the largest, which is consistent with my experience. Nonprofits know that the current system is unsustainable and they are thirsty for any information that can help them to figure out how to survive and become sustainable. I aim my programs to give them some tools to use to identify a strategy that can be sustainable and to provide them with a way of thinking to help them sort through the many difficult decisions involved in the necessary restructuring.

The funders were a committed set of individuals. I structure my programs for funders to challenge conventional ways of thinking about philanthropy and how to help the nonprofit sector. Funders are deeply committed to helping nonprofits, but the national philanthropic press provides them with little constructive help. That press focuses on how to raise more money and how to make nonprofits more efficient or more effective. Those articles are largely misguided. They sound like a management guide for philanthropists and fundraisers. Philanthropists and fundraisers are not involved in the daily management challenges of nonprofits and their best ways to assist nonprofits lie in other areas. Nonprofit management is the province of nonprofit management. What funders and fundraisers need is good information on how nonprofits are affected by funders’ programs and how managers feel compelled to respond. That is what I try to provide in my programs.

This audience was great. They pushed back, as they should, but they were open-minded to another perspective. Some challenging perspectives I provide: Matching funds and start-up grants can be harmful to nonprofit mission. Endowments can undermine sustainability. Restrictions are often prompted by mistrust between donor and recipient but restrictions do not solve the problem. Better to confront the source of the mistrust first before finalizing the gift.

The best conversation came in the evening, perhaps because wine was provided. The group, Social Venture Partners, is an organization of philanthropists who give time as much as they give money. They are involved in the nonprofits they seek to help. As a result, they have a tighter bond of trust with the nonprofits they are helping. The thrust and parry of the evening was vigorous but I believe it was because they were so committed to help that they really wanted to understand the nonprofit perspective before letting go of their current views of how to help.

I hope that all the groups came away with a better idea of what drives the successful nonprofit business model and which ideas and approaches support that model and which do not. They all came away with a copy of the second edition of Linking Mission to Money: Finance for Nonprofit Leaders, which has been out for only one month. That second edition has an expanded discussion of the successful nonprofit business model and complements last year’s release, More than Just Money: Practical and Provocative Steps to Nonprofit Success. Pairing those two books together (and especially the Challenges in Philanthropy section of More than Just Money) can give you a 40,000 foot perspective on the approaches to philanthropy, governance, and finance that can truly enhance and sustain the highest mission of our nonprofit organizations.