Corporate volunteers a community asset

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits should make it their business to strengthen their partnerships with business.

Those partnerships can benefit nonprofits and businesses alike.

Nonprofits are searching for ways to stretch their limited resources so they can meet rising demand for services fueled by the wounded economy.

And businesses, also slammed by the economic crisis, are looking for ways to build their brand and stretch the limited dollars they have to support community causes.

A simple solution for both groups is to find ways to work more closely with one another, particularly by putting business employees to work as nonprofit volunteers.

Volunteers, whether they serve on boards, work with clients or handle back-office assignments, add expertise and new energy and ideas to a nonprofit.

And employees’ volunteer experience can yield a high return on investment for their employers, whether or not the employees are permitted to volunteer on company time.

Not only does volunteering give employees the kind of professional-development training and hands-on experience their employers otherwise might not provide, but it also can make employees feel better about the companies they work for.

Research consistently has shown good corporate citizens are more likely to keep and attract employees.

Matching nonprofits that need volunteers with businesses looking for ways to encourage employee volunteerism also can be great way to build “social capital,” or the social connections within a community.

Some communities already have organizations or programs — volunteer centers, United Ways, executive service programs and chambers of commerce — that can serve as a volunteer broker between nonprofits and businesses.

And in communities that lack such programs, those groups as well as community foundations can step up and play that role.

Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector should be all about building community by boosting the capacity of people and places in need.

Sadly, much of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector has become all about building empires for individual nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.

By working together to encourage and broker corporate volunteerism, nonprofits, companies and other groups can help strengthen the culture of philanthropy in their community.

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Diversity trips up nonprofits, foundations

By Todd Cohen

In the charitable marketplace, talk is cheap.

Nonprofits and foundations talk a lot about the need for charities to be more “diverse” and “inclusive,” but within their own organizations they seem unable or just unwilling to put their words into action and bridge the same differences that divide Americans.

Many foundations, for example, require nonprofits seeking grants to disclose information about their racial, ethnic and gender diversity.

Yet many foundations are anything but diverse or inclusive, and are quick to raise a stink when anyone suggests they publicly disclose their own diversity.

When faced with calls for greater regulation of their virtually unchecked activities and power, foundations and nonprofits rear up on their hind legs and proclaim their critical need to remain independent, arguing from behind crocodile tears that they can and will fix whatever is wrong in their own domain.

And judging from the gospel they themselves preach about diversity and inclusiveness, plenty is wrong indeed in the church of philanthropy, including a culture of hypocrisy or just plain denial about the disconnect between what foundations and nonprofits say and what they do.

A new report, for example, says nonprofit employees see their organizations as promoting diversity but failing to practice it.

Nearly 90 percent of over 1,600 nonprofit professionals surveyed by Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute believe their organizations value racial and ethnic diversity, yet over 70 percent believe their employer does too little to create a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Another recent study by the Council on Foundation found 85 percent of board members at over 500 foundations responding to a survey are white, 62 percent are male, and 74 percent are over age 50, with 19 percent age 40 to 49.

And a survey of 73 foundations last fall by the Foundation Center found that while foundation leaders in the U.S. seem to value diversity within their organizations, 51 percent disliked a failed California proposition that would have required public, private and corporate foundations with assets of $250,000 or more to make public the ethnic, racial and gender makeup of their boards and staff, and to provide an accounting of grantmaking activities that serve minority populations.

America is bitterly divided by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, faith and ideology, to name just a few.

We cannot, in short, seem to tolerate anyone who is different.

The charitable marketplace consists of well over one million nonprofits and foundations, most of which have the mission of serving and enriching people and places in need.

And many of those people and places in need fall on the neglected or embattled side of the divides that have come to define America and that lie at the root of its intolerance.

It is common sense and an abiding lesson of history that organizations and communities are more likely to thrive when they include a rich mix of people and ideas.

The U.S., despite all the flaws that come naturally to a work in progress, is constitutionally rooted in welcoming anyone who wants to call it home, although that role as a safe haven is increasingly at risk because of escalating and increasingly ugly intolerance.

In the charitable marketplace, diversity and inclusiveness can be powerful strategies for building the capacity of nonprofits and foundations, and helping them fulfill their mission of boosting the capacity of people and places in need.

But while they preach diversity, far too few nonprofits and foundations will take on or can handle the difficult job of practicing it.

Far too many foundations that require grantseekers to disclose their diversity cannot bring themselves to disclose their own.

Far too few nonprofits and foundations that promote the fundamental value of diversity are willing or able to bring themselves to put their words into practice.

Indeed, many of the foundations and nonprofits that talk the most about diversity often are the least likely to include diverse ideological perspectives in their thinking and funding.

To be effective in fulfilling their mission, and to earn and keep the trust of their constituents and supporters, nonprofits and foundations need to practice the culture of philanthropy they preach.

Collaboration takes much more than just talk

By Todd Cohen

Collaboration has to be one of the most bloated, overworked and misunderstood buzzwords in the charitable marketplace.

Funders and donors preach and demand it. Trade groups and consultants peddle it. And nonprofits, nodding to the sermonizing of their funders and donors, pay endless lip service to it.

Sadly, far too few of any of them actually practice it or even know what it is or what it takes to make it work.

Collaboration sounds great in theory.

But in practice, it can prove to be slippery, complicated, risky and sometimes plain unworkable.

The damaged economy has unleashed still more hot air in the nonprofit sector about the importance of collaboration, with much of that big talk from the same crowd that has shamelessly pushed it for years without joining collaborative efforts themselves, or investing their own resources to make collaborations happen.

But long before the financial-services industry and its government collaborators trampled all over the economy, wreaking havoc for already-strained nonprofits and the people and places they serve, some smart and gutsy nonprofits were working the trenches and hammering out ways to work together to build their own capacity and better serve clients.

Consider some pioneering efforts in North Carolina.

Formed in 2003, the Children and Family Services Center in Charlotte houses 10 agencies that serve families and kids.

The center provides those agencies with shared back-office services, works to boost their capacity and lower their costs, and has saved them a total of over $8 million.

Now, a Community Catalyst Fund created at Foundation for the Carolinas to make grants to spur efficiency, effectiveness and innovation at local nonprofits has made a grant to the Child and Family Service Center to test the feasibility of expanding its shared human-resources services to other nonprofits in the region.

That fund also is investing in NPower Charlotte, a nonprofit that provides technology training and consulting for nonprofits, and also serves under contract as the information-technology department for about 30 local nonprofits, including Foundation for the Carolinas.

And in Raleigh, InterAct of Wake County and eight other agencies it houses provide a one-stop shop that offers a broad range of services to adults and children who have suffered from domestic violence or rape and sexual assault.

While operating independently, the nine agencies serve the same clients and meet once a month to share information about their programs and operations, and talk about ways to work together and better coordinate services for clients.

Like our democracy, which serves as the seedbed for the nonprofit sector, nonprofit collaboration is hard work that is slow, messy and always a work in progress.

It rarely, if ever, works the way the models developed by consulting firms and academic researchers suggest it should work, in large part because no two groups of would-be partners, and no two partnerships, are the same, and because the conditions and the marketplace in which they must survive are in a state of continual change.

Collaboration requires leaders who listen and adapt, and who encourage others inside and outside their organizations to lead, learn and grow.

It requires being open to honest criticism and new ideas, and being willing to share power and resources.

Yet in practice, executives and officers at many leading foundations, trade groups and nonprofits cannot abide having their ideas or judgment questioned or their power diminished in any way, despite all their philanthropically-correct talk about “transparency” and “teamwork.”

As the North Carolina initiatives make clear, reflecting the efforts of a small but growing corps of innovative partnerships throughout the U.S., collaboration can indeed work.

But it requires patience, the ability to listen and adapt, the willingness to truly share power and resources, the courage to make mistakes and learn from them, and the grit to keep trying until a particular partnership no longer makes sense.

The proof of whether collaboration works is in actually making the effort to work together to better serve people and places in need.

The rest are just empty words from people who are leaders in title only.

Succeeding in the new nonprofit marketplace

“Thriving, not surviving, in a tough economy will be the focus on a Philanthropy Journal webinar on April 19 led by Sylvia Oberle, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The webinar will highlight specific strategies in operations, programs and fundraising that will help nonprofit staff and board members lead their organizations toward positive change.To find out more about the webinar, and to register, click here.

I hope you will join PJ and Sylvia Oberle for this webinar on a topic of great importance to all of us who work in the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofits should hold their ground

By Todd Cohen

Despite faint signs of relief from the pain inflicted by the shredded economy, financial strain continues for nonprofits, making it essential that they keep assessing and adjusting their business model and focusing on their mission.

Many nonprofits have looked hard at the way they operate and made tough decisions to tweak or drop programs and operations that do not work, to boost those that do, and to find partners that truly want to work together.

That is the kind of scrutiny and planning that should be ongoing at nonprofits, in good times and bad.

But with nonprofits under growing pressure to do more with less, taking time to plan can seem like stealing precious resources that should be laser-focused on trying to meet rising demand for services.

It is critical that nonprofits not let even a whiff of financial improvement lure them into thinking they now can retreat from their struggle to remake and adapt themselves to the new era of rapid and continual change and uncertainty.

Recent reports have suggested that, after two-and-half years of economic stress, nonprofits are making some financial progress.

The Nonprofit Research Collaborative reported a bigger share of nonprofits raised more money or the same amount in 2010 than in 2009, while a smaller share raised less, and nonprofits that invested in fundraising were more likely to see increases.

A separate report by M+R Strategic Services and NTEN found that online fundraising, not counting the outpouring of giving to international disasters, grew 10 percent in 2010 after falling in 2009.

And a report by Total Compensation Solutions said nonprofit salaries growing and showing the same modest improvements as those at for-profit companies.

While a report by the Nonprofit Finance Fund said the financial pressure may be letting up, it also said nonprofits expect the financial and operating crunch will continue.

If nonprofits have learned anything during the economic storm, it should be the crucial need to think and act strategically, build planning into their routine, and make tough decisions about what to keep, what to cut and what to change by determining whether it truly helps sustain the organization in advancing the mission of serving people and places in need.

Succeeding in the new nonprofit marketplace

“Thriving, not surviving, in a tough economy will be the focus on a Philanthropy Journal webinar on April 19 led by Sylvia Oberle, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County in Winston-Salem, N.C. The webinar will highlight specific strategies in operations, programs and fundraising that will help nonprofit staff and board members lead their organizations toward positive change.To find out more about the webinar, and to register, click here.