I’ve been spending a lot of time flossing while thinking of how to categorize the challenges in our sector (What, like your quarantine activities are so much more interesting). Many of the stuff we deal with falls under the category of “well-meaning people inadvertently making nonprofits’ jobs harder.” Here are a nine. I’m going to call them paradoxes, though some of these are not paradoxes exactly, but are more like dilemmas, conundrums, or shenanigans. I’ve written about a few of them, but they keep coming up and remain a problem, so it’s good for us to review and have common language to push back. If we want our sector to succeed, we need to be aware of these paradoxes and control for them.
Last week, SSIR published a case study I co-authored with David Bley of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation detailing Gates’s significant investment in my organization, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC). Our partnership started with 1.1 million over four years to launch RVC’s fellowship program to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector. These brilliant leaders would run programs, fundraise, set up systems, mobilize community members, and do whatever else the organization needs to be effective. About half the fellows are hired full-time at their host organizations during or after their fellowship, a critical outcome when only 18% of nonprofit professionals are people of color.
After running our successful fellowship program for a year, RVC learned several significant lessons, including the fact that the philosophy that grounds organizational development does not work for organizations led by communities of color. This philosophy, as I’ve pointed out before, is basically to force all organizations to be generalists, so that even small grassroots organizations must scramble to do HR, finance, payroll, evaluation, communications, legal compliance, contract monitoring, etc. And the ones that cannot do all these highly complex tasks simultaneously and with a degree of quality are punished.
A while ago, I read about Juicero, a wifi-connected juicing machine. It was originally $700, and you had to subscribe to these proprietary packets of cut-up fruit and veggies for $7 each. You put a packet into the machine and turn it on—with an app on your phone, I guess—and it squeezes out one glass of refreshing juice! It was, at the time, the apex of human achievement. Alas, this tale of innovation and disruption did not have a happy ending. Bloomberg did an investigation and found out that you can squeeze the packets by hand and get the same amount of juice. They wrote a story about it, and the price for the Juicero dropped to $400 before the company tanked completely, and now people have to squeeze juice using non-wi-fied juicers, like common peasants.
Why the heck am I telling you this? Simple: I keep encountering people who say that nonprofits should act more like for-profits. You probably do too. And of course, many of us bristle at the bizsplaining and the condescension. There are many blog posts out there, and many of them are incredibly insulting and make you want to roll your eyes: “Make sure you have what people in the business sector call a ‘bizz-nezz puh-lan.’ It lays out these things called ‘go-als.’ Businesses also do what is known as ‘ac-count-ing’ ”Continue reading “7 game-changing things nonprofits can learn from for-profits”
Hi everyone, before we begin, I’m on a webinar hosted by the Whitman Institute this Wednesday, 8/1, at 10am PDT, with other leaders, to discuss funding dynamics and how we need more trust between foundations and nonprofits. It’s free. Register here (or RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have trouble registering).
Sorry about this click-bait title, but let’s just say that fiscal sponsorship, as a topic, is not the most exciting to many people. I, however, am VERY excited about it and think it is one of the most-important-yet-underused tools in our sector. So I am filling this post with pictures of bunnies to encourage you to read it. Please make sure you read the entire post, and not just glance at the pictures of the baby bunnies. It’s an honor system. I trust you. Don’t let me and the bunnies down!
asking them to provide donations to organizations that are fiscally sponsored. Right now, these organizations cannot get access to very useful tools like Google for Nonprofits, Microsoft Office, Slack, and a bunch of other stuff on Techsoup.org. They must have a 501c status, which leaves behind some incredibly effective orgs that are fiscally sponsored, while also allowing a few documented hate groups access to these tools simply because they do have status.
Thank you Nonprofit Quarterly for publishing our letter. I encourage everyone to please read it
and more importantly, put pressure on the tech giants to extend their donations to groups that are fiscally sponsored. Please email Techsoup at email@example.com. The National Network of Fiscal Sponsorsis actively working with TechSoup to evolve its platform to support fiscally sponsored programs. TechSoup encourages everyone to send them your stories, frustrations, and words of encouragement, which they will share with senior management and partner companies to further advocate for needed changes. Please email Techsoup and CC firstname.lastname@example.org so NNFS has a record of your advocacy efforts.
This brings up a similar issue: Some funders still refuse to fund organizations that are fiscally sponsored. This practice is inequitable and prevents our sector from advancing. If you are at one of these foundations, I—and all these adorable bunnies—implore you to reconsider. Here are several things to think about:
Nonprofits led by marginalized communities are more likely to be fiscally sponsored: Organizations led by communities of color, LGBTQ, communities of disabilities, and rural communities tend to be smaller, and smaller organizations are often the ones seeking fiscal sponsorship. By not funding fiscally sponsored organizations, you punish these communities and continue the inequitable distribution of resources that has been a challenge for our sector over decades. Less than 10% of philanthropic dollars go to communities-of-color-led nonprofits, for example, and this only-fund-501cs policy helps to ensure that the communities most affected by injustice continue to get the smallest amount of resources to do the most urgent work.
501c tax status is not a good indication of integrity or effectiveness. In the US, there is a false belief among many funders (and tech companies) that having 501c3 status means that an org is “legit.” But let’s be honest, it is usually not hard to get 501c3 status, which is why thousands of new ones are created every year. Anyone and their cousin can get status. Heck, I could probably found a nonprofit called “Unicycles for Puppies”—Mission: To empower our canine friends to reach their full potential through the circus arts—and get status within a few months. You might be thinking, “If it’s so easy, then why is this an issue?” Getting status is easy, but it leads to a host of challenges, which is why many groups choose to go the fiscal sponsorship route. Read on, below.
Fiscal sponsorship allows nonprofit staff to focus their time on programs and services:
Since some funders refuse to fund fiscally-sponsored organizations, many nonprofits have been seeking out 501c3s. While this is the right step for some, for many it is a time-consuming task to set up systems and apply for status. And then after they get their 501c status, they now must spend time finding staff or consultants to run HR, financial management, insurance, payroll, etc. These are highly specialized skills, requiring time and energy to do well. But because small nonprofits often don’t have funding for operations staff, the duties often fall on staff who are running programs and services.
Fiscal sponsorship encourages nonprofits to collaborate and benefit from economy of
scale: One of the reasons why fiscal sponsorships are effective is because it allows nonprofits to capitalize on economies of scales around a host of areas. Things like financial management, health insurance, and general liabilities insurance becomes cheaper for everyone when purchased under one umbrella. Forcing nonprofits to be their own legal entities prevents this economy of scale and increases costs, and again, organizations led by marginalized communities have even less funding to spend.
Fiscal sponsorship lets boards focus on mission and community-building work: Many small
organizations, especially ones led by marginalized communities, recruit brilliant leaders from their communities to serve on their boards. Unfortunately, because many of these organizations have to form 501cs to get funding, their boards suddenly become mired in myriad complex operations. This means they have less time to focus on fundraising, strategic planning, community mobilizing, and other duties that organizations need their boards to do to effectively carry out their critical missions. And as the roles blur, it often leads to staff/board tension and burnout.
Fiscal sponsorship helps nonprofits get out of the Capacity Paradox: The Capacity
Paradox is when nonprofits cannot get significant funding until they build capacity, but they can’t build their capacity until they get significant funding. Fiscally sponsored organizations can bypass this paradox and get high-quality capacity infrastructure in place almost instantly, allowing them to get significant funding and carry out their important work right away. By not accepting organizations unless they have a 501c3, you force them deeper into this paradox that is very difficult for many organizations led by marginalized communities to escape.
Fiscal sponsorship increases the quality of operations in each organization: By pooling
funds together under a fiscal sponsorship model, not only are organizations saving funds, but the quality of operations often drastically increases. Payrolls and financial reports are more timely and accurate. HR functions are more comprehensive. Legal crises are dealt with more effectively as they arise. Forcing each organization into a piecemeal approach, where they have little resources to spend on a host of complex operations tasks, risks each task being less dependable and accurate.
As our communities face increasing challenges, the way that we have been used to doing things needs to change. Fiscal sponsorship allows nonprofits to be more collaborative, effective, efficient, and helps to channel more funding into organizations led by and serving communities of color and other marginalized communities.
If you are with a foundation that has a hard policy against funding fiscally sponsored
organizations, please bring these arguments up to your team for discussion. And if you are a foundation that funds fiscally sponsored organizations and know foundations that do not, please use your influence to ask them to reconsider.
Everyone else, please email Techsoup at email@example.com, and encourage foundations that don’t fund orgs unless they have 501c3 status to discuss this issue.
The many amazing fiscally-sponsored organizations, many of which are led by communities most affected by injustice, must be provided the tools and support they need to do their critical work. We all benefit that way.
Last week, I sat down with a public notary to sign some papers to open new bank accounts for partner organizations in Rainier Valley Corps’s operations support program, where we handle the back-office tasks for partner orgs so they can focus on delivering vital programs and services. We were on a time crunch, and our bank’s new rules required signatories be notarized, which has been a huge hassle. It took days of RVC’s Operations Support Program Manager, Kristine, and me running around, sending endless emails, and strategically deploying chocolate: “So…maybe this half-eaten bar of Theo sea salt almond 70% cacao might convince you shave a day or two off the paperwork turnaround time, wink…”
In the middle of all this paperwork and failed attempts at bribery, I realized that we really do not appreciate our operations staff as much as we should. While EDs get all the credit, program staff get warm fuzzies, and development peeps get leftover gala wine and accolades when they bring in money, operations folks often operate like clockwork without much fanfare. And in fact, the better they do their work, the less they are noticed, because we only tend to notice operations when they don’t go well—payroll didn’t run on time, bank accounts are not up-to-date, etc. Continue reading “Operations professionals, you are awesome AF!”