The Fixers

When the front page of the New York Times is a bit too gloomy, I like to turn to the Fixes column, a corner of the Opinion Pages where David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg write about solutions to social problems. In their columns, Bornstein and Rosenberg profile the innovative ideas, people and organizations that are solving—in ways big and small—seemingly intractable problems, such as teen pregnancy, epidemics, and addiction. Bornstein and Rosenberg also run the Solutions Journalism Network, which trains journalists to write solutions-oriented pieces. With Fixes as their loudspeaker and the Solutions Journalism Network as their coaching platform, Bornstein and Rosenberg are infusing a profession that is known for its alarmism with a sense of balanced optimism.


Their intention is not simply to make readers feel good; rather, they are harnessing the investigatory power of journalism to encourage organizations and governments to rethink and redouble efforts to solve critical problems. And they are doing this by highlighting the people and organizations that are making the most headway. As Rosenberg said in a recent interview with On the Media, “if you can show that a problem isn't inevitable because someone [has a solution], then that problem is no longer inevitable. Then it becomes inexcusable.”


I am not a journalist, but Bornstein and Rosenberg’s approach feels similar to what my colleagues and I do at Wellspring in two respects. First, because we work with our clients to gain a clear-eyed sense of the obstacles to positive impact. Second, because we learn from the organizations and experts who are finding solutions.


As part of this second step, I interview academics, executive directors, and program experts at the forefront of innovation in our clients’ fields. These interviews spark the same optimism that fills me when I read Fixes: for every seemingly inevitable problem, there is a committed cadre (sometimes an army) of dedicated, thoughtful organizations and individuals who are solving it in unexpected ways and giving their time to share their insights with others. I am often struck by the generosity with which the people I interview give of their time and hard-earned insights.


If you’re inspired to read something from Fixes, here is one of my favorites: “Ideas Help No One on a Shelf. Take Them to the World.”

Managing Through Change: Part III - Mobilizing Advocates to Fight for Government Funding An Interview with Donald Romanik, Former Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs at Oak Hill

Oak Hill is a leading provider of services and residences for the severely disabled in Connecticut. It operates a main campus in Hartford with dozens of group homes around the state. A few years ago, Oak Hill faced a familiar challenge for many nonprofits—shrinking government support even as need remained high.

Oak Hill’s service population included some of the highest need people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the state, and Oak Hill was one of the only providers equipped to care for these difficult cases. Oak Hill had been covering budget shortfalls with their endowment, but realized that this couldn’t be a long term solution. They looked at ways to decrease cost, but found that it would require them to stop serving the highest need populations and even shut down some of their residential facilities. This would have been a disaster for the individuals whom they served, and their families, as no other provider was equipped to provide the kind of care at which Oak Hill excelled. Rather than bend to these pressures, Oak Hill took a different tack, and successfully mobilized the families they served to advocate for additional state funding.

Recently we spoke with Donald Romanik, former General Counsel at Oak Hill. He shared five insights on how to successfully pursue additional funding through advocacy

Insight #1 – Focusing on revenue can be the answer when cost cutting or other efficiencies aren’t an option

Donald Romanik: “Our Director at the time had the philosophy that bigger was better. It was also a time of deinstitutionalization and privatization, so the state was looking for capacity among the providers they funded. We were opening homes at an incredible rate, but supplementing the cost of the programs over the reimbursement we got with our endowment. We had a nice endowment that most of our sister organizations did not have, and that worked for a while. But eventually, the Board said the endowment was not there to subsidize chronic underfunding. We looked at cutting cost and being more efficient. But we decided it was not only about that—it was about the value we were bringing to the table. We were the provider of last resort. The state called us when no one else could take someone. So we told the state they needed to increase their rates. We were the largest, but also one of the most expensive providers, because we were unionized. Part of the issue was convincing the government we were worth the price differential.”

Insight # 2 – To secure additional funding, empower families to advocate for their loved ones

Donald Romanik: “To convince the government of our value, we hit on the idea of involving the families of our residents. This was really the first time that we got families involved. There had always been a reluctance to involve parents in advocacy because of an almost paternalistic belief— that we were there to take care of their poor disabled child. But, we realized it was a way to empower parents as advocates for their kids. Legislators are used to seeing the administrations of organizations like ours asking for money. But when someone comes and says ‘I am a proud parent of a resident at an Oak Hill facility’, they stop and look. Those are their constituents, not the usual suspects.”

Insight #3 – Choose the right families for the most effective advocacy efforts

Donald Romanik: “You need to choose the right people to be involved in advocacy. They should be constituents who not only appreciate the services and needs of their own family member but also understand the broader mission, the idea of the common good, and the role of government. Also, identify people who can articulate their views in a very personal and compelling fashion.”

Insight #4 – Give families a variety of entry points for advocacy

Donald Romanik: “We gave the families various entry points. The easiest entry point was to provide a template for a letter to their legislator—they could sign it and add a little note. The next level was to ask them to call their legislator, giving them a script they could use. Additionally, some people were politically active in local districts and were comfortable coming to rallies at the capital or testifying at public hearings.  This was all before social media. In this day and age, there are a lot more user-friendly ways to engage people. You can ask a parent to do a 30-second video where they say how great Oak Hill is while sitting next to their daughter in a group home, then post it on your website or Facebook page. Organizations need to take full advantage of the myriad communication opportunities that are available now.”

Insight #5 – Keep pushing and do it right

Donald Romanik: “Remember that you are competing. Government funding is a zero sum game with a limited pie. And, you can’t assume people know you exist and are doing good work. You have to tell legislators once, twice, three times in different ways. Bombard them with emails, texts and social media, but do it in a respectful way. For this to be successful, you also need leadership at the top and participation at every level of the organization—rank and file people, employees, parents, etc. It is time consuming and can be frustrating, but it is really critical to the mission of the organization and, more importantly, to providing services and supports to core constituencies.”

Managing Through Change: Part II - How Do You Respond To Your Own Success?

An Interview with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA

Slow Food is a grassroots organization founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 and has since spread to over 150 countries. Offering an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming characteristic of the local ecosystem.

In recent years, Slow Food USA faced an enviable but daunting challenge. The organization’s priorities, once radical, had become increasingly mainstream. How could Slow Food USA continue to be vital and relevant? Additionally, Slow Food had historically been supported by a large grass-roots membership. But the attraction of membership was waning in the United States among members of all types of membership organizations. How could the organization adapt its revenue model in response?

Recently we spoke with Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA’s Executive Director, about how the organization navigated these challenge to find a new path forward that focused on convening and inspiring their audiences.

Wellspring: How would you characterize the challenges that Slow Food USA Faced?

Richard McCarthy: “The context for Slow Food USA was what happens when you start to succeed. The ideas that Slow Food pioneered and our unique belief system have evolved into a complex ecosystem of competing organizations in part because of our success. Our ideas are no longer marginal and crazy. They are now main-stream. We are a brand, and a body of ideas. By recognizing that, we clarified that our role should be a nexus, not a club.”

Wellspring: Slow Food USA had historically been a membership-based organization. How would you describe the challenges Slow Food faced with its membership model?

Richard McCarthy: “With changes in technology and social media, individuals’ expectations of how they interact with groups have changed. Mobilizing civil society in America has become a real challenge because people have too little unstructured time left. We work too hard and travel too much. There isn’t enough economic security and time, so an old-school member organization based on strong social ties is really difficult to enact in the US. Now, people tend to move into and out of organizations, to touch them and occasionally engage. Getting people to make a deep commitment to strong social ties is asking a lot.”

Wellspring: You looked at other organizations’ models during strategic planning with us. What stood out as most useful or interesting?

Richard McCarthy: “The real a-ha moments for us were learning about Alcoholics Anonymous and Burning Man. Alcoholics Anonymous is an extraordinary organization—it’s global, very flat, and based on a set of values that are replicated all over the world with little assistance from a central body. We realized that’s how Slow Food functions—we’ve never had a centralized and fully capitalized mother ship. That gave us insight into considering the nature of our organization, which has strong values and loose structure. Regarding Burning Man, people don’t engage with their events for rational economic reasons— Burning Man’s crazy idea is a visible, tactile, authentic experience. Their example helped us to realize what people look for in Slow Food— a tactile, meaningful experiences where details matter. This pointed to the core of what our future could be.”

Wellspring: What was one of the most exciting moments during the strategic planning work?                   

Richard McCarthy: “Fairly early on in the process, we came out with an understanding that we inspire people. While measuring inspiration is not easy, it landed in our laps that, ‘oh my god, this is what we do.’ When people described why they came into our organization, inspiration always came up. That is different than most people’s interaction with social change—it’s often from fear or anger. Inspiration is not that typical. Realizing that we did this well was quite exciting. We found a strength that we had not valued previously and identified a path that was within our reach and allowed us to harness that strength.”

Wellspring: You decided to pursue a model of convening people and organizations nationally. Why?

Richard McCarthy: “Convening a vast array of other organizations and people relieves us from having to be active in every space. For instance, if one group is good on food and labor issues, we can rely on them as partners without having to have an answer for everything in that space. We can support others, and maybe even lead from behind. The business model for civil society is really vulnerable. It would be so much easier to let big organizations do their thing because their scale would help them perpetuate. But at the other end of the spectrum, there can be a balkanized society of organizations. You want a biodiversity of organizations, but not so much internal competition that we end up cannibalizing each other.”

Wellspring: What advice would you have for leaders facing similar challenges?

Richard McCarthy: “One of the under-recognized and underutilized fuels for organizations is passion. Passion is the glue that often keeps organizations going during difficult times. If there isn’t much passion, then no strategic plan can facilitate a shift. So in some ways, passion matters more than the soundness of the business model.”

Wellspring: What thoughts or advice do you have for organizations focused on issues like food, in these times where there are a number of politically charged issues taking precedence in the media and national conversation?

Richard McCarthy: At moments like this, where the conversation is not about excitement that a new garden is going in at the While House but rather building a wall around our country that keeps out people who grow, harvest, and serve food, it is easy to be distracted and feel like we have to join someone else’s conversation. I think it requires extraordinary discipline to ignore that white noise. In such times, it is important to revisit the mission to see if it is still relevant and still makes sense— and that the right outcomes are being measured. If things are not aligned, an organization can go astray.”

Wellspring: What would you want others to know about strategic planning and pursuing new paths forward?

Richard McCarthy: “It was an extraordinary process. It ate up a lot of time, but at moments it was fascinating. What was most difficult was maintaining a public face during the process— we were still open for business, but were questioning why we exist. Also, it took our historic network of members and chapters a long time to adjust because they weren’t living the strategic planning process every day. Making a culture shift and building the staff and skills for a new organization is a lot of heavy lifting.”

Managing Through Change: Part I - Leading in an Uncertain Environment

An Interview with Scott Giles, President and CEO of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation

The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), is a nonprofit public corporation providing citizens of the state with information and financial resources to attend college. The organization has awarded over $600 million in grants and scholarships, and has served over 400,000 students since its inception in 1965.

When Wellspring first worked with VSAC their role was to raise capital in the bond markets, and repackage the money into loans offered to students. After the Obama administration took office, the federal government moved to take over the management of student loans, calling it the Direct Loan Program. The federal government offered to make organizations like VSAC into “loan servicers,” thereby managing communications and payments for loans they would no longer own. VSAC faced some difficult choices. Should they participate in the Direct Loan Program as loan servicers? Were there other lines of business they should move into?

Before these changes, VSAC’s work had been well-funded and they had grown into a major employer in the area. They also ran programs that helped students make the best financial aid choices. VSAC questioned how best to respond to the changes in their external environment, and what their response would mean for the structure of their programs and organization.

Recently we spoke with Scott Giles, President and CEO of VSAC, who shared seven guidelines drawn from how VSAC successfully managed through this change and uncertainty.

Guideline #1 – Invest heavily in relationships with organizations who share your interests

Scott Giles: “There were signs that people wanted to make this change [from federally guaranteed to Direct Loans], and we were engaged in a pretty heady political conversation about the two competing programs. We [VSAC and related organizations in other states] were members of several trade associations. We had invested the time and effort with political leaders in our state and in DC as important stakeholders. I think that working with other organizations facing the same challenges is particularly important during these times of change. We invested as much time in building and nurturing relationships with other organizations as we did with customers or more traditional nonprofit stakeholders. Therefore our state representatives, the Department of Education, and other political players knew the value that our organization provided, and why what happened to us mattered. But it was a big challenge to motivate our counterparts. Connecting with political leaders is work, and it can seem like it is taking away from the bottom line.”

Guideline #2 – Develop multiple “fall back” options even as you advocate for your current programs

Scott Giles: “At the end of the day, the legislation that eliminated our program happened within a week. But because we had made the investment in talking with our delegation, we had our “plan B” already in place, which was to contract with the federal government to service loans. At the same time, we were thinking about what to do if plan B didn’t work out. We looked at diversifying and not putting all our eggs into one plan B. At the time, this approach was controversial, but in terms of where we are today, it turned out to be a good thing. The initial plan B was loan servicing, which we are in the process of exiting, and plan C was our nonfederal loan program, which has really taken off.”

Guideline #3 – Set benchmarks and decision points to assess progress and navigate uncertainty

Scott Giles: “Early on, VSAC thought Direct Loan Servicing was the path forward. But the work we did in strategic planning highlighted for us that there were significant uncertainties about the success of that program. At the same time we were working through how to do Direct Loan Servicing, we were exploring other possibilities that lay within our competencies. From a planning perspective, it was critically important to have decision points and set clear benchmarks to know if a plan was successful as it was being implemented. If we weren’t achieving specific goals, we knew when it was time to question whether the investment made sense. The strategic plan helped us lay that framework.”

Guideline #4 – Be analytical and thorough when making decisions in times of uncertainty

Scott Giles: “To manage in times that are chaotic, do planning that is very analytical in the beginning. Clarify assumptions and data points, and build a strategy based on these, along with tactics to implement the strategy. We did this with our strategic plan. Then, go back and question those assumptions on a regular basis because the world is changing. We avoided problems because we re-examined our assumptions every six months. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have noticed problems until it was too late to do anything.”

Guideline #5 – Dedicate time and effort to understand different scenarios

“We used an interesting process to decide whether to continue pursuing Direct Loan Servicing. This was a major strategic question with major impact on our organization and our staff. We wanted to make sure we were making the best decision for the organization. I broke our staff leadership into 2 teams. I had people who were neutral or who wanted out of Direct Loan Servicing build a case for staying in. I had those who were more interested in staying build the case for getting out. They worked on their cases for a month, and we all contributed to make sure the data was right. Then, we came back together to fight it out, with each side poking holes in each other’s arguments. After that, we looked to see if we had consensus, and we did. To us, except for the staff impact, the decision to exit was clear.

For the Board, we presented the two cases in full, but didn’t tell them what our initial recommendation was. We let the Board argue it out. Our Board Chair asked whether I was nervous that they would reach a different conclusion from the leadership team. But the way I saw it, if you don’t prepare your Board well enough, they can end up making decisions without all the relevant information. I wanted to give them all the information— if they reached a different conclusion, it would be because they saw something our leadership team didn’t see. In the end, they were unanimous in their decision and agreed with staff leadership’s thinking.”

Guideline #6 – Be transparent and lead not only for the organization as it stands today, but also for the organization you will lead in the future

We had been reviewing our benchmarks and evidence was suggesting that we might need to exit Direct Loan Servicing.  We knew the organization wasn’t ready.  We committed to transparency and openly shared our milestones and our concerns.  It was an uncomfortable way to lead—my peers thought we were crazy and we risked losing good staff.  We laid out the issues in staff meetings—the challenges, the questions, that data we were collecting, the milestones, and what would happen if we didn’t hit the milestones—both to the organization—and to staff.  We even let them know when we thought a decision to stay or leave would be made. Everyone stuck with us.

 To go through that transition, we were not just leading the organization we had that day. We were also leading the organization we were going to create. The audience was both our current staff and our future staff. If we hadn’t prepared our staff for a big strategic move like the one we were about to make, which required losing positions, the team that remained would have no trust.

Once we left the Board conversation with a decision, we immediately laid out the issues in a full staff meeting—the challenges, the questions, the data we were collecting, the milestones, and what would happen next. This was a very emotional meeting but when we made the announcement that we were exiting Direct Loan servicing, no one was surprised, and no one questioned it. Doing things this way was uncomfortable for the organization and uncomfortable for ourselves as leaders, but it sustained the staff’s trust in leadership because we didn’t surprise them, our decisions made sense to them, and they had an understanding of where we were going and what their role would be.”

Guideline #7 – Accept not having answers as a leader in the face of uncertainty

Scott Giles: “I had to learn the hard way to allow a grieving process to take place and not pretend I had answers when I didn’t. Most of us as leaders have gotten to where we are by solving problems and being able to present compelling visions of the future. The visions we prize the most have the greatest certainty. During periods of change, that works for you if you are right but against you if you are wrong. There is a line to walk. You need to be compelling and inspirational enough for people to pull in the right direction. But, if you act too certain, the next time you have to shift dramatically your vision gets called into question. The desire to go in and fix everything to give people confidence and security is a mistake.”

Moving Forward in Uncertain Times

In November of 2016, the Boston Globe reported on a pervasive sense of concern and uncertainty in the nonprofit sector as President Trump took office. The Globe reported Jim Klocke, CEO of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, as saying, “People are apprehensive, people are wondering what’s going to happen on a whole bunch of fronts. There’s an awful lot of concern out there.”

Six months later, the full effect of the new administration on the nonprofit sector remains unclear. But despite continued uncertainty, many of the nonprofits we serve want to move forward. To inform their planning at a time when the future is particularly hard to predict, they are looking to a variety of data sources and using the data in creative ways.

Here are three data sources our clients have drawn on to shape their assumptions and inform their plans for the future:

1.      One client looked to recommendations from the Heritage Foundation to the Trump administration on how to reduce the size and scope of government. Based in part on Heritage recommendations, our client chose not to hinge their growth plan on partnerships with agencies that Heritage had tagged for major cuts in government funding. The Washington Post confirmed the wisdom of this when it reported that the budget Trump released this spring bore a “striking resemblance” to the Heritage Foundation’s model.

2.      For another client, Wellspring conducted research on the scale and pace of budgetary changes after the election of another conservative American president who was determined to make big change, fast – Ronald Reagan. Under Reagan, cuts to social services came quickly, affecting nonprofit funding by the second year of the administration. Our client used this history as a guide for what they might expect under Trump. Now, they are proactively preparing for cuts on a similar timeline as what social service agencies saw under Reagan and are working to ramp up private funding in time to fill the gap.

3.      Several of our clients are learning from results of a survey of 162 foundation CEOs published by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. The survey assessed how foundations are altering their grantmaking as a result of the election of Donald Trump. It found that three quarters of foundation CEOs are making or plan to make changes in their work as a result of the election. The most frequently reported areas for increased emphasis were collaborating with other funders, advocacy and policy at the local or state level, and convening grantees. Only 1% expected their grantmaking to decrease, while 14% expected it to increase. Many respondents expected to increase funding in areas hard-hit by political change. Our clients are drawing on these insights to inform their conversations with funders.

Nonprofits need not be paralyzed by periods of uncertainty. If they look in the right places, they can find data that can inform their plans and prepare them to meet the future, whatever it looks like.

But What If? Hopeful in the Face of Reality

Poverty. War. Hunger. Climate change. Justice in freedom. Illiteracy. Overpopulation. The income gap… On many a day, I take stock of the state of the world and panic. Given the reality of these inextricable challenges, I sometimes wonder if it has to be this way, by necessity. Must this be our social paradigm because, like a law of physics, it is an underlying, fundamental principle of our world?

Thus I was struck with inspiration when I read Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, where the author-physicist explains that the universe in which we live may in fact be only one of infinitely many alternate universes. Indeed, the same fundamental principles of physics from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different, self-consistent universes with significantly different properties of matter and energy from our own:

“The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves.  Maybe there are,  they suggest,  many other worlds, some of them completely dry,  and everything in between.”

This “multiverse” concept is revolutionary for theoretical physicists, and the chapter reads a bit like science-fiction, teetering on the edges of philosophy, religion and science. The implications of this theory (if it turns out to be true) are enormous:

“If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here."

I read this with a mixture of mind-blowing awe and great relief. The fundamental principles of our universe may not be as fundamental as we believe them to be. It is possible that the underlying tenets of our economy and culture remain fixed (competition is good, capitalism is sacred, individualism is revered, etc.) and that a social paradigm drastically different than our current one exists within this axiomatic system.

If it does not have to be this way, how else can it be? I don’t know. But simply knowing that an alternative reality is plausible, I am hopeful.   

The Key to a Great Workout


The New Year brings gyms and workout classes filled to the brim with people who have set a new year’s resolution to get in shape. As a workout fiend myself, I love going to workout classes that are fun, but also tough and little painful. The fun keeps me engaged, but it’s the discomfort in the process that makes me stronger.

When debriefing a recent strategic planning project with our client, the CEO joked that the strategic planning process had been “mostly fun, and a little painful.” Our consulting team had brought up some tough questions that were uncomfortable for the organization’s leadership to confront, but ultimately important to figure out as the organization looks to the future. And the leadership’s efforts to think through those challenges will make the organization stronger.

The parallelism struck me. The point of strategic planning is to make an organization stronger in the long-term. It’s fun to think about the future, especially the opportunities. But, it can also be uncomfortable to face challenges and threats to the current way of doing business. For me, it’s fun to be active, but I’m not getting stronger if I’m not challenging myself. As workout instructors are always encouraging their classes, it’s the tough moments when we most want to quit that we are making the most progress towards our goals. And, upon finishing a workout, I always feel accomplished and glad I did work through the hardest parts. Our work can be like that of the instructors, and my hope is that every organization feels that sense of accomplishment and progress through strategic planning.

We Can’t Do It Alone


A number of clients with whom I have worked recently have been grappling with the desire to affect large-scale change, while also facing the reality of targeted expertise and limited resources. We have been working with them to understand their core competency – where they deliver the most value – and to scale those efforts, while partnering with or referring their service recipients to other organizations that offer tangential value.

This article goes even deeper into the need for and benefits of extensive collaboration for large-scale change.

New Census Data Shows Declining Poverty

I was heartened to wake up yesterday to a headline proclaiming a noteworthy decline in the US poverty rate last year– the largest annual drop since 1999. According to new census data, the number of people living below the poverty line declined by about 3.5 million.


As the NY Times article states, job growth, low oil prices and increased minimum wage requirements are no doubt important contributors to declining poverty rates. But I also want to take this opportunity to recognize and thank the many individuals and nonprofit organizations that work tirelessly to fight poverty on a daily basis - some of whom I have been lucky enough to work with. You too are making a difference and, while I know we have a long way to go, I think it is important that we all take a moment to celebrate this headline.

Millions in U.S. Climb Out of Poverty, at Long Last/ NYTimes


Who are we not?

For an organization, just as important as “who we are” is “who we are not.”

It is an easy trap for an organization to want to be all things to all people, though that approach often leads to doing nothing really well. A focused and well-defined strategy is not only useful to inform an organization on what it is and where it is going, but is also useful for clarifying what an organization is not. A strategy can be a good filter, such that using the discipline to check that work fits with the strategic direction – and eliminating work that does not fit – can help avoid spurious efforts that drain resources or lead to lack of clarity. Effort will be put in the places where it is needed the most and will have the most impact.

In other situations, an organization does something very well, but needs to shift course due to market changes or business lifecycle. When a strategy adds elements to an organization’s scope of work when staff are already stretched thin, I often hear the question “how will we ever find the time to do that?” At that point, the strategy is a useful test or yardstick by which to measure all of the organization’s work, and weed out the efforts that no longer fit with the strategy. This then frees up organizational bandwidth to tackle those efforts that are directly in line with the strategic direction of the organization.

Using a strategy to define what we are not – in addition to what we are – helps make an organization’s identity crystal clear and efforts coordinated for maximum impact toward a common goal.

Brewing Non-Profit – For-Profit Partnerships


I recently read about an exciting new partnership between Starbucks, a for-profit company, and the Queens Community House, a non-profit, multi-service settlement house with 25 sites in 11 neighborhoods in New York City.  I was intrigued.  

Queens Community House solidified a partnership with Starbucks to create the first US-based "opportunity café," which will be located in Jamaica, Queens. The new store is an example of Starbucks' nationwide initiative through which it seeks to deepen its commitment to communities by hiring local staff, engaging area vendors and providing a dedicated in-store training space for use by non-profits.  In this new “opportunity café,” QCH will provide training to young adults who are interested in the food sector in order to provide unemployed youth with the skills and experience they need to launch a successful career in the food sector.  

Reading about this partnership brought to mind a few other interesting ways food organizations are giving back to their communities by working together with for-profit companies.  Panera Cares, is operated by Panera Bread, the bakery / restaurant, and is a chain of community cafes in neighborhoods around the country where the restaurant provides suggested donation amounts for all menu items and customers pay what they can and the excess goes to charity, and where one can earn a meal voucher by volunteering in the cafe.

Recipe for Change, run by Chef Bruno Abate from Tocco Restaurant in Chicago, is a course that teaches prison inmates everything from knife skills and kitchen sanitation to recipes for pastas, sauces and desserts — key job skills they can use when they're released and looking for employment.  The program builds self-esteem and teaches inmates about good nutrition.

Hot Bread Kitchen, a bakery and non-profit social enterprise in Brooklyn, aims to build lasting economic security for low-income, immigrant and minority individuals by training and supporting them in achieving jobs and fair wages in the culinary industry.  Two-thirds of the organization’s operating budget is funded through sales of bread and rental of commercial kitchen space, and is used to train and educate individuals so they can turn their passion for cooking into a profession that can be used to achieve economic security.

This kind of partnership not only is exciting for what it will do for the neighborhoods and the participants involved, but is good food for thought as to how non-profits and for-profits can work together in creative ways to better communities and make a positive difference in the world.

Bon appetite!

Being Nice Looks Good On You

Image: Amy Anenberg

Image: Amy Anenberg

Though I love getting a seat on the New York City subway during my commute to work, I am quick to offer my seat to the elderly, disabled or pregnant. When I offered my seat to an older woman on my subway ride this week, a fellow subway rider (and stranger) handed me a pre-printed card that read “being nice looks really good on you.” It made my day and was a great reminder of the power of being nice. I’ve read many articles that talk about the personal and professional benefits of being nice – increased trust, success, and happiness to name a few – and encourage us all to think about how we can spread “nice-ness” in our personal and professional lives.  Here’s a link to an article I read a while back on this topic that has stuck with me:

And for those of you in New York City, you should be aware that I am now on “nice patrol.” The card I received asks me to pay it forward so I am now scouring the streets of New York looking to hand-off the “be nice” card to a fellow do-gooder!

One Reason Why I Love the Nonprofit Sector

Image: Maayan Ohayon

Image: Maayan Ohayon

At Wellspring Consulting, we work entirely with nonprofits. I am often deeply moved by the leaders in our client organizations, their selfless approach, and the missions they are serving.

I vividly remember one day when we were helping the leadership team at Open Circle rethink their pricing. Open Circle trains grade-school teachers in methods to help their students learn how to get along interpersonally. To assess Open Circle’s pricing, we studied their competitors, interviewed their customers, and built an economic model of their costs and revenues. We found that Open Circle could charge more for their services, and we suggested that they do so.  But Lisa Sankowski, Associate Director at Open Circle, pushed back, saying, “We wouldn’t want to charge the schools more. They’re already under enough economic hardship, and higher prices would only make it harder for them.”  So we chose not to increase prices to the schools. Instead, we presented funders and donors with a clear depiction of Open Circle’s economic model to demonstrate why additional support was needed. This worked. Open Circle raised more money and met their economic needs.

To me, Lisa’s response crystallizes something I love about the nonprofit sector, and which I have seen many times over. Leaders of nonprofit organizations care deeply about the ultimate wellbeing of their customers. Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio stayed at the radio station through the terror of 9/11, keeping it open while the frightening chaos rained about their offices. Thanks to her bravery, listeners all over the city were helped in their response to the crisis. Debbie Bial, Executive Director at Posse Foundation – which supports low-income youth in going to top colleges – communicates an infectious enthusiasm about Posse’s kids, their talents and their potential. Through her leadership Posse now operates in ten cities across the country, and she has personally taken scores of photos of radiant young adults on their college graduation day, which now hang on the walls and website pages of the Foundation. And Kathy Douglass, who left a lucrative career as a partner at one of the top law firms in New York City, founded In Motion, an organization providing free legal services to victims of domestic violence. Over 20 years under her guidance, the organization has served thousands of women.

Daily, I am touched by such leaders’ caring, vision and tenacity. I believe in them, and what they are doing. I am stirred by the amazing ways they are making change happen. And through them, I am able to be a part of something much larger than myself.

Data and Privacy

If you’re looking for a concise primer on using data in the nonprofit space, you can do a lot worse than this recent SSIR article by Jim Fruchterman. I particularly appreciate that Fruchterman integrates concerns about data security and privacy into his basic framework. At a time when many nonprofits are scrambling to increase their analytics capacity, data security can feel like it’s nice to have rather than an essential. But subjects as varied as e-vouchers for food and children’s school records can raise concerns about privacy, particularly the privacy of vulnerable populations. As sophisticated analytics become more common, the obligation to “first, do no harm” remains as pertinent as ever.

Focusing on Impact

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who teaches at a business school about some of the economics concepts he emphasizes with his first year MBA students.  He shared that he consistently hammers home the distinction between growing profits and just getting bigger. That is, what ultimately matters (assuming a company aims to maximize profits) is the product of revenues and profit margins, not revenues for their own sake. While this emphasis goes against the growth-at-all-costs mindset that seems to drive many business decisions, focusing on profits is a better recipe for a company’s long term health.

This conversation got me thinking about one of the most common strategic planning questions that we get from our clients at Wellspring: “How can we grow our revenues?” Like the business sector, the non-profit world often uses revenues as a measure of organizational success.  This makes sense, since revenues are necessary to run programs – and greater revenues suggest a greater scale that in turn suggests more impact. But is revenue growth really the right way to focus the objectives of a non-profit business?  I am increasingly convinced that the answer to this question is “no”.

You may be wondering – if we are not focused on revenue when building out a strategic business plan, then where should we focus?  Non-profits are in the business of maximizing social impact. To stretch the business metaphor, it’s like a non-profit’s margin, so total social impact is the product of scale and efficacy. Strategic plans that aim to scale up projects that less directly serve an organization’s mission, or that distract staff and management, can lead to a larger – but less impactful – organization. For those of us who care deeply about maximizing social impacts, this is not an optimized outcome.

An impact-centered model can help non-profits determine whether they should grow at all.  If there are scale-up opportunities that don’t distract or detract from current work, consider seeking additional revenues to support this expansion. But remember, most organizations can only stretch themselves so thin without affecting their impact – good data, careful analysis, and organizational discipline are invaluable in determining (and then respecting!) where that point lies.  

Fundraising Starter Kit

Funding: it’s a tireless chase that can exhaust a nonprofit, sucking up resources for insufficient financial gain and limiting the organization’s ability to achieve social good. It’s no wonder, then, that Executive Directors and Board members alike often approach Wellspring for answers to their funding challenges. Our approaches vary and depend upon their needs. They can range from in-depth analysis of government sources to identifying program outcomes that are most attractive to foundations.

While an organization’s development strategy is, by definition, client-specific and non-transferable, through our client work at Wellspring, we have come to realize that there are certain practices that are noteworthy. For example, as part of our recent work with a longstanding, youth development organization, we generated a list of best practices for attracting foundation dollars. These practices, developed through conversations with organization leaders with strong fundraising records, apply to many different organization.

So, without further ado, the list of suggestions:

  • It’s all about the data: Organization leaders were clear: without strong demonstration of impact, you’re risking chances of funding. Like all savvy shoppers, foundations, and donors and corporations too, want to know that their dollars are going to good use. Identifying clear metrics and building robust technology systems to track performance are critical. Without them, many foundations won’t entertain the idea of supporting your organizations. And so, while these efforts may be time consuming and expensive, the upfront cost and hassle will pay off in the end.
  • Make friends: One Executive Director put it best: “Don’t treat foundations like ATMs.” Winning grants is not transactional. It’s about building relationships. It’s about spending time in funders’ offices and bringing them along in your vision to affect the world. As a result of these efforts, you will have someone to turn to – someone who understands your organization and values its impact – when you need funding in two years’ time. 
  • Welcome them into your home: No matter how good of a storyteller you are, nothing illustrates a program’s power better than seeing it in action. So invite funders to watch the magic happen. Let them see what drives your organization. Let them see what compels you to show up at their door, asking for money – and they’ll be more likely to oblige. 
  • Be innovative: What’s new is always attractive – and this can be particularly frustrating for longstanding, even if high-impact, organizations. While acknowledging this frustration, experts noted that you can appease funders’ desire for novelty by injecting elements of innovation into the regular update of programs. Some also advocated for being strategic about program growth, incorporating areas of foundation interest. At the same time, they warn against bending to the every whim of foundations. Doing so could leave you with incoherent growth and programs that are not mission aligned – and, consequently, with an organization that is less appealing to funders.

To be sure, these suggestions are not a panacea; they won’t cure your every funding woe. But it is a strong starter kit that will put a new “oomph” in your development efforts, even those that are already strong.

Funders Want to See “Skin in the Game.” Here are Three Ways to Show It

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

If a nonprofit leader is plotting a bold new move, he or she generally needs to inspire new support from a range of partners and donors in order to pull it off.  But how to do this when the new undertaking involves significant risk?

Careful research, a well-conceived business plan, and a clear and compelling pitch are certainly critical to developing buy-in. But my client work suggests another opportunity to inspire confidence from potential partners in the face of uncertainty that many nonprofits miss.  

Demonstrating that people have “skin in the game” – or have made specific commitments to the field of play – can have a powerful influence on those still standing on the sidelines. The term “skin in the game” is often used in business and finance. But in the nonprofit context it can refer to much more than monetary investment. And the “skin” can come from valued partners, the nonprofit itself, or the community it serves.

Here are three ways I’ve seen this work.

1. Put a dollar amount on in-kind contributions  

One of our clients had ambitious plans to take a pilot program and scale it up to serve a significant portion of all pre-K students and their families in a major urban school district. The program had strong evidence of effectiveness and the growth plan was well conceived. But the plan relied heavily on philanthropic funding, none of which had been committed yet.

In preparation for a meeting with a room full of funders contemplating investment in the plan, we worked with our client to make the Department of Education’s support for the plan concrete. While the DOE was not committing dollars to the program, they were committing their buildings, significant time from teachers and administrators, instructional hours, and professional development time. We put a number value on these critical resources. The total was impressive and helped inspire the major philanthropic investment that followed.

2. Show concrete commitments from credible partners

Another nonprofit I worked with asked its long-term university partner to make specific commitments to gathering and analyzing data on the effectiveness of a program the nonprofit hoped to launch. The commitment of intellectual resources from a respected university increased the credibility of the program to potential funders and other program partners.

But what if you don’t yet have a partner whose commitments you can leverage?

3. Lead before asking others to follow

Nonprofits can start with putting their own skin in the game. That can look like 100% Board giving to the new plan, over and above their gifts from the prior year. It can look like a major portion of their discretionary budget allocated to the new undertaking, or an investment in developing a strong business plan. It can look like a low-income community that raises funds internally through bake sales and barbeques before asking for external investment from donors. These efforts send a strong signal that the nonprofit has committed whole-heartedly to its plans and will see them through.

At the end of the day, showing skin in the game helps potential partners breathe easier, knowing that risk is shared and commitment is strong. 

Building Diverse and Inclusive Volunteer Networks

Many nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers to be their boots on the ground and eyes and ears within the communities they serve. As discussions of diversity and inclusion have become more common, some organizations are asking whether their volunteers ought to better represent the communities they serve. Why might an organization want a more diverse and inclusive volunteer network? And what could an interested organization do to build one?

(Much has been written on definitions of diversity and inclusion. In this post, I use diversity to mean demographic [e.g. disability status, racial or economic] representation whereas inclusion refers to the involvement of different types of folks in governing and operating processes.)

There are many reasons that an organization might want to create a more inclusive and diverse volunteer base. First, when volunteers interact directly with the people an organization serves, having volunteers that are more similar to the client population may create a more welcoming environment in which clients feel freer to pass along information about what is and isn’t working. Diverse teams also promote creativity and hard work. An inclusive organization will provide opportunities for this new information and divergent perspectives to be incorporated into programmatic decisions, ultimately leading to better outcomes.   

Second, while we usually think about volunteerism as helping others, research shows that it is correlated with a host of mental and physical health benefits for volunteers themselves. Furthermore, academic research proposes that volunteering gives low-income individuals opportunities to build social, human, cultural and political capital. So expanding the diversity of a volunteer pool can act as one more way for an organization to strengthen a community.

Finally, as the U.S. experiences a diversity boom, organizations that have traditionally drawn from a homogenous pool of volunteers may need to expand the volunteer populations they engage, just to maintain their volunteer capacity.

Once an organization sees the benefit of a diverse volunteer base, what are the practical steps it can take to recruit and retain this volunteer base?

While it might seem obvious, organizations can begin by asking members of different communities to volunteer. In the 2013 Volunteer Supplement of the Current Population Survey, more than 42% of volunteers reported that they first became involved when they were asked to do so. Volunteers tend to respond more to personal appeals. Therefore, it may make sense to ask any existing staff or volunteers who come from those communities the organization is targeting to act as ambassadors. Ties with other organizations can also help, since some evidence indicates that institutional facilitation of volunteering is particularly important among those who are low-income and people of color.   

Organizations may also adjust the duties they ask volunteers to undertake and volunteer management processes to retain more diverse volunteers. The match between a volunteer’s skills, interests and reasons for volunteering and the duties they’re asked to complete is a strong predictor of whether that volunteer remains active. Organizations which are investing in transforming their volunteer pools should be particularly vigilant in asking new volunteers whether their expectations are being met.

While approaching all people with dignity and respect is a given for many nonprofits, processes that feel inclusive to one set of volunteers may need to be tweaked to facilitate participation for a new pool of volunteers. For example, a formalized process for sharing ideas might discourage certain volunteers from speaking up. Above all, organizations should seek out input from new volunteers about how to improve processes to make them feel welcome. While each organization’s circumstances differ, most benefit from being both purposeful and flexible in the ongoing process of building a diverse and inclusive volunteer network.   

A Good Case for an Endowment

Image: © Rfischia |

Image: © Rfischia |

I recently heard the story of a donor’s gift to his daughter’s private school. Not, as one might expect, a shiny new fitness center or maker space – but a new set of much-needed storm windows, which would pay dividends in the form of energy savings for years to come. The condition of his gift?  The windows had to bear his family name. 

The story of the “Smith Family Storm Windows” is a compelling statement on the challenges that non-profits face in covering unglamorous expenses – like storm windows – that are nonetheless necessary to keep an organization running. By having the windows bear his name, this donor hoped to highlight the importance of supporting the general operations of the school to other donors.

It’s a story – and issue – that resonates with many of the non-profit managers that I work with at Wellspring. Donors are much more apt to support programs or fund new buildings than to provide unrestricted funds that keep the lights on (or the heat in). Often, this means that organizations must raise operational support through annual campaigns, special events, memberships, and so forth. These income streams can be unpredictable and there is an ever-present anxiety of missing the year’s targets.

For this very common dilemma, a solution we’re often asked about is building an endowment fund, an investment that is set aside for the long-term support of an organization. Only the income, or a portion of the income, is spent each year. An endowment represents the promise of a reliable income stream to cover operating expenses, fill occasional shortfalls, or even seed new work. Many eminent cultural, educational, and healthcare institutions have accumulated massive endowments – if Harvard University is doing it, many wonder why shouldn’t we too? Putting aside the question of whether Harvard actually needs $20 billion for a rainy day, is raising an endowment fund in fact a good fit for smaller non-profits?

I recently found myself pondering these questions while working with a mid-sized regional science center on their five year strategic plan. The center has thrived and grown over its brief ten year history, and has a very active board that’s committed to ensuring the institution’s long-term viability. Its campus, including its LEED certified building, cutting edge exhibits and extensive outdoor attractions, are beyond what you’d expect from a regional institution, particularly one that happens to be located in a fairly remote location. Less surprising is that these programs don’t come cheap – the operational expenses associated with maintaining this impressive infrastructure are a big part of the center’s budget.

The center’s leadership reached out to Wellspring Consulting to help them assess the institution’s long-term financial sustainability. In particular, they had concerns that finding ongoing support for the less “glamorous” aspects of museum operations, namely the maintenance and refreshment of their facilities, was getting more difficult over time, as donor fatigue set in. Some members of the board felt that the answer was the creation of a large endowment fund—the bigger the better, since a larger principal would mean more investment income, and therefore less pressure to raise other funds on a yearly basis. This makes perfect sense, right?

Up to a point, yes – a bigger endowment may be better, all else being equal, but in the world of fundraising that’s rarely the case. There are reasons why smaller organizations might wish to be modest in their endowment ambitions, or even avoid endowment fundraising altogether. The answer to whether a given organization should pursue this strategy needs careful analysis of its current financial and programmatic position, trajectory and goals.

Much ink has been spilled on often underestimated complications that come with building an endowment. Some potential downsides of these funds include:

  • Needing to be big. When it comes to the value of an endowment, size really does matter. To provide meaningful income, an organization’s endowment needs to be substantial relative to their yearly expenses. For example, if an organization has an annual budget of $10 million and it manages to raise $2 million in endowment funds (no small feat for many organizations of this size), that would only give them $100 000 dollars toward their expenses each year (assuming annual earnings of 5%), covering only 1% of the budget.
  • Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Raising enough money to cover current annual expenses poses a challenge to many non-profits, let alone trying to build a fund to cover future expenses. Donors may only be willing to give to one funding stream. Raising that $2 million for the endowment may reduce giving in other areas, including support for core programs.
  • Creating a need to feed the beast. A recent conversation with development staff at a private university highlighted another, less often noted, issue with endowments. Because the size of an endowment is easily quantified, it can become a measure of organizational success in and of itself. This can result in a focus on growing the endowment (to achieve ever greater success) rather than viewing the endowment as means to an end: that is, the creation of an important rainy day fund, or important revenue stream to cover overhead costs.

However, along with these challenges, there are potential upsides to building an endowment, even for smaller organization. Non-profits are understandably drawn to endowment building because, among other benefits, they may:

  • Attract large gifts. Individuals often prefer to make major gifts (including bequests) to support features or efforts that will remain in place long after they are gone. For example, universities and hospitals often receive major gifts that support new buildings, wings, or endowments from individual donors. Contributing to an endowment ensures that the gift lives on beyond the donor. (A corollary of this is that many organizations now require funders to cover future operating costs of buildings or programs they donate.)
  • Signal strength. The existence of an endowment can serve as a signal to donors that an organization will be around for the long-term. This may draw further support from those who wish to invest in an institution that has longevity.
  • Support operations and innovation. Because it comes in as unrestricted dollars, the income from an endowment can be used as needed in any given year—for example, to smooth out financial shortfalls in lean times, and can also be used to cover ongoing overhead costs (paying for those storm windows!), or even fund projects that are more experimental in nature and may put an organization on the cutting edge of its field.

In order to determine whether our client, the regional science center, should build an endowment, the Wellspring team collected and analyzed data from a variety of sources. We made our final recommendation after having engaged in the following activities:

  • Analyzed the center’s current financial status and built ten-year financial projections that accounted for multiple funding and expense scenarios.
  • Conducted interviews with existing and prospective donors to assess their willingness to support the center in the future.
  • Conducted interviews with Board members to ascertain their willingness to give to an endowment campaign and to elicit funds from those in their social networks.
  • Held in-depth conversations with the center’s leadership and development staff to gain a greater understanding of their capacity and support for conducting an endowment campaign.

After intensive analysis of our data, we concluded that this is an appropriate time in its planning trajectory for this science center to move forward with building an endowment. This decision is grounded in a deep understanding of the organization’s capacity, programs, and goals for its future. Key factors that led us to this recommendation include:

  • The source of the center’s future deficit is the maintenance of its impressive infrastructure. Covering this cost requires a reliable stream of operating funds, which is well-suited to the nature of endowment income.
  • The amount of investment income required to cover the center’s shortfalls does not require that they build a Harvard-sized endowment. The endowment goal is aligned with realistic levels of giving for this institution.
  • The center’s existing donor base is willing to contribute large sums in the form of bequests to an endowment.
  • The Board is committed to building a restricted endowment and is willing to actively engage in fundraising for this purpose.
  • The staff leadership of the center understand and are committed to making the investment needed to launch and implement a successful endowment campaign.

While the Wellspring team recommended that the science center pursue an endowment campaign, this should not be interpreted as a global endorsement of non-profit endowment fundraising. If anything, our research and analysis reinforced our belief that strategic and financial planning is not a one-size fits all endeavor. For example, if we had found that most of the center’s individual donors would redirect their support from the annual campaign toward the endowment campaign, we would have reached very different conclusions.

To return to the story of the Smith Family Windows, the school was clearly lucky to have a forward-looking donor willing to “invest” in mundane day-to-day expenditures. For some (but not all) organizations, an endowment fund can serve the same purpose.