Jan Masaoka is a leading writer and thinker on nonprofit organizations with particular emphasis on boards of directors, business planning, and the role of nonprofits in society. She has recently assumed the mantle of Executive Director of the California Association of Nonprofits. (CalNonprofits).
She is Editor-in-Chief of Blue Avocado, the essential online nonprofit magazine with an amazing 63,000 subscribers. For 14 years she was executive director of CompassPoint Non-profit Services (www.compasspoint.org), a consulting and training firm for nonprofits based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
She is an eight time designee as one of the “Fifty Most Influential People” in the nonprofit sector nationwide. Her recent book with Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, (Jossey-Bass, 2010) has quickly become a vital tool for nonprofits to truly assess the financial impact of their range of activities. (I will explore the teachings of the book in another post.) My conversation with her was an opportunity to revel in her rich experience and take-no-prisoners plain talking. This makes everything she says not so much a condemnation of how things are, but an invitation to question, question, question. And we can’t have enough of that.
Jan, you are new in your position at CalNonprofits, yet already you are involving the organization in a major initiative to get nonprofit staff, volunteers and clients signed up to vote (for the recent California elections). I have noticed that some nonprofits shy away from such activities in their direct service programs because they are fearful that some donors might say they are ‘becoming political.’ How can you deal with that?
First of all, this is non-partisan voter registration to get out the vote. We’re not telling people how to vote. We are saying that whatever the ideals and values that brought you into contact with the non-profit sector, vote with those values.
Nonprofits are not outside of communities, they are the ways that a community organizes to take care of itself. But I also think that we don’t just serve people, we represent them. Anybody that’s serving children with disabilities, for instance, is also representing them. There is a lot of heavily lawyer-scrutinized information in the Legal FAQ’s section of CalNonprofit’s website which indicates what nonprofits can and can’t do in this area.
LOOKING UP AND DOWNSTREAM
In my discussion with Jan Poppendieck, she touched on the need for food banks and similar organizations to put more emphasis on looking up and downstream from what their own particular level of involvement was with clients.
This is vital. I can think of an example of a shelter program for runaway kids that used to be funded by the government. They received a fee for service based on a performance outcome basis. The designated outcome was reuniting kids with their families, and they would receive a certain amount of money for every kid they reunified with his or her family. But if you look downstream and think about it for 10 seconds you realize that with some kids, reunification is a good outcome but for many others, it is no. There were a lot of kids being returned to abusive homes or to a home where drugs were being used all the time. The nonprofit realized they needed another goal, of more long-term shelter for those kids who didn’t have good homes to go back to. They received no government money for this, so they had to raise it. And then looking upstream, they realized they had to advocate to get the policy changed that specified unification as the only goal. If they had only thought of themselves as a little factory of unduplicated units of service they might have remained focused on the unification numbers. But because they are representing this part of our community, they had to find the best outcome for them even if it didn’t mean they got any money for it. Standing on the sidelines is easy, but is no longer an option if we want to achieve big things.
GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS AND NONPROFITS
We hear a lot about the supposed realignment of the roles between government, business and nonprofit organizations. What is your take on this?
I think it’s about smoke and not fire. I just read in today’s paper that some country music star is going on a tour, and in each of 25 cities, he’s going to buy a house mortgage free for a veteran there. That’s wonderful, and great publicity for him. Unfortunately this is not really an example of private dollars helping veterans in a significant way, it is more about winning a lottery, and that is no way to help those around us. We have over a million veterans in the United States and he’s buying houses for 21 of them. So I think that the idea that private money is going to supplant the need for government money will never be true.
So, kind of like with Tom’s shoes concept, which sounds great (and full disclosure, my ten month old, Mia Regina has a ‘metallic tweed’ pair she received at her baby shower) but actually does little to build a sustainable way for people in those countries to create the businesses to help provide shoes for themselves.
Yes. I member a California foundation that poured millions and millions into working with the schools and weren’t getting much in the way of results and someone explained that they had really only put in about as much as the lightbulb changing budget for the Los Angeles Unified School District. These problems are too big for most foundations to move the needle on, or for government to excuse themselves from.
What about the ways in which businesses and nonprofits can work together more? Don’t you think that businesses are starting to approach some things like a nonprofit and vice-versa?
Businesses always absorb what is the culture of the day, in order to sell their products. So for example there was a time when paisley prints were radical and wild. So people who wore paisley or had long hair practically saw this as being anti-corporate. Then business took that over and people with long hair were in commercials for cars. I think that right now we have a similar cultural view, which is about doing good in the world and being community-oriented. Don’t get me wrong, it is important and valuable, but I think like every other cultural movement business uses this and when the cultural movement passes, business will pass too.
But, corporations are run by and made up of people (just ask Mitt Romney) so those people can always express their generosity and concern about the world, despite the business imperative. We’ve come a long way from Johnson and Johnson’s shareholders suing the company when it attempted to divert some dollars to philanthropic activities. Helping the community is always smart business, so I don’t see that changing.
Sure, but when doing good crashes up against consumerism is where things often grind to a halt. So, for example, all the people who are passionate about sustainable agriculture might not want to realize that the most significant thing they could do about reducing the energy cost in agriculture would be to stop eating lettuce. Lettuce uses more energy cost related to the nutrition it provides than any single produce item on the planet. And yet you don’t see environmentalist calling for the end to eating lettuce. So I think that it can become a symbol of how we want to do things and see ourselves, but we don’t really want to make any changes to our consumer lifestyle.
On a local level, how do you think that nonprofits can collaborate and get some kind of collective impact?
I think the way that food banks work with their member agencies is an excellent example of bona fide collective impact that is generating extra value. For the most part, the smoke around collective impact and collaboration is not about something that genuinely works but creating the appearance of something that’s going to work. Almost all of these efforts are funder-driven and the funders put money into them and when the funders take the money out, it collapses. And that suggests that it’s it’s not a business model that works.
So what sort of examples can you give where that’s happened?
Foundation after foundation has created local collaborations and they’re around many different areas. Sometimes they are focused around a particular neighborhood and they’ll create a collaboration of different nonprofits and businesses to work on that neighborhood. Sometimes they might be a collaborative of something like domestic violence shelters working across 6 counties or the like. Many of these collaborations have grown organically over time, so they actually work. But others failed, like the Hewlett Foundation’s neighborhood improvement initiative and Annenberg’s initiative in public schools, the San Francisco Foundation’s Lifeline collaborative. They were put together in a way that didn’t make business sense for any of them and so when the outside money disappeared, the collaborations evaporated. So the collaborative initiatives that last are the ones that genuinely make sense for people and almost all of them are started by the nonprofits themselves, not by funders and their consultants.
I think funders have got to build on existing community strengths. And if there is not an organic community strength in that particular community then maybe you can’t fund them successfully. Maybe you have to look for a different community or maybe you have to take a longer view and say maybe there are 6 or 7 weak organizations in that community but let’s take a longer view of building their strengths. Instead I think what tends to happen is that a foundation that wants to work in a particular community or field and they see 5 or 6 weak organizations, then they figure if they just had a consultant to bring them together for collective impact, then it will all work out. It won’t.
One of the things that keeps nonprofits honest is that we get feedback from the market and we have two markets – a client or patron market and then we also have a funding market, so we have to work in both of them. Whenever you’re in a situation when you don’t have to work with those markets, then things can go wrong and you’ll never know it. That’s kind of like back in the old Soviet Union when the state decided what a factory should produce. There was no reason for anybody to get any better. Any institution that is not kept in check by some kind of market goes bad and doesn’t know it.
And so how can a foundation avoid getting into that situation then?
They can support community-based efforts as opposed to starting their own initiatives. I visited a foundation recently and they had on the wall a large poster that they had created with a circle. And in the middle of that circle was their logo, very large. And then around the outside of the circle were other foundations and nonprofits. They said to me that this represents our view of how we collaborate with other people and I felt like – No! – this represents your view of how you’re in the center of the universe.
I did a recent post about earned income for nonprofits. What is your take on this area?
A former consulting client of mine, for example, was running an organization they did a lot of psychological counseling for people and families across the spectrum. They received funding to support this work and then when that funding declined, they focused more on earned income. So, they were able to successfully grow their earned income side, and their budget didn’t look any smaller. But if you look closer, they’re now primarily serving people that can afford to pay rather than across the economic spectrum. And I think that this story writ large has been the hidden story of the move toward earned income.
You don’t feel that this can be balanced by having scholarships or sliding scales?
I think it can be mitigated and it’s a partial answer for some organizations but we need to be alert that so far at least many of the earned income gains have come at the cost of helping middle class people rather than economically disadvantaged people.
Many food banks resell purchased food or require a shared maintenance fee of a few cents a pound for some food items that they provide to member agencies. Some food banks don’t do that but we have found that in situations where there is no fee, it leads to inefficiencies with organizations taking more than they need.
So you introduced in a market element, right?
Yes, we’re not charging individuals, we’re asking organizations to take a financial stake in what we’re doing.
You should realize that I’m not trying to sound like I’m anti-earned income. I’m just saying earned income is not a replacement either for charitable dollars or government money.
I read your recent Blue Avocado post “In the Titanic Recession, Which Nonprofits Get the Lifeboats?” and this touches on the ideas you have just expressed about a shift from services to the very poor.
Yes, nonprofits that provide “the most basic anti-poverty for the poor and homeless failed at around twice the rate of more mainstream services.” Also, only about 16% of foundation funding is targeted to low income communities.
Which you lay at the doorstep of the focus on “innovation, social enterprise, outcome metrics and the coolness factor.” Jan, this is hitting me where I live!
It should! But I think food banks are hardly the type of organizations that are in this situation. They are doing some of the most important and pressing human work. And these and other organizations are where the money and focus should go.
Thanks Jan. There is a lot to think about there. Please continue to challenge us.