Nonprofit Boot Camp

I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Nonprofit Boot Camp hosted by Social Media for Nonprofits this week.  The conference was a revival of one formerly produced by the Craigslist Foundation and provided an opportunity to connect nonprofit leaders and those who serve the nonprofit community with experts who shared their experience, insights, and practical tools.  There were many learnings for me throughout the day, but I thought I’d share with you a few that really stuck out.

Why do we still call nonprofits nonprofits?

Kay Sprinkel Grace, a fundraising consultant and author, started the day off by sharing observations regarding donors and social investment that she’s gained from her more than 30 years of professional service to the nonprofit sector.  Right off the bat, she asked the question why nonprofits still call themselves nonprofits and pointed out that the nonprofit industry is the only one she is aware of that defines itself by what it is not rather than what it is.  The term “nonprofit” places the emphasis on the industry’s absence of profit-driven businesses, in contrast to traditional for-profit corporations.  Perhaps it would be better to use a term that places the emphasis on the incredible services and benefits that nonprofit organizations provide to the public.

While there wasn’t time for a long discussion of what the alternative options may be, Kay raised an interesting and thought-provoking point about how nonprofit organizations and the industry as a whole will brand themselves in the face of changes and developments in models for philanthropic investing, public-private partnership opportunities, and corporate structures.  Kay further reminded the audience that, when a donor makes a gift to a nonprofit organization, she is in fact making a gift to the community through that organization. Accordingly, the organization’s emphasis should be on the impact that gift will allow the organization to make, rather than the impact that gift will have on the organization itself – an important reminder.

Should nonprofit boards reflect the communities they serve?

In a wonderful and lively breakout panel on engaging key supporters, Meg Garlinghouse, Director of LinkedIn for Good, shared a few surprising statistics on nonprofit board membership: only 8 percent of nonprofits have a board member who is under the age of 50 and 86 percent of nonprofit board members are Caucasian.  This raises the question of whether nonprofit boards should reflect the communities those nonprofits serve.

While this may not always be possible in the most literal sense, a key theme that surfaced repeatedly throughout the day was the importance of a nonprofit asking for, genuinely considering, and incorporating feedback from the constituents it serves.  This came up multiple times in the breakout panel on impact and evaluation as the panelists discussed practical tools for an organization to measure its impact and evaluate its costs.  It also came up in the closing keynote given by Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, co-founders of the Kapor Center for Social Impact.  Freada and Mitch discussed their emerging definition of impact, which includes that the leadership of the organization reflects the communities being served by that organization, a built-in democracy of sorts.  These were all great points to ponder.

Just for Fun  – Van Halen and brown M&Ms

Ann Shanklin, Director of Loss Control at Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, presented a breakout session on risk management and implementing best practices in a nonprofit organization.  Although not the sexiest of conference topics, Ann provided many useful suggestions for creating a culture in which everyone within the organization is responsible for managing risk and helping to avoid some of the most common and expensive risks that nonprofits face.

The highlight of Ann’s presentation was the story she shared regarding the now-infamous clause Van Halen included in its venue contracts demanding that a bowl of M&Ms, with all of the brown M&Ms removed, be placed in the band’s dressing room.  Although this initially sounds like the unreasonable demand of a rockstar with an inflated ego, the band has explained that it was in fact a risk management tool to help ensure safety.

The unusual clause was buried deep in the technical requirements section of the contract and, when the band arrived at a new venue, if they found a bowl of M&Ms with all of the brown candies removed, they could safely assume that the venue had also read the other more important clauses of the contract and implemented them appropriately.  If the bowl was missing, or if the brown M&Ms hadn’t been removed, they could ask to inspect the work done to prepare the stage and other technical equipment and reserved the right to cancel the show if they were not satisfied that the proper safety precautions had been taken.  While this may not be the appropriate approach for most nonprofit organizations to take in implementing their own risk management strategy, it did provide a memorable story that emphasizes the importance of taking steps to minimize risk.