If you had $100, 300, or 500,000 to strengthen Milwaukee's nonprofits, how would you spend it?

I guess I’m just lucky to have the luxury of sitting at my desk pondering the variety of ideas parked in my virtual lot. There were so many good ones that we discussed over the years, but were tabled for a “lack of a second” so to speak. Where do I start? A budget is a likely area, as it is how we do things in Milwaukee—how much money do we have is often asked before what is it that we need? So, I am going to complete this mental exercise by starting with the money, rather than how I approached my hundreds of presentation to the Fund Committee over the past 20 years.

Scenario A: $100,000= The Linchpin Project

In most of the nonprofit sector’s sub-sectors or mission areas, there is an organization that is critical to the success of a system, a strategy, an idea, or a community.

The Nonprofit Management Fund has the capacity to make a difference in many ways. An effort might focus on a few nonprofits that are vital to implementing a current plan of one of the funding partners, or play a crucial role in addressing a key social ill. Whether it is free medical attention for the indigent, hunger, homelessness, literacy, or teen pregnancy, there are organizations that need to address management or governance issues in order to build their capacity to provide a cornerstone service for the community.

One could also argue that the Nonprofit Management Fund is exactly such a program, in that the grants awarded by the Fund strengthen individual organizations so that the funding partners can make better investments in Milwaukee.

For $100,000, six to eight nonprofits could be identified to participate in a focused effort to stabilize their organization. Once groups are identified, the leadership of each group must determine key areas for improvement. Based on the results, a series of small grants would be made over the next year aimed at addressing management or governance deficiencies. This model was tested in our work with Hispanics In Philanthropy to the extent that grantees became a cohort with specific activities that built individual and collective capacity, with two organizations emerging as critical to making strides in Milwaukee—Voces de la Frontera and Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee.

By the way, this model might attract additional funding partners, such as the Zilber Family Foundation, if there was a linchpin organization in one of their neighborhoods.

Upon completion of the grants, highlights of improvements and progress towards sustainability would be shared with the Committee. Likewise, the funding partners most invested in the selected organizations would report on the return of their investment in the organization’s programs, as well as in the success of addressing the societal concern.

Related Blog posting #3: Does Size Really Matter?

Scenario B: $300,000 = Leadership Development

In year two, if the linchpin project was underway, set aside $50,000 for a few second or third project grants. If we’re aiming at starting in 2015, take the first $100,000 for linchpins, and then appropriate another $100,000 for a community-wide technical assistance program akin to the Fund’s traditional marketplace grants. I have been told by dozens, if not hundreds of nonprofit leaders that they deeply appreciated our model of putting the purchasing power in their hands, letting them own their management improvement efforts. Management and governance needs do not dissipate just because there aren’t financial resources available, so some technical assistance catching up might be in order. Projects in board development, marketing, financial management, or fundraising are probably at the top of many executive directors’ “To Do” lists. However, I wouldn’t spend any of these precious few dollars on technology projects! There isn’t a for-profit or nonprofit that can run its business without technology—therefore, those costs should, in my opinion, be covered through annual operations funding and not from an external resource.

Keep in mind Blog #24: Responsive versus Intentional Grants.

Now, how best to spend the remaining $100,000 in this scenario on developing new, emerging, and veteran leaders?

In the vast majority of successful projects undertaken by the Nonprofit Management Fund, leadership has been the key to success overall, and certainly to an organization that is first surviving, and then hopefully thriving. This experience is borne out by numerous local and national studies.

Nonprofit leaders are facing some of the most difficult economic times. These leaders are concerned not only with the viability of their own organizations’ programs and services, but how the entire sector will fare given a seeming lack of focus on leadership development for executives, as well as second-in-command and third-tier managers. These nonprofit leaders also recognize that certain core skills (including , but not limited to business acumen, cross-sector relationships, advocacy, and collaborations with other nonprofits) are more essential than ever to the sector’s survival and growth.

Studies show an increased need for new nonprofit leaders, concurrent with executive dissatisfaction with job stresses, low pay, and other challenges. Historically, the nonprofit sector may not have done a good job of growing and developing leaders from within—organizations are typically small or work too hard to train leaders, yet often promote a good program manager without adequate support.

According to our research, Milwaukee is home to over 70 nonprofit leadership development programs targeted at high school and college students, young workers, and mid-career professionals. Public Allies, Future Milwaukee, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management and others all provide opportunities for talent development. These organizations provide informative experiences in some cases, as well as practical tools and skills development in others. However, whether or not the participants in these programs progress into strong nonprofit leaders is not currently known. And, there are few resources targeted at the senior level executive who has been in the field for many years, or is nearing retirement, but still has great wisdom to share.

To implement this scenario, I would develop several online and place-based opportunities described in Blog #18: Envision a Nonprofit Leadership Development System.

A serious investment of $100,000 in launching a nonprofit leadership development system would help ensure that the leaders of tomorrow would be more skilled and better equipped to move our community forward. Foundations, corporations and others could advance a community-wide effort to coordinate myriad pathways for new, emerging, and veteran leaders.

Scenario C: $500,000 = Nonprofit Depot

Once upon a time, a partner in the Fund asked me, “If you were Queen for a Day, what changes would you make in our local nonprofit sector?” Whew…heavy responsibility to answer that question, but later that day I began to sketch an idea.

If leadership can be defined as:

“Inspiring, motivating, and engaging others to collaborate toward a shared vision”,

then the vision for the Fund should be:

“A vibrant nonprofit sector in the greater Milwaukee area characterized by a healthy partnership between philanthropic and nonprofit organizations and a strong infrastructure that enables local nonprofits to achieve their missions.”

The idea that I began to sketch in the fall of 2011, was to establish a Nonprofit Depot, with a projected unveiling next year. For years, I have heard various philanthropists say “why don’t we buy a building to house many of these smaller nonprofits? Well, if they were going to be housed in a single building, we’re talking about one twice the size of our 40+ storied US Bank building, which would not be practical for more reasons than I can count. Besides, co-locating a spectrum of needy or weak groups does not make for stronger organizations.

Instead, let’s flip the picture of those nonprofit organization residents and envision a shopping mall for nonprofits to purchase the services they need with multiple options, which is a totally different kind of one-stop shopping experience.

There would need to be a few anchors, such as: university-based management certificate and degree programs; headquarters for multiple leadership development applications; and, a nonprofit staffing agency offering wide-ranging services from “Jobs That Serve” postings to executive search to back-office support recruiting employees and volunteers.

Stability from a least three major anchors would allow for some statewide or national chain services, such as satellite offices of auditing firms, credit unions, insurance agencies, office supply stores, and payroll services. However, the majority of the spaces need to be reserved for the boutique operations of small businesses that offer marketing, web design, accounting, conference services, IT, graphic designers, realtors, legal services, printers, event planners, travel services, and management consultants.

Note: Now when many of the consultants choose to relocate here out of their home offices, they will also need ongoing professional development opportunities to hone their skills or bolster their knowledge. Such services at a more advanced level must be offered if we are to expand the depth and breadth of the current consulting roster.

Of course, in this scenario all current intermediaries would be encouraged to relocate to this complex of resources. Trade associations from the Wisconsin Nonprofits Association to the Association for Fundraising Professionals would find a new home here. Sector-wide services such as SERVE Marketing; a community-focused variation of ENTECH; and, a revitalized comprehensive galaxy of services from BoardStar could add much greater value to the sector than the current minimal offerings. Philanthropic entities—including the Donors Forum of Wisconsin, Nonprofit Management Fund, United Performing Arts Fund, and Community Shares—would also be located here and their members would benefit from mixing and mingling with those that they fund, since they would regularly visit this marketplace for their respective member programs.

$500,000 is a small price to pay to fortify our nonprofit infrastructure. If we expand and enhance the foundation of resources available to nonprofit organizations, by logical extension, we improve our nonprofits’ capacity to accomplish their missions. If they fulfill their missions, we achieve our vision.

I invite others to engage in this mental exercise….and I hope that those who are gathering to discuss the Fund’s future make quick and lasting progress. Milwaukee is a much better place today than it was when the Fund started thanks in great part to the vision of the Fund partners. Oh, and feel free to borrow any of these ideas.

1 comment | Add a New Comment
1. Gil Llanas | September 30, 2014 at 05:09 PM EDT

Pat, love this idea and yes it is like old times with the Hispanics in Philanthropy. I am going to comment on the first $100K which I think is a great idea. Smaller nonprofits don't realize how vital it is to change/alter the governance structure of the organization. Taking into consideration that sound business practices are being followed, Board Dev., Fund Development and Ex. Director development are essential to moving forward positively. Clear outcomes are a must but reachable outcomes to me seem just as important. As Funders, we need to be patient without being too easy. I know you have a set aside technical issues, but smaller nonprofits need to have improvements built into their operations.

I think this plan can work \\\again\\\ but the 3 year commitment should be a given. I haven't thought this through totally but if one of these groups does not make progress after grant help/aid - what do we do we advise them?

My next comments will be on the $300K phase. After all these years in philanthropy, Leadership is the key to moving nonprofits toward success. I don't think there is anything more important going forward. You need the right people in the right positions.

This again is a great tool!

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