So much activity in the nonprofit sector focuses on fundraising. Books, articles, webinars, conferences and consultants stand ready to help nonprofits write a grant application, raise money online or cultivate millennials. That’s understandable. Without money, nonprofits will fail. (Of course, if some of the US’s 1.5 million nonprofits failed, we’d be better off, but that’s another story.) But, just as companies run the risk of obsessing over their revenues and profits–as opposed to their products, their services, their purpose–some nonprofits worry too much about how they raise their money and too little about how they spend it. When nonprofits devote more effort to testing the effectiveness of their fundraising appeals than they do assessing the impact of their programs, something’s awry.
Cynthia Adams has toiled in the nonprofit sector for more than 40 years, ever since she left home in Minnesota in 1971 to work on environmental issues in Alaska. She has devoted much of her career to helping nonprofits raise money, most recently as the founder and CEO of Grantstation (“Your fast track to funding”), a database and learning center for nonprofits. In June, she’s shifting focus, at least for a day, by organizing a conference that is aimed to help foundations and nonprofits work closely together to make more of a difference. I’ll be moderating a panel at the event, called Innovations 2016, so I spoke with Cynthia last week about the trajectory of her career and about the conference.
“I had no intention of doing a conference,” she told me. Running her company, with 15 far-flung employees, was keeping her busy. So was accompanying her husband John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winning composer, as he performs his environmentally-themed music around the country. But Adams has been pleased to see the conversation around philanthropy shift to focus more on effectiveness. “It’s been percolating for a long time,” she said. “How can we have greater impact? Can that happen if we work more closely together?” A day-long event, Innovations 2016 will look such topics as at impact investing, learning from failure and funding in layers–all ways in which funders and nonprofits can generate more bang for the nonprofit buck.
Adams has seen the funder-nonprofit relationship from every angle since she drove to Alaska as a college student way back when. “Once I crossed that border into Alaska, I looked around and said, this is home,” she said. (“Minnesota wasn’t cold enough for me. Or dark enough,” she jokes.) Adams helped start what is now the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, working on such issues as the 1980 Alaska public lands act, which protected about 157 million acres of land, and a long-running campaign to block a mega-dam on the Susitna River. She eventually became the group’s development director. “I worked the fundraising because no one else wanted to,” she said.
Mostly, it was small-scale stuff in a state where environmentalists weren’t universally loved. “We did a fundraiser once at a local restaurant. Shrimp and crab, all donated by local fishermen,” she recalled. “Right in the middle, we got a bomb threat.” When the police arrived, they cleared the building and then asked the organizers to go back in to look for the bomb. Really.
Adams has given away money as well as raised it. She helped start the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and served on its board for a dozen years. Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield appointed her to the board of a state fund that makes loans to small businesses. In 1991, a few years before the arrival of the consumer Internet, she started the Alaska Funding Exchange, a platform to connect small nonprofits to funders.
“Alaskans knew very little about grant seeking. Funders knew little about Alaska. It was my goal to connect the two,” she said. “We did workshops in native villages throughout the state.” She remains committed to leveling the playing field so small, locally-focused nonprofits can have access to all the information that is available to big ones with full-time development executives.
The Alaska network laid the groundwork for GrantStation, which launched in 2001. It now has about 36,000 nonprofit members, some who subscribe directly and others who access the platform through licensing agreements with organizations such as the Chronicle of Philanthropy (whose editor, Stacy Palmer, kindly introduced me to Cynthia). GrantStation provides up-to-date information about funders, a weekly newsletter and a variety of tools and resources for nonprofits.
Adams has brought together an interesting group of people for Innovations 2016, which will be held on June 13 at NYU. Her focus dovetails nicely with what I’ve been trying to do with this blog. Topics including listening to beneficiaries (which I blogged about here) and impact investing (which I blogged about here); speakers include Melinda Tuan of the Fund for Shared Insight (which I blogged about here), Don Shaffer of RSF Finance (who I wrote for GreenBiz) and Jim Schorr, my friend and former colleague on the board of Net Impact, who now the president of the Social Enterprise Alliance. (You can see why I’m excited about this event.) One of the moderators will be Brian Lehrer, who hosts an excellent public radio talk show. (He and John Luther Adams play first base on a WNYC softball team.) Here’s the day’s agenda.
A final thought: I can’t help but bring my experience as a business reporter to my writing about nonprofits. One thing I’ve learned is that the best for-profit companies focus obsessively on just a few things–the needs or desires of their customers, the quality of their product or service, and the character and skills of their people. If they serve their customers well, hire well and treat their people well, they will thrive. Revenues and profits will follow; they are essential to a company, but they are not its reason for being.
This connection between doing good and doing well isn’t as direct in the nonprofit world, unfortunately. But I have to believe that nonprofits that focus on serving their clients well will also succeed when it comes to raising money, particularly if they can demonstrate that they are superior to their “competitors” and thus worthy of donations. I’m sure it’s not as simple as that, but I know that the reverse–overemphasizing fundraising at the expense of impact–is a recipe for failure.