Charlotte nonprofits lead the way in increasing economic mobility

By Caylin VialesCaylin

Not only am I new to Next Stage Consulting, but I’m also brand new to Charlotte. Over the past two months, I’ve dedicated a lot of my free time to traditional newbie activities. Brewery hopping? Check – Free Range Brewing is my favorite so far. I’ve made a point to take the light rail uptown, explore different neighborhoods and go for walks along the Rail Trail and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. But while some may stop there, I’m someone who also dives head first into local policy and social issues. Check out what I’m learning and follow along.

You’ve probably heard this by now, but Charlotte has an economic mobility problem. What you might not have heard yet is that local Charlotte nonprofits are leading the way in creating innovative solutions to address it.

Background: Groundbreaking research from Harvard University and University of California-Berkeley ranking Charlotte 50th of the country’s 50 largest cities for upward economic mobility for children living in large metropolitan areas.

According to the research, a child raised in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution in Charlotte has just a 4.4 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. By comparison, children raised in some of the top ranking cities like San Jose, Salt Lake City and Seattle were more than twice as likely to reach the top quintile.

Since that familiar study was published, the city has organized to address these economic mobility issues. In April 2014, cross-sector leaders launched the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Economic Opportunity Task Force, a group of 21 community volunteers from diverse backgrounds working to lower barriers to upward economic mobility in Charlotte.

The task force was convened to research and report on the underlying social issues that contribute to generational poverty – including affordable housing, employment and education – and create an action plan for the city to increase economic opportunities for low-income children. Using the same five metrics (segregation, income inequality, primary school quality, social capital and family structure) as defined in the original report on economic mobility, the task force’s first report confirms that Charlotte is challenged across all five major opportunity indictors.

According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer, there is a surprisingly consistent pattern showing that the majority of neighborhoods in South Charlotte perform highly against indicators such as income, education, employment and health outcomes, while a crescent of neighborhoods to the west, north and east of the city struggle. Maps showing the racial breakdown of Charlotte neighborhoods follow that same distinct pattern.

Income & raceThis stark racial and income segregation can be attributed to decades of housing policy such as redlining and urban renewal, and it has perpetuated what some are calling the re-segregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public schools. School district data, as presented by Amy Hawn Nelson of UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, shows that one in three schools is isolated by class – meaning at least 80% of students live in poverty. Half are isolated by race – meaning at least 80% of students identify as one race. One in five schools is “hyper-segregated” by race – a term defined as meaning at least 90% of students identify as one race. Research shows that isolated or high-poverty schools correlate positively with poor student achievement and negatively impact school quality, and diverse campuses improve educational outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.

The task force’s final report will reveal important recommendations to address the five opportunity indicators that would move our city forward, but city and county government face a series of roadblocks when addressing intractable social issues such as economic mobility and education. Much like the launch of the task force itself, it will be a slow and meticulous process.

The Road Ahead

While real, long-term progress cannot be made without top-level success in addressing the structural barriers to upward economic mobility, we need to simultaneously invest in low-income neighborhoods by supporting the local programs and organizations that are actively building social capital and strengthening communities. Many community leaders are already doing important work to increase economic mobility and advocate for more equitable housing and school policies, and are doing so through grassroots programs and nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofits are unique in their ability to be nimble and highly responsive to community need – making them the ideal first responders in Charlotte to challenging social problems like upward economic mobility. In the month since I joined Next Stage Consulting, I have met and learned about many local leaders and programs focused on addressing economic mobility through art, education and advocacy:

  • Hip Hop Orchestrated, founded by Kia Moore, works to knock down social barriers and shatter cultural boundaries by blending different musical genres to connect people of different backgrounds and battle classism, racism, ageism and sexism. When I think about innovative programs addressing economic mobility through building social capital, Hip Hop Orchestrated is one of the first that comes to mind.
  • Gen-One Charlotte, led by Ian Joyce, gives talented low-income students a road map to and through college. The organization, which provides college counseling and intensive mentorship to cohorts of students, works to create opportunities for increased economic mobility by helping high-performing students in Title I schools prepare for, enroll in and complete college, setting them on a trajectory for career success.

I am also excited about the potential of a new community fund at United Way of Central Carolinas, Unite Charlotte, dedicated to supporting programs and organizations focused on building social capital, fostering racial equity and creating opportunities in Mecklenburg County. Established in response to the recent unrest in Charlotte, the fund prioritizes new and innovative solutions to community challenges that have been in operation for less than five years and have an operating budget of less than $250,000. This fund will provide important financial support to programs and organizations that might not have access to more traditional philanthropy. Shameless plug – applications are due on February 17, 2017.

All of us – life-long Charlotteans and brand new residents, government officials and community leaders alike – have a role to play in ensuring that Charlotte becomes a more equitable city for generations to come. What is yours?

Announcing Q1 2016 Illuminate Speakers

Next Stage Consulting is pleased to announce the first slate of 2016 speakers in the Illuminate series at Hygge.

Illuminate is a twice-monthly series facilitated by Josh Jacobson of Next Stage Consulting and hosted at Hygge, a coworking community near uptown, where participants gain a better understanding of how nonprofits in the Charlotte region are working on their behalf.  The series is notable for its focus on the business underpinnings of the nonprofit sector and a willingness to tackle challenging topics head-on.

Sessions take place on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month throughout 2016, and lunch is provided for participants.  To be added to the list for notification when RSVPs will be accepted for each session, or to suggest future speakers for the series, visit the Hygge website.

Emerging & Earning

DJessupDavid Jessup, CEO, Digi-Bridge
Tuesday, January 12, 11:45am-1:00pm

Digi-Bridge aims to equip shareholders with the means to foster optimal use of technology in the learning environment, ensuring that all 21st century learners have opportunities to succeed in the digital age.  Embarking on year two, Digi-Bridge leadership has developed a business model that considers both profitability and social mission impact. Over lunch, CEO David Jessup will discuss Digi-Bridge’s three-pronged approach and how his team is managing short-term financial challenges while maintaining long-term goals.

Leadership is Action, Not Position

JTurnerJeremy Turner, Chief Solutions Officer, JET Solutions
Tuesday, January 26, 11:45am-1:00pm

We can all agree that leadership will either make or break an organization, but sadly, many misconceptions exist as to what great leadership actually looks, sounds and feels like in today’s world. In this session, Jeremy Turner will share insights aimed at clearing up these misconceptions for good, while also offering tools designed to help leaders at all levels become more effective.  A DiSC-Certified Behavioral Consultant and Certified Behavioral Life Coach, Jeremy brings experience from his leadership roles for industry giants and grassroots startup ventures in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Story Matters

DJohnsonDavid Johnson, Executive Director, Silent Images
Tuesday, February 9, 11:45am-1:00pm

David Johnson, Executive Director of Silent Images will share the power of storytelling.  Silent Images is a nonprofit organization that provides professional video and photography services to other charities around the world.  David and his team have done documentary work in 40 different countries for hundreds of charities. Whether it is documenting human trafficking in Cambodia, Ebola in Liberia, genocide in Sudan, or homelessness in Charlotte, David and his team seek to preserve the dignity of those impacted while telling their stories to inspire others to take action against injustice.

The Big Picture

TLansdellTerry Lansdell, Program Director, Clean Air Carolina
Tuesday, February 23, 11:45-1:00pm

Coming the uptown Charlotte in March, Particle Falls is a large-scale public artwork by artist Andrea Polli that provides a real time visualization of particulate pollution.  As Program Director for Clean Air Carolina, Terry Lansdell has worked collaboratively with a number of partners to make the project a reality.  From concept to implementation, Terry will walk through his plan for leveraging this highly visible art installation to “make the invisible visible” and address public engagement, civic education and political advocacy.

Keeping True

KFinleyKelly Finley, Founder & Director, Girls Rock Charlotte
Tuesday, March 8, 11:45am-1:00pm

As Senior Lecturer and Undergraduate Advisor of Women’s & Gender Studies at UNC Charlotte, Kelly Finley explores the ways that gender influences social structures and individual experience around the world.  Against the backdrop of Girls Rock Charlotte, the chapter-based youth arts organization she established in 2014, Kelly will speak about the many manifestations of feminism and how to be true to your cause as the founder of a nonprofit organization.

Generosity of Peers

JJacobsonJosh Jacobson, Managing Director, Next Stage Consulting
March 22, 11:45am-1:00pm

The success of #GivingTuesday 2015 cannot be denied, with online giving growing 52% compared to 2014.  Peer-to-peer on-line fundraising platforms are plentiful these days, and with word that Facebook is introducing new tools for nonprofits, there are more options than ever.  In this workshop session, Illuminate Host Josh Jacobson of Next Stage Consulting will walk through how to best utilize peer-to-peer giving within the context of a nonprofit development plan, outline best practices and potential pitfalls, and compare platforms.

About Next Stage Consulting
Next Stage is a strategy and implementation firm for nonprofits in the Carolinas. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Next Stage provides support for strategic planning, fund development, organizational strengthening and project management. The firm is led by Managing Director Josh Jacobson who has partnered with more than 100 nonprofit organizations since 2009.

About Hygge
Hygge (pronounced Hoo-Ga) is a coworking community located at 809-C West Hill Street near Uptown Charlotte. Hygge is Danish for “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people,” which is an apt description for this coworking community powered by Garrett Tichy and Kayla Dugger of Ready at 7.

Sustaining Success: Meeting the Needs of Mecklenburg County’s Homeless Population

by Sam McClenney, Research & Special Projects

A recent study commissioned by the City of Charlotte reports that the number of homeless families in Charlotte decreased by 27 percent from September 1, 2013, to August 31, 2014.

While this trend is promising, there are still more than 150,000 people in Mecklenburg County living below the poverty line, 60,000 of which are children and seniors, as noted by Second Harvest’s CEO Kay Carter in the Charlotte Observer article. These individuals are often both food insecure and homeless – their success must continue if Charlotte’s homeless are to transition from the streets into permanent homes.

What changes in Charlotte have made it easier for the homeless to lift themselves out of poverty? And how can we continue this trend in the coming years?

Keys to Success: Coordination & Mobilization

20018847_sHelping the homeless is not easy. No one homeless person or family is the same, so creating a system that provides each the exact help needed is impossible. However, agencies in Mecklenburg County have taken note of what works (and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t work), and are applying what they have learned.

According to Kelly Lynn, Director of Development at Supportive Housing Communities, the key to success has been a rigorous focus on best practices.

“Our community has been paying attention to practices that are most successful in other communities, along with learning new techniques at national conferences,” Lynn said. “One excellent initiative started in 2014 is Coordinated Assessment which connects individuals and families who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, to the best available shelter or housing resource.”

Another reason for the decline may be the rise in the number of local leaders focusing their energies on the issue of homelessness.

Thomas Wheeler, Founder of Urban Outreach, sees a shift in moving attention to action.

“From my perspective it is because more people are getting personally involved with the poor and homeless,” Wheeler said. “And when we come together as a community, positive change is inevitable.”

Coming together means generating empathy for the plight of the homeless, understanding that it is often out of the individual’s control.

Wheeler says: “I also think people are understanding that they too could be homeless one day (given a poor set of uncontrollable circumstances) and so their level of judgment of the guy or gal they see on the street corner has changed.”

Keeping the Ball Rolling

Success like Charlotte has achieved often results in praise, but it also brings pressure for continued success. Agencies responsible for this development will need to stabilize funding if they hope to continue their progress. Will this positive news provide a message of hope that can keep funders around? Carson Dean, of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, believes so.

“We really believe funders, especially foundations, major donors and congregations, want to invest in solutions, not just continue to manage crises,” Dean said. “This message of success has resonated well and I believe will only become more important to secure sustainable resources.”

Wheeler and Lynn echoed this sentiment.

“On the positive side some will see it as their efforts being affirmed and they will be more encouraged to help even further,” Wheeler said.

“We track our outcomes and show our funders the proof that the people we serve have ‘a place to live again’ and are not returning to homelessness,” Lynn said.

2015 and Beyond

Agencies will have to ‘step up their game’ if they want to top this past year’s success. The community seems more then up to the task, as they shared their plans for the coming year.

“Men’s Shelter of Charlotte plans to move 500 men to more appropriate housing, launch a formal diversion program to begin working towards diverting 20% of homeless men from ever needing shelter, and continue to build a cadre of landlords and employers eager to assist men,” Dean said.

Supportive Housing Communities started a program this past spring called the Scattered Site Program, which targets families that have little to no income, but have nowhere to go.

“SHC is currently serving 24 families with this initiative. By early 2015, SHC anticipates serving 17 individuals and 39 families in our Scattered Site Program, and we anticipate this number growing through the year,” Lynn said.

Start-up ministry Urban Outreach has big plans in 2015.

“Urban Outreach, has been incorporated to help leaders who help the poor be more successful,” Wheeler said. “I am trying to keep leaders focused on what they do best, helping the poor get off the street, rather than having to become fundraisers, marketing experts or great speakers by providing those other things for them.”

While 2014 was a successful year for the agencies that tackle the needs of Charlotte’s homeless community as many clients found their way out of poverty and into housing, there is still much more to be done. Luckily, it sounds like 2015 might bring even more success.

Photo Copyrights: / 123RF Stock Photo

“They Have a Basketball Court?” – Red Ventures & How Data Can Transform Nonprofits

By Josh Jacobson

Though it has been in business since 2000, I hadn’t heard of Red Ventures until just a few years ago.  And even then, what I knew was somewhat fuzzy.

Most folks talk about the amazing headquarters located in Fort Mill, South Carolina – a striking 150,000 sq. ft. campus complete with a full-length basketball court and its own on-site restaurant, perfect for a beer on Friday company-endorsed happy hours.  People I know who have been there talk about the stunning array of flat screens everywhere you look, with real-time streaming data concerning client activity.

If that sounds a bit like the playground-style offices of tech start-ups of Silicon Valley in the 1990s, you probably aren’t far off.  It is clear Red Ventures has defined its brand and created a work culture with a great deal of intention – to attract talent, project success, and increase client acquisition.  I can only assume this, but it would certainly make sense – Red Ventures is in the business of demand generation and sales conversion.

I say I’m a bit fuzzy about what they do because it is largely a big secret.  The company doesn’t say much about the clients it serves, but the word on the street is that they are involved with many Fortune 500 companies, with a defined focus on home services, energy, media, telecomm and insurance.  If their building is the first thing people mention, their process is typically the second thing, and little is known about it either.  Their website provides a fairly high-level explanation of the typical sales funnel.  But what they do is different. Or so I’ve heard.  “They will go head-to-head with the sales department of a reluctant client prospect and beat their numbers by a multiple factor,” a colleague told me once. “They’ve got it figured out.”

So, what is “it” exactly?  And how can nonprofit organizations learn from what this company does?  While much of it remains a mystery, two differentiating factors are clearly evident:

  • People – The Right People in the Right RolesInterview
    Red Ventures is a growing company – a really growing company.  Earlier this month, they held an interview day with the intent to add 200 additional employees in 2014.  And that’s on top of its nearly 2,000 current employees.  If you go to their website, the front page is basically a giant classified ad with various positions that need to be filled yesterday.

If you’re an employee at Red Ventures, it means you made it through what is called by Business Insider one of the top-20 most difficult interview processes in corporate America.  I’ve heard it said that, despite the need for so many new employees, the company hires a staggeringly low number of the people who interview.  It seems they know what they are looking for, and don’t accept “close enough.”

From the comments on various employment seeking websites like, it appears the company is looking for characteristics and traits that don’t show up on someone’s resume.  “Tell me a joke,” a recruiter asked an applicant for a sales position, for example.  Applicants who don’t get invited back note feeling disoriented and perplexed by the experience, and angry that the interview didn’t follow a predictable format.  Perhaps that’s the whole point.

While nonprofits may not be able to offer the salary or perks afforded employees at Red Ventures (though I hear the YMCA has a great basketball court), they can certainly learn from this process.  The company wants people who can think on their feet, who have a task-oriented skill set matched with a capacity for critical thinking.  They are looking for people who will thrive in the workplace environment they have created.  Like everything about Red Ventures, it’s all very intentional.

For under-resourced nonprofits, the need to find dynamic development staff members who can get results is even more critical.  I’ve argued in the past that there are typically two types of development professionals – those who crave getting out of the office and engaging in donor interaction, and those who prefer to develop messaging strategies and computer-based awareness from within their offices.  Few are experts at both.  At Red Ventures, there are entire departments constructed of both types of people.

While they are both important needs for a nonprofit, too often they are traits (left-brain oriented and right-brain oriented) expected to be found in just one person – the Director of Development – who typically has too little time and too many distractions to do any of it effectively.  Now, I’m not saying organizations should go out and hire additional development staff – I mean, they are likely needed, but most nonprofits don’t have the budget to do that.  But what I am saying is that you should have a good idea of the type of person who will be effective given your organization’s culture, and find the right person to match your strategies – not the other way around.

  • Data – At the Heart of Every Decision & StrategySpreadsheets
    When I close my eyes and imagine meetings at Red Ventures, I picture employees with their sleeves rolled up, pouring over spreadsheets and having heated (though still professional) discussions about data analysis.  Because they are passionate and it’s how they are wired. “But what does it mean? And how can we use it?”

In truth, I’m a pretty big data wonk.  Or at least I aspire to be.  Where most people see the increasing loss of privacy as we opt-in to social media and search engine tracking, I admit that I get pretty excited. The idea that we could model preferences and behavior, and apply that understanding on a large scale?  Yea, that’s pretty game changing stuff.

Red Ventures puts it so well on their website, I won’t even try to paraphrase: “Data drives our decisions – and we build tools that give us unique, actionable insights. We scrutinize response, conversion and economics at every level to continuously boost ROI.”

Put a bit less techie, the company seeks to understand a client’s customer base and what motivates it to act, refines sales strategies through real-time analysis, and once the company is satisfied it has a sales systems that works, it models the current customer base and seeks other people with the same characteristics.  But that doesn’t happen just once – it is a system that continues to inform itself with fresh data, modifying tactics as new variables become known.

Re-reading that last paragraph, I get goosebumps.  Why can’t nonprofits do this too?  It’s a question that has led to some really interesting discussion with Chris Meade, CEO of Catapault InfoSolutions, who has thought a lot about the subject.  In fact, much of this post is informed by his ideas.

A primary challenge is simply the lack of data collected by most nonprofits.  A large percentage of donor databases in the Carolinas are tracking just one thing – financial transactions.  So if we want to understand how an individual became a donor, like who referred them initially or what the person read that motivated them to act, many donor databases don’t shed much light on the subject.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.  What nonprofit has a Chief Information Officer or prioritizes data accumulation for both programming and marketing?  Whereas Red Ventures understands the importance data holds for making decisions, nonprofits typically relegate data management to the most junior person on the development team.  That person is rarely invited to the table or present in the meeting, and so that important data goes un-captured.  A centerpiece of my Data Flow presentation is the need to elevate the process to encourage a “culture of data.”

The other big barrier for nonprofits is a financial one – though data is cheaper to purchase than ever before, it is still more expensive than most nonprofits can afford.  And because many nonprofits have a basic misunderstanding of how direct marketing leads to donor dollars, the ROI on any activity is calculated on a one-to-one basis. “We tried direct mail once, but the response rate was poor so we didn’t do it again.”

After retention (a topic for another day), donor acquisition is the most important metric any nonprofit should track.  And to dispel a popular myth, your board of directors is an important part of lead generation, but should not be your only source of prospects. Through donor modeling and message testing, segmented outreach can be very effective at motivating people who don’t know you to become educated, encouraging those who know you to give charitably and driving people who already give to give more.

Did I really just spend 1,500 words saying that successful fundraising comes down to talented people using data to inform strategies that move people to act?  Yep, I sure did.  And while that may seem a fairly obvious thing, so simple it isn’t worth spending so many words to say it, I can promise you it is a fundraising success model too few nonprofits understand or resource effectively.

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What are three traits you believe are necessary for an employee to be successful at your nonprofit?  How do you interview applicants to determine the right fit?
  2. Left-brained or right-brained – so which one are you? How do you compensate for the “other half” to ensure you cover all the bases?
  3. How does data inform your organization’s fundraising strategies?  If you could collect one additional piece of data about everyone in your database, what would it be? How would you use it?

Image Credits: Featured Image (Red Ventures Website), Interview (123RF – vgstudio), Spreadsheet (123RF – David Hilcher)

“I Spent the Night in My Car” — Lessons in Crisis Response

by Josh Jacobson
As I sit here writing this, most Carolinians are waking up to bright sunshine and temperatures in the low 50s.  Our dog Miyagi is bouncing off the walls because she knows the mild weather will mean a long walk around the neighborhood.

What a nice change of pace after a January that saw some pretty dicey weather-related challenges.  While many of my former colleagues in the northeast would scoff at such a notion, the issue hasn’t been extreme temperatures (for comparison, it is currently 1 degree in Duluth, Minnesota), but how woefully under-prepared cities in the South are for sub-freezing weather.

Just last week, Atlanta learned the hard way how just a little bit of snow and ice could bring a city to its knees.  A near perfect storm of mistakes and miscalculations followed (pun intended), and for the better part of a week Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal were fixtures of the morning news circuit.  The most compelling stories came from commuters who were stuck on the freeway in their cars overnight, or who abandoned their cars and trudged 5-6 miles in the ice and snow to reach the warmth of civilization.  A public relations disaster, to say the least.

We are never fully prepared for a crisis when it hits, as it rips us out of whatever we were doing and demands our full attention.  But I find nonprofits are particularly susceptible to poor crisis response – I can’t tell you how rare it is to find any sort of crisis communication plan in place, or one that is dusted off occasionally to accommodate new advancements in communication (how does one handle a particularly awful review on Yelp?).

DeficitMost nonprofits are unlikely to experience the sort of negative attention that comes with a debacle like the response to the weather in Atlanta. However, most organizations will experience a different sort of crisis at least occasionally – the dreaded shortfall in the operating budget.  How your organization handles the situation says a lot about your leadership, integrity and management protocols.

When an organization realizes that it is unlikely to hit its revenue goals, or experiences unexpected expenses that threaten operations, donors too often hear about it from a third party or read about it first in the local newspaper.  Why keep your donors in the dark about your financial troubles – embarrassment? Aren’t these the same people you will look to engage to help you out of your current situation?  Before considering your statement to the public via media channels, think first of a strategy for communicating with those individuals, companies and foundations that make a difference to your bottom line, and consider the following communication points:

  • Take the Blame and Explain Why – Your donors support you because they care about your mission.  They are very likely to forgive whatever caused the current crisis – but they want and need to understand how and why it occurred.  While you may have carefully scripted language for the broader public, someone in your organization should step up and accept responsibility to the organization’s most influential stakeholders.  Meet in person or by phone with important donors and past board leaders to explain the current situation simply and with straightforward language.

I was quite impressed with how Cathy Templeton, Executive Director of the Community Arts Project in Cornelius, North Carolina, handled recent front-page coverage of her organization’s financial troubles. “The revenue streams we projected didn’t happen,” she noted, acknowledging that a recent move had a greater impact than anticipated. “We didn’t see ourselves as a start-up because we had been here for 15 years, but it was still more like a start-up than expected…” While other groups may have blamed the economy or other outside factors, she wisely saw good reason to level with the community about how the current crisis came to be. As a donor to their cause, I would want to know how we got to this point were I to contribute again.

  • Detail What You Have Learned – Acknowledging that mistakes were made is only meaningful if you follow that up by explaining how you will avoid making them in the future. Just like any investor, your donors will want to know that history will not repeat itself.  This needs to be more than just a talking point – if this happens again (and again and again), your donor community is unlikely to keep rallying to your cause.

Atlanta remains ill-equipped to deal with such weather emergencies, this despite the fact that the city experienced a similar snow-related crisis just three years ago.  The headlines from early January 2011 were eerily similar to ones from this past week.  Back then, the city responded by increasing the number of snow response equipment, but did not create a plan to avoid congestion on the freeway system.  The creation of such a plan was a central talking point for both Mayor Reed and Governor Deal, though neither seemed willing to take responsibility for this failing.

  • Show Genuine Gratitude – Surprise! Your donors are not obligated to bail your organization out when it finds itself in a financial crisis.  When a donor does decide to help you at your time of need, that individual deserves more than just a form letter detailing tax deductibility.  These individuals are clearly very devoted to your mission, and should be thanked personally for making a special effort.

I’ll never forget an interview I had with a major donor to a past client, who shook his head when I asked if he felt adequately acknowledged by the organization.  It was as if the organization came to expect the gift annually, and when the gift dipped slightly during the downturn, he felt as if he was letting the organization down – this despite more than a decade of significant investment!  Staff can sometimes get so caught up in their fundraising challenges, that they forget what amazing acts of charity such gifts are to a nonprofit’s cause.

Thankfully, nonprofit management is more often smooth sailing than choppy waters, but being prepared for the unexpected is essential.  I’d say more on this subject, but Miyagi really wants to go for that walk!

Three Action Steps for the Week:

  1. Do you have an crisis communication plan? If so, dust it off and consider areas in need of focus. If not, search the Internet for plans from organizations with similar missions.
  2. If a crisis were to hit, who are the top 10 donors you would contact personally? How about five past board members?
  3. If you are concerned with your own financial sustainability this fiscal year, how would you explain why it happened and what you would do differently in the future?

Image Credits: Featured Image (123RF – Robert Crum), Deficit (123RF – Bram Janssens)

What Can Bill Gates Teach Us in the Carolinas About Philanthropy?

By Josh Jacobson

The Next Stage Consulting blog is committed to covering topics related to life in the Carolinas.  So, what can a billionaire like Bill Gates teach us about what is happening in our own backyards?

First, a refresher on Bill Gates – most likely know him as the founder of Microsoft, the maker of Windows and the Office suite of software products that dominate the business landscape. But if you haven’t been paying attention, you may not know that he and his wife Melinda are the world’s leading philanthropists, having pledged to give away the vast majority of their estimated $78+ billion fortune to charity.

It is an amazing commitment, and one that has inspired more than 100 billionaires to make a similar commitment of donating more than half of their fortunes.  The Giving Pledge now counts high-profile billionaires like financier Warren Buffett, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and recently Virgin Group-founder Richard Branson.

Since 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done some extraordinary things, including the near-eradication of polio from poverty-stricken countries across the world.  In fact, much of the foundation’s work has been on the global stage, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Gates Foundation’s recent annual report focuses on debunking three myths that block progress for the poor throughout the world.

Reading through the 2014 Gates Letter, written by Bill Gates himself, I couldn’t help but draw connections to life in the Carolinas:

This is a pervasive sentiment for many, that these countries are beyond saving and are systemically damaged.  The letter does a good job of demonstrating that this isn’t true.  Over the last couple generations, global poverty has changed measurably, with the disparity between rich and poor greatly narrowed.  In fact, “there is a class of nations in the middle that barely existed 50 years ago, and it includes more than half of the world’s population.”  Mr. Gates is so confident as to declare that by 2035, “there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.”

The larger point is a good one – real change takes time. It takes a commitment that benchmarks not on a 90-day, annual or even multi-year continuum, but on a decades-long one.  It also requires a right-sized measuring stick.  Goals should be set that are meaningful to the communities served, not as compared to western world assumptions about what should be possible based on personal experiences.

There is much wisdom here that can be applied to the challenges facing our own Carolina communities.  Quick fixes are not likely work. Philanthropists and giving entities are too often interested in narrowly-defined annual returns on investment, wanting to be able prove statistically that their giving has made a difference.  That in turn forces nonprofit organizations to develop evaluation criteria to ensure continued support.

As much as I feel passionately that this is wrongheaded, it is hard to beat up on what few sources of charitable support do exist.  For too many, there is likely an assumption that poverty in our own cities and towns is a given, a fact to accept rather than fight.  For leaders across the Carolinas, it may be useful to debunk this myth for their own communities – how important have public, private and nonprofit interventions been to improving life in the Carolinas?

The second myth debunked by Mr. Gates is tied directly to the first – if you think that change is impossible or unlikely, you are also apt to believe spending money on it is a waste of resources that could be put to a better purpose.  The existence of corruption in those countries makes it easy to dismiss efforts – “I mean, how much of foreign aid is really getting to the people it is meant to serve anyways?”

As a fundraiser for much of my professional life, I have encountered this argument time and again – “But what will my small contribution mean in the grand scheme of things?” The problem is that we tend to see things compartmentalized rather than as a big picture.

This is particular true as it relates to compensation of nonprofit employees, which garners more headlines than it deserves.  By focusing on perceived wasteful spending, it becomes easier to throw one’s hands in the air and declare it all a “big waste.” The tendency to view nonprofits and NGOs in the same negative light as “bloated government” has been a slowly developing trend that threatens to undermine the entire sector.

As Next Stage Consulting tells its clients, the key to sustainability is to demonstrate ROI.  But if we’re only measuring in annual increments, as noted in the previous section, are nonprofits actually their own worst enemies?  More should be done by nonprofits to educate stakeholders on the true cost of progress, particularly those who have the capacity to make the biggest impact.

Admittedly, this myth is less directly applied to life in the Carolinas.  Most folks reading this are unlikely to fear that large scale interventions in poverty-stricken areas of the Carolinas will lead to a scarcity of resources.

But Mr. Gates makes a great case for the damage misinformation can do. This myth only exists because of scientific theories that were misheard, misinterpreted and accepted as fact. Saving lives has not led to overpopulation – in fact, the reverse has been true.  Education leads to more sustainable infrastructures and social progress.

Searching for connection to the Carolinas, the key may be the important role education plays in fighting social causes.  And not just the education of those directly impacted by poverty, but those community leaders called upon by society to do something about it.

So what can Bill Gates teach us in the Carolinas? Certainly more than one might think, but nothing more so than the commitment to improving the world through making a charitable commitment.  The message of the Gates Foundation is simple – we can all do more to make the world a better place.  And while his foundation’s focus may be on the global stage, consider making yours in neighborhoods across the Carolinas, where progress is indeed measurable and donations most definitely meaningful.

Photo Credit: Featured Image (Modified – Sebastian Derungs, World Economic Forum)