Nell: George, you have a pretty radical idea for getting nonprofits out of the hand-to-mouth starvation fundraising cycle, which you describe as expanding a traditional capital campaign so that the entire balance sheet of a healthy organization gets funded, not just buildings and endowments. How does a nonprofit break out of the mindset that they can only raise large amounts of money for a tangible building or endowment?
George: Ha! Please don’t tell my mom that I’m a radical! In truth, the concept of “Philanthropic Equity” may feel a bit radical, but really it is just an extension of tried and true nonprofit capital campaign techniques that have been with us for generations. Every year, billions of dollars are raised (often tens of millions at a time) to support capital campaigns for permanent, tangible things like buildings and endowments. Philanthropic equity suggests there is a third permanent, tangible thing that lends itself well to a capital campaign: not a building, not an endowment, but a business plan and management team that, if well-capitalized, will build an enduring and effective nonprofit organization.
This isn’t about just money. It’s about capital. And what makes capital different from all of the other money that flows into an organization? Precisely put, capital is all about turning a one-time infusion of money into benefits that recur over and over again. An endowment gets raised once and then provides subsidy every year, forever! Constructing a new building costs $5 million, once. But it wouldn’t be a good capital investment unless the building went on to house effective programs for years and years to come.
And so, the key shift in mindset is for an organization to envision very crisply how it intends to sustain ongoing program execution, once the equity has run out. It needs to paint a “portrait of sustainability” around which the philanthropic equity is raised.
But there’s a catch! The portrait cannot simply involve repeating equity capital campaigns over and over again. That would be cheating! Equity funders, who seek “perpetuities of impact”, would catch on pretty quick.
For example, imagine an internet-based nonprofit that plans to be sustained entirely by its online fundraising pitches. When originally launched, the organization has not yet built its web site, and so the online sustainability model is not ready to work. This is where philanthropic equity comes in. Philanthropic equity (from OFF-line funders) pays the bills while the site is first being built. It also subsidizes the organization in the early years of operation, before a critical mass of online donors has been established.
Once these changes (a new site, a critical mass) have been accomplished, the organization becomes self-sustaining, and — this is key — the site doesn’t need to raise any more philanthropic equity. In this way, a one-time infusion of $5 million in OFF-line philanthropic equity can give rise to $10 million per year of recurring ONLINE revenues that keep the program thriving year after year.
Nell: Why has this idea not caught on throughout the nonprofit sector? And how do we reach that tipping point?
George: Clara Miller is right: “Accounting is destiny!” And I believe that a change in nonprofit accounting practices would be our most effective way to move towards the next nonprofit capital market tipping point. These need not be official changes to GAAP (the federal standards), although that would be GREAT! As we’ve seen with our 16 philanthropic equity clients, an awful lot can be accomplished simply by adjusting the way today’s standard accounting rules are used to track equity.
Until recently, there was simply no way to distinguish nonprofit “equity” as being different from all the other types of money that flow into a nonprofit organization. There was no way to keep tabs on (a) who is and is not an equity investor, (b) how much equity has been consumed by the organization so far, or (c) whether or not the organization continues to take on more equity, in which case it has not yet achieved its chosen “portrait of sustainability”.
In recent years, we and others have begun to learn that equity accounting actually CAN be applied to nonprofits. Unlike for-profit accounting, it doesn’t track who has first dibs on the distribution of profits — after all, this is philanthropy, and there is no financial return to be had. But it DOES track whether or not the organization has achieved its chosen portrait of sustainability. It DOES answer the question of how much equity has been consumed so far. And, like any good naming opportunity, it DOES document who deserves the financial credit for having built an enduring institution.
Why does this matter?
This isn’t just window dressing, or simply a gimmick for creating more pseudo naming opportunities. Most of all, it is about changing incentives, and, therefore, it is about changing behaviors among key funders. That’s because clear accounting allows equity stakeholders to stay keenly focused, in a measurable way, on protecting the nonprofit’s FUTURE ability to have ongoing impact. (Just as someone who paid for a building is keenly focused on knowing it won’t be crumbling to pieces any time soon!)
Equity accounting also places the equity stakeholders into a single pool. It helps to point out that equity investors act in concert with one another, at the enterprise level, to comprise the nonprofit’s capital structure.
Thus, equity stakeholders (if you are lucky enough to have them!) provide a vital counterbalance to all of the other stakeholders, most of whom act alone (not in concert with others), most of whom seek nearer term results than the equity stakeholders, and most of whom need not contemplate the long-term consequences that their near-term desires may imply.
Please don’t get me wrong! These non-equity stakeholders (I often call them BUYERS) are the lifeblood of any sustainability plan. As BUYERS, who seek to exchange their hard-earned dollars for effective program execution, it is right and good that they demand certain accountabilities. Otherwise, our sector would not be performance-driven:
But for an organization to thrive, it needs a counterbalance to the BUYERS. Equity stakeholders, (when they exist!), provide this counterbalance because they measure success in terms of how much impact the organization makes over the long run. Their presence—and their money—make it POSSIBLE for the organization to push back against unhealthy funding relationships… until healthy and enduring ones can be found. They ask questions like: