Hopped up on coffee and ideas

Coffee and meetingsThis morning I hustled up to Genuine Joe’s to meet Matt Kouri, Ann Starr and Haila Yates of Greenlights. Then down to Scholz’s to meet Jason Denny of the Austin Jaycees. Then to Lift to meet Priscilla Cortez and her new daughter, Isabella, of FuturoFund this afternoon. And I am still wide awake and hopped up, man.

It’s great to ramp up GivingCity and soak up all that positive, “be the change” energy again. It reminds me of why I wanted to do this in the first place. I could stay up and work all night! Yes, the caffeine has something to do with it, but what really gets me hopped up are the people.

The fact is, I get to talk to some of the best people in Austin almost every day. Smart, interesting people who care deeply about the city and spend significant time and energy working to make it better. I sit across from them at those tiny coffee shop tables, listen for the clues and put them down in my handy-dandy notebook as fast as I can.

Do you work around smart people who inspire you every day?


Don’t forget!

  • Greenlights & OneStar team up to bring us the Texas Nonprofit Summit, September 23-24 here in Austin.
  • The last opportunity to become a member of this year’s FuturoFund is to make your pledge by July 31. FF will choose its grant winners this November.

It’s going to be a fun fall.

Are there too many nonprofits in Austin?

This article first appeared in GivingCity Austin #3 magazine. To download the entire magazine, click here.
The data referred to in this article can be accessed via Greenlights here.

The data is in – the Austin community has more nonprofits per capita than any other city in Texas. Now what should we do about it?

We demand efficiency from nonprofits, requiring them to do more with less – and these days to do even more with even less. So when we see two or more nonprofits with the exact same mission, going after the same donations from the same people, we might wonder why they don’t join forces.  We might also wonder how they survive in this economy. Inevitably, the market will take care of it, right? Just as it does in the for-profit world?

Well, sometimes the market doesn’t  take care of it. That’s because nonprofits aren’t fueled by just donations, they’re also fueled by passion – which is sometimes all you need to keep your organization going. And thank goodness for that; we’d be in serious trouble if it weren’t for volunteers and underpaid nonprofit professionals. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself, as a donor or a volunteer, “Am I supporting a nonprofit that shouldn’t exist?”

Austin has more nonprofits per capita than any other city in the Texas. Which means we’re caring and entrepreneurial on the one hand, but probably frustrated and disillusioned on the other. When someone starts a nonprofit it means they feel there’s a need in the community that’s not being met And while one can appreciate their energy, it takes more than a 501c3 classification from the IRS to be an effective nonprofit in the long-term.

We asked five nonprofit advisors their views on the issue; these aren’t just nonprofiteers, rather they’re people in the position of changing the way Austin nonprofits work as a community. Here’s what they had to say.

Deborah Edward of RGK Center

Deborah Edward professor at the RGK Center, a nationally recognized philanthropy think-tank.

The idea that there are too many nonprofits in Austin is a refrain. But while we complain about it, a city like Boston boasts about it.

From our perspective that means we’re not thinking collaborations or efficiencies. We’re not taking advantage of opportunities. In business, these new ideas for a company come up, and you get investment bankers invested so they can see the idea, and in the end, everybody makes money and everybody’s happy.

But in the nonprofit world, we don’t have those investment bankers…except for these funders. They are in the wonderful position to respond to these new nonprofits and say, “Hey, why don’t you get together?” I bet you can find a number of funders that have experience asking two organizations to merge, but the lessons learned are kept within the family. They don’t have a forum to share those stories and encourage people to think differently about going from the initial idea of merging to creating a program that’s sustainable.

I think we need to map the different nonprofits visually in terms of access, value, and fees you can see distinct dimensions … but who’s going to make that happen? The funder’s in the position because he gets 20 groups that knock on his door, and he can do a better comparison than the groups on the ground. It’s not that he has the responsibility to do it, but he does have the opportunity.

Greenlights has done a great job of helps nonprofits discover opportunities for synergy. But otherwise there’s nobody driving the train. The Austin Community Foundation would be a great place, though traditionally it has been donor centered. The Community Action Network or the United Way have that macro view that could be enlisted to help with this. The zeitgeist is to say that there are too many nonprofits. The challenge is to flip that and say, “We are the best connected system of nonprofits in the United States.”

Matt Kouri of Greenlights

Matt Kouri, executive director of Greenlights, which helps Central Texas nonprofits by providing consulting, resources, and nonprofit training in areas from fundraising to how to start a nonprofit.

What’s most remarkable about this data we’ve put together is that it validates what I’ve been hearing from funders anecdotally – that we do have a disproportionate share of nonprofit organizations, especially compared to other cities of similar make-up. The data for Austin is not totally inconsistent with what we see in other communities. And we might have a disproportionately large share of nonprofits that don’t serve Central Texas solely or that serve all of Texas. But we share the belief with donors that having too many nonprofits is a problem.

That being said, there are some positive sides to having so many. It can mean that more is being done in our community and that there’s lots of innovative problem solving at work. But it can also mean there are some redundancies and inefficiencies in the sector.

The silver lining in this down economy is that it might force more nonprofits to realize that they can’t cut it on their own and maybe it’s time for them to make some hard decisions. That’s our hope. I can think of at least 10 different organizations now that really need to do it, and they’ve needed to do it for a long time, yet they continue to bang their head against the same wall every year.

As to who’s responsible for identifying and leading these mergers and collaboration, I think funders need to be careful. They aren’t at the street level. They can demand and expect results and impact but it’s the nonprofit’s job to make sure those dollars are spent accordingly. At the same time, funders can exhibit influence over their grantees, especially when they see logical opportunities for collaborations.

Greenlights is investing a lot of time into this issue this year. We worked with RGK to develop a continuum of steps nonprofits can take in terms of strategic consolidation. A lot of nonprofits are already engaged in some form of collaboration, which donors may not realize. But there needs to be a lot more, and it needs to move further down the continuum toward merger.

People who follow the nonprofit sector know that in 2010 it’s going to see some radical changes. We want to help make that change intentional as opposed to just happening to us.

Barry Silverberg of TANO

Barry Silverberg , president and CEO of Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations, a statewide organization that offers training and support to Texas nonprofits and individuals who want to start a nonprofit.

Personally, I don’t believe in the numbers games because they’re always a function of who’s asking the question. I’m also not concerned with donors who believe they are getting too many requests. I encourage them to make their requirements more clear.

I don’t believe it’s our responsibility to eliminate those choices. Obviously funders can openly decide the fate of the industry by not giving funds, but I don’t believe they’re in the position to say what a nonprofit should do to be more effective. I think the question should be, “How do we get nonprofits to be more effective?”

TANO believe individuals have the right and the means to create better possibilities to serve the community. We help people understand the issue and determine if the best response is to create a nonprofit. From there, we emphasize what it means to run an effective nonprofit.

I think the nonprofit sector has a significant advantage in that people engaged in that sector are able to “do good,” and I don’t think we do enough to leverage that. There are probably too many nonprofits that are ineffective… because they ignore the stuff that could help them be more effective. I also think that funders need to strike a balance between the information they can gather quantitatively on the various forms they use, with the information they gather qualitatively. The fact is, some folks aren’t as good as completing a grant application – but they have a passion that’s unbelievable. That passion, if it’s combined with skill sets and competencies, will result in something effective if it’s guided and focused.

Janet Harman of KDK-Harman Foundation Austin

Janet Harman , founder, and Jenifer Esterline, program officer, KDK-Harman Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on education for economically disadvantaged Central Texans.

Harman : It’s a complex issue because at first glance one would say there are so many that we should consolidate and reduce. However, there’s a lot of room for creativity, so squashing that innovation would be a mistake.

We have actually brought several national nonprofits to Austin, so I couldn’t very well argue that there are too many nonprofits here.

I really think it’s the job of a lot of area foundations and organizations like the Austin Community Foundation and Greenlights, to point out where there is some opportunity to optimize by merger.

We reach out to other funders on a regular basis. In fact, we co-founded an education funders group, Central Texas Education Funders, a little over a year ago. We meet every other month and there are 30 members. One of the projects we’re working on is to put together a matrix of our fundraising efforts to identify the gaps.

Esterline: The model for Central Texas Education Funders is based on the Ready by 21 Coalition, which put together this matrix identifying common indicators, and we’re trying to create a similar one for the funding community. It would help us, but it would also help the nonprofits; they create about 15 different reports to different foundations, so we’re doing this to learn what they’re doing and how they can do it better. Then the other part of that is communicating this information.

As far as whether there are too many nonprofits in Austin, I would say that we are not overwhelmed with requests, but we are pretty focused on what we fund. In conversations among the education funders, we see that everyone’s funding the same nonprofits. They’ve been identified as effective and able to show their impact, so they rise to the top every time.

Everyone has the responsibility to collaborate and communicate. The new face of philanthropy is more transparent, more cooperative. A lot of our colleagues are embracing this because of people like Janet Harman who are young, entrepreneurial, and have a new way of thinking about philanthropy.

To see a list of existing nonprofit collaborations in Austin, click here.

NEW! GivingCity Austin Issue 3

 GivingCity Austin Issue 3 cover

CLICK HERE to download

(file size 14 mb – download time 10 sec.)

Thanks for your feedback! Post a comment below.

Inside this issue:

The New Philanthropists
We photograph the young, active, and engaged people making a difference in Austin now.

Are There Too Many Nonprofits in Austin?
“Yes, no… maybe. That depends.”  We let the experts have their say.

Unscripted Collaboration
The We Are One video proves nonprofits can – and do – work together.

Tom Spencer on Austin’s philanthropic culture.
An all-girls football game for charity.
What you don’t know about Goodwill.
The “social entrepreneur” poster child.
What’s so cool about Leadership Austin?
Teaching philanthropy in schools.
New Austin-born films about giving.
Mando Rayo’s argument for social media.
Katie Ford’s encounter with the convicted.
DJ Stout’s SIGNS for change.
…and photos from the fundraising event, Austin Under 40.

SEND THIS ISSUE to a friend.

What is Greenlight’s new 501 Council?

Kim Wilson, director of development for Greenlights, let me in on the scoop behind that organization’s new 501 Council. Here’s what she said.

1. What’s the goal of 501 Council?
The 501 Council is a forum for individuals who are giving back with their time, expertise and/or financial resources, or those who are looking for ways to do so to learn, engage and have a direct impact effectively.  Operative word is the last one in the sentence….
2. Why should people support Greenlights as opposed to supporting a charity? 
Well first, Greenlights IS a charity, and in order to provide the low-cost, high quality services that we do, we have to raise money from those in the community who understand that strong, high-performing nonprofits are better able to use the resources at their disposal to achieve their desired impact. 
If your question was… “Why support Greenlights rather than a charity that is providing direct service to individuals in the community?” — well, of course I have an answer to that, too. …

There is a difference between funding direct service provision (which is what I think you’re alluding to here) and investing in the underlying strength and sustainability of the organizations that provide those services. I could get really long-winded with this topic, but the core argument –
1.    Central Texas is increasingly struggling to meet the quality of life needs of its citizens as population growth continues to boom.
2.    High-performing nonprofits are critical to meeting community needs and building a strong Central Texas.
3.    In order for nonprofit staff and boards to make wise decisions about where they are headed, where to cut costs (as many are having to consider now), where to invest additional resources, etc. – they need access to expert guidance, high-quality training and tools to improve their performance and impact.
4.    If Greenlights did not exist, they would not have access to these services.  We are the only provider of high-quality, low-cost expert guidance to nonprofit leaders in Central Texas.
5.    We also strengthen the community’s relationship with, and investment in, area nonprofits through our board matching and community outreach efforts (of which the 501 Council is one), and finally
6.    And finally, we fill an important role of catalyzing systemic change by raising community awareness of, interest in and action around issues that are important to the sector.
3. What’s the value in forming this as a “council” as opposed to your traditional outreach for donations?
Couple of answers to this:
·         This is about more than generating donations from Greenlights.  It’s about training and engaging a group of young, successful business professionals effectively in the work of the nonprofit sector.
·         But on the fundraising for Greenlights side of things, it’s ALSO a way to engage a group of current and future community leaders in the work of Greenlights.  Many of the individuals who were invited have expressed interest in volunteering with us in some way.  Unlike many nonprofits, we don’t have easy ways through our current programming to use volunteers.  But the 501 Council format is a great way to engage those who are interested in our work, and down the road, when they are serving on the boards of other nonprofits… hopefully they will think of us when the organization has a training or consulting need.
4. How can someone join the council? Do they have to be a Greenlights member?
They do not need to be a Greenlights member; they just need to be interested in learning how to give back effectively, and committing time and a relatively small financial contribution ($250 / year) to doing so.  You can read more about the expectations for members here. Greenlights will kick things off with a launch party on April 8th. 

Interested? Contact Kim Wilson at Greenlights to learn more and get an official inviation to the launch party. I’ll see you there!

How to be a young, nonprofit board member

You’re young – in your 20s or 30s. You’ve recently started on your professional path. Maybe you’re new to Austin. And you’ve decided that you want to get involved, but seriously involved – like at the board level. What next? 


Hal Meyer, Ronda Rutledge, Heather Davies Bernard, Heather McKissick and Abby Williamson

Hal Meyer, Ronda Rutledge, Heather Davies Bernard, Heather McKissick and Abby Williamson

More than 25 people attended the Greenlights Lunch & Learn event today at Leadership Austin, which included a panel discussion on the merits of young board members to nonprofits and what it takes to become one. Panelists included Heather Davies Bernard, a young, Sustainable Food Center board member; Hal Meyer, a young-at-heart Any Baby Can board member; Heather McKissick, the new president and CEO of Leadership Austin; Ronda Rutledge, executive director of Sustainable Food Center; and Abby Williamson, communications for People’s Community Clinic, serving as moderator. Mary Alice Carnes of Greenlights was hostess.

Here are some notes from the panel discussion. 

Fulfilling the financial commitment

The panel seemed to agree that having younger people on the board did not negatively affect the organization financially. Rutledge said that young people seem to be as connected as older board members, “They have so many people at their fingertips, and they bring them to the organization.” Bernard agreed, saying that when she sought out a board, the financial commitment was one gauge by which she would make her decision. “My husband and I are not yet in the position to write the checks we want to write in our hearts.” Later, Bernard brought up that social networking sites actually increased the number of her connections exponentially. 

McKissick of Leadership Austin weighed in, saying “I’m not underestimating the spending power of this group.” She noted that some young professionals don’t hesitate to spend $75 in one night at a restaurant.So that the financial commitments of board service shoulnd’t scare them away. (Comment from the crowd: “Hmmm, beer or board?”)

Both Any Baby Can and Sustainable Food Center ask board members to make a financial commitment, framed as a “give and get” – meaning the board member gives some and seeks out the rest in donations. At Sustainable Food Center, board members are responsible for $250 personally and $750 to “get.” Any Baby Can board members must raise $2000 in the same way. “We try to give them a number of ideas for ways to do this,” said Meyer.

Finding a good fit

McKissick offered a rule of thumb for young people trying to find their role on a board: “Don’t do your day job.”

“I think that some people assume that, because they’re an accountant during the day, then that’s what they should do for their board.” She said a person should instead consider taking on a role that matches an outside interest, say PR or leading a committee. “It works out great that way. They’re interested. They’re committed.” 

Bernard, the young board member, agreed. She told the story of how she first met Rutledge, Sustainable Food Center executive director, and went on and on about her outside interests. “Okay, I’m a lawyer, but forget about that.” 

“I had a sense I should choose something that would stimulate my other interests,” said Bernard. 

How to get on a nonprofit board

The panel offered a number of ways to get started. 

McKissick: “Apply to the Leadership Austin Emerge program! Find a way to connect with the community so that you learn more about what your passion is. What lights you up when it comes to community?”

Rutledge: “Attend a Greenlights board workshop. You can even attend a nonprofit board meeting. They’re supposed to be open to the public.” (GC suggests you contact the executive director ahead of time to politely invite yourself and express your interest.)

Bernard: “Talk to people. Look at Facebook and LinkedIn and get introduced. Then take that person to coffee and just pick their brain.”

Meyer: “If someone has never been on a board and doesn’t have experience with the organization, they should volunteer. It’s an excellent way to take that first step toward being on the board.”