#SUSConf2013 – Social Impact Investment Totally Rocks


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You know, about a year ago I was having breakfast with a good friend over at Services for the Underserved – a well established nonprofit social services provider and affordable housing developer (Hi David!) – and we got to talking about corporate social responsibility.  I mean, there are an awful lot of good intentions out there, and a lot of self-serving hoo ha to go right along with it.  Where, we asked, could we have a substantive dialogue that advanced our little sector while addressing the needs of the most vulnerable?

Thus was #SUSConf2013 bornthe SUS Social Impact Investment Conference.  And it’s happening next Wednesday, April 3rd, generously hosted by Bank of America.  There are a few (and I mean a few) tickets left.  Don’t wait.

Thanks to our amazing Advisory Committee and the wonderful board of SUS, we’ve pulled together a really compelling group of presenters.  Speakers and panelists include (in order of appearance):

We’ve been reaching out to lots of very smart folks to create content that’s meaningful, and we’ve heard a bunch of really great ideas.  I wanted to share with you just a tiny bit of the thinking that’s gone into this conference.

Why is SUS hosting this conference? Innovation and change are all around us. SUS strives to play an active role in the trends that shape our collective efforts, and the emerging social impact investment sector holds both promise and challenge.

Nonprofits like SUS are becoming more complex. SUS manages both for-profit and nonprofit entities; makes regular use of structured finance in its work; draws upon management best practices from both the nonprofit and corporate sectors; has earned revenues as an important part of its plan for growth and stability; and can deploy larger capital allocations.  These are all the hallmarks of an emerging class of complex nonprofits that blend a mission orientation with a sharp nose for business and the ability to operate at much greater scale.

For-profit social benefit corporations are both partners and competitors. There are a number of areas (affordable housing, education, healthcare, economic development) where for-profit corporations are taking on work previously provided by nonprofits.  So you’ve got complex nonprofits intersecting more and more with social benefit corporations, or even traditional corporations seeking to meet needs closer to the bottom of the pyramid.

Convergence: It’s Cool

Convergence is good for social impact investment. Where complex nonprofits and social benefit corporations converge investors can frequently find revenue models capable of repaying principal, and even generating returns.

Social impact capital is no panacea. In spite of the opportunities of social impact investment, we must also carefully balance these against the need for grants, contracts, technical assistance and other resources.

Nonprofits need to drive more of the conversation. Nobody understands the needs and challenges of nonprofits better than the nonprofits themselves. By placing the voices of nonprofit leaders front and center on this issue, we’re advancing the entire sector.

We view this conference as a beginning. We hope to carry the ideas, alliances, and aspirations of this conference into an ongoing conversation with you and our collective stakeholders.  We hope to see you there, and thereafter.

The (In)Efficiencies of Scale


When scale goes wrong. Catsonholiday / Instagram

ArtsBlog (the blog of Americans for the Arts) recently hosted a forum called:  “So, Does Size Matter?”  The short answer is hell yes it does, but I disagree with most of the writers about why.  I found the best piece in the series was penned by the whip-smart Ian David Moss (Economies and Diseconomies of Scale in the Arts – Take Two), and it was his post that inspired both me to both write an initial comment, and then to take on the subject more fully below.

You see, Dear Reader, like many of my fellow funders and financiers I’ve often touted the benefits of moving toward greater scale:  improved operational efficiencies, greater programmatic reach, increased access to resources, heavier political punch.  But I’ve also struggled with the oft recognized but seldom addressed reality that scale is not an answer in and of itself, and that sometimes scaled solutions leave even larger problems in their wake.  Thanks to Ian, I think I got the mental kick in the epiphany I needed.

And here’s why I think scale sometimes, well, stinks up the joint.  Continue reading

The Art$ – Part III (Some Easy Fixes)


Art – it makes life more funner.

In my earlier posts on this subject, dear reader, I first endeavored to put a finer point on the more than thousand-fold revenue variation between the largest cultural organizations in NYC, and the median cultural organization. Holy stromboli you say? Yes! While the very largest nonprofit culturals have revenues of more than $300 million annually, more than half the groups in my most recent study had revenues of less than $250 thousand. What’s more, the top five very largest organizations received nearly half of all city funding (their share being a whopping $133 million).
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The Art$, Small Business, and Community Development


Just testifying for the arts, people.

Dear Reader, below you will find testimony that I presented recently before a joint hearing of the New York City Council on the impact of the arts on small businesses and community economic vitality.  You may very well be interested in two previous posts on this subject:  The Art$ (wherein I discuss the economic realities of very small versus very large nonprofit culturals in NYC), and The Art$ – Part II (wherein I dig deeper into how very large nonprofit culturals make their money compared to how small nonprofit culturals do). Continue reading

The Art$


It was weird.

Dear reader, your Man About Town has been to the very precipice, where I stood and looked down.  It was weird.

You see, it all started when some of the lovely folks over at the Municipal Art Society (Hi Mary! Hi Anne!  Hello Vin!), invited me to come and do a research project for them called “Who Pays for the Arts.”  The job was to tool through data provided by the Cultural Data Project (CDP) and better understand how arts organizations in NYC make their money.  To whit:  in order to apply for public funding in NYC, you have to submit, like, a gajillion data points to CDP.

Exciting!  Data geek that I am my little heart just fluttered with glee.  Numbers!  Charts!  Oh yeah!  Uh huh!  That’s right!

So I started digging through the data and the very first question I asked was, you know, what does the distribution curve look like?  Given that I’m looking at total 2010 revenues for 723 organizations, and that the whole group all mushed together made $2.5 billion, how many groups are on the high end, how many in the middle, and how many on the low end?

And this is what I found: Continue reading

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s… What the Hell Is That?


Also posted in my guest blog on Rooflines.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… What the hell is that?

In my last blog post I spent a good chunk of time talking about the trend toward “complexification” in the nonprofit sector.  There are plenty of small, scrappy, neighborhood based nonprofits around (as a matter of fact, that number continues to grow), but we’ve also seen the emergence of nonprofits with $100 million plus in annual revenues, hundreds of staff, sophisticated operational structures, and highly complex financial instruments built to conduct their business.

I argued that we’re past due in borrowing some tools from our for-profit colleagues, including stronger staff development and retention regimens, the ability to access substantial capital for opportunistic growth, shaping board relationships that focus on organizational development and not just fiduciary oversight, and developing a nonprofit sector trade association to lobby on the collective needs and issues of our sector.

We’re clearly entering a new era that will continue to blur the lines between for-profit and nonprofit.  And let’s be honest:  it’s a little scary.  Why?  Because we’re all very worried that we might somehow become like, you know, them.

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The Complexification of the Nonprofit Sector


This post also available on Rooflines.  

“Substrate” by Jared Tarbell

Intuitively, just from being around the nonprofit sector for a stretch, it’s easy to tell that things have gotten more, well, complicated.  Organizations are bigger, operations more tentacled, financial tools more wonky, budgets bigger and bigger.  And don’t just take my word for it.  Thanks to the lovely folks at the Standford Social Innovation Review you can enjoy this whole, provocative article: “Why More Nonprofits Are Getting Bigger.”  

The problem is, I don’t think we’ve really done a good job of keeping up with our own complexification.   Continue reading

In Praise of (Stinky, Noisy) Bars


Reposted from Rooflines.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper

The vaunted “third space” isn’t home, and isn’t work – it’s more like the living room of society at large.  It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect.  It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection.  It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle.

And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar. Continue reading

What’s Next in Arts and Economic Development


Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.

My latest rock musical: The Bowery Wars (Part II)

There’s something you should know about me:  I’m a professional amateur.  For the past 7 years I’ve been composing and performing music in original theater works with my wife’s company, Downtown Art.  We’ve just opened our latest piece, Bowery Wars (Part 2), a rock musical about the history of the Lower East Side 100 years ago, Tammany Hall politics, gang warfare, and Romeo & Juliet.  It rocks, and yes you should come see it.

But I’m not just here to flog my latest masterpiece.  We professional amateurs are artists who fly under the radar.  We don’t make our livelihood from our art.  We do other things to put bread and butter together.  I happen to be a highly compensated community development consultant, but many of my peers are dog walkers, administrative assistants, massage therapists, and restaurant workers.  (By the way, in another shameless plug, you should check out my brother Dan’s blog on the lives of restaurant workers and artists in Chicago).  I also serve on the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group, and I’m currently doing some research for the Municipal Art Society on revenue trends for the nonprofit cultural sector.  In my previous work I ran an “Arts and Economic Development” giving strategy from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation along with my colleagues Gary, Alessandra and Sam (hi guys!).

All in all, you might say I have a rather engaged perspective on the question of where arts and economic development intersect, and where they don’t.  There are four major trends right now in NYC. Continue reading

NYC’s Philanthropic Bagel Hole


Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.  

New York City has everything, just like this bagel.  Yum!  The secret, as they say, is in the water.  And water, as they say, is life.

But there’s a hole in the bagel, dear Liza, dear Liza.

When I first came to NYC, still wet behind the ears and tasked with helping distribute money from Deutsche Bank’s foundation, I was sent to meetings.  Lots of meetings.  Very interesting meetings, where the community development banking luminaries of the day would hold court:  Carol Parry, Phyllis Rosenbloom, Mark Willis, Marc Jahr, Bob Rosenbloom, Michael Feller, Greg King, Hildy Simmons, Gary Hattem.  Or other meetings, where the United Way, Ford or Rockefeller called the tune, and the jolly members of NYRAG would troop in to talk about the inner workings of domestic microfinance, workforce development, educational reform, financial literacy, homeownership, arts and economic development, you name it.  There was a palpable core of philanthropic leadership really focused on the challenges of the city, and they held significant mass.  Their effect was gravitational: where they led, others followed.  They drove discussion, led thinking, catalyzed partnerships, commanded attention.  You may not have loved what they thought, or how they went about things, but their presence was manifest, and their impact was broad.

New York City still has the strongest and most vibrant philanthropic community in the country.  It’s still provides enormous leadership in social investment strategies, community development finance, building public / private partnerships, and program innovation.  But something has changed.  Over the years, there’s been a growing vacancy in the focus on New York City itself: on its systems, challenges, nonprofit leaders, and neighborhoods.

In short, despite the incredible presence of philanthropic leadership and resource, the attention has moved elsewhere.  I’m not sure that most folks have even noticed.  It’s been a creeping drift, a steady ebb.  A spreading hole in the center of our little everything bagel universe.

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