Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine interviews Bill Toliver

Soon to appear at the Fundraising Forum in August, Bill Toliver challenges nonprofits to shed the limitations of good stewardship and become courageous agents of change.

You are an advocate for the need for charity and nonprofit organisations to change the way they operate and even perceive themselves. Why is this?

At the risk of seeming a bit hyperbolic, my advocacy work is born from a belief that we are at a turning point in human history.

In every corner of the Earth there are shining examples of global activism, people discovering their own potential to change their plight, and advances in technology and science that offer new hope for a brighter future. Yet, at the same time, there is ample evidence of the all-too-familiar backlash that can happen as power structures shift, some feel left behind, and uncertainty is replaced by fear.

There has never been a better or more important time for social impact organisations to influence the direction human history will turn – but the nonprofit sector is, in many ways, constrained by rules and habits.

All our organisations were founded to do profoundly important things. But, today, it can feel like a higher value is being placed on being ‘good stewards’ of other people’s money, rather than courageous agents of change.

Why, for example, is a nonprofit’s effectiveness defined by how little resources it “wastes” on overhead, rather than the innovation and impact of its work? If that were the primary measure of success of a tech company, we’d still be using manual typewriters and dreaming about space flight.

In for-profit terms, the way we measure success almost guarantees that NGOs are relegated to efficient ‘manufacturing and distribution’ of what is already proven, rather than ‘research and development’ of new possibilities.

So, at a time when we need courage and leadership more than ever, we have efficiency, sustainability, and incrementalism.

What kinds of things do charities and nonprofits need to be changing right now to ensure they remain relevant and sustainable?

We have to become uncomfortable with incremental progress. We have to think in orders of magnitude, rather than fractions of each dollar spent. Today, 10X thinking is not only possible, it is essential. We have to take this time of transition and turn it into a time for transformation.

Not just taking advantage of the many opportunities to do new things, but to live up to our obligation to think in new ways. To see our work – and the challenges we face – in a completely different light.

What I am talking about is reigniting the heart and soul of our organisations.

To me relevance and sustainability are not goals, they are simply indicators. If you are struggling with relevance and sustainability, you have to look at that.

And I am not talking about ‘random acts of disruption’ here. What I am talking about is reigniting the heart and soul of our organisations. Empowering our people to ask the right questions – and giving them the freedom to find the right answers wherever they can be found. To do whatever must be done.

This is not a time to reinvent our missions, it is a time to reinvest in them. To admit that the constant pressures of fundraising and public opinion and business-like behavior have subtly, but surely, taken us off our path. We must see our mission as both a goal and a tool to drive every element of our organisations so everyone and everything is oriented toward the only thing that matters.

Which nonprofits (either locally or globally) do you consider to be leaders in adapting and evolving to become the nonprofit organisation of the future? What are they doing that sets them apart?

It is such an interesting question these days as lines are getting blurred by an ever-growing list of social enterprises and hybrid models. I find it very compelling that Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, for example, recently decided the best way to create social change would be to “invest” tens of billions (USD) in a limited liability company, rather than give it to a foundation or charity so they would be less constrained by the rules and habits that govern our sector.

In terms of larger INGOs, it feels like Mercy Corps is a great example of an organisation stepping into an ever-greater role as leader and change agent. Even more exciting to me are what might be considered “micro-organisations” that are punching well above their weight.

All Out is a nimble nonprofit that leverages partners, grassroots activism, technology, and the talent of their 10 or 20 people to fight for the rights of LGBTQ people around the world. In Australia, I am a particular fan of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance who nearly single-handedly built a grass roots movement of people with CP around the world for World CP Day.

When it comes to donors specifically, what do charity and nonprofit orgs need to change to keep donors engaged?

These days conventional wisdom suggests that donors are like well-educated consumers, and that we must endeavor to satisfy their desire for more data and program specificity. To me it feels that this idea may be better proof that fundraising experts have gotten a bit too much advice from experts in marketing and sales.

The more we see ourselves asking for transactions – by selling features and benefits of our “nonprofit product,” and offering incentives to “act now” – the more we should be asking ourselves if we have begun to drift from our real purpose.

Our work is not to sell, it is to recruit. To ask people to become a part of something. To become active participants (if only through donations) of something that we can believe in and achieve together. Too many of us have become accustomed to creating a hyped-up sense of urgency instead of a moral imperative to act. We have become accustomed to playing to lowest common denominator emotions, rather than calling upon peoples’ highest selves.

Again, our job is not to present facts in a way that accommodate the interests and fads of consumers – like adapting to the infamous “short attention span” of millennials. Our job is to speak about powerful human truths that transcend those fads and self-interests.

How do you see donor communications changing in the near and medium-term future?

Rather than seeing every constituent group in their own silo and developing unique messages and tactics for each, the opportunity is to understand that while some language and data points might be different, the moral to the story is actually the same. In fact, the moral to your story is the same thing that attracts the best and brightest employees and keeps them coming to work each day, drives strategic decisions, and raises record funding. It’s the underlying truth that can sometimes get obscured by all the facts.

So, my hope is that we will spend less time “segmenting” people (which is rooted in a kind of division) and more time focused on building a thriving, vibrant community. Seeing our constituents as part of a whole – where everyone feels a sense of shared ownership for the issue and kinship with each other.

When it comes to fundraising specifically, which organisations (locally or globally) do you think are evolving into stronger organisations?

There are a number of organisations around the world that have begun to develop powerful hybrid models that incorporate individual fundraising, corporate and foundation support with excellent social enterprise work. FareStart is an organisation in my hometown (Seattle, Washington) that does amazing work training the homeless, people in recovery, and those formerly incarcerated to become top-tier workers in the food service industry. They not only raise record-setting amounts of money, they operate some of the more popular (and profitable) restaurants, catering, and corporate food service operations in our region.

I also remain a big fan of Greenpeace, which continues to do an outstanding job using new media tools to better connect with and activate their global social movement. They have never had the compulsion to adapt their mission to a money source, because every penny they raise is driven by a passionate community of people who are with Greenpeace because of mission.

Culture plays a big role in the success of any organisation. What are the key aspects of culture that can transform nonprofits?

Leadership, strategy, operations, culture, programs, voice, and even resourcing are not different components of a machine that can be fixed separately and discretely. They are like vital organs in a living organism.

Meaningful transformation of an organisation is analogous to an organism undergoing a metamorphosis. Successful leadership through this chrysalis process requires an integrated, systemic understanding of how all the organs in an organisation must evolve – together. And the courage to realise that the greatest catalyst for that reinvention will be found in a recommitment to the sacred principles and values that gave the organisation life in the first place.

When it comes to building support and acquiring new donors, what should nonprofits be doing to be more successful?

Today we have tools that Gandhi would have killed for and we are only just now beginning to leverage their truest potential. We should celebrate the Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, for being both clever and hugely successful. But it was just that: clever. We need to excel at taking the digital and social media platforms that were developed with a consumer-orientation and turn them into more powerful tools to create social change. We have the ability to bring people together around things that matter. To create real, sustainable, manageable movements on behalf of our causes.

If we all get our heads and hearts wrapped around that possibility, I have high confidence that history will continue to progress toward an ever more just, equitable and healthy world.

Bill Toliver will speak at the 2018 Fundraising Forum, held from 28–30 August in Sydney. For more information visit the conference section of the F&P website.

Republished with permission from Fundraising & Philanthropy, all rights reserved.

Bill Toliver
Executive Director
The Matale Line

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