The charity sector urgently needs leaders to challenge the traditional practices of funders and investors.
I’ve been working in the social sector for over a decade now. In that time I’ve rarely come across leaders willing to confront a difficult question—a question that has become a growing concern for me: Do the rules of the charity funding game work in favour of, or against, charities’ ultimate mission to improve lives and society?
So I was thrilled when Clara Miller—one of the few commentators to explicitly challenge the way that charities’ funding works—agreed to be a keynote speaker at this year’s NPC Ignites conference.
Clara has a distinguished career in the social sector. She was founder President and CEO of the US Nonprofit Finance Fund, which she ran for 26 years before taking on her current role as President of the Heron Foundation—also US based. NPC has spoken before about how UK funders could learn a lot from their counterparts across the pond, so it’s great that she is able to join us in person, rather than by video conference as originally planned.
I hope we will collectively take up the gauntlet Clara throws down, to help reshape the rules of the game for the social sector.
Anyone who wants to get to know Clara’s views, and have a taste of what I’m certain will be an electrifying keynote at NPC Ignites, would do well to read one of her seminal speeches or articles. Start with the brilliant speech, published by Nonprofit Finance Fund in 2005, The looking-glass world of nonprofit money. This ‘looking glass world’ refers to the fact that when we step into the charity sector, we give up our rational logic and confront a set of rules that challenge our ability to deliver social impact.
In this ‘other’ world that is the non-profit sector, we do not see overheads as the cost of doing business effectively—instead we seek to strip them away to the bone. Our customers do not make decisions about how well our products and services meet their needs—instead we outsource these decisions to third parties who may or may not seek any input from those customers. And instead of investing in the infrastructure we need to do our work, we operate without any, because no one sees the value of it.
Another great piece to learn from—and to see how Clara’s thinking and practice has evolved—is Building a foundation for the 21st century. This paper outlines the Heron Foundation’s thinking and strategy. Best of all, it challenges other foundations to consider their work in a context much broader than their own resources, programmes and decisions.
The charity sector urgently needs leaders to challenge the traditional practices and assumptions of funders and investors. If you can make it to NPC Ignites on 12 October, I guarantee you will hear Clara Miller’s challenge to us all, loud and clear. And I hope we will collectively take up the gauntlet she throws down, to help reshape the rules of the game for the social sector.