ideas

Doug Woodard on Re-Imagining Non-Profits

Grassroots grants often serve as the first seed to broader resident community impact and involvement. This is true for the Battle Creek Community Foundation (BCCF), who discovered that a growing number of their grassroots grants requests were coming from previous grantees. Many of these groups had gained relevant experience through the grassroots grants process, and were now ready to work on more ambitious community-based projects.

In response to this observation, BCCF designed a pilot program, the Neighborhood Venture Investment Program (NVIP) last year to help resident leaders act on their social visions. The program offers business planning, financing, training, and coaching assistance to help take an ambitious idea with a social message and move it forward. Kathy Szenda-Wilson, BCCF’s Director of Neighborhood Programs, is the NVIP director, with an advisory team made up of Petra Jones, Andy Helmboldt, Stacy Wines, and Program Advisor Doug Woodard. The team now seeks to integrate this pilot project formally into the existing neighborhood programs that BCCF offers.

“I think that this is very unique work,” says Woodard. “We’re connecting with grassroots, social entrepreneurs and helping them move to a place of confidence, where they know they can do their work for many years to come.”

Some of the projects they work with include a neighborhood boxing club, a natural food store, a dance studio, a small church, and a skate park. The advisory team helps people create business plans, and designs customized plans of technical assistance as requested by the NVIP project leaders. In addition to the technical support, project leaders receive two years of funding that Woodard says is designed to “put out fires and keep the doors open.” They also participate in monthly NVIP meetings where project leaders and staff have time to “meet, talk about their projects, and most importantly determine how they can help and support each other,” he says.

A former small business owner of 20 years, Woodard says he sees “little difference in working with non-profits as opposed to for-profits, from the perspective of owner passion, persistence, and risk taking.”  However one thing that he feels does distinguish them is the incredible complexity in the start up for a non-profit. “The bar is set so high,” he says. “If I was required to go through all of that to start my own printing company years ago, I never would have.”

Woodard observes that while the ideas behind many non-profits are potentially impactful, the obstacles required for start-up and early operation can be prohibitive. He questions the “rationale and thinking” that forces a typically small, poorly funded, understaffed social enterprise to spend thousands of dollars creating a tax exempt application, or to take the time to secure a host fiduciary. He also questions their need to struggle to assemble and cultivate a board, when expertise and passion lie more in work in the community.

“Let’s not even talk about the current grant funding environment in this poorly performing economy, that leaves the vast majority of small nonprofit enterprises struggling to keep the doors open,” he says.

Woodard and others with the NVIP team recently met to start brainstorming some creative options to the current model. They wondered if it was possible to develop a different framework for establishing and operating a non-profit that would help individuals running them focus more on their mission and less on the stresses of fundraising, board building, or proposal writing.

“Perhaps there is a canon that makes perfect sense to have these regulations and constraints in place,” he says. “But my observation is that the current requirements are so costly and time consuming that we end up having an underground economy, much like what is found in the micro-business sector.”

“So if we question the current structure, what would a different model look like? We’ve coined the phrase ‘re-imagine non-profits’ as a way to summarize this work,” says Woodard.

The team continues to turn over various ideas, and to look for clues and possibilities through the early results they’re seeing with NVIP projects. Possibilities include shared boards, streamlined administrative needs through the operation of a social enterprise incubator, alternative funding commitments with foundations, and better ways to foster meaningful collaboration that are not based on a particular funding stream.

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