Use Graphs to Talk About Financials

To make good financial decisions, nonprofit executives and board members first need access to good data.  Second, they need to be able to come to an informed consensus on what that data is telling them.  But getting from step one to step two can be a challenge if not everybody feels completely comfortable analyzing financial spreadsheets.

Presenting data with graphs alongside your spreadsheets can be a useful tactic for bridging the gap between a page full of numbers and a fruitful strategic discussion.  I often find that presenting data visually provides a more intuitive venue for absorbing information such as trends over time or the way individual parts of the enterprise add up to a whole.

All you need to start is the relevant data and access to spreadsheet software that can make graphs.  I find that MS Excel's graphing functionality is the most flexible, but free options like Google Sheets and OpenOffice can get the job done too - especially for simple presentations like the ones above.  If you're not familiar with how to use the graphing function of your software, there's no shortage of free tutorials online.

Here are a few tips for good use of graphs:

  • Graphs are a great way to show the relationship between two or more sets of data.  Just don't try to cram too much into one picture or you'll create more confusion than clarity.
  • Use design elements to differentiate between different kinds of data that appear in the same graph.  For example, in the revenue graph above the "Total" line is dotted to differentiate it from its constituent parts.  Again, don't go overboard here.
  • Be mindful of scale.  If you Include both very large and very small numbers in the same graph will mean you can only really scan the large ones.  This can be a useful design strategy when done intentionally, but doesn't work if you need to be able to see how the small numbers change over time.
  • If you're designing graphs in color, make sure any hard copies you provide are also printed in color or they're almost guaranteed to be unreadable.

Anybody have particularly imaginative ways of presenting financial data graphically?  Any major pitfalls you've fallen victim to? 

Budgeting for Uncertainty

As we enter the new calendar year, it’s possible that many of us are still wrestling with our 2015 annual budget.  Depending on the kind of organization we work for and the business lines that support it, budgeting can involve a wide range of issues.  For example, you might have to nail down sales projections, consider the likelihood of receiving a major grant, plan out staff increases in response to growth, or price out an IT upgrade.  But regardless of the particular questions you’re working through, there’s one thing that’s going to be pretty constant: uncertainty.

The budgeting process is an exercise in trying to predict the future, so there will inherently be places where the black and white numbers on the page belie grayer areas in our actual expectations for the coming year.  The need to put definitive numbers against an indefinite situation have the potential to cause a bit of budgeting paralysis, but there are strategies you can use to gain clarity and confidence.

Maintaining Realism

It can be tempting to start the revenue budgeting process by identifying your financial needs, then backing into numbers that depict those needs being conveniently met. This kind of aspirational process often leads to a budget that looks great on paper but will ultimately bear little resemblance to the actual year ahead.  That document will not be a helpful tool for ongoing management and planning.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind in order to make sure you’re building a reality-based budget:

  • Stay on the conservative side of reasonable.  When estimating unknowns, aim to depict the most conservative scenario that remains within the bounds of what might reasonably occur.  This means estimating revenue on the low side and expenses on the high side.  This isn’t to say that you should base your budget on a worst case scenario, but if your baseline allows you to navigate through tougher conditions, you run a better chance of only needing to course correct in response to positive surprises.
  • Be clear about what you do and don’t control.  Early on in the process identify the areas where revenue and expenses are truly fixed, the areas where you can make relatively easy adjustments to respond to uncertainty, and the areas where you could make difficult adjustments if necessary.  This way, you’ll be able to focus your efforts on manipulating a smaller set of numbers.
  • Build on concrete.  Basing your budget figures on abstract assumptions about growth percentages is unlikely to yield realistic results.  Instead, build your budget from the bottom up with clear data on what happened last year and what specific drivers will lead those numbers to change in the year ahead. Note: Do still adjust for inflation.

Understand What Success Looks Like

Be clear about what you ultimately need your budget to do for you this year.  Zeroing out revenue and expenses to break even is often not sufficient for organizations that need to pay down debt or build funds for investment in future growth or help mitigate financial risk.  This goes for nonprofits just as much as for-profit businesses.

Consider Multiple Scenarios

Even though you’ll need to settle on one primary budget for the year, it can be useful to work out one or more alternate versions in order to get a handle on how you’ll manage if circumstances turn out differently than expected.  For example, proactively planning how you could navigate through an unfavorable scenario can help you avoid scrambling to cut spending quickly toward the end of the year if revenue comes in lower than expected.  And here’s the really important part: all scenarios, from best case to worst case, should fit within an overall vision for maintaining long-term financial sustainability.

Use Your Budget in Ongoing Planning

Regardless of how your upfront budgeting process is structured, you can maintain the budget as a relevant planning tool throughout the year by undertaking a structured reforecasting process.  On a quarterly basis (or even monthly if you’re going through a rough patch) you can update your budget based on what’s actually come to pass since the beginning of the year and determine whether you need to change course in order to hit sustainable year end results.

Innovation or Wishful Thinking?

One of the projects I most frequently undertake with nonprofits these days is evaluating new revenue strategies in hopes of finding creative ways cover costs.  More often than not, we take on this work because the organization is facing  declines in its familiar funding sources like government contracts or philanthropic grants.  By seeking out new ways of doing business, these nonprofits are engaging the spirit of innovation so often championed by our sector’s publications and conferences.  Yet viable new financial models regularly remain frustratingly elusive, even after diligent analysis.  What’s going wrong?  In some cases it’s likely that nonprofit leaders just haven’t identified the winning strategy yet.  But more often I believe the problem lies with an unrealistic set of expectations set by the sector’s culture of capital-I Innovation.

Beyond just pursuing something new and creative, Innovation in the nonprofit sector carries more particular meanings. The culture of Innovation generally insists that the shortest route to achieving both effective social change and financially sustainable mission-driven institutions involves breaking free from the traditional philanthropy- and government-dependent nonprofit structures.  Novel combinations of market-based revenue models, performance measurement, social media, and impact investing are supposed to provide clear and implementable solutions so long as management and boards can break free of outdated and sector-siloed mindsets.  Unfortunately, however, I don’t think this kind of Innovation is likely to produce a series of eureka moments that decisively revitalize the nonprofit sector, or that it should be the first line of defense for nonprofits facing financial challenges.

This isn’t just because nonprofits are doing Innovation wrong.  Rather, there’s a problem at the heart of Innovation culture that makes it strategically ineffective for a wide swath of the sector.  Take for example the argument made in a 2012 article in Jacobin magazine article entitled “Against Innovation”.  Writing about a competition at Harvard to propose 500-word innovative solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Simon Waxman writes:

Here as ever, innovation itself is the solution. Once we have innovated, intractable problems will disappear, and the struggle to overcome them will dissolve…Our seemingly insurmountable disagreements reflect what we think of as real ethical and ideological difference. The innovation ethos says that these differences are in fact insubstantial and that there is a solution we will all agree to if only we can think of it and engineer it into existence.

More recently, Amy Schiller’s piece on friction in social change notes a shift in the social sector that inherently values innovation, even when those innovations undercut democracy.

With an increasing focus on private institutions, and a fetishization of data in place of nuanced cultural narrative and history, private power has sold itself as more capable of advancing the social good than either public institutions or collective action. In the absence of obligatory transparency or accountability, greater speed and efficiency are certainly possible.

Transposing these concerns into the realm of finance, Innovation culture proposes that the long-standing economic challenges of the nonprofit sector will somehow evaporate once new models are developed that allow nonprofits to move beyond perpetual dependence on philanthropy and into a new era of self-sufficiency.  Struggling nonprofits are reframed simply as ineffective businesses surviving off subsidies.  Nevermind that for years nonprofits have been asked to provide more services for less money, that  they’re serving clients who can’t pay market rates, that they’re providing services that aren’t easily made salable (think social justice advocacy), or that they are often expected to forgo savings in favor of spending every dollar possible on program delivery.

It will be useful, perhaps even necessary, for some nonprofits to seek out breakthrough ways of doing business in order to continue providing services in an environment where their traditional funding streams have become unreliable.  This will be easiest for nonprofits that have a product or service that can be easily measured in terms of both delivery and impact, as well as buyers who are willing and able to pay.  For many others, the quest for Innovation can easily become a boondoggle that saps time and money from already overtaxed institutions.

So if not Innovation, then what?  Often the answer will simply be to take a long, hard look at the costs involved in providing services and then bringing a data-driven plan to familiar funders to support a transparent and collaborative conversation about the types and levels of support you can count on.  If a serious gap remains, then making hard choices about cutting back some less-than-essential program and administrative functions may be necessary – at least for a while, until new funding streams or a workable new revenue model can be identified.

Sober planning around reliable resources doesn’t offer quite the same sense of boundless optimism, but for many if not most nonprofits it’s more likely to provide an immediately implementable strategy to survive through tough times and make time for creative strategy in the longer term.

Financial Dependence and Funder Expectations

Nonprofit Quarterly recently posted a story about Whole Me, a Syracuse-based nonprofit serving deaf and hard of hearing children that had survived through some tough financial times by revamping its business model.  The piece explains that Whole Me had lost a major grant from the United Way, who had become uneasy that their grantee had become too dependent on their funding.  In time, Whole Me was able to start a successful sign-language interpretation business that throws off net revenue, which reassured the United Way, who in turn recommitted funding.

NPQ’s headline here is that nonprofits should be wary of over-reliance on contributed revenue, especially since funders can often become uncomfortable when they sense a grantee is dependent on them.

Certainly the drive for revenue diversity is a long-standing topic of conversation in the sector and one that pretty much all nonprofit leaders would be wise to consider (though keep in mind, over-diversification also has its pitfalls).  However, the article misses a bigger lesson that can be learned from Whole Me’s crisis and turnaround – and it’s a lesson for both the funder and the grantee.

No doubt there was more to the communication between Whole Me and the United Way than is revealed in the five paragraphs of this article, but with the information we do have it seems safe to say that there must have been a way for Whole Me to reduce its dependence on United Way funding without first having to navigate through financial crisis.  The key practice here is proactive, transparent, and collaborative financial communication.

Rather than finding out about their funder’s concerns through the unexpected loss of a major grant, Whole Me and the United Way could have engaged in an open conversation about the United Way’s expectations about Whole Me’s revenue model, their options for diversification, and what resources would be required to develop the new eared revenue business.  A business model adjustment based on proactive planning will almost always be more conducive to program continuity than one carried out in response to a crisis.

Again, this is a lesson for both nonprofits and funders.  Grantmakers can and should reach out proactively to their grantees when they have concerns about grant dependence or other financial matters.  Nonprofits can and should reach out proactively to their funders with transparent information about their ongoing financial needs and see whether there are any concerns about ongoing support.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that while an earned revenue business line provided a workable solution for Whole Me, funders should not expect that all nonprofit will be able to incorporate this strategy into their business model.  Not all types of nonprofit programming will be supported by the market and some nonprofits will simply have to be supported primarily (or almost entirely) by contributed revenue for the duration of their existence.  Moreover, investing time and money in an unworkable earned income strategy can leave a nonprofit in more precarious financial territory than they were before.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that those contributions have to always come from the same sources and there is also room for transparent conversations here about the duration of a given funder’s support.

Even more than the danger of relying on a given funder, the real lesson here is that funder expectation shouldn’t be a guessing game.