Insights from 2014 and What to Expect in the Year Ahead


When we recently sat down with David La Piana to interview him for a staff profile, we thought it a timely opportunity to ask him about his reflections on the past year and what he anticipates in the year ahead for the nonprofit sector. Here are some highlights.

Collaborate. Create. Accelerate. These are three things that La Piana Consulting strives to help its clients achieve in their mission-driven work. Looking back at 2014, what have been the most inspiring examples of any, or each, of these?

I think those are good words for us as a firm. So many of our projects are around one or more of those themes. Certainly our strategic restructuring work involves Collaboration, and we have seen some really great examples of organizations coming together and putting aside their own interests to advance the mission. Two of these were the four-way merger in Oregon forming the Rogue River Watershed Council and the merger of Baltimore Mental Health Systems and Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems to become Behavioral Health System Baltimore.

On the Create front, our recent business planning work with the ACLU was one of the most wide-open, creative projects we’ve been involved with for some time. We began with 18 different ideas, whittling it down to three to four that we think have legs, which will be exciting to see play out.

In terms of Accelerate, it brings to mind two clients that are foundations going out of businessThe Atlantic Philanthropies and The S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. I like how Chris Oechsli (the CEO at Atlantic) says that a lot of people call it a spend-down, but it’s really a spend-up. (Think about it: Instead of distributing something like 5% annually, it’s more like 30%.) In Atlantic’s case — and in Bechtel’s — they’re aiming to accelerate their impact, to have a huge impact in a short period of time.

Atlantic has certainly done that, with its work to build a system of clinics in Vietnam, which the government there is now taking on and running. (It’s also funded the peace process in Northern Ireland and is probably the biggest funder of ending the death penalty in America.) And at Bechtel, just a couple of years ago, it was making mostly small grants — now it is awarding grants in the millions with the aim of making a lasting impact in California by 2020.

Did the past year yield any unexpected lessons or “ah ha” moments for you?

I’ve really enjoyed working with Sherrilyn Ifill at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). We started out doing a strategic planning project and instantly came to the realization that the right strategy had already been identified — they just needed to get the organization aligned behind it. The strategy is to advance civil rights in a broader way, beyond a sole focus on litigation; the challenge is how to get there.

LDF has done a lot of great work to pull that together, and in December received notice of a culminating grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies for $5 million toward launching that new vision. The big lesson for me is how a new CEO with high-level content expertise can bring new thinking to the table and, with the help of a third party who understands how organizations work, can use that to turn the organization around and move it forward.

What do you see as the top challenges and/or opportunities facing the sector in the coming year?

Well, for at least the past five years we’ve identified the economic downturn (reduced funding from foundations, government, etc.) as the biggest problem, while the sector has weathered it as it always does. But now that we’ve seen the economy grow at a 5% annual rate in the past quarter, and with the stock market booming, I think the question is: How do we, as a sector, seize on these high points? In the bad times, we’ve proven we’re very good at doing more with less and stretching to meet higher demands for services. But in the good times, how do we build on the possibilities and take advantage of opportunity? Or do we just stay stuck in a deficit mindset that keeps us thinking (and doing) small?

As a consultant to nonprofits and foundations, how do you anticipate contributing to strategic responses to this challenge?

The opportunities mostly lie with foundations. Now that they (more than nonprofits) are seeing a higher return than they were five years ago: Will they devote that resource to filling holes created over the last five years? Or will they see it as an opportunity to invest in something new, for a healthy winnowing of nonprofit organizations? If the latter, then there is a need to help funders think through and plan how to do that responsibly.

Many of us are going into the New Year with aspirations to adopt healthier habits or become more successful in our careers, family lives, or creative pursuits. If you could suggest a New Year’s resolution for the social sector that would help it become healthier, more impactful, or more sustainable, what would it be?

A few things come to mind. For one, I’d say: Don’t delude yourself. (This is a pet peeve of mine.) It’s understandable to want to put a positive spin on things for your funders, but you have to be honest with yourself, whether it’s about negative trends in your revenue or problems in how you’re doing your work. Don’t lie to yourself; look it square in the face and deal with it.

On a related theme: Be real and honest about what your real costs are. Dig as deep as you can to really understand the core of your costs, what they’re related to, what the drivers are. It’s not always intuitive. You have to peel away all the layers of BS and be sure you have a really deep understanding of your financial picture.

Finally, a perennial piece of advice: Stop focusing just on outputs and look what you’re really accomplishing. You work too hard to not know if what you’re doing is actually working!

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