Finance management needs of non-profits

finance management for NGOsRecently, I conducted a simple survey to find out more about the needs of smaller and bigger civil society organisations (CSOs) in the field of finance management. I received responses from people from very different organisations; bigger European organisations as well as smaller local groups, from Africa, Latin America and from former communist countries in Europe and the Caucasus.

I was interested to learn about their finance practice including the preparation of an annual financial statement; annual budgeting on organisational level; cash flow management; fundraising; and project budgeting, reporting and auditing. I am a nosy parker, yes indeed.

But I will use the input for the conceptualisation and development of online courses finance and organisational management for non profits. (The first course is foreseen to start online on 2 January 2018.) As I was quite surprised with some of the outcomes, I want to share some key findings here, too.

Project finance

Almost two thirds of respondents indicated that preparing a budget for a project, reporting on it and being audited on project level are easy for them to do. This is, in my experience, in line with the activity focus of most CSOs. They can design project activities and matching budgets, and can usually manage the funds they receive for these well and certainly well enough to not encounter big issues in project audits.

What surprised me is that 30% of the respondents indicated that making a project budget is a bit to very difficult for their organisation, while 37% found it a bit difficult to make a financial report for a project.

project budget for non-profits

Annual financial report

Around half of respondents mentioned that they are easily able to produce an annual financial report, with balance sheet and profit and loss overview. 22% of the respondents do not produce annual financial data, and 26% finds this a bit to very difficult. This is a picture I can easily recognise with my own experience. While most organisations can relatively easily prepare a profit & loss (income & expenditures) overview, most of them have difficulty understanding the balance sheet and face a real challenge in preparing this. As a result, most NGOs do not produce a balance sheet. In case it is needed, they hire an external party to prepare this.

Of course there is nothing wrong in hiring external expertise for tasks you cannot get delivered in-house. However, when it comes to finance this can be tricky. Without having some level of expertise it can be hard to understand the presentation of data, and it will be even harder to verify if this is the best way of presenting your organisation. After all, whereas the profit & loss statement shows to what extent you are capable of managing your incoming funds in a given year, the balance sheet shows the longer term financial health and stability of your organisation. A rather important picture for the management to understand fully, and to take action upon as and when needed. At the same time, it is a picture that funders and investors are interested to assess as well, before deciding on a grant or investment.

Other finance management issues

My survey shows that in general, finance management can be a challenge for non-profits. More than 20% have a little difficulty in managing cash flow. 31% find it hard to prepare an annual organisational budget, whereas 48% says it is very hard to raise all needed funds for the organisation’s activities and aims. Respondents mention they would like to learn more about how they can ensure their organisational costs are covered through a mixture of projects funded by different sources. In connection with this, several also state that they would like to see how one system can serve all different reporting needs.

fundraising for non-profits

Conclusion

This is a very much simplified and shortened summary of the valuable input I received. It confirms to me that both smaller and bigger non-profits face serious challenges in understanding finance and in getting their finances in good order. It is hard for them to plan their finance, probably in part also because of the challenges in fundraising. Once funds are available, a puzzle ensues to see how all human resource and organisational costs can be covered to the extent needed, and how all this can be reported in the right way to the different funders. In this seemingly endless ‘fight’ for acquiring the means to actually work on the set goals to change society for the better, it seems the finance management of civil society organisations is bound to be the underdog.

This is where I want to contribute: I aim to make civil society organisation’s (finance) management feel on top, enabling them to pursue their dreams in to the fullest extent possible in a sustainable manner. This is why I want to develop (online) courses for this group of professionals and volunteers, around different aspects of finance management. Practical courses, with theory and assignments and with personal feedback. If you are interested in joining, please do not hesitate to contact me or simply follow me online. In the coming weeks I will share regular updates about my plans and the upcoming courses. Save

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Don’t Start Out Of The Blue – Start Online

It isn’t really necessary to know people to start working with them online. Many of you probably have communications with people on Twitter or LinkedIn or Google+ that you have never even met – and probably never will meet. It’s not hard to exchange ideas and support each other if you share a common interest.

The same is true for people that form a group because they will all show up to your face-to-face training or event. They, too, have a common interest and even if you have never met them, you can start your work with them online before you will lay eyes on them.

In fact, starting online may even enhance the process your event or training is intended to support. You can use an online start to help your participants get to know each other and to find common ground. They can start brainstorming about certain issues, and exchange ideas and experiences. They can structure their ideas and come to conclusions. They can start reading up on materials you provide and already ask questions about these. You can even instruct them online with a screencast for instance. Or you can assess the level and areas of their knowledge via a survey.

There are many possibilities. Which aims and which tools suit your process best is a matter of careful selection and some experience. And, of course, as always: trial and error.

In the workshop Flashing Start, my colleague Gerdi Keeler and I introduced a small group of mainly trainers and educators  to some easy-to-use tools that can be useful in an online start. As our main aim was to show our participants how you can engage with your group before you actually meet them, our workshop started online. During a week participants received small online assignments, each with a different aim:

  • Getting to know each other;
  • Brainstorming;
  • Structuring ideas;
  • Providing instructions; and
  • Visualising information.
Online tools for training

Tools used

For each aim we offered a different tool, or in some cases a few alternative tools that participants could choose from.

In the face-to-face part of the workshop we discussed the different tools and their possible uses.

 

Some of the more interesting points raised include:

  • In a safe online environment you share more than you would have shared in a first introduction round in a face-to-face event;
  • Online exchanges changes the way you think about some things;
  • In a safe online environment you are together, and not alone. Even though you are all sitting behind your own devices, in your own office or home;
  • In a safe online environment things start happening – conversations arise about unexpected topics;
  • It is nice and fun to learn things online, to share your products and ideas and then get feedback and reactions;
  • If others are contributing online there is a bigger (peer) pressure to also share something yourself;
  • Positive feedback by the moderator or facilitator is extremely important.

The last point points to the biggest challenges related to online starting: the role of the facilitator.

If you plan to facilitate an online start – or any other online part in a blended curriculum or process for that matter – be prepared to invest loads of time and energy!

You will need to be available in the online environment, as well as via e-mail and phone, to deal with (technical) questions and you will need to be ‘there’ to support the process by means of positive and encouraging feedback, reflection questions, follow up assignments and questions, and so on. This is not something you can easily do on the side, at a reserved time slot. You simply need to be felt to be present all the time.

However, if you are prepared to invest the energy and time needed, you will be rewarded with great results. Your face-to-face event or training can be much more focused and to the point, and your participants are fully engaged from day zero!

If you are interested in learning more about using online tools to increase your effectiveness and to make your events and trainings more attractive and engaging, check out nul100 (in Dutch).


Flip Snack booklet about Flashing Start – part 1


Flip Snack booklet about Flashing Start – part 2

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Fun and Games and the Power of Twitter

Though in and of themselves the Winter Olympics in Sochi are not necessarily that funny, it is one more occasion on which I am again amazed at the power of Twitter. No, that’s wrong. Amazed at what people can do with Twitter if they have a bit of time on their hands and a brain that is wide awake. And, OK, a sense of humour, too.

Since the start of the Olympics someone is active under the Twitter handle @SochiProb and sharing impressions of the Games and the environment in which the sports men and women and entourage are working.

It reminds me of the two Twitter accounts that appeared last summer after the team bus of the Australian Orica-GreenEdge cycling team had got stuck under the finish of the first stage of the Tour de France not that long before the riders were due to arrive there for the final sprint, deciding who would wear the yellow leader’s jersey.

You may find these tweets as funny as I do, or you may not find them so special at all.

Either way, I find it interesting to see how people can use Twitter as a medium to play a role and to see that others react to that, without even having any clue as to who the people behind the Twitter handles are. We, the audience, join the make believe, and reply to the Orica-GreenEdge team bus and to Sochi Problems as if they were our long time friends.

This ‘role playing’ is also used for educational purposes, like in the case of the Twitter account @RealTimeWWII

Of course, one cannot really compare @SochiProb to @RealTimeWWII in terms of content. But both accounts do provide us a window onto places most of us can never see for ourselves and, more importantly, both give a certain different or new perspective on a situation we all think we know about from books and television.

For me, that new perspective is a crucial step in any learning process, and it is why I like Twitter so much. Without always being aware of it, I shape my view of the world  and of the people in it every day thanks to those tweeps I follow.

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Make your online work place ad-free

Recently I was working with someone on a GoogleDoc. A very nice tool to write a text together online. It offers most of the options that Word has, too, like commenting and so on.

GoogleDoc example with comments

GoogleDoc: example with comments

One of the extras it provides is the possibility to have a chat if you are working online on a document at the same time as others.That is, if the chat window is visible. Which in this case, it wasn’t for my colleague.

I wrote a chat message, suggesting to discuss something and while I could see she was online and working in the document, I did not get any reaction from her. I was puzzled, because this is not like her at all, but I assumed she was busy with something else at the same time and I was sure we would eventually discuss the matter. No hurry, no problem.

However, when I spoke to her later I found out that she had not even seen my chat message. It had been obscured by ads.

I am not sure how that happened, and it may have been something else entirely. But it made me consider once again how annoying (pop up) ads can be online if you are there for your work. (Of course they can be equally annoying when you are just Facebooking for fun, I do know that!).

But it is truly annoying if your work is being hindered by ads popping up on vital positions on your screen. Like happened a while ago during a webinar. Some of the participants could not see the full presentation screen or were simply unable to concentrate, due to ads.

Imagine if such a thing would happen offline – if half of a meeting would be inaudible because of ads. Or if your notes in your writing pad would be obscured by ads. Or if, as you can sometimes see during TV reports of football matches, part of the playing field would be covered in banners and ads (luckily the ones that seem really in the way of the game are only virtual).

Impractical ads - if they were real. From Ajax-ADO, 2013, via http://youtu.be

Impractical ads – if they were real. From Ajax-ADO, 2013, via http://youtu.be/_KlhlaGfRn8

Of course I am aware that all free things have their price: ads and data collection. I am using many free services and I enjoy them a lot. And I hope they will continue to be free tools. And I am OK with paying a small price by giving up some level of privacy and providing some interesting data. That is our deal. But that doesn’t mean I need to see silly ads all the time.

Ads on Facebook

Ads on Facebook that I don’t usually see luckily

If you also prefer to work in a quiet online environment, without ads for women to meet, bras to wear, food buy, equipment to covet and so on and so forth, there is an easy tool to use. The reason why I had no clue that the chat message window was obscured. The reason why I can never cheer up my Facebook friends with posts about the funny products that Facebook thinks I could be up for.

It is simple to install and works miracles. It is called Ad Block Plus. It is available as plug in, for free, for most current browsers (like Explorer. Chrome, Firefox and a couple of others).

LinkedIn ad

So happy that I do not see these things when using LinkedIn

If you want to have a quiet work place online, I would highly recommend investing two minutes of your time, if that, to install Ad Block Plus. After all, we go to great lengths uncluttering our desks and making everything just so, in order to be able to work productively. So why not extend that courtesy to yourself when it concerns your virtual desk?

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Starting a Learning Process Online

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

On 31 January last, Gerdi Keeler and I conducted a workshop for NVO2 on how you can start a learning process online already before the first face-to-face event. In order to enable our participants to experience this concept, rather than just hearing about it, we created a closed online environment in which we shared smaller and bigger assignments with the participants. All assignments were related to the use of an online tool. Assignments were also all related to sharing experiences and information.

Using assignments before a learning process or training starts is of course nothing very revolutionary. In the sign up form, future participants are often asked about their motivation, about what it is they want to learn exactly and about their experience with the subject matter. Trainers or teachers also quite regularly ask participants to read something beforehand. All this information could be used to make participants aware of their own personal motivation to take part, to tailor the training to the real needs, to avoid spending time on something everyone already knows and to render the time spent together more effective by sharing some of the theory beforehand.

Also not new is the fact that such assignments tend to yield limited results, and that you mostly find out about how little results were achieved during the face-to-face event.

However, with the existing wealth of online tools you as trainer or teacher have much more possibility to get acquainted with your prospective participants than before. If you do not want to bother them, you can simply look up their LinkedIn profile to see what their experience is, and what skills they think they have. You can check out their Twitter account to see what makes them tick, and if they have a blog you can find out even more about their interests, activities and skills.

If you would like to engage with your participants before the training you can make use of many different online tools. You can ask them to share pictures, videos, cartoons, etc. or to comment on a blog post if you want to go in the direction of Flipping your Classroom.

These assignments can of course be sent out and collected via e-mail. But why take the risk of miscommunication? We all know a thing or two about “Reply all” in moments when it shouldn’t have been used and vice versa, as well as those times that you think you are sending something to one person and it turns out your address book selected another person with the same name. And why not use the chance to create a network of the participants? In other words, it is worth your while to create an online environment where you  and participants can post assignments, results, questions and replies.

Yammer network

Yammer network

In any case, we decided to create a closed network on Yammer for our communications with the participants.  We felt that this tool would provide the best possibility for discussion and sharing, and would probably not be too difficult to use for most people. Just in case, we shared a short guide on using Yammer via e-mail as well as in the Yammer network itself, so that participants could look up certain functionalities as they went along.

Most of the assignments we shared  involved visual tools, like Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo, ReciteThis and the like. In all, some 12 tools were shared, excluding Yammer. Some tools were used by all participants, some by none and most by the majority of participants. Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo and ReciteThis were the most popular tools: they were the most used and participants were the most enthusiastic about them.

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

Participants were very enthusiastic about the online start. They liked getting acquainted online. They found this way of starting “inspirational“, and had learned a lot from the tools and tips shared and from the exchange online. The tools presented were useful and clarifications provided were helpful. They had gotten a lot of ideas for their own work. This had motivated them hugely.

Reflections on the online start underlined the importance of selecting the right tool for the online environment. For some participants Yammer had been easy to use, and as the few questions they had were answered swiftly, they did not experience problems much. For others, however, it felt as if they had to learn two things: to use Yammer and to learn about the online tools offered through Yammer. It seems that they did not consider Yammer itself as one of the tools to be learned for an online start – just as your regular participant would see less use in investing time to learn working with Yammer compared to investing time in the course topic.

Another issue that was mentioned was that of expectations management. Participants had the feeling that they had to do everything that was offered, and that there was not enough time for this. In the end, no one managed to try out everything, although a few participants managed to try most of the tools. This issue could be seen either as a communication issue or as a responsibility issue: should trainers communicate precisely what needs to be done and how much time needs to be invested? Or should participants take responsibility for and ownership of what they want to learn, and also for those things that they decided are not top priority right now?

Here, I think, are some issues at stake that you might not encounter as much in case of offline assignments or even e-mailed assignments. While all assignments were individual-based, sharing them in an online environment where you also collect the products for all to see, could result in peer pressure, even if unintended. Participants see what others have done, they read the stories, questions and answers. In Yammer they can also easily check the statistics (although I do not believe they did in this case). They can also see when something was done – for instance, it would have been pretty much obvious if there had been a “last minute” worker included in the group. This is not the case if you send out assignments via e-mail and collect all replies individually. In that situation, people can be blissfully unaware of who has done what and whether that was within a suggested time frame or not. They also cannot see the quality of other people’s work. Of course, they can also not be inspired by each other, nor help each other out or learn from one another. Which is why we chose to create a network.

Another issue is that of the possibility to use certain online tools on the job. Some organisations do not allow the use of certain tools on work computers, and some people do not feel free to do such assignments from their work desks. This then leads to a need to do these assignments after work hours, from a home device. And that is something that some people simply do not like to do. That may not just be the case for employed participants, also freelancers can find it difficult to find time for self-development and can fail to see that certain tools will help them as professional as well. I do not think that this issue of work versus private sphere was too important for this group, but it was mentioned as an issue that could be important or even crucial to other groups of participants.

A last issue I would like to mention is that starting a learning process online offers the opportunity of a diversity that can be overwhelming and that is accelerated by the group process. As said above, during our ten days of online work with the group we shared 12 tools. Some of them were similar to each other and others not, some of them we asked participants to use, others we just asked them to look at. Some assignments could be ticked off in 5 minutes or less, other could take up more time.

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Our idea was to share a variety of things that could appeal to different people, and to make sure that nobody would get bored by not seeing something interesting for a few days. This is also what we had experienced in an online course in which we were the participants ourselves: that people tend to “cherry pick”, depending on time available and the connection they see between what is offered and their personal and professional development goals. However, this is not how it worked for all members of our group. They got overloaded by the tools, the assignments, the products and reactions of others and seemingly unrelated discussions. My conclusion is that an online start requires a great level of discipline and balancing from the participants: they should dedicate time to it on a regular basis in order not to get lost, they should be very clear on what it is they want to learn and why, and they should make sure the online group process does not get in the way of their own plans and needs. On the other hand, as facilitator you will have to nurture these skills in the group members. I do not believe that labelling one assignment as obligatory and another not will help, nor that setting a requirement in terms of time investment will solve this. But I do believe that a facilitator should help participants set their own goals and that a facilitator should help create understanding for the different goals within the group.

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What I Learned from Trying to Introduce Social Media in 2 Organisations

In the last 6 months I have been busy with 2 failed attempts to help 2 organisations work with social media. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, if you like to learn, then it was!

So why did I fail?

Basically – who knows! But I have a few ideas that I would like to share.

Again Yammer!

Again Yammer!

What I tried to do was to introduce different social media tools that would help these organisations to share information, ideas and experiences, to collect documentation in one place, and to collaborate on joint strategies and plans. In both cases there was a genuine task to be carried out, which could benefit from using these tools and which had a limited time frame with an upcoming deadline. Really a hot idea. Or so I thought. And at the start, they liked it, too.

But then – nothing further happened. In one case, the task was postponed to some future date as yet unknown, and in the other case a Yammer network was set up which was used by only few people who used it only to send out ideas and information but were not really aimed at two-way communication, collaboration or engagement. The task did not get done.

Very rough "assessment" of the two organisations

Very rough “assessment” of the two organisations

What I found interesting when I started to identify reasons why was that both organisations had quite a lot in common. They both consist of  “loose parts” that work independently based on a clear task division and very clear “stay out” signs for others, with only one of the parts being focused on the organisation as such. The part having the organisation itself as a main task is working on things like strategies, policies, fundraising and the like, whereas the other parts implement activities and do not commit a whole lot of attention to strategising and such.

Within the organisations there is limited informal communication and limited personal contact between people, especially between people from the different sections. Perhaps as a result of that, there is a limited connection between both people and the functions being carried out by the different sections, and it looks like people do not feel safe enough to share freely. They may feel judged by others, they may feel that others cannot be trusted with certain information, they may be afraid of meddling by others.

In short, internally all signs for open communication through social media or otherwise are a fiery red.

No wonder nothing happened!

Hand Heart Head

Hand Heart Head

So what did I learn from all this? A lot! And probably more than if everything would have worked out perfectly!

  • Whether you can successfully complete a joint task using social media depends a lot on to what extent you can complete the task without social media – social media can make your life easier, certainly, but if it is impossible to get people to work together offline or via e-mail, then social media may not do the trick.
  • Collaborative capability depends on the level of development of an organisation, network or community and on its internal organisation and culture. The fact that there are common tasks does not necessarily mean that such capability exists.
  • The role of a facilitator is limited – a facilitator can definitely smooth the path but cannot from the outside in “enforce” a collaborative environment, especially not within a very limited time frame.
  • That is not to say that a facilitator needs to be completely helpless in the face of such a situation. A facilitator can perhaps more easily than the organisation itself notice what is going on and can re-group; try to find another angle and another path to achieve the learning, change or strategic objectives set by the organisation or individual.
  • A facilitator needs to keep his or her cool at all times! Patience is key to getting there. And getting there is key. All the rest is just what happens on the way.
  • It helps a lot if a facilitator can stay enthusiastic and motivated, even if a new path needs to be cut out through the jungle.

Thankfully I found that I was able to remain enthusiastic and optimistic and that in the few moments that I was not, I had a variety of social media networks and tools available to me through which I could share my experiences and questions. Or through which I could play my way back to optimism!

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Online Learning and Focus

For almost a year I have taken part in the Curriculum Social Media for Learning & Change. It’s been a wonderful ride and I am sorry to see it end next week with a final face to face workshop and closing presentations of all participants, sharing their lessons learned in applying social media in learning and change processes.

While I think I managed to get in much of the planned learning, I also learned from being a part of the curriculum and observing what happened in the internal learning environment and within the group. What I noticed is that keeping engagement and focus of participants is not easy, even if they are all highly motivated individuals and even if the three facilitators are extremely committed and observant.

Presentation of Group Assignment

Presentation of Group Assignment

It seems that 8 months is a long period to keep hard working professionals engaged, even though

  • This long period was cleverly broken down in 4 learning blocks of two weeks online learning plus one face-to-face workshop and one webinar each;
  • Learning was connected to the participants’ day to day jobs through work and reporting on real life cases in which newly acquired knowledge was applied;
  • Each of the learning blocks consisted of a variety of questions or assignments, ranging from testing a tool to sharing your ideas and experience to analysing different examples;
  • Some tasks were assigned to small sub-groups of participants leading to an online or offline presentation of results and findings.
Online Individual Assignment

Online Individual Assignment

It also seems to me that individual online learning requires a level of focus and discipline that is not easy to steer as educator, even though

  • The course facilitators used different communication tools to check up on and motivate absent participants;
  • Each block provided a variety of assignments, paying attention to different learner types;
  • The course facilitators provided rapid, constructive and positive feedback;
  • All assignments were carefully phrased and well-focused, with clear links to day to day work of different participants.

What struck me was that especially in the two final blocks not all assignments were addressed, not even by one participant. A common feature of these assignments was that they required more reading, thinking and combining of knowledge and skills than the other assignments which focused more on testing a few tools or answering a question related to your own case. In other words, these assignments required more action as well as more reflection, and in the end more time and energy of the learners. Precious time, that may be harder to assign to yourself if no-one else depends on it.

In addition, these assignments may also have been perceived as “more risky”. Learners were asked to make an analysis and propose conclusions or steps to be taken – basically for steps in the process of designing and implementing an online learning or change process. Things most or all of them do regularly, even if subconsciously. It may thus have been perceived that “getting it wrong” would reflect more negatively on the learners in their professional capacity. This perception may subconsciously have reinforced the idea that these assignments would need more thorough attention and thus more time than others.

The conclusion might be that if you want to include such more analytical and design-oriented assignments in your online course you would do well either to allocate them to one or more individual learners who then post their findings and elicit reflections and reactions from other learners, or to assign them to small sub-groups.

In all, observing the structure and implementation of the course has provided me with at least 8 lessons learned (see the bullet points above) that were implemented and one that was not. Not a bad score if you take into consideration that as active participant I learned loads of other stuff, too. Some of these other things I have shared in previous posts, and some I will still share later on this year. However, don’t think that reading my posts will get you there – if there is one lesson I learned most of all it is that you should go out there, try and err, reflect, get yourself back on your feet and continue!

Having 3 marvellous facilitators and a few active other learners around you certainly helps to stay motivated and optimistic and to get the most out of both failure and success. So if you can follow a course, you should take that opportunity. And I warmly recommend the one organised by Joitske Hulsebosch, Simon Koolwijk and Sibrenne Wagenaar of En nu online.

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