Alexandra Snelgrove joined venture philanthropy organization LIFT Philanthropy Partners in early 2015 as the Director of Social Impact for its Toronto office. In that capacity, she is part of the team responsible for working directly to support the organizations in LIFT’s social purpose portfolio, including Toronto-based Furniture Bank. She is also leading LIFT’s call for proposals from Ontario-based social enterprises, supported by funding from the Ontario government’s Social Enterprise Demonstration Fund.

SEE Change spoke with Snelgrove about the issues she sees in her work with the social sector in Canada, how venture philanthropy can make a difference, and what she thinks are the key attributes of successful social purpose organizations.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing social purpose organizations (SPOs) today?

The not-for-profit and charitable sector in Canada is made up of over 170,000 organizations. With such a large group of organizations covering a broad spectrum of social, environmental, and community issues, it’s difficult to narrow it down to the three most common challenges.

That said, there are certainly themes that come up often in our conversations with the organizations we are evaluating for LIFT’s support, including:

  1. Measurement – this includes a couple of things: developing systems to measure the organization’s impact, but also using data to inform programming and enhance organizational performance.
  2. Growth – by this I mean, should the organization be considering scaling now or do they have some underlying, foundational issues to address first. If they are ready, what are the appropriate strategies to scale and grow the organization’s impact?
  3. Strategic Decision-Making -organizations are often faced with tough choices about how to allocate their resources. They need to be able to strategically prioritize opportunities, while making sure they stay focused on their mission and core competencies.

LIFT is a venture philanthropy organization. How does your model of philanthropy help address these issues?

Venture philanthropy, by its very nature, provides a long-term investment into an organization’s people and capacity. The support isn’t directed at putting out today’s burning fires but, rather, is focused on the long-term future of the organization. LIFT doesn’t just focus on plan development; we have highly engaged relationships with SPOs that emphasize plan execution, and achievement of long-term goals. By drawing on the expertise of our staff and partner network, we provide SPOs with support and services to address their challenges that they may not be able to otherwise afford. They also benefit from the external perspective of these resources, which typically helps them see their organization’s context and future from a different perspective.

Why is it important for an SPO to have a business plan? What should be included in it?

It depends on how you define business plan; the term is used differently by different people. Whatever term is used, all organizations need to have a plan in place that is developed through a process that includes research and stakeholder consultation. The plan should identify:

  1. The future: Where do we want to go?
  2. The road map: How will we get there?
  3. The result: How will we know when we’ve arrived there?

The process and discussion on these questions is as important as the plan itself. An operational or implementation plan highlighting the strategic goals, strategies, activities, timeframes, and measurement approach is a critical follow-up activity to the process. It should be reviewed annually and not just be another document that sits on the shelf.

You talked earlier about measurement being a common challenge. What are some key examples of things an SPO could or should be measuring?

That really depends on the nature of the organization’s work. What is critical, however, is making sure that there are measures at both two levels: outputs (short-term results or changes in skills/knowledge) and outcomes (long-term results or changes in conditions). For example, skills development programs should include output indicators such as the number of participants and program satisfaction levels, as well as outcomes such as average income increases and levels of stable employment post-program completion.

What lessons have you learned from working with SPOs?

Each SPO is different and a cookie-cutter approach isn’t effective. Every organization requires support based on its unique context. The plans LIFT develops with the organizations in its social purpose portfolio are always specific to their individual needs and goals. But I’ve also learned that there are some common predictors of success.

The organizations that manage to achieve their goals are the ones that have a clear picture of the future and a plan to get there. They’re usually good at prioritizing and making tough decisions about where to both invest and divest. They have the ability to adapt and take measured risk to focus on opportunities that further their mission and deepen their impact. And finally, the successful organizations are typically the ones that are the most client-centric, that regularly assess their portfolio of activities to make sure they are responding to their clients’ needs and achieving meaningful outcomes.

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