Q&A with Nell Edgington – Accelerating Social Innovation

Nell Edgington is President of Social
, and has been involved in the nonprofit world
for most of her career. Her organization is devoted to
providing thought leadership and accelerating social innovation
around system-changing ideas that solve existing public
challenges. The following Q&A we had with her, one that
we think you’ll find interesting and provocative, appears in our upcoming e-newsletter, Community Matters.

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Your bio says you’ve been in the social sector for over 13 years. Tell
us what things were like for you when you first got involved
with the non-profit world. How were they different from
today’s imperative to develop entrepreneurial models in
the nonprofit sector?

I don’t know that things were fundamentally all that different when I got started. Nonprofits have always been entrepreneurial, if you think about it. They are created because someone sees a disequilibrium, or “market opportunity” (inadequate schools, poor housing, lack of cultural arts) so they create an organization, with great risk and few resources, to fix that disequilibrium. This is not so different from a business entrepreneur, aside from the social motive versus profit motive.

I think what has changed over the past decade or so is a convergence among the public, private and nonprofit sectors. A decade or so ago the three sectors remained relatively separate. A nonprofit might receive corporate philanthropic dollars or federal dollars, or government might contract with a nonprofit to provide public services, but the three sectors stayed separate and had their own unique characteristics. Now you see a merging of the three sectors into what some call a “fourth sector.” Some private businesses now include a social mission in their business model (a solar energy company), nonprofits are using business models to create sustainable organizations, the federal government is thinking about an office of social innovation. The old, separate sectors are being swept aside by a new idea that each sector has something to offer and by borrowing the best from each we can move towards solving the mounting problems we face.

What is an example of a fundraising lesson you’ve learned during your career that helped you make KLRU’s transformation so successful–either a mistake made, or a surprising success you were able to apply again?

When I started at KLRU in 2005 there was a tremendous lack of fundraising infrastructure (technology, staffing, planning), and we needed a significant financial investment to build that infrastructure. But my experience had been that funders weren’t interested in supporting infrastructure. However, my boss several years earlier at the Oregon Children’s Foundation, who was an expert fundraiser, always said that if you can clearly articulate the impact that an investment can make you can convince someone to invest.

Armed with that idea, I created a compelling case for investing in a complete transformation of KLRU’s fundraising function, along with a demonstration of the return on investment an investor would get. This plan to revamp KLRU’s fundraising function (everything from new database software, website, staff, messaging, collateral) was ambitious and expensive for donors who were not used to supporting infrastructure. But because the case was so compelling (their investment would allow KLRU to become more self-sustaining, generate more revenue, spend more time on programming, and spend less money over the long term) we easily secured the money needed. People always talk about the importance of relationships in fundraising. Relationships are definitely important, however, I would say that even more important is a compelling, articulate ask that demonstrates impact and social return on investment. Donors want to make a difference. If you can clearly demonstrate how they will make a significant difference,
not in your organization, but in the broader community through your organization, you will gain their investment.

In your recent article, “Social Innovation Provides Hope in the Uncertainty”, you mention an approach that entails “uncovering the root causes of the social problem and addressing those head on with new ideas and models, instead of attempting to ameliorate the symptoms of a social problem”–tell us why such an approach is so important, especially right here and now in Central Texas?

Because the problems that we as a city, region and nation face are so large and so complex and the resources available to address them are becoming scarcer. We have to be smarter about how we solve problems; we no longer have the luxury of just addressing the symptoms. That’s not to say that every nonprofit organization must solve problems. There are some problems that unfortunately will probably never be solved completely, for example hunger and homelessness. But, there are many problems where the conversation can change from “How do we serve more people in need?” to “How do we change the system so the need no longer exists?” I don’t suppose to have the answers to the problems facing our region, but what I am arguing is that we examine the issues we are working on and ask hard questions about the root cause of the problems and how we could creatively find solutions. Again, not every problem has a solution, but every problem deserves a critical analysis of the systems and structures feeding it and whether those could be changed. It is sometimes a difficult conversation to have because root cause work involves changing long-held beliefs or entrenched systems, but the end result could be more lives saved in the long run. And I would argue that in some cases investing in solutions, or changed systems, is a far better long-term investment than simply continuing to provide services.

How do you see the non-profit landscape in Central Texas changing or evolving in 2009?

The economy will most certainly play a role. It will be harder to find resources, and so organizations will have to get smarter, more efficient and more strategic about fundraising, and that means making an investment up front in planning, messaging, strategy, technology. These don’t have to be large investments, but it can’t just be business as usual. Difficult times call for better strategy. I think nonprofits will have to become more social media and Internet savvy. There are cheaper, better ways to raise money, but you’ve got to be willing to take a risk and make an initial investment. It takes money to make money in the nonprofit world just as in the business world.

I also think there will be larger conversations among the nonprofit and philanthropic communities about our level of investment in the nonprofit sector. Clara Miller, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, wrote an interesting piece recently about how the nonprofit sector has been sorely undercapitalized for years and is near the breaking point. She argues that we can no longer allow this critical sector to scrape by with band-aid infrastructure. I think there will be a growing realization that we have to invest in the infrastructure and capacity of this sector. We can’t just buy programs, we have to build the organizations that we are relying on to provide our social safety net and solve the many problems facing us.
And that means nonprofits have to ask for and funders have to invest in technology, top talent, strategic planning. We can’t bootstrap our critical services any more. If we want our nonprofit sector to survive and thrive and continue to solve problems, we have to make adequate investment there.

What is your take on the importance of collaboration, between government, private and social sector organizations to provide socially innovative solutions?

Absolutely critical, and I would go even further to say that the three sectors are not just collaborating, but actually converging, which, as I mentioned earlier, is a really exciting and powerful development. The three sectors have been collaborating for years. What is happening, and where I think the tremendous opportunity lies, is in the convergence of the sectors. By combining the social focus of the nonprofit sector; the business acumen, wealth, and innovation of the private sector; and the tremendous resources of the public sector you have a palpable ability to solve the challenges we face. Take the idea of a federal social innovation fund that is being discussed among the Obama administration and social entrepreneurs. The idea is that the federal government and private investors would pool a significant amount of money that would be invested in social entrepreneurs, along with management assistance similar to what a venture capital fund provides its investments. This social innovation fund would combine the wealth and resources of the government and private sectors to provide adequate growth capital to nonprofits and social businesses. That’s a pretty exciting idea.

We all know that Austin has such an entrepreneurial, innovative private sector, a committed nonprofit sector and a strong government sector. We are ripe for social innovation and for a convergence of the sectors. Other cities similar to Austin, such as Portland, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, are heavily involved in social innovation, with venture philanthropy funds, blooming social enterprises, and investors in social businesses. Although Austin has some activity, it is nothing like these other cities. Our city has a tremendous opportunity to benefit from this convergence and face the future with a new economy that combines social and financial profit. I’d love to see that happen here.

Thank you for your time, is there anything else you would like to add?

Although I know people are wary and uncertain in this economic climate, I would argue that this is also a time of tremendous opportunity. We all know that the nonprofit sector has been sorely undercapitalized for years, if not decades. We can’t go on like that. We also know that our problems (poverty, inadequate schools, depleted natural resources) are getting worse, not better. Because of this mounting pressure I see lawmakers, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, CEOs and others standing up and saying enough is enough. We can’t go on like this. Something has got to change. The entire financial system of the nonprofit sector has got to change. We need to invest in infrastructure, we need to create strong, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we need all three sectors to work together, we need to address root causes, and we need to look to others for innovative models. I am very confident that out of this pain and uncertainty our social sector will emerge stronger, better resourced and better equipped to solve the problems we face. Because, in essence, there isn’t another option.


Ms. Edgington has over 13 years of experience innovating in the social sector. Most recently at KLRU, Austin’s PBS station, Nell transformed the fundraising and marketing functions. She raised $5 million annually, led a team of 15 marketing and fundraising professionals, and helped lead the station’s strategic planning process. She conceived, secured funding for and implemented a new development plan which increased annual revenue by $1.6 million, with double or triple-digit percentage growth in major gifts, membership, corporate support and online giving. These accomplishments led KLRU to 5 national PBS Awards for fundraising excellence.

Previously, as Director of Development at the Capital Area Food Bank, she increased annual revenue by 40% to $2.5 million. Prior to the Food Bank, Nell was the principal of Edgington Consulting Group, a business-strategy consultancy, helping nonprofits in Austin, Chicago, and St. Louis create strategic, marketing, business and fundraising plans, launch earned revenue businesses, and develop their boards.

One thought on “Q&A with Nell Edgington – Accelerating Social Innovation

  1. Really interesting interview. It’s nice to hear that someone with such a long history in the npo sector can still be so excited about it and see the opportunities.

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