This week we’re talking to Rebecca Murphy.
We talked about:
Rebecca has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an “interpreter,” as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit, business, and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining/translating one to another. She is a generalist with a broad knowledge base – including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and place making. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with particular expertise in public-private partnerships, community engagement, and strategic collaborations. Hers is a mission-focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity, and avoiding mission creep.
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Carol Hamilton: Today I want to welcome Rebecca Murphy to the podcast. Rebecca Murphy has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an interpreter as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit business and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining and translating one sector to another. She's a generalist with a broad knowledge base, including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and placemaking. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with a particular emphasis in public private partnerships, community engagement. and strategic collaboration. Hers is a mission focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep. She is an optimistic activist with a passionate lived commitment to diversity. Join me in welcoming Rebecca Murphy!
Well welcome, Rebecca. I'm glad to have you on the mission impact podcast. I want to start out by just having you share with listeners your path? How did you get drawn to this work? How did you end up where you are now?
Rebecca Murphy: Well, Carol, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. How I got drawn to this work is really very simple. It's something that I always seen myself doing from my early 20s I think I always saw myself as having some business that allowed me to help groups and organizations whose missions I believed in, do the work they did better, do the work they did differently and achieve the objectives that they were setting out to achieve.
Carol: Coming into this a little bit later than you, I'm impressed that you had that vision for yourself so early on. What was the background to that?
Rebecca: Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is I have always been somebody who appreciated and was engaged in community development work. I came at it through a political lens primarily because that's what my parents did. My mother did community development work and they were both very involved socially and civically. so there were always groups and organizations in our kitchen, and we were very engaged. so I knew a lot about the universe of nonprofits and the universe of mission-driven work from a really young age. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I never really saw a full time job for a company as my path. so that's really that's really how I came at it. I also feel like I was a little bit ahead of my time. I really wanted to be able to work from home so that I could raise my kids. Even when I was young, I knew that that was what I wanted.
Carol: Yeah that's awesome, just the image of growing up around that. My dad worked for the government for the Foreign Service. so he went to work, it was a very traditional job and it was very mysterious to me as a child. All I really understood about it was that there was a big desk involved, and a big building, and some legal pads and government pens, but beyond that, I really didn't understand it. so it's really cool that you were able to absorb that from an early age.
Well, one of the things that you focus on is partnerships, including public-private partnerships, and I certainly believe that partnerships are so key to many nonprofits and how they do their work and at least my belief is that more should consider them with so many small organizations all going at the same issue. What would you say are the key things that nonprofits really need to think about when they're getting started with partnerships?
Rebecca: I think that's a great question, and it's one that I get asked a lot in my practice. I think that the most important thing that a nonprofit needs to do when they're thinking about a partnership is: what is their why? Why are you engaging in a partnership? Second to that, but equally as important: what do you bring to the partnership? It can't be about only what it is that you think you'll get out of it? It has to be about what you bring to that, what are your assets? What are your strengths? I think partnering from a place where you don't know that is a recipe for disaster.
Carol: Can you give an example of some disaster stories?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think I’ve had a couple of clients who thought that partnering was a good idea because it was going to get them out of a bad situation, and I think that's so common. I think that too often organizations are scrambling when they're really struggling, and then they think, “Oh well, we'll partner or we'll merge," and it seems like there's rarely a good time to try to step into those kinds of relationships. Partnering for weakness or desperation is a terrible time because you don't have clarity, and when you partner with an organization, you have to have clarity. You have to have clarity of mission, you have to have clarity of your goals, and you have to have clarity about the risk. I think that's the other thing a lot of nonprofits don't think about is what could go bad. They think about, “oh, this is gonna be great. it'll help us build our capacity. It'll help us raise money, it'll help us," whatever it is that they think it's going to do. They don't ever think about what's going to happen if it goes sideways, and whether there are different types of going sideways. There's recoverable going sideways, and then there's sort of the epic, this is the kick back sideways. I think that that's an equally important thing to be thinking about when you're thinking about a partnership is, what are we going to do if it goes south? How do we extricate ourselves? What are we going to do [if it goes sideways]?
Carol: So I usually like to focus on the more of a strengths-based approach and when things go well, so describe a partnership that you've seen when they really did things right, they did the due diligence and it really benefited both organizations in a way that you were even surprised by maybe.
Rebecca: Okay.… The stories I can tell best really relate to collaboration, which are - I think - partnerships with more than two players. and I think that they've worked, the ones that I have seen or been a part of that have worked really well. Were those where there was a common goal, whether it was a common problem that needed solving or a common issue that needed to be addressed. and everybody who was there brought different strengths to the table. They were partnering not from weakness, but in a manner that compensated for each other's sort of skill gaps, because I don't think that anybody in that particular industry killer scenario was weak. I think they just have different skill gaps. and I think that's almost the best way to think about a partner. Is this partner somebody who's going to fill my skills gaps? and can I do the same for that?
Carol: so what are those complementary pieces where you, you don't all have to bring the same strengths to the table.
Rebecca: I mean, it could be something from something as simple as “these people understand organizational development. I don't understand organizational development, but I want to work with somebody who does.” Two organizations that are focusing on one issue, one organization has real strength in advocacy and organizing it, while one organization has real strength in writing and policy work, those are two sets of skills that it's really rare to find in one organization. some organizations are good at service providing and other organizations are better at management. I think that a lot of times organizations can partner to build capacity or to test something you could market through a partnership. I particularly found this true in the community development space. There are lots of nonprofits that want to get into community development, whether that is they want to build themselves a facility, whether they're in the housing business, there could be a church or some other big nonprofit that doesn't provide a service that they want to provide in the community development realm. Partnering with somebody who has that skill can be very successful because for everybody Think because the organization that needs the partner that wants to develop the housing or the community center or whatever, they have clarity of mission, they have built in constituency, they can fill the rooms, they can, run the programs, and they partner with somebody who understands how to actually get a building built, or how to get houses built, or, how do you raise money for that? How do you think about that? How do you budget? How do you plan? Those kinds of things.
I think that those are very successful partnerships generally, I think partnerships and community development work, especially where there's potential for a cut to reach economies of scale, for example, especially this gets really to what you talked about from the very beginning, if there's a space where there are lots of actors - in Baltimore, this was true in the out-of-school space, there was a period in I think the 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, where everybody it seemed, was an out-of-school time after-school program business, and some people were operating out of their homes or they were operating out of a church basement. some people had more robust programs or they had bigger space, so they had outdoor space, but the marketplace was so crowded at that point, and the small guys were really in danger of not being able to survive, not because they weren't doing really good work, but because they didn't have the capacity or the need for a nonprofit organization, but they didn't know about Fiscal Sponsorship. They didn't have all this sort of back-office stuff, but they were providing an extraordinarily high-quality service, so I facilitated a collaboration amongst six small providers in a neighborhood in Baltimore City that all had different types of service. There was an arts group, there was a tutoring group, there was a sports group, I think there might have been two of each one. I said to them, “okay, you don't all need a lawyer. You don't all need an accountant, but you've got to have a structure.," so they pulled together a collaboration and they identified a single fiscal sponsor, and somebody who was able to manage all the admin for all six of them. In the course of a year, they were each able to raise enough money to operate both independently, but also, for the first time, to do collaborative programming.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah, it seems to me that it's too easy for many organizations to really get caught up in their own work and not really take the time to think about who else might be in their ecosystem., and as you're saying, even in their neighborhood, their community of who they might be working with for greater impact in that back office stuff. I mean, I'm not sure what the statistic is, and I should probably look it up, but it's like 70 to 80% of nonprofits with less than $750,000 budgets. If every single one of them is replicating that back office, It's a huge amount of resources that could be put to program could be put to program if they were to partner up with some other organizations and share those resources.
We're recording this in the midst of the quarantining for the Coronavirus, so I'm guessing that that this is going to have some impacts on people where they start looking at those things and start doing what solo entrepreneurs have been doing for years, hiring virtual assistants and virtual back office, virtual accounting, all of those things; and I think there's a difference between a partnership, just a one to one and then that that multi-party partnership and then even to the next level, and you’ve talked about how why you're getting together is so important, and I've seen in larger collaborations where it may seem obvious why everyone's together, and yet without having a deliberate conversation about how are we defining what our goal is really specific Basically, everyone can have their own definition of what that goal is.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think too, that you can end up in the space of too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough sous chefs; whatever the metaphor is. It's really about leadership, and about who's going to be in charge - for lack of a better term. It's like if you had a room full of first children, do you know I mean?
Carol: I'm a middle child. I don't want to be in that room.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it's that phenomenon. It's everybody thinking that they are in charge and not knowing - not only who's going to do what, but who's accountable for what, who's responsible for what, because those are the tough conversations that you need to have, and that's the stuff that if you don't do it, it can really kill you, not just the partnership, but it has implications for your individual organizations. If nobody talks about who's going to sign on the dotted line, who's going to be the fiduciary, whose insurance are you going to carry? Do you need to get insurance as a group? All of those things are hugely important, and I think when you're engaged in a partnership around an issue, it's easier to put those things aside or if you are engaged in a partnership that is time limited around a legislative issue or a crisis or some one-off challenge. It's very easy to let that stuff go, and then when you finish, and you’ve got to clean it all up, and you have a big old stew of stuff you can't figure out, it's a giant problem. I think the other thing about that, and about partnerships in general is you're talking about relationships. You're talking about people that - presumably - you like and respect and trust. If you don't, you're not doing enough, you're doing a disservice to the relationships if you don't take the time to think about that stuff and really figure it out.
Carol: I mean, in some instances, you can't have that assumption that everyone likes and respects each other and it may be that a funder is saying all of you guys are in this space, and I want you all to work together. When you've seen those kinds of situations,
Rebecca: The arranged marriage.
Carol: there's a whole bunch of steps that you have to take to start building that trust and you probably have to step way back before you can get to action to just ask “why are we all here? What do we think we can get out of this? How are we going to work together?”
Rebecca: You may be competitors, I mean, that's the other thing. I had a client last year who had been repeatedly asked by a prospective funder to partner with what they viewed as a complimentary organization. My clients saw that group as having a very different strategy, a very different objective; they were competitors so they did not want to partner with that group. The mistake they made, however, was not explaining that to the funder. They didn't explain to the funder that, while they respected the work, that group did their mission, and they had a very similar, I guess, 20,000 foot mission and how they got there in my clients view was incompatible. Their strategies were incompatible, and as a result, they really affected their relationship with the funder because they didn't communicate; and then when we were finally able to get that relationship back on track, the funder was like, “well, you should have just said something. I was looking at it from a very narrow perspective, you're doing this, they're doing this, you should all do it together. If you had said to me, ‘meh’ or ‘we could only partner in this one little area.’ rather than just not doing it.”
Carol: That's a really good point about the 20,000 foot mission versus the theory of change. How are you seeing the strategies you use, and how that's getting you to an end goal; and you say that you're really passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep, and I think this is just a huge challenge in the nonprofit sector for lots of lots of reasons. What do you see that really drives mission creep, in your experience?
Carol: Can you say more about that?
Rebecca: The number one thing in my experience that causes mission creep, is fundraising success. I think very often organizations use the availability of funds as a “we'll try this," you know what I mean? It's not very well thought through if you have - actually, let me be more specific: it's less about economics broadly, than it is about covering your operating expense, which I think is one of the single biggest challenges and one of the things I think that the philanthropic community should be doing more of is covering the appropriate percentage, covering operating expenses at the appropriate level, because often what I have seen happen is an organization - let’s say they're a S.T.E.M. organization, they provide S.T.E.M. services, they teach kids S.T.E.M. in the after school space. They raise X number of their $50,000 budget, or $100,000 budget, of which $20,000 is general operating or 30,000 was general operating. They are applying for program grants. There is not an organization that I have seen - and I worked for a philanthropy and our general operating number, I think was 11%, and we were very high at the time. General operating isn't sexy. It's not new, it's not the bright shiny thing, so it can be very hard to raise money for. So this particular organization saw a grant opportunity to provide counseling or to provide family counseling or something, something that was utterly unrelated to but could have been tangentially and their way in was we will counsel the families of the kids we serve, because they were like “we need the money." It was a disaster because it was so far outside of their mission.
Carol: and probably [out of] their core competence
Rebecca: Exactly. I think often - and that's a very extreme example - often it's, “we'll do the same thing in a different issue” or “we’ll do the same thing with a slightly different program area," but the result is the same. I see a lot of medium-sized nonprofits, or nonprofits that want to go from small to midsize. If there is a trend in philanthropy, if there's a new bright, shiny thing that funders are funding, then the temptation is very great to try the new, bright, shiny thing as a means to keep your doors open rather than doing what you do really, really well and working harder to find the funders that support that. That's a hard thing to do, I think that avoiding mission creep is a function of capacity.
Carol: If you've seen - and I am not a fundraising consultant, so this is just from observations - so especially with newer organizations, you're talking about moving from small to midsize, maybe there's a lack of understanding of what really [is] the impact that grants can have on an organization from the board's perspective. It just seems like “oh, wow, it's free money.” I mean, it's not free money because you got to do work for it - but the sense of
never thinking about what that grant might actually cost the organization.
Carol: Is the piece that people miss.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think there's a lot of well-intentioned grant making that isn't necessarily well thought through, and I also think that there's a temptation I think that works counter to that in a mission creep space is empire building.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: There are often three or four big dogs [in a city] that started out doing whatever they did, [and] because their organization is really good at whatever it is that they started out doing, they're the ones that get offered the new bright, shiny thing, and because they have the capacity to do it, and even if [they don’t,] they have the capacity to hurry up and figure out how to do it, and somebody asked them to do it. Somebody with money said, “why don't you try this?” I mean, there's an organization in Baltimore, [and] they do great work, but they are the object lesson for empire building. They did one thing exceptionally well, [and] because they did that one thing exceptionally well and ED was out and about, a lot of people knew him. He's a smart guy, he was easy to like, the program was a very feel-good program. Then somebody asked him to go into the housing renovation business or some absurd ancillary thing, and because somebody asked him to do it, he did exactly what you said: he hurried up and figured it out, because he had the bandwidth within his staff and he had the resources to train. He figured out how to do that,
Carol: Or hire some experts doing that.
Rebecca: Exactly. So even though he went and did it and did a serviceable job at it. He put out of business the two organizations across town that were doing that work successfully, but that were really, really tiny so nobody knew they were there. So the unintended consequences of the intended consequences of not really understanding capacity building and choosing expansion for the known over [just] training somebody who is smaller and maybe less well known. so this organization just to wrap it up in a bow ended up being the go-to organization, they ended up with fiscal sponsorships and blah, blah, blah in 15 different issue areas, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, and they had one of those heavy duty blockbuster boards with all the bold faces and everybody. They were *the* group, and it got to a point where the people who ran it took themselves way too seriously.
Carol: It’s flattering to be asked to do all those things.
Rebecca: It is, and if you're able to figure out how to do them even marginally well, you also have the ability to cover your own failures, you can paper over the fact that you're not as good at it as you were at your core service, but you're passively good at it, and people love you. So they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I was putting together a program - I was working inside government and I was putting together a program and we needed to get a big application, and we were looking for nonprofits to work with who would be the lead for this particular grant. These guys were not the right ones, but they really thought they were, and they couldn't figure out why they hadn't been asked to dance. We went with somebody else because it was an opportunity to elevate that group, they were very, very good and ready to do the next step and it was really interesting having to explain to this very successful organization that they were not the ones [and] I think that happens too. I think that, in every single city there are three or four big dogs, then there's two or three medium dogs, and then there are 35 small dogs who can't get out of the dog run because they can't raise any money.
Carol: Yeah. Well I want to shift gears a little bit and play a game.
Carol: I’ve been a facilitator of many, many meetings and designing lots of retreats and planning sessions etc. I have many things like boxes of icebreakers because other people are better - that's one of those skill gaps -- other people are better at thinking of fun questions than I am, so I'm just going to use theirs…. So the question is: if you could live in a sitcom, which one would it be and why?
Rebecca: [I have] a couple of answers to that. I don't know which way to go. Is this “if my life were a sitcom” or can I pick a sitcom? Am I picking a sitcom to inhabit?
Carol: You're living in it. You're being dropped in, you are now a character in the sitcom.
Rebecca: Okay, all right.
Carol: It doesn't have to be for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: Ok… off the top of my head, [my] answer is Friends because it's impossible to believe that they could all be in New York and not have a black friend.
Carol: Well, there you go.
Rebecca: That was [something] I never understood.
Carol: Well it's funny, when I pulled this card out of the box this morning, I actually thought of Friends also, but then I started thinking “um... well, let's see, I'd be the nerdy friend that certainly wouldn't be hanging out with those folks if I were in college.”
Rebecca: I'd be the black snarky friend, but guess what, that's my thing.
Carol: All right, excellent [I think] mostly because I was a single mom in my 20s and so I didn't get to have that time of hanging out with your friends and that being your family, so I would take a vacation there with those folks as well.
So what are you excited about what's coming up for you that's emerging in terms of your practice and the work you're doing?
Rebecca: I'm really excited about partnerships and collaborations right now, and I was excited about it before all of this craziness, but I am weirdly more excited about it now because I think that what is happening in our country, and in our world is both exposing some real fissures that need to be fundamentally addressed, and - secondarily - I think every crisis is an opportunity, right? I think that the nonprofit sector has a real opportunity to examine their work, to be very creative in terms of service-providing because we are in a period where lots of people need lots of things. I think that both big and small, established and less established organizations of different competencies have real opportunities to come together and increase capacity and develop broader programming and change and think about the ways in which they serve their constituents, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity for people like me who understand and can help you figure that out, so that.
The other way I'm thinking about it is, you know, one of the ways I describe myself in my practice is that I'm an interpreter because I have experience, not just across sectors but across subject matters. I am able to be the fulcrum, be the center of the wheel, and help the spokes communicate to each other for a moment. What that has given me is a certain agility and nimbleness to be able to explain and interpret and facilitate collaborations because I understand how each sector works with the other from their particular vantage point. I always joke that I can translate, I can speak philanthropy to government, I can speak nonprofit to philanthropy. I can be in all of those spaces and create meaningful collaboration and I think that's going to be a very useful skill going forward.
Carol: Yeah, I think people are having to - there are some who jumped on the bandwagon in terms of working from a distance and obviously, not everything can be done from a distance. A lot of places are having to rethink how they do their work and maybe suddenly, things that people doubted, I know [that] in the work that my daughter does, they do virtual advising of college students for financial aid, and suddenly virtual advising is the one thing that they can do right now. So you talked about things emerging for you, so how can people get in touch with you?
Rebecca: People can get in touch with me via my website, which is rcmstrategicconsulting.com . I can be reached via email at RCMstrategicconsulting@gmail.com. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My Twitter account is RCMStratConsult.
Carol: All right, you can get in touch with Rebecca there and thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me Carol. It was a lot of fun.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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