With a dual master’s degree in business administration and international agricultural economics and a professional background in nonprofit management, organizational effectiveness, human resources, and educational technology, Mickey Levitan has been marinating an idea to address major challenges facing promising nonprofits for the past 30 years. He first encountered these challenges as a country director for Save the Children in Thailand.
“In the ensuing years serving on nonprofit boards, I saw these problems persist and grew to understand how widespread they are,” he said.
When he sold the educational technology company he founded in 2015, Levitan was ready to move beyond the idea stage. Notwithstanding many years of experience and pondering possible solutions, he was cautious about moving too quickly to launch a program.
“Too many efforts start without tapping accumulated wisdom, stumbling over problems that have already been solved,” Levitan said. “So I committed to a research period that brought me to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.”
Serving as a visiting fellow and adjunct faculty member at the school, Levitan recently concluded his research.
“My study focused on middle stage nonprofits (approximately $2-$10 million in annual revenue) that are seeing evidence that their programs get better results than similarly targeted programs, have a strong leadership team that would like to extend the reach of those programs, and have a board that’s supportive of growth,” he said.
“The first barrier they run into is financial. To support growth, they have to invest in financial services, back office operations, technology, research, etc. It’s difficult to find money to do that.
“In addition, nonprofit leaders, no matter how talented they are, have to do things they’ve never done before, e.g. build a strategic board, oversee the doubling of back office operations, lead a research function, etc. When they need outside resources for those projects, it’s hit or miss.
“For too many successful nonprofits, not being able to finance organizational investments or tap the right outside expertise keeps them from reaching a fuller potential.”
Levitan gathered stories and feedback in hundreds of interviews around the country. He spoke with people with firsthand experience leading, supporting, and studying middle stage nonprofits—nonprofit leaders, grant makers, intermediary organizations, service providers, and academics.
“I was able to see what is working, assess where gaps exist, and collect input on possible responses,” he said.
Building a pilot program
As part of the research phase, Levitan ran a pilot program to evaluate ideas for capacity building support that included 12 nonprofits in Indiana.
“We tested a process for developing a roster of highly recommended external resources—people, systems, and tools—based on actual experience of peer organizations. As the pilot unfolded, we shared peer recommendations and experience with participating organizations that had new initiatives for which they had not yet identified needed outside resources. This enabled them to get up to speed quicker,” Levitan explained.
“We also helped frame upcoming initiatives. We’ll see if access to the right external resources and help with framing increased the likelihood of success.”
According to Levitan, participants found the pilot program valuable and expressed strong support for building such a service in Indiana. He was surprised to learn that the links between people doing similar work in local nonprofits were not well developed.
“We held lunches so peers could meet each other, share success stories that others might find of use, and tap expertise in the room to help with new challenges,” Levitan said. “Exchanges through emails and conversations continued after the lunches.”
Future of the project
Building on learning from his landscape scan of capacity building and the pilot, Levitan is now to developing a business plan for a program that helps promising nonprofits get past the challenges he has targeted. And his goal? “If successful, the program will help more organizations with standout results to develop the financial and adaptive capacity required to sustainably extend the benefits of their programs.”
Benefits of working with the school
Working at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy has helped Levitan in multiple ways.
“When starting something from scratch, a major challenge is intellectual isolation,” he said. “Experienced professors and administrators at the school have been terrific sounding boards for ideas about program design. They have suggested programs to research and things to read. They have offered valuable critiques of things I have written. Alumni have kindly participated in research and provided introductions to helpful colleagues. The guest speakers have been great.
“I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with top leaders in the philanthropic sector that I might not have been able to meet otherwise. Lifeblood for an early stage enterprise is feedback and networking. The vibrant Lilly Family School of Philanthropy community has been immeasurably helpful with both.”
Levitan has also appreciated opportunities to pitch in, teaching a community service seminar last fall, helping with other classes, sharing some of his organizational effectiveness expertise, serving as a mentor for students, and participating in career development activities.
“Robert Frost talked about learning by presence—learning in the presence of great people, great events, great activities,” Levitan said. “I have learned much in the presence of the community here.”
Levitan capped his research with a paper titled Nonprofit Capacity Building: Fortify the Core that shares insights from his landscape scan and lays groundwork for the program he is developing.