Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

NNFS Annual Gathering Reflects Growth and Depth in the Fiscal Sponsorship Industry

From left to right: Asta Petkeviciute from Social Impact Commons, Kim Lillig and Josh Clement from Strong City Baltimore present.

Fiscal sponsors from across the country convened in Philadelphia at the end of October for the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors (NNFS) National Gathering. In this still-burgeoning sector of the nonprofit industry, the Gathering is a vital space for fiscal sponsors to share challenges, find solutions, and advance the work of fiscal sponsorship. This year, the gathering was hosted by Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), a close partner of Strong City Baltimore’s.

Attendance grew by nearly 50% as compared to last year, with 200 people representing over 70 fiscal sponsors from 19 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. And Greg Colvin, “father” of the sector and author of Fiscal Sponsorship 6: Ways to Do it Right (commonly referred to as the fiscal sponsorship bible), promoted the recently updated third edition of the book.

Strong City attended for the fifth year in a row. Seven staff members from the operations and finance departments participated in nearly every workshop.

Strong City was an industry educator this year, leading a workshop on “Financial Success and Fulfilling Your Mission: How fiscal sponsors can more effectively manage their social enterprises in order to meet their mission.” Assistant Director of Operations Kim Lillig and Development Consultant (former Grants Manager) Josh Clement teamed with Asta Petkeviciute from Social Impact Commons and presented how to use research and data as a tool for making strategic decisions about fiscal sponsorship business models.

“We had over 30 [executive and finance directors] in the room asking questions and digging deep into our data,” said Kim. “Two of my favorite phrases I heard this year were: ‘Overhead is necessary, not a necessary evil’ and ‘Effective management happens through agency, not authority.’”

As with previous years, staff noted that fiscal sponsors across the country are struggling with the same challenges, from covering the cost of services to clear communication to effective evaluation.

UAC revealed they raise approximately $1 million every year to cover the cost of their services not met by charging 10% of their projects’ revenue. This is the national average fee for fiscal sponsors, which Strong City also uses.

Industry consultant Andrew Schulman noted in his takeaways that communicating the benefit of fiscal sponsorship, especially to prospective funders, is an ongoing challenge. During the Funding Panel, representatives from across the funding sector continued to push the narrative that the onus was on the fiscal sponsor to better explain the benefits by improving marketing strategies, while not bogging funders down with too many details.

Conversations about program evaluation revealed that nearly all sponsors struggle with collecting effective data due to low response rates, inability to standardize data points to the variety of work done by projects, and a lack of capacity and resources to focus on this need.

Despite the shared challenges, staff also found the Gathering to be stimulating and rejuvenating.

CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia placed fiscal sponsorship in a historical context, dating back to 500 C.E., using the language of commons.

“The main impact of understanding the history and placing fiscal sponsorship in the context of ‘communing’ is to use common language, which is more concerned with pooling of resources than more traditional capitalistic language,” said Josh, who attended the session.

“The idea is that they want the projects to feel like they are joining a movement as compared to purchasing a service, which fundamentally changes the relationship.”

Lynette Hodge, who was recently promoted to Portfolio Manager, found the Leaders of Color session to be a welcoming space where intersectionality and humanity in the workplace amongst staffers of color was discussed.

“The commentary in the room assured me, as a woman of color, that Strong City is doing a lot of the same anti-racist work that many other organizations are, and, in some cases, we have a lot to offer,” said Lynette.

Kenya Pope, Initiative Bookkeeper, found her first Gathering to be a full and rich learning experience where she could speak the unique language of fiscal sponsorship and be understood. As a result of the conference, Kenya is leading efforts to explore a new software that could integrate the multiple financial systems Strong City is currently using.

“One of my takeaways from the conference: With cobbled systems, we as accountants/bookkeepers are pegged to be data processors; but with integrated systems, we can do the data analysis,” said Kenya.

Danielle Conway, Payroll and Human Resources (HR) Associate, was initially unsure what value there would be for her to attend the conference. She found that HR professionals in the fiscal sponsorship sector all face similar challenges and came away confident that the conference had equipped her with new tools and strategies.

“I was also grateful for the experience to network with more experienced professionals in our field who were generous enough to not only share their knowledge but offered themselves as a continuous resource for Strong City,” said Danielle.

Director of Operations Tyson W. Garith, who has been working in fiscal sponsorship for 11 years and is considered one of the top experts in the sector by fiscal sponsorship peers, left the conference with a renewed sense of confidence.

“This year, I think my most exciting learning was an affirmation – Strong City is operating within the best practices of the fiscal sponsorship sector, and any challenges we may face are shared by our fiscal sponsorship colleagues across the country,” said Tyson.

“We’re working in the right direction, and with an excellent network of support and collaboration. I’m so proud to be part of Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship work!”