Monthly Archives: November 2007

Why Philanthropy Should Embrace Controversy

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from “a young foundation staffer”. The author is “a recent college graduate who has interned with an operating foundation, a venture fund at a community foundation, and now a family foundation.”

By  “a young foundation staffer”

The work philanthropists and foundations is inherently controversial.

Decisions to grant money to a particular cause and to a particular organization are always decisions not to give that money elsewhere. No individual and no foundation has enough money to solve all of the problems out there or to even to really fund all the approaches to a particular problem out there. Foundation work and strategies are about decisions: to give in this country or city, to fund short-term or long-term solutions, to prevent the problem or treat the disease, to listen to a community member’s idea or to the expert advice.

In this sense, philanthropy is like voting. We generally want to encourage more people to do it because democracy is healthier when more people engage it in. But stopping at “more is better” and “any is good” is wrong, deeply misleading, and potentially harmful to society. It is also healthier for democracy if people are informed voters and if people disagree and debate about who should receive their vote. These are tough issues and tough problems; we don’t agree on them and pretending we do is naive. Similarly, while it’s fine to acknowledge that philanthropy is generous and positive, on the whole, we also should acknowledge that it should involve informed decision making and a willingness to engage with the idea that one’s decision could be wrong. And like our government, philanthropy has done a lot of good, but it has done harm too.

Too many times, I think, we try to take the controversy and the politics out of the work by talking only about how “giving is good and generous, etc.” or by trying to boil it down to a science of identifying high impact organizations, and that does a disservice to everyone. Debate in board meetings and amongst staff members and between different foundations and, most of all, in communities should be about more than whether a nonprofit is “well-run”. It should be about whether it is a pressing problem, whether the approach is right, and whether the values underlying it are ones we want to endorse. And we should see that kind of deep probing as healthy signs that the decision makers are thinking about the consequences of the decision to give somewhere (or rather, the decision to NOT give to many other somewheres) and recognizing the valid arguments about why their decision might be wrong.

That’s why, I think it’s too bad that the “$500 for Your Nonprofit!” post didn’t ask people to engage in a conversation about not just what nonprofit, but why their nonprofit. The premise generated responses, but leaving it at that simplifies the nature of philanthropy. One’s vote in that challenge is an implicit decision that an issue is critical and that an organization is the most deserving. We shouldn’t ignore that.

Generosity and empathy certainly inspire the decision to give, and evaluations, assessments, and research of all sorts are tools for helping make the decision. But none of that can take the controversy out of it. And we should be thankful, rather than frustrated or scared, by that reality because it means we’re engaging with how hard and how vital this work is.

More on Mergers, Ms. Miller!

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Jean Butzen. Jean runs Mission Plus Strategy consulting, specializing in mergers and alliances in the Chicago area.

By Jean Butzen

More on Mergers, Ms. Miller!

“Let’s go for two, Clara Miller,” I said to myself, paraphrasing the famous words of legendary Cubs first man Ernie Banks. Ms. Miller, CEO of the Nonprofit Financial Fund and featured speaker at a luncheon sponsored by the Donors’ Forum of Illinois, was advocating for one change: foundations should stop funding line items on nonprofit budgets and start funding results. I agreed with Ms. Miller but that one change wasn’t enough. A second change she could have added was: foundations should start funding alternative strategies to increase results. One strategy I particularly believe that foundations have over-looked is nonprofit mergers and alliances.

Nonprofits that wish to grow their social impact may be able to do so much more efficiently and effectively through a well-targeted merger with another nonprofit, than staying as a stand-alone writing grant after grant. Foundations know this. So why aren’t we seeing a growing trend in funding the costs of nonprofit mergers and alliances? I believe it’s because of two reasons: 1) the sector does not have sufficient knowledge of the potential of the strategy to increase results; and 2) foundations do not understand how to underwrite and sell these types of strategies to their boards. It’s been my experience that foundation staff fully agree with the need to fund nonprofit mergers, but it is foundation boards that find mergers and their costs (i.e., due diligence) antithetical to the mission of foundations.

But why would that be? If foundations are truly interested in outcomes, then the strategies utilized by nonprofits to achieve these results would not matter. Whether the approach is fundraising to double the output of a well-executed employment program or merging two aligned employment agencies together, the important issue is: Did they get the intended results?

Nonprofit merger strategy is still in the dark ages despite the efforts of pioneers such as David LaPiana and Thomas McLaughlin. The lack of dedicated funding for merger costs, professional training in merger strategy, and (most importantly), public knowledge about completed mergers translate into a lack of infrastructure to support this useful strategy. Without the infrastructure, nonprofits will not be able to utilize the strategy to its maximum potential.

We need two changes in the philanthropic sector: start funding results and start funding new strategies to get more results. Foundations need to step up to the plate and create dedicated funding for nonprofit mergers and alliances and help build an infrastructure to support the strategy.

We Gotta Have Scale!

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from “another nonprofit professional”: “I’m a long-time nonprofit professional (think its a decade now), based in Washington DC, who dances between domestic and international programs.  I focus on economic development empowered by technology and have a serious alergic reaction to trumped up claims of impact, even though I find myself acquiescing to it on occasion.”

By “another nonprofit professional”

We Gotta Have Scale!

That was the call to action today at my humble start-up within a nonprofit, “We gotta have scale!  Funders only respond to big numbers.”

Apparently, even though we would double the beneficiaries in out target market, serving twice as many people as all our competitors combined, our realistic target wasn’t enough.  Because our competitors had so little scale, our numbers would not be impressive on a national level and no one is going to write us fat checks if we didn’t “expand” our beneficiary pool.

I am sure this sounds familiar to anyone working in the nonprofit world.  It doesn’t matter if you speak in hundreds, thousands, or millions, you too feel the pressure to scale.  To conjure new ways to double triple, exponentially increase your beneficiary pool to grab funders’ attention.

But what does “scale” really mean?

Does quantity beget quality?  Is breadth better than depth?  Does it really resonate with you that your organization had a 5 minute or 50 minute interaction with a beneficiary when you know it takes years to really make an impact?

Wouldn’t we all trade in every single million person metric if we could empowering just one community to provide our services in our stead?

Then why do we play this scale game?  Why do I see so many nonprofits heralding the hundreds, thousands, millions served?  McDonalds stopped counting at 99 billion served, moving on to other, better metrics of outcomes, not just activity.  We in the nonprofit world need to do the same.

We need to change the conversation.

“Scale” should be used to describe the depth of our impact.  Not “millions served” but “outcomes of our work”.  Yes, its messy, and it doesn’t fit beneath golden arches, but we’re not, and should not be in the business of mass or fast.  And our message shouldn’t be either.

I want us to face the challenge to scale, all right.  The challenge to scale our impact with each person, not per person.

links for 2007-11-30

Not Just “Grant” Making

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Amy Sample Ward. Amy is a Communications and Learning Associate at the Meyer Memorial Trust. She authors MMT’s New Media Blog as well as a personal blog devoted to nonprofit technology.

By Amy Sample Ward

As the holiday season is now in full swing and many organizations are launching online donation campaigns, I have been thinking more and more about how closely my personal views of “giving” have formed my professional ones.

Working in a large private foundation means that I am all too familiar with large amounts of initial inquiries and grant applications flooding in every month.  Previously, I worked in nonprofits, though, and am also very familiar with the kinds of Christmas lists small, grassroots organizations can really think up.

Whenever conversation turns to philanthropy and how we teach philanthropy to our children, as it does often this time of year (especially in the blogosphere, like on Beth’s blog), I chime in with the argument that not all giving equals money and that not all organizations really need money as much as other things.  For example, a domestic violence shelter may have enough funds and in-kind agreements to maintain its kitchen consistently, but doesn’t have enough volunteers to help with tutoring and child care in the evening when dinner is being prepared.  There are many alternatives to donating money, be it time, skills, knowledge, community, or even man power.

So, how does that view of philanthropy in my own life change that of my professional life at a foundation? I don’t think that our responsibility is to just dole out the cash—we have a whole lot more to offer!  As a foundation, we have program officers and other staff with terrific skills and knowledge that range from grant writing and strategic planning to mission and vision planning, technology and communications skills to engagement and outreach tactics.  There are many nonprofits that apply for grants and are declined. They could still desperately need and grow from training or other outreach and support in the other areas I mentioned above.

As grantmakers, we need to accept a broader role than just “grant” makers.  We need to step up to provide knowledge, skills, and resources when it is really in all of our best interests to do so; after all, those nonprofits are fulfilling needed services in our communities and that’s why they applied for the grant in the first place!  Contributing all that we can as an organization is the best way to align with our own missions to serve nonprofits and our communities as best as possible.

Volunteers Who Do Not Show

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Chrissy Weeks. Chrissy is a paralegal at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (“AVLF”) and President of the Georgia Association of Paralegals.

By Chrissy Weeks

“The world is run by those who show up!” This is not my quote I got it from somewhere and have to admit I am not sure where. But I start with this quote because I am frustrated by those who do not show up being the ones who suddenly want to voice their opinions.

I coordinate hundreds of volunteers each year for both the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and the Georgia Association of Paralegals. The vast majority of our volunteers are WONDERFUL. They take on unpleasant projects with grace and a smile. They simply do what they are needed to do and report back to us. They are why we exist and why we are able to serve the population that we serve.

Ok now that I have covered my butt – back to the point. I have people sign up for things and then they do not show up! One “volunteer” had the audacity to say “oh, I didn’t realize me not showing up (or even bothering to call you and tell you I was not coming) was a problem”. I had another person tell me that she was confused and was not sure if she was needed. How confusing is: be at this address at 10am. This same “volunteer” then proceeded to tell me that I was not coordinating things very well. Good Lord! People! Butter my butt and call me a biscuit I do not know what else to do but pick you up and take you to things myself.

Well of course it is a problem if you do not show! I now know to pad my volunteers b/c I would rather have too many volunteers. But if too many volunteers simply flake out and think that their participation does not matter for any given event then I am in real trouble. It makes me look bad. When in reality it should be the “volunteer” who looks bad. I dream of posting a volunteer black list. But I am a southerner and still have a few manors left 😉 So I don’t post it. But I do keep that list in my head.

So if you are one of these people who does not show up and who does not call, just know that it does make an impact. And you are on my list! The world will not be run by you b/c you are not the one to show up!

So how do y’all deal with volunteers who do not show? Am I the only one who has this problem (I really hope not)? Do you have some sort of screening process for your volunteers? (we do but it obviously is not water tight).

What’s it Like to Work for a Family Foundation?

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Elizabeth Miller. Elizabeth works as a Program Associate for The Overbrook Foundation, a New York City-based family foundation established in 1948 by Frank and Helen Altschul. Its mission is to improve the lives of people by supporting projects that protect human and civil rights, advance the self-sufficiency and well being of individuals and their communities, and conserve the natural environment.

This post first appeared on the Future Leaders of Philanthropy blog.

By Elizabeth Miller

Growing up, my favorite books to read were those from Sydney Taylor’s series, “All of a Kind Family.” The five books detailed the lives of an immigrant family living on New York’s Upper East Side just prior to World War I. I read the books over and over and at one point, my grandmother even recorded the books so that I could fall asleep listening to a tape of them every night. Looking back, I’d like to think it was a sign that I’d someday go to work for a family foundation in New York.

Now that I have that job, I realize that a lot of my friends and family don’t really understand what I do. When I tell people I work for a family foundation the most common response I get is, “Oh so you must write a lot of grants.” Well, not exactly.  I wasn’t even quite sure what I was getting myself into when I first came to The Overbrook Foundation in the spring of 2004.

In order to understand what it’s like to work for a family foundation you first have to understand why families would be motivated to start a foundation in the first place. The overarching reason is usually a desire to give back to a community that you care about. Families might want to support issues that they feel strongly about, or pass on the tradition of giving to future generations, and they also probably have a general desire to unite all the branches of the family with a shared sense of purpose. Along the way of figuring out all of the above (for example, what issues in a community are you going to focus on – education, health, environment?), people probably come across unique challenges and opportunities, enriched by the lively personalities in their families.

So what is it really like to work for a family foundation? On a daily basis, the tasks I undertake vary tremendously. In “All of a Kind Family” the five young girls encounter everything from everyday chores, to missing library books, to trips to the Rivington Street market. Ironically, I too have “chores” whether it’s drafting minutes from committee or board meetings, responding to letters of inquiry that the Foundation is unable to fund, cleaning out grant files or setting up for meetings; I search for missing pieces of grant proposals; I even make trips downtown to the flower district to pick up orchids before our quarterly Board Meetings.

Taylor’s books also had a unique way of illustrating life in the 1900s. There were episodes of scarlet fever, peddlers, and weekends spent at Coney Island. Likewise, my job is often impacted by modern-day New York City. Just this summer the steam pipe explosion on Lexington Avenue closed our offices for two weeks; I had to walk to work from Battery Park City during the subway strike in December of 2005. And likewise, our grantmaking at the foundation can be impacted by big-scale events or issues, such as September 11th or the Board’s desire to create a climate change initiative, respectively.

There’s a chapter in one of Sydney’s books where the girls spend their penny allowance at the local candy store. The girls would stand next to the counters, trying to decide which chocolate or treat was worth their precious allowance. I’m sure a penny went a lot further almost a hundred years ago, but fundamentally what the Foundation staff does with our annual grants budget is similar: we try to be strategic in the way we manage our portfolio of grants and try to figure out how to best spend the limited resources that the Foundation has available. We look for opportunities that support our Board of Directors’ interest in the Environment and Human Rights Programs, whether it’s continuing old programs or being more innovative with new grants. We try to be responsive to the needs of our grantees and to understand how to improve the grantmaking process.

In the end, I think what makes my experience at a family foundation truly unique from other foundations is the interests and personalities of the Directors. What is different about my job from others who work in philanthropy is that The Overbrook Foundation’s entire philosophy is based around a set of family values, values that have evolved over time. Each family has unique traditions and values, and it’s those values to a large extent that shape the Foundation’s grantmaking. Luckily, I happen to share the specific set of values with the family I’m employed by (which is why I’m so happy with my job). Yet I constantly remind myself that I’m merely a steward of a family and that the work I do is for them. (Of course there is a famed family tree on the wall in front of my computer in case I need a reminder, although I must admit that even with a family tree it took me over a year to figure how everyone was related to each other).

According to The National Center on Family Philanthropy’s recent estimates, there are between 30,000 and 40,000 family foundations in the US that distribute approximately $5 billion dollars a year. While factors such as families’ motivations for giving, personal giving interests, level of assets, and number of generations and family branches interested in participating will inevitably vary from family to family, I’d be willing to bet there’s at least one thing that will remain constant – like the five sisters from “All of a Kind Family,” you’ll always feel like it’s an adventure.

Left Brain, Right Heart

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Randy Ottinger. Randy is the author of Beyond Success: Building a personal, financial and philanthropic legacy. He is the founder of LMR Advisors, which provides strategic philanthropy and legacy advisory services to individuals, wealth advisory firms, and social enterprises. A longer version of this post is available here.

By Randy Ottinger

Left Brain Right Heart: The Individual In The Philanthropic Marketplace

It has been three years since I embarked on my “in search of excellence” study of top philanthropists, generational families, investors and thought leaders. From this study I learned that there is a heart of philanthropy and a rational philanthropic marketplace, and that there are great challenges and opportunities to integrate the two.

The heart of philanthropy is the compassionate individual who wants to give because it is a noble, just and pure act. The heart of philanthropy is spiritual. It witnesses with eyes wide open the most dire problems of humanity, problems that are hard to view up close and personal, problems that seem impossible to resolve, problems that are just as easily left to someone else to tackle, problems where there is no monetary gain, problems that if one were to get involved might change the course of one’s life. The heart desires to give out of empathy and caring for other human beings. Right hearted individuals lead from a place of emotion, compassion and empathy. They give when they are asked to give without question or recognition. They feel the pain and suffering of others and cry, seeking to provide relief in whatever way they can. They act when they are moved, and they are moved by images of suffering and devastation. They care about relationships, and support the causes of their friends without questioning. Giving is part of who they are as humans. And when the right heart gives it is full.

The left brain on the other hand operates from a place of rationality where the language and motivations are quite distinct from the right heart. The left brain does not dwell on images of pain and suffering. It does not speak of injustice or of the moral obligation of individuals. Instead, the left brain focuses intently on problems and solutions. The left brain is about facts and objectivity. The language of the left brain speaks in terms of giving that is productive, effective, and strategic. When left brained individuals support a charity they seek to improve the operation of that charity. They are attracted to social strategies that are grounded in research and are measurable. The left brain is about solving social problems with a rational approach.

The logical outcome of left-brain philanthropy is a global philanthropic marketplace; a marketplace, like a global financial marketplace, where sources of capital intersect with organizations seeking capital. The capital sources in this case are the government, foundations and individuals providing philanthropic capital. The organizations seeking capital are charities. In a rational philanthropic marketplace the charities that would receive the most capital are the ones that are the most strategic, high impact and well run. In a rational philanthropic marketplace high impact charities would grow, and other charities that are less strategic would shrink or go out of business. Ultimately, the global philanthropic marketplace would guide individuals and philanthropic dollars to organizations and causes that yield the highest and best results for society.

Today there is a need for a new philanthropic marketplace that attracts social capital to high impact causes and charities, supports the social good, and guides the heart and mind of the compassionate individual for the greater good.

links for 2007-11-29

The Futures of Philanthropy, Fundraising, and Advertising

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Peter Deitz. Peter writes a blog called About Micro-Philanthropy and is the founder of Social Actions, a community website that aggregates person-to-person fundraising campaigns and helps people to start their own. Deitz also works as a consultant to nonprofits and philanthropists interested in leveraging the power of social networks.

By Peter Deitz

The Futures of Philanthropy, Fundraising, and Advertising

The futures of philanthropy, fundraising, and advertising are looking remarkably similar. In all three fields, technology innovators are turning to real people to do the hard work of moving money.

Foundations are asking non-specialists to “crowd source” their grant recipients. Development teams are using “wired fundraisers” to increase online donations. Companies are relying on “fansumers” to promote their latest products.

The online marketing guru Seth Godin first reported on this trend in a series of e-books entitled Flipping the Funnel. In three versions of the same e-book, Godin addresses companies, nonprofits, and politicians. He instructs them on how individuals can be empowered to sell products, raise money, and recruit votes respectively.

Godin could easily have written a fourth version of Flipping the Funnel, one tailored to the needs of foundations and private philanthropists. The hypothetical e-book would have emphasized the important role that non-wealthy and non-specialist individuals can play in awarding grants and redistributing wealth.

Flipping the Funnel for Foundations and Private Philanthropists would have noted that:

  • Real people are often excellent judges of innovation and long-term impact;
  • If provided with the right incentives, individuals may back their grant recommendations with donations of their own, resulting in larger grants and more grantees;
  • People who are involved in grant-making are more likely to recognize a philanthropist for his or her contribution to the field.

Today, only a handful of nonprofits are effectively using wired fundraisers to raise money. Companies experimenting with fansumerism are drawing criticism for their attack on consumer privacy. And only a handful of foundations and private philanthropists are actually crowd-sourcing grant-making.

And yet, the innovators in these fields are continuing to experiment with new technologies that enable person-to-person communications and discernment. Overtime, the pioneers who balance privacy and fraud concerns with the opportunity for greater sales, donations, and grants will reap rewards for their early adoption.

Compared to fundraisers and advertisers, philanthropists have been the least exuberant in their embrace of the peer-to-peer economy. The sector needs leadership and technology innovation so that more wealth can be moved, and more effectively.

This post will hopefully serve as a starting point for discussing the trend as it pertains to philanthropy. Lessons from person-to-person fundraising and advertising will no doubt inform the discussion and provoke more innovation.

I look forward to exchanging ideas with the Tactical Philanthropy community and the larger world of emerging philanthropy bloggers.