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Up and Coming: An Inside Look at a Next-Generation Experience in Family Philanthropy

October 03, 2015

Hand_money-treeIt was 1:00 a.m. and six college students were crammed into a small hotel bedroom in New York City— but we weren't wrapping up a night on the town. Crouched around computers, we were putting the finishing touches on our first presentation, which would be given to the entire Andrus Family Fund board. The atmosphere was generally light – we were having a blast hanging out with cousins – but we felt the weight of the following day, too. Our presentation would directly impact the allocation of $25,000. We were also proud to be engaged so meaningfully in our family's philanthropy.

AFF was launched fifteen years ago as an offshoot of the Surdna Foundation to engage members of the extended Andrus family in philanthropy. BETs, the Board Experiential Training program, was designed to introduce 18- to 24-year-olds to philanthropy by building awareness of social justice issues for future board members. Both AFF and BETs emphasize "sharing power to build a culture of learning." This sharing manifests itself in the communication that AFF establishes with organizations and communities to ensure that vulnerable populations have a voice. The culture of learning is essential for AFF's and BETs' funding goals, which focus on issues of social justice related to youth involved in foster care and the justice system.

Our training with BETs focused on learning about social justice and its implications for philanthropy and applying that knowledge in a supportive learning-focused environment. Though our BETs cohort was all family, we hailed from five states and many of us had never met. When we'd first connected a year ago in New York, we received an orientation to the program and learned that our task over the following twelve months would be to go through the grantmaking process like board members. Our two facilitators noted that AFF was shifting its language and focus to further incorporate awareness of inequity in the grantmaking process. As a result, our learning about the practical implementation of grantmaking would be grounded in social justice.

Most importantly during that first meeting, we learned about each other. We were all in different phases in college, with a range of majors spanning interior design to chemical engineering, and we all had different hobbies and career aspirations. We were family, yet we had different backgrounds. Moreover, we were tasked with connecting with and funding communities around the country that most of us hadn't personally experienced. It was important to realize our differences early so we could collaborate effectively and eventually make cohesive decisions.

Throughout the yearlong process, we used virtual tools to communicate and collaborate with BETs members and mentors across the U.S. Despite the occasional video-chat snafu, we learned as a group during thematic monthly meetings that included spirited discussions of outside readings. For example, after reading Beverly Tatum's book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, we shared our earliest memories of social messaging around race and identity and how these messages had stayed with us. In that same conversation, our mentors asked us to close our eyes and imagine the board of a major philanthropy: What did the board members look like? (You should try it too. What do you imagine those board members look like?)

Many of us imagined a board made up of predominantly older white men, which forced us to interrogate our assumptions about what philanthropy is and who participates in it. In learning about social justice, we explored issues of identity, intersectionality, privilege, and power. We focused on the history and evolution of philanthropy, power dynamics in grantmaking, and the balance of strategic and socially just aims. As we built our theoretical base, we also discussed its application to "real world" examples, such as analyzing a fictional foundation board's proposal to contract with a university to conduct research about "maximizing its impact" in a particular community. Given this situation, we considered potential conflicts of interest, asked about the individual involvement of the affected community in the research, and wondered whether the cost-benefit analysis might be better generated through a process that engaged and empowered those who had a stake in the issue the fictional foundation sought to address. Further, we began to examine the nuances related to the very notion of maximizing impact. In response to the case-study scenarios, each BETs member wrote responses for the other members to reflect on before the next meeting. Because we often had varied opinions with equally valid intentions, these exercises were foundational in understanding how we operated as a board. For instance, what metrics should be used to quantify impacts, and what role should these numbers play in issues that are difficult to measure? It was fascinating to have these conversations and made us wonder how often professional grantmakers get to do the same.

Four months into the program, we began drafting a statement of purpose to clarify our mission as a group. The following month, we used the statement of purpose as a jumping-off point to write a request for proposals (RFP). The RFP process itself was a stark transition from our learning modules. It was the first time we had organized our thoughts as a group, and it was a powerful experience. After having read many different statements of purpose, we had a better sense of what we wanted to write, but it was a challenge to craft language that clearly conveyed our message to potential applicants. (We'll never read a mission statement the same way again!) Writing together helped us forge a group identity, which served as a guide for the rest of the grantmaking process.

We outlined our funding focus (to support organizations that can efficiently contribute to the amelioration of inequities for our most vulnerable young people) and our approach (we are dedicated to forging connections with potential grantees to encourage collaboration and an ongoing relationship). After finalizing the RFP, we sent it to five organizations selected by AFF staff based on their existing funding relationship with AFF and their fit with BETs' funding focus.

To counteract the inherent power imbalance between grantmakers and potential grantees, we prioritized open communication with the organizations. Not only was this fair, it also afforded us an understanding of the grantmaker-grantee relationship in a way that is impossible to glean through paper proposals alone. We did this by assigning individual BETs liaisons to each organization that submitted a proposal. For most of us, this meant a phone call or email exchange with the organization to learn its values and culture. Our communication process had some unforeseen challenges. One BETs member had to weigh the pros and cons of accepting an invitation to a potential grantee-hosted event scheduled to take place before a funding decision had been reached. While it promised to be an exciting personal opportunity, it also might generate undue expectations for the grantee — and represented a level of access that other organizations wouldn't get. After discussing it as a group, we decided that declining the invitation, while difficult, would be most in line with our social-justice principles.

Through our communications and the funding requests received, we evaluated each of the five proposals using a specific set of criteria: the project's alignment with our social-justice principles, AFF's values, our BETs statement of purpose, the coherence and design of their budget, and our overall impression. After evaluating the proposals individually, we met (virtually) several times as a group to discuss our choices. This was followed by an anonymous vote to determine the two organizations we would recommend to the AFF board for funding. We each knew that the other group members would approach the conversation with respect and consideration for others' perspectives. The anonymous poll resulted in a unanimous vote.

Finally, exactly one year after we first met as a group, we reconvened in New York to present our recommendations and our learning experience with BETs to the AFF board. After a day of reflection and a late night of preparation, we found ourselves in front of the AFF board and staff: fifteen experienced grantmakers and professionals. Though we were nervous and a little intimidated, we knew the board wanted to see us succeed. During our presentation, we prefaced our funding recommendation with an explanation of our learning and tried to engage the board members as if they were experiencing BETs themselves. From using an online polling platform to solicit audience responses in real-time to role-playing a case-study conversation, we did more than just make a presentation; we asked the board to consider individual bias, the transition from traditional philanthropy, and the intersectionalities of identity. Even though we were relatively inexperienced, a social-justice approach meant the board was willing to listen to, and even learn from, us. It was invigorating and intensified our eagerness to engage in philanthropy.

Participating in BETs challenged each of us to grow personally and intellectually, both as philanthropists and as agents of social change. This meant understanding ourselves as members of a long-term team, learning the intricacies of intersectionality and the obligation to use areas of privilege in our lives to effect change, not shying away from issues of social justice in our own communities, and forging relationships with distant family members in a meaningful and productive setting. Even now, months later, we still send out a group text when we come across a relevant article or podcast — or when we're just thinking about the group.

Going forward, the BETs model continues to evolve to better represent AFF and better prepare young family members for philanthropic involvement. There are many approaches to engaging family members and the next generation in philanthropy. BETs is just one approach, but in our experience, it works.

A recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Wadsworth Williams is passionate about effecting change in the healthcare industry and is currently traveling the country as an electronic medical records implementer for Epic. Naomi Wright, a recent psychology graduate of the University of Oregon, currently is working in clinical research in Portland. This post originally appeared on Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (September 2015)

October 02, 2015

Although PhilanTopic was on vacation for a couple of weeks, our readers found lots to chew on, content-wise, in September, including new posts by Derrick Feldmann and Claire Axelrad, infographics from Bloomerang and the ALS Association, a timely post by Foundation Center president Brad Smith, and perennially popular posts by nonprofit executive director Susan Danish and fundraising consultant Richard Brewster. As for us? We'll always have Paris....

What have you read, watched, or listened to lately that warmed your baguette? Feel free to it share in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Creativity: A New Pillar of Sustainability

October 01, 2015

Sustainability21.980x980Creativity. We hack it. We map it. We study it. We rate it. We take it places. We build industries around it. We invest in it. We recognize we need it, even when it hurts. We know our future depends on it.

This is the first in a series of blog posts which will explore the radical premise that creativity is a key driver of sustainability

We will look at the role creativity plays in strengthening communities and driving change. We will appreciate entrepreneurs using the arts, design, and making to tackle topics like healthy food, climate change, the criminal justice system, and immigration. We will remind ourselves how much research science, technology, and social entrepreneurship have in common.

We will imagine creativity as an investment theme and propose how it may be integrated into impact and mission-related investment portfolios. We will review creativity standards for companies and investment funds seeking to have a positive social and financial impact. We will start the conversation about how to measure creativity's contribution toward our sustainable future.

What Do We Mean By Creativity?

Creativity is the spark. When the spark catches, it catalyzes an expression, an experiment, a "creation." If the spark turns into an invention, an entrepreneur can build an enterprise around it. 

If the invention works and the company is profitable and grows, there can be a wide-spread change – that's innovation. Innovation makes markets.

Business uses the word creativity, too. In fact, the Conference Board reports that creativity ranks among the top five skills that U.S. employers believe to be of increasing importance.

But the aesthetic, playful, social aspects of creativity are usually ignored by business. Business ignores creativity unless it's easily measurable and quantifiable. Business ignores creativity unless it contributes to the financial bottom line.

Sound familiar?

If innovation drives the practical, monetizable, single bottom line, then creativity drives the social, impactful, sustainable bottom line. And just like the other drivers of social impact, since creativity is hard to measure, the value of creativity can easily be overlooked.

The Creativity Revolution

In the ongoing conversation about money and meaning, creativity is key to our next chapter. In the quest for a more sustainable capitalism, we must engage the potential for creativity to fuel change.  It's time we talk with the techies, the research scientists, and the artists.

Not because we are seeking a painting or symphony about climate change (though the Gates Foundation has recently engaged artists to help get the word out about the importance of vaccines).  We need to talk to the "creative disruptors" because they have the power to transform systems, markets, and companies. They divine new solutions that most of us just can't see.

Where "Design Thinking" focuses on needs, "Creative Thinking" focuses on possibilities, aspirations, meaning.  And that is one reason why "creativity scares us," as Bruce Nussbaum puts it in his terrific book Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect and Inspire.

Why Creativity Is Sustainable

The fundamentals of creativity read like a playbook for sustainability. Stewards taking a long-term view will find a lot to like.

Creativity is a team sport. Creativity both relies on and builds social cohesion. Looking at places and moments of great creative output – Renaissance Florence, New York's Soho in the 1970s, Silicon Valley over and over again – we see communities intermingling, competing, and collaborating.

Creativity blends tradition and innovation. Whether creativity takes an aesthetic or scientific form, the next "new new thing" builds off what has come before.  There is a sense of history, perspective, and context – even when making radical change. This anchor in what has "gone before" wards off short-term thinking.

Creativity is a bulwark against a volatile, uncertain, and complex world. We cannot anticipate the problems and challenges to come, so we must be able to improvise and respond. During times of stability and plenty, incremental improvements are fine. But to answer daunting challenges, we need a bold reply.

Creativity.  It's not just for art class anymore.

Laura Callanan has worked on Wall Street and on Broadway, managed the endowment for the Rockefeller Foundation, and overseen grantmaking for the National Endowment for the Arts. You can read more of her posts for PhilanTopic here.

Anders Ferguson is a founding partner of Veris Wealth Partners.  He is passionate about drawing connections between the arts, creativity, and sustainability.

Money, Data, and Democracy

September 29, 2015

The U.S. presidential election is thirteen months away. At this point, more than fifty candidates are vying for nomination by the two major parties. The field includes the lone member of the United States Senate to stand as a Socialist and a New York City businessman who has four corporate bankruptcy filings to his name. Members of the voting public may be said to fall into two camps at this point — political junkies who simply cannot ever get enough of campaign politics and the majority of Americans who plan to tune in about a year from now. The former group is hell-bent on getting enough attention from the latter to raise the country's dismal voting percentage to its presidential-election average, which hovers around 60 percent (ten points lower than the average for OECD countries).


Voter turnout is a big deal. Not just to political junkies and clipboard-wielding party volunteers but also to American foundations. According to Foundation Center's newest mapping tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, 180 foundations have spent more than $150 million on voter education, registration, and turnout since 2011, a period that includes one presidential and one midterm election.

Seems like a lot of money to get Americans to do what people in many other countries die for. But we're good at spending a lot of money on our democracy. Even this early in the campaign, big donors are talking big numbers, promising (threatening?) to spend $100 million or more each on their favorite candidates or issues. And political junkies are predicting that more than $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads alone — while election spending in total could run as high as $10 billion. Suddenly, nearly $150 million of foundation funding over four years doesn't look so big in comparison to $10 billion for a single election cycle.

The huge sums of money have become as much a part of the quadrennial American narrative as the quirky unknown candidates, their inevitable stumbles and blunders, and the occasional important policy discussion. Part of the interest lies in the sheer magnitude of the sums involved. Imagine what we might accomplish in social services, education, or health care if we spent an additional $10 billion.

But some of the interest also is driven by persistent efforts to make campaign spending more transparent. Because presidential elections only happen every four years, there's a better-than-average chance that each one will be "the most expensive ever." Telling that story, tracking the numbers, and highlighting the huge sums provided by a (tiny) subset of political donors has become part of our republic's ritual.

Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, MapLight, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics find, clean, and load (in useful formats) the fundraising and spending reports that candidates, campaigns, and various aligned political organizations are required to file. The costs of doing this are more than you might at first imagine, as we tend to think that simply posting data sets is all that's necessary to make that data useful. As proponents of transparency and those trying to obfuscate know, raw data by itself as a first step is not sufficient for sense-making. Open and accessible is a requisite first step, but cleaning, verifying, analyzing, and using it are still very much required. Even so, various political agendas have stymied efforts to require e-filing of these reports as a first step, a regulatory change that would go a long way to lowering the cost of making sense of political fundraising.

In the looking-glass world in which we find ourselves, the more raw data on political fundraising and spending that becomes available, the more we need nonprofit intermediaries, including investigative reporting organizations, to help make sense of the data. For all its potential to make information available at ever-lower cost, opening up data requires complementary investments in mechanisms to make the data useful and help us make sense of it.

If the issues swirling around campaign finance reform sound familiar to those of you who work in nonprofits, they should. The same set of questions about e-filing and data disclosure also applies to nonprofit tax filings. Earlier this year, the IRS lost a legal challenge aimed at accelerating its heretofore-glacial efforts to put nonprofit tax data online. Any year now we should see mandatory nonprofit e-filing and the release of tax data in a machine-readable format.

If the nonprofit space follows in the footsteps of our political system, the end result of a law to require nonprofits to e-file won't be a straight line to cheaper and more convenient access to that information. We'll also need more investments in the intermediaries and infrastructure that can help us make sense of the increasing quantities of data we generate.

We're reaching the stage where ready access to data on spending in politics, on politics, and from foundations and nonprofits can be assumed. This bodes well as a catalyst for greater understanding, more insights, and, potentially, more participation. Not because the data will make the responsibility of being an active citizen in a democracy any easier, but because it will gives us more tools with which to work. Democracies depend on participation and accountability, and broadly accessible useful information is a precursor to both.

LucyBheadshotLucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where she co-leads the Digital Civil Society Lab. You can follow her on twitter @p2173. This is the first in a series of ten posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day in November.

Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America

September 28, 2015

 PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in May 2015. Enjoy.

The arts — as we know it — are doomed. The broad cultural and economic consensus of the last century that placed paramount value on the arts, arts education, and art institutions has been lost like the voice of Yeats' falconer in the widening gyre. Tomorrow we will have less art, and we will be the poorer for it.

Cover_Curtains_the_future_of_the_Arts_in_AmericaLike an Old Testament prophet, Michael M. Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, warns of a fundamental crisis in the arts: the way they are created, managed, and marketed in America is simply not sustainable. Ironically, as recently as 2013, Kaiser, in The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations, was somewhat optimistic that such a worst-case scenario could be averted, and he outlined a series of steps arts organizations could take to fortify themselves for the tough times ahead.

Not so much in 2015. In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), Kaiser paints a dark picture of the future, both explaining how things came to pass and what arts organizations, especially mid-sized ones, might do to (maybe) save themselves from oblivion.

His argument goes like this: In economic terms, the arts are playing a losing hand; in almost every other industry, the costs of production are reduced over time, allowing for more goods to be sold at a lower price point. Innovation and commodification contribute to this process, enabling goods to be produced ever-more cheaply and distributed on a vast scale, which in turn allows for the increasing segmentation of consumer markets and real-time adaptation to changing tastes and expectations. Alas, almost none of this is true for the arts.

The performing arts in particular, writes Kaiser, are a labor-intensive endeavor in which every unit (i.e., performance) is numbingly expensive to produce — a cost that is passed on to members of the audience in the form of ever-rising ticket prices. Moreover, when every performance must support a portion of the salaries and pensions of hundreds of performers, managers, and back-office staff, as well as theater maintenance and the marketing of the production and institution itself, it's little wonder that arts professionals look to the future with pessimism and deep anxiety.

It wasn't always this way. A half-century ago, with the U.S. economy booming, government coffers bursting, and the costs of sustaining arts institutions much less daunting, the arts in America entered a sort of golden age. Arts education increasingly was viewed as a social good to be sustained with taxpayer dollars, and children, as they grew older, followed their parents' lead and became arts consumers and patrons in their own right. While twentieth-century forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and pop music all competed with live performances of more traditional art forms for audience dollars and attention, they served, more than anything else, to fuel Americans' interest in and a broader engagement with the arts. In particular, visionary investments like those made by the Ford Foundation in developing networks of regional theaters enabled the performing arts to flourish in cities large and small, while Lucille Lortel made Off-Broadway a household name.

But the good times couldn't last forever, and they didn't, undone by a combination of rising costs, stagnating household incomes, and ferocious competition from cheaper digital alternatives. Kaiser's lens is both economic and cultural, and he has a lot to say about the need for arts organizations to change — in a hurry. But his book isn't political, and readers will find little in the way of policy prescriptions or legislative recommendations. Indeed, Kaiser takes the position that the days of significant and sustained government support are over. Support for the arts as a percentage of federal and state spending, he notes, has been falling since the 1980s, while a perfect economic storm has emboldened two generations of anti-tax budget-cutters, resulting in an increasingly hostile climate with respect to public funding for the arts.

Ditto arts education. Kaiser finds it disturbing, if not unfathomable, that an entire generation has now reached adulthood without the benefit of any meaningful arts education or an appreciation of the arts' role in the life of a well-rounded person and the nation. What's more, the aging of a generation of loyal theatergoers and arts patrons raises for many organizations a deeply troubling question: Who will replace them when they are no longer there to support us? Efforts to cultivate a new generation of arts consumers and donors are not working, writes Kaiser. Twenty- and thirty-something millennials have a seemingly endless array of entertainment choices to choose from, and the cost of those choices is falling as rapidly as their number is exploding. At the bottom of the list for most millennials are expensive live performances of traditional art forms with which they have never seriously engaged. Why, as Kaiser puts it, spend $600 on a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera when you can hop over to YouTube and watch, at no charge, a video of the same performance — or anything else, for that matter — any time you feel like it? Exacerbating the situation is the fact that most arts organizations simply don't have the resources to cultivate relationships with semi-engaged (at best) millennials who may (or may not) be there for them two or three decades down the road.

Nor does Kaiser let foundations — in the past, a critical source of support — off the hook. His too-brief look at how they are responding to the shifting sands he describes elsewhere in the book is less than complimentary. According to Kaiser, too many foundations, thinking they are being innovative and far-sighted, are shifting their support for the arts to endowments (which, he notes, have the attraction of a supposedly guaranteed income stream), while at the same time making things more difficult for arts organizations by scaling back on or refusing to provide general operating support. Similarly, he isn't impressed by what he sees as a growing trend among arts organizations to pursue big donors and gifts, even as they neglect to cultivate more modest donations; yes, a $100 million gift is better than a stick in the eye, but what do institutions lose when they neglect hard-won relationships with the tens of thousands of regular patrons who have supported them over the decades? The absence of real and sustained engagement with those audiences, combined with a general unwillingness to embrace new technologies, casts further doubt on the long-term sustainability of many, if not most arts organizations.

In short, it's all a mess, and while Kaiser thinks he can be of some help, he doubts whether he, or anyone else, can actually fix the problems of the arts in America. As he argued in his earlier work, he strongly believes that for any arts organization to survive into the middle of this century, it will have to get real about creating great art, marketing it relentlessly (Hollywood-style, if need be), building a strong and committed board, and being much more sophisticated about fundraising and merchandising. Of course, all that requires talent and an enormous amount of money, and where those resources are going to come from is anything but clear.

What is clear is that larger arts organizations, in most cases, have the resources and capacity to follow his advice and are positioned to attract, by virtue of their reputations and brands, talented managers, loyal audiences, and deep-pocketed donors. What's more, some, like the Metropolitan Opera, which, with tickets priced at $25 a pop, has been packing movie theaters across the country with people eager to see extremely well-crafted live broadcasts of its performances, will show themselves to be truly innovative. Indeed, according to Kaiser, the Met and other institutions need to do more of that kind of thing, perhaps taking a page from professional sports; why not make a live performance of La Bohème as cool as Monday Night Football? That might not be good for the mid-sized opera company in a place like, say, Nashville, but then again the competition might be just what the doctor ordered if it helps to elevate the profile of the art form and creates more demand for live performances of opera, or any other form, at the regional level. We all should hope so, Kaiser writes, because if it doesn't, expect to see a dramatic withering of the arts ecosystem in the future.

Kaiser aptly illustrates his prediction with an allusion to Huxley's Brave New World. Are we going to find a formula that will fortify and cultivate the arts in America, securing its place as a cornerstone of our culture and civilization, or will we all end up in a Soma-infused stupor consuming ersatz content designed to make us want to consume more of the same bland gruel? Or maybe we've already reached that point? Kaiser doesn't say. But consider yourself warned.

Daniel X Matz
Foundation Web Manager
Foundation Center

Losing the Red Cross Would Be the Real Disaster

September 27, 2015

Headshot_beth_gazleyPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in November 2014. Enjoy.

As a disaster researcher and scholar of nonprofit management, I've followed the (well publicized) travails and (hardly publicized) successes of the American Red Cross over the years.

I've met its national staff at research conferences and local staff at state and county emergency management meetings, where I've served on the board of my local Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). I participated with hundreds of other invited experts in the governance audit that resulted in the "American National Red Cross Governance Modernization Act of 2007." I’ve monitored the commentary after a ProPublica/National Public Radio exposé of the Red Cross appeared last week. And based on my observations, I have developed a healthy respect and sympathy for the Red Cross.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

There's no disputing the fact that the public needs better results from the Red Cross. The organization has been essential to our welfare since the day it was chartered by Congress to be our national disaster response agency — primus inter pares among hundreds of agencies known collectively as voluntary organizations active in disaster. In fact, the Red Cross predates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by seventy-nine years.

Congress has entrusted a good part of disaster-related mass care and sheltering to the Red Cross. Somewhat less rationally, Congress imposed this public mandate on the Red Cross without much aid; the agency is expected to meet our nation's disaster relief needs largely through the philanthropic generosity of Americans.

Further complicating matters, the Red Cross has been plagued for years by leadership issues — issues that aren't easy to resolve because they are rooted in a number of larger, systemic problems:

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Thinking of Starting Your Own Nonprofit? Think Again.

September 26, 2015

PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in April 2014. Enjoy.

Headshot_susan_danishEvery year, Americans start thousands of nonprofit organizations. Some are dedicated to eradicating disease, others to addressing social issues such as poverty, homelessness, or gun violence. In fact, according to the Urban Institute, the number of registered nonprofits in the United States grew some 25 percent, to 1.57 million, between 2001 and 2011.

That's good, right? Not necessarily.

As someone who came to a second career in nonprofit management after working at some of the best-known consumer products companies in the world, I'd ask that we carefully consider whether there might simply be too many small nonprofits and charities in the United States for them all to be effective.

Yes, I'm aware that nonprofits sometimes close their doors and disappear. I also know that in 2011 the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of some 275,000 nonprofit groups for failing to file an annual information return or notice with the agency for three consecutive years.

But even such a dramatic house cleaning doesn't change the reality: a large number of organizations focused on achieving a single goal – however desirable that goal – makes achieving that goal more difficult. That's certainly the case in corporate management, where such an approach typically results in fragmented markets and reduced market share for an ever-larger number of market participants. Of course, in the for-profit world, there are any number of solutions to the problem of too many companies competing for the same customers. Companies, for a variety of reasons, fail all the time. And as part of that process, their investors and shareholders lose their investment and, in theory, become smarter about where and how to invest the next time.

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Four Key Indicators of Nonprofit Success

September 25, 2015

Headshot_richard_brewsterPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in September 2014. Enjoy.

Have you ever "ghost dialed" someone? You know, when the phone in your purse or pocket accidentally dials a number? Well, that recently happened to me with a board member of a human services nonprofit. We were surprised to be talking to each other but continued. The organization was well known in its community and had been successful, but our conversation ended up being pretty depressing: the nonprofit was in the process of shutting down.

I did some research and discovered that the organization's budget grew from $5 million to $10 million in just five years. Then a crisis came, they lost a major source of revenue, and there followed a painful five-year decline.

Why did this happen? A little more research and some reflection on others' experience suggests that four key conditions need to be met in order to survive a crisis like the loss of a major funder:

1. Sustainability isn't just about dollars. A nonprofit's programs need to be relevant today, not for situations or problems that are five or ten years in the past. The human services group above offered only housing, even as other agencies in the area began to provide services such as day care to low-income people, enabling them to keep their jobs (and pay the rent).

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The Future of Fundraising Is Peer-to-Peer

September 24, 2015

Headshot_derrick_feldmannPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in January 2015. Enjoy.

When I was leading fundraising efforts at a national nonprofit, the focus of everything I did was the individual donor. From coming up with new ways to get donors to give to creating messaging that resonated with their interests, I spent pretty much every minute of every day thinking about how I could gain donors' trust and confidence and persuade them to support our organization.

After a while, I realized our donors had value beyond what they gave (in money or time), that in fact we could use them to introduce us to people who weren't supporting us – although I never would have asked a donor to physically make an ask on our behalf.

A few years have passed, and my thoughts on this score have changed. That has a lot to do with the emergence of social networking and peer-to-peer (P2P) models.

You can see this in our industry, which over the last three years has moved quickly to embrace peer-to-peer fundraising. I know: many nonprofit professionals argue that online giving is the hot thing in the fundraising space. It seems to me, however, that the rapid growth of online giving owes much to the emergence of peer-to-peer tools and platforms that make it easy to find and give to causes or individuals who may be many degrees of separation removed from us.

How has this changed the job of the professional fundraiser? In the past, fundraising was an activity based in part on the willingness of fundraisers to ask for support from friends, family, and deep-pocketed individuals with whom they had a personal connection. Today, in contrast, the professional fundraiser has at his or her disposal a range of options, from social media and dedicated websites to personalized giving pages and text messaging services, that enable him or her to reach many more people, in many more locations, than was possible before.

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PND Talk: Why Give to the Arts When People Are Starving?

September 23, 2015

PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in January 2014. Enjoy.

Long-time readers of Philanthropy News Digest may remember PND Talk, the message board we launched back in 2004 and maintained for the better part of a decade (until the launch of our new site in November).

During its heyday, PND Talk was a lively community frequented by a regular cast of generous, knowledgeable nonprofit professionals — people like Susan Lynn, Sheryl Kaplan, Rick Kosinski, Julie Rodda, Tony Poderis, and the late (and much missed) Carl Richardson and Linda Procopio.

Recently, some of us were reminiscing about PND Talk and the friends who made it such a valuable resource for so many years. And that got us thinking: Wouldn't it be great if we could share some of their advice and wisdom with our readers here at PhilanTopic?

Well, we can and we're going to — starting with the post below by author and fundraising consultant Tony Poderis, who for twenty years served as director of development for the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra. In it, Poderis addresses the longstanding dilemma faced by all development professionals in the nonprofit arts world: How do you justify philanthropic support for the arts and culture when so many people, here and around the world, struggle to secure the basic necessities of life? It's an interesting and provocative post, and we think many of you will want to add your thoughts in the comments section below....


Arts_jobs_buttonFor those of you laboring — with love — in the nonprofit "field" of arts and culture, I can guess, with reasonable certainty (I come from that background, too), that you are challenged at times to justify your organization's existence, particularly at a time like this, when so many other, "more worthy" societal needs are crying to be met. How do you respond?

I've had to address that difficult question many times over many years. And for many arts and culture organizations, it continues to be a pressing one. I hope what follows is of some help the next time you are so challenged.

Why give to the arts when people are starving?

I actually saw that question scrawled among the marginal notes in a funding proposal for an orchestra. The notes were penned by a trustee of a grantmaking foundation during a meeting to review the proposal. Another trustee of the foundation, the one who presented the proposal on behalf of the orchestra, later shared the notes with me and asked what I could do to help counter his colleague's questioning remark.

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Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

September 22, 2015

Rotary_phonePhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in March 2011. Enjoy.

Okay. You're working at a great nonprofit, you've got a wonderful idea that's going to change the world, and all you need is a grant to get you started. Guess what? The majority of America's foundations don't want you to send in a proposal.

Of the more than 86,000 independent, community, and corporate foundations in the United States, 60 percent state that they do not accept unsolicited proposals. Together they represent 32 percent of total assets and 34 percent of annual giving. Nearly $16 billion of the $46 billion distributed every year is not up for grabs; you need an invitation.

Foundations in America are private institutions and have the right to decide how, when, and on what terms they will accept proposals and make their grants. At the Foundation Center, we respect that right and clearly indicate in our databases when a particular foundation does not want to receive unsolicited proposals. But people seeking foundation grants find this more than a bit frustrating. One of their most common questions is, "Why won't foundation X let me send in my proposal?"

There are at least two reasons. The first is foundation size. Dealing responsibly with requests for funding requires significant effort, time, and people. Yet in one Foundation Center survey of 11,000 foundations, 76 percent of respondents had fewer than four staff. Foundations are frequently inundated with proposals. My own experience working in philanthropy has taught me that for every grant approved by a foundation, eleven more are declined. The ratio can be much worse. One year at the Ford Foundation -- which accepts unsolicited proposals and has hundreds of staff -- we decided to count every letter of inquiry, e-mail, and actual proposal and came up with something on the order of 144,000. The number of grants actually made that year? Fewer than three thousand. The situation could be helped if foundations were clearer about their grantmaking priorities and nonprofits were more careful in targeting their proposals, but the reality is one of greater demand than supply. From a foundation's perspective, not accepting proposals can be like building a dyke to hold back the flood.

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Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

September 21, 2015

Headshot_darren_walkerPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in December 2013. Enjoy.

In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we've seen since the 1960s -- both in terms of holding the line on the progress we've made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?

DW: It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving -- employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness, and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.

I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.

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Cognitive Biases and Philanthropy

September 20, 2015

Cognitive_bias1 PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in May 2010. Enjoy.

In a short post on Monday, Barry Ritholz of Big Picture blog fame, tipped his readers to the publication of a new "field guide" to cognitive biases by something (or somebody) called the Royal Society of Account Planning.

The guide defines "cognitive bias" as a psycholgical tendency "that causes the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. Such biases

are thought to be a form of "cognitive shortcut," often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. These biases are a common outcome of human thought and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence....

The guide offers brief descriptions of nineteen social biases, eight memory biases, forty-two decision-making biases, and thirty-six probability/belief biases. Here are a few:

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5 Questions for...Joan Spero, Author, 'Philanthropy in BRIC Countries

September 19, 2015

PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in April 2014. Enjoy.

News that Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, have created philanthropic trusts worth as much as $3 billion is another reminder that wealth creation begets philanthropy as surely as May flowers follow April showers. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of Globalization 3.0, that's as true in emerging market countries as it is in the United States, with its well-established tradition of individual and institutional philanthropy.

Earlier this month, PND caught up with Joan Spero, former president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the author of a new report that looks at philanthropy in the BRIC countries, to get her take on the spread of Western-style philanthropy to other parts of the globe. Written and researched in collaboration with WINGS (Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support), a global network of grantmaker associations and philanthropic support organizations, the report, Charity and Philanthropy in Russia, China, India, and Brazil (26 pages, PDF), identifies the cultural, economic, social, and political forces that are shaping giving in the BRICs and examines the growth of the philanthropic sector in each of the four countries.

Philanthropy News Digest: What was your aim in researching and writing the report?

Headshot_joan_speroJoan Spero: The report is an outgrowth of my study, The Global Role of U.S. Foundations (56 pages, PDF), published by the Foundation Center in 2010. That report, which documented and analyzed the growth of international giving by American foundations, led to my interest in the rise and role of philanthropy in emerging market countries. I knew from my research that a number of U.S. foundations have supported the development of philanthropy and civil society outside the United States. I also knew from my research and from the work of the Foundation Center with the China Foundation Center and WINGS that philanthropy was growing in the emerging markets. As someone with a background in international political economy, I wanted to understand the historical, social, political, and economic setting in which this new philanthropy is taking place.

 PND: Tell us a little about the methodology behind the report. What kinds of data were readily available, and how would you characterize the state of philanthropic data collection in the four countries covered by the report? 

JS: I began with a survey of the literature on philanthropy in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. I was greatly helped in this literature search by a research assistant whose language skills in Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew complemented my knowledge of English and French. From that research, I concluded I would have to narrow my focus to several key countries. The emergence of the BRICs seemed the best way to do that. These countries have very different histories, cultures, and political systems. At the same time, they all seemed to have the right conditions for the growth of philanthropy: rapid economic development and wealth accumulation along with political and social change.

While there are numerous primary sources on economic development and wealth accumulation, I soon discovered that basic data -- not even mentioning comparable data -- on philanthropy and civil society simply did not exist. So, I had to be creative about finding primary sources. With help from my research assistant, I searched in a variety of places: counterparts of the Foundation Center in the BRIC countries that were beginning to gather data, albeit sketchy data; studies and surveys by research organizations, including academic institutions and business consulting firms; legal reports; et cetera. In the report, I point out the difficulty of finding accurate, complete, and comparable data. Nevertheless, I felt I was able to unearth enough information to reach the conclusions outlined in the report.

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The Art of Memory

September 18, 2015

PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in October 2010. Enjoy.

Earlier this month, in Buenos Aires, closing arguments were made in one of the legal cases brought against the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, the period of the so-called Dirty War. The case, referred to by the names of the three clandestine military centers ("Atlético-Banco-Olimpo") where 181 victims were detained, is one of hundreds that have been opened since the amnesty laws that protected members of the military from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity were struck down. The trials are open to the public, and the courtrooms have been packed by families of the victims and citizens interested in a resolution to this painful episode in the country's history.

Architecture, sculpture, and painting; music; film and video; poetry, drama, prose -- all have been employed to tell the tragic story of a people's loss and pain after similarly brutal episodes in the past. The arts are fundamental to the process of memorialization.

In Argentina, the process has included myriad plaques and other expressions of remembrance and remembering. At the national level, a group of ten human rights organizations gained the support of legislators in 1998 to establish the Park of Memory on the banks of the river that forms the country's northeastern boundary, the Rio de la Plata, and construct the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism. In short order, an international competition to commission additional sculpture and a visitors center for the park was launched.

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[Review] Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library

September 17, 2015

Book_patience_and_fortitudeScott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is a nuanced, enlivening, and ultimately sobering account of the birth and death of a plan to renovate and reorganize the New York Public Library, whose iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has welcomed millions of scholars, researchers, and readers since it opened in 1911. While the book is an impressive exercise in investigative journalism — providing, as it does, a meticulously researched account of the development of the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) — and the loud public rejection of said plan — it is also a paean to the NYPL and the power of citizen engagement.

Indeed, were it not for the impassioned voices of countless New Yorkers raised against the CPL, people like author Junot Diaz, who wrote, as part of a campaign protesting the plan, that "[t]o destroy the NY Public Library is to destroy our sixth and best borough; that beautiful corner of New York City where all are welcome and all are equals, and where many of us were first brought to the light," it is likely the institution's leaders would have succeeded in "repurposing" the library for the digital age while creating an enormously valuable parcel of land in the heart of one of the priciest real estate markets on the planet.

Taking its title from the two granite lions standing guard at the entrance to the library's landmarked building on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude examines in detail the plan's origins, as well as the objections to it, which focused on the proposal to transfer three million books from the library's basement stacks to a state-of-the-art storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, Sherman, who first reported on the CLP in The Nation, reminds his readers that, throughout its storied history, the NYPL was funded by New York-based business and civic luminaries — Astor, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, among them — in the name of private philanthropy for the public good. The CLP, in contrast, was designed by consulting firms with an expertise in real estate and appears to have been driven by a handful of wealthy library donors, including some sitting trustees, with their own interests in mind.

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A Different Kind of Risk-Taking: Improving Evaluation Practice at the Jim Joseph Foundation

September 15, 2015

Evaluation"We're in the business of risk-taking," is something Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, likes to say. Generally speaking, Edelsberg's notion of risk-taking refers to the investments the foundation makes in its grantees and their programs. The mission of the  foundation,  which has assets of roughly $1 billion, is to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews. Between 2006 and June 2014, the foundation granted more than $300 million to increase the number and quality of Jewish educators, expand opportunities for Jewish learning, and build a strong field for Jewish learning (Jim Joseph Foundation, 2014). Rarely is there an established research base for the kinds of initiatives the foundation supports in Jewish education. In the spring of 2013, though, Edelsberg had another kind of risk in mind.

What might be gained, Edelsberg wondered, if foundation staff brought together a group of competing evaluation firms with whom they had worked in the past to consider ways to improve the foundation's practice and use of evaluation? The idea had emerged out of a study of the foundation's evaluation practices, from the foundation's inception in 2006 through 2012, that was commissioned by the foundation and conducted by Lee Shulman, president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. Edelsberg thought it was a risk worth taking, and the board of the foundation agreed. Edelsberg also made the bold decision to allow a doctoral student in evaluation studies at the University of Minnesota to study the venture.

In the winter of 2013, a colleague of mine from the field of Jewish education who was then a staff member at the foundation heard about my research interest in the role evaluation plays in the work of foundations and their grantees and offered to connect me with Edelsberg. Edelsberg described the idea for what became the "evaluators' consortium," and I asked about the possibility of studying the process as a case study for my dissertation. By the time the consortium met for the first time in October 2013, and with the agreement of the foundation's board and participating evaluators, I launched the research. The purpose of the study was to explore what occurred when a foundation inaugurated an innovative approach to evaluation practice, examining factors that supported successful implementation of the innovation and the impediments to its success. It also sought to provide insights into the elements of organizational culture, practices, circumstances, and structures that can support effective practices of evaluation in the foundation field. The foundation gave me access to documents and invited me to observe meetings of the consortium held both in person and electronically. Over the course of the first year of the consortium's operation, I interviewed all foundation program staff members, Shulman (who served as the facilitator), a member of the board, and each of the participating evaluators.

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7 Ways to Make Your Year-End Fundraising Really Count

September 14, 2015

Get_Ready_Year_EndIt's the most wonderful time of the year!

It's when a majority of people are inspired (or habituated) to think about giving. Not a time your nonprofit wants to miss out on.

If you want to leverage people's feelings of generosity during the holiday season, you need to start planning now. If you've already begun (yay!), you need to make sure you're not missing any tricks that could help you raise more money.

Your year-end appeal is a terrible thing to waste

Sadly, I see wasted efforts at every turn, efforts that simply do not compel a response — or certainly not a generous one. A few of the more common missteps include:

  • Letters in envelopes no one in their right mind would open.
  • Wonderful letters sent to the wrong mailing list.
  • Letters without a specific ask.
  • Letters with no call to action.
  • Letters with no personalization.
  • E-appeals that strain the eye.
  • Donation pages that would take a degree in physics to complete.
  • Donation pages that convey zero emotion.
  • One-shot efforts that make no effort to remind folks of their noble impulses.
  • Appeals that lack urgency.
  • Thank you's that lack graciousness, or even manners.

Update your year-end fundraising to make it really count

Here are seven questions you may want to consider:

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Weekend Link Roundup (September 12-13, 2015)

September 13, 2015

Back-to-schoolOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content from and about the social sector, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Climate Change

Former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn and the environmental group 350 Seattle has launched a campaign to get the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest charitable and funder of medical research, to completely divest itself of its investments in fossil fuels. The Guardian reports.

Over the last twenty-five years, the world has lost forested areas equal to South Africa. The good news, writes Chris Mooney in the Washington Post, is that the rate of deforestation appears to be slowing.


Still trying to figure out this nonprofit marketing thing? On her Social Velocity blog, Nell Edgington explains the basics.

Guest blogging on Kivil Leroux Miller's Nonprofit Communications Blog, Laurel Dykema of Mission India shares five "don'ts" for nonprofit writers.


Is entrepreneurship in America becoming the province of the wealthy? Gillian B. White, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, reports.


Markets for Good has a nice crowdfunding-focused Q&A with Alison Carlman, senior manager of marketing and communications at GlobalGiving.

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[Infographic] Major Gift Fundraising - By the Numbers

September 12, 2015

With a hat tip to Tony Martignetti, this week's infographic from Bloomerang, the donor management software vendor, is full of interesting stats and advice re that elusive but much-sought-after fundraising prize: the major gift. Based on data from a Bloomerang survey of more than seven hundred nonprofits and conversations with major gift fundraisers, it should be of special interest to mid-size organizations that have never actively solicited a major gift but are ready to add the category to their development portfolio.

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GlobalGiving Rewards Curiosity

September 10, 2015

Globalgiving_pict_originalI recently read A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer, Academy Award-winning movie producer and self-professed curious person. In recounting a lifetime of asking interesting people all kinds of questions, Grazer shares his philosophy about the power of curiosity:

[Curiosity is] democratic. Anyone, anywhere, or any age or education level, can use it....For it to be effective, curiosity needs to be harnessed to at least two other traits. First, the ability to pay attention to the answers to your questions....The second trait is the willingness to act....Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity. Curiosity is the technique that gets an innovation....

The power of curiosity is a good thing to consider in the quest for social impact. Many organizations – big and small, new and old, well-resourced or not – are working on a wide range of issues – environmental conservation, education, food security, health, the arts – out of a desire to make things better. Because of this diversity, it's hard to agree on an approach that is universally useful.

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#FailEpic Continued

September 09, 2015

Fail_epicI appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it's so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened — when do you know to throw in the towel? — and that it's not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success — that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it — masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who's doing the telling, and when.

I see two conversations worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

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[Infographic] Your 'Ice Bucket' Dollars at Work

September 05, 2015

Although it couldn't have predicted it, the ALS Association struck gold when it introduced the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last summer. And, as we reported a week or so ago, scientists are crediting the funds raised through the campaign — more than $115 million in the U.S. and an estimated $220 million globally — with supporting a major breakthrough in the search for a treatment for the always-fatal disease. The infographic below breaks down how the dollars raised through last year's the challenge have been used.

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[Excerpt] 'When the Past Is Never Gone'

September 03, 2015

Guard_superdome_katrinaAs people around the country mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's entirely appropriate that many should feel the need to pause and reflect on what the storm and its aftermath reveal about our troubled racial past. The images broadcast to the world from a flooded New Orleans — of panicked families stranded on rooftops, of National Guardsmen ignoring pleas for assistance from the mostly African-American crowds gathered at the squalid Superdome, of armed sheriffs denying safe passage to New Orleanians trying to flee the city on foot — were a reminder in 2005, as they are today, that the past is always with us.

That suggestion, as Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, notes, has been advanced many times, by many people. In an essay accompanying the foundation's most recent annual report, Lewis, paraphrasing Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, writes: "[T]he policing of black bodies, and the legislated use of extralegal actions, has its roots in an earlier America, where every black person was assumed to be some white person's property and many whites presumed themselves deputized to reconnect property and owner." It is an observation that lays bare the immorality of America's "peculiar institution" — and one that many would argue has no relevance to our own "post-racial" century. Lewis, a noted social historian and Foundation Center board member, isn't one of them. Like an "apparition out of time," he writes, "slavery's ghost — and the specter of race and difference — never seem to leave us."

One way to make sense of "slavery’s lingering presence," Lewis suggests, is to ask and try to answer questions about the institution through the scholarship of the humanities and the arts. For half a century, the Mellon Foundation has been one of the important private sponsors of such inquiry. Indeed, under Lewis's leadership, it has reaffirmed its commitment to scholarship and the humanities. Why? Because, in a world characterized by rapid change, the humanities matter — maybe more than ever. Foundation Center, for its part, collects and analyzes data related to how foundations like Mellon address social challenges deeply rooted in the past, from black male achievement to education reform to diversity in philanthropy. Philanthropy, by itself, can't solve these problems, any more than it can erase the legacy of slavery. But without a solid grasp of what it has done to address racial inequities in the past — and is trying to do in the present — it cannot expect to achieve its aims in the future.

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3 Things to Know About Donor Behavior

September 02, 2015

Donor_brainWhen I first got into fundraising, I executed campaigns without worrying too much about donors or spending a lot of time thinking about why or how they responded to particular strategies or appeals.

Eventually, I realized that if development professionals really want to make a difference in their organization's ability to raise money, they not only need to think about their donors, they need to understand how the donor brain works. Let's face it: the brain is an economic weighing machine that makes hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunity-cost calculations a day. Rather than choosing the most difficult thing, it tends to nudge us down the path of least resistance.

What does that mean for the fundraising professional? It's simple. Donors are drawn to actions that, psychologically speaking, are low cost but yield a satisfying result. We need to build that recognition into our appeals and the way we communicate about our organizations.

The 'Me-Too' Effect

Imagine walking into a museum and at the entrance coming across three buckets. Bucket #1 has a sign asking you to donate the change in your pocket. You notice the bucket is almost full of coins. Bucket #2 has a sign asking you to donate $5 and is maybe half full of one- and five-dollar bills. The last bucket, bucket #3, has a sign asking you to donate $50 and has a few bills crumpled at the bottom.

Which approach is likely to raise the most money?

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (August 2015)

September 01, 2015

With the markets sliding and the heat and humidity rising, it seems like a good time to take a step back and revisit some of the great content published here on PhilanTopic in August. Learning to embrace change and failure, tips for your next group interview, and the return of venture philanthropy and old-fashioned liberal education -- it was a month to remember, if not one to take to the bank....

What have you read, watched, or listened to lately that made you think? Feel free to it share with others in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Katrina 10: Recovery, Resilience, and a City Back From the Dead

August 29, 2015

In Post-Katrina New Orleans, Do Black Lives Really Matter?

August 28, 2015

Katrina_steps_guardianHurricane Katrina laid bare the lack of value attached to black lives in the U.S., a reality that New Orleans residents and the nation are still wrestling with a decade later. Recent events suggest that Americans are at a crossroads in terms of how they think, talk about, and deal with race and racism — but are still a long way from agreeing that black lives do indeed matter.

Ten years after Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees, the outlook for the city's African-American community is as grim as it was before the storm hit. According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, an estimated 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the city are disconnected from education and employment. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, which jails nearly 40,000 people per year (66 percent of whom are African American), as many as one in seven black men in some New Orleans neighborhoods are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. What's more, fully half of all African-American children in New Orleans live in poverty — more than in 2005.

As we mark another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a fateful turning point in the city's and nation’s history, a critical question remains: How has so much racial and economic inequity been allowed to not only persist but worsen?

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5 Questions for...Kevin Washington, President/CEO, YMCA of the USA

August 26, 2015

When Kevin Washington talks about how the YMCA shapes children's lives, he speaks from experience. Growing up in a tough section of South Philadelphia, the Christian Street Y was Washington's refuge from the gangs that roamed the streets of his neighborhood. At the same time, the Y helped foster in him a love for learning and basketball, which in turn enabled him earn a scholarship to Temple University.

In February, Washington became president and CEO of YMCA of the USA. A thirty-six-year veteran of the organization, Washington served as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston from 2010 to 2014 and was credited with doubling that organization's membership to more than forty thousand households and forging a common identity for the region’s thirteen different branches. He also has served as a member of the Y-USA board of directors (2004-09) and chaired an advisory committee that guided the development of the national organization's new strategic plan.

Earlier this summer, Washington, the first African-American president and CEO of the national organization, sat down with PND to discuss the organization's Hop the Gap campaign and the ways in which the organization has changed its approach to donor cultivation and partnerships.

Headshot_kevin_washingtonPhilanthropy News Digest: We're both reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, in which Putnam examines the class-based opportunity gap that has emerged in America over the past forty or fifty years. What role does an organization like the Y play in helping to address opportunity gaps of the kind Putnam describes?

Kevin Washington: Well, our Hop the Gap campaign is expressly designed to fill gaps for kids during out-of-school time related to hunger, health, learning, water safety, and access to safe spaces. It's part of our larger commitment to ensuring that all children, regardless of income or background, have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

For example, many of the more than one million kids in the U.S. who attend the Y's resident and summer day camps are from low-income communities. During the school year, kids learn things at a certain age and at a certain rate. But the summer months, and summer learning loss, are a problem. We know, however, and statistics show, that kids who engage in the Y's summer learning loss prevention programs gain on average two to three  months of reading and math skills over a six-week period.

Looking at nutrition, kids who receive breakfast and lunch at school lose the benefit of that program during the summer months. The Y, with support from the Walmart Foundation, is focused on making sure that the food-insecurity gap is addressed by providing four and a half million healthy meals and snacks to nearly two hundred thousand kids this summer.

Last but not least, all kids need to know how to swim. The CDC has found, however, that African-American kids are three times more likely to drown than white kids. So our water-safety initiative is vitally important.

PND: Wow, I had no idea the disparity was so great. What's behind it?

KW: In many low-income communities, there are no pools where kids can learn how to swim. It's also a family thing -- if your mother or father never learned how to swim, chances are you won't, either. We know that if kids haven't learned to swim by third or fourth grade, they likely never will.

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Warning to All Grantseekers: When Markets Tank, HOLD That Request!

August 24, 2015

Markets_downYou can't time markets but you can time grant requests. So when newspapers scream: "Massive sell-off on Wall Street as investors fear China slowdown" (New York Post), you should think twice before asking a foundation for money.

In good times, foundations can drive grantseeking nonprofits crazy with their demands for effectiveness and metrics to support those claims. At regional and national gatherings, foundation professionals speak passionately about effectiveness in sessions with titles like "Unlocking Impact...", "What Works...", and "The Cost of Achieving Outcomes..." What's more, every year it seems more and more foundations turn to online application and reporting forms that require nonprofits to produce copious amounts of detailed information about their logic models, theories of change, inputs, outputs, and outcomes.

But when stock markets head south, especially in the dramatic way they have over the past few days, there are only three indicators that matter: the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the NASDAQ Composite. If you are ever fortunate enough to make it into a foundation president's office, apart from the usual large desk you will be greeted by a television or monitor tuned to CNBC with its endless chatter about share prices and market moves. Remember, the vast majority of the 87,000 foundations in the U.S. are endowed, meaning the income that underwrites their grant budgets comes exclusively from the performance of their investments. Foundation presidents and the trustees to whom they report know that the ability to advance a foundation's mission depends on that performance, and they also know that they are being watched by state and federal regulators tasked with ensuring they are responsible fiduciaries and "prudent investors" of foundation assets.

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Quote of the Week

  • "We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world...."

    — Steven Radelet, economist and author (The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World )

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