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Why WITNESS and Other Nonprofits Are Adopting the Serious Business of Monitoring and Evaluation

August 28, 2014

Last month, The New York Times "reviewed" the still-in-development Participant Media Index, which is designed to measure the impact and engagement of social issue documentaries. Anyone in the nonprofit world knows that impact and engagement are the buzzwords du jour. More than a passing fad, however, impact evaluation is serious business – one that many of us in the social change realm grapple with every day.

This has not always been the case in the eighteen years I've worked in the sector. Funders have increasingly driven the trend, asking grantees to not just monitor our progress, but also to develop innovative ways to quantify that progress and share our learnings more broadly. In this way, the nonprofit world is catching up with the fields of medicine, psychology and education – all of which have embraced "evidence-based practice" over the past two decades.

This is mostly a positive development. By laying out concrete objectives and outcomes at the start of a grant (in the proposal), organizations are forced to think more strategically and are held accountable for delivering on their promises. The most forward-thinking funders understand the risk inherent in our work – that social investments, like those in business, are not guaranteed to succeed, and that organizations can learn as much from their failures as their achievements. Yet careful planning (yes, even the ubiquitous logic framework) can help increase the odds that we uphold our end of the bargain: To ensure that precious resources are used to successfully mobilize positive social change.

WITNESS has always been considered an innovator in impact evaluation, starting in the mid-2000s with our groundbreaking Performance Evaluation Dashboard, and including a massive effort we launched recently to overhaul our program. Indeed, we are constantly looking for new ways to ensure we maximize our performance and learnings. But this approach is not without its challenges. Human rights advocacy is notoriously difficult to measure, change is often incremental, and ultimate "wins" can take years to achieve. Video advocacy is even more complex, since video is a complementary tool, intended to corroborate other, more traditional forms of documentation.

A point system for tracking Ouputs, Oucomes and Impact from WITNESS' first Performance Dashboard for our fiscal year 2006.

(A point system for tracking Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts from WITNESS’ first Performance Dashboard covering our fiscal year 2006.)

All this we have known for years. But these days, when millions around the world are turning to video, it can feel like a herculean task to measure our ultimate objective: To ensure that the millions with cameras in their hands can document human rights abuse safely and effectively and help secure justice. In our quest to build a global ecosystem of video-for-change users, WITNESS must find new ways to scale up our sharing of skills and resources and harness the power of networks to reach exponentially more people. We must also establish constant feedback loops so we can listen and respond to real needs on the ground and support what our grassroots partners identify as their ultimate endpoint results.

This leveraging of human capital and the resulting changes in behavior, policies, and practices do not lend themselves to easy (or, necessarily, short-term) measurement. Few organizations have the resources to invest in longitudinal follow-up studies that might go on for years. Furthermore, in WITNESS' case, when clear impact results are achieved, it is simply not in our DNA to claim sole ownership over what is always a collaborative and shared process.

At the same time, it's becoming clear that a rapidly changing technology landscape requires human rights organizations to adapt and become more nimble. We would argue that funders also need to adapt their approaches. Many are still asking for outdated ways of measuring impact – with an overemphasis on numbers, for instance, or in holding grantees accountable to rigid and predictive multiyear outcomes (a potential pitfall of logic frameworks). A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on "emergent strategy" discusses the trend toward balancing clear goal-setting with latitude for iteration and responsiveness along the way – particularly within complex social change work like human rights. Among other things, the article notes that:

To solve today's complex social problems, foundations need to shift from the prevailing model of strategic philanthropy that attempts to predict outcomes to an emergent model that better fits the realities of creating social change in a complex world....

A fascinating blog post by Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch captures the essence of this new perspective, including examples (from Syria and elsewhere) where success is elusive yet the moral imperative of human rights engagement ultimately overrides outcomes.

Given this new landscape, as well as the new thinking around how to best evaluate social change work, what are we doing differently these days at WITNESS? For starters, we have begun to build new evaluation mechanisms into our workflow, constantly collecting both quantitative and anecdotal data from the field. This post on the reach of our Forced Evictions Toolkit is one example of the ways we are aggregating and interpreting information.

Witness_google_map

We are also capturing the stories that make video such a powerful tool for change. In Syria, for instance, we provided Waseem, a 25-year-old student from Homs, with video equipment and a series of in-depth trainings online that helped him become a seasoned citizen-journalist. Today, Waseem's videos are featured on major media outlets that are covering the crisis in Syria, and he teaches other local activists the skills he learned from WITNESS.

Since we cannot possibly track the ongoing impacts of every person who attends a training or downloads our resources online, WITNESS has also begun to work with external consultants on "deep dives" into selected programs that serve as emblematic examples of our approach. We recently completed an analysis of our three-year focus on Forced Evictions (available upon request), which was undertaken with the Adessium Foundation. Findings like these are intended to feed back into the adaptation of that particular program – always in collaboration with our grassroots partners so we can (in emergent strategy-speak) "co-evolve" our collective approach. Given the cross-pollination among all WITNESS programs, such findings are also intended to strengthen our other core initiatives and, we hope, those of our peers.

We're happy that the topic of monitoring and evaluation is getting serious consideration from mainstream media, as it is something social change organizations often toil on behind the scenes. The more we can develop a common understanding – and common standards – across our sector, the more effective, efficient, and impactful we can all become.

Sara Federlein is the Associate Director – Foundations at WITNESS, where she has overseen a fourfold increase in institutional giving since she joined the organization in 2003. This post originally appeared on the WITNESS blog.

Featured image courtesy of Creative Commons.

5 Questions for…Michael Petrilli, President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

August 26, 2014

With a new school year beginning and debate over the Common Core State Standards heating up, we thought it would be an excellent time to talk to an expert on the subject.

According to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a D.C.-based think tank dedicated to advancing educational excellence for every child, the "Common Core Wars” scorecard currently stands at 42-4-3-1: forty-two states out of the forty-six that signed on to Common Core are still on board (including "plenty" of states that have "rebranded" the standards); four states (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia) never adopted them; three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Missouri) currently are going through a review process that will result in new standards; and one state, Oklahoma, has repealed the standards.

Headshot_michael_petrilliPND conducted the following Q&A with Petrilli earlier this month.

Philanthropy News Digest: One concern of opponents of the Common Core is that the standards are not as rigorous as some existing state standards. But a Fordham Institute analysis found that the Common Core standards were superior in content and rigor to the standards that three-quarters of the states were using in 2010. What are critics of the Common Core getting wrong? And why should any state with demonstrably tougher standards in place adopt the Common Core?

Michael Petrilli: Even critics of the Common Core acknowledge that the standards are more rigorous and challenging than what the vast majority of the states had in place before. To be frank, that's not saying much: most state standards pre-Common Core tended to be vague, misguided, or both. And the associated state tests, which often were set at ridiculously low levels, encouraged "drill and kill" style teaching, and regularly sent false signals that most students — and schools — were doing fine, were arguably worse.

The real question is how the Common Core stacks up to the best state standards, such as those that were in place in Massachusetts, Indiana, and California. In our judgment, it's a toss-up. Our reviewers gave the Common Core a grade of "A-" in mathematics and a "B+" in English language arts; a handful of states did slightly better, particularly in English. A smart move, then, would be to combine the Common Core with the best of these previous standards, as Massachusetts did in 2010 by adopting the Common Core but keeping, among other elements, the list of exemplary literary authors that was part of its old standards.

Why, you ask, should any of the handful of states with strong standards adopt the Common Core? We admitted to being divided on this question in 2010, though we anticipated some upside to the move to common standards, including the proliferation of high-quality Common Core-aligned curricula and assessments. In other words, it was our belief then that if states stuck with their old standards, even good ones, their educators would miss out on the improvements in curricula and assessments that we fully expected would soon sweep the country. Four long years later, we're finally seeing our prediction come true. Common Core-aligned curricular resources are starting to enter the market, and next spring Common Core-aligned assessments will replace the old state tests in at least half the country. And we still anticipate that these tools will represent big improvements over what preceded them.

But now the question, particularly in red and purple states, is whether states should stick with the Common Core. In Ohio, for instance, there's a bill under consideration that would move the state to the old Massachusetts standards in math and English. While that might have been attractive five years ago, in the interim school districts in the state have invested tens of millions of dollars in professional and curriculum development related to the Common Core. Ohio also is planning to use the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, which looks to be a huge improvement on its previous test. So, changing assessments again would bring enormous additional costs. Such a switch also would be greatly demoralizing to Ohio educators, who have been working hard to implement the Common Core. In short, teachers and administrators would be right to be frustrated by a move to dump the standards simply because of politics.

PND: Another frequent criticism of the Common Core is that it was paid for and developed by a handful of large foundations behind closed doors and represents U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's reform agenda. You've written elsewhere that it was "a huge mistake" for some Common Core supporters to urge the federal government to create incentives for state adoption of the standards. What about the role of foundations in the process? Could the Common Core, or something like it, have been developed without the support of the Gates, Hewlett, and Broad foundations?

MP: First, let's be clear that the Common Core standards were not developed "behind closed doors." Teachers, in particular, played a critical role in improving the standards. Here's how Lorraine M. McDonnell and M. Stephen Weatherford put it in their American Journal of Education article, "Evidence Use and the Common Core State Standards Movement: From Problem Definition to Policy Adoption":

Both the AFT and the NEA convened groups of teachers to review CCSS drafts. The AFT drew its group of reviewers from members involved in providing professional development to colleagues and the NEA from national board certified members. The AFT math review team met four times and the ELA team three times. After an extensive review of drafts, they communicated their concerns in face-to-face meetings with the standards writers....

We at the Fordham Institute reviewed multiple drafts of the standards, and published our reviews online. One can see a clear progression from relatively mediocre first drafts to a strong final product.

That said, I do believe that Common Core supporters made a huge mistake in not crying bloody murder when Arne Duncan incentivized adoption of the standards through Race to the Top. Conservatives are right to worry about federal involvement in this area, and the distinction between "incentives" and "mandates" turned out to be meaningless with respect to the public debate.

As for foundations, I do believe that philanthropy played an appropriate role in the development and adoption of the Common Core. For years education reformers have argued that foundations need to engage in the policy-making process if they want to make a significant impact; otherwise, they are simply throwing "buckets into the sea," in the memorable phrase of University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene. In the case of the Common Core, their resources were essential in funding the technical work involved in developing the standards and in ensuring rigorous feedback on the various drafts.

Where the foundations erred — as did the Obama administration — was in their approach to the federal role. The center-left orientation of the major Common Core funders blinded them to the backlash that would come from the right because of federal involvement in the Common Core endeavor. I regret that we at the Fordham Institute didn't do more to warn them — and the administration — to avoid any and all federal entanglements.

PND: Do you support the recommendation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to institute a moratorium on the question of using Common Core-aligned assessments to evaluate teachers and determine student promotions?

MP: Absolutely, and I was heartened to see Arne Duncan endorse this course of action as well. There are many reasons for such a "pause" in the use of student test scores for high-stakes teacher evaluation systems. The first is simply logistical: it is technically challenging to develop accurate measures of student growth when switching from one test to another. Furthermore, states may not have the results from the new tests back in time to compute student growth even if they were able to overcome the technical challenges. Then there's the issue of fairness and morale: this is a time to encourage teachers to try new approaches, to stretch themselves, to collaborate, to push their students toward new, higher expectations. Understandably, teachers want some assurance that if they are going to take these risks, they are not going to face the guillotine if they fail.

PND: What are the implications of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal's decision, apparently for political reasons, to withdraw his support for the Common Core?

MP: Everyone knows that Governor Jindal flip-flopped on the Common Core as a way to audition as "Tea Party Darling" for the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. And in crass political terms, his decision may work. What Governor Jindal may not have expected was the fierce pushback from his own state superintendent, his own Board of Education, his own Board of Regents, and a majority of Republicans in the state legislature. And it looks like he is going to lose on the merits in the courts. Surely other Republican politicians are watching and learning. If Governor Jindal gets a bounce from fighting the Common Core, others might follow. So far, the lesson appears to be that flip-flopping on this issue is no more popular than flip-flopping on any other issue.

PND: Broadly speaking, what role or roles should organized philanthropy be playing in education reform? What is it doing well? And what, if anything, should it do less of?

MP: Let's be honest: there would be no education reform movement were it not for philanthropy. That's nothing new; old-line foundations have been investing in public education reform for almost a century. What is new is that the current generation of foundations — foundations such as Broad, Gates, and Walton — are willing to invest larger amounts of money, in a more aggressive way, and not just through the system as it currently exists.

On the whole, this is an overwhelmingly positive development. It has led to the most promising innovations in education in generations, including Teach For America, which is pumping new talent into the education system; "No Excuses" charter schools, which are achieving breakthrough results for low-income students and are starting to scale; and, of course, the Common Core standards, which represent a radical raising of expectations.

This new philanthropy also has been admirably open to self-examination and course correction. The major funders of the charter school movement, for instance, have led efforts to improve charter quality and accountability, efforts that are starting to bear fruit.

The mistakes, in my view, mostly come in two categories. The first is political tone-deafness, particularly around top-down, one-size-fits-all reforms. That certainly includes the Common Core, which should have been protected from any federal interference. But it especially involves the push for prescriptive statewide teacher evaluation systems, which, as former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said, raised the stakes for high-stakes testing dramatically and fueled a backlash to much of the reform agenda in the politically powerful suburbs.

The second category is around funders' "theory of action," which, in my view, has been too narrowly focused on college as the sole pathway to the middle class for poor children. There's no doubt that college is a great pathway, and we should continue to work to help many more low-income students complete two- and four-year degrees. But there are other great pathways, too, including high-quality career and technical education programs and apprenticeships. If our goal is to end the cycle of poverty, we shouldn't overlook these other routes to the middle class.

Kyoko Uchida

'Under Construction': Northside Achievement Zone

August 25, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's the classic question, probably the best way for an adult to get inside the mind of a child, who must imagine life ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

Common sense dictates that we should outwardly deem every child's answer to that question as  airtight. Whatever you want, you can have. We'll embrace the different versions of those high-achieving future selves — whether it involves saving patients' lives, discovering a new gene, leading a Fortune 500 company. Privately, however, we may imagine less rosy futures, aware of certain realities that often impede the path to success, including income and wealth, geography, race, gender, and educational quality.

For a tightly knit group of residents in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, however, "whatever you want, you can have" is the gospel truth. For every child, no exceptions.

They have decided to aim very high for their children and to partner with mentors, teachers, tutors, and other professionals to provide the supports needed for their children to be ready for college and beyond. The mobilizing force behind this group is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a Promise Neighborhood collaborative that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis through education.

Delajuante Moore, Josh Mendez, and Jason Spellman are among the more than 1,600 youth — many low income and youth of color — living in North Minneapolis that, with their families, are enrolled in NAZ. All three young men have thought about what they want to be when they grow up. Delajuante, a rising eighth-grader and recent graduate of Ascension Catholic School (a NAZ partner school), wants to be a lawyer. His classmate Josh is looking at different options but is really interested in being a video game director. Jason, a rising sixth-grader at KIPP Stand Academy (another NAZ partner), wants to be a doctor.

UC_Jason_SpellmanThrough the messaging of NAZ and its partners, the young men are reminded constantly that their plans rest on getting a college degree. At KIPP, a college-preparatory charter school, Jason and his classmates are proud members of the "Class of 2024," the year they expect to graduate from a four-year university. With Josh and Delajuante, Jason participates in an afterschool program called 21st Century Academy that is designed explicitly to help middle-school-age students prepare for college and careers.

Nine local schools also partner with NAZ, along with a total of twenty-seven nonprofit anchor organizations, including afterschool and expanded learning programs, housing agencies, and early childhood centers. Together, all these actors form a tight circle of support around Northside students and families. And while these resources may be available in a majority of low-income communities, the NAZ difference is the way in which it coordinates and aligns the various partners, and in how it champions a Northside "culture of achievement," with empowered families leading the way.

Continue reading »

The 'Overhead' Pledge

August 21, 2014

Cut_costsI was in a room full of international development professionals at the InsideNGO Annual Conference, and the excitement was palpable. Why? We had all just raised our hands and pledged to fully disclose the true costs of our nonprofit operations to anyone who wanted to see them.

This is a breakthrough for our sector, and affirms that we are willing to transparently and consistently report our costs. What's more, the pledge is based on the understanding that the overhead debate actually undermines nonprofits' ability to deliver transformational results. We are convinced that overhead transparency will lead to more open dialogue, real collaboration with funders, and a greater focus on outcomes and results.

Within the core concept of transparency, however, there are two recommendations we are focusing on right now:

Eliminate functional allocation. This IRS requirement allows organizations to allocate costs rather indiscriminately to programs, fundraising, and general administration categories. While the goal is to shed light on organizational efficiency across the nonprofit sector, the relaxed guidelines allow organizations to manipulate their expenses across categories, often inflating their program costs to appear more efficient. Organizational efficiency is never cut-and-dried, however, and more importantly, the guidelines don't take into account organizational effectiveness.

Eliminate direct and indirect costing on grants. Each funder has its own guidelines around direct and indirect program costs. When funders cap the amount they are willing to pay toward indirect costs, organizations are incentivized to manipulate their numbers in order to recover as much as of their costs as possible, or worse, they cut investments in organizational capacity that can result in them having greater impact.

Failure to eliminate these provisions will only serve to:

  • Starve nonprofit organizations from making key organizational investments that boost their impact and increase their efficiency.
  • Create division within organizations between program staff (perceived as "wanted" costs) and operation staff ("unwanted" costs).
  • Limit consistency and distort real benchmarking across the sector.
  • Increase administrative costs (necessitated by having to manage expense reporting in multiple ways to meet a variety of funder needs).
  • Reduce transparency.
  • Place the focus on administrative costs instead of impact and obscure questions around the real cost of social change.

So that day in D.C., we all raised our hands and pledged to clearly and honestly disclose the full costs of our operations, accompanied by explanations about why our investments were essential to achieving our respective missions.

Continue reading »

All Aboard for Practices That Matter

August 19, 2014

Headshot_nikki_powellIt's a common refrain these days: a perfect storm is changing the way philanthropy is done, and that change is likely to accelerate in the years to come.

Some of the forces driving this change are external, beyond the control of stakeholders in the field. Others are emerging from the field itself and represent some of the best opportunities philanthropy has to embrace, leverage, and accelerate its own evolution.

One of those internal forces is the simple yet confounding issue of grantmaking practices.

You don't need me to tell you that complexity is the rule when it comes to grantmaking strategies. Every funder has its own ideas about who it wants to fund, why, and the outcomes and measures of success it uses and is looking for.

At the same time, meeting nonprofit needs has become trickier, as the demand for services continues to outpace the resources available to meet those needs, making the decisions on who should be funded that much harder.

Against this backdrop, I'm pleased to report that some of the most exciting changes in philanthropy, changes that involve the how of grantmaking, are just waiting for funders to take advantage of them. As the association representing grants management professionals – the people who actually develop and execute grantmaking practices at foundations – Grants Managers Network has a unique vantage point on the ways in which grantmaking practice is becoming more important. Indeed, we feel so strongly about the issue, we've decided to share our perspective in a new report titled Blueprint for the Future.

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Weekend Link Roundup (August 16-17, 2014)

August 17, 2014

Conflict_ImageOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Education

Why hasn't the once-booming tech ed sector solved education's problems? Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, an associate editor for the publication, shares some thoughts on that question from Paul Franz, a former doctoral candidate at Stanford who now teaches language arts in California. Those thoughts, writes Meyer, "mirror my own sentiment that education is a uniquely difficult challenge, both technically and socially, and that its difficulty confounds attempts to 'disrupt' it...."

Fundraising

The "ice bucket challenge," a grassroots campaign aimed at raising funds for the ALS Association, a a charity dedicated to finding a cure for amyotropic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), went viral this week. Around the country, celebrities and members of the public were filmed being doused with a bucket of ice water and then posted the footage to their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. "Multiply this activity 70,000 times," writes William MacAskill, a research fellow in moral philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, "and the result is that the ALS Association has received $3 million in additional donations....[A] win-win, right?" Not according to MacAskill, whose own nonprofit, Giving What We Can, champions the principles of the effective altruism movement. The problem, writes MacAskill,

is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn't appear out of a vacuum. Because people on average are limited in how much they're willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities....

***

This isn't to object to the ALS Association in particular. Almost every charity does the same thing — engaging in a race to the bottom where the benefits to the donor have to be as large as possible, and the costs as small as possible. (Things are even worse in the UK, where the reward of publicizing yourself all over social media comes at a suggested price of just £3 donated to MacMillan Cancer Support.) We should be very worried about this, because competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change....

Before you get too upset, read the entire piece. (MacAskill is a thoughtful young critic who, like many other people in the sector, has grown impatient with the status quo.) Then come back here and tell us why he's wrong — or right.

For an entirely different take on this question, take a look at this recent post by Philanthropy Daily contributor Scott Walter, executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., which is unsparing in its criticism of effective altruism (and Peter Singer, who inspired the movement).

In a short post on the BoardSource site, Convergent Nonprofit Solutions' Tom Ralser looks at the important distinction between a donor and an investor.

Continue reading »

Grantees Sound Off About Philanthropic Funding System

August 15, 2014

MarcMaxson_GG_sweaterI believe that philanthropic foundations could make major progress in serving their constituents if they paid more attention to what grantees were saying about them. Not in the cozy pat-each-other-on-the-back love-fest way. I mean by listening to real, honest feedback.

Recently, we at Feedback Labs (as a neutral third party) decided to ask a group of twelve hundred organizations to publicly share stories about their experiences with funders, adopting our community storytelling approach to the task. That approach emphasizes open-ended narratives with a few follow-up questions, intermediation (people are a little more likely to say something negative if the boss isn't in the room), and confidentiality.

Sample Feedback

I selected these particular comments because the variety of issues addressed in them illustrates the importance of asking open-ended questions. In this case, the question was: "Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was the relationship like? Did you receive support from them?" (Feel free to add your own story to the collection here.) What follows are some representative highlights from the stories told by grantees about funders and the grantseeking process:

Comments from GlobalGiving partner organizations:

  • The process leaves little room to establish a relationship with a grantmaker because we're usually just asked to fill in a standard form and maybe attach a project summary and financial documents.
  • It was important for us to understand who the decision makers are. What are their priorities? And what aspects of the project are particularly appealing to the funder, given its vision and mission?
  • It was an unsolicited proposal, and we really didn't attempt to build any relationship with the foundation by writing to them or calling them up to ask where our proposal the previous year had fallen short. That really affected our chances of winning a grant.
  • We got to meet the organization through a mutual friend who had been following our work for years.
  • I was nervous when I sent the first email requesting support for a program in Nairobi. However, the funder responded positively and even made a trip to Nairobi to see the program first hand.
  • We waited endlessly for a decision on our proposal. One of the basic problems in dealing with a large CSR unit is that you have to keep following up and have a person dedicated to making sure that happens.

And here are some comments from smaller, emerging organizations not yet partnered with GlobalGiving:

  • While funders always seem to be encouraging, they rarely take the time to ascertain real needs, or they'll look at a proposal and decide that while it has merit, we aren't able to fund it at this time.
  • Our grant proposals are always rejected, despite all the care we take with them.
  • They [i.e., funders] never send feedback about our proposal and what we can do to improve it. That leads to a lot of frustration as far as fundraising is concerned.
  • It was tiring and stressful having to consult with partners, including government entities, where time maybe was not a factor for them but was for us. We would be promised a call-back and then not hear from the person for weeks.

Relationships

Because we explicitly asked organizations to share one of each type, there was an even mix of both success and failure stories. And in my read of those stories, success usually was associated with building a personal relationship with the person in the foundation tasked with signing off on the grant. In fact, some of the folks sharing stories describe the process primarily as being about "who you know." For a sector that talks a lot about "evidence-based" this and "data-driven" that, there sure are a lot of people who feel that the most important thing in winning a grant is the social capital developed through personal relationships and existing connections. I mean, this comment sort of expresses it in a nutshell: "They funded us for 13 years! A record! Until their Southeast Asian representative retired."

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Most participants who mentioned the content of their proposals said it didn't matter that they were well-written; they were still ignored. Others complained about a lack of feedback after their proposal had been rejected. More than one complained about never being told their proposal had been rejected. All these complaints illustrate why I think the work of Feedback Labs is so important. Funder transparency and accountability take many forms, but simply creating feedback loops in which funders actively listen and respond to grantees whose proposal have been rejected would go a long way to creating greater effectiveness for all concerned.

It bears mentioning that there were a few stories about corporate social responsibility (CSR) people wanting to demonstrate to an important stakeholder that the company was charitable, and then abandoning the effort – and any promises of funding – as soon as the stakeholder meeting was over. It's a side of corporate philanthropy you don't often hear about, but it happens. And while it's of course possible that the companies in question may have had valid reasons for not extending support to those organizations, the many such stories from the field leave one with a sense of grantees emerging from the CSR process feeling disrespected. In fact, in one of the follow-up questions, survey participants checked the box for "respect" more often than almost any other category:

Ttlak graphic

One of our story visualizing tools. Larger icons indicate that this group of participants tagged their stories as being related to this topic (e.g., respect) more often than others.

It's important to note that not every grantee feels this way. Many participants went out of their way to talk about how much they appreciated the fact that a funder would consult with them on an issue from time to time. Still, if honest dialogue and mutual respect between funders and their grantees were more commonplace, one would have to believe there would be fewer exclamation points in emails announcing that a nonprofit had been awarded a grant!

The above is just a taste of what we'll be presenting in a longer report to be made available later this year. To read more of these stories, visit storylearning.org/search, or follow this link for only the grantee stories mentioned above.

Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant for GlobalGiving and FeedbackLabs. A version of this post originally appeared on the Transparency Talk bog.

How Philanthropy Can Help Unaccompanied Child Refugees Now

August 13, 2014

Headshot_daranee_petsodTen-year-old Lucinda sits alone in a courtroom awaiting her fate. In front of her is a judge who will decide whether she is deported to her native Honduras. At the opposite table sits an experienced attorney advocating for her deportation. Her case will be argued in English, a language she does not speak. No one sits beside her.

Lucinda does not have an attorney. She does not have anyone to testify to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her caregiver in Honduras, or to the psychological impact of that trauma and the ordeal she endured during her perilous journey to the United States. She has no expert witness to describe the non-existent child protection system or the rampant violence against women and girls in her home country. The burden of proof for her asylum claim rests entirely on her ten-year-old shoulders.

Driven by violence in Central America and Mexico, an increasing number of children like Lucinda are seeking refuge in the United States. Between 80,000 and 120,000 children are expected to arrive in 2014 alone, up from 6,000 in 2011. A growing number of these new arrivals are children fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous countries — the murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rank among the highest in the world; these are countries where it is not uncommon for gang violence to claim even the youngest lives. Many of these children have endured unspeakable forms of trauma on their journey north, and in immigration courts across the country, thousands of them — some as young as four and five — are appearing without legal representation.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (August 9-10, 2014)

August 10, 2014

VeggiesOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Advocacy

On Gene Takagi's Nonprofit Law Blog, Michelle Baker, a San Francisco-based attorney, checks in with the second of two posts on the lag ins and outs of issue advocacy. (You can read the first post here.)

Civil Society

"One of the defining features of civil society...is that participation is voluntary," writes Lucy Bernholz on her Philanthropy 2173 blog. And "[i]f civil society claims a role in pursuing social justice than it has a special obligation to do two things - protect people's power to act and make sure that digital data aren't used to exacerbate existing power differentials.

Environment

Marketplace's David Brancaccio looks at the Sustainable Endowments Institute's Billion Dollar Green Challenge and online GRITS platform, which helps "universities take their operating cash or endowment, upgrade the energy efficiency of campus buildings, and get a bigger return in savings than the stock market would earn them."

Leadership

What kind of leadership skills do emerging nonprofit leaders need to succeed? Beth Kanter takes a look at two recent studies that "take a pass at answering that question...."

The Talent Philanthropy Project's Rusty Stahl has a good post on the handful of foundations that invest in nonprofit leadership.

Continue reading »

Make an Impact in Your Community: Join the Funding Information Network

August 06, 2014

More than ever, nonprofit organizations need information: metrics and analysis to improve their systems and services, learning opportunities to develop their capacity and advance their missions, and data to inform program design and implementation. In communities across the country, information hubs such as libraries play a crucial role in the exchange of information for nonprofit organizations, which are popping up in record numbers to serve their communities and solve critical problems.

Thumb-finThe place where information meets social sector advancement is where Foundation Center's Funding Information Network can be found. For more than fifty-five years, the center has served nonprofits by providing sophisticated fundraising resources and accessible learning opportunities. Our network of satellite partner organizations that bring these resources to local communities was started in 1959 and is now four hundred and seventy-five strong.

If your organization is already committed to the improvement of your community and is looking for ways to help your audience get the funding information and training it needs to solve problems and enhance the quality of life in your region, then consider becoming a partner with Foundation Center through the Funding Information Network.

Funding Information Network partners:

  • are located in public libraries, universities, nonprofit resource centers, NGOs, and foundations in every state in the U.S. and more than ten countries;
  • play an active, engaged role in their nonprofit communities, providing important funding information and training opportunities developed by the center over more than a half-century of work in the philanthropic sector;
  • connect people to the resources they need through training sessions and database orientation programs, often taking training out into the community to audiences where they live;
  • provide access to Foundation Directory Online Professional, the premier tool for identifying potential funders from a vast repository of more than 100,000 grantmakers.

As public libraries play an increasingly larger role in providing small business resources to their communities, many employ a business librarian and set aside space specifically for business development resources and trainings. Participation in the Funding Information Network, which provides comparable resources for nonprofit organizations, is the perfect complement to these business tools. And public libraries are uniquely positioned to deliver Foundation Center-vetted skill-building classes to their audiences because many already host other kinds of learning opportunities. Public libraries make up the largest segment of Funding Information Network partners.

Another active and growing group within our Funding Information Network is community foundations. We believe there is tremendous untapped opportunity for the country’s more than seven hundred community foundations to expand the outreach they already provide to their constituents by becoming network partners. Many of these foundations receive far more grant applications than they can fund, and housing Foundation Center materials at their site allows them to provide applicants and grantees with a clear pathway to much-needed supplemental or alternative funding opportunities.

But public libraries and foundations are not the only types of partners in the network; we also welcome nonprofit resource centers, universities, NGOs, and other social service agencies. And now, more than ever, we're looking to expand to new locations where our services are needed. We believe every community deserves to have access to the information and tools that will help it pursue social improvement projects, and it's our goal to see that happen. Active, engaged network partners are what drive the Funding Information Network. The ideal network partner is any organization that has and seeks connections with nonprofits, public agencies, individual community advocates, and funders in their local community.

We invite you to consider becoming a partner with Foundation Center through the Funding Information Network. Learn more about the network, how to join, and how to nominate another organization.

Katherine Farnan is manager of network engagement at Foundation Center.

[Newsmaker] Paul Connolly, Director, Philanthropic Advisory Services, Bessemer Trust

August 05, 2014

At the turn of the twentieth century, great industrialists of the Gilded Age, men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman and Julius Rosenwald, began in earnest to turn their attention to philanthropy. Controlling vast personal fortunes that grew larger by the day and ever-mindful of the social disruptions and widening income inequality that had come to characterize America, they began, in the words of historian Robert Bremner, "to found institutions capable of distributing private wealth with greater intelligence and vision than [they] themselves could hope to possess."

Institutions like the Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the General Education Board and Rockefeller Foundation, MIT and the Eastman School of Music, the Rosenwald Fund and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry helped establish the template for organized philanthropy as we know it and, in the words of TIME magazine founder Henry Luce, helped make the twentieth century "the American century."

Today, a new economic revolution is roiling the planet, disrupting old ways of thinking and doing and contributing to levels of income inequality not seen since the 1920s. At the same time, a new generation of philanthropists, inspired by the example of Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, are leveraging their wealth, networks, and know-how to address seemingly intractable and urgent challenges.

Paul Connolly has had a ringside seat on the changing philanthropic landscape for almost twenty years – first as an officer and director at consulting firm TCC Group, where he oversaw the firm's capacity-building and nonprofit and philanthropy practices, and today as director of philanthropic advisory services at Bessemer Trust, a privately held wealth management and investment advisory firm. Through his writing (Navigating the Organizational Lifecycle: A Capacity-Building Guide for Nonprofit Leaders) and frequent thought pieces in sector-focused publications, presentations at the Council on Foundations' annual convenings and other national conferences, and travels as a trainer and facilitator, he has had his finger on the pulse of the growing and increasingly dynamic philanthropic sector in the U.S. and has helped shape its evolution.

PND caught up with Connolly earlier this month and asked him, among other things, about foundations' ability to move the needle on deeply entrenched social problems, the difficulty of measuring impact, and the generational dynamic in philanthropy.

Headshot_paul_connollyPhilanthropy News Digest: You joined Bessemer Trust last year after more than sixteen years at the consulting firm TCC Group, where you served in a variety of roles and established yourself as a social sector thought leader. Why the change?

Paul Connolly: While at TCC Group, I had the chance to work with many talented colleagues and remarkable clients who were deeply committed to the greater social good. The firm tripled in size while I was there, and I had the opportunity to help steer that growth and provide strategy, capacity building, and evaluation assistance to a burgeoning and stimulating mix of nonprofits, philanthropies, and corporate community involvement programs.

When Bessemer Trust approached me about this job, I felt ready for a new challenge, and it seemed like an excellent setting to positively influence social impact in a different way. In my new position, I am privileged to guide individual philanthropists as well as established foundations. And because we are in the midst of what some are calling a "golden age of philanthropy" – more foundations are being formed, major gifts are getting bigger, and the pace of the massive intergenerational wealth transfer is accelerating – Bessemer is a great place to make a meaningful difference. Plus, it's a growing firm with a stellar reputation that values the philanthropic advising function. So it seemed like the right job at the right place at the right time.

PND: Bessemer, which was established as a family office in 1907 by Henry Phipps, a co-founder of Carnegie Steel, today serves over twenty-two hundred families with more than $97 billion in assets. Do all those families include philanthropy in their wealth-management strategies?

PC: Virtually all our clients incorporate philanthropy into their wealth-management strategies in some way. The purpose, scope, timing, and form of their giving vary widely, depending on the client's financial resources, motivations, values, and family and business context. Some clients are active in charitable giving during their lifetimes, others prefer to endow a foundation or designate bequests as part of their estate planning, and many practice a combination of the two. In the same vein, certain individuals prefer recognition for their donations, while others prefer to remain anonymous. So, they employ different vehicles for giving to help them achieve their particular goals.

Bessemer has about $4.4 billion in assets under supervision associated with five hundred and fifteen family and independent foundations, endowments, and trusts that collectively award more than $220 million in grants annually. In addition, many of our larger clients have professionally staffed foundations that are not directly connected to our firm. Our clients also contribute extensively both through individual gifts and, increasingly, donor-advised funds, which are managed by Bessemer Trust, community foundations, or other entities.

PND: You mentioned a few of the different vehicles available for charitable giving. Is there a dollar threshold for which Bessemer recommends starting a foundation instead of contributing to a donor-advised fund?

PC: Due to the greater administrative costs incurred by foundations, we usually suggest a starting size of at least $1 million if the client intends to continue adding funds in the future. An ideal target for establishing a private foundation is somewhere between $5 million and $10 million.

PND: What do you tell clients who may be interested in giving not only money but their time?

PC: We are definitely seeing more and more clients who want to donate their time as well as their funds to nonprofits. Some are younger donors who grew up volunteering and want to continue providing hands-on support. Others are successful executives who are retiring, want to start a new career chapter devoted to civic engagement, and have lots of energy and wisdom to offer. A case in point is a client who sold her human resources company and is now devoting her time to providing pro bono assistance to a few nonprofits that are dedicated to helping veterans enhance their employment skills and secure stable jobs. As you might imagine, her industry knowledge and connections have proven extremely valuable to those organizations.

The key is to help clients clarify their goals and get them thinking about how they can most effectively give, and then help them find the right nonprofit match. Some clients derive the most satisfaction by providing direct voluntary service, such as preparing food in a soup kitchen or tutoring a student who is struggling in school. Others may want to contribute their expertise, leadership ability, and network access by serving on a nonprofit committee or board.

We also realize that when a prospective donor wants to provide pro bono assistance, the nonprofit benefiting from that assistance usually wants to cultivate the relationship so that over time the donor will provide financial support as well. With that in mind, we counsel our clients to clarify expectations around their volunteer roles, responsibilities, and time commitments, as well as the amount of money they might be expected to "give" or "get" to support the nonprofit financially.

PND: How, if at all, do generational dynamics affect your conversations with clients?

PC: Bessemer Trust is more than a hundred years old, and we work with multiple generations of families. Much of our work is facilitating discussion and decision-making among family members about their shared values and interests, as well as ways to engage future generations in philanthropy.

That said, we have seen certain shifts in families' approach to philanthropy. Some younger donors have a more engaged style, are skilled at leveraging their networks, and are more willing to take risks. They also may be more interested in causes like the environment, advocacy, and animal welfare. Recent research by 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy has documented these generational changes in a compelling way.

In some cases, we've been able to help different generations discover common ground for their philanthropic interests, which can be a unifying force. We're currently facilitating such a dialogue with a family where the parents want to more actively engage their three adult children in the family foundation. We're guiding them to focus on areas of shared interest, such as their cultural and ethnic heritage and funding research for a disease that has affected family members personally.

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Weekend Link Roundup (August 2-3, 2014)

August 03, 2014

Gekko_on_vacationOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Advocacy

Michelle Baker, a San Francisco-based attorney, has a very good post on Gene Takagi's Nonprofit Law Blog about the do's and don'ts of issue advocacy from a regulatory perspective. It's the first of a two-part series, so be sure to bookmark it and check back later this week for part two.

Arts and Culture

Still not sure what "creative placemaking" is or why you should care? Not to worry. On the National Arts Strategies' Filed Notes blog Taylor Craig explains it all, with the help of a few friends.

Impact/Investing

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Manuel Lewin, head of responsible investment at Zurich Insurance Group, and Brian Smith, chief strategy officer at Population Services International, share highlights of a report jointly produced by their organizations that provides a framework designed "to help investors and nonprofits speak a common language, and better understand various financial models through which they can engage with each other."

International Affairs/Development

In Forbes, Andrew Cave looks at Bill and Melinda Gates' efforts to help bring financial services -- bank accounts, loans, insurance, etc. -- to the 2.5 billion people in the world who are "unbanked."

Continue reading »

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (July 2014)

August 02, 2014

Ah, the lazy, hazy days of August...a perfect time to catch up on some of the great content we posted in July, including new posts by Derrick Feldmann and Mark Rosenman, the Association of Black Foundation Executives' Susan Taylor Batten, and the Case Foundation's Emily Yu. Pull up a hammock, kick you flip-flops off, and enjoy!

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think, surprised you, or caused you to scratch your head? Share your finds in the comments section below....

The Paradox of Direct Mail

August 01, 2014

Headshot_derrick_feldmannDirect mail has become a polarizing topic in the nonprofit fundraising world. Many bloggers and development veterans feel that it's one of the most important tools in the fundraising toolbox. Others – many of them focused on targeting a younger demographic – want to change or do away with the practice altogether.

For what it's worth, approximately 90 percent of the direct mail I receive winds up in the recycling bin, unopened and barely glanced at.

And I'm not alone. For many new and younger donors, direct mail is viewed as intrusive, messy, and a waste of resources. So why do so many organizations continue to embrace it? The answer is simple: It works.

According to the 2012 Channel Preference Study from Epsilon, a full-service ad agency headquartered in Irving, Texas, more than seven out of ten (73 percent) consumers said they prefer direct mail for brand communications, in large part because it allows them to consume information at their convenience. Okay, so that only demonstrates direct mail's relevance to brand and product marketing. What about fundraising?

Well, here again, recent studies show that direct mail works. For example, Blackbaud's 2012 Charitable Giving Report found that 93 percent of overall giving comes from traditional fundraising methods, with online giving accounting for the rest (7 percent).

It's a paradox. For most people, direct mail is utterly annoying, and yet it still gets the job done.

Does that mean fundraisers should ignore the preferences of their donors, especially the younger ones, and hold on to the practice for dear life, acting on what donors actually respond to rather than what they say they want?

I'm not so sure. Traditional industries of all types and sizes are being disrupted by new, innovative business models based on digital technologies. Take a look at these examples and see if you can spot the common denominator:

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'Under Construction': Alliance for Boys and Men of Color

July 28, 2014

UC_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit that showcases some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.For more profiles, click here.

Grassroots

Jesse Esparza stands tall as he squints into the afternoon sun.
He doesn't quite fill the dark suit that hangs from his shoulders, and his hands, clasped together before his waist, only half-emerge from their sleeves.

Under-construction-bmoc-jesseBehind him stretches Stockton's Southside, the most distressed section of the most violent city in California. Jesse tells the story of the white ribbon tied at the base of a small oak tree in McKinley Park. It's a tragic story — the senseless murder of a friend's cousin, a teenager caught up in a cycle of retaliation — and his telling is both somber and matter-of-fact. But where the trauma gets particular, he generalizes, describing the way news like this travels on seismic waves through his community. "You're in shock," he explains. "You're in denial, you don't want it to be true. You're hoping it's someone else." Only 18 years old, Jesse has already been through this set of emotions more times than would be fair in a full lifespan. One might say he possesses a wisdom beyond his years, though its acquisition is troubling.

In a quiet moment of reflection, Jesse's eyes search the blades of grass as if for answers. His skin is smooth, almond colored, his face open and strong. He seems to play an image in his mind for a few moments before looking up again, lifting his eyebrows. He reaches for words to fill the silence and lights on a stock phrase. "It's pretty crazy," he says. He repeats this again and again over the next hour, the only words he can find to move past each newly risen memory as a casual drive through his old neighborhood transforms without notice into an impromptu ghost tour. The points of interest form a web of violence, dozens of vague memorials to those friends who will never have a chance, as Jesse has, to break through.

Boys & Men

The day has been a long one. All morning Jesse has been talking change politics with some of the most engaged men and women in the state. It's the Fourth Annual Stockton Summit of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a decentralized coalition of organizations working at all levels of civic engagement for policy changes that will improve the lives of young Californians. In one report after another, data show young men of color face more systemic barriers than their white peers, making them much more likely to drop out of high school, serve time in prison (or juvenile hall), be unemployed, and ultimately die young. The situation, according to those involved, is dire.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 26-27, 2014)

July 27, 2014

War_declaredOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Civil Society

It was an interesting week for the Hewlett Foundation's recently announced Madison Initiative, "an effort to improve Congress by promoting a greater spirit of compromise and negotiation." On the Inside Philanthropy site, Daniel Stid, the director of the initiative, responded to a critique of the initiative by IP's David Callahan. And in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Maribel Morey, an assistant professor of history at Clemson University, criticized the "one-dimensional democratic theory" behind the initiative. To which Larry Kramer, the foundation's president and a consitutitional historian in his own right, responded in the comments section with an impassioned defense of the effort. The last word, however, belongs to Morey, who responded to Kramer with an impassioned comment of her own. A great dialogue around a critically important topic.

Communications/Marketing

Very good Q&A on the Communications Network blow with longtime network contributor Tony Proscio about the dangers of jargon and how to avoid them.

On the Hewlett Foundation blog, Ruth Levine, head of the foundation's Global Development and Population Program, expresses some frustration with the fact that the foundation's current or prospective grantees tend not to "inquire about our strategic direction...[and] seem quite satisfied to hear a superficial answer. We almost never see a quizzical look," she adds,

let alone hear questions like, "When you talk about policies that affect women's economic empowerment, are you thinking about active labor market policies like job training, or macroeconomic policies that expand growth in sectors that tend to employ women?" It's those sorts of questions that uncover the thinking behind the words, and help explain why we might fund one project or organization and not another.

The cost of having a conversation where only one side is asking questions is high. We're not getting enough feedback on whether our strategies makes sense to others with different perspectives and experience. In the absence of specifics, people may spend time proposing work that we're unlikely to fund. We get comments through anonymized surveys that we are opaque, and we spend hours writing and rewriting website text that in the end doesn't clarify much at all.

Levine ends with this: "Am I asking for an inquisition in every conversation? No. But I am suggesting that there is only one way to truly understand why we do what we do: Ask."

Environment

In this four-minute video, Paul Polak, the author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail and (with Mal Warwick) The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, explains why poverty is "the single biggest disruptive factor for the environment" globally.

Grantmaking

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has published a new resource, The Smarter Grantmaking Playbook, that's designed to help grantmakers collaborate, strengthen relationships with their grantees, support nonprofit resilience, and partner with their grantees to learn and continuously improve.

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Doubling Down: When a Foundation Renews or Expands a Grant

July 25, 2014

Headshot_sandy_edwardsAs a new foundation in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation outlined a strategy of awarding large multiyear grants. Through a careful planning process, we determined that multiyear grants would give grantees the time needed to successfully implement and evaluate bold initiatives — and that longer-term investments likely would be needed for  the foundation's grantmaking to achieve substantive goals. As of June 2014, 82 percent of the foundation's grants had at least a three-year term, and a full 67 percent were for four years or more. As a result, only in the last few years have we begun to consider the renewal or expansion of grants to key grantees.

There are many factors in this process. At its core, an opportunity for renewal or expansion of a grant initiative is a result both of positive outcomes demonstrated by a grant evaluation and/or a deep relationship that has developed between the foundation and the grantee. Both of these critical factors — one tangible and the other more abstract — evolve over the lifetime of a grant period.

During the grant development stage, foundation staff work closely with future grantees to determine the strategy alignment of a potential grant, with a particular focus on the extent to which it addresses the core priorities of an organization's work. Once a grant is awarded, the relationship between the foundation and grantee is hopefully strengthened through open and honest dialogue. Major grant awards include an independent evaluation to determine whether project goals are being achieved (in ways that advance both the foundation's and grantee's missions), key learnings are being disseminated, and to help guide the continued efforts of the grantee. Fortunately, there are many grant renewal success stories we can highlight, each one unique and with important insights to offer.

In 2007, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded the Foundation for Jewish Camp's Specialty Camp Incubator, which resulted in the opening of five new camps (92Y Passport NYC, Adamah Adventures, Eden Village Camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventures, and URJ 6 Points Academy) in the summer of 2010. In addition to significant enrollment growth at each camp, an independent evaluation (31 pages, PDF) conducted by Informing Change reported that campers, as a result of their camp experience, had improved their specialty skills, become more self-confident, knew more about being Jewish, felt more positive and enthusiastic about being Jewish, made more decisions based on the camps' Jewish values, and felt closer to Jewish kids their age. As a foundation committed to creating more and better Jewish learning opportunities, we welcome the opportunity to build on a successful grant and, based on the successful outcomes generated by the incubator effort, we decided to fund a second incubator and the launch of four more camps in partnership with the AVI CHAI Foundation. This grant will broaden FJC's sources of funding and enable it to continue to enhance and strengthen the Jewish summer camp experience with a proven model that increases the number of exciting camp options.

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Films Are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Films

July 23, 2014

Movie-filmEarlier this year, the firm I founded – Aggregate – partnered with the organizers of the True/False Film Fest to conduct a survey of the filmmakers whose films screened at the festival in 2014. True/False is well-regarded among filmmakers, who often talk about how well the festival organizers treat them and the obvious regard the organizers have for the art of storytelling.

The goal of our survey was to understand how these filmmakers felt about their films' potential contribution to social change, any ambitions they had to capitalize on that potential, and their views with respect to measuring the social impact of their films. While True/False isn't specifically a social change film festival, 72 percent of the filmmakers who responded to the survey believed the film they screened at the 2014 Fest could contribute to social change.

As we were getting ready to share the outcomes of the survey, the New York Times reported on the efforts of Participant Media, the film and television production company started by Jeff Skoll, to establish an index that would enable it – and others who invest in social change films – to determine which films "spur activism" and which do not. Based on my reading of the article, the Participant Index measures the ability of a film to inspire "emotional involvement" and "provoke action." So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead people who have seen it to take action, it would receive a lower score and, perhaps, not be as well received by potential funders interested in that particular issue.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the filmmakers we surveyed expressed concern about anyone measuring the social impact of their films; indeed, two-thirds (66 percent) said they opposed the idea of using metrics to gauge the impact of their films. While I believe strongly in the value of measurement and metrics, I share some of their concerns. If, for instance, filmmakers and funders begin to weigh the "effectiveness" of films solely in terms of the actions taken in the short term by the audiences for those films, it could lead to the bankrolling of more didactic narratives about issues that lend themselves to relatively straightforward solutions. And that would be a blow to good storytelling.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 19-20, 2014)

July 20, 2014

Headshot_stritch_garnerOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Education

In The Atlantic, Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor at Temple University, notes that asking poor school districts to give standardized tests inextricably tied to specific sets of books they can't afford to purchase is unfair to teachers, administrators, and students.

host of NPR's "Here & Now" program, Melinda Gates admitted that implementation of the Common Core, the national education guidelines in math and reading which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have strongly supported is the "tricky" part. "Let's be honest," Gates told Hobson.

The implementation of this is going to take some time. It has to be done carefully, it has to be done with teachers on board and they need to get some time before they can actually teach appropriately in the classroom. So you've got to make sure that the assessments and the consequences for teachers and students don’t happen immediately at the same time. And I think we got those two pieces overlapped and that’s why you got so much controversy....

Food Insecurity

A troubling article by Tracie McMillan in National Geographic finds that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2006 decision to track "food insecurity" instead of "hunger" -- "shifting the focus from whether people [are] literally starving to whether staying fed [is] a problem" -- has led to a startling new picture of America in which 1 in 6 Americans -- some 49 million people -- "can't count on not being hungry."

Giving

Is the primary role of charity to fight poverty? That's the question raised by Meredith Jones, president and CEO of the Maine Community Foundation, in a thought-provoking post on the MaineCF blog.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the "America Gives More Act" (H.R. 4719). As The Nonprofit Times reports, the package of five measures is designed to increase charitable giving by boosting the deductible limit of food donations from 10 percent to 15 percent and guaranteeing fair market value regardless of demand; allowing individuals age 70.5 or older to make gifts from their IRAs without incurring withdrawal penalties; allowing a deduction to be taken for a conservation land easement; allowing gifts made until the individual tax filing deadline (April 15) to be deducted from the prior year's taxes; and reducing the excise tax on the investments of large private foundations from a rate of 2 percent to 1 percent; the latter provision is not scheduled to take effect until 2015. No word as yet as to when the Senate plans to take up the bill.

Forbes reports that Warren Buffett had broken his personal giving record -- set last year -- with gifts of Berkshire Hathaway class B stock totaling $2.8 billion. The recipients of Buffett's generosity include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (16.59 million shares worth $2.1 billion), the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (shares worth $215 million), and the Howard G. Buffett, Sherwood, and NoVo foundations — run by his children Howard, Susan and Peter, respectively — each of which received shares of BH stock worth $150 million.

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NGO-Run Schools: Three Ways to Increase Value

July 18, 2014

Headshot_bourassa_wastyIt's no secret that international development work has more than its share of challenges, especially when it involves a project that espouses a long-term goal such as improving access to or the quality of education. While some schools run by nongovernmental organizations fare better than others, most experience varied levels of success, depending on a range of factors. While many of these factors lie beyond the control of NGOs, others can be addressed at the local level. Based on our observations in the field, the following tactics have proved to be effective in boosting the success of NGO-run schools:

Create a Stimulating Environment

The squalid conditions in most refugee camps, communities of displaced people, and urban slums not only have negative physical effects on children but also psychological ones. Accordingly, a fresh school setting can be a refuge for children in otherwise less-than-desirable situations. Displaying bright, colorful drawings, paintings, and other artwork by students on classroom walls is one way to create a healthy, positive environment — an environment that sends a positive message, supports brain stimulation and learning, and helps combat absenteeism.

Libraries that offer not only textbooks but also picture books, short story collections, and graphic novels also have great appeal for students of all ages and can be an excellent way to get kids hooked on reading. And kids who are hooked on reading often will become ambassadors of education in their local communities, eagerly sharing their love of learning with their parents, siblings, and neighbors. Making the community more aware of the importance of literacy and education and getting buy-in through such methods can yield significant long-term benefits.

Active Learning and Group Work

We've noticed in our travels that when English-speaking visitors interact with students at NGO schools where English is taught as a second language, teachers are often quick to intervene and mediate without allowing time for either students or the visitors to negotiate a channel of communication. Having teachers constantly translate for students in such situations isn't helpful, however, as it denies kids the opportunity to work out what a visitor is trying to communicate or to make themselves understood on their own.

According to the late American psychiatrist William Glasser, we "learn" 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear, 70 percent of what we say, and 90 percent of what we say and do. Thus, a better strategy would be to employ active learning methods — for example, letting foreign visitors in a classroom setting interact with students in English only. When students are encouraged to communicate through a combination of hand gestures and pictures or words on a blackboard in addition to the few English words or phrases they may possess, they almost always will learn more than if they simply relied on a teacher to translate for them.

Similarly, having students work in groups can be a great way to boost the socializing elements of classroom instruction and build students' confidence. A student who has a fear of speaking in front of others might be encouraged to focus on a different aspect of the team assignment, for instance, while another member of the group is assigned the task of speaking on behalf of the team. Knowing that their contribution was a valuable part of the group effort can be a powerful motivator for students who in more individualized settings might be too shy to assert themselves. It's also a good way for teachers to identify the weaknesses of individual students without highlighting those weaknesses to the rest of the class, and to pair "slow" and "fast" learners, thereby ensuring that no student is "left behind" while helping to cultivate empathy in stronger students.

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Artists as Social Entrepreneurs – 3 Exemplary Leaders

July 17, 2014

As defined by Ashoka, social entrepreneurs are individuals with an innovative solution to a pressing social problem. They are ambitious and persistent in tackling the issues they target and in offering new ideas for wide-scale social change.

I gave a keynote at the SoCap13 conference titled "The Surprise Social Entrepreneur." My talk explores the five defining characteristics of the social entrepreneur as set out by the late Greg Dees, who helped define the field of social entrepreneurship as a professor at Duke University:

  • Socially driven – Social entrepreneurs are committed to advancing a mission that creates and sustains social value (not just private wealth).
  • Growth oriented – They recognize and relentlessly pursue new opportunities to serve that mission.
  • Innovative – They engage in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning.
  • Resourceful – They act boldly despite the often-limited resources they have in hand.
  • Accountable – They exhibit heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

I then look at the case of a single entrepreneur, ticking off, point by point, how this person and the organization he started fully meet the five criteria. While some details are given – "prioritizes access for all; sets price point for services to be affordable" (socially driven) and "negotiated ten-year, $10 million bridge loan to finance new production facility" (resourceful) — it is not until the second half of the presentation that the name of the person I am talking about is revealed.

He is James Houghton, the founder of the 22-year-old Signature Theatre Company in New York City. The talk finishes with a quick look at four other artist-social entrepreneurs to prove there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problems. The larger point: It shouldn't be a surprise that artists also often are social entrepreneurs.

Over the past ten years, the social sector has been spotlighting, celebrating, rewarding, and investing in new leaders. But our role models have come from fields like education, health, and microfinance. Funders, the media, and other "kingmakers" are preoccupied with change agents who can improve math scores, lower the rate of Type-2 diabetes, raise the incomes of the poor, or catalyze a civil movement. All good things to be sure. But even though the arts can contribute to those types of objectives, they are largely ignored. I question why, and at what cost.

Artists in the U.S. are addressing topics like the sustainability of the food supply, the criminal justice system, and obesity. Artists in India are addressing issues as different as caste and recycling. Mexican artists are exploring topics of migration and gun violence. These are the same kinds of critical issues that other social entrepreneurs are tackling.

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Philanthropy, Diversity, and Equity

July 15, 2014

Headshot_susan_battenIn May, the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), in partnership with the Black Philanthropic Network, released the report The Exit Interview: Perceptions on Why Black Professionals Leave Grantmaking Institutions (21 pages, PDF). The report highlights the need for leadership pipelines, development programs, and effective retention strategies targeting African-American professionals in philanthropy and was prompted by the sense here at ABFE that too many African Americans were leaving the field. Indeed, data from the Council on Foundations — though not provided in a way that enabled us to analyze trends over time — seems to support our assumption.

We've received a lot of feedback on the report, ranging from approval and a sense of deep resonance, to frustration that nothing seems to be changing, to recommendations about what should be done. Clearly, there was demand for such an analysis. 

In June, two months after we released the report, the Joint Affinity Groups celebrated its twentieth anniversary by holding a Unity Summit where six identity-based organizations — ABFE, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Women's Funding Network, and Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy — joined forces to talk about how we might work together to advance racial equity. The idea was that the field can and should do more to ensure that every individual in the United States has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. To that end, we developed a proposed definition of equity — we will have achieved equity "when one can no longer predict advantage or disadvantage based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender identity, or ability" — and further proposed that we should be able to see progress toward that goal and be able to measure reductions in disparities in well-being based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender orientation, and ability. For JAG, equity is about results, and philanthropy must play a role in shaping social and economic policy and practice to advance an equity agenda.

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Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Play a Leading Role?

July 14, 2014

Feldmann-headshotIs our organization relevant?

If you work for a nonprofit, you've probably asked yourself that question more than once. Concerns about relevancy stem from the most challenging aspect of organizational sustainability. Unfortunately, even when your cause is viewed as "relevant," your organization may not be viewed in the same way. And while the activist in you may feel that relevancy is overrated and that you didn't dedicate your life to a cause so that you could spend your days worrying about who's "hot" – and who’s not – the fact of the matter is that organizations perceived as "relevant" typically are the ones that receive the most attention, the most financial support, and the most acclaim.

Relevancy, by definition, means being closely associated with a topical cause or issue. A relevant nonprofit is a nonprofit that can speak to an issue with authority and has its thumb on the pulse of activities around that issue.

In other words, an organization is relevant if:

  1. it is a leading voice in the ongoing conversation/debate around its issue or cause
  2. it is recognized as a connector/convener with respect to its issue or cause.

I often tell my clients to think about their particular issue or cause as if it were a play, complete with actors in lead roles and a supporting cast. If an organization wants to be relevant, it needs to do whatever it can to ensure that it has a lead role in the play.

Playing the Lead

There's no shortage of nonprofit organizations or causes worth donating to in the world – a fact that goes a long way toward explaining the fierce competition that exists among organizations in the social sector.

With so many organizations vying for dollars and attention, it's to be expected that a few will emerge from the crowd and be recognized as the leading voice on their respective issue or cause. How do you know who they are? When funders convene, those organizations are usually in the room and/or a part of the conversation. They're the ones new donors are most likely to be familiar with and trust. They're the ones other organizations look to for their cues and people expect to be persuaded and moved to action by. They lead and others follow.

And if an organization has the chops to play the leading role, it usually has at least two or three people in roles that are critical to projecting its competence and capacity:

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World Cup Soccer, World-Class Philanthropy

July 11, 2014

2014-world-cup-logoAnn Coulter may hate soccer, but America's philanthropic foundations love it. For those who missed it, a recent nativist diatribe by Coulter claims that only immigrants care about the sport and that "No American whose great grandfather was born here is watching soccer." Foundations don't seem to have paid any attention to her critique, much less that of the Russian priest who, citing the brightly colored shoes worn by many soccer players, labeled the World Cup competition "a homosexual abomination."

A quick search of Foundation Directory Online found that some 80 foundations have made 2,000 soccer-related grants, the vast majority to U.S. organizations. They include a large grant from the Greater Houston Community Foundation to support construction of a soccer stadium at Texas Tech. A smaller grant of $20,000 was awarded by the Philadelphia Foundation to the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy for the Army Men's Soccer Endowment. Many of the grants have a social purpose, like the Oregon Community Foundation's support for Adelante Mujeres, which uses soccer to improve the health and self-esteem of Latino girls in its programs, while here in the Northeast the Anderson Foundation made a $1.5 million program-related investment (a kind of low-cost loan) to the Players Development Academy in New Jersey for youth soccer promotion activities.

Some grants have been directly related to the World Cup itself. The Nike Foundation funded GlobalGirl Media to train South African girls to report on the 2010 World Cup in their country. And more recently, a Ford Foundation grant to a Brazilian organization supported in-depth reporting on the impact of stadium construction projects on the urban poor in advance of the 2014 World Cup.

Philanthropy is a global phenomenon with deep roots in the norms, values, and political culture of the United States.  America's foundations fund a wide range of issues, from the arts to zoology research and everything in between. Soccer is of interest to many foundations on account of its ability to attract national and global attention, spur economic development, provide opportunities for youth, and imbue in young people the values of tolerance and teamwork. And, as the Ford Foundation grant above demonstrates, foundations are not afraid to support critics of a mega-event like the World Cup when the business of global sport clashes with the rights of the poor.

Through the generosity of foundations, the lives of countless Americans have been touched by the sport known as soccer.  For two hours this Sunday, many of them will join a global community of some 600 million people that will be glued to their televisions for the World Cup final.  Philanthropy has helped make that possible.

– Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. In his previous post, he wrote about soccer, democracy, and philanthropy.

Charities and the ‘Compassion Gap’

July 09, 2014

Rosenman_headshotAny traces of the "compassionate conservatism" championed by George W. Bush in the early days of his administration has long since evaporated under the heat of Republican extremism. Today, more than three-quarters of American conservatives think the poor "have it easy," while fewer than 10 percent believe the "poor have hard lives" and receive inadequate assistance.

What's more, many conservatives believe the poor have easy lives because "they get government benefits without doing anything," ignoring not only the limits of public aid, but also the obstacles that must be overcome to obtain food stamps, Medicaid, day care, public housing, and other kinds of government assistance. In fact, more than 80 percent of conservatives also say that the government programs on which the poor so desperately depend do more harm than good.

Can four out of five conservatives really be so hard-hearted that they cannot imagine how profoundly difficult life is for people without enough money to feed their children, to fill an essential prescription for an ill parent, or to access a safe place to leave an infant while they try to find a part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job that gives them no hope of escaping what in many cases are slum- and crime-ridden neighborhoods? "Have it easy?" Really?

These findings are consistent in that more than half of conservatives believe that people are poor because of "lack of effort," while fewer than 30 percent of conservatives believe poverty results from "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." Despite all we have learned over the years about the causes of poverty and related ills, conservatives seem bound and determined to reduce the issue to the simple fact of people making bad decisions and doing bad things.

That kind of thinking ought to be greeted with dismay by most charities, even if their missions address problems other than poverty. Blaming the victim does not make the work of nonprofits any easier, does not incline people to support well-meaning interventions, and, at the end of the day, is the opposite of charitable. Indeed, with respect to most problems of concern to nonprofits, there is no path forward if people are seen as the sole source of their own troubles.

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9 Reasons to Become Powered by Pro Bono Services

July 08, 2014

Headshot_aaron_hurstWhat would your nonprofit do with an additional 20 percent in its budget? What if you could achieve that by securing professional support from marketing, information technology, human resources, finance, and strategy professionals? Still not convinced pro bono service is the rocket fuel you need to achieve your mission? While there are many ways in which pro bono can positively impact your organization, here are nine reasons guaranteed to change your mind.

1. You need a strong voice. In an increasingly noisy world, it's imperative nonprofits make themselves heard. Pro bono resources can help your organization create key messages and visual identities, brand strategies, attractive and user-friendly websites, compelling print collateral, and more -- all of which are critical if it hopes to develop a clear and powerful voice that engages a broad range of stakeholders and reaches across organizations to create impact.

2. The best nonprofits are doing it. Some will tell you pro bono is only for failing nonprofits that can't afford to pay for services. Gerald Chertavian, founder of Year Up, would say that such people "suffer from a severe lack of imagination." Year Up, as it happens, is one of the most successful nonprofits in the U.S. They've worked with more than six thousand young people nationwide and have sites in eleven cities. They produce very successful outcomes (84 percent of program graduates are in school or working full-time within four months of graduation). They operate with a staff of more than three hundred people and an annual budget of over $40 million and have twice been voted one of the top fifteen nonprofits in the U.S. to work for. And they've been pro bono believers since the beginning. Pro bono support from Alta Communications helped kick off the initial Year Up venture, and over the years Gerald has successfully locked in pro bono support from countless sources, including New Profit Inc. and Monitor Deloitte, whose advice with respect to strategic planning helped shape the organization into the powerhouse it is today.

3. It helps foster talent and leadership. The nonprofit sector is the people sector. Nonprofits succeed when they have great people and great leadership. And that requires investment. You need systems, training, and infrastructure to get board members, employees, and volunteers into the right roles. Pro bono projects can help nonprofits build the necessary structures for talent retention and development, as well as for setting appropriate goals and performance management processes that lead to strategically aligned growth and staff development.

4. It generates significant corporate support. Many companies are much more likely to become large donors if they have employees deeply engaged in your mission. Companies like Deloitte hugely favor their pro bono partners over other grantees when it comes to providing significant financial support.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 5-6, 2014)

July 06, 2014

Iced tea_arrangementWe were out of pocket last week, so we've included a few items we missed in this week's roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Black Male Achievement

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter argues in a post on the HuffPo's Black Voices blog that three myths are hurting young black men and boys:

  1. Myth: America has progressed enough as a nation that black men and boys have an equal opportunity to be successful.
  2. Myth: Black-on-black violence only affects the black community.
  3. Myth: Helping young black men succeed is not government's problem.

Communications/Marketing

On the Philanthropy Front and Center - Cleveland blog, guest blogger Brian Sooy, president of design and communications firm Aespire, considers four dimensions of communications that have the potential for strengthening the culture of any mission-driven organization.

Data

Jeff Edmondson, managing director of the Strive Network, Ben Hecht, president/CEO of Living Cities, and Willa Seldon, a partner with the Bridgespan Group, weigh in with a nice HuffPo piece on the transformative power of data.

Data may have the power to transform, but in a follow-up to a post on the Markets for Good blog he penned about the death of evaluation, Andrew Means, associate director of the Center for Data Science & Public Policy at the University of Chicago, suggests that nonprofits still have a long way to go in learning how to use it to improve their effectiveness and impact.

Can data sometimes do more harm than good? Absolutely, says Robert J. Moore, chief executive of RJMetrics, on the New York Times' You're the Boss blog. In particular, writes Moore, there are three situations in which he has learned to second-guess the data-driven approach: when the costs are too high; when the results won't change your mind; and when following the data means betraying your vision.

Economy

Very good post by John Hagel, co-chair of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, in response to Harvard historian Jill Lepore's recent New Yorker article dismissing Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation. It's a bit of a long read, but Hagel's main thesis is that two forces – economic liberalization and exponentially improving technology –are "systematically and substantially" reducing barriers to entry and movement on a global scale while causing businesses and institutions to "fundamentally re-think" their models and arrangements. "Bottom line," writes Hagel, "[these two forces] are catalyzing more opportunity for players to adopt new approaches that can be highly disruptive...[and] increasing both the motivation and ability of players to pursue these disruptive
approaches...."

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[Infographic] The Million-Dollar Philanthropist at a Glance

July 05, 2014

It's a glorious day here in NYC, the kind of day when anything, even a transformative million-dollar gift, seems possible. Certainly, as our coverage here at PND makes abundantly clear, there have been a lot of them made over the last decade or so. But as this infographic from the folks at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI shows, the vast majority of individuals who give at this level give only once. Food for thought as you head off to your next holiday weekend cookout....

Inforgraphic_million_dollar philanthropist

Whither Education? A Q&A With Michael McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation

July 03, 2014

Differing opinions about how best to educate children have been a feature of polite (and not-so-polite) conversation since the time of Plato, so it’s not surprising that such concerns continue to boil. Indeed, in recent decades it has become common for critics and reports to link the troubled state of public education in America with the decline of the republic and to insist that only a complete overhaul of the system, with a focus on those growing up in disadvantaged situations, can save us.

One of the earliest of those reports, 1983's A Nation at Risk, famously claimed that American schools were failing and called for dramatic action to remedy the situation, including the introduction of a seven-hour school day, a longer school year, and teachers' salaries that were "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based." More than thirty years after its publication, however, few of the report's recommendations have been adopted, and the public education system in the U.S. remains an archipelago of local school districts that, some would argue, have little in common with each other.

Established in 1962, the Spencer Foundation received the majority of its endowment after the death in 1968 of its founder Lyle M. Spencer, who made his fortune from Science Research Associates, an educational publishing firm. In the years since its establishment, the foundation has continued to champion education research and today is led by Michael McPherson, a nationally known economist who became the foundation's fifth president in 2003 after serving as president of Macalester College in Minnesota for seven years and in a variety of roles at Williams College in Massachusetts for twenty-two years.

PND recently spoke with McPherson about the state of public education in the United States, the Common Core and its critics, and where the U.S. educational system is headed.

Headshot_michael_mcphersonPhilanthropy News Digest: As a college student in the 1980s, I minored in education, and one of the things we discussed a lot was A Nation At Risk, the 1983 report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. More than thirty years after publication of that report, many people would say nothing has changed, that the education system in the United States continues to fail millions of children. What does the latest research tell us about what works and what doesn't in public education?

Michael McPherson: Well, it's impor­tant to supply some context. It's certainly true that there are large, important, and disturbing problems in American education, especially for students from low-income families or facing other forms of disadvantage. At the same time, our public schools perform better, on average, than they did thirty years ago. High school grad­uation rates are up over that period of time and test scores are higher, though not as high as people would like. I think some of the criticism is grounded in what I call Golden Age thinking. The fact is that people who are complaining about the performance of our public schools are complaining about schools that are producing kids who, on average, score better on tests than they and their peers did, which is rather ironic. It helps when discussing these things to keep a little perspective.

That said, a bigger problem is the fact that we haven't exhibited any persistence or consistency in our reform efforts, which have been sporadic and characterized by a sort of magic-bullet approach. People try things, give up on them, and go on to something else. Nor have we invested in a consistent fashion in the preparation and quality of teachers. It's as if we're hoping for better schools rather than actually coming up with a long-term plan to create better schools.

PND: When you say "long-term," how long do you mean?

MM: It depends on your goals. So far, nobody's been able to avoid the fact that it takes eighteen years or so for a child to become an adult. We haven't managed to speed up the human development process, and so if we want all children to be successful in school, we have to expose them to quality early childhood education by the age of three. The ultimate effects of such a policy, whether you're talking about high school graduation rates or college readiness, aren't going to be noticed for another fifteen years or so. But we should be able to make some judgments about whether a particular reform is working or not. Take Success for All, which is one of the most successful whole-school reform strategies to be introduced in the United States in decades. The program was introduced back in the 1990s, and today there are roughly a thousand Success for All schools in the U.S. These days, the organization attracts a lot of federal money, but it took them well over a decade to establish their bona fides. The point is, Americans are a pretty impatient people, and that doesn't always work to our advantage.

PND: What is the most important element in student success? Is it teachers? Parents? Something else?

MM: In many ways, the most important factor in student success is the consistency of attention paid to the development of the individual student. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that an exceptionally good teacher can produce a jump in test scores in his or her students but that that effect invariably fades after three or four years. That's not to say that every student needs at least one great teacher in every grade. But being able to provide kids with consistently good teachers throughout their school-age years is a lot better than an alternating pattern of spectacular and terrible teachers. Consistency is important, and that applies as well to what parents do and what happens early in kids' lives.

Let me also say that it's one thing to ask how important a factor is and another to ask how much we can influence that factor. It's one thing, for example, for a child to have "chosen" the right parents in terms of their interest in his or her schooling and development as a person, and to appreciate the importance of that "choice" in the bigger scheme of things. But there's not much evidence to suggest that public policy can have much of an effect on who your parents are. Your parents are your parents, and we have yet to identify or develop programs that change that basic equation in a consistent or reliable way. I don't mean to be negative or to dismiss the possibility of success for every child, regardless of circumstance, but I do think it's important, in terms of a policy framework, to ask both what matters and what can we affect?

PND: Well, are we asking the right questions about what works and what doesn't in public education?

MM: I think we spend too much time asking whether something does or doesn't work and not enough time asking how things work and why things work and for whom things work. The "what works" framework is a little binary in its way of operating. We all know from our personal lives that something that works well for one person, whether you're talking about their tennis game or their personal work style, doesn't necessarily work well for another person. Why should we assume that education is so simple that the same thing works for everybody?

You can see the same kind of problem in other areas of life. The pharmaceutical industry spends a lot of time and money on the trial-and-error discovery and development of different compounds, and then they go through a long experimental clinical trial phase to determine whether the compound works as intended and what its negative side effects might be. Increasingly, however, because of advances in our understanding of the human genome, we are developing better ex­plan­ations for how drugs work. And that is opening up the possibility we'll be able to design drugs that work for particular conditions and diseases, instead of marching around the jungle looking for exotic plants that might yield a new compound or two. In other words, trying out stuff with the aim of determining whether it works is not a particularly sophisticated research strategy.

PND: What else should we be questioning about our current approach to education reform?

MM: We should be worrying about the quality of our success measures. By that I mean we have allowed ourselves to slide, somewhat unreflectively, into equating test scores with academic achievement or educational success. But even within the realm of academic achievement, there are a lot of things these tests don't capture very well. The ability to write a good essay, for example, which is difficult to assess through standardized tests; it's not impossible, but it's almost impossible to do it cheaply and at scale. There's also a lot of evidence to suggest that factors ostensibly influenced by one's schooling include things we don't usually think of as "academic," such as perseverance, resilience, conscientiousness, the ability to handle disappointment, et cetera. All these things seem to matter quite a bit, but they tend to disappear from view when the focus is on test performance.

Finally, I'd say we need to spend more time thinking about measures in general and what we're really trying to achieve with the schooling we provide our children. Presumably test scores are a means to an end, right? Well, what is the end? We're not having that conversation, which is too bad, because I believe thinking more about the ends would be a con­structive thing to do.

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Philanthropy in Brazil: An Insider’s View

July 02, 2014

Headshot_paula_fabianiThe Brazilian philanthropic landscape presents great challenges but also interesting opportunities that could result in Brazil becoming a leading force among the BRIC countries in terms of social investment.

Fueled in part by French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, wealth creation accompanied by gaping inequality has dominated the global conversation in recent months. And Brazil, which has improved on inequality measures over the last few years (one of the few countries in the world able to make that claim!), continues to be one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. That reality requires not only government but other sectors in Brazil to come up with creative solutions and structural changes that will reduce inequality. Indeed, it is why I see great opportunities for philanthropy in Brazil, both in terms of taking risks and in contributing to a more sustainable development path for the country.

In 2013, Forbes magazine identified 124 Brazilian billionaires. Most of those fortunes were concentrated among families that owned or controlled the largest companies in the country. Nevertheless, Brazil is ranked  91st (out of 135 countries) in the World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation – evidence that philanthropy has not kept pace with wealth creation over the last few years.

At the same time, the world's view of Brazil has changed, and international giving to the country has fallen fairly dramatically. According to a 2006 McKinsey report, the total amount of dollars sent from U.S. donors to Brazilian civil society organizations fell some 70 percent between 2002 and 2006. That, in turn, has led to a changed landscape for many Brazilian CSOs. According to the Associação Brasileira de Organizações Não Governamentais (ABONG) – the Brazilian association of NGOs – international funding for human rights NGOs has been replaced by funding from government and/or state-owned companies, which could pose a threat to the long-term independence of those NGOs. Moreover, as noted by Joan Spero in her report Charity and Philanthropy in Russia, China, India and Brazil, the weakness of civil society in Brazil may inhibit giving domestically and is one of the important challenges Brazilians must address over the next decade.

Spero also notes in her report that religion and family values have played a central role in the development of charitable giving in the country. But the emergence of new trends such as individual giving (as distinct from family giving) and a growing interest in impact investing on the part of young and high-net-worth (HNW) individuals is helping to create a new dynamic that seems likely to result in new opportunities for civil society organizations and philanthropists alike.

I see myself as part of these new trends. I worked for years in the financial markets and spent many hours in conversation with brilliant people who use spreadsheets and complex formulas to create money from money. I also got married and started a family. By the time I was pregnant with my third child, I realized I wanted to focus on creating a better world for my kids – and other kids. So, with the full support of my husband, I decided to switch from the corporate world to the nonprofit world and apply the expertise in dealing with capital I had developed to employing capital to address the social and economic disparities in my country.

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