Connect With Us

'Under Construction': DENIM – Developing & Empowering New Images of Men

February 27, 2015

UC_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.

It doesn't necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in a mystical, ethereal way. Instead, freedom exists in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, D.C., its largest room hugged by three cornsilk-colored walls and a fourth that is such a brilliant shade of red it shocks the system to attention. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young black gay, bi- and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood and validated, celebrated, informed, and encouraged.

DENIM_Terrance PaytonDENIM stands for "developing and empowering new images of men." In practice, it is a place where young men between the ages of 18 and 29 find unconditional acceptance and connect to programming that addresses their unique needs. "We wanted to provide a center that accommodated the many subcultures of black gay life: college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don't identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered, and create this organic experience for all of them," says Terrance Payton, one of DENIM's founders.

Launched in 2012, the organization is relatively new, particularly compared to others in the city that have been serving the gay community for decades. Every group has another group inside of it, and when dissected along the lines of race, age, and socioeconomics, the black gay experience looks a lot different than others. DENIM lifts up a population that is sometimes underrepresented — or not represented at all — in broader conversations about gay issues in the metropolitan area.

"We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it's important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have camaraderie and brotherhood," says Devin Barrington-Ward, a member of DENIM's community advisory board. "There's no other space that exists like this solely for black gay men, by black gay men, in Washington, D.C., and really takes into consideration the needs of this community." In here, they are not an alternative lifestyle or a cause to be championed. The men who come to DENIM are simply whoever, whatever, however they want to be. That is the freedom that exists inside this understated space.

First responders to an epidemic need

The community center is the brainchild of Us Helping Us, an organization that has been meeting the needs and challenges of black gay men in Washington, D.C., since 1985. It was established in an era when information around HIV was still exploratory and medical research contended with fantastic rumors, when the city had yet to mobilize against the far-reaching effects of the virus but faced a growing number of diagnoses that had significant impact on the gay community. With limited health and financial resources, the city's black community was hit hard — and the black gay community was hit even harder.

As the HIV epidemic was significantly checked in the white gay population, it ran through the city's black enclaves with ferocity. The dual stigma around being both gay and HIV positive — one born from a culture that has traditionally shamed homosexuality, the other the result of fear that overshadowed facts — caused many gay black men to operate covertly, refusing to seek testing and certainly never seeking treatment. Sexual contact did not decline, however, and the formula for an epidemic was fueled in part by secrecy and unsafe behavior. It was a silent crisis, and there was no one to address it.

DENIM_Ernest Walker"There was nothing in the community: no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that black gay men could go and feel comfortable. At first, it was really just about five HIV-positive gentlemen who didn't want to go on meds because AZT was the only option and it was killing off black people," recalls Ernest Walker, director of programs for Us Helping Us. "The climate was really hostile because there was nowhere for black gay men to go and seek services — of any kind. So some community leaders started a support group."

Out of that absence grew a plethora of services, as Us Helping Us developed a range of programming focused on mental and physical health, personal safety, STI prevention, condom distribution, and community outreach. DENIM was born as an extension of that work, and together the two organizations have committed to taking the apprehension out of HIV testing with teams that meet their target demographic on the streets. In their brief but poignant interactions, they remind young men to make wise, precautionary sexual health choices and urge them to take advantage of the services available at both DENIM and Us Helping Us. DENIM pushes its on-the-ground activism further by taking its safe-sex evangelism to nightclubs.

Partnering with Ignite DMV, DENIM has made testing an empowerment of personal health and a cool thing to do. "You can come to our events, and if you get tested, you can skip the long line, get in free, and get a free drink. People are very persuaded by that," says Eric Frasier, a DJ and party promoter who works with both DENIM and Ignite DMV. For Frasier, it's an opportunity to offer the kind of support to other young gay men he wishes he had gotten himself.

"I’m from southern Virginia and homosexuality wasn't discussed. I knew who I was, but I wasn't able to convey it or portray it or live it," he says now. "I moved up here [to D.C.] in 2006, and I remember seeing gay men and women proud to be walking around with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They didn't mind showing their affection. That was big for me." The personal liberty to outwardly express who you inwardly are is defining, he adds. "Sometimes I wonder if I had these types of outlets when I was younger, would I be a different man today? Would I be a different gay man today? Would I be a different black man today?"

The 'who are you?' question

The work to discover one's identity can be complex for anyone, and for gay black men is complicated even more by the matrix of expectations, society's standards, personal histories, and traditions that intersect with gender, race, culture and sexuality. The spectrum based on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction created by researchers in 1948, is one way of defining self, says Payton, who is the medical case manager for Us Helping Us. "The spectrum exists from 'I am questioning my attraction to persons of the same sex and may never do anything with it but think about it for the rest of my life', all the way to 'I think I've been born in the wrong body and I want to change to one that is more comfortable.'

"There is even a spectrum for how people choose to label themselves, which is important," Payton adds. "You'll have people who'll say, 'I'm gay'. You'll have people who'll just say, 'I'll do what I'm doing'. You'll have people who'll say 'I'm same-gender-loving'. The positive is that people get to define what they do. That negative is that they forget that they're still having a black gay experience. So what does that mean and what is the impact of having a black gay experience first?"

DENIM_Toni LloydThose are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others. Some whose preferences are too fluid to be neatly and conveniently defined by anyone, including themselves, avoid being boxed in. Toni Lloyd is, by other people's label, transgender. She is the only woman who comes to DENIM, but she doesn't come in search of herself. She's already confident about that.

During an exercise in the community room, volunteer AJ King kicks off a conversation by reading a series of statements.

"Move to the right if you identify as gay," he says. Most of the group steps across the strip of white tape that serves as a divider. Toni stays put.

"Move to the left if you identify as African-American," King says. Everyone steps back across — except Toni.

"Personally, I don't like identifiers," she admits later that evening. "I don't even like labels. On one spectrum I would be considered androgynous, but on another, even though most people can't even tell, I'm a trans woman. I just say I'm human." She smiles. "Let's leave it at that."

No one at DENIM can answer the "who are you?" question for anyone else. That's something the young men — and woman — who regularly attend discover during the course of the conversations and activities there. Open for drop-ins from four to nine, Tuesday through Friday, it's part confessional, part hangout space, part health ward, part community center, and, on Friday evenings, part nightclub.

If a young man has had an argument with someone in his family, he can talk about it at Brother 2 Brother, a monthly support group that uplifts young, same-gender-loving men of color. If another is weighed down by relationship problems, he can vent about it at illuMENation on the first Friday of every month, where the discussion revolves around dating, identity, and sex. DENIM also partners with other organizations in the area — among them, Temple Hill Skate Palace for a weekly roller skating night — to enhance the socialization and bonding in comfortable, familiar settings.

Finding a space to just be

In addition to providing a place that is comfortable and familiar, DENIM is a hub of resources for its constituents. Increasingly, the paramount need is housing. In Washington, D.C., which is consistently ranked among the country's ten most expensive cities, the number of apartments one can rent for less than $800 a month has been halved in just over five years. The high cost of living plus the limited availability of spaces has created a competitive market for developers but real challenges for people in need.

According to a survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40 percent of youth in temporary homeless shelters in the district are LGBT. Most have an unfortunate backstory. "Many of my clients have been kicked out not just because they're gay, but because they're HIV positive," says Guy Anthony, treatment adherence counselor at Us Helping Us. His job is to make sure the young men who are diagnosed with HIV aren't derailed from getting and staying on a course of treatment.

DENIM_Guy Anthony"I assess the barriers and sometimes HIV is the least of their worries. It's where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear? I have to say, 'Let’s attack all these other things, these socioeconomic disparities, that are happening in your life first before we can even attack this HIV'."

That challenge is exacerbated by waiting lists to get an apartment through a public agency as long as six years, so even after a client begins treatment the housing challenge can make it difficult for the client to stay adherent. "A lot of people are saying, 'I'm in treatment and I'm going to see my doctors and my viral load is down and my CD4 count is up but I'm bunking on someone's couch and I'm sleeping on someone's floor'," Anthony says. "That's a problem, and until we are able to reconcile it, we'll continue to see non-adherence here in D.C."

The ability to relate runs deep, and Anthony, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21, uses his own life experiences to connect with clients and give them hope. It can get better, he promises. "Seven years ago, I was him. I was sleeping on someone's couch in L.A. I was on cocaine three, four times a day, just trying to make it, trying to drown out the fact that I have this disease that won't go away," he says. "I was supposed to die when I tried to commit suicide after I took pills and chased them with vodka. But God saw that I was worthy of helping other people. I never take that lightly."

The liberty to be their own kind of man

It's Friday night, just barely past dusk, and DENIM's multifunctional office space is alive with festive energy. It's not a calendar holiday, but the weekly Vogue Night ball is a do-not-miss celebration for the young men who frequent the center. Bass-heavy music vibrates the floor, converting it into a catwalk strut simply by the attitude shift that courses through the room. The pressures of the week have been a burden and they fall away when the DENIM participants gather here to dance and cheer each other on.

The DJ takes to the mic to coax them forward, and the need to strut becomes contagious. Some may have been insulted, even flat-out rejected, by others, some may be fully supported by loved ones, some may be going it solo and are completely independent of and unconcerned about other people's opinions. They gather here to celebrate each other and who they individually are. The monolithic perception of manhood is challenged as they assume what, by mainstream standards, would be considered feminine postures in their dance routines. In doing so, and proclaiming their manhood at the same time, they're remixing the neat and tidy conventions of masculinity.

"Vogue Night is an outlet. A lot of people aren't familiar with the ballroom community," says Travis Wise, manager of youth services for DENIM. "Back in the '80s, a lot of [gay] kids were displaced because their families didn't want to have anything to do with them. More mature adults, who had their own places, said, 'Okay, come stay with me and I'll teach you how to apply for a job, I'll teach you how to get into college'. That's actually where the ballroom started, and unfortunately it's a message that's kind of missed." He smiles as the music amps up in the next room and he has to raise his voice to make himself heard. "Tonight is just about having fun and expressing yourself. And some friendly competition."

Several participants get up and take to the center of the room, becoming voluntary contenders in the judging that will happen at the end of the night. A tall, lean young man with flawless caramel skin and curly hair cut into precision-edged sharpness steps forward. Without so much as a smile, he intensely sashays across the floor, then spins and dramatically tosses a red scarf around his neck. The crowd circling him goes crazy with applause and snaps and verbal affirmations, cheering him through a series of twirls and poses. Then, as if he's attached to a string of invisible elastic, he falls to his back in the most acrobatic of half-splits and bounces back up with effortless agility, only to repeat the move seconds later.

Freedom is a song in one's soul. It's an absence of controls, a certitude in self-assurance, a confidence that bubbles up from within and spills outward. The young man in the center of the dance floor has found his and is showing it off for the world to see.

— Janelle Harris

Why ‘Crowdfunding’ Government Is a Bad Idea

February 26, 2015

Crowdfunded_dollar_signGovernments at the local, state, and federal level increasingly are competing with charities for private-sector donations using crowdfunding and other individual donor-focused techniques. That's a problem not just for nonprofits, but for all who depend on government to address our shared needs.

Most people would agree that the more each of is willing to do to help those in need, whether with our time or money or both, the better off we all are. That kind of engagement makes for better neighbors and better citizens, both of which are key ingredients of a better society.

So why are we suddenly eager to substitute individual philanthropy for collective public responsibility? Do we really trust people's personal motivations and sometimes impulsive altruism to substitute for government in prioritizing problems and aggregating resources to address those problems over the long haul?

Consider the ALS Association's wildly successful Ice Bucket Challenge, which has raised more than $115 million since its debut in July for the organization's efforts to find a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) – about six times the association's total revenue from all other sources in 2014. The challenge, which encouraged participants to video themselves having a bucket of ice water poured over their heads and then nominating others to do the same within twenty-four hours or pay a "penalty" in the form of a contribution to the association, also drove worldwide donations for ALS of an additional $100-plus million. No wonder nonprofits and governments at all levels have become interested in crowdfunding and other social-media-driven techniques. Yet, for all its success, the Ice Bucket Challenge also highlights some real issues.

Few would begrudge the ALS Association a penny of those contributions. But one could be forgiven for wondering why the 2.4 million new donors to the organization (triple the number it could boast prior to the challenge) made the decision to contribute.

As Michael Hitzlik notes in the Los Angeles Times, ALS is a rare disease affecting fewer than twelve thousand people in the United States at any one time. Contrast that with the 5.2 million people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. In the most recent year for which IRS data is available, the Alzheimer's Association raised seven times as much the ALS Association (though with the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, that advantage assuredly has narrowed) for over 400 times as many ill people. While one can debate whether ALS or Alzheimer's is the more pressing need, my point is simply to suggest that the vast majority of "ice-bucketers" probably didn't consider the question before deciding to donate.

Given that charitable giving in the U.S. has long remained relatively flat at about 2 percent of GDP, that's a concern. Regardless of how much a fundraising campaign generates for a particular cause or issue, it's more than likely those dollars come out of – rather than augment – the pool of money available for charitable causes.

There has been a lot of speculation and some academic analysis about what's behind the astounding success of the Ice Bucket campaign, with a gentle form of peer pressure and the viral, sometimes narcissistic nature of social networking cited by many. Still, the campaign's success was unusual and is not easily replicated. Indeed, there's every reason to believe the ALS Association will not do comparatively better than to retain the 25 percent of donors who typically follow up an initial charitable gift with a gift to the same organization or cause in year two.

That fact hints at what many see as a major problem with the idea of crowdfunding for public sector initiatives. Will donors truly care about the projects and initiatives they are convinced to support? And even if they do, can governments count on their interest, and dollars, over time?

Today's fundraisers and development professionals understand that successful crowdfunding efforts depend in great part on good public relations. One study of support for scientific research – government's share of funding for which has dropped by half since the 1960s – suggests that individual researchers with large followings on Facebook, Twitter, and/or YouTube attract the lion's share of crowdfunded dollars. Government officials have figured this out and now actively promote crowdfunding campaigns for science-related projects using social networks and other online channels. That might be fine for charities, but it raises real and important questions when it comes to public-sector initiatives.

Rather than truly serving the broader common good, such campaigns tend to appeal to the narrower concerns of prospective donors and what is likely to pique their interest at a particular moment. It also means that instead of making policy decisions about how best to allocate public funds in the context of pressing priorities, governments increasingly are looking to promote projects with the potential to catch people's attention.

There's something unsettling about that. Funding for important public initiatives and programs ought not depend on the whims of individual donors and foundations. Such an approach will only serve to distract government officials from the consistent efforts needed to address urgent social problems, instead encouraging them to see such matters as parochial issues of interest to a relatively small number of potentially-engaged citizens. In other words, it will make it much more difficult in the long run for government to adequately support and advance the broad-based efforts necessary to improve our social, political, and economic institutions.

As an example, take Detroit's James Robertson, whose daily 21-mile roundtrip walking commute to his factory job (where he had a perfect attendance record) was featured on the local news and led to donations of $350,000 and a new car from 13,000+ people who just wanted to help. As the Washington Post's Michelle Singletary notes, however, Robertson's story does nothing to address the lack of public transportation in low-income communities or the inability of working people to earn enough to own and maintain a car. To do so would require government policy changes and a commitment of significant public resources.

Crowdfunding also tends to favor the interests of the economically secure. Over the past three decades, politicians have passed tax cut after tax cut benefiting the wealthy, effectively transferring money from the public fisc to those least in need. And just as President George W. Bush did with our national parks, they are now asking us to voluntarily consider diverting some of our charitable dollars to projects or initiatives that really should be funded by tax dollars in the first place.

That might be a fine way to fund "nice-to-haves" – if governments were meeting the basic needs of every American, maintaining our highways and bridges, providing quality public education in every community, safeguarding our food supply, and so on. But, strapped for revenue, they aren't. Indeed, the federal government has a recent history of cutting spending for many so-called discretionary activities and passing those obligations on to foundations and corporations. And now we see a growing number of state and municipal governments, metaphorical tin cups in hand, reaching out to individuals with the same goal in mind.

The folks at the libertarian Cato Institute can argue until they are blue in the face that "taxes are a form of charity"; most Americans understand that they are not. Discretionary decisions made by individuals, even if aggregated through crowdfunding platforms, are not a substitute for rational, accountable policy making or revenue allocation decisions by democratically elected officials.

Headshot_mark_rosenmanWe all have a personal responsibility to promote the common good, and government is the principal mechanism through which we do that. Do we really want to substitute the fickleness of individual altruism for what is in fact a shared obligation? It's fine to join friends in a good cause, but let's not walk away from the hard and important work of making government accountable to us, and making ourselves accountable to government.

Mark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University. In his last post, he explained how the charitable sector keeps us all afloat.

Shifting the Discourse Around Black Men and Boys

February 24, 2015

"It is my hope that this report will motivate other philanthropists and foundations to invest in efforts to improve achievement by African-American boys and men and reverse the serious damage inflicted over many years of systemic injustice. This is a generational problem. It demands a long-term commitment."

— George Soros, Where Do We Go From Here: Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys

CBMA_homepageIn February 2015, the Open Society Foundations officially spun off the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) with a five-year seed grant aimed at making real the vision Soros described above a long-term commitment to addressing a multi-generational problem. Soros and his foundation's commitment to black men and boys is similar to many of his legacy efforts, including his investment in empowering the Roma of Europe.

While at OSF, I traveled to Budapest and visited with colleagues working to improve the conditions of Roma youth. After the trip, I wrote that "[f]or Roma and black male youth, changing negative perceptions and stereotypes could be one great leap forward to ensure their ultimate success and inclusion into the broader society."

In many ways, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement's success emerged from the power of projects and programs committed to telling compelling stories and narratives that build a sense of empathy for black men and boys and in turn challenge negative perceptions. Since its launch in 2008, the story of CBMA has been one of evolution: in just seven years it has grown from a three-year campaign to the largest effort in the history of philanthropy focused on improving life outcomes for black men and boys.

The road to this game-changing moment involved many years of toil. In the mid- to late 1990s, efforts like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's African American Boys and Men Initiative, led by Dr. Bobby Austin, established the groundwork for what would become the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Like CBMA, the power of using stories to build empathy for black men and boys was — and remains — at the heart of Dr. Austin's effort.

Since then, support for black men and boys has ebbed and flowed. Most investments have been episodic in nature, with resources typically committed in three-year intervals — or until the focus of grantmakers shifted to a new issue or concern. Something changed, however, in 2006, when an article by Erik Eckholm ("Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn") in the New York Times sparked a conversation within the philanthropic sector about the need to once again address the unique challenges and systemic barriers resulting in the continued disenfranchisement of black men and boys. Although many in the African-American community were well aware of the problem and had been speaking out about it for years, Eckholm's piece served to refocus America's attention on the fact that black men and boys were falling further behind on every measure of well-being and success, from employment to incarceration.

More recently, social media has served to highlight, on a regular basis, instances of injustice involving black men and women. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown were stories that might have gone unnoticed by traditional media had it not been for community members and ordinary citizens' embrace of social media to tell, with power and authenticity, their own stories and explain the reality of their lives.

To keep the challenges, and opportunities, facing black men and boys at the center of the philanthropic and public policy conversation, CBMA worked from the very beginning to build the "brand" of black male achievement. We wanted to ensure that there would be more accurate and diverse depictions of black men and boys in the media as a way to change hearts and minds. Some of the organizations, people, and efforts engaged in that strategy included Color of Change, BMe Community, and Opportunity Agenda; outreach for the films American Promise and Beyond the Bricks; and Alexis McGill Johnson and the Perception Institute, which helped launch the Black Male: Re-Imagined campaign.

In  a 2013 Newsweek/Daily Beast article ("The Fight for Black Men") Joshua DuBois, CEO of Value Partnerships and former director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, again elevated the national conversation that had been sparked seven years earlier by Eckholm's piece in the Times. Rather than focusing on statistics and barriers, DuBois asked thirty leaders about their work to improve life outcomes for black men and boys. The resulting article shone a spotlight on the work of people like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow; Geoffrey Canada, former CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Joe Jones, CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore. The article also highlighted a number of key philanthropic leaders, including Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, and Casey Family Programs CEO William Bell, as well as Shawn Dove, who at the time was manager of OSF's Campaign for Black Male Achievement and now serves as president of CBMA.

Over the next several years, CBMA's success will be measured in terms of goals aimed at strengthening the field of black male achievement and supporting organizations and leaders working to address the systemic, multi-generational barriers that have prevented black men and boys from full inclusion in American society. Success in this next phase of our evolution as an independent and standalone organization will only be achieved, however, if we move from simply keeping black men and boys at the center of the philanthropic and public policy discourse to actually shifting that discourse in the direction of empathy for black men and boys.

Headshot_rashid_shabazzAs DuBois put it at the conclusion of his piece, society's efforts on behalf of black men and boys must be motivated by a "'there but for the grace of God go I' mentality." Anything less will leave us as a nation and democracy harmed in our failure to demonstrate once and for all that indeed all lives matter, regardless of race, color, or gender.

Rashid Shabazz is vice president of communications at the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. He previously served as program officer for the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement and is featured in the new book "Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding." 

A Two-Step Exercise for Designing Your Best Board

February 23, 2015

Board-puzzle-piecesTry this exercise: Gather your board members around a white board or flip chart and ask the following question:

"If we could design the perfect board for our organization, what skills and qualities would we look for in prospective board members?"

Skills would include program knowledge and specific expertise in areas such as  marketing, fundraising, consensus-building, finance/accounting, legal, and so on.

Qualities would cover more intangible – but no less important – factors such as firsthand knowledge of the organization, sense of humor, ability to function as a member of a team, listening skills, experience on other boards, and diversity profile (i.e., race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation.)

Of course, one of the most important criterion for a board member is passion for and commitment to the organization’s mission.

Brainstorm your list with the full board. Think as broadly as possible. With a bit of effort, most groups can generate twenty-five to thirty characteristics they would love to incorporate into their ideal board.

After you've created the list, you'll want to ask: How does our current board compare to our ideal? What key skills and qualities are already represented on the board? Where do we need help? And how do we recruit a different mix of board members to fill the gaps we've identified?

Next, review the list with key staff and board members and assign a collective grade to each item.

You can also use this exercise as a self-evaluation tool. Ask each board member to rate himself or herself against the criteria on the list, using the same scoring system. Doing so will help your board members think more creatively about what they bring (or don't bring) to the table, and will provide them with an opportunity to work with – or remove the less effective members of your board.

Andy Robinson is a Vermont-based trainer, consultant, and author. To hear more tips and techniques for building a better board, register for Andy's webinar series, "Build Your Best Board," March 4, 11, and 18, from 1:00-2:30 p.m. ET.

Foundation Strategy...the Enemy of Collaboration?

February 19, 2015

Chrysalis_imageIn today's world, it is almost obligatory for any self-respecting foundation to describe its work as "strategic." At the same time, a growing number of foundations are coming to the realization that, if they hope to scale their work and achieve lasting impact, they need to collaborate with each other and across sectors. I fear, however, that the way many foundations approach strategy is erecting barriers rather than building bridges to collaboration. This post is my attempt to explain why that is and to offer some practical solutions to the problem.

My thoughts on this matter were sparked by remarks originally made by Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, and elaborated on by Heather Grady in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. For the record, I believe that foundation strategy is a critical element in achieving impact, but like so many things it is best practiced in moderation.

The fetishism of strategy

It used to be that people made a point of saying they practiced philanthropy rather than charity. That distinction gradually fell by the wayside as younger generations of philanthropists began to introduce ideas and practices from the business world related to impact and metrics, liberally peppering their discourse with phrases like "social return on investment." In their eyes, the way many practiced philanthropy was not much of an improvement over charity, which they saw as dealing largely with symptoms and driven by donors and staff who valued heart over head and had no clear way to articulate hoped-for outcomes — let alone measure them. The more the term philanthropy became devalued, the more it came to be modified by adjectives of choice. Suddenly, if your philanthropy wasn't tactical, effective, catalytic, high-impact, or, at a minimum, strategic, it wouldn't be taken seriously.

Many foundations, particularly the larger staffed ones, responded to this change by immersing themselves in protracted strategic review processes, frequently under the guidance of prestigious consulting firms. Often triggered by a change in foundation leadership, these exercises tend to follow a pattern, one aspect of which is well-known to nonprofits frustrated by the all-too-familiar refrain of program officers who cite "our deep internal review process" as the reason that "no new requests for funding can be entertained at this time" and who encourage you to get back in touch "when our new priorities have been defined."

As frustrating as this kind of strategic lock-down can be to those on the outside, the process viewed from within foundations is far more challenging than it may seem. Strategy reviews usually are precipitated by a donor or new leader who wants to shake things up, and the process often starts with a question: How can we make a difference? Or, how can we use our resources to do something others are not? That, in turn, typically triggers some kind of scan to see how other resources are being utilized. The exercise often involves trying to identify big trends and future scenarios, which can be daunting and seem impossibly large and intractable when compared to the resources available to even the largest foundations.

The less high-minded aspect of the foundation strategy process is the inevitable internal editing that occurs. Foundations rarely operate with a blank slate; instead, they have a legacy of existing program priorities and grantee relationships that somehow must be reconciled with whatever new strategic priorities emerge from the process. Yet the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of all this is the internal consensus building: when it comes to unveiling a new strategy, foundations have to get everyone on board — from grants administrators, to program officers, to directors and trustees — and that takes time, finesse, and compromise.

At the end of the process, foundations emerge from their state of chrysalis with a series of announcements about new strategic directions, programmatic priorities, and initiatives. Grantseekers, previously put on hold and frustrated, now are faced with more practical challenges like figuring out where the work of their organizations fits within the new strategic framework and who their program officer might be. Some foundations do a superb job of providing their grantee partners with a roadmap, while others leave them to figure it out on their own.

Raising the transaction costs of collaboration

The difficulties of collaboration, particularly its time-consuming nature and the challenges of collective action when several foundations try to implement something together, are well known. I am worried, however, that the strategy review process described above may be driving those transaction costs of collaboration even higher.

There are two reasons for my concern. First, foundations, as endowed, tax-advantaged institutions, are blissfully free from the daily pressures that drive short-term behavior in other sectors: they don't need to raise money, they don't need to sell products in a competitive marketplace, and they don't need to chase votes. They are expected to contribute to the public good in exchange for their favorable tax status, and ideally that requires being out on the street, understanding how people live and institutions work. Yet these protracted strategic review processes are intensely introspective affairs. The outside information and opinions that manage to penetrate the walls of the foundation more often than not are filtered by those who do the interviewing, write the studies, and describe the trends, sometimes complemented by a discussion or two with hand-picked experts. This highly controlled approach is partly a response to the fact that endowed foundations are like islands of money surrounded by people who desperately want some of it: they can't turn to their current and potential grantees for advice without getting endless variations on the "fund us" theme. Whatever the reasons, I would argue that it is not healthy for already insulated institutions to close themselves off even more from the outside world for any length of time.

The second reason that this fixation on strategy impedes collaboration is because of the internal consensus building process I referred to above. After a staffed foundation has gone through months (in some cases, as much as a year) of introspection and internal consensus building, there is a tremendous degree of investment in the final product. With its carefully-crafted goals, program areas, initiatives, and cross-cutting themes, all crafted to be unique and cutting-edge, the strategy becomes practically non-negotiable. Thus, when two or more foundations try to find a way to collaborate and scale their efforts, the over-investment in their individual strategies makes it difficult to find common ground and reach compromise. More often than not, to make it work, somebody has to blink, be flexible, and give up a bit of sovereignty. Doing so can feel like abandoning one's own strategy or, at the very least, betraying one's focus — something no foundation wants to risk in an impact-driven world.

That this is not an ideal situation doesn't mean it can't be addressed. Based on my long experience working inside foundations and observing the entire field from my present-day vantage point as president of Foundation Center, here are a couple of ideas.

Solution #1 – Start strategy with a different question

Foundations have no obligation to be unique, so rather than starting the strategy review process with the question, How can we be different?, they should ask themselves, How can we be more alike? That's right, foundations would be well served by finding a cause or geography that resonates with their mission, seeing what kinds of resources other foundations already are allocating, and then adding their own resources to the mix. Being a joiner rather than a loner has tremendous strategic impact when it comes to leveraging resources and scaling one's efforts. Discovering who is funding what and where and knowing more about what other foundations know should be the beginning of any strategy review process. And it's easier than you think because of the deep data and knowledge resources our field possesses today, as well as the technology available to explore them. Foundation Center has excellent tools like Foundation Maps and IssueLab for doing so.

Solution #2 – Ease up on the legacy thing

There may not be much we can do to change the inclination of living donors to leave a legacy; after all, it's their hard work, ambition, and good fortune that makes foundations possible in the first place. But why do foundation boards and presidents need to be so concerned about their own legacies? The kind of competitive drive that fuels egos and success in business and politics is not essential to philanthropy. Foundation leaders are free to be learners, joiners, enablers, facilitators, and collaborators. America's great foundations are remembered, and continue to be praised, not so much for their current strategic priority or latest initiative as for their patience and willingness to stick with ambitious causes — eradicating disease, combating racism, educating the poor and disadvantaged, nurturing documentary film — over long spans of time that, more often than not, transcend the tenure of a single president, program officer, or group of trustees. Easing up on the concern for one's legacy, or perhaps re-defining legacy to be about joining and collaborating with others, could help make the strategy review process in foundations a much simpler and faster process. It might also correct for the strategic over-steer that produces the zigs and zags that undermine the stability so valued by foundations' grantees and partners.

America has nearly 90,000 independent endowed foundations, the vast majority of which have little or no staff to worry about the things I've touched on above. In many, many cases, they support causes close to home and are immensely valuable to the nonprofits that undergird our civil society. But the thousand or so foundations that each have over $100 million in assets account for more than half of all foundation giving and rightfully care about strategy. They could be far more efficient and achieve greater impact if they collaborated more with each other and with other sectors. One way for them to do that may be to try a little less hard to be so strategic.

Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center.

Five Ways to Improve Your Digital Strategy for Older Donors

February 17, 2015

Older-donors-with-computerSome of the biggest nonprofit campaigns of recent years were most notable for how well they mobilized the ever-elusive Gen Y demographic. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral sensation, and the It Gets Better Project's successful YouTube videos helped bring light to important issues affecting the LGBT community. But while these efforts certainly have helped to illuminate the future of fundraising, they haven’t been as successful in engaging older people, who consistently give the largest donations year after year. For those hoping to use technology to connect with their older donors, here are five important points to keep in mind as you create your digital plan of attack.

Older donors are much more tech-savvy than many give them credit for

  • Nearly 3 out of 5 donors age 66 and older currently make donations via the web.

With the rise of tablet computing and streamlined mobile UIs, mobile technology is more accessible to different age groups than ever before. Studies show that in recent years, older users have proven to be very adaptable when it comes to new technologies and are just as likely to donate online as their younger counterparts.

Even though older users need a bit of extra care when it comes to accessibility, it's important that you don't view your older donors as technologically illiterate. The tough part is catering to these older audiences while still creating a digital experience that appeals to younger constituents as well.

Making your site more accessible to older donors

When catering to an audience of older constituents, the ideal goal is to strike a happy balance between quality design and carefully considered user-friendliness.

A few design details in particular, like font size and page navigation, are critical for making a site accessible to older visitors. According to Nielsen's usability tests of users aged 65 and over, older citizens require larger typography, with 12-point fonts (and higher) working best. In addition, older users tend to be more frustrated by frequent site and design changes. While this is less of a design detail, it's a good point to note for web designers who like to make tweaks on a regular basis.

When it comes to driving conversions, make sure you're prominently featuring all of your most common actionable functions. If you have a "donate" button, make it clearly visible on every page. By minimizing the number of clicks between your users and the option to donate or volunteer, you create an online presence that is simultaneously accessible and streamlined. For examples of sites that do this well, visit the Sierra Club, New York Road Runners, or the American Cancer Society.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (February 14-15, 2015)

February 15, 2015

No-snow-signOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


Foundations and philanthropists need to find new ways to advocate in the post-Citizens United world, write Shelley Whelpton and Andrew Schultz on the Arabella Advisors blog, "or risk ceding influence over national policy to those who are willing and eager to play by the new rules."

Arts and Culture

Nice post on the Dodge Foundation blog by ArtPride's Ann Marie Miller, who curates recent research and opinions on what she terms the "shifting paradigms" in the arts field. 


The American Enterprise Institute's Jenn Hatfield shares three takeaways from a series of papers released last week at an AEI-hosted conference on education philanthropy:

  1. Education philanthropies have shifted their focus from trying to influence school systems to trying to influence policy.
  2. Education philanthropy is getting more attention, and a lot more criticism.
  3. Education philanthropies are evolving, and maybe even learning.


In a heartfelt post that serves as a compelling counterpoint to a recent op-ed by Jennifer and Peter Buffett in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Jed Emerson argues that, yes, "metrics matter." And while "too many of those in the impact investing community view an effective metrics reporting system as 'nice to have' as opposed to 'critical to our practice in advancing impact'...

the myth persists that we can attain our goal of effective and relevant metrics assessment and reporting. One must ask, after all the frustration and challenges, why do we bother? I submit we persist in our pursuit because we know at a deeply visceral level our goal of integrating meaningful metrics into the core of our efforts to create a changed world has value and is central to who we are....

International Development

Are insecticide-treated bed nets the most effective intervention against malaria in the global development toolkit? Maybe not, writes Robert Fortner in a special report on the Humanosphere site.

Continue reading »

[Infographic] The Millennial Wheel of Disengagement

February 14, 2015

It's been a slog, but the economy seems to be healing, with job creation returning to levels not seen since the final years of the Clinton administration. That's a good thing, for lots of reasons — not least of them the fact that every day between now and 2030, 10,000 boomers will retire and start receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits. Is that a problem for the economy? The Social Security Administration thinks so — and not just because 33 percent of its workforce and 48 percent of its supervisors will be eligible to retire this year.

But wait. Despite what you may have heard, millennials, 77 million strong and comprising a quarter of the U.S. population, are eager, ready, and -- we all should hope -- willing to save us.  As the infographic below from Virtuali, a leadership training firm suggests, they just need a little attention and opportunities to show their stuff. 

Continue reading »

Retaining an Engaged Staff to the End

February 12, 2015

Logo_atlanticAs with other limited-life foundations, management at the Atlantic Philanthropies has had few outside resources to turn to for guidance in planning the foundation's final trajectory. There have been many programmatic and operational issues to resolve, of course, but chief among our concerns have been issues related to our hard-working and capable staff.

Since joining the foundation, all Atlantic staff have known, at least in an abstract way, that at some point each of us would be moving on and the foundation itself would cease to exist. Still, as we entered our final phase – most staff will depart by the end of 2016, and we're set to conclude most operations by 2020 – this quickly became a more tangible realization, and one with the understandable potential for distraction.

Going into this final phase, we knew there was critical monitoring, evaluation, and dissemination work to do in order to maximize the influence of the foundation before its closure, and that fact raised an important question: How could we retain staff members who know they face limited tenure? More importantly, how could we keep them focused on their work, engaged and productive, while supporting them through what is certain to be a significant professional transition?

We soon realized that reducing distraction would require providing staff with as much clarity as possible around their own individual employment trajectories. So in 2013, we undertook an organization-wide staffing analysis to attempt to map out the staff structure that would be needed to accomplish our programmatic and communications goals through our final phase. Managers held individual consultations with their team members with the ultimate goal of trying to provide "as much clarity as possible to as many employees as possible." We tried to base the ultimate staffing decisions on organizational need while incorporating, where possible, personal staff preferences. The resultant staffing "roadmap" provided each employee with a projected end date: either a fixed date where proposed tenure was relatively certain, or in cases where it was too early to project specific functional needs, a provisional date subject to extension. 

Continue reading »

[Review] 'A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity'

February 10, 2015

Cover_A-Path-AppearsA recent survey conducted by World Vision found that, despite the growing list of humanitarian crises around the world, 80 percent of Americans did not plan to increase their charitable giving in 2014. Discouraging perhaps, but not surprising. Those without the means to fund large-scale interventions tend to feel helpless in the face of widespread suffering, with many believing that a modest donation cannot possibly make a difference in addressing seemingly intractable problems, while others worry that little of their money will ever reach the intended beneficiaries.

In their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, former journalist-turned-investment banker Sheryl WuDunn, beg to differ: You can make a difference. But to do so, you have to be thoughtful and intentional in your approach. That means: 1) doing research to ensure that your gift benefits the target population; 2) volunteering your time and expertise when possible; and 3) engaging in advocacy.

The authors, whose 2009 book Half the Sky examined ways to expand opportunity for women and girls in the developing world, here broaden their canvas to include efforts to expand opportunity for all marginalized populations, in the U.S. as well as abroad, with a particular focus on poverty alleviation. It's a formidable challenge, and Kristof and WuDunn do their best to make it comprehensible by breaking it down into parts: how effective interventions can make a lasting impact; how nonprofit organizations can maximize both their income and impact; how giving can benefit the giver.

According to Kristof and WuDunn, these days individual donors can be more confident about the effectiveness of their donations, for a number of reasons: anti-poverty interventions and development projects have become more evidence-based and cost-efficient in recent years; the Web makes it easier for donors to learn about the impact of their giving; and, increasingly, development projects are run more transparently and with greater buy-in and expertise from local communities. Indeed, the book, as much as anything, is a compilation of admiring portraits of nonprofit practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and activists working to remove barriers to opportunity. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of (and increasing use of) rigorous randomized controlled trials to ensure that interventions are evidence-based and effective. And in highlighting organizations such as Evidence Action, MDRC, and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, organizations that do the un-sexy but essential work of research and evaluation, it aims to empower individuals to think critically about the programs and charities they choose to support.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (February 7-8, 2015)

February 08, 2015

Winter-wonderland-tumblr-3Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Climate Change

The Guardian's Damian Carrington reports that Norway's Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world, with assets totaling more than $850 billion, dumped 32 coal-mining companies from its portfolio in 2014. "Our risk-based approach means that we exit sectors and areas where we see elevated levels of risk to our investments in the long term," said Marthe Skaar, spokesperson for GPFG, which had had $40 billion invested in fossil fuel companies. "Companies with particularly high greenhouse gas emissions may be exposed to risk from regulatory or other changes leading to a fall in demand."


In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Andrew Sherry, vice president of communications for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, argues that, in the age of the Internet, "communications is not just an opportunity for nonprofits; it's a necessity. Whether we're fundraising or trying to influence policy," he continues,

how we reach the right person with the right message has changed profoundly. Now it can take far more to figure out who the right people are, what channels to reach or influence them through, and how to hear them. It’s one thing to land a grant to open a new art space; it’s another to convince city hall that the community wants it, and still another to build a community to support it....


It is troubling and a very big deal, writes Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, that a majority of U.S. public school children today live in poverty and are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. 


On the Glasspockets Transparency Talk blog, Jessica Bearman (aka "Dr. Streamline) shares six things foundations can do to improve the diversity and inclusion of their grantmaking.


In a LinkedIn post, Peter York, founder and CEO at Algorhythm, a Philadelphia-based software company that is working to "democratize" impact measurement, asks: Who really has access to the power of impact measurement? And is there more we can do to make it available to everyone, including the beneficiary?

Continue reading »

Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty

February 07, 2015

Instead of posting an infographic, as we usually do on Saturdays, we decided to mix things up this week and share a compelling presentation put together by journalist and author Jeff Madrick (Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World; Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present), Clio Chang, and their colleagues at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank here in New York City.

Built with an online tool called Creatavist, Seven Lessons About Childhood Poverty opens with a reminder that the official child poverty rate in the United States today stands at 20 percent, the second-highest among the world's developed countries. The presentation then segues into an articulation of  seven "lessons" about childhood poverty in the U.S. — lessons formulated at the Century Foundation's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative conference last June. They are:

  1. The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts
  2. Child Poverty Is Not Distributed Equally
  3. The Power of Parental Education
  4. Higher Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement
  5. Workplaces Need to Recognize Parenthood
  6. Government Works 
  7. Cash Allowances Are Effective

The length of a substantial blog post, each lesson includes downloadable tables and charts, a short video, and links to related materials.

So grab a mug of your favorite warm beverage, pull up a seat, and start reading. We're pretty sure that by the end of the last lesson, you'll agree with Madrick, et al. that "investment in early childhood is the best way to create a better economic life for all Americans." 

Doing Good Is About to Get Better

February 05, 2015

Get On The MapAs the president of a regional association, I regularly need to know what funders in my region are supporting and where they are working. Usually, to get that information, my colleagues and I need to make a series of calls, send out emails and surveys, schedule meetings, and do some real sleuthing. And what we continue to end up with is representative of only a small portion of what is really happening around us. Sound familiar?

This lack of data to inform our work is even more problematic when coupled with all the questions and challenges raised by organizations that want to force their interpretation and agendas on that work. Unfortunately, we can't adequately respond because we don't really know who our collective dollars are serving and whether our grantees mirror the communities we are trying to serve. Because we don't have the data that supports the story we want to tell, others continue to write our story for us.

This is particularly important as we struggle with conversations around equity and justice in our communities and as we prepare for a looming conversation around charitable regulation. Philanthropy needs to be able to demonstrate its commitment to the public good by showing that its investments in community development, civic engagement, and social innovation reach across demographic and economic barriers. Given our special status as a tax-advantaged sector, we need to demonstrate that we are accountable and serve the public good.

In an earlier post, you heard from Joyce White, president of Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, who shared details of her journey to collect more complete and meaningful data from funders in her region. When the Forum for Regional Associations of Grantmakers and Foundation Center formed a strategic alliance to improve the quality and effectiveness of grantmaking nationwide via data, research, and tools, the successful pilot in Oregon and southwest Washington served as a model for the rest of the country. The first focus of that partnership is a joint campaign to "Get on the Map."

Continue reading »

Nonprofit Sponsorship: 3 Key Questions

February 04, 2015

Sponsorship_keyYou've probably heard the story of legendary criminal Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, responded, "I rob banks because that's where the money is." Now whether Sutton actually said that is debatable, but many fundraisers have picked up on the lesson — and Sutton's grasp of the obvious. You want money? Figure out who has it and who's "giving" it away.

One answer to the "who has the money" question is corporations. Often a nonprofit's first way "in" to a corporation is through its foundation or corporate giving program — philanthropic vehicles with which fundraisers are very familiar. But what about nonprofit sponsorship? About thirty years ago, "cause marketing" became a real avenue for major corporate brands to position themselves in a favorable way with their customers. Suddenly, companies were investing in nonprofits and nonprofit causes — not only to support those organizations, but to help build their own brand loyalty. It was a new way of thinking, a new approach.

Fast-forward to today. In 2014, corporate sponsors were projected to spend over $925 million on the arts alone (IEG Property Sector Spending Report, 2014). And the top three companies sponsoring the arts?

  1. Bank of America
  2. Wells Fargo
  3. JPMorgan Chase

As a result of the astronomical growth in sponsorship and cause marketing, many nonprofits have followed the "money trail" and ramped up their sponsorship efforts. This makes a lot of sense as organizations, no longer able to rely solely on funding from foundations, individual donors, and corporate giving programs, scramble for new sources of revenue.

Continue reading »

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (January 2015)

February 02, 2015

Snowed in? Again? Grab a cup of something warm and cozy up to our most popular posts in the month just passed. From a cool infographic, to tips designed to heat up your fundraising copy, to our sizzling link roundups, we've got something for everyone.

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that you liked or made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Weekend Link Roundup (January 31-February 1, 2015)

February 01, 2015

Winter_precipOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Children and Youth 

In an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, urges legislators in New Mexico, which ranks 48th nationally in child poverty, to expand the state's investment in prenatal and early childhood services. "The path to a healthy and successful future for our kids starts in the earliest years of their lives," writes Tabron. "Research has shown that 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5, which tells us that a child’s learning begins well before he or she ever sets foot in a kindergarten classroom."

The Economist agrees. In an article from the January 24 issue, the magazine argues that the solution to growing inequality is not "to discourage rich people from investing in their children, but to do a lot more to help clever kids who failed to pick posh parents. The moment to start is in early childhood, when the brain is most malleable and the right kind of stimulation has the largest effect."


Who are the "stakeholders" in social change communications? Andy Burness offers his thoughts on the Frank blog.

Community Development

On the Living Cities blog, Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, shares three lessons from Detroit's recent emergence from bankruptcy.


Investments in online fundraising technology and strategies made by "early adopter" nonprofits are starting to pay off, as these fifteen stats from Nonprofit Tech for Good show.

Continue reading »

The Future of Fundraising Is Peer-to-Peer

January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading »

'Under Construction': Alaska Native Heritage Center Anchorage

January 29, 2015

Logo-under_constructionUnder 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.

Anchorage, Alaska, is surrounded by natural splendor. Snow-topped mountains soar into clinquant skies, a majestic backdrop for the meeting of two worlds — the monumental grandeur of Alaska's ancient natural environment and the contemporary bustle of the state's largest city.

Straddling both are Alaska's Native people — in particular the tween and teen boys coming of age who are expected to contribute to their communities and provide for their families. That, by historic definition, is what makes a man.

Connected by blood to cultures as vibrant as the land itself, these boys and teens are also living the experience of American millennials. Some come from households steeped in traditional Native values and customs. Some grow up in homes where those norms aren't norms at all. For many, the bridge between their dual identities is the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Continue reading »

Nonprofits Are Not Doing Enough to Help Young Men of Color

January 27, 2015

Headshot_lowell_perryWith the recent grand-jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, protests over the racial profiling of youth of color and the excessive use of force by individual members of police forces across the country have made the national news. Many of the demonstrations have been led by young people, of every color and stripe.

Meanwhile, the White House, which last year launched the My Brother's Keeper initiative to address the fact that too many young men of color are failing to reach their full potential, continues to work with concerned leaders to develop a comprehensive solution to the problem.

More can and must be done.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's decision to provide funding for fifty thousand body cameras as well as additional training for police officers, at an estimated cost of more than $250 million, is not the kind of "solution" we need. In a world in which public-sector money to address social problems is scarce, do we really want to spend tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on equipment to record interactions — the vast majority of them uneventful — between police officers and the public they are hired to serve and protect? Wouldn't that money be better spent on interventions designed to help boys and young men of color long before they come to the attention of local law enforcement?

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (January 24-25, 2015)

January 25, 2015

DeflatedFootball1Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Climate Change

How concerned are global CEOs about climate change? Apparently, not much. According to an article in The Guardian, an annual survey of global CEOs by professional services group PricewaterhouseCoopers didn't include a single question about climate change, after only 10 percent of CEOs registered concern about the issue in the previous year's survey.


On her Getting Attention! blog, Nancy Schwartz shares a four-step process designed to close the marketing-fundraising divide in your organization.


In Philanthropy Daily, Georgetown University graduate student Alexander Podkul updates readers on a U.S. District Court hearing earlier this month regarding access to public data contained in the annual tax form nonprofits file with the IRS. "The issue up for debate," writes Podkul, "is that [Public.Resource.Org founder Carl] Malamud has requested Form 990 data in a modernized electronic file (or other machine-readable format) but has only received the raw data in image format....Although th[e] issue appears to be...specific to Malamud and his organization," adds Podkul,

a ruling in favor of Public.Resource would greatly affect many who participate in and study the nonprofit sector. In September 2013, for example, the Aspen Institute's Philanthropy & Social Innovation released the second edition of their report "Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data," which focused exclusively on the importance of this very issue. Their argument in favor of opening electronic data, i.e., making it "truly open," is threefold: open data would 1) make it easier for authorities to detect fraud, 2) "spur innovation in the nonprofit sector," and 3) help make more sense of 990 data....

Global Health

Nice post by Ned Breslin detailing some of the ways mobile apps are being used to combat the Ebola virus.

Continue reading »

[Infographic] 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report

January 24, 2015

Our first infographic of the year was created by Kivi Leroux Miller and includes highlights from her 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trend Report, the fifth such report Miller has published since 2011. This year's report is based on an online survey of 1,535 nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada and includes responses to such questions as:

  • What is your #1 priority for 2015?
  • Which types of content do you expect to spend most of your time producing?
  • What are your biggest communications challenges?
  • What are your top five goals (by job title)?
  • How much time do you spend on various communications channels? 

Continue reading »

Beyond the Kitchen Table: The Board’s Evolving Role

January 22, 2015

Many organizations begin as "kitchen table" groups: a bunch of neighbors sitting around somebody's kitchen, trying to solve a common problem or meet a community need. These folks share a passion for the cause and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do the work.

They're seldom skilled in nonprofit governance, and, frankly, they don't even think about that stuff. They just want to fix what needs to be fixed.

Sometimes these informal groups continue for years or decades without growing or changing significantly, and their familiar leadership structure continues to serve them well. For example, I belong to an all-volunteer organization that has had no staff for most of the past seventy-five years – and yet the work gets done.

Taking "The Leap"

In other cases, these groups want to expand their impact, so they decide to hire employees and open an office. My colleagues at the Institute for Conservation Leadership call this stage "the leap," and it's filled with peril. Organizations hiring staff for the first time must address issues such as:

  • Now that we have an employee(s), how does our role as a board change?
  • How do we provide supervision without micro-managing?
  • How will we ensure that our staff has adequate resources to do the job well?
  • How do we evaluate our programs, our staff, and each other?

At this stage, other problems may surface. Board members who originally got involved with the organization because they care about the issue or cause are suddenly responsible for personnel policies, staff supervision, a more detailed level of planning, and greater responsibility for fundraising.

"Four Stages of Organizational Development" adapted, with permission, from the Institute for Conservation Leadership.

The visionary leader(s) who founded the organization may be unwilling to share power with the staff, which can lead to conflict, confusion about roles, and employee turnover. Or maybe the board breathes a collective sigh of relief, backs away, and abandons its responsibilities, assuming the employee(s) will do everything.

As you can see, the skills needed to start a group are not the same ones needed to take it to the next level of effectiveness.

The Sweet Spot: Moving to Shared Governance

As a nonprofit continues to grow, expand its programs, and hires more staff, the board's role continues to change. Because organizations become more complex, board governance also becomes more complicated.

In the next phase, sometimes called "shared governance," board and staff share power and responsibility, are clear about their respective roles, and have systems in place to create orderly transitions as people leave and new ones come in.

At this stage, the board has explicit written agreements that define what is expected of each trustee and what he or she can expect in return. These groups have a culture of accountability and mutual respect; they also have fun together and celebrate their shared accomplishments.

Clearly, board requirements and behavior must evolve as organizations develop and change. The board you need when starting something is not necessarily the same board you'll need to grow it to maturity.

So if somebody tries to convince you there is only one correct model of board governance, beware! No single "right way" will be relevant to all nonprofits, or even to a specific organization at different stages in its life.

Headshot_andy_robinsonTo learn more about how to develop and maintain an effective board at every stage of your organization’s life cycle, join me on Thursday, January 29, from 1:00-2:00 p.m. for the Foundation Center webinar Building a Board That Works. I'll share tips for recruiting the right mix of board members for your nonprofit, ensuring that they fundraise successfully, and keeping them motivated and accountable.

Andy Robinson, a consultant and trainer based in Vermont, is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money. This post originally appeared on the Philanthropy Front and Center-New York blog and is adapted from Great Boards for Small Groups (Medfield, MA: Emerson & Church).

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 19, 2015

A Resolution You Should Keep: Engage Your Donors Differently in 2015

January 13, 2015

New_years_resolutions2Eat better and drink less… Travel to new places… Spend more time on that hobby… Read more and work smarter… We've all got our New Year’s resolutions, and two weeks into 2015 many of us are still full of bright-eyed optimism that we'll stick to 'em!

Have you made any resolutions for your nonprofit? January is a great time to rethink how you work, especially how you communicate with your supporters. Many of you are still feeling the joy of wildly successful year-end fundraising campaigns and a productive #GivingTuesday. Before you dig into your next set of appeals, use these few weeks to take stock and consider what you can do differently in the new year to engage your donors.

Here are three reasons why you should resolve to treat your donors better in 2015:

  1. Communicating with people who already know and support you is less expensive than reaching new prospects and convincing them to donate to your organization. Read more about why donor retention matters.
  2. Doubling your donor retention rate can lead to a six-fold increase in the number of people who give and the amount you raise. Read more about the relationship between gift frequency and donations.
  3. Saying thank you, reporting back, and giving your donors actions they can take beyond making a gift will more deeply connect them to your mission. Read more about ways to show your donors some love.

Headshot_farra_trompeterWant to learn more about how to build better relationships with your donors? Join me on Thursday, January 22, for an interactive Foundation Center webinar in which we’ll talk about how your nonprofit organization can move "From Year-End Fundraising to Year-Round Engagement."

Farra Trompeter is vice president of Big Duck, a Brooklyn-based communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits.

Weekend Link Roundup (January 10-11, 2015)

January 11, 2015

Nfl-footballOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector..


Good post on the GrantSpace blog by Carrie Miller, regional training specialist at Foundation Center-Cleveland, on the importance of communicating your impact to donors.

Higher Education

On The Hill's Congress Blog, Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, argues that higher education has been slow to catch up to the changing demographics of America's college-going population. By shifting the way we deliver college to help meet the needs of people for whom higher education had been out of reach, Merisotis writes, "we can create a higher education system that works better for everyone – students, educators and employers – and create a populace that is better poised for future success. [And that] is especially important, given that an estimated 65 percent of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020, and today less than 40 percent of Americans hold two- or four-year degrees...."

In a review for The Nation, the Century Foundation's Rich Kahlenberg finds much to admire in Lani Guinier's latest book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America for The Nation. In the book, Guinier, a Yale Law School classmate of Bill Clinton's who had her fifteen minutes in the national spotlight after then-President Clinton nominated her to head the Justice Department's civil rights decision – only to withdraw the nomination under conservative pressure – argues that "the heavy reliance on standardized test scores in college admissions is deeply problematic on many levels." Kahlenberg deftly walks the reader through Guinier's many criticisms of the reigning "testocracy" and seems to agree that "by 'admitting a small opening for a select few students of color', affirmative action policies actually help buttress the larger unfair apparatus...."  A good review of a timely book.

Continue reading »

The Power of Crowdfunding to Fight Ebola

January 10, 2015

Globalgiving_ebolaIn December, TIME magazine named Ebola Fighters — doctors, nurses, caregivers, scientists, and medical directors "who answered the call," often putting their own lives on the line — as its "Person of the Year." We couldn't agree more: local West Africans and long-time residents like our friend and partner Katie Meyler and her colleague Iris are courageous, vital, and worthy of support.

While much of the emergency funding from private donors and companies has been channeled to U.S. government partnerships and programs, we've been focused on helping donors reach the "last mile" with their donations. Aaron Debah is familiar with that last mile. Aaron, a Liberian nurse, has rallied his neighbors to go house-to-house to combat rumors and misinformation in a culturally relevant way. He's also producing a local radio show about Ebola to spread the message more widely in the community. Through Internews, GlobalGiving donors are funding motorbikes for community activists, a scanner/copier/printer, and mobile phones, among other items. Through their actions, people like Aaron are making an enormous difference in the fight against the virus at a hyper-local level.

$3 Million and Counting for Locally Driven Ebola Solutions

At the end of 2014, we announced that we had helped raise more than $3 million for Ebola relief from donors in sixty-eight countries through the GlobalGiving community. We're currently crowdfunding for twenty-nine community organizations that are preventing and fighting the spread of the virus in West Africa. By giving to local nonprofits that are deeply rooted in the affected areas, donors are supporting organizations that were creating change in their own communities long before this Ebola outbreak — and will be there to drive the recovery of the region over the long term.

More than 3,800 individuals have given to over thirty Ebola relief projects on and, including GlobalGiving's Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund. In November, a $200 donation to the fund came from a community of concerned people in Mozambique: "Though it may not seem like much, this is equivalent to two months minimum wage here. Thank you for connecting our hearts with fellow Africans who are suffering!" said Brian, the man whose family collected and sent the donations to GlobalGiving.

Continue reading »

[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

Continue reading »

Social Sector Still Lags Far Behind the Future of Big Data

January 06, 2015

Blueprint 2015, Lucy Bernholz's sixth annual publication predicting future trends in philanthropy, announces a new focus:

From now on, we'll be looking at the structures of the social economy in the context of pervasive digitization. This is not about gadgets; it's about complicated (and fundamental) ideas like free association, expression, and privacy in the world of digital data and infrastructure. (p. 5)

Lucy goes on to pose some thought-provoking conceptions of civil society ("the place where we use private resources for public benefit"), digital civil society, and what she sees as three core purposes of civil society: expression, protest, and distribution.

That is, we organize to express ourselves artistically, culturally or as members of a particular group; to protest or advocate on behalf of issues or populations; and to provide and distribute services or products that the market or state are not providing. (p. 6)

In essence, civil society, and in many cases nonprofits, are where people come to put their values into action.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (January 3-4, 2015)

January 04, 2015

2015_desk_calendar_pcWelcome back! Hope you all got a chance to grab a little R&R over the holidays and are looking forward to the new year. Let's get it started with our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

African Americans

The Washington Post's Jeff Guo reports on an examination of the health disparities between white and black Americans over the last century by the economists Leah Boustan and Robert Margo, who found that while those gaps have narrowed considerably, we're still pretty much "in the dark" as to how and why it happened.


As they do every year at this time, the editors at Education Week have compiled a list of the publication's most-read articles from the preceding twelve months.

The continued rollout of the Common Core was one of the big education stories of 2014, and according to the one hundred articles  gathered by the folks at Educators for Higher Standards (two from each state), teachers were some of the loudest voices in support of the standards-based initiative.


In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution (and co-author of Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy), argues that Congress must reject efforts by some Republicans to eliminate "the most important initiative in the history of federal attempts to use evidence to improve social programs."


As Robert Egger reminds us, ten thousand baby boomers will turn 69 tomorrow -- and the day after tomorrow, and every day in 2015. And that means a lot of nonprofit CEOs and EDs will be retiring this year (and next year, and the year after that), to be replaced, in many cases, by a millennial -- i.e., someone born after 1980. What does that mean for boards and staff? Eugene Fram explains.

Continue reading »

Nine Bullsh*t Habits to Avoid at Work in 2015

January 03, 2015

Stop_bad_habitsThe start of a new year is an excellent time to think about work habits that irritate your co-workers and make you less effective.

"Achieving success requires more than just doing the right thing," says blogger and columnist Geoffrey James. "Success also means changing the behaviors that are holding you back."

Here are nine workplace habits that, according to James, most of us would do well to eliminate in 2015:

1. Doing the bare minimum. If you accept a task, you owe it to yourself and to others to make your best effort. If you don't want to do something, have the courage to say so. Doing a half-*ssed job is just being passive-aggressive.

2. Telling half-truths. Honesty is the best policy. If you're afraid to speak the truth, don't tell a half-truth that's designed to mislead but leaves you in a position of "plausible deniability." Either tell the whole truth or tell a real lie — and accept the consequences if you're found out.

3. Finger-pointing. Few behaviors are as pointless as assigning blame. In most endeavors, who's at fault when something goes wrong is irrelevant. What's important is figuring how to avoid making the same mistake a second time.

4. Bucking accountability. Finger-pointing is as common as it is because too many people are unwilling to admit their mistakes. If you're going to take credit for your accomplishments, you should also own up to your failures. The two go hand-in-hand.

Continue reading »


Quote of the Week

  • " I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear...."

    Martin Luther King, Jr.

Subscribe to Philantopic


Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »


Other Blogs