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19 posts from April 2016

[Review] Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change

April 30, 2016

When I think back to the social movements I learned about as a kid — from women's suffrage to civil rights — I picture grainy, black-and-white photos of people, young and old, with picket signs marching through the streets. While social movements today share many of the same elements, they would be largely unrecognizable to the early to mid-twentieth century leaders and social reformers who paved the way for today's activists. In Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, Derrick Feldmann adeptly dissects many of the social movements we've become familiar with, distinguishing them from movements of the past and, in so doing, reveals how contemporary social movements emerge, gain momentum, and, in some cases, sustain themselves long enough to change the world.

Bookcover_social_movements_for_goodFeldmann, the founder of cause engagement firm Achieve (and a regular contributor to Philanthropy News Digest), begins by drawing a distinction between the social movement traditionally understood and social movements for good. The latter, argues Feldmann, "establish a platform of awareness, individual action, outcomes, and sustainable change beyond initial participation and triumph," in contrast to social movements "focused solely on injustice and policy change in the immediate term." The ultimate outcome of a social movement for good may not be policy change but rather continued support and awareness at the level of the individual, as is the case with the "Movember" prostate-awareness campaign that takes place during the month of November.

In addition to this difference in end goals, the vehicles through which social movements for good tend to disseminate their message also differ from those used by more traditional social movements. In an age in which technology affects nearly every aspect of our lives, it shouldn't surprise anyone that it has become a key driver of the way we champion the issues we care about. In fact, our ability to reach potential supporters and champions for the causes we care about has never been greater, thanks to the virtual social networks that connect us. More than mere distribution channels, those networks and platforms have changed the nature of how we communicate. And yet, as Feldmann notes, social movements today "are more challenged than ever to get to the viral stage, given the rise in mass media outlets and the onslaught of shorter messages."

What makes Feldmann's narrative believable is his inclusion of first-person accounts. His interviews with individuals who have actually succeeded in catalyzing social change range from social sector celebrities such as Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, to passionate millennials on college campuses. And while they've all managed to garner a fair amount of public attention and inspire individuals to take action, their narratives also demonstrate that there are many ways to get there. Indeed, their stories reinforce a point that Feldmann makes from the beginning: empathy — a trait we all possess, regardless of age, race, or gender — is at the heart of all social movements.

To illustrate his point, Feldmann tells the story of a marketing campaign that asked Alaskans to donate some of the annual payout they receive from the Alaska Permanent Fund, an endowment funded by the state's mineral royalties, to a nonprofit of their choice. The campaign featured two different messages: "Make Alaska Better" and "Warm Your Heart." The latter resulted in a higher response rate of more than 30 percent than the former and a donation rate of 55 percent — proof, of sorts, that the "warm glow" feeling one gets from helping others isn't just something concocted by fundraising professionals to separate you from your hard-earned cash, but rather one of the key building blocks of any social movement.

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5 Steps to Help Turn Interest Into Action

April 29, 2016

Steps-to-successHere's a situation: A few hundred people, maybe more, start acting like they care about what you do, decide to follow you on social media, and/or sign up for your email list. But when it comes to needing them to actually take action for your cause, they pretty much disappear.

Sound familiar?

It's a scenario I hear a lot from frustrated fundraisers and nonprofit marketers who struggle to convert fans and followers of their organizations into supporters and champions. In part, that's because the idea of "doing good" has never been more popular. But actually doing something to make a difference is a different story.

What can you do you to change this dynamic?

First, let's take a step back and examine the way the average person engages with a cause he or she cares about.

Because humans are inherently empathetic, when we see suffering, injustice, or an opportunity to make a difference, our brain tells us to do something. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that we're ready to go all in for the cause. Instead, most of us will opt for a lower-cost option like signing up for a newsletter, following an organization on social media, or signing a petition. These kinds of "actions" satisfy our impulse to do something without committing us to do more (like making a donation or volunteering our time).

When we opt for this kind of low-level, low-cost action, we are signaling to people or an organization working to address a cause that it's okay to communicate with us. As a result, the development and marketing folks at the organization will begin to send us information about the organization, fundraising solicitations, and even requests to volunteer or organize an event or activity.

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Why Fund 'Insignificant' Populations?

April 28, 2016

Two-spirit-LGBTRecently, I was invited to speak on a panel concerning the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and Two-Spirit Native peoples at a grantmakers conference co-sponsored by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and International Funders of Indigenous Peoples. When we entered the Q&A portion, someone in the audience stood up and asked, "Given that LGBT people are a small minority and Native Americans are an even smaller one, isn’t the population of LGBT Native Americans statistically insignificant?"

The attendee then added, "Why would you say to a foundation that they should fund statistically insignificant populations when they want their funding to have a big impact?"

It's a fair question.

On a strictly mathematical basis, the questioner is right: we are talking about small populations. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2.9 million people identified as Native American/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone. This puts the percentage of solely AI/AN people at approximately 1 percent of the total U.S. population. Unfortunately, the Census does not officially collect data on the number of LGBT people, but outside surveys peg the number around 6 percent of the total population. So if we are talking about absolute numbers, the questioner is technically right.

That said, I would argue that the question misses the point for three reasons:

Disparate impact. Seemingly small populations can be over-represented when it pertains to issues of particular concern to funders. Take homelessness. While LGBT-identified youth make up only 6 percent of the general population, they also constitute about 40 percent of the homeless youth population. Another fitting example would be educational outcomes. In South Dakota, which is home to a relatively large Native population, 91 percent of white fourth-graders are reading at grade level compared to only 34 percent of Native American students. How are we going to solve problems like homelessness and poor educational outcomes if we are not willing to address why some populations are faring more poorly than others? If you do not address the over-representation of so-called "insignificant" populations within larger, systemic issues, you’re less likely to make a significant dent in solving them.

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Helen Brunner, Founding Director, Media Democracy Fund

April 27, 2016

Helen Brunner, founding director of the Media Democracy Fund and an advisor to the Quixote Foundation, recently was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her efforts to protect the public's basic rights in the digital age and to secure universal access to a free and open Internet. Central to that work was funding and organizing the successful campaign to preserve net neutrality that culminated in the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 decision to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or "throttling" — intentionally slowing — the flow of legal content or services and from offering "fast lanes" for a fee.

PND spoke with Brunner about the role of philanthropy in the ongoing debates over freedom of expression, data privacy, and the impact of social media on civic discourse.

Helen_brunnerPhilanthropy News Digest: The supporters of net neutrality seemed to have won a decisive victory last year, but the issue is being adjudicated again, with Internet service providers suing the FCC over the rules it issued in 2015 to protect the "open" Internet. Given that the court hearing the complaint is the same one that blocked the commission's earlier rules on net neutrality, how hopeful are you the new rules will be upheld?

Helen Brunner: I'm extremely hopeful they will be upheld, because I think this time we got it right. One of the things the commission didn't do in 2010 was to actually reclassify the Internet so that it could be regulated the way the commission regulates telephony. The Internet originally was regulated as a telecommunications service, but then the FCC decided, for a brief period, to regulate it more as an information service. But then they realized the Internet was far too important in terms of driving the economy — and innovation — to hamper it in that way, that the openness and innovation engendered by the Internet wasn't as well protected as when it was regulated as a common carrier. So they switched back, and that is, in fact, the current classification that enabled us to argue for "open" Internet, or net neutrality rules, under the rule of law properly.

So I'm hopeful the court will come back with a positive ruling. We had an extraordinarily good attorney arguing in court for the public interest petitioners, but the one thing that might come back for further review is mobile, which we care very much about because so many vulnerable populations rely on it for their Internet access. If the court feels that adequate notice wasn't given for that rule to be tasked, then the FCC will just go through the procedure again and get it right. That might be a concession the court would make in order to give more time for the big mobile companies to respond as to why they think it's a bad idea. And, of course, it would also give advocates of net neutrality another chance to respond as to why it's so important for the public interest and vulnerable populations for mobile to be neutral. There's a great deal of sympathy at the commission for that position.

PND: Social media played a major role in galvanizing public calls to preserve net neutrality and keep the Internet open. At the same time, social media seems to have had a pretty corrosive effect on civic discourse and the expectation of a right to privacy. Are those the kinds of inevitable trade-offs we all must accept as the price of the democratization of communication in the digital age? Or can something be done to slow or even reverse those trends?

HB: These are societal issues as well, whether we're talking about the coarsening of civic discourse or the aggressive tone of pundits in mainstream media. Social media is indeed amplifying all that, but I think we see polarized discourse everywhere, so it's something we need to address on a broader level. That said, there are some technical innovations that can cause social media to go off on a bad track, including something called "bots" on social media that can be used to drive discourse in a highly polarized direction, as well as techniques that enable companies to create false narratives. Now that isn't to say there aren't real dialogues and genuine arguments on social media, but there are things we can do to address the problem of bots, and there are several projects that different people are working on with the goal of at least eliminating the artificial hyping of phony debates.

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Why and How Do Nonprofits Work Together?

April 25, 2016

Collaboration_comp_imageNonprofit collaborations are at an all-time high. Recent surveys conducted by the Bridgespan Group and the Patterson Foundation reveal that 91 percent of nonprofits engage in some form of collaboration. In turn — and contributing to some of the confusion around collaboration — a number of terms have emerged that attempt to capture these complex relationships: from formal partnerships and mergers to collective impact efforts, there are more than a few ways to approach collaboration.

What seems to be missing from the discussion, however, is a fundamental understanding of why and how nonprofits collaborate. In an effort to shed light on the answers to those questions, we interviewed thirty U.S.-based and international nonprofits — across the fields of health, education, civic engagement, social services, arts, and the environment — with a strong reputation for working well with others. Their stories provide some insight, which we share here, into the strategic intent and different approaches to collaboration in the nonprofit sector.

Why Do Nonprofits Collaborate?

Although nonprofits choose to work collaboratively for a wide range of reasons, we found that most nonprofits team up for one of three main reasons: to boost organizational efficiency, increase organizational effectiveness, or drive broader social and systems change.

Organizational efficiency. An increase in organizational efficiency means an organization is able to accomplish its work more quickly and with fewer resources. For example, OpenGov Hub's co-working space in the District of Columbia allows for the creation of economies of scale and shared resources, resulting in lower rent and overhead costs for the thirty open-government organizations that use the space.

Organizational effectiveness. An increase in organizational effectiveness means an organization is able to advance its stated mission more successfully. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, for instance, trains congregational leaders and uses its collective influence to build "people power" in the service of social justice reforms. The result is a stronger group of organizations that are able to advance their stated missions and common objectives more effectively.

Broader social and systems change. In contrast to nonprofits focused on boosting their organizational efficiency and effectiveness, many nonprofits embrace collaboration as a way to leverage their own efforts to achieve broader systems change. Such an approach, when executed successfully, allows the collaborating organizations to experiment with different solutions to a problem in pursuit of social and systems change, and to position their activities and efforts relative to and in conjunction with other players. Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (PCYC) brings together seventy-plus organizations to support comprehensive "cradle to career" development pathways for youth in Rhode Island — in the process, linking a variety of education, public health, and child welfare issues into a comprehensive framework. Collective impact and networked-based approaches often guide these efforts.

How Do Nonprofits Collaborate?

The 3C Model (Cooperation, Coordination, Collaboration) — a commonly used model in the for-profit sector — categorizes organizational efforts to work with others along a spectrum of increasing intensity, starting with cooperation and progressing through to collaboration:

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 23-24, 2016)

April 24, 2016

BarerootcherrytreeOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Arts and Culture

Americans for the Arts has released the sixth and final edition of the National Arts Index, its annual report the health and vitality of arts and culture in the United States. This edition, which covers the years 2002-13 and includes data on eighty-one national-level indicators, provides "provides the fullest picture yet of the impact of the Great Recession on the arts — before, during, and after." You can download the full report (4.38mb, PDF) a one-page summary, and/or previous reports from this page.

Climate Change

On his Nonprofit Chronicles blog, Marc Gunther suggests that is we are to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we not only have to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we'will also need to figure out how to pull vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air. It's a daunting challenge, but we've got "a decade or two, perhaps" to figure it out, Gunther adds, and philanthropy, which has yet to devote much money to research on these technologies, has a real opportunity to make a difference.

In a Q&A here on PhilanTopic, the United Nation Foundation's Reid Detchon explains the significance of the Paris Agreement, which representatives of more than a hundred and seventy countries signed at a ceremony at the UN on Friday. And in a post on Medium, the National Resource Defense Council's Reah Suh argues that the accord represents the greatest opportunity the world has had to shift "from the carbon-rich fossil fuels of the past to the clean energy options that can power our future." home and abroad.

Disabilities

Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, has just awarded $20 million to thirty nonprofits working to engineer a better life for the disabled around the globe. Wired's Davey Alba has the details.

Education

On her Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss shares key takeaways from Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation, a new report written by a team of teachers and administrators headed by veteran educator Anthony Cody, co-founder of the Network for Public Education, and education historian and activist Diane Ravitch.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has launched an initiative called the Better Math Teaching Network. Learn more here.

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Paris and the Way Forward: A Conversation With the UN Foundation's Reid Detchon

April 22, 2016

It's been an unsettling couple of months for people who worry about the climate. As Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis write in the Washington Post, "The first three months of 2016 have been the hottest ever recorded, and by a large margin. Greenland's massive ice sheet melted more this spring than researchers have ever seen. Warming seas are turning once-majestic coral reefs into ghostly underwater graveyards. And scientists are warning that sea levels could rise far faster than anyone expected by the end of the century, with severe impacts for coastal communities around the globe." Throw in the monsoon-like rains that have swamped Houston and the record heat baking the Pacific Northwest, and you're probably starting to think maybe it's time our elected officials took action. (Or not.)

In December, representatives from a hundred and ninety-five countries convened in Paris for the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), an annual gathering under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where they negotiated the so-called Paris Agreement, a non-binding pact to slow and, ultimately, reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On April 22, Earth Day, the agreement will be opened for signing by countries that support it.

For most people, what that means — in terms of its impact, if any, on their lives and the future of the planet — is a mystery. To help shed light on these issues, PND spoke with Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate strategy at the United Nations Foundation, about the agreement, the significance of the signing ceremony, and whether the global community can slow and reverse emissions of greenhouse gases before it's too late.

From June 1999 through December 2001, Detchon served as director of special projects in Washington, D.C., for the Turner Foundation, managing a portfolio of grants aimed at increasing the effectiveness of environmental advocacy and encouraging federal action to avert global climate change. Before that, he spent six years at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public affairs firm in Washington, D.C., and from 1989 to 1993 he served as the principal deputy assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. Detchon also worked for five years in the U.S. Senate, advising Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) on energy and environmental issues and serving as his legislative director, and was the principal speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush.

Headshot_reid_detchonPhilanthropy News Digest: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York on April 22, where they will have the opportunity to sign an agreement that was reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December. Before we get into the details of the agreement, what does the UN hope to accomplish at the ceremony on the 22nd?

Reid Detchon: The significance of April 22 really goes back to the Paris Agree­ment itself. And what's so remarkable about that is that previous disagreements fell away, and the agreement was signed by virtually every country on the planet. For each country to agree to participate and make a nationally determined contribution to limit climate change over the coming years — that consensus is, I think, the larger significance of Paris, and bodes well for the process going for­ward.

So, on April 22, as you noted, there will be a signing ceremony at UN headquarters in New York. And it's expected that a larger number of countries will sign the agreement, in a single day, than has ever happened with any previous treaty or agreement. Again, it's an indication of the universality of the agreement and of the excitement and momentum that was created in Paris, and we need to carry that forward into the implementation phase. The signing ceremony is the first step in that process, and I expect it will be a great launch pad for future action.

PND: Will President Obama be in New York on the 22nd to sign the agreement? And which other world leaders of note will be there?

RD: The United States will be represented by Secretary of State Kerry. That's my understanding. And we've heard that Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of China will be present as well. As you probably know, the U.S. and China issued a statement ten days ago reaffirming their support for the climate agreement and their intention to move forward with implementation of the agreement.

Among heads of state, I believe the presidents of the current and upcoming COPs  — that is, French president François Hollande and Mohammed VI of Morocco — will be in New York for the ceremony, and I believe there will be at least forty other heads of state there, principally from developing countries and the small island states. But, of course, we'll have to see.

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This Earth Day, Let’s Celebrate Experimentation in Environmental Grantmaking

April 20, 2016

News_tropical_andes_for_PhilanTopicAs we near the forty-sixth anniversary of Earth Day, let's all take a moment to celebrate the diversity and breadth of approaches to conserving this special planet we call home. Like so many other organizations in the conservation field, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation grapples with the question of how to make sure — while there is time — Earth and its vital ecosystems flourish long into the future.

When Gordon and Betty Moore established the foundation in late 2000, they asked us to find ways for humans and other species to share the limited resources of our small but amazing planet. Fifteen years in, we've been both encouraged and humbled by how much our grantees and others working alongside them have accomplished — whether it's conserving wild salmon ecosystems across the North Pacific, the long-term health of the Amazon basin, or North America's marine environments.

As much progress as we have made, however, we also recognize that we need to scale and accelerate these gains. By reducing the mounting pressures on natural resources, we can help sustain the most critical ecosystems worldwide and, by extension, those who depend on them for their livelihoods. Put simply, those of us who work in environmental conservation must embrace the challenge of trying new things and doing more to develop long-term, systemic, sustainable solutions to meeting the demands of a growing human population.

To be clear, we don't think there's a single best approach to conservation. In fact, we believe our  success — as funders, nonprofits, corporations, governments — will require coordinated efforts that bring together vastly different approaches from all sectors.

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Invest in Community College Students; Transform Our Communities

April 19, 2016

News_college_grads2_for_PhilanTopicSecuring $60 million in state funding to overhaul remedial education and equip students with the basic skills they need to succeed in college. Procuring free transportation for more than fifty thousand college students. Establishing undocumented student resource centers in California. These are just some examples of what can happen when we invest in a powerful yet untapped catalyst for community transformation: the leadership of community college students.

The nation's nearly twelve million community college students are a key pillar of America's future. Today, almost half of America's undergraduates are studying in community colleges to acquire the skills they need to achieve their dreams and support themselves and their families. These students are diverse, motivated, and hopeful. After graduation, community college students also are more likely to stay in and contribute to their communities, going on to successful careers as teachers, business owners, civic leaders, and more. That's why if we truly want to expand opportunity, grow our economy, and strengthen our communities, we cannot afford to ignore the potential of community college students as advocates for change.

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The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards

April 15, 2016

Our current moment in the human story is often called the age of information. And indeed, we are too-often overwhelmed by the torrent of data coursing through our lives. As a society, we have developed many tools to organize the information we rely on every day. The Dewey Decimal System helps libraries organize books. UPC codes help stores organize their products. Nutrition labels help to present information about food ingredients and nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a way that's consistent and predictable.

Next generation nonprofit data standards

The nonprofit sector has also relied on data standards: we use the government's Employer Identification Number (EIN) to identify individual organizations. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) is used by many — including GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others — to help reveal the diversity of the nonprofit community, guide funding decisions, and foster collaboration.

But just as other information systems have continued to evolve so must ours. When the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, Melvil Dewey could not have imagined Amazon.com, e-readers, or Goodreads.com. Similarly, the EIN/NTEE framework is simply not enough to explain, organize, and share the complex story of nonprofits.

So we are glad to share the news that a new generation of social sector data standards is emerging. These can help us all do our work better, making smarter decisions while saving time to focus on that work.

There a several standards that are important, but we'd like to direct your attention to four:

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How to Translate Brand Strategy Into an Effective Website

April 14, 2016

Effective-website-designIn my last article, I noted that the best place to start when developing a website is with a clear brand strategy. It is what provides the shared understanding needed to unite the big ideas and day-to-day details of a nonprofit's activities into a cohesive online experience. It is the glue that ensures a site's design, content, and code work together in harmony to express the entirety of an organization's mission, strategy, activities, and impact to a range of audiences.

No small task, especially when talking about a process that typically spans months and involves many participants.

A Complex, Multidisciplinary Process

The process of creating a website is, by its nature, collaborative and multidisciplinary. It involves many contributors — each with a different area of interest, expertise, and professional vocabulary — and typically spans months and countless decisions, which means there's no shortage of opportunities for miscommunication and stumbles. Over the years, I've learned that these can be minimized (they're almost never eliminated, trust me!) by a framework that emphasizes collaboration and establishes clear goals for the team, in a language everyone can understand.

That is why brand strategy is such an effective unifying force. In a medium that calls for collaboration across such a wide range of stakeholders, it is the one thing that everyone can (or should) agree on, support, and apply to the area they are responsible for.

Sounds great in theory, but what, you're probably thinking, does it look like in practice?

Every website has four major components: Brand, Content, Technology, and Design. The most effective sites are those that get all four working together like members of a band — each playing their part, and each complementing the work of the others. When executed well, the results are much like the experience of hearing a great song: harmonious and uplifting, with a clear point of view you can easily relate to.

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Sector Switching: Making the Jump From For-Profit to Non-Profit

April 12, 2016

Jumping-acrossSector switchers — job candidates who have decided to move from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit world — are increasingly common. Many job seekers I talk to are seeking work that feels more meaningful and mission-driven. But it's not always easy to make the move. Candidates often struggle to frame their experience in a way that makes sense to nonprofit employers and sometimes find it difficult to break through the initial resistance to the fact their background is in a different sector.

In other words, making the leap from the for-profit to non-profit sector requires serious research and preparation as well as changes to the way you talk about yourself and your work. Below are five tips that will help ensure you make the move successfully:

1. Do your homework. Not every nonprofit is going to value and/or know how to leverage the business-world skills you bring to the table. Spend some time learning about the nonprofits in your region and what they do. For extra credit, research the backgrounds of their key leaders, looking for anything that might indicate the organization is open to hiring people from other sectors.

2. Network, network, network. Relentless networking is an absolute must if you hope to be a successful sector switcher. Using the research you've done on the nonprofit leaders in your city or region, create a networking list. Next, figure out who in your own network can connect you to the key people at the nonprofits you're interested in. Finally, prepare an elevator pitch for your own contacts that briefly spells out the kind of job you are looking for, why you are a good fit for the position, and what you are asking your contact to do (introduction? information about a particular organization? resume advice?).

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 9-10, 2016)

April 10, 2016

Robin-on-branchOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

Black Lives Matter is both a sprawling social movement and a civil rights organization with more than thirty chapters across the United States. But that distinction, and many other  nuances, rarely make it into coverage of either the movement or the organization, writes Jephie Bernard, a student at the Columbia School of Journalism, on the CJR website.

Communications/Marketing

And not a moment too soon...  NWB's Vu Le rides to the defense of the Oxford comma.

Global Health

"Pessimism is fashionable. It's also wrong," writes Nonprofit Chronicles blogger Marc Gunther. "People are safer, better-educated, better-fed, and wealthier than they used to be. Democracy and human rights are spreading. Perhaps most important, people, and in particular the world's poorest people, are healthier." So why aren't we cheering? Because, says Gunther, echoing others, "the world's governments, aid agencies, foundations and nonprofits could be doing much better."

Grantmaking

On our sister Transparency Talk blog, the Surdna Foundation's Adriana Jimenez explains how the foundation's decision to move to a workflow- and cloud-based system grants management system has enabled it to work more collaboratively with grantees; increased collaboration and learning within the foundation; and improved its capacity to share data and lessons learned with the rest of the sector.

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Flint’s Crisis Raises Questions — and Cautions — About the Role of Philanthropy

April 08, 2016

Dirty-bottled-waterThe public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, continues to unfold before the eyes of the world. For nearly eighteen months, water drawn from the Flint River was sent without proper treatment into the city's infrastructure, corroding aging pipes and fixtures. Lead leached into the water supply and flowed to local homes, schools, and businesses. The results: a near doubling in the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, a wave of other health concerns throughout the community, severely damaged infrastructure, and despair regarding the city's prospects for economic recovery.

This terrible situation in the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's hometown has sparked numerous questions, including one that should be of interest to every foundation: What is the role of philanthropy in responding to a community in crisis? At Mott, we've felt the need to act immediately on some issues and with great deliberation on others. We've also been called upon to discuss the role of philanthropy in funding infrastructure projects. It's my hope that our experiences thus far might be helpful to other philanthropies that could face similar challenges in the future.

When the high levels of lead exposure among Flint children were revealed in September of 2015, Mott acted quickly to begin the long process of bringing safe drinking water back to our hometown. In addition to a grant of $100,000 to provide residents with home water filters, we pledged $4 million to help reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system. With an additional $6 million from the state of Michigan and $2 million from the city of Flint, that switch took place on October 16.

Our decision to help pay for the switch was a no-brainer. Since our founding ninety years ago, we've had a deep and unwavering commitment to our home community. We couldn't sit on the sidelines while the children of Flint were being harmed. Our role as a catalyst for the return to safer water speaks to one of philanthropy's most valuable attributes: the ability to respond swiftly when disaster strikes to help people meet their basic needs.

But after taking swift action, the question then becomes "What next?"

As important as it was to act quickly to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system, we also realized that it sometimes makes sense for philanthropies to fight the impulse to make major commitments while a disaster is still unfolding. Two aspects of Flint's water crisis show us why.

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The Empowered Leader…or 5 Reasons Why ‘Strategic Doing’ Beats Strategic Planning

April 07, 2016

Strategic-Plan-Poster Edited2One of these days I'm going to sit down and write a treatise on why I believe strategic thinking and strategic leadership are more valuable than strategic planning — particularly, but not only, in a not-for-profit context. I'm going to do it, I promise, but not today. I'm too busy doing stuff.

So apparently was Southwest Airline's legendary founder and CEO Herb Kelleher, who held that "strategy is overrated, simply doing stuff is underrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things." Or, as management guru Tom Peters puts it, "the thing that keeps a business ahead of the competition is excellence in execution."

How many of us were taught that "boards make policy and executives implement it"? Turns out that assertion is both over-simplistic and short-sighted, at least as far as well-functioning organizations are concerned. The empowered leader — whether nonprofit or for-profit — must own and lead both the strategy process and the strategy itself, which is one reason why strategic planning is overrated and often ineffective. Done conventionally, strategic planning empowers the consultant, not the executive. Executive coaching, on the other hand, invests in the development of leaders who then empower their organizations, boards, and staffs to think big and execute well.

I'm not saying that strategic planning isn't important. It certainly is — especially to the legions of pricey consultants happy to have you pay for their thick workbooks and the many billable hours needed to walk the strategic planning team through them. Strategic planning is, after all, a big business. (Don't believe me? Stop by one of McKinsey's hundred and nine offices around the globe and chat with one of the eleven thousand consultants and advisors the firm employs.)

So what's a better option? You guessed it: focused and well-executed executive coaching. One-on-one coaching can be a valuable and effective alternative (or, even, precursor) to a full-on strategic planning process, especially for the already overwhelmed and over-burdened executive who is worried about the cost, in terms of time and money, of the latter.

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  • "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves...."

    — Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

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