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15 posts from July 2016

Weekend Link Roundup (July 30-31, 2016)

July 31, 2016

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

Communications/Marketing

If you're like NWB's Vu Le, you've pretty much lost patience with colleagues and others who routinely make one of these mistakes in their written or verbal communications.

Community Improvement/Development

The League of Creative Interventionists, a global network of people working to build community through creativity, has posted a manifesto and is inviting people like you to join its movement.

Corporate Social Responsiblity

Can CEOs really drive their companies to be more sustainable? As Mary Barra's experience at GM would seem to suggest, it's harder than you think, writes Raz Godelnik, co-director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at the Parsons School of Design, on Triple Pundit.

Criminal Justice

Earlier this week, NBA great Michael Jordan announced gifts of $1 million each to two organizations working to build trust between African Americans and law enforcement. The organizations are the Institute for Community-Police Relations, which was launched in May by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And here is Jordan's statement.

Diversity

As one of the major-party political conventions demonstrated, there are lots of areas of American life where diversity is more vague notion than reality. Another is the tech scene in Silicon Valley, where "[t]alented people are left behind every day, many simply because they don't have the same kind of access as Ivy League brogrammer." In Fast Company, Cale Guthrie Weissman reports on what a few organizations are doing to change that equation.

Education

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a bold new plan to disrupt the city's school-to-prison pipeline. The key element? Keeping kids from misbehaving by not suspending them for misbehavior. Amy X. Wang reports.

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The Strategic Thinker-Leader

July 27, 2016

Rodin_thinker-leaderFor those who read my "5 Reasons Why 'Strategic Doing' Beats Strategic Planning" post, it will come as no surprise that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, critiquing, and doing strategy. Truth be told, strategy is a bit of an obsession for me, more creative art and less a science, despite what the bean-counters and McConsultants would have you believe.

Like other creative arts, truly great strategy is the product of inspiration. And inspiration comes to us in its own good time rather than during scheduled meetings: while we’re arguing with a friend, thinking about a problem, noticing something we’d missed before, even while we sleep. (Okay, maybe that’s just me…)

More to the point, strategy isn't a thing, a plan, a committee, or a document. It's a way of thinking about change — a way of imagining that demands action. Because, at the end of the day, strategy is nothing more than a language for translating ideas into outcomes.

So what makes for great strategy, and how do you get there? When do you know you've nailed it? And, perhaps most challenging, can the art of strategy be taught? I don’t have the definitive answers to those questions. Maybe great strategy is like pornography: you know it when you see it, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart. That said, allow me to share a few observations from my years in the trenches about the what and how of strategy.

If strategy is nothing more than an organized way of thinking about change, then "doing strategy" should be built through a sequence of cognitive steps — a disciplined intellectual process that transforms what is to what could be and leads to a clear, compelling end-state vision.

So what does that disciplined and orderly thought experiment I call strategy look like? Like any other disciplined intellectual process, strategic thinking is built around a sequence of questions:

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 23-24, 2016)

July 24, 2016

Bulldog-on-ice1Our weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Community Improvement/Development

In the New America Weekly, Heron Foundation president Clara Miller explains how the foundation's recent work in Buffalo, the fourth poorest city in the nation, "started as a response to a Heron board member's referral of the local community foundation" and led to the foundation becoming a trusted neutral convener and connector "for a number of contingents in the community."

On the Knight blog, Lilly Weinberg Lilly Weinberg, program director for community foundations at the Knight Foundation, shares three takeaways from a recent convening of twenty civic innovators who've received grants of $5,000 to implement a project in a calenadr year that improve mobility, a public space, or civic engagement in their home cities.

Criminal Justice/Policing

Reflecting on the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minnesota, five police officers in Dallas, and three police officers in Baton Rouge, Open Society Foundations president Chris Stone suggests that the divide between black America and American policing is in part the "legacy of slavery, the legacies of Jim Crow, of lynching, of the repression of the civil rights and black power movements, the legacy of the war on drugs" -- and that efforts to close it must include solutions to racial disparities and the building of mutual trust between African Americans and local police departments.

Environment

Here on PhilanTopic, we featured a pair of great posts this week  -- one by Frank Smyth and the second by Maria Amália Souza -- on the noble, unheralded, and frequently dangerous work done by environmental activists in the global South.

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How to Talk to Your Donors About Funding Outreach and Awareness

July 22, 2016

Money-tree-symbol-Stock-Vector-familyWhy is it that fundraising for specific programs comes so easily to nonprofit professionals, yet asking for money to boost marketing or fundraising activities makes our palms sweat?

Professional fundraisers like Dan Pallotta have done much to call out this mindset. In no uncertain terms, Pallotta and others have argued that by not asking funders to invest in their fundraising and marketing activities, nonprofits undermine their ability to generate the kinds of dollars and awareness they need to solve our most pressing problems.

There are several reasons for this. One of the most persistent has to do with boards choosing to focus exclusively on programming and dismissing investments in marketing and fundraising capacity as unwarranted spending on "overhead." Goals involving income, whether donated or earned, are given short shrift. The general attitude is: "Let's see what we can do with our existing marketing/fundraising budget."

This is just wrong. Regardless of how well-intentioned it might be, a board simply can't insist that you generate greater awareness of your cause — not to mention impact — and then do nothing about it.

What are board members in that situation thinking? Are they afraid donors will run for the exits if they're asked to fund something other than programs? Really? Donors deserve more credit than that. They want the same thing we want: to be able to sit down with friends and family and say: "This cause and the work this organization is doing is important to me."

Like most of us, they want the issues they care about to go viral, generating as much awareness and attention as possible. That's because they know it will take more — a lot more — than their gift or donation to truly make a difference. And that's why a growing number of them are ready to put their dollars behind truly creative fundraising and marketing efforts.

We need to stop being bashful about funding the marketing and fundraising efforts needed to make the public aware of our work. We need to lean in to these conversations — and not be reticent when a donor asks about awareness, fundraising, or marketing.

What does that sound like?

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Defending Environmental Rights: Funding Priorities in the Global South and East

July 21, 2016

In December, the United Nations awarded its Equator Prize 2015 to two Munduruku leaders from the Brazilian Amazon in recognition of their struggle to protect ancestral territory and sacred rivers from a mega-dam. What caught my attention about the prize was the way it acknowledged a struggle that is ongoing, not a battle won. What inspired the UN to do that? And what message is it sending to the world as it recognizes the need to preserve the last intact forests in the Amazon basin and the knowledge possessed by their ancestral caretakers?

Report_ihrfg2016This year's edition of Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking offers an interesting in-depth look at the priorities of funders based in the Global South and East. The key findings shows that environmental and resource rights rank as the second-most funded issue area by Global South and East funders, compared to ninth for all funders. Another interesting — and, in my opinion, directly related — finding is that Global South and East funders dedicate a larger proportion of their support to capacity building, coalition building, and collaboration, compared to human rights funders overall.

Because my organization, CASA, is what we call a "socio-environmental" funder, the report really speaks to us. And as we've reviewed the findings in it, a few things have suggested themselves. We operate within a fragile global system held together by increasingly frayed  threads, and what seems to keep it from collapsing altogether is a clever subterfuge in which:

  • Capital flows continue funding the cheapest raw materials that can be found (often in the Global South and East), with a premium on minimal extraction costs (i.e., unregulated and exploited labor) and easy-to-access lands (territories that can be clear-cut, mined, or drilled no matter their environmental importance or who lives there).
  • Capital develops infrastructure to enable the extraction and export of those materials — including mega-dams, pipelines, roads, rail- and waterways, and ports.
  • Pliant local political structures facilitate the removal and transport of these materials as quickly as possible to global markets, regardless of who or what might object (i.e., poor countries with weak institutions, a history of corruption, and leaders whose territories hold the great majority of what is left to extract on the planet).

Add to this the insecurity that climate change is producing around food supplies and access to fresh water, and you have an ugly, and increasingly unsustainable, picture.

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The Legacy of Berta Cáceres: What Environmentalists Can Learn From Human Rights Groups

July 19, 2016

Photo_bertacaceresThe murder of the environmental activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres in Honduras in March came as a shock. Shortly after, I was asked to address the question of security for environmentalists at the annual meeting of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a U.S.-based conservation group started in New York's Hudson River Valley that today includes members from Colombia to Bangladesh.

Waterkeepers asked me to address the meeting because of my experience in advising journalists, human rights defenders, and activists on security matters. And the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to realize how much the environmental community can learn from press freedom and human rights groups.

Cáceres was shot dead in her own home and a fellow activist was wounded in the same attack. Less than a year before, she had been honored in San Francisco and Washington with the prestigious Goldman Prize, giving her a measure of international recognition and, one might have hoped, a measure of protection from such a brazen attack.

Alas, no form of protection or deterrence has worked. In fact, no fewer than a hundred and eighty-five environmental activists around the world were murdered last year — more than three a week — according to a report issued last month by the group Global Witness. That's more than double the number of journalists killed worldwide over the same period of time. Nearly two-thirds of the murdered environmentalists were indigenous activists like Cáceres. Brazil, host of the Summer Olympic Games, the Philippines, and Colombia topped the list of countries with the most environmentalists killed, followed by Peru, Nicaragua, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last year's death toll represents an increase of 59 percent from the year before, and the trend has been moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, Global Witness reports that no fewer than 1,176 environmental activists worldwide have been killed since 2002. Even the conservative figure is more than the number of journalists documented to have been murdered over the same period. Mining, logging, and other extractive industries were the focus of many of the murdered activists, along with government-backed development projects like the proposed dam in Cáceres' case that would have destroyed a pristine river and the indigenous lands through which it flows.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 16-17, 2016)

July 17, 2016

Peace_signOur 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

What does it mean to look at images of African Americans being murdered? In an age in which footage of fatal shootings appears alongside cat videos and selfies in social media feeds, what claims can be made for the representational power of filming? In the Boston Review, Benjamin Balthaser explores the contentious debate over the meaning and appropriate use of images of violence against black men and women.

Civil Society

In the wake of the recent shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, Council on Foundations president and CEO Vikki Spruill and Sherry Magill, president of the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, call on foundations "to advance a civil conversation focused on what we have in common and ensure equal treatment under the law."

Climate Change

The pledges made by countries in Paris in December to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 almost guarantee that the wold's average temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees and could warm by as much as 4 degrees — with catastrophic consequences. Fast.Co.Exist writer Adele Peters explains.

Criminal Justice

"In the world of criminal justice, pushes for change can be diverted or stalled by major news events," write Simone Weichselbaum, Maurice Chammah, and Ken Armstrong on Vice. "But the sniper killings of five officers in Dallas seems to have stiffened the opposition to reforms. With legislation to reduce prison terms for some crimes stalled by election-year politics and efforts to repair police-community relations moving slowly, leaders across the political spectrum are watching to see if such efforts can survive this heated moment."

Policing across America has improved over the last forty years. But why hasn't more progress been made? Fast Company's Frederick Lemieux reports.

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Requesting a Flexible Work Arrangement

July 16, 2016

Work-life-balanceThe Georgetown University Law Center defines a "flexible work arrangement" (FWA) as "any one of a spectrum of work structures that alters the time and/or place that work gets done on a regular basis." This can include: 1) flexibility in the scheduling of hours worked and/or arrangements regarding shift and break schedules; 2) flexibility in the number of hours worked; and 3) flexibility in the place of work. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the U.S. workforce is expected to have some sort of a flexible arrangement at work by the end of 2016. If you'd like to join them, the tips below may help.

Remember that flexible work arrangements come in many forms. Many people assume that flexible work means working from home. But there are many others ways to work flexibly, such as starting/leaving an hour earlier or starting/leaving an hour later, taking an afternoon a week off to take your mother to physical therapy (and making the time up another day), or even sharing a job with a co-worker.

Any flexible work arrangement has to not only work for you, it has to work for your team and organization. If you're like most people, there are many work arrangements that would make your life easier. But you are not the only factor in this equation. Take stock of what others in your organization are already doing, talk to friends and colleagues to make sure you have a handle on the pros and cons of the different scenarios you are considering, and do your best to honestly assess whether and to what extent those scenarios work for everyone involved. Your assessment should include the financial aspects of each scenario, as there are often unexpected or overlooked costs — travel and equipment, for example — to letting employees work remotely.

Make a formal proposal. Take the time to write up your proposal as a formal memo. Review your employee handbook and talk to HR (if appropriate). Anticipate the questions and concerns you are likely to face, and formulate your responses ahead of time. Be sure your proposal doesn't only focus on the benefits of the arrangement for you, but instead demonstrates why a flexible arrangement will be good for you and your organization. For example, if you're asking to work from home on Fridays, explain how this will give you a block of time to focus on project-based work that is continually interrupted by meetings during the rest of the week.

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5 Questions for...Matt Foreman, Senior Program Director, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

July 14, 2016

A year after the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, the LGBT community witnessed a day of unspeakable horror, as a gunman massacred forty-nine people and injured dozens at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As terrible as it was, the shooting was followed by proud displays of collective resilience and celebration. On June 24, President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn — a New York City gay bar that is widely considered to be the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement — as the first-ever national monument honoring LGBT rights.

PND recently spoke with Matt Foreman, senior program director at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, about the significance of these events. Foreman joined the fund in 2008, after serving as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. At the Haas, Jr. Fund, he played a key role in the Civil Marriage Collaborative, a consortium of foundations that helped push marriage equality over the finish line.

Matt_foreman_for_PhilanTopicPND: You have written about how the Civil Marriage Collaborative helped boost marriage equality by funding public education efforts "to change hearts and minds" and by supporting the movement's efforts to develop a shared strategy. What were the advantages of using a funder collaborative? And were there any downsides?

Matt Foreman: The primary advantage of the CMC was that it enabled — and in some ways compelled — the marriage movement's primary foundation funders to consistently align and focus their investments, both through and outside the CMC. The field and the funders jointly identified their priorities, which encouraged the LGBT movement to come together in supporting a bold, long-term vision for marriage equality.  

As for downsides, there were some challenges, yes. At the highest level, creating strong funder collaboratives requires a lot of time and a willingness to compromise, more than it takes to go it alone. Although it sometimes makes the job harder, it also can lead to different, and better, outcomes. Another challenge was that the CMC served as a gatekeeper for how foundation dollars flowed to the field. While that allowed for more efficiency and consistency in supporting these efforts, it also frustrated some organizations that fell outside the CMC's strategic priorities and thus didn't get funding.

PND: What lessons learned from the campaign for marriage equality might be applied to grantmaking in support of other social justice causes?

MF: For me, the most important lesson was that foundations have a unique ability to get organizations to come together, develop plans to win, and then work together at multiple levels — from research to field work to litigation — to get over the finish line. Of course, that also requires foundations to be willing to take the risk of funding the game plan and playing hardball when groups deviate from it. Setbacks are inevitable when you're working on making big, societal change, so it's critical to learn from mistakes and be able to move forward.

After the historic marriage equality decision, we identified eleven lessons that we learned along the way and might be worth consideration among funders of other social justice movements. We've put together a report and a video about those lessons, which include the need to hire staff with social movement experience and to invest early in high-impact, multi-dimensional public education efforts that are data driven, thoroughly tested, and tailored to targeted communities and sectors.  

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5 Questions for…June Wilson, Executive Director, Quixote Foundation

July 11, 2016

Named for Cervantes’ fictional knight errant, the Quixote Foundation was established in 1997 by Stuart Hanisch, a civil rights activist and documentary filmmaker who poured his family’s wealth into social causes. With a mission "to see free people in fair societies on a healthy planet," the Seattle-based foundation has been focused on progressive causes in the areas of the environment, reproductive rights, civil and human rights, and media reform.

In 2010, Quixote announced it would spend down — or, as the foundation puts it, "spend up" — its endowment by 2017. (As of year-end 2014, its assets totaled approximately $12 million.) Grants awarded in recent years have supported the Media Democracy Fund’s campaign to ensure net neutrality and the National Wildlife Federation’s diversity, inclusion, and leadership development efforts. MDF founding director Helen Brunner was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her work with the foundation, while NWF recently recognized it for its guidance and support with the National Conservation Organization Award.

PND spoke with June Wilson, who joined the foundation as executive director and board member in 2013, about diversity in environmental organizations and across the nonprofit sector and the foundation's "spend-up" process.

Headshot_june_wilsonPhilanthropy News Digest: A 2014 study by Dorceta E. Taylor, a University of Michigan professor of environmental justice studies, found that minorities and people of color are underrepresented on the staffs of environmental organizations. Since then, fellowship programs and other efforts have been launched to address the gap. What is behind the lack of diversity in the field, and why is it imperative for the field to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?

June Wilson: The report lays out some of the issues behind the lack of diversity in the field very well, such as the lack of cross-race and -class collaboration, as well as employment/recruitment practices. And I think looking at DEI in the environmental movement is imperative because those who are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change are communities of color and poor communities. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most obvious examples: Katrina affected the entire city of New Orleans, but the communities that suffered the worst impacts, those whose residents couldn’t come back because they lacked the resources, those whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed, were mostly black communities.

We put so much effort and resources into conservation policies and encouraging people to access the outdoors and the natural environment, and those benefits are meant to be shared by all, so engaging communities of color in the environmental movement is imperative.

PND: Quixote has invested in the National Wildlife Federation's commitment to improving DEI in its internal and external practices through training and leadership development. Can you describe the foundation’s work with NWF — what opportunities did you see in the chance to work with the federation, and what are some of the successful outcomes of that work?

JW: NWF is one of the few grantees we've worked with on a consistent basis since the foundation was created. We talked about our commitment to DEI efforts with NWF’s [then-director of individual philanthropy] Chris Harvey, who connected us with [then-vice president for affiliate and regional strategies] Dan Chu, who was looking at how to develop a leadership program that really could affect the leadership pipeline, increase diversity, and educate staff internally about issues around structural racism, equity, and inclusion. So it just felt like a win-win: there was someone at NWF saying, "This is important for this organization," and we were saying, "We want to champion this." In 2010, we funded the Leader to Leader program for NWF staff with a three-year grant, and Dan felt it was important to frontload the grant to maximize its impact in terms of increasing understanding within the organization's leadership.

Our investment was pretty significant, and we could see how the program and related trainings and workshops were beginning to have some impact at the individual level. But at the end of the grant period, in 2013, we hadn’t seen a lot of change at the organizational level in terms of executive-level leadership transitions and capacity. So, even though we didn't give them an additional grant, for the last two and a half years we've been in conversation with the team there about their work around DEI and continued commitment to ensuring that it is sustained. [Associate director for the Pacific] Les Welsh, who was part of the Leader to Leader program and is truly committed to that work, brought board members and Collin O'Mara, NWF's new president and CEO, into the conversation, and it's been remarkable to see how constant engagement and investment in our relationship with the grantee beyond the grant is enabling the long-term impact we seek, including the implementation of new policies to diversify the organization’s leadership pyramid and a lot of interest on the part of key members of the board.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 9-10, 2016)

July 10, 2016

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

Community Development

Alexia Fernandez Campbell, a staff writer at The Atlantic, looks at what one Rust Belt city is doing to keep blue-collar African-Americans from being displaced as it tries to attract immigrants and boost the local economy.

Environment

Thanks to global regulation of chlorine compounds, the ozone hole over the Antarctic is on the mend. Alexandra Witze reports for Nature magazine.

On a less upbeat note, the International Development Association of the World Bank Group reports that unchecked climate change could push 100 million people back into poverty by 2030,with the poorest regions of the world — sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — likely to be hardest hit.

Giving

For weeks, writes David A. Fahrenthold, the Washington Post has been trying — and failing — to find evidence that presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump is as charitable as he claims to be.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has introduced legislation that would prohibit foundations with ties to former public officials, as well as presidents and vice presidents, from accepting contributions from individuals connected to foreign governments. The Hill's Alan K. Ota reports

On Glasspockets' Transparency Talk blog, our colleague Melissa Moy takes a closer look at the philanthropy of recent Giving Pledge signatories Marc and Lynne Benioff.

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[Infographic] A New Generation of Giving

July 09, 2016

As investment expert John Mauldin noted in a recent installment of his Thoughts From the Frontline newsletter, for much of American history it was unusual to have more than four generations alive at the same time. Today, however, we have six: the G.I. Generation (b.1901-1924), the Silent Generation (1925–1942), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Generation X (1961-1981), the Millennials (1982-2004), and the Homeland Generation (2005-2025?). As Mauldin points out, the first two "still control a great deal of wealth, which gives them influence, but they no longer wield the levers of power. That role now belongs to the Baby Boomers and increasingly Generation X." That's because boomers, in growing numbers, are packing up their workstations and moving on to encore careers or retirement. As that happens, writes Mauldin, the social and economic influence of Gen X and, especially, Millennials is growing.

Although generational differences are often overstated, generational cohorts tend to share values and a worldview that differ from those of their parents and grandparents. And that, as the folks from MobileCause note in the infographic below, is something every professional fundraiser needs to consider as Millennials emerge as a potent philanthropic force.

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8 Tools Grantmakers Frequently Forget to Use

July 07, 2016

Photodune-9895775-toolbox-mWhen most people think about philanthropy, they usually think about money. But cold, hard cash is just one tool in the grantmaker's tool box. And some of those non-cash tools are far more effective when it comes to addressing grantee needs and community challenges. Here are eight tools grantmakers can — and should — use more often:

1. Connections. Who are the people you know, and how can you introduce or refer your grantees to them? If you're like most people, you probably have a broader list of contacts than you realize. Don't be afraid to use it. Think about the other funders, accountants, attorneys, consultants, government employees, and nonprofit leaders you've met. How could these people help your grantees or partners? Once you get started, you'll be amazed at the connections you can make.

2. Knowledge and intellectual capital. What do you know about your community, about local politics, about other funders, about the issues? How and when can you share that information in ways that can support your grantees? For example, the Community Foundation of Lorain County recently used its knowledge of the area and of board leadership to conduct a series of board trainings for board members and CEOs from nonprofits across the county. And the Cleveland Foundation, after learning a great deal about quality afterschool programs, created an online database of high-quality afterschool programs to help parents find programs for their kids.

3. Experience. Chances are, you have specific experience in certain areas that can translate to advice and guidance for grantees. Perhaps earlier in your career you led a scale-up of a nonprofit enabling it to reach new markets. Maybe you led an advocacy campaign aimed at changing public policy. Perhaps your organization merged with another organization. When you started your job as a funder, you didn't wipe the slate clean — you brought your past experience with you, and you can use it now to help your grantees. Just be sure to offer your advice with humility, and only when a grantee is in a mood to listen. No one wants to be forced to learn from your experience against his or her will!

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (June 2016)

July 03, 2016

Happy Fourth of July weekend! Hope you're spending it with family and friends. Before we head back out with more shrimp for the barbie, we thought we'd revisit some of the great content we shared here on PhilanTopic in June. Enjoy!

What did you read/watch/listen to in June that got your juices flowing? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

[Review] Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

July 02, 2016

The 10,000-hour rule popularized by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in his bookOutliers is just another way to say practice makes perfect. But what makes us want to continue practicing? In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, MacArthur Fellow and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth makes the case for understanding personal achievement through the lens of "grit." Yes, intelligence matters, Duckworth argues, but follow-through and tenacity are just as, if not more, important.

BookImage_GritWith Gladwell-esque verve, Duckworth, a former management consultant at McKinsey who left the firm to teach seventh-grade math in a New York City public school, combines engaging stories with the latest research in her discipline, positive psychology, to explain why achievement should be understood more as a function of continuous effort rather than natural ability, all the while maintaining the reader-friendly language and cadence of pop science.

Duckworth's big idea is based on her graduate work, which she distills into two equations: talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement. "Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort," she writes. "Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them." While she acknowledges that her framework overlooks the role of luck and opportunities provided by nurturing relationships, be it a coach, parent, or mentor, her point is straightforward: concentrated long-term effort is a key ingredient in achieving any goal. "With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive."

So what is grit? Using stories from the NFL, journalism, Wall Street, and even cartooning, Duckworth argues that grit isn't just about working incredibly hard (although that's important); it's about "working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it." Think you've got passion and perseverance? Duckworth includes a "Grit Scale" to help readers calculate just how gritty they are. If you don't score well, despair not. You can change, she says — "grittiness" can be improved.

The "life-organizing goal" that drives Duckworth's work is to "use psychological science to help kids thrive." Her core thesis is that grit can be developed "from the inside out" — through the discovery of a passion or purpose, dedicated hours of practice, and the belief that our efforts will help create a better future — as well as "from the outside in" — through supportive anddemanding parenting, immersion in enriching extracurricular activities, and exposure to a culture of excellence.

Of course, given that economic, educational, and cultural resources are not equitably distributed in society, there's an obvious flaw in Duckworth's promotion of "growing grit" as a solution to systemic educational challenges. And while she admits that social biases and structural impediments can deter even the grittiest students, she really doesn't have an answer as to how those challenges might be addressed.

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    The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

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