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303 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

To Strengthen Democracy in America, Think Tech

October 06, 2015

A decade-and-a-half into the digital century, the vast majority of large foundations concerned with strengthening American democracy don't seem to get tech. According to the new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool recently launched by Foundation Center, out of a total of 18,446 grants awarded since 2011 by more than 1,300 funders focused on the broad range of issues and efforts related to democracy, just 962 have been focused on technology.

What's more, that represents only $215 million out of a total of $2.435 billion awarded to study and/or reform campaigns, elections, and voting systems; expand civic participation; research or upgrade government performance; and/or study the workings of the media and improve public access to media. The Foundation Center tool also reveals that the universe of foundations making technology-related grants is much smaller, at 186, than the overall funder pool, as is the recipient base.


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Money, Data, and Democracy

September 29, 2015

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


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

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

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Criminal Justice: Letter to POTUS From Executives' Alliance

August 15, 2015

In a letter sent to the White House earlier this month, the presidents and CEOs of twenty-seven foundations called on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring federal agencies and contractors to treat job applicants with arrests or convictions fairly in the hiring process.

The letter was signed by members of the Executives' Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, which works to reform the criminal justice system, and was issued as proponents of "fair chance" hiring reform have, in recent weeks, stepped up their campaign, including a rally at the White House in late July that drew hundreds from around the country.

The White House, for its part, appears to have arrived at a similar  conclusion and, as Alan Schwarz reports in today's New York Times, is taking steps to address some of the damage caused by over-incarceration and harsh sentences for minor drug offenses that became the norm after a war on drugs was declared in the 1980s.

With the alliance's permission, we've reprinted the letter in its entirety below....

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (June 2015)

July 01, 2015

Book reviews from two of our favorite contributors, a timely look at the future of community foundations from Silicon Valley Community Foundation president Emmett Carson, a thought-provoking post on the relationship between philanthropy and inequality by Foundation Center president Brad Smith, a cool infographic from CECP and the Conference Board, and great advice for nonprofits from Claire Axelrad and Bethany Lampland — all that and more helped make June the second-busiest month ever at PhilanTopic. Best of all, you've got a long holiday weekend to catch up on the good stuff you may have missed. Have a happy and safe Fourth!

Read, watched, or listened to anything lately that surprised or made you think? Share your find with others in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Climate Action: A Catalyst for Change

June 17, 2015

Take_action-580x386The coming months promise to be the most hopeful yet in our long fight against global climate change.

President Obama is moving forward with a plan to clean up dirty power plants. The Clean Power Plan will do more to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving climate chaos than any single step ever taken, and it will also spur tremendous innovation and create tens of thousands of clean energy jobs.

Elsewhere, Pope Francis is poised to issue a papal encyclical on our collective moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change. And more than a hundred and ninety world leaders will gather in Paris later this year with the goal of taking concerted action to confront the climate crisis. In doing so, they will also be creating a more equitable, just, and sustainable future for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And yet, powerful forces, most notably the fossil fuel industry and its political allies, are prepared to do everything they can to derail this progress. Theirs is a simple agenda: put fossil fuel profits first — even if it puts the rest of us at risk.

In the two-year run-up to the midterm elections last November, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $720 million to support its agenda and its allies in Congress. They seem to be getting their money's worth. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have been pushing legislation meant to block the Clean Power Plan, while offering no alternative of their own to address climate change.

We can't let them get away with it.

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Philanthropy’s Difficult Dance With Inequality

June 16, 2015

Inequality-304America's foundations do not easily use the word "inequality." This may seem surprising in the wake of the Ford Foundation's recent announcement that it will refocus 100 percent of its grantmaking on "inequality in all its forms," but perhaps it shouldn't. Out of close to four million grants made by American foundations and recorded by Foundation Center since 2004, only 251 use the word "inequality" in describing their purpose. Moreover, the geographic focus of many of those grants is countries such as El Salvador, Nigeria and Malaysia -- or it's simply "global," which in the parlance of most foundations means the rest of the world. More common are terms like "opportunity" and "poverty," which can certainly be viewed as related to "inequality" but hardly are synonyms for it.

Nevertheless, inequality is an inescapable fact of our world: while extreme poverty in many regions of the globe may be declining, recent research suggests that the gap between rich and poor is fast becoming a growing threat to peace, economic prosperity, the environment, public health, democracy and just about any other major challenge you can name. Indeed, one of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals developed by seventy nations (with the direct participation of 7.5 million people around the world) is to "reduce inequality within and among nations." So, why don't more foundations embrace the term?

Inequality is controversial. In most camps, the word "inequality" is not neutral. It is a concept that implies a search for causes rather than the treatment of symptoms. It requires the kind of work that Carnegie Corporation board chair Russell Leffingwell so eloquently described in his McCarthy-era testimony to Congress: "I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk." It is also difficult for a single foundation, or even a coalition of foundations, to know where to begin. Oxfam reports that eighty-five ultra-high-net-worth individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. How do you tackle such a challenge? Besides, this simply isn’t the kind of work that most foundations do. More than 60 percent of the giving by U.S. foundations goes to mainstream causes in the fields of health, education, and the arts.

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President Obama’s Eulogy for Beau Biden

June 08, 2015

Below is the full text of the extraordinary eulogy for Beau Biden that Barack Obama delivered on June 6, 2015, at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden, the vice president's eldest son and a former attorney general of Delaware and Iraq War veteran, died on May 30 from brain cancer. We were out of pocket over the weekend and only learned of the president's remarks through Dave Pell's not-to-be-missed enewsletter, Next Draft. On Medium, Pell wrote he felt obliged to share the president's remarks because, in addition to being "one of the most amazing and thoughtful remembrances I've ever [heard]," they "seriously make [me] want to be better." We couldn't agree more.


"A man," wrote an Irish poet, "is original when he speaks the truth that has always been known to all good men." Beau Biden was an original. He was a good man. A man of character. A man who loved deeply, and was loved in return.

Your Eminences, your Excellencies, General Odierno, distinguished guests; to Hallie, Natalie and Hunter; to Hunter, Kathleen, Ashley, Howard; the rest of Beau's beautiful family, friends, colleagues; to Jill and to Joe  —  we are here to grieve with you, but more importantly, we are here because we love you.

Without love, life can be cold and it can be cruel. Sometimes cruelty is deliberate —  the action of bullies or bigots, or the inaction of those indifferent to another's pain. But often, cruelty is simply born of life, a matter of fate or God's will, beyond our mortal powers to comprehend. To suffer such faceless, seemingly random cruelty can harden the softest hearts, or shrink the sturdiest. It can make one mean, or bitter, or full of self-pity. Or, to paraphrase an old proverb, it can make you beg for a lighter burden.

But if you're strong enough, it can also make you ask God for broader shoulders; shoulders broad enough to bear not only your own burdens, but the burdens of others; shoulders broad enough to shield those who need shelter the most.

To know Beau Biden is to know which choice he made in his life. To know Joe and the rest of the Biden family is to understand why Beau lived the life he did. For Beau, a cruel twist of fate came early —  the car accident that took his mom and his sister, and confined Beau and Hunter, then still toddlers, to hospital beds at Christmastime.

But Beau was a Biden. And he learned early the Biden family rule: If you have to ask for help, it's too late. It meant you were never alone; you don't even have to ask, because someone is always there for you when you need them.

And so, after the accident, Aunt Valerie rushed in to care for the boys, and remained to help raise them. Joe continued public service, but shunned the parlor games of Washington, choosing instead the daily commute home, maintained for decades, that would let him meet his most cherished duty —  to see his kids off to school, to kiss them at night, to let them know that the world was stable and that there was firm ground under their feet.

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Weekend Link Roundup (May 30-31, 2015)

May 31, 2015

Seppblatter_lipssealedAfter a hiatus for college graduations on consecutive weekends, the weekend crew is back with its roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sectorFor more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Civic Tech

In a guest post on Beth Kanter's blog, Anne Whatley, a consultant with Network Impact, shares key takeaways from a new guide that provides metrics and methods for measuring the success of your civic tech initiatives.

Climate Change

"The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It's real and it's relentless." writes Michael Grunwald in Politico. Driven by a team of nearly two hundred litigators and organizers, deep-pocketed donors like Michael Bloomberg, and "unlikely allies from the business world," the Beyond Coal campaign over the past five years "has killed a coal-fired power plant every ten days...[and] quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate."

Community Improvement/Development

In remarks at the Mackinac Policy Conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce last week, Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson outlined six areas where Kresge is likely to make future investments in Detroit.


On the Markets for Good blog, Kelly Brown, director of the D5 Coalition, argues that philanthropy can lean learn lessons from the business sector about the link between diversity and success.


Telling your nonprofit's story so it resonates with donors and other stakeholders is easier than you might think, Network for Good's Iris Sutcliffe writes, if you keep the five Cs in mind.

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[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.

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How Much Do Foundations Really Give to Detroit?

December 03, 2014

Spirit_of_Detroit-2560x1600It is no secret that the once-great city of Detroit has fallen on hard times. In response, philanthropic foundations, while wisely insisting that they can never replace government, have stepped up their levels of giving in the city in an effort to save its key institutions and civic infrastructure from collapse. So it seems perfectly logical to ask, as the Detroit News did recently, "How much are funders giving to Detroit?"

In turns out there are at least three answers to that question, depending on how one interprets "give to Detroit" and how the numbers are crunched. According to the Detroit News, eleven top funders "awarded Detroit $512 million in grants from 2008-2012." That number is based on Foundation Center data and is a solid one, but it only tells part of the story.

To understand why, let's look at one of the eleven funders — the Ford Foundation — mentioned in the Detroit News story. The News reports that the foundation provided $27.8 million in grants to Detroit from 2008-12. That's true, with two important clarifications. First of all, though not made explicit in the story, the News was only interested in grants to organizations located in "Detroit proper," as opposed to the Detroit metropolitan area. The second clarification is that the Ford Foundation number intentionally omitted a series of grants totaling $13.7 million to the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan. Large, national foundations like Ford frequently make the equivalent of block grants to community foundations, which have the on-the-ground presence, networks, and expertise to re-grant those funds effectively to community-based organizations. Foundation Center researchers took that $13.7 million out of the Ford totals and counted whatever portion had been re-granted as part of the "grants awarded Detroit" by the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan. This was to avoid something called "double counting"; still, it would not be inaccurate to say the Ford Foundation provided $41.5 million ($27.8 million + $13.7 million) in grants to organizations in "Detroit proper" from 2008-12.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (November 2014)

December 01, 2014

PhilanTopic had a lot to be thankful for in November. In fact, thanks to a lot of great content, it was our busiest month, traffic wise, since we launched the blog back in 2007. Here's a recap of the posts that proved to be especially popular.

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

Ferguson and Foundations: Are We Doing Enough?

November 25, 2014

Blackmalestudent_301X400Like many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night as I watched the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, erupt in violence. This is not a post about the merits of a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Rather, it is my attempt to make sense of a very complicated situation and to ask whether philanthropy is doing enough to address the fact that there are too many Michael Browns in America, too many angry and frustrated communities like Ferguson, too much real and perceived injustice in our society, and too much polarization in the way these difficult issues are covered and discussed.

You don't need me to tell you that nearly every major indicator of social and physical well-being underscores the fact that black men and boys in the United States do not have access to the structural supports and educational and economic opportunities they need to thrive. More than a quarter of black men and boys live in poverty. Black fathers are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to live apart from their children. Young black males have the highest teen death rate, at 94 deaths per 100,000, and 40 percent of those deaths are homicides. Black males between the ages of 25 and 39 are more likely to be incarcerated than any other demographic group, leading author and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander to note that "More African American adults are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Is philanthropy doing enough to address this appalling state of affairs? In a word, "no" — though in some ways that should not be surprising. Foundations are endowed, private institutions required to serve the public good in a way approved as "charitable" by the Internal Revenue Service and in accordance with their donors' intent. They are fiercely independent, idiosyncratic, and, at times, risk averse and short-sighted. A foundation executive once told me he and his colleagues had given up on access to safe water as a program area because "it was too complicated and we couldn't have any impact." Yet foundations have the choice to be different, not least because they represent one of the few remaining sources of un-earmarked capital in the economy. It is precisely this independence and autonomy that gives them the freedom to take risks and work on long-term solutions.

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Funding to Strengthen Democracy Is Critical to Long-Term Foundation Success

November 08, 2014

Ruth_holton_hodson_for_PhilanTopicMany in the progressive foundation community are wondering how the results of the midterm elections will affect their funding areas, be it health, education, the environment, income inequality, or civil rights. What will become of our hard work to move a progressive agenda forward? How far will that agenda be set back? Let me suggest one area that has an impact on every one of the issues progressives hold dear, an area that could sorely use some funding — the public's understanding of and participation in our democracy.

Contrary to what many have said, the midterm elections weren't determined by the vast sums spent (mostly) on negative campaign ads (though, of course, money played a role in the outcome). They were determined by people who made their way to a polling place and cast a ballot — the most sacred act in the democratic canon. It's simple. Who votes determines what government looks like, the policies it pursues, which programs are funded or are cut, which regulations are written or are dropped. Who votes is a critical factor in determining who is appointed to the Supreme Court and who heads the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. In other words, who votes determines whether our elected officials will or won't champion a progressive agenda. What does that mean for foundations with missions focused on social justice, health and welfare, and education? It means that they are unlikely to realize their long-term goals of a better and more just society without also supporting efforts to strengthen the infrastructure of our democracy.

Take a moment and reflect on whether your foundation has ever considered supporting organizations working to ensure that young people, low-income people, people of color — people in society who are marginalized and stand to benefit the most from implementation of a progressive agenda — vote. I'd wager that more than a few foundations don't or won't because, as the saying goes, "That's not our issue." That's like a homeowner who decides to paint over serious cracks in her ceilings and walls without bothering to fix the problem in the basement that's causing the cracks. Our democratic infrastructure is in serious need of fixing, and the more it deteriorates, the harder it will be for progressive-minded foundations to achieve their agendas and the more money they will end up spending on short-term fixes.

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Profiles in Compassion: Sister Rosemary Niyurumbe

October 13, 2014

Headshot_sister-rosemary-nyirumbeRecently, I attended a screening of the documentary "Sewing Hope," an hour-long film about the efforts of Sister Rosemary Niyurumbe, a Catholic nun living in Uganda, to help girls and young women abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, the cult-like militia led by Joseph Kony that was the subject of the viral "Invisible Children" campaign in 2012.

Narrated by the actor Forrest Whitaker, the film grabs you from the first frame. In harrowing detail, it describes how girls from rural villages were abducted from their homes and forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence against their own family members in order to prove their loyalty to the LRA. Many of the girls were raped and tortured, with Kony himself responsible for dozens if not hundreds of rapes, and many became pregnant and ended up bearing children. Girls that were able to escape often found themselves ostracized by family members and friends who viewed them as damaged goods.

Hearing about these girls, Sister Rosemary, the director since 2001 of the Saint Monica's Girls Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda, and one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People for 2014, realized she had to do something. Before long, she had opened doors of the center to as many of these girls as she could find and set about teaching them how to sew and make dresses, handbags, and other goods, imparting skills that can help them provide for themselves and secure a desperately needed measure of independence. Displaced children were placed in school and given a new lease on life, away from the horrors of Kony's atrocities.

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Weekend Link Roundup (October 4-5, 2014)

October 05, 2014

Harvest2008Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Current Affairs

The New York Times has an excellent Q&A, complete with timelines, maps, and links to other resources, on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa -- and the chances of the virus gaining a toehold and spreading in the U.S. 

And the Washington Post has a disturbing, deeply reported story about the failure of the world's health organizations to respond to the outbreak in a timely and effective fashion.


According to an item in Al Jazeera America, a new report finds that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles fell 52 percent between 1970 and 2010, far faster than previously thought. Based on the World Wildlife Fund's bi-annual "Living Planet" survey, the report also found that earth has crossed three (out of nine) "planetary boundaries" — biodiversity, carbon dioxide levels, and nitrogen pollution from fertilizers — beyond which lie "potentially catastrophic changes to life as we know it."


Nell Edgington has a nice roundup of social innovation reads from September, including posts by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund's Ira Hirschfield, the Hewlett Foundation's Daniel Stid, and Carly Pippin of Measuring Success.


In a post on the GuideStar blog, Jacob Harold, the organization's president/CEO, revisits the Lake Washington Declaration, a set of principles that informs an emerging movement aimed at building "a data-driven information infrastructure that provides all actors in the social sector with the insight they need to inform their decisions."

On his Nonprofit Management blog, Eugene Fram shares some excellent tips for boards looking to onboard a new chief executive.

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  • "The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why...."

    — Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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