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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.


I should note that the data in Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy includes grantmaking by the thousand largest U.S. foundations and several hundred smaller funders. Because much of the data are drawn from IRS tax returns, there's a considerable lag involved in the IRS making the returns available to Foundation Center. As a result, the data set is only complete through 2012. The fact that the $78 million awarded for technology funding in 2011 declined to $61 million in 2012 and $58 million in 2013 does not necessarily indicate a trend. New data will be added to the platform on a weekly basis, and the totals for 2013 and 2014 are likely to increase.

Still, there are a number of things to be learned from this interactive mapping tool about how the philanthropic sector views technology as a strategy for supporting U.S. democracy, especially compared to other strategies such as coalition-building, litigation, grassroots organizing, advocacy, research, and general/unrestricted support.

First, and most glaring, is the fact that, as late as 2012, the vast majority of foundations concerned with some aspect of democracy in the United States made no grants for technology. As my Civic Hall co-founder and colleague Andrew Rasiej likes to say, "Technology isn't a piece of the pie, it's the pan." Apparently, most American foundations still think it's just a slice of the larger picture rather than a set of tools and capacities that can change the whole landscape.

Second, of the 186 funders who understand the potential of technology to multiply the impact of their grantees' efforts, just 17 are responsible for half the total number of grants included in the data set. They include many names familiar to anyone who has tried to raise money for nonprofit tech work: Ford, Knight, the California Endowment, Open Society, Gates, Irvine, the Comcast Foundation, Sloan, Omidyar Network, McCormick, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, MacArthur, Surdna, VOQAL, and Hewlett. Six of them — Knight, Ford, Gates, Omidyar, the California Endowment, and Sloan — provide more than half of the money tracked, which means many grantees could be thrown for a loop if any one of those six decided to sunset or stop funding tech. At the same time, many other high-profile funders allocate relatively small amounts to tech-related grantmaking.

The failure of most American foundations to add technology to their grant portfolios is surprising, especially this far along in the digital age. I suspect it's because many foundations are still averse to new approaches, viewing them as risky and unproven. That said, tech-savvy foundations have a lot to be proud of. Support for projects like Creative Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, the Center for Civic Media at MIT, the Voting Information Project, Patients Like Me, the Citizen Engagement Lab, and Democracy Works/TurboVote has paid huge benefits, fostering a worldwide ecosystem of shareable knowledge, a burgeoning open data movement, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, the creation of online digital movements engaging millions of active participants, and the provision of timely voter registration and polling place information to tens of millions of people. Our democracy is measurably stronger because many more people and organizations have greater and more affordable access to the political process as a result.

Recently, a number of major foundations — Knight, Open Society, MacArthur, and Ford — announced the Netgain Challenge, a major new commitment to support the open Internet. It's great they're doing this, but they are all among the usual forward-thinking foundations you'd expect to be involved in such an effort. While I applaud their vision and intent, I also believe it's long past time for some of the other heavy-hitters in the sector to step up, stop editing risk out of their portfolios, and make some big bets on tech.

Headshot_micah_sifryMicah L. Sifry is the co-founder and executive director of Civic Hall, a new community center for civic tech based in New York City. He is, in addition, a longtime senior advisor to the Sunlight Foundation and the author of several books, most recently The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet). (Full disclosure: Civic Hall's founding sponsors are Microsoft, Omidyar Network, and Google, and its parent company, Personal Democracy Media, has also received support from the Ford and Knight Foundations.) You can follow him on Twitter at @mlsif.

This is the second in a series of ten posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day in November.

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.

The huge sums of money have become as much a part of the quadrennial American narrative as the quirky unknown candidates, their inevitable stumbles and blunders, and the occasional important policy discussion. Part of the interest lies in the sheer magnitude of the sums involved. Imagine what we might accomplish in social services, education, or health care if we spent an additional $10 billion.

But some of the interest also is driven by persistent efforts to make campaign spending more transparent. Because presidential elections only happen every four years, there's a better-than-average chance that each one will be "the most expensive ever." Telling that story, tracking the numbers, and highlighting the huge sums provided by a (tiny) subset of political donors has become part of our republic's ritual.

Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, MapLight, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics find, clean, and load (in useful formats) the fundraising and spending reports that candidates, campaigns, and various aligned political organizations are required to file. The costs of doing this are more than you might at first imagine, as we tend to think that simply posting data sets is all that's necessary to make that data useful. As proponents of transparency and those trying to obfuscate know, raw data by itself as a first step is not sufficient for sense-making. Open and accessible is a requisite first step, but cleaning, verifying, analyzing, and using it are still very much required. Even so, various political agendas have stymied efforts to require e-filing of these reports as a first step, a regulatory change that would go a long way to lowering the cost of making sense of political fundraising.

In the looking-glass world in which we find ourselves, the more raw data on political fundraising and spending that becomes available, the more we need nonprofit intermediaries, including investigative reporting organizations, to help make sense of the data. For all its potential to make information available at ever-lower cost, opening up data requires complementary investments in mechanisms to make the data useful and help us make sense of it.

If the issues swirling around campaign finance reform sound familiar to those of you who work in nonprofits, they should. The same set of questions about e-filing and data disclosure also applies to nonprofit tax filings. Earlier this year, the IRS lost a legal challenge aimed at accelerating its heretofore-glacial efforts to put nonprofit tax data online. Any year now we should see mandatory nonprofit e-filing and the release of tax data in a machine-readable format.

If the nonprofit space follows in the footsteps of our political system, the end result of a law to require nonprofits to e-file won't be a straight line to cheaper and more convenient access to that information. We'll also need more investments in the intermediaries and infrastructure that can help us make sense of the increasing quantities of data we generate.

We're reaching the stage where ready access to data on spending in politics, on politics, and from foundations and nonprofits can be assumed. This bodes well as a catalyst for greater understanding, more insights, and, potentially, more participation. Not because the data will make the responsibility of being an active citizen in a democracy any easier, but because it will gives us more tools with which to work. Democracies depend on participation and accountability, and broadly accessible useful information is a precursor to both.

LucyBheadshotLucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where she co-leads the Digital Civil Society Lab. You can follow her on twitter @p2173. This is the first in a series of ten posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day in November.

Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

September 21, 2015

Headshot_darren_walkerPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in December 2013. Enjoy.

In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we've seen since the 1960s -- both in terms of holding the line on the progress we've made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?

DW: It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving -- employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness, and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.

I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.

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[Review] Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library

September 17, 2015

Book_patience_and_fortitudeScott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is a nuanced, enlivening, and ultimately sobering account of the birth and death of a plan to renovate and reorganize the New York Public Library, whose iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has welcomed millions of scholars, researchers, and readers since it opened in 1911. While the book is an impressive exercise in investigative journalism — providing, as it does, a meticulously researched account of the development of the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) — and the loud public rejection of said plan — it is also a paean to the NYPL and the power of citizen engagement.

Indeed, were it not for the impassioned voices of countless New Yorkers raised against the CPL, people like author Junot Diaz, who wrote, as part of a campaign protesting the plan, that "[t]o destroy the NY Public Library is to destroy our sixth and best borough; that beautiful corner of New York City where all are welcome and all are equals, and where many of us were first brought to the light," it is likely the institution's leaders would have succeeded in "repurposing" the library for the digital age while creating an enormously valuable parcel of land in the heart of one of the priciest real estate markets on the planet.

Taking its title from the two granite lions standing guard at the entrance to the library's landmarked building on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude examines in detail the plan's origins, as well as the objections to it, which focused on the proposal to transfer three million books from the library's basement stacks to a state-of-the-art storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, Sherman, who first reported on the CLP in The Nation, reminds his readers that, throughout its storied history, the NYPL was funded by New York-based business and civic luminaries — Astor, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, among them — in the name of private philanthropy for the public good. The CLP, in contrast, was designed by consulting firms with an expertise in real estate and appears to have been driven by a handful of wealthy library donors, including some sitting trustees, with their own interests in mind.

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[Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

August 07, 2015

Book_in_defense_of_a_liberal_education_for_PhilanTopicToday the word liberal is encumbered by partisan connotation. Viewed through a broader lens, however, its meaning is more expansive. Derived from the Latin root liber, the word's etymology has been associated with freedom and liberty, whether political, economic, or social. In many ways it is a very American word, both in substance and style. In his classic Democracy in America, the French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville posited, "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom." To which Fareed Zakaria might add, learning to exercise one's freedom in a responsible way is the raison d'être of "liberal" education.

In his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Indian-born Zakaria explores what this very American concept has meant in the past — and what it means in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century. The book's main arguments were born out of Zakaria's 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. In that address, Zakaria acknowledged that his deeply held views on the subject were grounded in his own journey — one that took him from a childhood in Mumbai to Yale University, to national acclaim as a columnist for Newsweek, a host for CNN, and a respected author. The result is both a summary of the ongoing and often contentious debate about the value of a liberal arts education in a world obsessed with technology and anxious about its consequences as well as a very personal meditation on the ways in which liberal education has shaped his life.

Zakaria begins the book with a brief history of liberal education, from the Greeks and Romans, through the Islamic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the development of the modern American university, itself a hybrid of the British collegiate and German research models. From the development of the "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in late antiquity and early Middle Ages, to the Yale Report of 1828 (a document written by Yale College faculty in defense of the classical curriculum), Cardinal John Henry Newman's publication of the Idea of a University in1852, and Charles Eliot's transformation of Harvard into America's premier research university in the early twentieth century, Zakaria provides a solid context for understanding the evolution of the liberal arts in America.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 11-12, 2015)

July 12, 2015

Alexander-hamilton-duelOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content from and about the social sector, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Civil Society

In a guest essay for Civicus, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, argues that the international development community's "obsession with quantifiable impact, and frequently dogmatic adherence to discrete deliverables, undercuts the expansive purpose of [civil society organizations], miniaturizing them in their ambition...[and] distort[ing] and inhibit[ing], rather than unleash[ing], the potential of civil society." Walker continues: "If we believe in the work that CSOs are doing — and we should — then [donors] must help usher in a new era of capacity-building investment, for institutions, and the individuals who comprise them...."


"Given the nature of digital data (generative, remixable, scalable, storable, copyable, etc), it's hard to see how the current nonprofit corporate governance structures provide much assurance that these assets will be used for good," muses Lucy Bernholz on her Philanthropy 2173 blog.


"The best way to activate positive-emotion circuits in the brain is through generosity." Kathy Gilsanan, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, reports.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has announced an annual gift of Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares totaling $2.8 billion to the five foundations he pledged his fortune to back in 2006. As has been the case since Buffett made his pledge, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation received the bulk of the shares, with smaller amounts going to foundations run by his three children and the foundation established by his first wife, Susan, who died in 2004. The Wall Street Journal has the details.

As generous, elegant, and carefully thought through as it may be, the Buffett style of philanthropy is in "the process of being re-formulated by a new generation of capitalists, many of whom earned their fortunes disrupting traditional business models." John G. Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management, explains.

In a post on the Oxford University Press blog, Ed Zelinsky (The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America), the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, outlines the continuing benefits (and costs) of the Giving Pledge.

The folks at Eleventy Marketing Group have pulled together a list of key findings from the 2015 Millennial Impact Report, which details how millennial employees "engage in cause work with the companies they work for — and the factors that influence their engagement and involvement in philanthropy programs."

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[Review] 'Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund'

May 15, 2015

Book_staying_the_courseWilliam S. Moody joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1968, and for the next four decades he helped shape the fund's grantmaking programs in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe. In Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Moody recounts with unflagging enthusiasm — and, at times, in great detail — his distinguished career, the credit for which he is more than happy to share with colleagues, collaborators, grantees, and members of the Rockefeller family and RBF board.

Staying the Course explores how RBF's grantmaking programs tried, "over time, to enlarge people's understanding of, and ability to address, sustainable development challenges; to protect human rights and promote international understanding; and to strengthen important dimensions of civil society and democratic practice in transforming societies." A tall order, to be sure, and one that, in Moody's view, the fund for the most part delivered on, thanks to what he describes as its "responsive and proactive, serendipitous and systematic" approach to "helping people help themselves."

Moody traces the evolution of that approach from the fund's establishment in 1940 by the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The operation was still very much a family affair, he writes, when he came on board in the late 1960s, but the Rockefeller family philosophy of being "in it for the long haul, articulating ambitious goals knowing full well that those goals could not be reached quickly," and being "willing to make long-term commitments to effective organizations and institutions — a decade or two or more, long enough 'to make a difference', as Andrew Carnegie said" — was already deeply embedded in the fund's grantmaking practice.

As a program officer at a relatively small foundation, Moody was focused on allocating the limited resources available to him to maximum effect. In the late 1960s, for example, RBF's annual budget for international programs was a modest $10 million to $15 million — although at a time when only 5 percent of total U.S. foundation grantmaking was directed overseas, the fund was considered an important player in the international arena. More importantly, its efforts in that arena, Moody argues, demonstrate that small investments can create significant impact. In fact, the approach to grantmaking he developed back then, he writes, is quite similar to what today we call "venture philanthropy," characterized as it was "by a high level of involvement with grant recipients; a willingness to experiment and try new approaches; and a focus on capacity building for sustainability" — while avoiding any expectation of a quick pay-off.

Early on, Moody's efforts were focused on two areas: the thoughtful use of natural and cultural resources, or what is now called "sustainable development," in the developing world, and strengthening civic engagement and the nonprofit/voluntary sector globally. From 1968 through the mid-1980s, for instance, RBF supported rural development in sub-Saharan Africa and anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, where the young program officer learned the importance of collaboration — as well as the need for flexibility, patience, and good partners. When making grants in six Central and South American countries, for example, he made it a point to invest in individuals, people like conservation expert Kenton Miller, a pioneer of sustainable resource management models and a key facilitator of RBF's productive partnership with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

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Why ‘Crowdfunding’ Government Is a Bad Idea

February 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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Weekend Link Roundup (November 29-30, 2014)

November 30, 2014

Advent_wreath2Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Civil Society

On her Philanthropy 2173 blog, Lucy Bernholz asks some important questions about the purpose of civil society -- that peculiar space which "stands alongside, interdependent with the private and public sectors" -- in a democracy, and provides some answers of her own.


The December Nonprofit Blog Carnival, which is being hosted by Joe Garecht at the Fundraising Authority, is open for submissions. This month's roundup is dedicated to getting nonprofits (and the people who run and govern them) to think bigger about fundraising. To have your post considered for inclusion, it must be submitted by the end of the day on December 29. Good luck to all!

Writing on the Huffington Post's Impact blog, Ritu Sharma, CEO of Social Media for Nonprofits, argues (unsurprisingly, perhaps) that social media "has democratized fundraising so that deep pockets are no longer required. Anyone with five dollars and a smartphone can be a philanthropist."

With #GivingTuesday right around the corner, it may be too late to take advantage of the fundraising advice Hilary Doe, a vice president at NationBuilder, shares on the Huffington Post, but, as she makes clear in her post, truly effective fundraising is all about year-round engagement with your supporters.

International Affairs/Development

How much of the money pledged by donor governments for Ebola relief efforts has been delivered to date? The answer, according to a report by Abby Haglage on The Daily Beast, is "not much."

A text message about a commercial jetliner hitting a water buffalo on takeoff is the point of departure for Zia Khan, vice president for strategy and evaluation at the Rockefeller Foundation, to reflect on India's past, present, and future.

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Weekend Link Roundup (November 8-9, 2014)

November 08, 2014

GOP_waveOur (slightly abbreviated) weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Civil Society

Pooja Gupta, a writer at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, reviews the findings of a 2014 study published in Psychological Science which found that Americans' trust in each other and their institutions (the military excepted) has hit all-time lows in recent years. According to the authors of the study, "Trust in others and confidence in institutions [are] key indicators of social capital," but that kind of "capital"

was lower in recent years than during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s; the Iran hostage crisis and "national malaise" of the late 1970s and early 1980s; the height of the crime wave in the early 1990s; the Clinton impeachment of the late 1990s; the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and the financial crisis and recession of the late 2000s....

Climate Change

Not that the new Congress will have any interest, but here are ten facts about climate change from the UN's new climate report that should give everyone pause.


The host of this month's Nonprofit Blog Carnival, fundraising consultant Pamela Grow, has issued a call for submissions. As has been the case for the past few years, this month's roundup is looking for submissions that detail how nonprofit organizations around the world are creating an "attitude of gratitude" (i.e., celebrate the donors who make their work possible). Here's how to submit:

  1. Write a blog post, or choose a recent post that fits the theme.
  2. Submit the post via email to: – be sure to include your name, your blog's name and the URL of the post (not your blog homepage).
  3. Get your post in by the end of day on Sunday, November 23. You can check back on Monday, November 24, to see if your post made the cut!

Global Health

The hysteria around Ebola in the U.S. may be fading, but the ignorance and misconceptions that fueled it in the first place are still very much with us, Angélique Kidjo, a singer and songwriter from Benin, reminds us in in an op-ed in the New York Times.

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

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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Knight Cities Challenge: We Want Your Best Idea to Make Gary More Successful

October 17, 2014

Knight_cities_challlengeThe City of Gary, Indiana, is ushering in a new era. The days when the city was synonymous with urban blight and crime are fading into the distance.  Once a symbol of disinvestment standing next to City Hall, the Sheraton Hotel is being demolished and will be replaced with community green space.  Marquette Park has undergone an extensive renovation, making it a hub for community and family-focused events, including Gary's first marathon. Thanks to hundreds of volunteers, a newly renovated Boys and Girls Club sits in the once vacant Tolleston School. Gary's hometown brewery is producing critically acclaimed beer and continues to grow. And, IUN and Ivy Tech have partnered to build a new Arts and Sciences building on the corner of 35th and Broadway to serve as a cornerstone for future redevelopment projects.

The city is on the upswing, and everyone from teachers to business owners is feeling it.  But what's behind Gary's revival, and what can we do to maintain, support, and build on the transformation? How do we ensure that Gary continues to become a more vibrant place to live and work?

Over the next three years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private, independent foundation based in Miami, will invest $15 million to answer these questions in Gary and twenty-five other communities across the United States. The foundation believes it is the city's own activists, designers, artists, planning professionals, hackers, architects, officials, educators, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and social workers who have the answers, and it wants them to take hold of their city's future. To that end, all are welcome to submit ideas to the Knight Cities Challenge in one of three areas that the foundation believes are the drivers of future success for Gary: attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

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How the Charitable Sector Keeps Us All Afloat

October 14, 2014

Rosenman_headshotAs social and environmental problems grow worse and the resources to address them are stretched thinner, nonprofit organizations and foundations have to make hard strategic choices about where best to intervene. In effect, they need to think about their distinctive societal role when considering their options. While experienced staff, veteran board members, and expert consultants struggle with those decisions, there's an apocryphal tale that many at a recent Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits meeting found useful in terms of framing the problem.

But first, what is the distinctive role of the charitable sector in American society? That question has become more complicated with the emergence of for-profit conversions, social-benefit corporations, social impact bonds, and other types of hybrid organizational structures and market finance schemes that blur the lines between the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors.

Based on years of personal polling from the back seat of taxicabs, I have come to realize that the American public thinks charitable organizations are all about voluntarism, sacrifice, and donated income in service to those in need. Clearly, that's not true these days for large swaths of the charitable sector. What, for instance, makes a nonprofit daycare center different from a for-profit one just across the street?

When I ask them the question, nonprofit leaders most often say their organizations provide services to those who can't afford to buy them. But when you consider the increasing prevalence of third-party payers, subsidies to service users, and contracts and grants to service providers and the preferential tax treatment they often receive, along with the fact that fees-for-service generate the lion’s share of charities' income, this "market failure" rationale doesn't hold up very well.

The nonprofit leaders I've spoken to also say their organizations, as distinct from businesses, do much to improve civil society in the U.S., though they rarely provide specific examples of how their organizations do this. Similarly, nonprofits claim a distinction between sectors with regard to a strengthening of democracy, though few can point to related activities beyond their own governance.

A final distinction seems more significant: nonprofit leaders often point out that for-profit businesses are all about increasing the market for their products, while nonprofits typically work to reduce and eliminate societal need — although, again, most aren't able to say how their organizations actually do this. Still, it points to a compelling difference between the two sectors, especially when linked to nonprofit efforts to strengthen democracy and civil society.

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Weekend Link Roundup (August 9-10, 2014)

August 10, 2014

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


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

Civil Society

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


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


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

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

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 26-27, 2014)

July 27, 2014

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

Civil Society

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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Quote of the Week

  • "If you're asking me my opinion, [Edward Snowden's] going to die in Moscow. He's not coming home...."

    — Former NSA head Michael Hayden

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