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80 posts categorized "Grantmaking"

Serving the Public Good (by Invitiation Only)

November 18, 2015

Private_party_inviteAmerica's foundations are not particularly interested in receiving your proposal. Earlier this year I did a quick search on Foundation Directory Online (FDO) of the 96,042 independent, company-sponsored, and community foundations based in the U.S. The results were pretty shocking: only 26,663 are willing to accept unsolicited proposals. That's right, 28 percent. True, many of these are the larger, staffed foundations that hold the bulk of the sector's assets. So I took a look at the 967 foundations that have $100 million in more in assets and account for close to half of all foundation giving by U.S. foundations. The results are more encouraging, but only somewhat — 568 (58 percent) of them accept unsolicited proposals.

I find this troubling, on two counts. The first is because of the grand public policy bargain that makes institutionalized philanthropy possible in America: wealthy donors are given significant tax incentives to create and maintain foundations in exchange for providing a demonstrable, long-term contribution to the public good. As much as I understand how small foundations (especially) might not want to spend their resources on creating a bureaucracy whose primary task is to turn down the overwhelming majority of proposals they receive each year, it still bothers me. Somewhere in my heart I believe that, when it comes to foundations, the public good is best served when the public (in the form of social sector organizations) can freely apply for support. I can understand how a foundation may want to have a program or two that does not accept open applications, but to shut out the public entirely from any unsolicited inquiries is something I have trouble accepting.

Moreover, this can further isolate foundations, institutions that are already insulated from the kinds of market, electoral, and fundraising pressures that lead to standardization, transparency, and accountability in other sectors. This is also the source of foundations' most precious asset — the philanthropic freedom that allows them to take risks, stick with difficult issues over the long-term, and make leaps of faith that can spark whole new ways of solving the world's most pressing problems. To the extent that foundations put more emphasis on creating elaborately designed strategies while shutting themselves off from unsolicited proposals, their work can become a kind of endowed activism.

So, what can foundations do?

Keep the door open, even if it is just a crack. No matter how bright a foundation's trustees or staff might be, their networks are necessarily limited. And, as I can attest from long years of experience as a foundation professional, no matter how good your own ideas are, there are many people in the world with better, more creative ones. So it's just good business for a foundation to maintain at least one program area that freely allows organizations to apply for funding. Think of it as a kind of venture window or idea lab for your foundation. Failing that, foundations can signal their willingness to accept brief letters of interest, after which staff can decide whether or not to invite a formal proposal.

Create a website. While a remarkable 93 percent of American foundations do not have a website, there are some countries like the Netherlands where a Web presence is required of all foundations. (But that's a topic for another blog post.) In terms of numbers, the majority of American foundations are very small and have little or no infrastructure. They figure: "If we put up a website, we will be flooded by proposals that far exceed our grantmaking budget and most of which do not respond to our priorities." A simple website can actually help and gives you the chance to be crystal clear about what your foundation will fund and what it will not. Foundation Center has a service that designs and hosts (more than two hundred) foundation websites to make this process as simple and painless as possible.

Do a good job filling out your 990-PF tax return. For that huge majority of foundations that do not have websites, the 990-PF is the principal source of information about them for the public. It is also used by Foundation Center and others to build databases that describe foundation interests, priorities, and limitations. The Internal Revenue Service, in coming years, will require digital filing of 990s and will make them available as machine readable open data for use by anyone with a computer and a good algorithm. In other words, information about your foundation will be everywhere, and it will be based primarily on what you say about yourself in the tax return.

What can nonprofits do?

I once gave a live Web chat with the seemingly contradictory title "How to get a grant from a foundation that doesn't accept proposals." This is one of the most frequent questions posed to Foundation Center staff and the professionals who staff some four hundred and fifty Funding Information Network affiliates in all fifty states. The answer basically boils down to what my mother told me when I was growing up: "It's who you know that counts." In more modern parlance this means networks. If a foundation says it will not accept unsolicited proposals, look for a connection that could lead to an invitation to the party. Use Foundation Directory Online to scour its board and staff lists (if they have staff). Look at all their grants and who is getting them for what purpose. If you or one of your trustees has a connection with someone on the grants list, see if that organization will introduce you to the foundation. Remember, foundations that do not accept unsolicited proposals still make grants. Your task is to find a way on to the invitation list. The good news is that foundations tend to fund organizations consistently over time, so once you get that first grant (and perform well) there is a strong chance that future grants will follow.

Foundation Center sits at the nexus — or, to use the postmodern term, "interstices" — of foundations and the nonprofits they support. Though we know both types of organizations extremely well, we strive to remain religiously neutral by not picking winners or losers or otherwise classifying organizations as good or bad, worthy, or unworthy. Nevertheless, we do see trends, and some of those are worth noting, exploring, and perhaps going public about. As one who has committed his professional life to philanthropy and the social sector I am still wrestling with this one. Help me think it through in the comments section below.

Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. In his previous post, he wrote about philanthropy's difficult dance with inequality. 

Taking Civic Engagement to the Next Level

November 17, 2015

Several years ago, a colleague applied for a position at a large foundation that had just launched a democracy program. Ten minutes into the interview, he was told that because of his lack of experience in campaign finance reform and voter participation, he wasn't qualified. Mystified, he replied that he had more than two decades of democracy experience that was about as direct you could get: working with thousands of people in communities to address the same kinds of issues being debated in the halls of Congress.

Luckily he got the job. Still, it underscores how the millions of dollars many foundations have poured into get-out-the vote and electoral reform efforts are often seen as a proxy for democracy. Today, this work is still a top priority for foundations, with almost $300 million going to 738 organizations over the last few years that fall under the “campaigns, elections, and voting” category in Foundation Center's new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool.

That makes sense. Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy. It's a concrete action that people can take to civically engage, and it's measurable.

But what happens after the votes are counted? There's mountains of evidence showing that Americans continue to opt out of the political system; in 2014 alone, voter turnout for the midterm elections was the lowest it has been in any election cycle since World War II.

It's easy to wag a finger at the disengaged and call them "cynical." What's harder is accepting the idea that this "cynicism" represents legitimate frustration over what many Americans see as a broken system that hasn't invited them to participate in meaningful ways. And even when they do engage, many people feel their voice counts for little. As a result, more and more Americans are turning away from traditional political systems and embracing activities where they think they can make at least a small difference such as volunteering, "clicktivism," and charitable giving.

The good news is that foundations appear to be increasing their support for broader civic participation, seeing it as important as elections and voting in defining what constitutes a robust democracy. Indeed, according to the center's database, civic participation receives the majority of democracy-related funding, with more than $853 million in grants made since 2011.


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Grantmaker Transparency: The Dawn of a New Age in Philanthropy

November 14, 2015

Time-for-transparency"People tend to be private about love and money, and in philanthropy, it's both," says Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

It's only natural that, traditionally, philanthropy has unfolded behind closed doors. On the one hand, the freedom to make personal funding choices gives grantmakers the ability to stay above the fray, uninfluenced by both market and political pressures. On the other hand, it doesn't allow the public to understand, learn from, or think critically about philanthropy.

"Giving and charitable acts are such private, emotional transactions," says Suki O'Kane, director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. "How do you come from such strong traditions of privacy and intimacy, and bring that out into the open?"

Where do things stand?

Indeed ­– how do we as a sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency? It all comes down to the following questions: What am I funding? Why am I funding what I'm funding? Is my funding making an impact? And perhaps most importantly, how do we improve?

There is good news: transparency in philanthropy is happening, there's no denying it. In fact, it's well under way, with large foundations like Gates, Ford, and Getty, sharing their endeavors with the public, surveying their grantees (and sharing the results), and creating searchable grants databases. Still, transparency can be difficult.

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Multi-Generational Models That Work

November 05, 2015

This is the third post in a three-part series. Click here for part one, "Going Long: Building a Legacy of Family Philanthropy," and part 2, "Raising the Next Generation of Givers."

Multigenerational_philanthropyIf you have not read the first two posts in this series, I encourage you to take a few minutes to do so now. In this final post, I will compare three alternative models for structuring family philanthropy, each of which — properly planned and managed — can produce meaningful and satisfying long-term results, and will conclude with a few practical tips. But before diving in, allow me to note the obvious:

The information provided here is general and educational in nature and is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal or tax advice, neither of which the author is qualified to provide. Readers are strongly encouraged to consult with their tax advisor or attorney before making significant charitable decisions or establishing a charitable giving program.

Now that we've gotten the disclaimer out of the way, let's compare some of the key features and benefits of donor-advised charitable funds, private/family foundations, and supporting foundations — three popular structures for managing current giving and/or multi-generational family philanthropy.

Donor-Advised Charitable Funds

A donor-advised fund is a charitable savings account of sorts, established within and managed by either a traditional public charity, community foundation, or, more recently, a nonprofit subsidiary of a commercial financial institution (Vanguard and Fidelity being among the largest in this category).

Donors can brand their donor-advised fund and name successors or charitable beneficiaries, while contributions are placed into separate donor-advised fund accounts where they can be invested and grow tax free.

The donor-advised fund allows individuals to make charitable contributions, receive an immediate tax benefit, and then recommend grants from the fund over time. (More on that later.)  Contributions are irrevocable, and donors can contribute to the fund as frequently as they like and then initiate grants to their favorite charities when they are ready, with no minimum annual distribution requirement.

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Weekend Link Roundup (October 17-18, 2015)

October 18, 2015

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

Climate Change

Does Bill Gates understand that divestment movements do not need to financially impact their targets to be successful? Not really, argues Katie Herzog in Grist.

And look who just came out in support of the UN climate goals

International Affairs/Development

It has been a deadly year for aid workers in the field. Iain Overton reports for the Guardian.


Can separate be equal in education? In Boston, many black families have decided that diversity in the classroom is a luxury, not a necessity. Farah Stockman explains.

On Medium, Jeff Raikes, former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has some thoughts on how philanthropy can promote innovation in Education.


On the Barr Foundation website, Senior Program Officer E. San San Wong discusses three trends the Boston-based foundation's arts team is exploring in the context of a strategic planning process.

Higher Education

Looking for innovation in higher education? Washington Monthly's Matt Connolly highlights ten leaders who are delivering it.

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Loose Ties + Strong Trust = Innovation in Los Angeles

October 17, 2015

In 2008, Lisa Watson was the executive director of the Downtown Women's Center (DWC), an organization dedicated to meeting the needs of women on Los Angeles' Skid Row hoping to overcome poverty and homelessness. That year, Lisa received a Stanton Fellowship to investigate the viability of a co-located social enterprise retail store that would offer workforce training to homeless women and generate revenues for the center. Revenues would be used to subsidize housing and supportive services in the pricey Los Angeles real estate market.

For the past ten years the Durfee Foundation has awarded a select number of Stanton Fellowships to social change leaders in Los Angeles with the aim of fostering innovative solutions to some of the city's most intractable problems. Lisa's project became a reality in 2011 with the opening of MADE by DWC, a gift boutique and café that offers organic coffee and food along with one-of-a-kind vintage and contemporary women's clothing, accessories, household accents, and their signature handMADE product line. One hundred percent of the proceeds support the residents of the Downtown Women's Center, providing the kind of earned revenue that is a vital component of long-term sustainability for most nonprofits.

Cross-Disciplinary Connections

Prior to the fellowship, Lisa had met a handful of other Stanton alumni, all in the housing/homelessness space. Over the course of her fellowship, however, she expanded her connections to include Stanton fellows with expertise in urban planning, health, education, the environment, and economic development, as well as contacts in the L.A. Mayor's Office. The interactions with other fellows significantly affected her project's design as well as its resulting success. "By bringing together smart people from various disciplines in Los Angeles," she notes, "problems can be viewed through various prisms rather than through a telescope. Solutions and strategies are developed by looking more richly at the problem from various perspectives and disciplines."

The Stanton Fellowship provides funds over two years for each fellow to think deeply about a specific challenge related to their work and to tease out solutions that will improve life in Los Angeles. The Durfee Foundation deliberately encourages connecting and knowledge sharing among fellows as a way to foster the cross-fertilization of ideas that might lead to new approaches. Stanton Fellows are intentionally selected to represent a wide-ranging spectrum of issues and sectors, with fellows coming from government and social enterprise as well as nonprofits. Key elements of the program include opening and concluding fellowship retreats that overlap with the next/prior cohort of fellows; quarterly get-togethers hosted by a fellow who provides a tour of the issue they are tackling and includes time for fellows to update the group on their projects; and foundation staff matching fellows with program alumni mentors. In addition, every other year the foundation hosts a retreat to which all alumni of the program as well as current fellows are invited.

Enhanced Peripheral Vision

In order to better understand the network dimension of the program, the Durfee Foundation asked Network Impact to assess the role that ties among Stanton Fellows play in contributing to the program's goals. To that end, in the fall of 2014 we surveyed current fellows and alumni, and supplemented that work with focus-group interviews and Social Network analysis (SNA) to assess the nature of the connections among fellows over time. What we found has implications for funders who are supporting innovation in the social sector, particularly investors in fellowship or leadership development programs who are curious about the wider impact of these initiatives.

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Latino Entrepreneurs: How Philanthropy Can Fuel Small Business

October 15, 2015

Hand-with-FlagsAs National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, it's a good time to recognize and celebrate the critical role that Latino-owned businesses play in the U.S. economy. Consider, for starters, that between 1990 and 2012, the number of Hispanic entrepreneurs in the United States more than tripled, from 577,000 to 2 million (Source: Partnership for a New American Economy).

While significant, however, those gains are modest compared to the growth of white-owned businesses over the same period. What's more, Latino-owned businesses generate less annual revenue than non-Latino small businesses and grow at a slower rate. And, like many small businesses and entrepreneurs, Latino-owned businesses report that access to capital is a major barrier to growth.

That should not come as a surprise. A recent Harvard Business School study (66 pages, PDF) reports that small business loans as a share of total bank loans in 1995 was about 50 percent, compared to only 30 percent in 2012. And a report on minority entrepreneurship by researchers at UC-Berkeley and Wayne State University finds that minority-owned businesses typically encounter higher borrowing costs, receive smaller loan amounts, and see their loan applications rejected more often.

The reasons for such disparities are many, but one thing seems abundantly clear: resolving them is not just a question of social justice; it goes to the heart of American competitiveness in a fast-moving global economy.

On the plus side, there are no shortage of examples of dynamic businesses started — and nurtured — by Latino entrepreneurs who have secured access to affordable loans from lenders who understand their dreams, their businesses, and their challenges.

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Funding the Voter Participation Spectrum

October 13, 2015

The fiercely contested American presidential election of 2000 laid bare the different ways in which voters can be disenfranchised: faulty voting machines, poor ballot design, uncounted ballots, and needless barriers to voter registration, to name a few. And, of course, the winner of the election wasn't determined by ballot but by the U.S. Supreme Court a month after the election itself.

In the decade and a half since, voting rights advocates, funders, and various elected officials have promoted reforms that make it easier to register and cast a ballot. These well-intentioned actors are operating under a classic economic theory: if we lower the costs associated with a transaction (i.e., voting), more people will avail themselves of it. But is it that simple? My research supports the theory — new, more accessible ways to register and vote do indeed have a positive impact on voter participation, but only to a point. And election reform is only one step in a continuum of activities that must take place if voter participation is to increase, especially among current non-voters.

Putting this into action requires a new way of thinking about funding. More than ever, it means we need to think about increasing voter turnout as a coordinated process — with the passage of inclusive, pro-voter reform as just one step in that process, not the ending point. The crucial steps that funders and the organizations they fund must be aware of and integrate into a holistic strategy if they hope to really boost turnout include:

  • Researching the most effective reforms and activities for increasing participation;
  • Educating voters and organizations about why voting is important and how it relates to issues that affect them, the voting process, and the availability of new methods of participation (i.e., early voting) and how to make use of them;
  • Organizing and mobilizing people at the state and local level to actively take advantage of new, more accessible voting options;
  • Pursuing legal strategies to ensure that the right to vote is upheld in every jurisdiction; and
  • Sustaining voter engagement into the future as younger generations reach voting age.

What's more, these steps cannot be treated as discrete activities by those interested in promoting and advancing voting rights, including funders.

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Up and Coming: An Inside Look at a Next-Generation Experience in Family Philanthropy

October 03, 2015

Hand_money-treeIt was 1:00 a.m. and six college students were crammed into a small hotel bedroom in New York City— but we weren't wrapping up a night on the town. Crouched around computers, we were putting the finishing touches on our first presentation, which would be given to the entire Andrus Family Fund board. The atmosphere was generally light – we were having a blast hanging out with cousins – but we felt the weight of the following day, too. Our presentation would directly impact the allocation of $25,000. We were also proud to be engaged so meaningfully in our family's philanthropy.

AFF was launched fifteen years ago as an offshoot of the Surdna Foundation to engage members of the extended Andrus family in philanthropy. BETs, the Board Experiential Training program, was designed to introduce 18- to 24-year-olds to philanthropy by building awareness of social justice issues for future board members. Both AFF and BETs emphasize "sharing power to build a culture of learning." This sharing manifests itself in the communication that AFF establishes with organizations and communities to ensure that vulnerable populations have a voice. The culture of learning is essential for AFF's and BETs' funding goals, which focus on issues of social justice related to youth involved in foster care and the justice system.

Our training with BETs focused on learning about social justice and its implications for philanthropy and applying that knowledge in a supportive learning-focused environment. Though our BETs cohort was all family, we hailed from five states and many of us had never met. When we'd first connected a year ago in New York, we received an orientation to the program and learned that our task over the following twelve months would be to go through the grantmaking process like board members. Our two facilitators noted that AFF was shifting its language and focus to further incorporate awareness of inequity in the grantmaking process. As a result, our learning about the practical implementation of grantmaking would be grounded in social justice.

Most importantly during that first meeting, we learned about each other. We were all in different phases in college, with a range of majors spanning interior design to chemical engineering, and we all had different hobbies and career aspirations. We were family, yet we had different backgrounds. Moreover, we were tasked with connecting with and funding communities around the country that most of us hadn't personally experienced. It was important to realize our differences early so we could collaborate effectively and eventually make cohesive decisions.

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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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A Different Kind of Risk-Taking: Improving Evaluation Practice at the Jim Joseph Foundation

September 15, 2015

Evaluation"We're in the business of risk-taking," is something Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, likes to say. Generally speaking, Edelsberg's notion of risk-taking refers to the investments the foundation makes in its grantees and their programs. The mission of the  foundation,  which has assets of roughly $1 billion, is to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews. Between 2006 and June 2014, the foundation granted more than $300 million to increase the number and quality of Jewish educators, expand opportunities for Jewish learning, and build a strong field for Jewish learning (Jim Joseph Foundation, 2014). Rarely is there an established research base for the kinds of initiatives the foundation supports in Jewish education. In the spring of 2013, though, Edelsberg had another kind of risk in mind.

What might be gained, Edelsberg wondered, if foundation staff brought together a group of competing evaluation firms with whom they had worked in the past to consider ways to improve the foundation's practice and use of evaluation? The idea had emerged out of a study of the foundation's evaluation practices, from the foundation's inception in 2006 through 2012, that was commissioned by the foundation and conducted by Lee Shulman, president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. Edelsberg thought it was a risk worth taking, and the board of the foundation agreed. Edelsberg also made the bold decision to allow a doctoral student in evaluation studies at the University of Minnesota to study the venture.

In the winter of 2013, a colleague of mine from the field of Jewish education who was then a staff member at the foundation heard about my research interest in the role evaluation plays in the work of foundations and their grantees and offered to connect me with Edelsberg. Edelsberg described the idea for what became the "evaluators' consortium," and I asked about the possibility of studying the process as a case study for my dissertation. By the time the consortium met for the first time in October 2013, and with the agreement of the foundation's board and participating evaluators, I launched the research. The purpose of the study was to explore what occurred when a foundation inaugurated an innovative approach to evaluation practice, examining factors that supported successful implementation of the innovation and the impediments to its success. It also sought to provide insights into the elements of organizational culture, practices, circumstances, and structures that can support effective practices of evaluation in the foundation field. The foundation gave me access to documents and invited me to observe meetings of the consortium held both in person and electronically. Over the course of the first year of the consortium's operation, I interviewed all foundation program staff members, Shulman (who served as the facilitator), a member of the board, and each of the participating evaluators.

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#FailEpic Continued

September 09, 2015

Fail_epicI appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it's so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened — when do you know to throw in the towel? — and that it's not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success — that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it — masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who's doing the telling, and when.

I see two conversations worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (August 2015)

September 01, 2015

With the markets sliding and the heat and humidity rising, it seems like a good time to take a step back and revisit some of the great content published here on PhilanTopic in August. Learning to embrace change and failure, tips for your next group interview, and the return of venture philanthropy and old-fashioned liberal education -- it was a month to remember, if not one to take to the bank....

What have you read, watched, or listened to lately that made you think? Feel free to it share with others in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Weekend Link Roundup (August 22-23, 2015)

August 23, 2015

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

Climate Change

The student-led movement aimed at getting universities to divest their endowments of investments in the fossil fuel industry is going global, writes Rosie Spinks, and financial types on Wall Street and in London's City district are starting to pay attention.

Community Improvement/Development

The folks at Daily Detroit have posted a good Q&A with Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, which has played an important role in many of the major and minor developments in Detroit over the last five years or so.


Richard Marker explains how the well-known "rule of three" in the world of strategy, along with timely advice from colleagues and friends, made him realize how much he had "siloed" his own consulting practice.

Corporate Social Responsibility

With the "economic system that won the great ideological battle of the 20th century...facing a renewed challenge in the 21st," Fortune editor Alan Murray introduces the magazine's first-ever Change the World list, ten companies that are "doing well by doing good."

"For decades many companies ignored the social and environmental consequences of their activities. They saw their main responsibility as delivering returns to shareholders and viewed their obligations to society narrowly, as 'giving back' through philanthropy," write ;Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Mark R. Kramer, a co-founder (with Porter) of FSG, a nonprofit social-impact consulting firm, in conjunction with the publication of Fortune's Change the World list. But what's emerging today, they add,

is something more fundamental — something we call creating shared value. Large companies are addressing big social problems as a core part of their strategy. They are disproving the flawed and simplistic notion that business and society are implacable opponents locked in a zero-sum game. Instead, they are demonstrating the radical idea that companies that tackle social problems through a profitable business model offer new hope for innovative and scalable solutions....

On Forbes, Ryan Scott says the Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum (SIGEF), to be held in Geneva in October, is further proof that companies increasingly recognize "the essential role they must play in the march toward social change. Checkbook philanthropy isn't enough to impact communities or benefit a company's culture," Scott adds; "rather, businesses are seeing the positive results that happen when they engage all aspects of their mission and functions around corporate social responsibility.

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August 06, 2015

Failure_stampAt three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I heard open discussions of failure in grantmaking strategy and execution. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but I'm heartened by this mini-trend.

Still, why is it so hard to talk about failure in philanthropy?

There's no incentive. Under what circumstances is one encouraged to fail? Working out, playing sports, rehearsing for a performance – these are all activities where you're meant to try something new, see how it goes, fix what didn't work, and try again. You get immediate signals that tell you what's not working, and often someone is there to tell you what to do instead, or how to do better. What's crucial in those cases is that you're not alone – there is someone in the role of spotter, observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better and giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results. Signals about performance in philanthropy travel much more slowly, if at all, and the roles are not nearly as clear. As discussed in a prior post, most foundations are minimally staffed, so there's not a lot of space for an HR function. And most program staff are recruited for their content expertise, not because they're good managers. So you can't count on there being a spotter for you within your foundation. Don't get me wrong, people within the foundation do pay attention to what you're doing, and you are called to account if you don't follow the rules. But those rules aren't necessarily set up to support performance or performance improvement. Which brings up another point....

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