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72 posts categorized "Grantmaking"

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 from and about the social sector, 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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Why Venture Philanthropy Is the Future of Giving

August 04, 2015

News_plant_giving_growth_200For decades, the formula has remained unchanged: donors give to charities, nonprofits, and other social purpose organizations — here in Canada, where LIFT Philanthropy Partners is based, more than $12 billion was donated last year — and organizations, in turn, use those donations to run their programs and offer services in their communities. Benefits are considered to be directly correlated to the size of the donation: more money = more programs and services; less money = fewer programs and services. The cycle simply repeats ad infinitum, without a real understanding of results, impact, or long-term value.

The chief executives of many of these nonprofits are so busy feeding the cycle so as to serve their vulnerable clients that they have little or no time left for the business planning or evaluation that would be the next steps in building organizational capacity. The result is real and systemic challenges that, year after year, aren’t addressed in any meaningful way. For example, despite $12 billion in donations, 42 percent of Canadians have low literacy skills, more than 20 percent of those over the age of 20 have not completed high school, and only 4.4 percent of youth get the recommended amount of physical activity.

How can we help nonprofits do more to tackle these problems? How can we ensure that every dollar of that $12 billion is being used to address the very real, very systemic challenges that are a reality for too many people? How can we get more results from hard-working organizations that are already stretched thin?

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We're There When You Need Us

July 21, 2015

Money-treeDo you expect your street to be plowed after a big storm? Yep. Do you expect that bridge to remain standing as you drive over it? Of course. Do you expect the folks at the 911 hotline number to pick up every time you call? Without question. Do you take the existence of all this publicly-supported infrastructure for granted? Most likely.

The same is true for the infrastructure serving the social sector. Philanthropists and nonprofits depend every day on hundreds of organizations around the globe that serve the needs of the field. Organizations such as Independent Sector, Grantmakers in Health, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and the European Foundation Centre are there to make connections, answer questions, and, in myriad other ways, facilitate the work of the sector.

So, how do they keep their doors open? Up to now there was no comprehensive picture of what support for "infrastructure organizations" looked like and how that funding was faring relative to other grantmaker priorities. But thanks to a new Foundation Center analysis (22 pages, PDF) prepared at the request of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we now know more.

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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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Seven Charitable Foundation Rules: Myth and Reality

July 10, 2015

Myth-vs-FactFederal statutes and regulations that apply to charitable foundations are complex and frequently misunderstood. To add to the confusion, they often are counterintuitive. Here are just a few examples of rules governing foundation grantmaking that I, on numerous occasions, have found to be misconstrued or misunderstood:

Myth No. 1: Foundations are only permitted to support 501(c)(3) organizations.

Reality: As long as foundations comply with certain legal requirements, they are permitted to make grants for charitable purposes to a range of organizations and entities. For example, if the foundation undertakes a preliminary inquiry, both the grantor and the grantee commit in writing to comply with reporting requirements, and the prospective grant recipient commits in writing that the funds will be expended for charitable purposes, the foundation can legally make grants for charitable purposes to government agencies and even for-profit corporations.

Myth No. 2: Foundations are not permitted to support the development, publication, or distribution of materials that comment on positions taken by candidates in election campaigns or on positive or negative features of pending legislation.

Reality: Foundations are permitted to provide financial support to organizations for the preparation of voter information guides and educational materials about proposed legislation and other issues of public interest. Voter information guides must refer to each candidate's views on a cross-section of issues and include a fair and unbiased analysis of other positions. Educational materials supported by foundation dollars must present all sides of the issue in question and be sufficiently balanced to enable readers or listeners to form their own opinions. Foundations are not permitted to reveal their own positions or preferences with respect to an issue in such materials.

Myth No. 3: Foundations are required to receive and retain a grantee organization's written acknowledgement for any gift in excess of $250.

Reality: The $250 written acknowledgment rule applies to payers of income tax such as individuals and for-profit corporations, but not to foundations — which are exempt from income taxes. So long as a foundation retains proof of the support it has given to a grantee organization (such as a canceled check), it need not seek or retain that grantee organization's written acknowledgment of a gift.

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Funding the Marriage Equality Movement: Lessons in Collaboration and Risk Taking

July 06, 2015

Rainbow-flagThe marriage equality movement in the United States has been fueled by the strategic and coordinated efforts of legal groups, advocacy organizations, and a small but active community of grantmakers. The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26 to extend marriage equality nationwide was preceded by a gradual legislative sea change and a dramatic shift in public opinion. In 2001, a majority of Americans opposed the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry. In 2015, polls showed a reversal of the numbers, with 57 percent of Americans favoring marriage equality.

One of the key funders behind this shift was the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), an initiative of the Proteus Fund that has partnered with individual donors and foundations to award roughly $2 million in grants each year since 2004 for a broad range of publicly visible education activities aimed at advancing marriage equality. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, it's worth looking closer at how CMC, as a funder collaborative, contributed to the success of the marriage equality movement. The CMC story also offers lessons about the role philanthropy can play in advocacy, as well as how funders can collaborate and take risks to achieve greater impact.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, federal law defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. By 2004, marriage equality had gained traction with a number of key legislative wins, including the approval of civil unions in Vermont, which granted same-sex couples some (but not all) of the legal benefits of marriage, and a landmark victory in Massachusetts that made it the first state in the U.S. to uphold the right of LGBT couples to marry. But it was also a year of setbacks for the movement, as a series of same-sex marriage bans were passed in thirteen states. According to CMC director Paul A. Di Donato, it was around this time that some grantmakers began to realize that achieving a critical mass of support for marriage equality would require greater engagement by the philanthropic community, not just a few relationships between individual foundations and big national players. With that in mind, a group of funders, including the Gill Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and the Proteus Fund (as a convener), came together around the idea that pooling financial resources and sharing collective knowledge could lead to broader change. Subsequently, they agreed to test the waters as a funder collaborative for a few years to see whether same-sex marriage would continue to gain traction as an issue. In 2007, when Di Donato joined CMC, same-sex marriage was still at the top of the LGBT agenda and the collaborative's members were still deeply committed to supporting public education activities aimed at advancing that agenda.

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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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Communicating the Lia Fund’s Sunset Plans to Grantees

May 04, 2015

Sunset_13Randy Lia Weil believed in beauty, fairness, the human heart, and the wisdom of nature in all things. She was a dancer, teacher, Feldenkrais practitioner, and artistic spirit. Gracious, graceful, and exceedingly generous, she was the catalyst for many people to create new possibilities for their lives and their dreams.

Prior to her passing in 2006, she created a trust and named a number of friends and colleagues from diverse disciplines with experience in nonprofit organizations to act as advisors to help identify potential grantees. This group created a small private foundation, The Lia Fund, to carry on her values and help realize them in the world.

The Lia Fund made its first set of grants in 2008, and for six years made grants to social change organizations in the areas of climate solutions, community arts, and holistic health and healing that promoted a holistic view of the world informed by the wisdom of nature. In recognition of the great need for resources to support grassroots organizations, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the foundation decided to spend down its assets, making its last grants in 2014.

The foundation was thoughtful in its decision to spend down, and used that decision to drive transparency in awarding grants and communicating clearly with grantees. Because of the early nature of its decision, the $5 million in grants awarded to a hundred and seven organizations were progressive, purposeful, and appropriately communicated so as to make an impact during the foundation's lifespan.

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McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework, Updated for 2015-2017

April 02, 2015

StrategyWith 2015 in full swing, we are pleased to share with you the McKnight Foundation's new Strategic Framework, updated and refreshed for 2015-2017. This is the second iteration of this important document, the first of which was developed in 2011 and implemented for 2012-14. We got good mileage out of our inaugural framework during the first three years, and we are excited to put the new one — a slightly streamlined model which retains the parts that worked well and revises those that needed tuning up — to use during the next three.

McKnight's Strategic Framework is very much a living document, which — like our work — must evolve in response to a changing environment if it is going to remain useful and relevant. We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the updating process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight's mission at all levels. Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based on their unique contexts.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my earlier blog post inviting input as we updated the previous framework. It was gratifying to hear affirmations of McKnight's embrace of adaptive action in addressing complex challenges and changing external conditions. There were also comments specific to individual program areas and suggestions for new issues we should consider, all of which were shared with relevant staff. I also heard from several foundation and nonprofit colleagues that they had used the framework format for their own reflection and planning efforts. Thank you for contributing to our process; your input helped make the final product relevant and useful to us, our peers, and our partners.

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