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Helping Low-Income Students Gain College Access AND Success

September 16, 2014

William_goodloe_for_PhilanTopicAs children across the country headed back to school this fall, the United States reached a milestone of sorts: nearly half the children enrolled in public schools now come from low-income families. As the public school population in the U.S. grows poorer, the need to improve college access and success for low-income students grows ever more acute. Indeed, politicians, business leaders, and policy makers are beginning to recognize what those in the philanthropic community have known for decades: a college education is the most reliable way of moving people out of poverty — permanently.

At Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, we know it's not always so easy to get low-income students on the path to higher education. To address that reality, we operate a program for low-income students called SEO Scholars that spends four years preparing program participants for college and another four years providing counseling and mentoring to make sure they graduate.

We're careful to say that SEO Scholars is not the answer for every student. We work with a specific population — students from low-income families (the average family income is less than $30,000 a year) in New York and San Francisco who are motivated to better their lives. In most cases, their regular teachers think they'll do just fine without additional help. The data tell a different story. Without additional help, many low-income students, no matter how motivated they are, graduate from high school without the academic preparation they need to succeed in a rigorous four-year college. Without additional support, low-income students who routinely get As and Bs in high school tend not to perform as well on the SAT or ACT. And in the college selection process, they "undermatch" — enrolling in a community college, a for-profit school, or a local college where dropout rates often are unacceptably high, instead of aiming for admission to a more competitive school with higher graduation rates and deeper financial aid resources.

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Bright Shiny Objects

September 15, 2014

Headshot_maria_mottolaI like Alec Baldwin. I really do. He's sassy and good-looking. He's got a great head of hair and that instantly recognizable deep, silky, authoritative voice lulls you in whether he's cueing up classical music, bossing Liz Lemon around, or sharing intimacies with celebrity friends on "Here's the Thing." He's also sometimes unapologetically audacious.

So why would it bother me that he's going to be the keynote speaker at the Independent Sector conference in Seattle?  I mean, I've been on conference planning committees and I know you need a big name to entice people to log off email and travel great distances to talk to one another. I admit, Alec Baldwin is not just a pretty face. He's a smart guy with strong opinions who hasn't shied away from politics or policy issues.

So in some ways I should not have been surprised to see his photo pop up in an email with a banner announcing "Summer Surprise! Alec Baldwin will be the plenary speaker at the Independent Sector Annual Conference in Seattle."

But honestly, the whole idea is kind of depressing. While it may be a coup to snag Alec Baldwin as a speaker, to give him the spotlight at this particular point in his career feels like we won the celebrity consolation prize. It feels, truth be told, a little desperate.

Did we forget that just a year ago Alec Baldwin allegedly hurled angry homophobic insults (more than once) at reporters? Yes, he tried to make things better, but he ended up making things worse with a meandering screed he penned for a New York magazine blog that rationalized his actions by blaming an aggressive press corps that "made him do it."  It was an epic read: half mea culpa, half angry diatribe. Watching Baldwin turn himself inside out so thoroughly and so frantically elicited the same feeling you get from craning your neck to look at an accident you know you should avert your gaze from.

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[Infographic] LGBT Rights Around the World

September 13, 2014

If, like us, recent headlines have you feeling more than a little discouraged, the infographic below should cheer you up.  While acknowledging that gays and lesbians around the world have widely different experiences, it notes that the legal status of LGBT individuals in the U.S. has improved markedly in recent years. As regular readers of PND and PhilanTopic know, that's due, in part, to the tireless efforts of foundations such as Gill, Arcus, Ford, Haas, Pride, Horizons, Tides, and van Ameringen. And while acceptance of gays and lesbians is not yet the norm in many regions of the world, recognition of same-sex relationships and/or marriage is becoming more common -- a reminder that social change, while not easy, is possible when enough people see an injustice and commit themselves to righting it.

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Making School Choice Work Requires New Cross-Sector Investments

September 12, 2014

Headshot_robin_lakeAs many thoughtful education reform advocates now admit, public school choice has created new possibilities for families desperate for better options. But it can also create significant access challenges for disadvantaged families. In cities where many state and local agencies oversee district and charter schools, fragmented governance makes solving those challenges especially difficult.

This is evident in cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where parents now have many school choices and districts must compete for students. While good new options exist in the form of charter and private schools, many families can't get access to them. District officials and charter authorizers protect their own schools from closure, so that weak schools stumble along and overall educational quality stagnates. Recognizing that the best schools have little advantage over weaker ones, the best educators and charter providers go elsewhere.

Recent research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education holds good and bad news for school choice advocates: we found that many parents in "high-choice" cities, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, are today actively choosing their children's schools and getting access to their first or second choice. Yet our research also shows that too many parents face barriers to finding good schools, including difficulty in obtaining reliable information to inform their choices, navigating different eligibility and application requirements, and finding adequate transportation. Parents with the least education and those who have children with special needs report the most significant barriers.

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Tracking the Human Rights Response to HIV

September 10, 2014

"Good decisions always require good information, and when resources are limited, data matters even more...."

– Greg Millett, vice president and director of public policy, amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research

Headshot_sarah_hamiltonIn August, AVAC and amfAR issued a report, Data Watch: Closing a Persistent Gap in the AIDS Response, that calls for a new approach to tracking data on the global response to AIDS. What's unique about Data Watch is that it places equal emphasis on filling the gaps in both epidemiological and expenditure information. Data has always reigned supreme in the public health world, but in their new report AVAC and amfAR pose a simple question: What happens to our quest to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030 if we don't know whether we have the funding to sustain our efforts?

Through improved data, for instance, we now know that key populations (i.e., men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, transgender people, and sex workers) represent a major share of the epidemic, largely due to such factors as stigma, discrimination, and punitive laws that continue to marginalize these populations and keep them from the care and treatment they need. With human rights abuses continuing to fuel the epidemic and impacting the health and rights of those most at-risk, targeted funding for a human rights response to HIV is critical.

But is that happening?

Sadly, no. Recent research from the Join United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) [1] found that less than one percent of the $18.9 billion spent on the overall HIV response in 2012 supported human rights programming.

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Foundation Transparency: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?

September 08, 2014

Headshot_buteau_gopalNonprofit and foundation leaders have starkly different views about the importance of foundation transparency. That's what we learned when we surveyed nonprofit and foundation CEOs about their attitudes about this issue. Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship," said one nonprofit CEO. But the majority of foundation CEOs don't see transparency as crucial to impact.

We found that 91 percent of nonprofits agree that "Foundations that are more transparent are more helpful to my organization's ability to work effectively," but only 47 percent of foundation CEOs agree that "Foundations would be able to create more impact if they were more transparent with the nonprofits they fund."

Why might nonprofit and foundation CEOs have such different attitudes toward foundation transparency?CEP_transparency_findingsFirst, foundations may not share nonprofits' understanding of transparency. To nonprofit CEOs, foundations are transparent when they are "clear, open, and honest about the processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits' work." Transparency is not only about what information foundations share — which Glasspockets helps to track through its transparency indicators — but how effectively foundations have communicated that information to nonprofits.

Foundations may also think they are transparent enough. But nonprofit leaders' assessment of foundations' transparency suggests they could do better: on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicates "not at all transparent" and 7 indicates "extremely transparent," nonprofit CEO respondents on average rate the overall transparency of their foundation funders a 4.7. As one nonprofit CEO said, "I don't think there is intent to be less transparent, but often times foundations may assume we know things about their programs, opportunities and goals we don't really know."

Nonprofit CEOs also tend to think foundations are not transparent enough about what has not worked in foundations' experiences — but fewer foundation CEOs see it that way. We found that 88 percent of nonprofit CEOs believe foundations should be more transparent about this, while only 61 percent of foundation CEOs disagree that, "Foundations do a good job of publicly sharing what has not been successful in their experiences." Perhaps nonprofits see this issue differently because they clearly understand how they could use such knowledge. "One of the best learning tools is to see what has not worked. Learning from foundations and their other grantees would be very instructive," said one nonprofit CEO.CEP_transparency_findings2While there are some examples of foundations actively working to be more open — notably the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with its "Work in Progress" blog and Darren Walker's efforts to build a culture at the Ford Foundation where "openness is held in as high regard as our intellectual curiosity, our rigor and our commitment to the values we share" — too few foundation leaders seem to recognize the need, from nonprofits' perspective, for greater transparency.

— Ellie Buteau is vice president of research and Ramya Gopal is associate manager of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post originally appeared on Glasspockets' Transparency Talk blog.

[Video] "Ecosystem Philanthropy" | Jennifer Ford Reedy, President, Bush Foundation

September 06, 2014

In this recent TEDxFargo talk, Reedy, the fourth president of the Saint Paul-based Bush Foundation, uses a variety of examples, from "Sesame Street, to the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, to the dramatically different but equally influential efforts of Albert and Mary Lasker and John M. Olin, to explain "why so many attempts to do good in the world don't work as intended and how the most effective philanthropists understand the social ecosystem they are trying to effect and put it to work for them."

Reedy concludes her talk with four lessons for philanthropists and philanthropy practitioners looking to drive change in a world of unintended consequences:

  • Activate others.
  • Watch, wait, and do.
  • Think long and lasting.
  • Don't underestimate the power of individuals.

(Running time: 18:08)

Are you involved in -- or can you point to -- a successful example of "ecosystem philanthropy"? Which of Reedy's lessons (if any) does it exemplify? And what lessons would you add to the list? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....

To Increase Your Organization’s Impact, Work With People Who Reflect Your Values

September 05, 2014

Headshot_carrie_richAs consumers, we constantly make purchasing decisions that express our values. A consumer seeking to live a healthy lifestyle might buy organic produce; a consumer conscious of her carbon footprint might purchase a Prius.

Leading an organization provides similar opportunities to invest in our values, especially when it comes to the colleagues with whom we choose to surround ourselves.

Employees, volunteers, and contractors all play crucial roles in the growth of any organization. Indeed, the people on your extended team are as important — if not more important — than your organization's mission and brand. They are the face of the organization, and ultimately their actions and creativity define your brand and activate your mission.

So how do you ensure your team reflects what your organization is all about? Here are some tips to consider:

Understand where they are coming from. Working with people who reflect and believe in the values of your organization doesn't happen by accident. It requires being clear about who you want to work with and why you want to work with them. And it also requires you to understand what motivates an individual to want to work for your organization. What is it about the organization that resonates with him/her? Why do they think they would be a good fit for your team? How will they provide value to the team? The more carefully you consider these questions as you are interviewing, be it a potential new hire, a contractor, or a volunteer, the more confidence you will have in your final decision.

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Four Key Indicators of Nonprofit Success

September 03, 2014

Headshot_richard_brewsterHave you ever "ghost dialed" someone? You know, when the phone in your purse or pocket accidentally dials a number? Well, that recently happened to me with a board member of a human services nonprofit. We were surprised to be talking to each other but continued. The organization was well known in its community and had been successful, but our conversation ended up being pretty depressing: the nonprofit was in the process of shutting down.

I did some research and discovered that the organization's budget grew from $5 million to $10 million in just five years. Then a crisis came, they lost a major source of revenue, and there followed a painful five-year decline.

Why did this happen? A little more research and some reflection on others' experience suggests that four key conditions need to be met in order to survive a crisis like the loss of a major funder:

1. Sustainability isn't just about dollars. A nonprofit's programs need to be relevant today, not for situations or problems that are five or ten years in the past. The human services group above offered only housing, even as other agencies in the area began to provide services such as day care to low-income people, enabling them to keep their jobs (and pay the rent).

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (August 2014)

September 02, 2014

Don't know what it's like where you are, but here in NYC someone forgot to tell Mother Nature that summer is over. Which is okay, because before it ends we want to make sure everyone has a chance to catch up with all the sizzling content we posted on PhilanTopic in August. Enjoy!

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think, surprised you, or caused you to scratch your head? Share your finds in the comments section below....

Why WITNESS and Other Nonprofits Are Adopting the Serious Business of Monitoring and Evaluation

August 28, 2014

Last month, The New York Times "reviewed" the still-in-development Participant Media Index, which is designed to measure the impact and engagement of social issue documentaries. Anyone in the nonprofit world knows that impact and engagement are the buzzwords du jour. More than a passing fad, however, impact evaluation is serious business – one that many of us in the social change realm grapple with every day.

This has not always been the case in the eighteen years I've worked in the sector. Funders have increasingly driven the trend, asking grantees to not just monitor our progress, but also to develop innovative ways to quantify that progress and share our learnings more broadly. In this way, the nonprofit world is catching up with the fields of medicine, psychology and education – all of which have embraced "evidence-based practice" over the past two decades.

This is mostly a positive development. By laying out concrete objectives and outcomes at the start of a grant (in the proposal), organizations are forced to think more strategically and are held accountable for delivering on their promises. The most forward-thinking funders understand the risk inherent in our work – that social investments, like those in business, are not guaranteed to succeed, and that organizations can learn as much from their failures as their achievements. Yet careful planning (yes, even the ubiquitous logic framework) can help increase the odds that we uphold our end of the bargain: To ensure that precious resources are used to successfully mobilize positive social change.

WITNESS has always been considered an innovator in impact evaluation, starting in the mid-2000s with our groundbreaking Performance Evaluation Dashboard, and including a massive effort we launched recently to overhaul our program. Indeed, we are constantly looking for new ways to ensure we maximize our performance and learnings. But this approach is not without its challenges. Human rights advocacy is notoriously difficult to measure, change is often incremental, and ultimate "wins" can take years to achieve. Video advocacy is even more complex, since video is a complementary tool, intended to corroborate other, more traditional forms of documentation.

A point system for tracking Ouputs, Oucomes and Impact from WITNESS' first Performance Dashboard for our fiscal year 2006.

(A point system for tracking Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts from WITNESS’ first Performance Dashboard covering our fiscal year 2006.)

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5 Questions for…Michael Petrilli, President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

August 26, 2014

With a new school year beginning and debate over the Common Core State Standards heating up, we thought it would be an excellent time to talk to an expert on the subject.

According to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a D.C.-based think tank dedicated to advancing educational excellence for every child, the "Common Core Wars” scorecard currently stands at 42-4-3-1: forty-two states out of the forty-six that signed on to Common Core are still on board (including "plenty" of states that have "rebranded" the standards); four states (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia) never adopted them; three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Missouri) currently are going through a review process that will result in new standards; and one state, Oklahoma, has repealed the standards.

Headshot_michael_petrilliPND conducted the following Q&A with Petrilli earlier this month.

Philanthropy News Digest: One concern of opponents of the Common Core is that the standards are not as rigorous as some existing state standards. But a Fordham Institute analysis found that the Common Core standards were superior in content and rigor to the standards that three-quarters of the states were using in 2010. What are critics of the Common Core getting wrong? And why should any state with demonstrably tougher standards in place adopt the Common Core?

Michael Petrilli: Even critics of the Common Core acknowledge that the standards are more rigorous and challenging than what the vast majority of the states had in place before. To be frank, that's not saying much: most state standards pre-Common Core tended to be vague, misguided, or both. And the associated state tests, which often were set at ridiculously low levels, encouraged "drill and kill" style teaching, and regularly sent false signals that most students — and schools — were doing fine, were arguably worse.

The real question is how the Common Core stacks up to the best state standards, such as those that were in place in Massachusetts, Indiana, and California. In our judgment, it's a toss-up. Our reviewers gave the Common Core a grade of "A-" in mathematics and a "B+" in English language arts; a handful of states did slightly better, particularly in English. A smart move, then, would be to combine the Common Core with the best of these previous standards, as Massachusetts did in 2010 by adopting the Common Core but keeping, among other elements, the list of exemplary literary authors that was part of its old standards.

Why, you ask, should any of the handful of states with strong standards adopt the Common Core? We admitted to being divided on this question in 2010, though we anticipated some upside to the move to common standards, including the proliferation of high-quality Common Core-aligned curricula and assessments. In other words, it was our belief then that if states stuck with their old standards, even good ones, their educators would miss out on the improvements in curricula and assessments that we fully expected would soon sweep the country. Four long years later, we're finally seeing our prediction come true. Common Core-aligned curricular resources are starting to enter the market, and next spring Common Core-aligned assessments will replace the old state tests in at least half the country. And we still anticipate that these tools will represent big improvements over what preceded them.

But now the question, particularly in red and purple states, is whether states should stick with the Common Core. In Ohio, for instance, there's a bill under consideration that would move the state to the old Massachusetts standards in math and English. While that might have been attractive five years ago, in the interim school districts in the state have invested tens of millions of dollars in professional and curriculum development related to the Common Core. Ohio also is planning to use the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, which looks to be a huge improvement on its previous test. So, changing assessments again would bring enormous additional costs. Such a switch also would be greatly demoralizing to Ohio educators, who have been working hard to implement the Common Core. In short, teachers and administrators would be right to be frustrated by a move to dump the standards simply because of politics.

PND: Another frequent criticism of the Common Core is that it was paid for and developed by a handful of large foundations behind closed doors and represents U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's reform agenda. You've written elsewhere that it was "a huge mistake" for some Common Core supporters to urge the federal government to create incentives for state adoption of the standards. What about the role of foundations in the process? Could the Common Core, or something like it, have been developed without the support of the Gates, Hewlett, and Broad foundations?

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'Under Construction': Northside Achievement Zone

August 25, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's the classic question, probably the best way for an adult to get inside the mind of a child, who must imagine life ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

Common sense dictates that we should outwardly deem every child's answer to that question as  airtight. Whatever you want, you can have. We'll embrace the different versions of those high-achieving future selves — whether it involves saving patients' lives, discovering a new gene, leading a Fortune 500 company. Privately, however, we may imagine less rosy futures, aware of certain realities that often impede the path to success, including income and wealth, geography, race, gender, and educational quality.

For a tightly knit group of residents in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, however, "whatever you want, you can have" is the gospel truth. For every child, no exceptions.

They have decided to aim very high for their children and to partner with mentors, teachers, tutors, and other professionals to provide the supports needed for their children to be ready for college and beyond. The mobilizing force behind this group is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a Promise Neighborhood collaborative that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis through education.

Delajuante Moore, Josh Mendez, and Jason Spellman are among the more than 1,600 youth — many low income and youth of color — living in North Minneapolis that, with their families, are enrolled in NAZ. All three young men have thought about what they want to be when they grow up. Delajuante, a rising eighth-grader and recent graduate of Ascension Catholic School (a NAZ partner school), wants to be a lawyer. His classmate Josh is looking at different options but is really interested in being a video game director. Jason, a rising sixth-grader at KIPP Stand Academy (another NAZ partner), wants to be a doctor.

UC_Jason_SpellmanThrough the messaging of NAZ and its partners, the young men are reminded constantly that their plans rest on getting a college degree. At KIPP, a college-preparatory charter school, Jason and his classmates are proud members of the "Class of 2024," the year they expect to graduate from a four-year university. With Josh and Delajuante, Jason participates in an afterschool program called 21st Century Academy that is designed explicitly to help middle-school-age students prepare for college and careers.

Nine local schools also partner with NAZ, along with a total of twenty-seven nonprofit anchor organizations, including afterschool and expanded learning programs, housing agencies, and early childhood centers. Together, all these actors form a tight circle of support around Northside students and families. And while these resources may be available in a majority of low-income communities, the NAZ difference is the way in which it coordinates and aligns the various partners, and in how it champions a Northside "culture of achievement," with empowered families leading the way.

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The 'Overhead' Pledge

August 21, 2014

Cut_costsI was in a room full of international development professionals at the InsideNGO Annual Conference, and the excitement was palpable. Why? We had all just raised our hands and pledged to fully disclose the true costs of our nonprofit operations to anyone who wanted to see them.

This is a breakthrough for our sector, and affirms that we are willing to transparently and consistently report our costs. What's more, the pledge is based on the understanding that the overhead debate actually undermines nonprofits' ability to deliver transformational results. We are convinced that overhead transparency will lead to more open dialogue, real collaboration with funders, and a greater focus on outcomes and results.

Within the core concept of transparency, however, there are two recommendations we are focusing on right now:

Eliminate functional allocation. This IRS requirement allows organizations to allocate costs rather indiscriminately to programs, fundraising, and general administration categories. While the goal is to shed light on organizational efficiency across the nonprofit sector, the relaxed guidelines allow organizations to manipulate their expenses across categories, often inflating their program costs to appear more efficient. Organizational efficiency is never cut-and-dried, however, and more importantly, the guidelines don't take into account organizational effectiveness.

Eliminate direct and indirect costing on grants. Each funder has its own guidelines around direct and indirect program costs. When funders cap the amount they are willing to pay toward indirect costs, organizations are incentivized to manipulate their numbers in order to recover as much as of their costs as possible, or worse, they cut investments in organizational capacity that can result in them having greater impact.

Failure to eliminate these provisions will only serve to:

  • Starve nonprofit organizations from making key organizational investments that boost their impact and increase their efficiency.
  • Create division within organizations between program staff (perceived as "wanted" costs) and operation staff ("unwanted" costs).
  • Limit consistency and distort real benchmarking across the sector.
  • Increase administrative costs (necessitated by having to manage expense reporting in multiple ways to meet a variety of funder needs).
  • Reduce transparency.
  • Place the focus on administrative costs instead of impact and obscure questions around the real cost of social change.

So that day in D.C., we all raised our hands and pledged to clearly and honestly disclose the full costs of our operations, accompanied by explanations about why our investments were essential to achieving our respective missions.

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All Aboard for Practices That Matter

August 19, 2014

Headshot_nikki_powellIt's a common refrain these days: a perfect storm is changing the way philanthropy is done, and that change is likely to accelerate in the years to come.

Some of the forces driving this change are external, beyond the control of stakeholders in the field. Others are emerging from the field itself and represent some of the best opportunities philanthropy has to embrace, leverage, and accelerate its own evolution.

One of those internal forces is the simple yet confounding issue of grantmaking practices.

You don't need me to tell you that complexity is the rule when it comes to grantmaking strategies. Every funder has its own ideas about who it wants to fund, why, and the outcomes and measures of success it uses and is looking for.

At the same time, meeting nonprofit needs has become trickier, as the demand for services continues to outpace the resources available to meet those needs, making the decisions on who should be funded that much harder.

Against this backdrop, I'm pleased to report that some of the most exciting changes in philanthropy, changes that involve the how of grantmaking, are just waiting for funders to take advantage of them. As the association representing grants management professionals – the people who actually develop and execute grantmaking practices at foundations – Grants Managers Network has a unique vantage point on the ways in which grantmaking practice is becoming more important. Indeed, we feel so strongly about the issue, we've decided to share our perspective in a new report titled Blueprint for the Future.

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