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5 Questions for...Kim Laughton, President, Schwab Charitable

August 25, 2016

The first donor-advised fund was established by the New York Community Trust in 1931, but it would be almost forty years, and the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, before donor-advised funds received formal regulatory recognition from Congress. A decade and a half later, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 — which imposed, in some administrative areas, "more stringent reporting obligations and payment deadlines on private foundations" — established DAFs as an attractive giving vehicle for a certain kind of donor. Then, in 1991, Fidelity Investments established the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund as an independent public charity, and the DAF landscape was changed forever.

Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the debate over donor-advised funds grew more heated, with critics of commercially sponsored DAFs arguing that because "charitable donations can be held in a DAF for decades or even centuries," they should be more tightly regulated, while others defended them as "an efficient, 21st-century alternative to the private foundations that dominated philanthropy in the 20th century...easy to set up and inexpensive to manage."

Recently, PND spoke with Kim Laughton, president of Schwab Charitable, a nonprofit donor-advised fund provider established with the support of Charles Schwab & Co., about her fund's results for the fiscal year just ended and what she makes of the persistent criticism of commercially sponsored donor-advised fund providers. Prior to joining Schwab Charitable, Laughton held a variety of leadership, strategy, and general management positions at Charles Schwab & Co., served as a vice president for Citibank-Asia/Pacific, and worked as a Consultant for Bain & Company. 

Headshot_Kim LaughtonPhilanthropy News Digest: In a report released at the end of July, Schwab Charitable announced that for the fiscal year ending June 30, it distributed more than $1.2 billion in grants to charities from its donor-advised funds under management. That's a 12 percent increase over the amount it distributed in the prior fiscal year, and the second consecutive year in which it has distributed more than a billion dollars in grants to nonprofits and charities. Given the volatility in the stock market over the last year and a half, were you surprised by the results?

Kim Laughton: I wasn't. The markets were volatile over that period, yes, but from beginning to end, they were fairly flat. In between, there were two swings of 15 percent or more, in August last year and then again in January this year. Whenever that happens, there is going to be uncertainty, and you do find that people tend to become more cautious in terms of their charitable giving. But the wonderful thing about donor-advised funds is that people have already set aside an amount of money for future giving, and we find that giving from our funds stays pretty robust, regardless of the economic climate.  

Factoring in the Great Recession and its aftermath in the 2008 to 2010 period, we saw increases in granting as well. Not much as the 12 percent we saw in fiscal year '16, but in the worst of that period, between fiscal year '09 and '10, our granting actually increased about 2 percent. And, again, that underscores how donor-advised funds tend to stabilize giving in difficult times while being a great way for clients to be thoughtful and proactive in their giving in good times.

PND: What was the average payout for the donor-advised funds under your management in fiscal year 2016, and how does that compare to the previous year?

KL: The average payout for our funds for the last two fiscal years has been fairly steady at around 20 percent. It was slightly higher this last year because our assets actually grew a bit less than our granting. Of course, we're extraordinarily proud of those rates. As you know, private foundations operate with a mandated 5 percent payout, so we've been averaging four times the mandated minimum that foundations pay out. The other statistic that's important to think about is that our clients, over a fifteen-year period, grant out 90 percent of what they put in to their funds, and over a five- to ten-year year period they grant out something like 76 percent. In other words, a lot of our clients are contributing to their funds on a regular basis, and they're granting dollars from those funds at a very active rate.

PND:  I suspect a lot of people reading this don't know how a donor-advised fund administered by Schwab, or one of your competitors, works. Can you explain that to us

KL: Sure. The way I like to explain it is that donor-advised funds are specialized accounts for charitable giving, much like IRAs or 401(k)s are specialized accounts for retire­ment planning, or 529 plans are specialized accounts for college savings. The way it works at Schwab is that you open an account — it could be a retirement account, a college account, an investment account, or a bank account — and all those accounts appear when you log into site as part of a dashboard display. 

Now, if you decide to open a charitable account, it is added to your dashboard, and you see it every time you log in. Of course, you have the ability to transfer money from your other Schwab accounts, or from outside accounts, into that account, and some people will transfer assets like appreciated securities into their accounts. Appreciated securities that have been held for more than a year receive long-term capital gains treatment, and if you transfer them to a charity — and Schwab Charitable is a charity — the charity does not pay tax on the capital gain. So a very typical use case for our funds is that on a fairly regular basis clients will look at the most appreciated securities in their portfolios, maybe an investment that has run up and become a larger share of their portfolio than they're comfortable with, and instead of selling those shares and having to pay the capital gains tax, they'll transfer the shares to their charitable account and dedicate the proceeds to charitable purposes. 

Once an individual has opened a charitable account with us, they can invest the funds in a range of things, from simple money market funds to alternative assets such as hedge funds and private equity. If they've got a large balance in their account, they can even recommend an investment advisor to oversee the management of their account. And at any time point in time they can recommend a grant to their favorite charity. As long as they're granting to a 501(c) (3), which is the only kind of organization we grant to, they will be granting directly to that charity.

So let's say I want to make a $500 grant to my local food pantry. I go into my online account the same way I do when I log into my other Schwab accounts, and I recommend that grant. If I've already given to that food pantry before, or someone else at Schwab Charitable has given to it, it'll pop up on the screen when I type in its name and, with a couple of keystrokes, I submit the recommendation. We will approve that grant as long as it's a legitimate 501(c)(3); we do have a due diligence process in place, and the vast majority of donor grant recommendations are approved fairly quickly. After the grant has been approved, a check with an acknowledgement letter — Schwab donors can choose whether they want to be acknowledged and how they want to be acknowledged — will be sent to the charity, which can then acknowledge the donor in whatever way they choose. In the meantime, all this activity is consolidated under one account, so you have a record of all your giving right there. It's easy to see the last time you recommended a grant, and it's easy to set up recurring grant payments, whether it's every month or every year — you just set it up, and the funds automatically go out. And you can do all that via your smartphone, so if you're at a charity auction or something, you can use your phone or tablet to make grants on the fly.

PND: Critics of donor-advised funds point out that charitable giving in the U.S. has been stuck at 2 percent of GDP for almost forty years. At the same time, we've seen explosive growth in the number of private foundations in the U.S. and in the use of donor-advised funds, which has led some to suggest that that growth in DAFs and private foundations is coming at the expense of giving to nonprofits that work directly in communities providing frontline services. How do you respond to that criticism?

KL: That's a criticism I just don’t agree with. First of all, as far as the 2 percent of GDP dedicated to charitable giving goes, we believe the donor-advised fund industry is partly responsible for helping to grow that 2 percent. If you go back to 1975, the percentage of GDP going to charity has ranged between 2 percent and 2.4 percent, and going from 2 percent to 2.4 percent — which is where we were in 2000 right before the dot-com bubble burst — is pretty dramatic. I think our industry can take some credit for that, and I feel good when we see incremental increases in that number, as we often have in non-recessionary years, to 2.2 percent or 2.3 percent. 

But in terms of donor-advised funds overall, it's important to realize that we are still a very small part of the larger charitable giving ecosystem. Giving last year was some­where around $320 billion. Donor-advised funds accounted for just $19 billion of that, or between 5 percent and 6 percent of total charitable giving. So, we're a small part of a big, complex ecosystem. Private foundation endowments are probably four or five times our size. 

Are we providing a valuable service to donors? I think so. In fact, 65 percent of Schwab Charitable donors say they give more to charity than they otherwise would because we make it easy for them. And we're way more cost-efficient than a private foundation or a donor-advised fund at a community foundation. So we feel pretty strongly that we're a positive force in the charitable giving ecosystem, and we also feel that, over time, we will help more people see charitable giving and charitable planning as part of their regular wealth management activities, instead of it being an afterthought. And that, in turn, will help grow the 2 percent of GDP number.

PND: Over the last few years, we've heard critics of the donor-advised industry call for legislation that would impose a mandatory payout rate on DAFs and/or establish a time limit for the distribution of funds from donor-advised funds. In your view, do those proposals address real problems?

KL: I already quoted you our payout rates, and if you were to take the 5 percent payout rate that private foundations are subject to and applied it to donor-advised funds, we'd have no problem with that. Now some community foundations might have a problem with it, because some of the donor-advised funds they manage aren't nearly as active the accounts we manage, but I can't speak for them.

Generally speaking, I do believe the two things you mentioned are solutions in search of a problem. The concept of limiting the life of a donor-advised fund misses the point of why people use them. At least at Schwab, it's the rare sort of donor-advised fund that is dormant, and the rare person who has sort of forgotten about his or her account and is not giving the money to charity. There's no magic number. Some people will contribute and make grants every year. Others may have a one-time wealth event, like taking a company public or receiving a huge inheritance, that ends up funding their giving over a long period of time. So, trying to decide how long a donor-advised fund should last is a problematic exercise, and again, as long as donors are actively distributing funds from their DAFs, I don't think it's something lawmakers need to worry about.

That said, I do believe the criticism and misperceptions of our industry have come from people who seem opposed to the concept of providing donor-advised fund holders with a tax deduction and not requiring them to give to charity at a commensurate level in the same year. I also think it's because donor-advised funds have grown fairly rapidly in terms of their popularity, even though, as I mentioned, we're still a small part of the giving ecosystem. We are not where you go to find resources to address major problems. 

At the end of the day, all the commercial donor-advised fund providers publish annual reports, we're very transparent on our 990s, and we're not trying to hide anything. So we'll continue to talk to the press as honestly as we can, to do presentations, to respond to criticisms of our industry, and to do our best to clear the air. That's all we can do.

— Mitch Nauffts

Black Philanthropy Month: An Opportunity to Give More Than Money

August 22, 2016

We focus on the money too much.

At least, that's true when we're talking about philanthropy and what it means for us and for our communities. In examining the needs of African-American organizations and communities, however, we must dig deeper when defining both the resources needed and those we can offer. We agree that these communities need hard dollars to create true equity on a host of indicators. But they also need our time and our talent.


August is Black Philanthropy Month, and we want to use the occasion to ask each of us to consider what we have to give. The leaders of Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy (CAAIP) are dedicated to spreading that message, not only among African Americans but among all those who understand that investing in our communities is critical to creating a vibrant region that works for all of us. Chicago isn't healthy unless all its children receive a high-quality education and are prepared to enter the workforce. It can't succeed unless every family has safe and affordable housing. And it cannot thrive with the levels of violence and incarceration that disproportionately affect African-American communities. We all bear the cost of the lost opportunities, and lost lives, that are the result of these inequitable conditions.

This is why CAAIP is dedicated to creating a culture of investment that supports the critical, innovative work aimed at transforming these communities. As part of that effort, CAAIP is partnering with Forefront, formerly known as the Donors Forum, to convene grantmakers and nonprofit leaders to participate in racial equity conversations, trainings, and to share resources for greater effectiveness.

CAAIP provides a forum for African Americans in philanthropy and nonprofits to strategize about ways we can work together more effectively. Our goal is to increase both the funds donated to organizations serving African-American communities as well as the number of African-American donors to those and other organizations. We envision a strong philanthropic community that works through initiatives such as the African American Legacy Fund to respond to the needs of African-American communities.

As we watch the social and political events in our city and state, many of us feel powerless or weary or discouraged by the depth of the challenges we face. We at CAAIP are here to challenge each of you to step up and step out.

This year, Black Philanthropy Month challenges us to "elevate a culture of giving" in each of our lives. Whether it is holding a house party for an organization doing critical work in your neighborhood, providing bail money for protesters, marching alongside organizers you respect, supporting a younger leader, or just adding your name to a list of supporters of critical legislation, we can all do something.

Headshot_Claudette_BakerYour time, talent, and treasure all make a difference when it comes to making change. There is no right or wrong way to do that, especially during Black Philanthropy Month.

What better time than now to try?

Claudette G. Baker is director of Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy.

Weekend Link Roundup (August 20-21, 2016)

August 21, 2016

Rain-south-la-9a-jpgOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Civic Engagement

On the Carnegie Corporation website, the corporation's Geri Mannion and Jay Beckner of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation chat with Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow Gail Ablow about how foundations can support voting rights litigation.

Community Improvement/Development

The Rockefeller Foundation and Unreasonable Institute, which works to identify entrepreneurs with the potential to address social injustice at scale, have announced the launch of the Future Cities Accelerator, a $1 million urban innovation competition aimed at spurring next-generation leaders to develop solutions to complex urban problems. Though the competition, ten winners will receive $100,000 each and will participate in a nine-month intensive program giving them access to business leaders, investors, and technical support. Details here.

The Knight Foundation is bringing back its Knight Cities Challenge for a third iteration and will offer $5 million in grant funding for the best ideas in three areas that are crucial to building more successful cities – attracting and retaining talent, increasing economic opportunity, and promoting civic engagement. The competition, which is limited to the twenty-six Knight communities, opens Monday, October 10, at and will close on Thursday, November 3, with winners to be announced next spring.

As part of Generocity's "Leaders of Color" series, Tony Abraham profiles David Gould, a program office at the William Penn Foundation, who has a plan for leveling the playing field for people of color in Philadelphia. You can check out the rest of the series here.

What can we learn about creative placemaking from Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)? As the Saint Luke's Foundation's Nelson Beckford reminds us, pretty much everything.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Think the concept of sustainability is a little too fuzzy to serve as a pillar of one's corporate strategy. Think again, argues the Environmental Defense Fund's Tom Murray.


"Despite its evidently strong [Head Start] program, there is scant empirical evidence supporting Portland's success at improving the academic futures of its graduates beyond that first year of kindergarten entry. The same is true of Head Start as a whole. And lacking hard numbers, political thinking as to whether or not children's futures could be affected positively by Head Start has vacillated between certainty and skepticism." The Hechinger Report's Lillian Mongeau does a deep dive on the Great Society program so many people love to hate.

How big is the the “teacher pay penalty" — the difference between what teachers make compared to other public-sector employees? In 2015, writes Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss, "the weekly wages of public school teachers in the United States were 17 percent lower than comparable college-educated professionals — and those most hurt [were] veteran teachers and male teachers."

Higher Education

What do billionaires sound like when they try to explain why they donate huge sums to wealthy universities? Don't ask Malcolm Gladwell.


In the fourth installment of a six-part series for the Huffington Post, Mauricio Lim, founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, argues that the days of  "picking one strategy, implementing it and then evaluating it years later" is over. The social sector, he adds, is at a point in history "where ongoing learning, iterating and learning again should be the norm. Business already has the techniques we need. What is needed now is continuous analysis and adjustment to changing conditions for low-income populations."

International Affairs/Development

More than 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil last year, making it the homicide capital of the world. And many of the victims were young people. The Open Society Foundation's Robert Muggah reports on what one nongovernmental organization is doing to address the conspicuous lack of information concerning violence against children and youth in Latin America's most populous country.


On the Nonprofits Assistance Fund blog, Curtis Klotz, CPA, argues that it's time to retire the "tired old view" of nonprofit overhead in favor of a more holistic view that takes into account "true program costs."


In his monthly column for the Denver Post, the DeBoskey Group's Bruce DeBoskey explains why philanthropy continues to be a bright spot in disheartening and divisive times like these.

In the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Center for Effective Philanthropy's Kevin Bolduc argues that the internal practices and culture of of foundations ripple out to grantees in meaningful ways and can directly accelerate or impede their effectiveness.

Sarah Bahn, a knowledge services fellow here at Foundation Center, explains how the center's new portal helps connect "members of the youth giving movement, elevates the stories of incredible young leaders, and provides a gathering place to propel the movement forward."

Poverty Alleviation

Data scientists at Stanford are applying machine learning to satellite images to identify and map poverty-stricken regions of Africa. The Center on Food Security and the Environment's Michelle Horton reports

Social Entrepreneurship

"The truth is, while we've seen numerous good ideas in the philanthropy and nonprofit space, we've seen very few of them break through to capture the interest and action of the masses." Jean Case, president of the Case Foundation, explains how the foundation has, over time, come to focus its efforts on two major movements — impact investing and inclusive entrepreneurship.

Social Media

Are you stumped about what to post or tweet next? This little tool from M+R might just be what the doctor ordered.

(Photo credit: Scott Threlkeld / AP)

That's it for now. What have you been reading/watching/listening to? Drop us a line at or in the comments section below..

Giving Days Can Be a Community Win When Foundations Focus on the Big Picture

August 18, 2016

Giving_days_imageAt a time when charitable organizations are vigorously competing to gain the attention — and ultimately the support — of individual donors, giving days offer a powerful tool to drive community philanthropy. In fact, the amount raised through these days is impressive — including more than $116.3 million alone for the eighteen communities studied by Knight Foundation since 2012. But these online fundraising campaigns are about much more than the dollars, a new Knight report, the culmination of a three-year initiative, found: Over time, when organizers purposefully align the campaigns with their missions, giving days have helped to strengthen community foundations that organize them.

That's not to say that giving days are without risks or that the significant investment of community foundation resources and staff time is always worth it. Certainly, community foundations have been doing a lot of thinking about how to and even whether to continue theirs. Some of this contemplation follows the tech failure during this spring's nationwide Give Local America, when the donation-processing technology provided by Kimbia broke down. Online donations slowed to a halt for two-thirds of the 24-hour campaign, leaving donors, nonprofits, and community foundations in fifty-four communities across the country in crisis-mode and scrambling for a Plan B. It was not the first giving day tech failure, but it was the largest. Consultant Beth Kanter took a deeper look at what happened for KnightBlog, and considered the implications of the debacle for the future of giving days. In an upcoming blog series, we'll hear directly from community foundations about why they are and aren't continuing with these campaigns.

But despite what happened on Give Local America, we hope that community foundations also pay attention to the progress made through their investments. Having spent considerable time tracking giving day successes and challenges across the country over the past three years, we have seen the long-term value they can provide to both community foundation organizers and the communities they serve. Here are four examples from our new report, Beyond the Dollars: The Long-Term Value of Giving Days for Community Foundations, of what that change looked like.

Giving days, the report found:

Helped to grow and democratize philanthropy, furthering the mission of many community foundations. By heightening awareness and excitement around local causes, giving days brought in new funding to participating nonprofits and activated a significant number of donors, including those with smaller financial capacity: 36 percent of donors surveyed thought they donated more than they would have had the giving days not occurred.  However, giving days still have much work to do in attracting a diverse, demographically representative donor base — an important element in cultivating tomorrow's donors.

Increased community foundation visibility and credibility in their communities. Giving days helped community foundations communicate their missions and services to larger audiences and establish themselves as valuable to, and trusted by, nonprofits and donors in the areas they serve. Nearly half (48 percent) of nonprofits and donors heard about the community foundations for the first time as a result of the giving days.

Strengthened the capacity of community foundations to raise funds and engage a broader set of donors online. These campaigns helped community foundations learn how to use digital tools such as social media and online fundraising. Through the campaigns, they were able to find and engage donors online and, to a certain extent, raise funds for their own institutions: fourteen of the eighteen giving day organizers raised money for their own institutions in at least one of their campaigns.

Positioned community foundations as hubs of information in their communities. From centralizing information about local nonprofits to collecting widespread nonprofit and donor data, the campaigns put community foundations at the center of a wealth of community information.

These results aren't an accident. They emerged from purposeful planning and goal-setting, through which community foundations aligned their giving days with their missions. Foundations did that in a variety of ways, from using the giving days to increase the amount of nonprofit endowments at the foundation, to having the giving day be part of the foundation's strategy to grow philanthropy in the region. While each community and foundation is unique, these results are attainable and various elements are replicable.

We hope that the Give Local America technology failure serves as a prompt for community foundations to think about how to evolve the giving-day model to make it even more effective for both their communities and their own organizations, and to think of what they learned through giving days that might apply to other initiatives going forward. Designing what comes next will help community foundations shape the future of community philanthropy.

Headshot_luz_gomez_mike_berkowitz_for_PhilanTopicRegister for a virtual roundtable discussion, "Beyond the Dollars: Giving Days & Digital Data," in partnership with Markets For Good, at 1:00 p.m. ET on September 1.

Luz Gomez is director of research at the Knight Foundation. Mike Berkowitz is principal and co-founder of Third Plateau. This post originally appeared on Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.

Generation Indigenous: Why Native American Youth Can't Wait

August 16, 2016

Gen_i-primary_logoOver the past decade, philanthropy has become increasingly responsive to the needs of young boys and men of color. The philanthropic community has mobilized to coordinate and partner on efforts like the Obama administration's My Brother's Keeper initiative. More recently, the field has turned its attention to addressing the needs of girls and young women of color. While I applaud these efforts, I'm reminded daily of the pressing and unmet needs of Native communities. And that invariably causes me to think about how much more needs to be done to ensure that all youth — regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender — have equal access to quality education and health care and the opportunity to grow up in safe and thriving communities.

Like other youth of color, Native American and Alaska Natives in cities and communities across the United States face challenges. Natives Americans have endured a history of racism and colonialism that has resulted in multi-generational trauma. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Native youth between the ages of 15 and 24 — and that rate is two and a half times the national average. Native youth are five times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than whites, where they receive disproportionately harsher sentences, and are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group. Moreover, Native Americans are often categorized in data and reports as "statistically insignificant" or "other," erasing their very existence as a disadvantaged minority. As a result, too many programs, policies, and systems — not to mention philanthropy — ignore or overlook them.

The philanthropic community is well aware of these challenges, and yet foundation funding for Native issues and communities remains disproportionately low, consistently accounting for less than 0.5 percent of annual foundation grant dollars, even though Native Americans are 1.7 percent (5.4 million) of the U.S. population. Institutional philanthropy may blanch at the size of the problem or feel paralyzed by its lack of understanding of Native peoples and cultures, but philanthropy can make a difference. While the challenges are real, the resilience and hope in Native communities has resulted in innovative, high-impact solutions to many of these problems. And the most promising solutions have been driven by and for Native youth.

In 2014, President Obama and the First Lady visited the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Nation in North Dakota, where they met local youth who shared their struggles as well as their inspiring personal stories of hope and determination with the Obamas. Upon his return to the White House, the president told his staff to "find new avenues of opportunity for our Native youth...[because] if we do, there's no question of the great things they can achieve — not just for their own families, but for their nation and for the United States."

In December 2014, the White House launched the Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative, which is focused on improving the lives of Native youth through new investments and increased engagement with Native communities. Emphasizing a comprehensive, culturally appropriate approach, Gen-l works to ensure that all young Native people have the opportunity to reach their full potential by promoting a national dialogue aimed at mobilizing and cultivating the next generation of Native leaders and supporting critical programs in the areas of education, health and nutrition, juvenile justice, housing, and youth engagement.

As vice chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy, I urge philanthropy to see the tremendous potential in our Native communities. And I extend an invitation to all grantmakers to join us at the White House on August 26, 2016, for Generation Indigenous: Raising Impact with Innovation and Proven Strategies, where we will seek to engage the philanthropic community in a dialogue about expanding support for Native youth.

At the meeting, you'll have the opportunity to listen and learn from key philanthropic leaders and organizations, including Casey Family Programs and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as they officially launch a philanthropic partnership with Generation Indigenous. It is our deepest hope that the meeting will raise awareness of — and broad-based support for — solutions to the problems facing Native youth today and, in the process, generate new ways to empower Native youth through employment, access to a quality education, and tribal capacity building — all of it centered in Native youth leadership.

We hope you'll join us. Native youth are counting on you.

Headshot_edgar_villanuevaNote: Attendance is by invitation only. For more information, please contact Native Americans in Philanthropy at

Edgar Villanueva is vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @VillanuevaEdgar.

4 Steps for Fostering Innovation

August 15, 2016

Eco-InnovationToo often foundations ask their grantees for "innovative ideas" but fail to deliver the same thing themselves — or even bother to define what "innovation" means. The assumption is that it "just happens." That lack of definition has come to imply that innovation must involve a dramatic, game-changing, disruptive new idea or practice: the iPhone of early childhood education, the Post-It note of economic development.

As a result, the expectations for innovation are both so high and so fuzzy that most people feel intimidated, not realizing that they too can create innovations and that innovation is not the exclusive domain of those who are smarter or more creative. After reading a book called The Innovation Formula: How Organizations Turn Change Into Opportunity by business gurus Michel Robert and Alan Weiss, I now realize the opposite is true. Most people, in a supportive environment and with proper supervision, can generate, vet, test, and implement innovative ideas. Here's what I learned from their book, and how I've applied it when working with my clients.

Supportive environments for innovation are created when:

  • Leadership – especially the CEO – serves as champions for the process.
  • Leadership believes that everyone can be innovative.
  • Leadership is willing to regularly identify, test, pilot, and implement potentially innovative ideas.
  • Leadership prudently monitors risk (not every innovative idea is a good one!).

Once these conditions are in place, there are four steps a foundation can take to generate innovations on an ongoing basis. They are:

1. Brainstorming. There are many sources that staff and trustees can review and use to generate potentially innovative ideas. These include unexpected successes or failures, unexpected events or changes in the external environment, or weaknesses in an organization's grantmaking or other processes.

Look for changes that can produce opportunities. Focus your group discussions on questions such as: What has surprised us lately? What has changed in our environment? What has changed for our grantees?

Once you've generated responses to those questions, ask yourselves: What specific opportunities or ideas can we develop from these changes, challenges, and/or successes? What new approaches, products, or services can we create to take advantage of these opportunities or to address emerging needs?

2. Assess your ideas. Once you've identified a handful of potentially innovative ideas, the next step is to assess them against four criteria:

  • Cost – the likely investment of financial resources, staff, outside expertise, new technology, etc., as well as potential risks.
  • Benefits – do they outweigh the risks, and will results be delivered within an acceptable time frame?
  • Strategic fit – with your mission, values, and overall strategy.
  • Implementation – the processes needed to make the innovation work.

Assessing the ideas you've identified against these criteria should enable you to determine the opportunities with the most potential.

3. Develop your idea. Far too many organizations fail to fully develop their potentially innovative ideas before rushing to implement them. Don't be that organization. Take the time to evaluate each opportunity you've identified, assess the pros and cons, create best- and worst-case scenarios (and the critical factors likely to drive those scenarios), and identify the risks and rewards. Only after you've subjected an opportunity to rigorous scrutiny and agree that it is worth pursuing should you move on to implementation.

4. Implementation. Formulate an implementation plan that identifies the factors needed to support a successful implementation of the idea, as well as the things that will work against it — and what you can do to minimize them. You'll also want to create a detailed action plan that spells out the steps to be taken, deadlines, and responsible parties.

Headshot_putnam-walkerleyInnovation can take many forms, depending on the community, the foundation, and the opportunities at hand. But perhaps the greatest thing about it is that one innovation often breeds another, which leads to another. Indeed, the only limits to meaningful innovation are the ones we place on ourselves.

Global philanthropy advisor Kris Putnam-Walkerly recently was named one of "America's Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers." This post originally appeared on Kris's Philanthropy 411 blog. ©2016 Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group,

Weekend Link Roundup (August 13-14, 2016)

August 14, 2016

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

African Americans

In a review of Mychal Denzel Smith’s new memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watchingfor the New Republic, Jesse McCarthy reflects on "what has changed in our politics over the course of the Bush and Obama years, and in particular on the reemergence of an activist consciousness in black politics (and youth politics more broadly)."

In Fortune, a seemingly nonplussed Ellen McGirt reports on the Ford Foundation's investment in the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF), "a pooled donor fund designed to support the work of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)...." And be sure to check out this profile of the Ford Foundation-led #ReasonsForHope campaign by Fast Company's Ben Paynter.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Is anyone in corporate America measuring the impact of their CSR programs? In Forbes, Ryan Scott shares a few considerations for companies that are approaching impact measurement for the first time.


Intrigued (and a little alarmed) by the decision of the Australian department that manages that country's census to collect and store real names with its census data, Philanthropy 2173's Lucy Bernholz has some good questions for all of us.


Committed reformer or Department of Education apparatchik? Newsweek senior writer Alexander Nazaryan, himself a former New York City school teacher, tries to make sense of the puzzle wrapped in an enigma that is New York City public school chief Carmen Fariña.

In The Atlantic, Emily Deruy reports on the nascent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement to reshape K-12 education policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

At its recent annual convention, the NAACP approved a resolution that included language calling for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charter schools. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss takes a closer look at the issue on her Answer Sheet blog.


Can knowing something about the history of philanthropy help us become better givers? Amanda B. Moniz, associate director of the National History Center and program coordinator at the American Historical Association, reflects on that question on the HistPhil blog.

What have we learned about the efficacy of Giving Days? Beth Kanter shares some key takeaways from a new Knight Foundation report that attempts that questions. (See our coverage of the report here.)

Higher Education

Soaring student debt is a huge problem, but the real crisis in higher education, according to a series of studies by Third Way, a think tank, is "that many colleges and universities are leaving students with no better than a 50/50 chance of graduating or finding work that pays more than what someone with a high-school diploma can expect to earn." The Washington Post's Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports.

And in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Frank Bruni wonders whether the college admissions process is "creating strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time."

International Affairs/Development

"A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently." Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells the World Post things are not as bad as most of us think they are.

On the list of ill-conceived development projects, the Olympics and the World Cup are pretty close to the top. Humanosphere's Tom Murphy reports.


So you've decided that maybe it's time to jump from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector. In the Wall Street Journal, Ted Beck, president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, shares a short list of the major differences between the two sectors.

Beth K. (see above) shares a nice infographic and some good advice for trainers in the business of designing and delivering professional development for nonprofit professionals.


In the Huffington Post, Kathleen Enright, president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, suggests that "[p]rivilege can be a barrier to good philanthropy in a number of ways...[and that it] often shows up as attempts to do for instead of with those most affected." Which leads her to wonder: What would change if philanthropy broadly prioritized hiring people whose life experiences provide them with fewer blind spots and with the hard-won, gut-level empathy that comes from a lack of privilege?

On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Austin Long, a director on the Assessment and Advisory Services team at CEP, looks at a few of the things regional associations of grantmakers and other philanthropy-supporting organizations are doing to strengthen the field.

Here on PhilanTopic, we've posted a nice Q&A with Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, in which Spruill explains how the UN's Sustainable Development Goals can be used by U.S. foundations to strengthen their anti-poverty and sustainability efforts at home, forge collaborations locally, regionally and globally, and learn from others.

Social Justice

In a podcast on the Tiny Spark site, W.K. Kellogg Foundation president and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron argues that if philanthropy hopes to advance racial justice in America, it has to be more courageous.

And taking a cue from Jay Smooth, the founder of New York City's longest-running hip-hop radio program, WBAI's Underground Railroad, NWB's Vu Le suggests that "[u]ndoing racism and other forms of injustice is a practice we must do every day, like brushing our teeth.... And like brushing, on some days, we’re better at it than on others." So we need to "give each other some grace. Let's admit we don't know everything and we can't be perfect. Let's all lower our defenses and see each other as imperfect human beings trying hard to do some good in a complex world...."

That's it for now. What have you been reading/watching/listening to? Drop us a line at or in the comments section below..

Vikki Spruill, President/CEO, Council on Foundations: Philanthropy and the SDGs

August 11, 2016

The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by world leaders at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on September 25, 2015. The agenda includes more than a dozen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, designed to stimulate action in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet. More ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals, on which they build, the SDGs include a hundred and sixty-nine targets to be achieved over the next fifteen years, from eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere, to ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, to halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains.

Led by large, globally oriented foundations such as Ford and Hilton and key infrastructure groups like Foundation Center and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, philanthropy has rallied around the SDG agenda. In July, the Council on Foundations, another key infrastructure group, released a report that details how philanthropy can help achieve the SDGs in the United States. Based on lessons the council has learned from its members and other national and local partners over the last year, the report shares examples of how funders are using the SDG framework to structure their work domestically and offers suggestions for how others might use the goals to advance their mission.

Recently, PND spoke with Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the council, about the report, the council’s efforts to promote the SDG framework to its members, and why she believes the SDGs are good for philanthropy and the world.

Philanthropy News Digest: The council has released a report aimed at raising awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals among foundations and philanthropists in the United States. For readers who may not have heard of them, what are the SDGs, and why, as you put it in the foreword to the report, do they have the potential to be “revolutionary” for people around the world?

Headshot_vikki_spruillVikki Spruill: The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, represent a historic global consensus about the shared responsibility that all nations have in advancing a global development agenda. They tackle seventeen areas of develop­ment and set aspirational targets for the global development community to achieve over the next fifteen years so that "no one is left behind." The seventeen goals, which cover everything from eradicating hunger and poverty, to advancing environmental sustainability, to reducing inequality, to improving education and health, were agreed on by a hundred and ninety-three countries in September 2015, including the United States, which, with President Obama's encouragement, agreed to pursue the goals both here at home and through our development activities around the globe.

As you know, the SDGs emerged from a previous United Nations initiative, the Millennial Development Goals, or MDGs, which were more narrowly focused on human development, whereas the SDGs cover all dimensions of development, including the economic, social, and environmental. And they're not just intended for developing nations, as the MDGs were, they're meant to be guidelines for all nations, including the United States.

I think the SDGs have enor­mous potential. We all recog­nize that government can't solve the world’s problems by itself — the MDGs showed us that. To change the world, to fully realize philanthropy's goals, we have to work across sectors, and the SDGs contribute to that by more specifically calling out the philan­thropic and private sectors. That's very exciting.

PND: What kind of role did the private sector, and foundations specifically, have in developing the SDG framework?

VS: Founda­tions that are part of the global development community played a critical role in developing the goals and in stressing the importance of philanthropy to advancing the SDGs. There's a group called the SDG Philanthropy Platform that's led by the United Nations Development Program, your own organization, the Foundation Center, and Rocke­feller Philanthropy Advisors, and it has made enormous progress in raising awareness of the SDGs, increasing the resources available to support them, and helping to forge new partnerships.

Likewise, the Council on Foundations is working to raise awareness of the SDGs. In fact, our report grew out of meetings we had in three cities, and we're planning to hold several more over the next few months. It's important to note that the meeting that took place in Addis Ababa in 2015, the Financing for Development summit, specifically stated that the private sector, including philanthropy, is needed to achieve the SDGs. So, it's really a historic moment for philanthropy, which hasn't been recognized as a partner in the same way by the United Nations before and now is being engaged in UN development activ­ities in new ways. At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in May, for example, three hundred and fifty different companies were represented, and because of the SDGs there is now a real opportunity for philanthropy to join in and shape these conversations going forward.

PND: The SDGs include seventeen goals and a hundred and sixty-nine different targets. Do you share the concern of some that the SDG framework is too ambitious in scale and scope to serve as an effective roadmap for sustainable global development?

VS: There are a lot of goals, but there is also a lot of connectivity between and among them. I like to think about the SDGs as a kind of holistic approach to problem solving — that's what makes them so powerful. It's a global framework, and it's an aspirational framework. There is no one institution working on all the goals or all the targets. It's really a pro­cess through which every funder can find themselves. I see that as an opportunity, not as a constraint. The SDGs are intended to push our thinking, to make us think more comprehensively and broadly about how we view the world and how we view our own domestic development agenda. They are also a kind of problem statement, with seventeen problems clearly identified. It's up to philanthropy and the private sector and government and everyone who is engaged in this work to come up with the solutions to those problems. And we have to be ambitious, because the problems are big. I don't know how the framework could be anything other than bold and big.

PND: The report goes to some lengths to point out that the SDG targets are universal. What does that mean, and why is it important for foundations and corporations in the U.S. to understand that?

VS: Given the scope and ambition of these goals, and the magnitude of many of the problems facing our planet, as a sector we can't just sit on the sidelines, we can't be passive. Another way to look at it is to recognize that foundations and corporations are working in a lot of these issue areas and their work already connects directly to the SDGs. So, the Arkansas Community Foundation, which is working on affordable housing in Arkansas, is just as much a part of that particular SDG as a global humanitarian organization that has been working on the issue in the developing world. If you're involved in trying to effect social change, which is what foundations and corporate foundations are trying to do, then it's your obligation to learn what’s happening else­where.

By participating in this framework, foundations and corporate foundations have a real opportunity to collaborate more intentionally and to learn from their peers across borders. That's particularly true of funders in the United States, which can learn a lot from what's happen­ing in other countries. Something like the SDGs force you to look at the root causes of problems, and maybe, as a piece I wrote for The Guard­ian suggests, they can help shed light on the feeling of alien­ation in our country, which, I think, is partly the result of not having had this sort of comprehensive development agenda for our own people.

PND: As you mentioned, the council has hosted a number of convenings around the SDGs. What do you tell funders at those meetings who express concern that any buy-in they evince toward the SDG framework will commit them to something they're not prepared, or have the resources, to do?

VS: What we want to do is raise awareness and demystify the SDGs. This is a holistic, global framework agreed to by a hundred and ninety-three countries. Funders can find themselves in these goals, and, more importantly, philanthropy is already work­ing to advance them. I think there's a tendency among some U.S. funders to see the SDGs as something somebody else needs to be doing somewhere over there, that the development agenda isn't something that applies to the United States. But as I've already noted, that's just not true.

Committing to the SDGs or participating in the SDGs isn't about funding new areas, or committing your foundation to something it's not prepared to do. It really is about asking your foundation to question how the work you're already doing connects to this frame­work, how you might be able to do that work better, and how some of the other goals might actually strengthen the work you're currently doing. It's human nature to think in terms of silos, and the SDG framework forces you to sort of look up and out, as opposed to just down at the whatever you happen to be working on at the moment.

PND: Can you give us an example of what that might look like for a medium-sized or community foundation here in the U.S.?

VS: We give three ex­amples in the report, and the Marin Community Foundation is one of them. It has a project focused on health, energy efficiency, and built environments, and as part of that effort it has looked at Goal 3, ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, at all ages; Goal 7, ensuring access to afford­able, reliable, clean energy for all; Goal 10, reducing in­equality within and among countries; and Goal 11, making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Any portfolio of work that a foundation might have is bound to connect to several of these goals, and MCF identified four goals where it sees potential for real synergies.

Then there's the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's Expect More initiative, which is working on advancing skills training and education for Arkansans so that in ten years the state's current ratio of 70 percent low-skill, low-wage jobs to only 30 percent that require a postsecondary credential is flipped on its head. So the folks at WRF are looking at Goal 1, eliminating poverty; Goal 4, quality education for all; Goal 10, reducing inequality; and Goal 8, decent work and economic growth for all. Whatever the set of challenges you're working on, whatever initiatives you are funding, you're going to find that they intersect with one or several of the SDGs.

PND: Your report includes seven recommendations for funders working in the U.S., from educating stakeholders, to leveraging data and technology, to tracking progress. Do any of the recommendations stand out for you as being especially critical?

VS: All seven are important, but I would name three in particular that build on what we were just talking about. First, it doesn't matter where you start. Whatever it is you are working on, you need to figure out a way to connect it with one of the SDGs and then leverage the impact you are creating in that area to some of the other goals. When funders approach me and ask, How do I find myself in this process? that's what I tell them: Start with one goal and the rest will follow.

The second one is making sure you understand the goals and think about how they could benefit the work you're currently doing. At our recent gathering in New York, for example, there was a person there working on environmental sustaina­bility who admitted that he had been thinking rather narrowly about the issue. But after hearing others at the meeting, this person said, "Well, I'm never going to achieve my environmental sustainability goals if I don't start thinking about health and well-being." In other words, it's a recommendation to think about your work in a more holistic way.

And finally, we want to make it clear that the SDGs are intended to be inspirational as well as aspirational. We should be using and talking about the goals as something that force us to think up and to think bigger, both globally and domestically.

PND: Well, let's talk globally for a minute. Many people see the emergence of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, the Brexit vote in the UK, the political success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders here in the U.S. as the leading edge of a growing backlash against global economic integration and the role of the United States in leading that effort over the last half century. Should those who are working to advance the SDGs be concerned about globalization fatigue or what some are calling "peak globalization"?

VS: I don't think so. I want to emphasize that that our report is focused on the U.S. and what funders can and should learn from efforts in other countries to reach their goals domestically. Our focus is on how foundations in the U.S. can work on the SDGs here at home, and how the SDGs offer a framework that can be successfully adopted locally.

But I'd almost invert your question. And, again, remember that the goals don't come with pre-packaged policy solutions. It's up to us to take the goals and contextualize them locally, which means it almost doesn't matter what the sentiment with respect to globalization and global economic integration is, because the problems here at home are still problems, and we still have a responsibility to analyze and address those problems through a local lens.

PND: Has the council set any targets for its members around adoption of the SDG framework?

VS: You know, we're early in the process. We're only a few months into a fifteen- year effort, and I think it's safe to say we are still in the building-awareness phase. That said, it is exciting to see people getting excited about the SDGs and to see the momentum building. We're also hearing anecdotally some evidence to suggest that a growing number of foundations are looking at the goals and trying to figure out how they can inform their grantmaking. Again, it's early days, and while there may come a time when the council decides to set goals around SDG adoption, it's a little premature for that.

PND: Are you optimistic the SDG framework will work in the ways you’ve outlined for us? Fifteen years from now, will philanthropy be able to say it was instrumental in creating a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable global community and a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable America?

VS: Absolutely. Over the next fifteen years, we estimate that philanthropy's going to put $360 billion in grants toward the SDGs. That's significant. At the same time, the experts estimate that it is going to cost a trillion dollars to achieve all the goals. You don't have to be a math wiz to figure out that philanthropy can't do this alone. That said, I'm confident philanthropy can play a powerful, catalytic role in achieving the goals. And not just with dollars, but by facilitating connections, with leverage, and with the strategic thoughtfulness we so often bring to the table. That's just as exciting to me. I'm very optimistic we will succeed.

— Mitch Nauffts

Get Open: Leaders Reflect on Glasspockets' Impact

August 09, 2016

The Foundation Center's Glasspockets website is dedicated to the proposition that sharing philanthropic knowledge, processes, strategy, and best practices is a win-win for everyone – from grantmakers to grantees and the communities they serve.

But don't take our word for it....

In a new video, Glasspockets: Making the Case for Transparency, philanthropy leaders – including representatives from the Barr Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and others – reflect on the positive impact that Glasspockets, and working more openly, has had on their work.

What are you waiting for? Take our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment and join the "Glass Pockets" movement today!

– Melissa Moy

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (July 2016)

August 06, 2016

Sort of like that great little farm stand that pulls you in every time you drive by, our roundup of the most popular posts here on PhilanTopic in July offers lots of delicious food for thought. So pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea or lemonade and dig in!

What did you read/watch/listen to in June that got your juices flowing? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at

Funding the Frontlines: The Value of Supporting Grassroots Organizing

August 02, 2016

Frontlines_disk spaceOver the last decade or so, human rights organizations, democracy activists, journalists, and civil society groups around the world have faced increasing constraints on their work. Legal and administrative barriers imposed by governments have made it more difficult to operate in civic space. Activists have been subjected to intimidation when they gather in public, voice their views, or set up new organizations. In some countries, foreign and local funding for NGOs has been scrutinized, restricted, and even banned. These factors have combined to negatively affect the human rights agenda and have resulted in a phenomenon known as "shrinking civic space" around the globe.

Against that backdrop, human rights funders are doing their best to keep open and, where possible, expand civic space. The International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) and Foundation Center's new report Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking showcases that work in numbers: In 2013, 803 funders worldwide allocated $2.3 billion in support of human rights. The report identifies these funders, the regions and the issues they support, and the populations they target. This year's research also examines the strategies supported by human rights funding. Ranging from policy advocacy to grassroots organizing, the report defines eleven approaches and finds that:

  • Activities related to advocacy — to ensure that states and non-state actors recognize, conform to, and implement international human rights standards — receive the largest share of funding dollars (27 percent).
  • Capacity-building and technical assistance for civil society organizations receives the second largest share of human rights funding (15 percent).
  • Research and documentation — to expose human rights violations and their perpetrators — is the third largest category of funding (13 percent).

Frontline_trickle-downWhat I find most interesting in this research is the amount of funding allocated to grassroots organizing — a mere 2 percent. This statistic aligns with the findings of the Civicus study The State of Civil Society, 2015, which notes that NGOs receive only 1 percent of official development assistance. For local civil society organizations, the picture is even bleaker: their share is just 0.2 percent. So the funding, if available, primarily supports large, high-profile NGOs, whereas those organizing at the community level do not have nearly enough access to resources. In other words, we are not close to "funding the frontline."

Why are funders failing at the local level? Do they assume that if the big groups are supported, change will eventually trickle down to those most in need? One possibility is that human rights funders may not fully appreciate the potential of funding grassroots organizing.

Before I get to that, let's make sure we're on the same page when we talk about the "grassroots." Grassroots organizations consist of rights-holders — people who are directly affected by a problem or whose rights have been infringed or violated. These groups use collective action to address obstacles to the full realization of their constituents' rights, not only locally but also at the national and international levels. They are associated with bottom-up decision making and are seen as being more spontaneous than groups plugged into more traditional power structures. They seek to challenge and change the status quo.

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[Review] Mission Control

August 01, 2016

In Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World, Liana Downey argues that many well-intentioned nonprofit organizations lack focus and, motivated by a need to be everything to everyone, end up being less effective than they could or should be. Most of us have encountered this kind of "mission creep" in one form or another. It could be a local food pantry that, after noticing that many people who are coming for food have other needs, "starts offering referrals to homeless shelters and...providing job training" without taking the time to assess whether it is "the best organization to be meeting these needs." While that organization may have "gone wide in its services, and...helped people along the way," no one is sure whether the "increase in the breadth of services enabled it to better meet the initial need." In other words, are there still people in its community going hungry?

MissionControl-3D_FINALThose are difficult and important questions, and in Mission Control Downey has created a "step-by-step guide" for nonprofits that want to avoid mission creep, find their focus, and change the world.

Downey begins her book with a chapter on how to "Prepare for Success" that looks at whether now is the right time for your nonprofit to find its focus and develop an action plan to increase its impact, who should be involved in the process , how much time your organization should spend on the process, and whether you need external help (in the form of a facilitator, advisor, or consultant).

Having determined that it is indeed a good time for your organization to find its focus, the next step is to "get the facts." And that means asking a series of questions about your clients (who are they, what do they want, etc.), your organizational structure (how many employees/volunteers, your fixed and variable costs, funding sources and reserves), and how the broader environment in which your organization operates affects its work (who are your competitors, who are your funders, who are the key players in the policy arena, etc.).

With the answers to the above in hand, it's on to the crux of Downey's process: establishing a clear, achievable goal "that will help you make decisions, motivate your team, and increase your impact." A goal is not the same thing as a mission, nor is it a vision or value statement. While both those things are important, she writes, "they are not the real differentiator between organizations that achieve great things and those that don't." That's the function of an ambitious and actionable goal.

As Downey walks readers through a series of steps designed to help their organizations craft such a goal, she makes it clear that every organization has the capacity to create meaningful change — so long as its efforts are grounded in facts. Or, as she puts it: "Good intentions, hard work, and intelligence are not enough to change the world. To succeed you must focus your efforts on the interventions that actually work."

In the chapter "Identifying Your Strengths," for example, she invites readers to reflect on what their organizations already do well and encourages them to take stock of its capabilities and assets. And in one of the "Cynic's Corner" sidebars sprinkled throughout the book, she shares an anecdote about a nonprofit whose culture was so rigid and hierarchical, it didn't even ask its volunteers about their skills and experiences — capabilities that could have advanced the organization's mission in very real ways. 

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (July 30-31, 2016)

July 31, 2016

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


If you're like NWB's Vu Le, you've pretty much lost patience with colleagues and others who routinely make one of these mistakes in their written or verbal communications.

Community Improvement/Development

The League of Creative Interventionists, a global network of people working to build community through creativity, has posted a manifesto and is inviting people like you to join its movement.

Corporate Social Responsiblity

Can CEOs really drive their companies to be more sustainable? As Mary Barra's experience at GM would seem to suggest, it's harder than you think, writes Raz Godelnik, co-director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at the Parsons School of Design, on Triple Pundit.

Criminal Justice

Earlier this week, NBA great Michael Jordan announced gifts of $1 million each to two organizations working to build trust between African Americans and law enforcement. The organizations are the Institute for Community-Police Relations, which was launched in May by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And here is Jordan's statement.


As one of the major-party political conventions demonstrated, there are lots of areas of American life where diversity is more vague notion than reality. Another is the tech scene in Silicon Valley, where "[t]alented people are left behind every day, many simply because they don't have the same kind of access as Ivy League brogrammer." In Fast Company, Cale Guthrie Weissman reports on what a few organizations are doing to change that equation.


New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a bold new plan to disrupt the city's school-to-prison pipeline. The key element? Keeping kids from misbehaving by not suspending them for misbehavior. Amy X. Wang reports.

Continue reading »

The Strategic Thinker-Leader

July 27, 2016

Rodin_thinker-leaderFor those who read my "5 Reasons Why 'Strategic Doing' Beats Strategic Planning" post, it will come as no surprise that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, critiquing, and doing strategy. Truth be told, strategy is a bit of an obsession for me, more creative art and less a science, despite what the bean-counters and McConsultants would have you believe.

Like other creative arts, truly great strategy is the product of inspiration. And inspiration comes to us in its own good time rather than during scheduled meetings: while we’re arguing with a friend, thinking about a problem, noticing something we’d missed before, even while we sleep. (Okay, maybe that’s just me…)

More to the point, strategy isn't a thing, a plan, a committee, or a document. It's a way of thinking about change — a way of imagining that demands action. Because, at the end of the day, strategy is nothing more than a language for translating ideas into outcomes.

So what makes for great strategy, and how do you get there? When do you know you've nailed it? And, perhaps most challenging, can the art of strategy be taught? I don’t have the definitive answers to those questions. Maybe great strategy is like pornography: you know it when you see it, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart. That said, allow me to share a few observations from my years in the trenches about the what and how of strategy.

If strategy is nothing more than an organized way of thinking about change, then "doing strategy" should be built through a sequence of cognitive steps — a disciplined intellectual process that transforms what is to what could be and leads to a clear, compelling end-state vision.

So what does that disciplined and orderly thought experiment I call strategy look like? Like any other disciplined intellectual process, strategic thinking is built around a sequence of questions:

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (July 23-24, 2016)

July 24, 2016

Bulldog-on-ice1Our weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Community Improvement/Development

In the New America Weekly, Heron Foundation president Clara Miller explains how the foundation's recent work in Buffalo, the fourth poorest city in the nation, "started as a response to a Heron board member's referral of the local community foundation" and led to the foundation becoming a trusted neutral convener and connector "for a number of contingents in the community."

On the Knight blog, Lilly Weinberg Lilly Weinberg, program director for community foundations at the Knight Foundation, shares three takeaways from a recent convening of twenty civic innovators who've received grants of $5,000 to implement a project in a calenadr year that improve mobility, a public space, or civic engagement in their home cities.

Criminal Justice/Policing

Reflecting on the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minnesota, five police officers in Dallas, and three police officers in Baton Rouge, Open Society Foundations president Chris Stone suggests that the divide between black America and American policing is in part the "legacy of slavery, the legacies of Jim Crow, of lynching, of the repression of the civil rights and black power movements, the legacy of the war on drugs" -- and that efforts to close it must include solutions to racial disparities and the building of mutual trust between African Americans and local police departments.


Here on PhilanTopic, we featured a pair of great posts this week  -- one by Frank Smyth and the second by Maria Amália Souza -- on the noble, unheralded, and frequently dangerous work done by environmental activists in the global South.

Continue reading »


Quote of the Week

  • "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working...."

    — Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

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