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28 posts from February 2009

Video: The Girl Effect

February 11, 2009

I blogged about the "girl effect" back in September while I was attending the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative here in New York City. As I asked (rhetorically) at the time, why is the empowerment of girls and young women so important? This video, which has been around for a while, uses words and music in a really clever way to answer that question. Enjoy. (H/T Kathryn Pyle and See 3 Communications)


-- Mitch Nauffts

Taking Apart the $819 Billion Stimulus Package

One of the most popular recent posts here featured a stimulus package pie chart put together by the New York Times' Catherine Rampell.

As anyone following NPOs and philanthropy on Twitter already knows, Rampell's quick-and-dirty chart was improved on last week by Laura Stanton at the Washington Post. Based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Stanton's excellent graphic breaks down the $819 billion package approved by the House. (According to the AP, House and Senate negotiators have agreed to a $789 billion package.)

It's a wonderful piece of eye candy that's worth a few minutes of your time. Do check it out.

-- Mitch Nauffts

ANNOUNCEMENT: ‘Philanthropy Chat’ Podcast Now on iTunes

February 10, 2009


Philanthropy Chat, a series of recorded interviews with experts and thought leaders in the field, is now available as a podcast on iTunes. Updated frequently, the series covers a range of topics, from arts funding to emerging trends in grantmaking to the impact of the economic crisis on nonprofits. Subscribe (it's free) and new episodes will be downloaded into your iTunes library as they become available.

And don't forget to tell your friends about it.

-- Regina Mahone

Too (blank) to Fail?

February 09, 2009

(Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he asked whether there are too many nonprofits -- or not enough.)

Excellence_award 2008 was the year of the bailout, in which the giants of finance and industry were lent a generous helping hand by their friends in the U.S. government, generally because they were considered "too big to fail." Leaving the irony aside that, in many cases, the result was to create bigger institutions whose future failure could pose even greater risk to the world financial system, it got me thinking about the nonprofit equivalent of "too big to fail."

The following would be my candidates for nonprofit organizations that are too big, too important, or too (blank) to fail. For the sake of clarity, there is no indication whatsoever that any of these organizations is headed off the edge of a cliff like Lehman Brothers or AIG; if anything it may be time for the private sector to learn a thing or two from these nonprofits about how to create mission critical organizations with long-term staying power. It's just that, if things got much, much worse, these would be my candidates for a bailout -- the world would be a much poorer place without them.

Fill in the blanks above, and give us your own list of the nonprofits that are too (blank) to fail.

-- Bradford Smith

(* full disclosure -– I began my career working for the YMCA.)

Weekend Link Roundup (February 7 - 8, 2009)

February 08, 2009

Here's this week's roundup of noteworthy posts and articles from and about the nonprofit sector....

Arts and Culture

Introduced by Steve Case, this short animated film from cutting-edge studio BLU was the hit of last week's TED conference. Fantastico!


After acknowledging on its new blog that the current economic downturn "feels different" than past downturns, the Hawai‘i Community Foundation cuts right to the chase:

No matter what, the nonprofit sector must prepare for an era of fewer funds. Less funds means fewer services as most organizations run pretty lean programs already. And since the vast majority of their operating costs involve staff, fewer funds also means layoffs. It is somewhat ironic that national attention has focused on the preservation of jobs in the automobile industry without any attention to the nonprofit sector when the number of jobs in that sector is larger than the auto and steel industries combined. In Hawai’i, it is estimated that there are more than 65,000 nonprofit jobs representing more than 10 percent of the non-agricultural workforce and accounting for roughly 9 percent of our gross state product. Cuts in the nonprofit sector are a double whammy: loss of jobs with attendant economic decline and loss of vital services to the community....

In this new era, adds HCF, nonprofits must focus "not on preserving what [they] have but using this moment of crisis to forge a different construct on how [their] values are reflected in how [they] work." We're looking forward to future posts from the foundation.

The layoff theme looms large in the current issue of Blue Avocado, a bi-weekly e-magazine for community-based nonprofits. "Every day there is news of more big layoffs: Starbucks, IBM, Target, CBS...the list goes on and on," writes editor Jan Masaoka. "[B]ut these news stories seldom describe the experiences of nonprofit people." Among other things, Masaoka suggests that, rather than indicating organizational weakness, layoffs "may actually reflect strength in the organization's ability to make decisions proactively, to respond to changing conditions, and to take strong management steps when necessary." (H/T Gift Hub)

Nonprofits hoping to weather the economic storm need to focus on mission and margins, writes Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator. The margin side of the ledger includes contingency budgets, capital ratios, mergers and acquisitions, and keeping a close eye on revenues and expenses. On the mission side of things, Berger recommends that nonprofit leaders take a close look at best practices outlined in the award-winning Forces for Good: Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant.

As further evidence that crowd-sourcing is here to stay, Martin Kearns, founder of an environmental advocacy group, has started a wiki to help other advocacy groups figure out how to "rationally deal with the reductions in overall capacity while also capitalizing on the opportunities that these disruptions produce." (H/T: Give and Take)

Continue reading »

Stimulus Should Start With the Poor

February 07, 2009

We seem to be moving toward passage of a stimulus bill, finally. But as an editorial in today's New York Times notes, there's concern in some corners that the bill does not do enough to help poor folks. Citing data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition which indicate that a $10 billion payment to the National Housing Trust Fund, plus housing vouchers, could provide homes for 400,000 people as well as jobs created by construction of such units, the Times urges Congress to provide funding for the program, which it created last summer but has yet to finance. Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion (click here for PND's review), advocates for policies to help poor people around the globe, but the prescription laid out in his new book, Wars, Guns and Votes, is equally relevant to our domestic problems. Check out this NPR interview in which Collier suggests that to create the demand necessary to pull us -- that's us + the world -- out of this economic crisis, we should be targeting money to the poor, who are the most likely to spend it.

-- Kathryn Pyle

Enhancements to PubHub

February 06, 2009

Since 2004, PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of annotated links to foundation-sponsored reports, has made it easy for foundations, nonprofits, think tanks, and academics to share research, best practices, and lessons learned with a broader audience.

Now, thanks to new features and functionality, the PubHub experience is even better:

Browse over 3,000 reports by publication type (annual report, case study, issue brief, program evaluation, toolkit, etc.) -- in addition to subject, pub year, and/or organization.

Link to supplemental documents such as charts, grants lists, appendices, etc.

Share links with others using e-mail, Gooogle, delicious, reddit, digg, or StumbleUpon.

Sign up for RSS feeds (arts and culture, children and youth, community improvement/development, education, environment, health, philanthropy and voluntarism, and/or new additions).

Browse new Featured Topic reports posted weekly.

Submit your own reports via a web-based form.

PubHub also includes links to digital copies of a growing number of reports (more than 300 at last count) archived, with publisher permission, in FOLIO, a permanent digital repository created by the IUPUI University Library for the long-term preservation of foundation-funded publications.  

To learn more about PubHub and/or to submit a report, click here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

The Role of Philanthropy in Tough Times

February 05, 2009

Bill King is a smart man and an excellent nonprofit leader. As president since 2000 of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, one of the oldest regional associations of grantmakers in the country, King has led the organization into the twenty-first century and helped to establish it as a leader among its peers.

Like funders everywhere, MCF members have been hit hard by turmoil in the markets and are scrambling, in many cases, to "ring fence" their endowments. Unfortunately, writes King in a recent post on MCF's Philanthropy Potluck blog, expectations that philanthropy (i.e., foundations) can "fill the gaps" created by government cutbacks and/or budget shortfalls are rising. 

If only.

The fact of the matter, says King, is that philanthropy -- in Minnesota, or any other state -- doesn't have the capacity to substitute as a replacement for government funding in tough economic times. Nor should it. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, I'm pretty sure King believes, as many people do, that philanthropy is not charity, and that its real job and ultimate purpose is to tackle the root causes, rather than the symptoms, of the problems it seeks to address.

That view was wonderfully expressed in a recent post written by nonprofit consultant Hildy Gottlieb. In it, she relates two stories:

The first is the Starfish Story -- the one where the boy is on a shoreline surrounded by beached starfish [and]...is throwing a starfish at a time back into the sea. When asked what difference his actions can possibly make, given all the other starfish that remain, he replies, "It will make a difference to this one."

The second is the story of the guy who is driving near a river, when he suddenly sees that the river is teeming with babies, floating along in baskets. There is a swarm of people gathered, pulling those babies out of the river. As he starts to drive away, an indignant baby-saver screams, "Hey, you selfish SOB, we need all the help we can get! Where do you think you're going?" To which the guy replies, "I'm going up the river, to stop whoever is putting the babies IN the water."...

I think Bill King sees philanthropy as the guy hustling upriver to the source of the problem. What do you think? Do foundations have a special responsibility to backstop government and/or to act more charitably, in the literal sense of the word, during tough economic times? And how should foundations and individual donors work with government and businesses to help individuals and communities weather the storm? Leave your comments below.

-- Mitch Nauffts

ANNOUNCEMENT: IS Accepting Nominations for 2009 AMEX Building Leadership Award

Independent Sector is accepting nominations for the 2009 American Express Building Leadership Award, which recognizes "an outstanding organization for its leadership in investing in the people of the nonprofit community." Deadline for nominations is February 16, 2009.

The award (formerly known as the Leadership IS Award) was established in 1999 to honor an organization whose programs and policies develop future leaders, both within the organization and among the people it serves. Criteria include implementation of innovative strategies for developing leaders at all levels; promotion and inclusion of a diverse workforce; and demonstrable measurement of the organization's impact on its community.

This year's recipient will be presented with the award at the 2009 IS annual conference in Detroit, November 4-6.

Anyone can make a nomination. To nominate an organization, use the online form.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Quote of the Day (February 4, 2008)

February 04, 2009

Quotemarks "...Tom Daschle's problem wasn't that he didn't pay his taxes. It was that he -- along with those who vetted his nomination as health and human services secretary and many of his colleagues in the Senate -- found it perfectly ordinary and acceptable that he would be able to cash in on his time in the Senate by earning more than $5 million over two years as a law-firm rainmaker, equity fundraiser, corporate director and luncheon speaker, all the while being driven around town in a chauffeured town car. Not exactly Cincinnatus returning to the plow.

"For the American public, Daschle became the latest symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington -- the influence-peddling and corner-cutting and sacrifice of the public good to private interest. Now that this system has let them down, and left them poorer and anxious about the future, people are angry about it and no longer willing to accept the corruption of the public process and the whole notion of public service...."

-- Steve Perlstein, "Stumbling on Their Sense of Entitlement," Washington Post (2/4/09) 

Brother, Can You Spare a Grant?

February 03, 2009

(Tracy Kaufman is an occasional contributor to PhilanTopic. In August, she asked the question, What's so great about an MBA?)

In the late 1920s, unprecedented rates of job and income growth in the United States prompted Herbert Hoover to boast, "We shall soon with the help of God be within sight of the day when poverty will be banished from the nation." A few years later, with the country mired in an economic depression, Hoover was repudiated by the voters, losing his bid for reelection to Franklin Roosevelt by a huge margin.

The situation today is not as bad as the one faced by Americans during the 1930s. But let's not mince words: the economy's a mess and is likely to get worse before it gets better. In December, gross domestic product contracted at its sharpest rate since 1982, and the number of Americans collecting unemployment checks hasn't been this high since before the government began keeping records. Here in New York, I seem to pass a newly empty storefront almost every day. None of us can pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without reading/hearing about another round of layoffs. It's depressing, and all the happy talk and positive thinking in the world won't fix it. What will fix it is action.

Which brings me to this: Foundations are sitting on billions of dollars worth of action.

Blogger Martin Kearns offered some interesting commentary on that score a few weeks ago. In a post titled "Time to Change the 5% Rule for Foundations! 10% or Bust," Kearns suggested that in times like these, foundations should be required to pay out at least 10 percent of their assets for up to five years, or double the current payout requirement.  Kearns writes:

The money in foundations is money that our society has set aside without taxation to improve our common good. The pool of funding is enormous. The payout from the pool of funding (is) can be regulated by the IRS. The IRS has a 5% rule that forces money out the door of these foundations. Our society and the nonprofit sector need the influx of that cash now. Government is going to up taxes on everyone to pay for the stimulus eventually. Today, without raising taxes, or impacting our deficits, the new administration could stimulate massive amount of activity by forcing the hands of these foundations....

He's got a point. Let's break it down, Keynesian style. According to Keynes, economic prosperity depends on spending and investment. Under normal economic circumstances, business investment and consumer spending is enough to keep the money flowing and the economic wheels turning. But when something comes along to gunk up the wheels, money flows tend to slow (and sometimes stop), and everyone suffers. Keynes says that while government interference should never permanently replace private investment, in tough times it is the job of government to step in and get money flowing again. As Robert Heilbroner, writing about the Great Depression, explains it in his classic The Worldly Philosophers: "[T]he catastrophe facing America and, indeed, the whole Western world, was only the consequence of a lack of sufficient investment on the part of business. And so the remedy was perfectly logical: if business was not able to expand, the government must take up the slack."

Keynes's idea seems to me eminently translatable to the philanthropic sector. After all, the government is rather low on cash these days. Foundations, meanwhile, are sitting on billions and billions of dollars in their endowments, and those billions are there for the explicit purpose of benefiting the public good. If anyone should be asked to open their wallets a little wider in tough times, shouldn't it be them?

Obviously, most foundations worry about protecting their endowments, and that's understandable; the majority of private foundations in this country want to be around to benefit society for many years to come. But as sensible as that option normally is, now is hardly the time to retrench or put foundation endowments under lock and key. With home prices continuing to fall, hundreds of thousand of people losing their jobs every month, and nonprofits struggling to keep up with the demand for emergency assistance, this seems like the foundation world's moment to step up to the plate. The question is, do foundations agree?

Kearns makes a bold statement in suggesting that the government require foundations to increase their payout rates. Is he off base? Should we rely on foundations to voluntarily increase their payout -- as some already are -- beyond the federally mandated minimum of 5 percent? Or are legislative measures needed to encourage foundations to give more in times likes these?

-- Tracy Kauffman

Blog Those Blues Away

February 02, 2009

Rosemary_baby Is it just me, or did January hang around like John Belushi in that great Saturday Night Live skit, "The Thing That Wouldn't Go Away"?

Okay, it wasn't that bad. The days got longer. The inauguration was spectacular. And here at PhilanTopic we logged our best month ever for page views and mentions by other blogs and sites.

It's also that time of year when we extend an invitation to the would-be and sometime bloggers among you, our readers, to join us in this excellent online adventure we're having. Interested in contributing to the blog? Drop me a line (mfn@foundationcenter.org), and I'll get back to you as fast as you can say "Candygram." 

-- Mitch Nauffts

Weekend Link Roundup (January 31 - February 1, 2009)

February 01, 2009

Our weekly roundup of noteworthy posts and articles from and about the nonprofit sector....


In the latest installment of the Cohen Report, Rick Cohen outlines what the nonprofit sector can expect from the economic stimulus package (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) making its way through Congress.

Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, takes a closer look at giving patterns during economic downturns and notes that "during distress a hierarchy of giving for most people...follows the pattern -- Spiritual first, Everything Else second...."

Addressing unemployed financial types and sector-switchers from other battered industries in a recent Fast Company article, Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something.org -- a nonprofit that supports and celebrates the next generation of do-gooders -- writes: "Please stop thinking 'we'd be lucky to have you' when you have no experience in our world." Says Lublin:

Working in the not-for-profit sector is a career. It isn't a sabbatical from your "real" job. We have skills. We require training. (There are master's-degree programs dedicated to this work.) We know how to scrimp, land barter deals, and cut waste. Plus, we're used to being paid less than we're worth....

"The real story in this economy?" she adds. "Consider yourselves lucky if you're able to nab a not-for-profit executive for your for-profit business."


In a recent Inside Philanthropy post, Todd Cohen urges the "giving sector" to "take a hard look at how it operates and fix what is wrong" before it attempts to save the world. Writes Cohen:

Nonprofits need to strengthen their operations, build their capacity so they can secure and absorb more giving, and raise their voice on important policy issues.

Foundations need to pay out more, give more to support nonprofit operations, be more open about what they do, and speak up on social change.

And government needs to do a better job policing the giving sector and making sure it operates fairly and in the light of day....

How does the Obama administration fit into all this? There have been plenty of suggestions on that score, writes Cynthia Gibson, who is blogging again after taking a well-deserved break. And though most are well-intentioned, she adds, they tend to be overly narrow in their scope and ambition. "Where's the parallel desire to pull together some of the best thinkers and 'doers'...to devise an agenda that covers all nonprofits, especially small- to mid-sized groups that comprise nearly three-quarters of the entire sector?" asks Gibson. "If these groups -- and all organizations in the sector -- could use anything, it's a plan for supporting their capacity to provide the kinds of services and products that no else is stepping up to offer, especially for under-served constituencies."


In a NY Times op-ed that got a lot of attention, David Swensen, Yale's chief investment officer, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst, argue that newspapers struggling to survive the collapse of their buiness model should seriously consider turning themselves into endowed not-for-profit institutions.

Not so fast, says Allison Fine. Swensen and Schmidt assume that "nonprofit status is intended for companies that don't have a viable business model," and that "raising billions of dollars in endowment funds is doable, particularly in today’s economy." Instead, argues Fine, newspapers need to "reinvent themselves as part of their communities, as a focal point for conversations about issues that are important to their readers (or more accurately, their users)." And while they're at it, they should "form partnerships with local bloggers who can supplement their reporting rather than disdaining [those] efforts."

Nonprofits and Social Media

"Should we [continue] using an industrial measurement model" -- return on investment, or ROI -- "in a digital age?" asks Beth Kanter. As nonprofit organizations try to determine whether and how much they should spend on social media initiatives, what is the best metric for evaluating results? As always, Kanter has a few ideas and has gathered a lot of great resources to inform and stimulate your thinking.

Over at the Getting Attention blog, Nancy Schwartz offers three resources for nonprofits ready to take the podcasting plunge.

"I blame Twitter for my infrequent blogging over the past few weeks," writes Rosetta Thurman on her eponymously named blog. Thurman has only been using the microblogging platform for a few months, but it has already had a dramatic impact on her blogging routine. And as more and more bloggers discover the joys of Twitter, Thurman wonders whether blogging itself will be the next victim of the rapidly changing media landscape.

Speaking of Twitter, check out this great post by Dom Sagolla (@Dom) about how the microblogging service came into being.


PhilanTopic reader Nathaniel Whittemore responds to Bill Gates' first annual philanthropy letter on the Social Entrepreneurship blog and offers three things he'd like to see the Gates Foundation do: create a social investment venture fund; adopt a more aggressive focus on policy as a mechanism for scaling solutions to the problems it is working on; and develop a bottom-up feedback loop.


Taking another look at Bernie Madoff and a number of "mini-Madoff" scandals that have come to light since the New York financier was revealed as a fraud in December, Lucy Bernholz wonders what it all "adds up to -- not just in terms of dollars, organizations, and good work lost, but in other important ways." As always, she provides plenty of food for thought.

And that's it for now. Have a great week!

-- Regina Mahone

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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