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25 posts from November 2009

Barron's 'Best Givers' List

November 29, 2009

Giving_flower With Thanksgiving behind us (hope you had a good one!), list season has begun in earnest. And to kick things off, Barron's, in collaboration with Global Philanthropy Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm that designs "highly leveraged philanthropic strategies" for foundations, corporations, and high-net-worth individuals, has just published its list of the "25 Best Givers."

To compile the list, GPG and Barron's "considered scores of philanthropists, rating them on such criteria as innovation, quality of alliances with other groups, the ripple effects of their giving and the extent to which their successful projects can be replicated." The result, according to the editors, is a list that focuses not on the biggest givers but rather on those "who are getting the results."

It's an odd list, both well intentioned and too cute by half (do we really need to know that Brad Pitt has commissioned the design of a house that would float if there was another flood in New Orleans?). It's also peppered with the names of individuals who made their fortunes in high tech or finance and got into the giving game believing they could leverage business discipline and their faith in metrics into a lean, more effective philanthropy for the twenty-first century.

I know what you're thinking, and so do the folks at GPG and Barron's. "By its nature," they write, "an exercise like this involves a lot of subjective calls. Facts and figures about philanthropy are much harder to come by than data on corporations. One giver's definition of success can differ sharply from another giver's -- or from ours."

Well, yes. And lists like this are designed to spark conversation and debate. So what do you think? Did the folks at GPG and Barron's get it right? Who's on the list that doesn't belong there? And more importantly, who's not on the list that should be?

Use the comments section to share your thoughts....

-- Mitch Nauffts

'Givers' Must Become Social Investors

November 25, 2009

(Jeff Mason is vice president of Social Solutions, a leading provider of human and social service software, and serves as chair of the Alliance for Effective Social Investing, a network of more than thirty-five nonprofit leaders committed to driving more money to high-performing nonprofits by helping donors adopt sound social-investing practices. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)

Performance-Management Giving is often influenced by "tug-at-the-heart string" stories from charismatic nonprofit executive directors able to persuade people to open their hearts and wallets. Which means the funds flowing into the nonprofit sector today tend to go to organizations that tell good stories, have the right relationships, and/or have a recognizable brand. Unfortunately, none of these characteristics provides any real indication of an organization's ability to perform and generate social value and, as a result, millions of dollars of charitable "giving" are wasted on ineffective organizations and programs.

Most of those who give have the best of intentions. But they tend to view their donations as a gift rather than as an investment and therefore don’t expect to get anything in return -- except for an emotional lift and perhaps a tax deduction. What big-hearted philanthropists need to understand is that there are consequences to their giving. Giving to ineffective organizations or programs tends to draw resources away from effective organizations that generate real social value. And in some cases these donors may actually be funding programs that do more harm than good.

Take, for instance, a Washington D.C.-based organization that launched a program to treat men and women involved with domestic violence. Shortly after the program began, the organization learned that the violent tendencies of the men enrolled in the program where actually increasing. That's right. The program was making the men enrolled in it more violent. Fortunately, the organization is a high-performer -- meaning it carefully manages its performance and has a clear understanding of the effectiveness of its efforts to achieve desired outcomes. With that knowledge, it was able to retool its domestic violence program to help those enrolled. What is scary, however, is that most organizations fail to manage their performance and as a result have no idea whether they are having an effect -- positive or negative -- on those they are trying to help.

While performance management isn't easy, it is essential. And it requires the right systems, processes, and organizational culture to have real impact. Absent making performance management a top priority, most nonprofits are in effect operating blindly and potentially creating more harm than good.

So why aren't organizations embracing performance management? Simply put, they get paid to tell heart-warming stories, develop relationships, and create memorable brands. Even more disturbing, many organizations get rewarded for keeping their overhead low. What we need to do instead is to start rewarding organizations with high-performing characteristics. And that will require donors to become social investors who look for meaningful indicators of an organization's ability to generate social value. In other words, donors need to expect something in return for their investment.

So how does a donor know he or she is investing in a high-performing organization? Social investors need to take the concept of "performance management" into account when making a philanthropic investment. That means asking the right questions and looking for organizations that meet certain criteria for success. Listed below are five questions that, if answered in the affirmative, greatly improve the chances that the organization you are investing in is high performing and likely to generate social value:

  • Does the organization have clear goals in line with existing resources?
  • Does it have a clear strategy for reaching its goals and objectives?
  • Does it have a method for monitoring progress?
  • Does it have the ability to make mid-course corrections?
  • Does it have the capacity to share results and outcomes?

From a nonprofit evaluation perspective, big changes are afoot. Charity Navigator, which influences approximately $10 billion in funding annually, will be launching a new rating system in 2010 designed to assess a nonprofits' overall performance, not just their admin-to-program cost ratio. Until this new system is in place, however, social investors should focus on the five questions highlighted above when considering making a donation of any proportion.

The future of the nonprofit sector hinges upon better performance management. As more and more donors rid themselves of the "gift giving" mind-set and begin to think and act like social investors, more money will go to high-performing organizations. For organizations that are not on board the performance management train, it could mean less funding. And that's a good thing.

-- Jeff Mason

Weekend Link Roundup (November 21 - 22, 2009)

November 22, 2009

Chain-links Our weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....


On the Philanthropy Potluck blog, Cary Lenore Walski says that it only takes "five seconds for a new visitor to decide whether or not they will stay on your website." And if in those five seconds the visitor clicks "play" on a video, Walski adds, they are more likely to stick around.

Community Improvement/Development

What's it like to live in an abandoned building -- a house that is not a home? On the Second Line blog, Mike Miller, director of supportive housing placement at UNITY of Greater New Orleans, imagines what it might be like for the 63,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.


Are young bloggers guilty of "ageism" when they focus on the aspirations, challenges, and triumphs of a particular demographic cohort such as Gen Y? asks Rosetta Thurman on her blog.


Last week Nathaniel Whittemore argued on the Social Entrepreneurship blog that it was time to lay the Kiva controversy to rest. Not so fast, says Holden Karnofsky on the GiveWell blog. "The time to 'move on' should not be based on Kiva’s 'handling' the situation or our growing tired of it," writes Karnofsky, "it should be based on Kiva's supporters, by and large, understanding how Kiva works."


Does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation need a new $500 million, 900,000-square-foot headquarters campus? Wall Street Journal Wealth Report blogger Robert Frank has his doubts.

Blueprint Research Design (Lucy Bernholz' shop) has created a new area on its Web site called Conversations, which it hopes will be "a real hub for discussion -- part digital water cooler, part wisdom of the crowds." To get the ball rolling, Lucy and her colleague Tony Wang have started a conversation around the topic of What Capital When? and over the next few months will be "thinking out loud" about the different forms and uses of philanthropic capital to drive impact. Looking forward to it.

On the NetSquared blog, Amy Sample Ward interviews Avi Kaplan of Epic Change about the upcoming TweetsGiving campaign, November 24-26.

Tactical Philanthropy's Sean Stannard-Stockton shares excerpts from a recent e-mail debate between Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners-Seattle, and Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, on "the merits, or lack thereof, of general operating support grants."

Social Media

What does the decision by Causes, the online fundraising application, to abandon MySpace and the shutting of ideablob, a competition and promotion platform for entrepreneurs, mean for nonprofits? Guest blogging on Tactical Philanthropy, Amy Sample Ward considers the implications.

After sharing three recent examples of "place-based charitable giving hubs" (GiveMN, I Live Here, I Give Here, and Chase Community Giving on Facebook), Beth Kanter wonders whether these kinds of campaign will make a difference in a difficult economy or just add to the noise.

"It is way too early to declare" the death of e-mail, writes Joanne Fritz on the Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog at About.com. "Don't get rid of your email," adds Fritz. "Just make it as effective as possible."

And on the Philanthropy 2173 blog, Lucy Bernholz confesses to wondering whether the use of social media platforms such as Twitter to crowd-source "top trend" lists has jumped the shark. "As we approach December and the list making frenzy of 'top 10s,'" writes Bernholz, "let us all take a deep breath and perhaps even do some [original] thinking."

That's it for now. What did we miss? Drop us a line at rnm@foundationcenter.org. And have a great week!

-- Regina Mahone

'Career Pathways' and Young Professionals

November 20, 2009

Caree_path02 Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership, a new "baseline" report from the Council on Foundations, has received a fair amount of attention.

Based on a quantitative study of the appointment of 440 CEOs and executive directors over four years (2004-08) and a companion qualitative project, the report was designed to develop new insights into how philanthropic organizations choose their leaders and how individuals make their way into those positions. Specifically, it looked to answer four questions:

  1. What are the professional backgrounds and profiles of CEOs and executive directors of foundations and grantmaking organizations?
  2. What are the personal demographic characteristics -- gender, race, and ethnicity -- of these individuals?
  3. What are the keys to career success and advancement for philanthropic leaders?
  4. How can the pathway to careers and positions of leadership in philanthropy be broadened to improve leadership in the field?

The key findings from the research were interesting, if not that surprising:

  • The majority (79.5 percent) of the 440 foundations that appointed new CEOs and executive directors during the study period filled them not through internal promotions but from candidates outside the organization.
  • Two-thirds of the successful candidates (63.4 percent) had served in executive positions in their immediate prior position, either as chief executive (38.9 percent) or vice president (24.5 percent).
  • The majority of the successful candidates made the transition from fields other than philanthropy -- with business (24.3 percent) and the nonprofit sector (24.8 percent) topping the list.
  • Of the successful candidates, nearly 20 percent were from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds and almost half (48.7 percent) were women.
  • Thirty percent of field leaders who were interviewed said mentors played a major role in their career advancement.
  • About 85 percent of the interviewees expressed skepticism about the willingness of trustees, search consultants, and other hiring decision makers to be influenced by leadership development efforts as they worked through their executive hiring decisions.

As a young professional at the beginning of her career who is still (sort of) figuring things out, the report struck a chord with me. I always assumed there would be a clearly marked path for me to follow once I figured out what I wanted to be and do. But I'm learning that that's not always the case, and that age-old certainties -- about career paths, compensation, even the nature of work -- are being upended at a furious pace.

The council's research also makes it clear that trying to achieve a leadership position from within the field is no easy thing and may become more difficult; that one's chances for advancement to the very top of the organizational chart are slimmer if you are a person of color; and that there's a pressing need for more and better professional development efforts within the field.

What do you think? Is the report grounds for optimism or a much-needed wakeup call for foundations? Are grantmaking institutions and nonprofit organizations doing enough to ensure that a new generation of leaders will be ready to take over as their boomer bosses retire? And are you pleased at the way your career in the sector is unfolding?

Use the comments section below to share your thoughts....

-- Regina Mahone

Readings (and Other Stuff) - Nov. 19, 2009

November 19, 2009

Here's what we've been checking out today:

How about you?

Don't Be Afraid to Share Your Stories

November 18, 2009

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Her previous posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.)

Megaphone Too many foundations are confounded by storytelling.

Paralyzed by the need to tell the one perfect story that embodies their brand, acknowledges all their stakeholders, AND helps to advance their goals, foundations often refrain from telling any stories at all. As a result, potentially transformative knowledge fails to reach hungry audiences and voices vital to innovation within the philanthropic sector go unheard.

Or foundations will only tell stories about their grantees, failing to realize that their own stories -- about leadership, challenges, and successes -- often resonate powerfully with key audiences.

Today, we know that the audiences with whom foundations should and most often do communicate -- current and potential grantees, donors, policy makers -- are eager to hear about the work of and people within foundations. Indeed, the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative has reported that 88 percent of "informed Americans" want foundations to share the lessons they have learned.

So imagine the benefits, not to mention goodwill, that would accrue if foundation staff were encouraged to share their stories with board members, grantees, policy makers, and their peers in other organizations. Imagine what might happen if foundation staff shared authentic stories about what they were seeing in their areas of expertise, what was important to them, and what was impacting their work.

The unique value of any foundation lies in the knowledge it brings to the important work of finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems and in its ability to learn from, share, and apply that knowledge to other problems. Such expertise is best shared by the people most responsible for developing and nurturing it. And that's why foundation staff -- leadership and program officers, in particular -- should be encouraged to share stories that effectively articulate and illustrate the foundation's core values.

Remember: The point is not to fuss over stories until they have a perfect narrative arc or seamlessly fit the thematic constraints of the annual report. The goal, instead, should be to tap the passion, knowledge, and expertise of staff members; to demonstrate your foundation's unique value; and to share your stories as widely and as often as possible with audiences eager to listen to, engage with, and pass them on.

-- Thaler Pekar

Readings (and Other Stuff) - Nov. 17, 2009

November 17, 2009

Here's what we're reading today:

What are you reading?

VIDEO: Be That Woman

In time for the holidays, the Washington Area Women's Foundation is out with a new campaign called Be That Woman. The campaign, and the video below, is based on a simple premise: If you invest in a woman or girl, the investment benefits all.

The video, which was done pro bono by RP3 Agency in Bethesda, Maryland, isn't as dramatic as the Girl Effect video we wrote about back in February, but it has a sweet, vaguely retro quality that I find appealing.

What do you think? Does the video work? Will it inspire you to action? And if not, why not? Be nice...

-- Mitch Nauffts

Weekend Link Roundup (November 14 - 15, 2009)

November 15, 2009

Chain-links Our weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....


In a recent post on the GiveWell blog, Holden Karnofsky takes the Carter Center to task for its lack of accountability and transparency.


"Listening is everything," writes Katya Andresen on her NonProfit Marketing blog. But how does one make the time to do it? Have any suggestions? Leave your suggestions below.

Last week, marketing expert Nancy Schwartz released the 2009 Nonprofit Tagline Report. "A strong tagline complements your org's name [and conveys] its unique value or impact with personality, passion and commitment," writes Schwartz, adding, that "If you fail to make the most of your tagline, you throw that opportunity away." You can download a copy of the report here.


Do donors care about nonprofit impact? Charity Navigator has gotten some surprising feedback on that question and wants to hear from you. After you fill out the three-question survey, read what others are saying here.

International Affairs/Development

Matthew Bishop shares a few thoughts about how former Gates Foundation executive Raj Shah can make the most of his new position as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.


In his "last word" about the so-called Kiva controversy, Nathaniel Whittemore argues that even though the folks behind the online giving platform "messed up," we should unequivocally support the organization's future efforts. "Kiva is a young organization," Whittemore writes,

and one of the first to really harness the Internet to extend the experience of giving in dramatically new ways. In my mind, they may have goofed on the trust that they have with their lenders, but they have not undermined the trust that we must have in any nonprofit to be committed to delivering the services it promises in the way that most effectively helps the people it's trying to serve. They've changed their communication, they're proactively seeking to rebuild trust with lenders, and at the end of the day, the amount of good that has been done through Kiva remains immense....


Although the latest iteration of the online America's Giving Challenge campaign extended over fewer days than the inaugural challenge in 2008, it still managed to generate more than 105,420 donations and raise over $2 million for charitable causes. Allison Fine offers her post-mortem here.

On his Wise Philanthropy blog, Richard Marker argues that in order to be effective, donors first have to understand their "culture and values." Writes Marker:

I am a believer in the concept I coined a few years ago: that those of us above a certain age are "guests in this century." The challenge is NOT to get [the denizens] of this transformed world to embrace a culture or values of a century and era now past. That is not a worthwhile enterprise and would be unsuccessful anyway. It is incumbent upon [those of us who are older] to embrace the culture of this world -- or get out of the way....

On the Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog at About.com, Joanne Fritz shares five suggestions taken from The Art of Giving, the new book by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, to leverage your charitable giving.

On the MCF's Philanthropy Potluck blog, Chris Murakami Noonan recaps the recent joint annual conference of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Speaking to conference attendees, Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, said that this is "the era of partnerships" in philanthropy and then listed the four "Cs" that drive effective public/private partnerships: connections, communication, capacity-building, and convening.

Lucy Bernholz singles out two new database applications that underscore the role "data will play as platforms for change": TRASI (Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact), a joint effort of the Foundation Center and McKinsey & Co., and KidsData, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health that aggregates information on three hundred indicators related to the health and well being of children in communities across California.

Social Media

Philanthropy Action's Tim Ogden and Laura Starita have released the results of a survey about the use of social media by mid-size nonprofits. "In terms of fundraising and attracting volunteers, metrics that most nonprofit boards and executive directors highly value, the available evidence suggests that social media is not very effective," writes Ogden. Click here to download the complete report (22 pages, PDF).

Beth Kanter takes a close look at the results of the Philanthropy Action survey and compares it to the findings of a different report released earlier in the week. Her conclusion: It's too early for nonprofits to ditch their social media efforts. Writes Kanter:

It's time to set realistic outcomes, look for strategic efficiencies, and define and share best practices. I don't think it is a good idea to simply dismiss social media. I think it is important to have the conversation, but don't look at ROI in such a narrow [way]. Look at the missed opportunity costs of not participating -- as well as take it as an opportunity to look at everything you're doing and figure out what isn't working and try social media in its place. It also important to keep measuring and improving....

In the first post of a two-part series on "social media for accountability" at the Future Leaders in Philanthropy blog, Zach Wales explains how social media can help board members bring "integrity to their nonprofits, and reinforce everything that made them join the board in the first place."


On the GOOD blog, William Simpson, vice president for information technology at CHF International, argues that it's time for nonprofit IT heads to start running their departments like a business. And the first step is to ask these five simple questions:

  1. Is this technology practical?
  2. What is the true cost of this technology?
  3. Are we looking at all the options?
  4. What existing solutions are there within the organization's global operations?
  5. Have we hired the best we can afford?

(H/t: AFP blog)

That's it for now. What did we miss? Drop us a line at rnm@foundationcenter.org. And have a great week!

-- Regina Mahone

Ten 'To-Dos' for People Under 30

November 14, 2009

Last weekend, we took a look at management guru Jim Collins's recipe for greatness in tough times. Today, we've got his ten "to-do's" for people under thirty, which Collins shared with the audience during his Drucker Centennial Day keynoter at Claremont University earlier this month.

For what it's worth, I'm not entirely sure what #1 and #4 mean, I love #5 through #8, and I'm still trying to decide whether #10, should it come to pass, would be a blessing or a curse. Then again, the last time I was under thirty a gallon of gas cost .89, you could still smoke on a plane or in a restaurant, and everyone had really bad hair. Go figure.

  1. Build a personal board of directors.
  2. Turn off your electronic gadgets -- not for others but for yourself.
  3. Study yourself like a bug -- without judgment.
  4. Calculate your questions-to-statements ratio and try to double it.
  5. Imagine you had $20 million to spend and a terminal disease -- what would be on your "stop-doing" list?
  6. Stop doing your "stop-doing" list.
  7. Unplug the opportunities that distract you.
  8. Find something for which you have so much passion that you are willing to endure the pain.
  9. Articulate the values for which you will not compromise.
  10. Prepare to live a life where at age 65 you are one-third of the way through your work.

What's you advice for people under thirty? Inquiring minds want to know...

-- Mitch Nauffts

Bill Gates at the 92nd Street Y

November 13, 2009

92Y_Gates I had a chance to see Bill Gates being interviewed by Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief for The Economist and co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (read our interview with him here), the other night at the 92nd Street Y here in New York.

Security was surprisingly light, and the Y's wood-paneled concert hall offered a suitably dignified setting for the well-attended event, though both men walked on stage tieless and in good humor. Bishop, who devotes a whole chapter to Gates and the Gates Foundation in his book, almost immediately referenced the February TED talk at which Gates, to illustrate a point, released a swarm of mosquitoes into the audience. Then Bishop, to much laughter, pulled out a can of insect repellent and set it down on the table between them. (You can see the aerosol can in the picture above.)

From there, the conversation moved briskly. At one point, Gates, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin and with his own wealth, dismissed Bishop's suggestion that the global financial crisis had been caused by "the rich" and rejected the notion that he -- or any person of wealth -- should view philanthropy as a path to redemption.

Other takeaways from the evening:

Continue reading »

Readings (and Other Stuff) - Nov. 12, 2009

November 12, 2009

Here's what we're reading today:

What are you reading?

  • Readings (and Other Stuff) - Nov. 11, 2009

    November 11, 2009

    Here's what we're reading today:

    And, on this day of remembrance, maybe the greatest poem written about WWI:

    What are you reading?

    Brooke Astor, the People’s Philanthropist - Part One: Public Spaces

    (Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. His last post was an ode to the T-shirt.)

    Astor_scan On December 8, Anthony Marshall, the 85-year-old son of Brooke Astor, will be sentenced in a Manhattan courtroom for knowingly taking financial advantage of his mother in her declining years. For those of us with some connection to Mrs. Astor, the end of a trial that lasted five months and produced thousands of pages of recorded transcript will go down as one of the saddest epilogues ever attached to a beloved public figure's life.

    Fortunately, for the hundreds of nonprofit organizations in New York City that received support from the Vincent Astor Foundation over the years, Mrs. Astor will be remembered in a far different light. Indeed, few foundations in my lifetime have been so positively associated with a single individual -- or admired so widely.

    While some have tried to portray her as a twentieth-century Lady Bountiful, the characterization has never gained traction. Mrs. Astor took her philanthropy quite seriously, as evidenced by the twenty or so site visits she made each year. And while the New York Times' Bill Cunningham would regularly photograph her at swanky after-dark fundraisers, few managed to capture her image as she traveled to Harlem, Morrisania, Chinatown, and scores of other neighborhoods in the city’s five boroughs. Even in the two reports produced by the Astor Foundation over a forty-year period, she made sure the photographs were of the people she visited and not of herself.

    Indeed, while other individuals with her social standing limited their philanthropic support to the city's museums, performing arts organizations, and other high-profile institutions, Mrs. Astor chose to reach into communities served by organizations that were rarely the beneficiaries of the New York elite and was never afraid to trust her instincts.

    A closer examination of the Vincent Astor Foundation's achievements reveals her wisdom -- and gives us a picture of an individual distinguished by bold, insightful, and impressive talent.

    Continue reading »

    New Racial Equity Statement From Woods Fund of Chicago

    I haven't come across many statements like the one below, but in light of the debate over diversity (or lack thereof) in the sector, I thought it was worth noting. According to a note on the Woods Fund Web site, the fund "has chosen to employ a racial equity lens and adopt this core principle to help our foundation think more intentionally about addressing inequities both internally, within the communities in which we operate, and beyond."

    Here's the statement:

    The Woods Fund of Chicago believes that structural racism is a root cause of many challenges facing less-advantaged communities and people and serves as a significant barrier to enabling work and eradicating poverty. The Woods Fund encourages and supports organizations, initiatives, and policy efforts that lead to eliminating structural racism. Success in this area will be evident when there is equal distribution of privileges and burdens among all races and ethnic groups, and when a person's race or ethnicity does not determine his or her life outcomes. Woods Fund will support organizations that pay disciplined attention to race and ethnicity while they analyze problems, look for solutions, and define and document success. Ideally, these organizations will incorporate an analysis of structural racism into all aspects of their operations. Woods Fund is committed to raising awareness in the philanthropic community to support this work.

    You know what they say: It only takes a pebble to start a landslide.

    -- Mitch Nauffts

    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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