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24 posts from November 2010

This Week in PubHub: Advocacy

November 11, 2010

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she looked at four reports that examine issues related to immigrants and their children.)

The midterm elections may be behind us, but the question remains: What role should philanthropy play in promoting civic participation, educating voters, and shaping public policy? As we highlight foundation practices and some of the year’s philanthropic trends in conjunction with National Philanthropy Day, we start with a group of reports that consider various aspects of civic engagement and advocacy, which can include community organizing, grassroots leadership development, needs assessments and polling, research into critical issues and potential solutions, and systemic reform.

A growing number of people would argue that advocacy and civic engagement are essential aspects of strategic philanthropy. Foundations for Civic Impact: Advocacy and Civic Engagement Toolkit for Private Foundations, a publication issued by the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, highlights the rationale for private foundation support of advocacy and civic-engagement efforts: Such support enables foundations to advance their missions, promote systemic social change, strengthen democracy, and protect their interests. With a clear understanding of the types of lobbying and voter-engagement activities they can and cannot fund, combined with effective communications materials, grantmakers can do much to empower citizens and grantees and deepen the latter's impact. (Community and public foundation leaders should refer to CLPI’s Toolkit for Community Foundations).

Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement in Los Angeles, a report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a number of advocacy-related success stories. Among other things, the study found that between 2004 and 2008, every dollar invested in the advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement activities of fifteen Los Angeles-area community groups returned $91 in benefits for marginalized communities. Using a range of creative strategies -- from organizing to ballot initiatives to coalition-building -- these groups also made progress on a variety of non-monetary benefits, including improved air quality and working conditions, greater access to higher education, and enhanced services for LGBTQ and limited English proficiency residents. To further increase the impact these groups are having in their communities, the report recommends that foundations provide additional funding for advocacy efforts, engage more directly with grantee boards and donors, do more to support collaboration and foster shared learning, invest in capacity building, and provide more general operating support and multiyear grants.

Five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the the Gulf Coast, a new culture of civic engagement is taking hold in the region, the Alliance for Justice reports in Power Amidst Renewal: Foundation Support for Sustaining Advocacy After Disasters. Despite ongoing challenges, the region is seeing efforts to organize low-income communities, develop coalitions, and advocate around environmental, educational, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure issues. Indeed, advocacy work across the region has become broader, more collaborative, and more integrated into nonprofits' missions and day-to-day operations, the report's authors note. Moreover, local foundations such as the Foundation for the Mid South and the Greater New Orleans Foundation (as well as national foundations) are playing a critical role in boosting the capacity and effectiveness of nonprofits in the region to engage with and shape public policy. The report concludes that continued support for post-disaster advocacy should be flexible and for longer grant periods; include advocacy training and technical assistance; involve local partners; be adaptable to the emergence of coalitions and collaboratives; and focus on strengthening community-based foundations.

Even a healthy culture of civic engagement cannot thrive without the participation of younger generations. Just as the 2008 elections showcased the power and potential of youth civic engagement, non-college youth, who comprise almost half the nation's young adults, were largely absent on Election Day. The question of how to engage youth who are disconnected from educational opportunities and jobs is the focus of Youth Civic Engagement Grantmaking: Strategic Review, a 2009 assessment of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund's youth civic engagement program, which supports organizing activities led by low-income youth and youth of color with the aim of establishing a robust infrastructure for sustained engagement and leadership development in the broader progressive movement. Conducted by Mosaica: The Center for Nonprofit Development and Pluralism, the review includes a number of recommendations for improving the program: supporting collective organizational capacity-building strategies, investing in national and regional convenings, building infrastructure in regions and communities with gaps in youth civic engagement, and developing a knowledge base for the field.

How do you see the role of foundations evolving vis-à-vis policy advocacy and civic engagement? What strategies have worked in your issue area or region? And what other emerging strategies show promise? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

And don't forget to visit PubHub, where you can browse reports on philanthropy and voluntarism by sub-category, including capacity building, governance, performance/failure analysis, program evaluation, and volunteerism. Or browse all the reports related to philanthropy and voluntarism — more than 1,300 of them!

-- Kyoko Uchida

Readings (November 10, 2010)

November 10, 2010

Here are a few items that caught our attention as we hit the midpoint of the week:

Any tasty morsels in your feed(bag)?

[Slideshow] The Changing Digital Information Landscape

Our friend Jeff Stanger, director of the Center for Digital Information, a new nonprofit created to help the policy research community -- think tanks, foundations, government agencies, NGOs, and educational institutions -- fundamentally rethink how it communicates its findings in a digital society, has graciously agreed to let us share a presentation he recently gave to a group of policy types in Washington, D.C. (where the center is based).

In his presentation (which followed one by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project), Jeff argues that society has shifted from a world of digital distribution to one of digital information. The former is static, tethered, browser- and site-based, mediated, document-driven ("Download the .PDF"), and one-to-many; the latter, interactive, mobile, device- and app-based, unmediated, and many-to-many.

Unfortunately, says Jeff, the nonprofit policy information fleld has failed miserably to adapt to the new information enviroment -- and that "is a problem with consequences." What's required to address the situation, he adds, is not only new techniques to promote old information products, but new products entirely.

The Changing Digital Information Landscape from Jeff Stanger on Vimeo.

(Running time: 19:11)

Is Stanger right? Are too many policy/research shops stuck in 1995? How is it affecting their ability to contribute/shape the policy debate? And what will it take to get them to embrace the brave new world of digital information?

Know anyone who has succesfully navigated the transition that Stanger describes? We'd love to hear/learn more....

-- Mitch Nauffts

WaPo on the Situation in Haiti

November 08, 2010

The factors and forces behind Haiti's plight are too numerous to do justice in a short blog post. Over the weekend, however, the Washington Post ran a tough but fair editorial about the current situation there ("As Haiti Suffers, the World Dozes," November 6, 2010). Here's an excerpt:

Of the billions pledged at the United Nations to rebuild Haiti, barely a fifth of the total, around $1.3 billion, has been approved or dispersed by donors. In some cases -- including, scandalously, in the United States -- all or part of the funds has been held up by lawmakers or bureaucrats. Of the $1.15 billion Washington promised for long-term reconstruction projects, only a trickle has been received so far in Haiti.

The main problem with American reconstruction funding is that the administration and Congress have treated it as business as usual. The bill containing the funds was signed into law by President Obama on July 29; after that, it took almost two months for the State Department to devise a spending plan. Since mid-September, the staffs of at least four congressional committees and the State Department have been engaged in back-and-forth negotiations regarding the particulars of the funding -- mechanisms to promote sound strategy, accounting, transparency and so on. On Thursday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. funds would have to wait a bit longer until Congress and State could satisfy themselves that the money wouldn't be stolen or misused once it arrives in Haiti.


In and around Port-au-Prince, more than a million people still live in tent cities, scratching out a meager living. Throughout the capital and surrounding areas, huge piles of rubble remain unmoved, awaiting bulldozers. In addition to at least 230,000 people killed in the quake, hundreds of thousands were injured and maimed; many remain in need of medical care.

In Haiti itself, elections are planned at month's end, but that is unlikely to provide quick relief. The government's weakness remains a stumbling block for reconstruction. Lacking clear rules and records governing land ownership, the government has struggled to determine where to build new housing and where to dump mountains of debris. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commisssion, chaired by former president Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, whose job is to set spending priorities and review reconstruction projects, is severely understaffed and lacks expertise. Even if the international aid flow were much quicker than it has been, Haiti would face enormous problems.

Foot-dragging by international donors...only complicates the picture. In Haiti, it is impossible to draft reconstruction plans without knowing how much funding is likely to be available. Contractors who stand ready to clear debris and rebuild infrastructure and neighborhoods have been kept waiting for weeks and months as desultory donors shuffle paper or squabble....

Haiti has long been plagued by corruption and political violence, and the U.S., which bears more than a little responsibility for Haiti's political troubles, may not be able to do anything to change the country's political culture -- in the short term. But when it comes to humanitarian assistance, a promise is a promise. It's time we kept ours.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Weekend Link Roundup (November 6 - 7, 2010)

November 07, 2010

NYC-Marathon Our weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....


On her Non-Profit Marketing blog, Katya Andresen reminds nonprofit marketers why the old adage "less is more" is as relevant as ever.


"Underestimating the critical role of culture may be the reason," writes Chris Murakami Noonan on the Philanthropy Potluck blog, "there has been little change in the number of board members of color in the past fifteen years, despite all the talk in our sector about the need to diversify, the focus on recruiting board members of color, and organizational strategies developed to highlight diversity and inclusiveness...."


Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, Uncharitable author Dan Pallotta explains why the movement by "well-meaning social entrepreneurs...and one established watchdog" to create an evaluation platform for measuring the effectiveness of charities "may prove as inadequate to the task of helping the public make good donation decisions as the 'overhead' religion it seeks to replace...."

Guest blogging on the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' Kathleen Enright identifies some "common conceptions about innovation and scale [that] could actually prevent those who command philanthropic dollars from successfully leveraging limited resources for maximum impact...."

On the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, Ann Goggins Gregory of the Bridgespan Group explains why "across-the-aisle conversations" between donors and nonprofits "can be a powerful tool for change."

Social Entrepreneurship

Philanthropy Action's Tim Ogden has a nice round up of blog posts written about this year's Microfinance Innovation and Impact Conference.

After sharing a few takeways from the conference on his GiveWell blog, Holden Karnofsky makes a case for more research and evaluation on the impact of microloans. Writes Karnofsky, "My greatest fear about microfinance is that all (or nearly all) of [the philanthropic capital]...is chasing a good story rather than a good program...."

Social Media

In the latest installment of her Social Good podcast series, Allison Fine interviews Seattle-based journalist Dan Savage about the It Gets Better Project, a video series for gay teens Savage launched with his partner Terry Miller.

Guest blogging on Beth Kanter's blog, Blackbaud's Frank Barry shares a few videos from the fundraising software provider's 2010 Conference for Nonprofits. In one video, Barry interviews Claire Williams Diaz, who heads up the social innovation unit at Twitter, while in a different one he chats with Zoetica co-founder Geoff Livingston about grassroots fundraising and "the rapid growth of online platforms that allow people to raise money for the causes they support."

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

-- Regina Mahone

NYC’s New Summer Playground Will Have Winter Tenants: A Conversation With Robert Pirani

November 05, 2010

Governors_island Robert Pirani is executive director of the Governors Island Alliance, a coalition of organizations and individuals working to realize the recreational and cultural potential of the 172-acre island and former military base in New York Harbor. The island, ownership of which was transferred to New York State and the National Park Service in 2003, received a record 443,000 visitors over the summer, a more than 60 percent increase over 2009. Innovative and largely free public programs, plenty of historic charm, and spectacular harbor views are transforming the island from a well-kept secret to one of New York’s most exciting civic spaces.

The following Q&A with Pirani was conducted by Laura Cronin, director of the Toshiba America Foundation.

Laura Cronin: For those who have not yet had the pleasure of taking the ferry out to Governors Island, can you give a brief description of what people will find there?

Robert Pirani: Governors Island is just a seven-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, but it truly is a world apart. The National Landmark Historic District on the island features massive stone forts that defended New York after the Revolution and nineteenth-century Federal and Victorian-style buildings that housed generations of military families. The two-mile waterfront esplanade is a mecca for car-free walking and biking, and offers fantastic views of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and rest of the harbor. Acres of shady lawns make it a great spot for a lazy summer picnic.

The Trust for Governors Island -- a city-led development corporation -- and the Governors Island National Monument have invited a wide range of partners to help create programming for the island. As a result, the island is becoming a venue for innovative art and creative public events. It's also an ideal platform for programs that showcase the harbor and its evolving role in shaping New York's economy and ecology.

Continue reading »

Readings (November 4, 2010)

November 04, 2010

Here are a few items that grabbed our attention on this rainy day...

A 'Flip' Chat With...Kate Robinson, Producer, 'Saving Philanthropy'

November 03, 2010

(This is the tenth in our series of conversations with thought leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. You can access other chats in the series here, including our chat with Will Weiss, executive director of the Arts & Business Council of New York.)

"Are we making a difference?"

No question in recent years has generated more debate within the nonprofit sector. And the sides in that debate, if not the terms, have been reasonably clear: those who believe that impact and effectiveness are predicated on clearly articulated strategy, regular measurement of well-defined outcomes, and dissemination of lessons learned; and those, like Dan Palotta, who believe that the tools used to measure effectiveness are flawed and that a focus on measuring effectiveness is likely to "create a market around the problems that are easiest to solve."

A debate, in other words, for those with strong opinions and a thick skin. Or so I thought until I met the charming Kate Robinson, founder and director of FSP Creative Advocacy and a former director of strategic initiatives for Social Solutions Global, Inc., a leading provider of performance management software. Kate is executive producing (and her brother is directing) Saving Philanthropy: The Voyage From Resources to Results, a one-hour documentary film that spotlights a number of social service organizations (Roca, Nurse-Family Partnership) using performance management systems and outcomes measurement to achieve extraordinary results. (To watch a trailer for the movie, click here.)

Earlier this week, I chatted with Kate about her reasons for making the movie, her advice for organizations looking to demonstrate their effectiveness, and why philanthropy needs to be "saved."

If you're reading this in an e-mail, click here.

(Total running time: 7 minutes, 5 seconds)

What do you think? Should nonprofits be doing more to measure their effectiveness? Is it even possible to do so in "an evaluation landscape cluttered with distinct and warring [assessment] methodologies" (as the Monitor Institute puts it)? And if it is -- or is at least worth trying -- who should bear the costs of those efforts?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Opera in America

November 01, 2010

(Melanie Feilotter is director of information and learning services at OPERA America, which serves and strengthens its field through programs in the creation, presentation, and enjoyment of opera. This post originally was published in PND's Commentary section.)

Magic_flute Opera is not a quiet endeavor, particularly during National Opera Week, when companies take to the streets with events such as "Pop-Up Opera" (Chicago Opera Theater), free dress rehearsals open to high-school students (Boston Lyric Opera), and performances in libraries (Opera San Jose). For the next week (October 29 to November 7), opera will be fully in the public sphere, accessible to broad and diverse audiences through a variety of non-traditional modes of presentation.

Of course, the artistry will continue even after National Opera Week is over, though in more traditional venues. Opera has a relatively short history in America, yet every state has at least one traditional opera company, over half of all opera companies were established after 1970, and a quarter have been established since 1980 — testimony to the field's relatively recent and continuing growth. Many of these companies offer an even broader range of repertoire spanning the entire 400-year history of the form, from Baroque masterpieces to contemporary American operas.

But there's an even more telling gauge of the health of opera in America today: OPERA America has identified no less than 193 artist-driven opera ensembles that have sprung up in recent years in just eighteen metropolitan areas across the U.S. Whether two- or three-person enterprises, university programs, or volunteer-run amateur companies, these entities share a passion and purpose: to enrich artists and audiences, raise awareness of opera as a vital part of our cultural life, and make it more accessible to the public. Few, if any, have permanent homes; they operate out of school auditoriums or churches, often underwriting costume and prop costs out of their own pockets.

These grassroots organizations have been established for a number of reasons: to provide more opportunities to emerging (and established) artists in a relatively small marketplace; to allow for experimentation with new works that are too risky (or simply inappropriate in scale) for big companies; and to bring opera to neighborhoods that have never had easy access to live performances. Perhaps most importantly, these companies are surviving and thriving because they are finding audiences.

There has always been an established audience for opera in this country, and today it is growing — though perhaps not in the way one might expect or be able to quantify (at least not yet). Once thought of as a luxury good for the wealthy and educated arts consumer, opera companies of all sizes are more than ever seeking new relationships in their communities. Many companies now offer cheerful etiquette advice on their Web sites, making it easier for newcomers to engage with the art form, while the HD transmissions of live performances from New York City's Metropolitan Opera have gone a long way toward making opera accessible in regions that are "opera-less."

Most companies today have strong ties to public schools and frequently bring performances into the classroom, giving students their first exposure to the form, while a plethora of more comprehensive programs have been developed over recent decades, with companies sending artists into schools to train teachers how to integrate opera's many dimensions — music, history, literature, dance — into the curriculum. OPERA America itself offers its members a textbook and curriculum series for use in teacher training workshops that was recently introduced in four new cities. And our professional company members invested over $10 million in education and community outreach last year.

The relationship that companies and artists have to their communities is crucial to the art form: opera companies are (and need to be) connected to their patrons' sensibilities. As one historian said, "Among Western musical forms, only opera demands more bodies in the audience than are needed to perform it." Today, however, the needs of audiences aren't uniform. Mature patrons may be intrigued by a new work or respond to the cachet of a premiere. Younger patrons, with few past points of reference, may be eager to hear the classics while remaining open to and accepting of edgier productions. And, of course, there's always an audience for opera in its most unadulterated form, on a big stage with full orchestra and traditional sets.

Some may see these dichotomies — small and nimble enterprises versus traditional companies, new works versus old — as a reflection of a field in crisis or searching for an identity in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cultural attitudes and biases have long informed opera's evolution and place in the arts marketplace, and today is no different, with one exception: new technologies give us the tools to unlock creativity — including creative engagement of audiences — as never before. The opera landscape in 2010 permits and even encourages experimentation, without sacrificing the elements — musical quality and imaginative storytelling — that make the form distinct and great. It's a boon to the field that not everyone is racing to do the same thing. Indeed, the many manifestations of the operatic form have the capacity to attract many different kinds of opera-lovers while offering much greater accessibility in terms of cost and cultural preferences. And once people watch and listen to an opera, they soon appreciate its role as an unmatched teacher of history, beauty, discipline, and collaboration.

While art is recession-proof, the businesses that produce it are not. Big companies have made difficult decisions in recent years to scale back on productions and performances as philanthropic support has faltered. It's imperative that opera institutions, regardless of size, continue to be supported so that the field can extend its foothold in our schools — where the audiences of tomorrow are waiting to be dazzled — and diversify its repertoire, presentation channels, and business practices for a new generation of opera lovers.

-- Melanie Feilotter

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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