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Weekend Link Roundup (July 27-28, 2013)

July 28, 2013

Corn-on-the-cobOur weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....

Community Development

The declaration of bankruptcy by the City of Detroit, though not unexpected, was a shock to those of us old enough to remember the heyday of Motown and the Motor City. In the most recent issue of the Cohen Report, NPQ's Rick Cohen argues that "the nation has to confront...persistent racial and social inequity and what it has done to this city. [The] nation was quick to come to the aid of the automakers," writes Cohen,

with past presidents and the current one promising not to let Detroit (read: Detroit business) slide into financial oblivion. The same commitment must now be made to the 700,000 people of Detroit, with the message that this nation cares about their future opportunities as much as it cares about GM's and Chrysler's. But the terms of the deal have to be different, and that’s where nonprofits and foundations have a crucial, inescapable role to play....

Higher Education

Seemingly overnight, digital disruption in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has set its sights on higher ed, and many universities have felt obliged "to join the...revolution to avoid being guillotined by it," writes Matthew Bishop in the latest issue of the Economist. But is there a viable business model in MOOCs for existing institutions (many of which have been around for centuries), or are they a lose-lose proposition "in which cheap online providers radically reduce the cost of higher education and drive many traditional institutions to the wall"?


On the GuideStar blog, Jacob Harold cites the parable of the three blind men and the elephant to argue that it's time for funders and nonprofits alike to move away from a sole focus on the overhead ratio and toward a more "holistic" view of nonprofit effectiveness.


The sidewalks of Manhattan weren't the only thing heating up this week. Writing in the New York Times on Saturday, Peter Buffett, chairman of the NoVo Foundation, took big-dollar philanthropy to task for its lack of ambition, aversion to risk, and complacency vis-a-vis "existing structure[s] of inequality." Or, as he says early in his op-ed, "Inside any important philanthropy meeting [today], you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate managers. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left." And what's wrong with that picture? asks Howard Husock, who runs the Manhattan Institute's social entrepreneurship award program, in Forbes. Indeed, what Buffett, who "stands in a tradition of heirs to great fortunes uneasy about the source of their wealth," fails to understand, writes Husock, is that "the problem with too much of contemporary philanthropy [is] not...that it provides little more than a band-aid for big and intractable problems -- but that it has become unfriendly to the creation of wealth that provides the resources to solve such problems." What the two men, each in his own way, have put their finger on is one of the fundamental tensions in American philanthropy going back at least as far as the early twentieth century. But is it a productive debate? And should we be having it now? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

How do we get from good to great philanthropy? As Barry Knight explains on the GrantCraft blog, that was the question a group of practitioners set out to answer at the 2013 European Foundation Centre conference in May. Their conclusion? There is no simple answer, because foundations pursue greatness in different ways. But, says Knight, there are a half-dozen or so "archetypes of greatness" -- from big investor, to passionate rationalist, to short-term pragmatist, to flexible risk-taker -- that foundations can aspire to.

Can open online contests improve philanthropic practice? Absolutely, says Mayur Patel, vice president of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, which has been a pioneer in the use of such contests to deepen its work. The lessons learned by the foundation from nearly a dozen open contests it has mounted since 2007 are gathered in a new report, Why Contests Improve Philanthropy: Six Lessons on Designing Public Prizes for Impact, and include:

  1. They bring in new blood and ideas;
  2. They create value beyond the winning entries;
  3. They can help you spot emerging trends;
  4. They can help shake you out of a tired routine;
  5. When done well, they create greater community engagement.

Interested in limited life philanthropy? Atlantic Philanthropies, the largest foundation ever to commit to spending down its entire endowment in a limited timeframe, has posted the third in a series of reports by Tony Proscio chronicling the process. The report, Harvest Time for The Atlantic Philanthropies - 2011-2012: Focus, Exit, and Legacy (68 pages, PDF), explores the planning process adopted by the foundation to narrow its grantmaking focus in its last few years, staff concerns as the spend-down deadline draws closer, and the issue of grantee sustainability, particularly in countries and programs where replacement funders are unlikely.

Social Justice

Owen Dunn, communications and development associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, highlights some of the resources the organization makes available to help ensure that "grants are producing positive, lasting results in the communities and issues you care about."

Social Media

On the Social Velocity blog, Nell Edgington chats with Brian Sasscer, senior vice president of strategic operations at the Case Foundation, about the Giving Graph project the foundation announced at SXSW in March.

And on the Markets for Good blog, Craig Arteaga-Johnson, assistant vice president for advancement at Pomona College, suggests that many organizations in the sector are  "under-utilizing" the robust ecosystem of social media platforms that has developed over the last decade. What's more, if we are to take full advantage of those platforms, Arteaga-Johnson argues, we're going to have "to do some things differently." For instance,

We'll have to come to terms with working on platforms that we neither own nor control. This will involve working out the extent to which we integrate our proprietary data and systems into social media platforms in order to track relationships or analyze data. Or we may decide to abandon proprietary systems altogether, realizing, for example, that LinkedIn will always have better employment data than we will. We'll also need to populate our organizations more and more with people who can skillfully operate within "social" culture, which is characterized by extreme transparency, a fast pace, a premium on authenticity and an absence of hierarchy. Individuals not comfortable in this environment will be of less and less use as organizations seek to engage their community members proactively and personally....

As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. And drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org if we missed something good or important. 

--The Editors

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