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22 posts from May 2014

Throwing in the Towel

May 07, 2014

(Allison Shirk, a freelance grantwriter and grantwriting trainer based on Vashon Island, Washington, serves on the board of directors of the Puget Sound Grantwriter's Association. For more of Allison’s advice and wisdom, click here.)

Headshot_allison_shirkYou know that foundation that never returns your calls? The one you keep sending proposals to that never responds? You've poured over the foundation's 990-PF and its Foundation Directory Online profile. You've scoured the Web for information about its staff and giving. And everything you've found gives you reason to believe that if the good people at the foundation would just read your proposal, they'd want to invest in your organization. But you're still hanging on the telephone. Before you throw in the towel and decide to invest your time elsewhere, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Look at more than one 990-PF. One of the most important tools in the grantwriter's toolkit is the 990-PF -- the annual reporting form foundations are required to file with the IRS that provides information on their mission, programs, and grantmaking. And every good prospect researcher knows that it's essential to review more than the foundation's most recent 990-PF; the last two or three years should be your default, and four or five is even better. When reviewing 990-PFs, keep in mind the following: Does the foundation make a point of funding the same nonprofits? What are the exceptions? Does it make grants in the amount you’re looking for? (If the amount of funding you are requesting is too much – or too little – the foundation is unlikely to fund your project.) While you're at it, be sure to review every page of the form. Sometimes there are additional guidelines or notes tucked into the form that can be the difference between winning and losing a grant.

2. Try to connect, but don't overdo it. Every foundation is distinguished by its own communication style and willingness to connect. If the foundation's policy is "no phone calls," respect its wishes. On the other hand, if the foundation has published a phone number or email address, don't be afraid to use it. Just make sure you've done your homework and, should you reach a person in a decision-making role, that you're ready to ask and answer a few pertinent questions.

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5 Questions for…Michael Weinstein, Chief Program Officer and SVP, Robin Hood Foundation

May 06, 2014

In April, the Robin Hood Foundation, in partnership with the Columbia Population Research Center, released the results from its first Poverty Tracker survey, a first-of-its-kind effort to examine income poverty, material hardship, and health in New York City. Based on a sample of twenty-three hundred household across the city's five boroughs, the data from the survey reveals that poverty and hardship are even worse for New York City residents than official government measures indicate.

Recently, PND spoke with Michael Weinstein, chief program officer and senior vice president at Robin Hood, about the results of the survey and the larger aims of the Poverty Tracker project.

Headshot_michael_weinsteinPhilanthropy News Digest: Robin Hood, in partnership with Columbia University, has just released the results of the first Poverty Tracker survey. The federal government has been tracking poverty in New York and around the country for more than fifty years. Why is the time right for a new look at poverty in New York?

Michael Weinstein: There are two answers to that. First, what’s different about this survey is that we plan to re-interview the same families every three months for two years, which will allow us to build a rich, dynamic picture of people's lives and how they change over time. For the first time, we'll have a tool that helps us understand how people fall into poverty, how they adjust to changing circumstances, and how they deal with the economic pressures in their lives. That's not something you can do when you change your survey sample every year, as the government does. And the second thing that distinguishes our effort from other surveys is that we're not just looking at income poverty. We're looking at what we call material hardship. We're looking at whether people can pay their utility bills, their doctor bills, whether they can put food on the table. We're asking them about their health, and about their debts, and the health consequences of indebtedness. We're looking at the details of people's lives, particularly people at the bottom of the income ladder, in a way that goes well beyond just measuring income.

PND: What's the headline finding from the first report?

MW: That the level of need and hardship in New York City is much higher than I, or I think anybody, would have predicted. There are three salient numbers, and each of them speaks volumes about the reality faced by too many New Yorkers.

The first is that more than half of all New Yorkers are either poor by any reasonable definition or are trying to deal with a severe material hardship, meaning they can't afford to put three meals a day on the table for their family, they can't afford their doctor bills or prescription drug bills, they can't pay their utility bills, or have been forced into a shelter, or have had to move in with a relative.

The second surprise was rather stunning: more than 20 percent of New Yorkers who had incomes more than three times the revised and improved poverty threshold were unable to pay for all their necessities at some point during the year. To be clear, we are talking about the revised poverty threshold which was developed using the same methodology as the federal government's Supplemental Poverty Measure. That measure takes into account government benefits such as food stamps and tax credits, and also adjusts for local costs of living. Under that measure the threshold for a family of four in New York City is just over $30,000. So what we learned is more than 20 percent of families making three times that — over $90,000 — were unable to pay for everything they needed. I could never have imagined the level of material hardship in New York City was that high.

And the third surprise was finding that nearly 25 percent of the population of New York City suffers from a work-limiting health problem.

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Weekend Link Roundup (May 3-4, 2014)

May 04, 2014

Our weekly roundup of new and noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....


On the Hewlett Foundation's Work in progress blog, Heath Wickline, a communications officer at the foundation, poses a good question: What is a foundation Web site for? Whatever the eventual answer, Wickline admits that he and his colleagues have "the nagging feeling that we can and should be doing more. The [foundation], like many of our peers," he adds,

is sitting on a huge amount of data that comes out of our grantmaking. We believe it could be valuable to a wider audience: policymakers, funders contemplating grantmaking in fields where we fund, nonprofits who wouldn't be eligible for a grant, but whose work is adjacent to what we fund. We regularly conduct evaluations of our strategies to determine what's worked and what hasn't. And the end result of much of our grantmaking is research that could have important implications for policy. Our commitment to transparency means we can, and should, do everything in our power to ensure that all of that information is not only available, but easy to find and to use....

The Ford Foundation also is building a new Web site and, through an Un-Survey, is asking all of us to tell it what kinds of questions the site should answer. A clever and creative idea.

On the Markets for Good blog, Peter Grundy, the "father of the infographic," credits his invention to two ephiphanies, one in 1990 ("good information design is not about visualizing information but about visualizing our opinions of information" and the second ("making things simple is complicated") in 2000.


On her blog, Diane Ravitch responds to Alexander Nazaryan, the author of a Newsweek piece rebuking Louis C.K. for slamming Common Core standards.


In an important post on the McKnight Foundation blog, Kate Wolford, the foundation's president, offers a few thoughts on the foundation's decision to invest $200 million, roughly 10 percent of its current assets, in four impact investment categories: mission-related investments via public markets, mission-related investments via private markets, mission-driven investments, and program-related investments.

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[Infographic] AIDS Today: The Facts, Figures, and Trajectory of a Global Illness

May 03, 2014

By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world.
     Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs. But suddenly, in the summer of 1985, when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease and the newspapers couldn't stop talking about it, the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere....

So begins And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, Randy Shilts' masterful 1987 account of the epidemic's early days -- and the federal government's feckless response to the unfolding crisis.

Much changed in the decades that followed the publication of Shilts' book. The virus spread to every corner of the globe. Scientists and researchers, backed by foundations like the Aaron Diamond Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, raced to find a vaccine. Governments woke up to the threat. And, with the advent of anti-retroviral therapy, infection rates finally began to slow and then stabilize.

Today, as the infographic below illustrates, the news on the HIV/AIDS front is mostly positive. Indeed, over the last ten years, the global community, working together, has managed to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS by more than 50 percent for fully one-third of the people on the planet:

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The NGO Sector: Thoughts on Shifting the Mindset of Donors

May 02, 2014

(Shujaat Wasty, a practitioner in international affairs and development, is a member of the Leadership Council at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @DrWasty.)

Headshot_shujaat_wasty2I was introduced to charity at a young age. My parents encouraged my siblings and me to put aside a portion of our weekly allowance for those in need and to volunteer during summer vacations. Those experiences were solidified when I learned how charitable my grandfather, a surgeon, had been and by witnessing my parents' own selflessness and generosity. Their example had a profound effect on me and helped define my interest in helping other people.

In addition to my professional career, I have been actively involved as a volunteer with local charitable initiatives and in the field of international development for several years, during which time I've been exposed to both the good and bad of charity work.

Charity, like most human activities, is not immune to corruption, ineptitude, or unprofessionalism. Traditionally understood to be virtuous deeds informed by compassion and empathy for the plight of those less fortunate, acts of charity are, at times, treated as little more than commodities in an ultra-competitive marketplace. The international "NGO industry" includes many players vying for ever-larger shares of the donor community's generosity, with some resorting to extreme measures. And the competition for limited financial resources is likely to intensify.

All of which begs the question: Should charities and nonprofits, many of which are working to address problems not of their own making, be held by donors to a higher — or different — standard? I don't know the answer. But I do think donors, and by extension the NGO sector, would be well served by considering the following:

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5 Questions for...Sonal Shah, Executive Director, Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation

Sonal Shah is executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Case Foundation, which is partnering with Georgetown's Global Social Enterprise Initiative on a variety of impact investing initiatives, including the development of federal, state, and local policies that support the growth of the field. The Case Foundation also just released A Short Guide to Impact Investing, which is public and open to comment.

Shah is a former director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, where she helped push for and develop new models of innovation in government and championed public-private partnerships as the most effective way to solve problems in an era of constrained budgets. In addition to serving as a fellow at the Center for American Progress, she has worked as an economist in the Treasury Department, managed environmental strategy for Goldman Sachs, led Google.org's global development initiatives, and co-founded the Center for Global Development and the U.S.-based nonprofit Indicorps.

Headshot_sonal_shahPhilanthropy News Digest: Impact investing is a hot topic these days, but I think a lot of people are struggling to define what it is. Can you give us a one- or two-sentence definition?

Sonal Shah: We define impact investing as those organizations or enterprises — both for profit and not-for-profit — and investors — private, institutional, or philanthropic — that intentionally seek a quantifiable social and financial return on their investments. It is important to emphasize that we need impact investing, grants, and government support to have impact. This isn't a trade-off between social and financial returns; it's a combination of bringing in more capital and creating new models in the social sector, leading most importantly to greater impact.

PND: What's behind the emergence of things like impact investing, social impact bonds, and the Social Innovation Fund? Do they represent a paradigm shift in the way society addresses stubborn social problems, or is that overstating the case?

SS: While all of the things you mentioned are innovative approaches to addressing social challenges, they also represent a new way of doing business and signal three interesting developments: First, we need better partnership models. There is a growing recognition that government, corporations, and nonprofits cannot hope to solve our biggest challenges if they insist on working alone. Second, there is a clear need for scale. There are a lot of great pilot projects out there that have shown success, but there has been very little discussion about how we can provide capital to scale those projects — not just in size, but in impact. Social impact bonds and the Social Innovation Fund are two instruments focused on scaling programs that work. And third, we need all oars in the water. For too long, we have drawn a sharp line between grant funding and more traditional investments. Why not use both, grants and investments, as well as hybrid models, to address our most urgent challenges? We should be working together to mobilize capital markets, business, and nonprofits to solve problems.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (April 2014)

May 01, 2014

Infographics, a book review, and good advice for nonprofit communications pros and individuals thinking about starting their own nonprofit organization -- like the weather, April here at PhilanTopic was all about variety. It was also a big month for vacations, so here's another chance to catch up on some of the things you may have missed....

What have you read/watched/listened to over the last month that made you think, surprised you, or caused you to scratch your head? Share your finds in the comments section below....

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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