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Weekend Link Roundup (August 16-17, 2014)

August 17, 2014

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


Why hasn't the once-booming tech ed sector solved education's problems? Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, an associate editor for the publication, shares some thoughts on that question from Paul Franz, a former doctoral candidate at Stanford who now teaches language arts in California. Those thoughts, writes Meyer, "mirror my own sentiment that education is a uniquely difficult challenge, both technically and socially, and that its difficulty confounds attempts to 'disrupt' it...."


The "ice bucket challenge," a grassroots campaign aimed at raising funds for the ALS Association, a a charity dedicated to finding a cure for amyotropic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), went viral this week. Around the country, celebrities and members of the public were filmed being doused with a bucket of ice water and then posted the footage to their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. "Multiply this activity 70,000 times," writes William MacAskill, a research fellow in moral philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, "and the result is that the ALS Association has received $3 million in additional donations....[A] win-win, right?" Not according to MacAskill, whose own nonprofit, Giving What We Can, champions the principles of the effective altruism movement. The problem, writes MacAskill,

is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn't appear out of a vacuum. Because people on average are limited in how much they're willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities....


This isn't to object to the ALS Association in particular. Almost every charity does the same thing — engaging in a race to the bottom where the benefits to the donor have to be as large as possible, and the costs as small as possible. (Things are even worse in the UK, where the reward of publicizing yourself all over social media comes at a suggested price of just £3 donated to MacMillan Cancer Support.) We should be very worried about this, because competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change....

Before you get too upset, read the entire piece. (MacAskill is a thoughtful young critic who, like many other people in the sector, has grown impatient with the status quo.) Then come back here and tell us why he's wrong — or right.

For an entirely different take on this question, take a look at this recent post by Philanthropy Daily contributor Scott Walter, executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., which is unsparing in its criticism of effective altruism (and Peter Singer, who inspired the movement).

In a short post on the BoardSource site, Convergent Nonprofit Solutions' Tom Ralser looks at the important distinction between a donor and an investor.


Interesting new tool from the HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research, the Partnership for Prevention, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that predicts the health and economic impact of various evidence-based public health and smoking interventions and policies at the county level. The tool provides summary results as well additional outcomes over a thirty-year period by select outcome and population.


Those who have been following the public-private effort to forge a "grand bargain" in Detroit — an arrangement, in the words of self-described "bond-market geek" Kristi Culpepper, that "assembles $816 million of funding from private foundations, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Michigan taxpayers over the span of 20 years," with the aim of "minimiz[ing] pension cuts [for city workers] and...shelter[ing] the city's art collection from 'Wall Street huns'," are likely to find Culpepper's account on Medium of how the city blundered into its current predicament of more than passing interest.

"Collaboration is difficult, but not impossible if funders enter into joint efforts with realistic expectations of the challenges involved, and what it takes to make collaboration work," writes Aaron Lester on the Fluxx blog. And the odds of a collaboration succeeding improve if funders keep a few simple lessons in mind:

  • It takes time.
  • It takes patience and humility.
  • It takes relationship building.
  • It takes a clear vision and alignment in goal setting.

An article ("Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World") by John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell in the summer issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review continues to generate a lot of pushback. To broaden the debate beyond the U.S., Caroline Hartnell, editor of UK-based Alliance magazine, went back to some of the contributors to her March issue, which focused on "Grantmaking for Social Change," and asked them to respond. Click here, here, here, and here to read responses from Angela Kail, head of the funders team at London-based New Philanthropy Capital; Kathleen Cravero, president of the Oak Foundation, in Geneva; Alva Kilmurray, director (from 1994 to 2014) of the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland; and Ambika Satkunanathan, chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka.

Check out this good post by Caitlin Duffy, project assistant for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Philamplify initiative, on foundation transparency and why it matters.

Social Justice

What does philanthropy have to do with social justice? Ford Foundation president Darren Walker shares his thoughts on that topic with the Aspen Institute's Jane Wales and an attentive audience in this video underwritten by the Hurst Family Foundation. (Running time: 1:01:39)

Water/SanitationHygiene (WASH)

And on his Humanosphere blog, Tom Paulson considers whether Philanthropedia, the crowdsourced qualitative evaluation site that operates as a subsidiary of GuideStar, has brought "better and harder measures of effectiveness" to the WASH field —  a field sorely "lacking in good, reliable metrics." The jury, Paulson concludes, is still out.

That's it for now. What have you been reading/watching/listening to? Drop us a line at [email protected] or via the comments box below....

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Posted by Rachel  |   August 18, 2014 at 08:18 PM

Where is the tag to MacAskill's entire piece?

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   August 19, 2014 at 09:44 AM

Rachel, thanks for noting the omission of the link to his piece. I've added it above and include it below. Enjoy.

"The Cold, Hard Truth About the Ice Bucket Challenge"

Posted by David Jacobs  |   August 21, 2014 at 10:20 AM

Read MacAskill's piece, which was a pretty interesting read, especially since I was waiting for an alternative take on the ice-bucket challenge :)

He's not wrong that a large part of it is moral preening and signalling, but that's not limited to the challenge itself by any means - do the words Boko Haram ring a bell??

Where he is wrong - or maybe a bit myopic - is where he writes:
"The ice bucket challenge has done one good thing, which is raise $3 million for the ALS Association. But it’s also done a really bad thing: take money and attention away from other charities and other causes"

Actually, it's done TWO good things - it has raised attention of ALS as well, which previously really had a lesser place on the radar. Does that mean "attention" is taken away from the other causes as well? Maybe it does, but so what? ISIS is taking attention away from other causes. Ferguson is taking attention away from other causes. The start of the NFL will take attention from other causes also. Anything that raises any attention for a cause is an undisputed good.

The second thing I believe he underestimates is the impact of the donations:
"for every $1 we raise, 50¢ would have been donated anyway. Given our fundraising model, which asks for commitments much larger than the amount people typically donate, we have reason to think that this is a lower proportion than is typical for fundraising drives. So, because of the $3 million that the ALS Association has received, I’d bet that much more than $1.5 million has been lost by other charities."

In effect, he's treating the monetary pool as a zero-sum game. Given the attention and exploding viralness of the challenge, there surely has to be some amount of money that is new, that wouldn't have been donated to anyone had this campaign not come along?

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