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11 posts from June 2019

Three Shifts Philanthropy Needs to Make to Better Design and Evaluate Social Change

June 28, 2019

Chalk-board-paradigm-shiftGood strategy-making and evaluation sit at the heart of philanthropy. Yet as a sector, we continue to struggle with how to design strategies, how to understand our impact, and how to use that understanding to drive stronger strategies. While we've made progress in using theories of change, logic models, indicators, and various types of evaluations in our work, we are often still stuck in more traditional, linear paradigms of thinking that do not lend themselves to the complex, ever-changing contexts in which we work.

I believe there are three key shifts that philanthropy needs to make to more fully embrace a complexity-friendly approach to designing and evaluating social change:

From...   To....
Projects Systems
Results Hypotheses
Planning Learning

From Projects to Systems: Most foundation staff tend to think of their work in terms of programs, projects, or even specific grants. There is value in opening up the aperture and examining the whole system, with all its interconnected components.

At the Democracy Fund, we created elaborate "systems maps" to explore the connections and dynamics that characterize the systems we seek to influence and created strategies that utilize specific "leverage points" in the system. While evaluating the impact of our strategies, we look not only at indicators of program impact but also at a set of "system impact indicators" that track system-level variables.

For instance, while our Elections program tracks how many jurisdictions are adopting a particular tool (program impact), it also tracks how voter confidence in elections is shifting overall (system impact). The point is not to attribute causality, but rather to situate and understand our impact in the broader context of how systemic variables are moving. (To learn more about taking a systems and complexity approach to evaluation, check out Evaluating Complexity.)

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Collaboration Versus Competition: Funders Should Shift Their Giving Models to Better Support Families

June 25, 2019

Familia_adelantePicture this: In the New York City borough of the Bronx, Marlena and Jose Reyes had worked hard to provide for their family of four, often getting up before the sun rose to feed and get their children off to school before heading out to work. But their family hit hard times when Jose was injured on the job. The medical bills quickly added up, and, lacking disability coverage, he began to worry his family wouldn't be able to make ends meet. Soon, the family fell into financial crisis, and the threat of eviction became a very real and frightening possibility.

Fortunately, Marlena learned about a service provider collaborative in the community called Familia Adelante that could help.

Stories like those of the Reyeses are common inside the walls of Familia Adelante, which connects families with a range of services, from health care to educational support to job training, all in a single location.

Comprised of three organizations — Mercy Center, the Fiver Children's Foundation, and the Qualitas of Life Foundation —as well as Tanya Valle, a mindfulness practitioner, Familia Adelante helps low-income families access services based on goals they set with the help of a coach. Each of the three agencies focuses on its area of expertise, and together they meet regularly to evaluate families' progress. In the situation in which the Reyes family found itself, Familia Adelante was able to help the Reyeses prioritize their short-term needs, establish a plan to get out of debt, and, because the organization has access to a full range of basic-need services, keep their home and maintain family stability.

Unfortunately, for many families and service providers, the reality is much different. Rather than collaborating, many nonprofits compete fiercely with other nonprofits for resources. With a limited amount of charitable dollars available, nonprofits tend to view each other as competitors rather than as allies working toward a common goal. It's a model that hurts nonprofits — and the people they are trying to serve.

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Women's Movements Hold the Key to Gender Equality — So Why Aren't Donors Funding Them?

June 21, 2019

Strong_womanAt the Women Deliver conference in early June, the Canadian government announced that it was pledging $300 million to the Equality Fund to advance women's rights worldwide. The announcement was especially exciting because the fund is committed to supporting feminist movements and their advocacy work — an unusual focus for an international development initiative.

Over the last two decades, U.S. foundations and the international development community have dramatically increased funding for women and girls in the Global South. Yet despite these outlays — avowedly dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls — evidence has shown that most funding going to women's empowerment is not only ineffective but actually harmful.

The typical thinking goes something like this: Empower a woman in the Global South with the means to generate her own income and prevent unwanted pregnancy, and she will invest in the health and education of her children and family, ending the vicious cycle of poverty and generating an outsized return on investment. This approach focuses on the individual woman or girl. Very little, if any, support goes to feminist organizations and movements. The missing link is the advocacy efforts of feminist groups, which are dedicated to changing the very structures that perpetuate inequality and oppression.

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Donor Dollars Into Dividends: The Past, Present, and Future of Nonprofits Aiding the Private Sector

June 20, 2019

TreeForkIllustrationBleeding plant-based burgers were last month’s biggest financial news. Beyond Meat had the most successful initial public offering of any startup since the 2008 crash, and Impossible Foods raised $300 million in venture capital. Both burgers can hold their own in the meat aisle or a fast food restaurant.

Clearly, there's a lot of money to be made by making meat without animals. So why are nonprofits spending donor dollars to support the industry?

It's no secret that nonprofits have a strained relationship with the private sector. All too often, it falls on us to clean up the messes businesses make — or to stop them from making those same messes again.

But when there's an urgent need for new entrants to transform an industry, nonprofits can play a pivotal role in making that transition happen — and happen fast.

Consider the industry producing antiretroviral drugs (ARV) for HIV. When the lifesaving treatment was first invented, it was produced in small quantities and sold for $10,000 to $15,000 a year. Most patients, especially those in AIDS-ravaged Africa, literally couldn't afford to survive.

To ensure that everyone could access treatment, activists knew they would need a pharmaceutical industry that could make up for low margins by selling in huge volumes. They encouraged new entrants, pressured incumbent companies, brokered purchase agreements, and funded scientific research. Prices dropped a hundredfold in less than a decade.

Today, incumbent energy producers are making fat profits by pushing us to the brink of climate disaster. Producing clean, renewable energy will be an uphill battle as long as existing infrastructure, government policies, and economies of scale make fossil fuels cheap and convenient.

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5 Tips for Giving Great Design Feedback

June 19, 2019

Feedback2Receiving feedback and iterating on creative work is a huge part of what we do every day at Constructive. Whether we're conducting an internal review with our designers and art directors, or discussing work with clients, collaboration is crucial to improving our work.

That said, it's easy to go through the motions without thinking critically about how to optimize the delivery of feedback when deadlines are approaching, budgets are tight, and multiple projects are being juggled. In my role as a project manager, I've sat in countless meetings to review feedback and have seen teams (ours and our clients) use different tactics to deliver that feedback, with varying degrees of success. What I've learned from the experience is that the difference between good and bad feedback can have a real impact on the overall success of a project and, therefore, is worth paying attention to. In that spirit, I'd like to share a few tips on how you can give great design feedback.

How to Give Great Design Feedback

1. Ask questions. A successful design process is by definition collaborative, and asking thoughtful questions only serves to strengthen that process. By posing questions rather than sending the design team a list of specific changes it needs to make, a client can open up lines of communication, encourage further discussion, and ensure that assumptions (false or otherwise) aren't inadvertently baked into the cake. Ultimately, a design team looks to its clients for their expertise in their particular issue area, and often it will learn more about a client's (and the client's audiences') needs when the client questions its design choices and a healthy conversation ensues.

2. Communicate problems, not solutions. It can be tempting to review a design and propose solutions to things you don't think are working. A better approach is to communicate what the problem is and why the said design decision is problematic. For example, if you don't like the placement of a newsletter call-to-action and want to see it moved to another page, telling us why you think your website visitors are more likely to sign up for your newsletter when engaged with another content type (news updates vs. insights, for example) will give us more insight about your audience and help us offer a better solution. By describing the problem, you're equipping the design team with information needed to explore other solutions, rather than spoon-feeding the team a solution that might not be the best one.

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Creating a Donor Stewardship Plan: 3 Best Practices

June 17, 2019

Istockphoto-500174600-612x612A common fundraising mistake made by many nonprofits is to put so much emphasis on acquiring new donors that they forget to pay attention to the donors they already have.

Do not allow donor stewardship — the process by which an organization builds strong, healthy relationships with existing donors long after their initial donations have been received — to become an afterthought. Effective donor stewardship is all about turning first-time donors into loyal, recurring donors and is essential to keeping your donor retention rate where it should be.

Sounds simple. And it is, if you keep these best practices in mind as you sit down to develop a donor stewardship strategy:

  1. Understand and use your donor data effectively.
  2. Make it easy for your donors to leverage the impact of their gifts.
  3. Publicly thank your donors for all they do.

Let's take a closer look:

1. Understand and use your donor data. Donor data can be overwhelming and cause lots of people lots of stress if it isn't collected regularly and with an eye to how it is going to be used. But when done properly, data analytics can help you understand who your donors are, when they are most likely to give, and what kind of appeal they are most likely to respond to.

Your data should do three things:

  • Provide you with basic knowledge about your donors (e.g., name, age, location, marital status, profession, the things that excite them about your organization, other organizations they support, etc.)
  • Capture their giving/communications preferences (e.g., preferred donation amount/range, preferred giving frequency, preferred communications channels/frequency, etc.).
  • Give you an idea of their capacity to give (e.g., net worth)

(To learn more about donor analytics and the importance of using donor data properly, see our prievous post. And to learn more about what motivates giving behavior and how you can use that knowledge to increase your donor retention, check out this study from OneCause.)

Knowing who your donors are is the first step in cultivating strong, lasting donor relationships and allows you to meet them on their terms.

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Youth Apprenticeship: Accelerating a Path to College and Career Success 

June 13, 2019

MachineapprenticeWe seem to have reached a consensus that, in today's economy, it's nearly impossible to secure a quality job and get on the path to economic stability without postsecondary education. But the reality of student loan debt and surveys which show college graduates don’t feel prepared for their career of choice challenges the narrative that a successful future is intrinsically linked to a college degree.

Reality is also hitting employers' bottom lines as businesses of all sizes and in a variety of fields, including information technology, manufacturing, finance, and healthcare, struggle to fill good-paying positions. The pipeline that used to lead young people through high school and, ultimately, to the skills needed to secure those jobs is broken — and it might not have ever worked equitably, anyway.

It's clear our country needs additional, widely accessible postsecondary options that provide young people with the foundational skills, experiences, and credentials they need to thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

K-12 systems, institutions of higher education, and industries alike have been searching for solutions that reflect the current and future state of work, with little success. For decades, philanthropy has been investing to improve educational outcomes and college access, and it, too, recognizes that new approaches are needed, and fast.

That's why we funded the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA), a multi-stakeholder New America-led initiative to promote more equitable and sustainable pathways to economic mobility. PAYA aims to do this by partnering with educators and employers to build more scalable long-term solutions that have been proven to help youth acquire the skills they need to navigate the rapidly changing world of work.

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The Essential Guide to Modernizing Your Fundraising

June 11, 2019

NonProfit-Online-FundraisingIf you've been feeling stuck with fundraising strategies that don't quite seem to cut it anymore, you're not alone. Just as our technologies require periodic updates, so, too, do our broader fundraising strategies.

Nonprofit organizations of all sizes generally run a tight ship. Insufficient budgets and high-intensity campaigns mean that most nonprofits like to stick with what has worked in the past. But a lot can change, relatively quickly, in the fundraising world.

For example, look at telethons or cold calling; they were once reliable fundraising tactics for organizations of all kinds. But today, millennial and Gen Z donors tend to not even bother answering calls from unknown numbers, and why should they? Non-urgent communication has almost completely shifted to email and text messaging.

The point? Your nonprofit's fundraising strategies have to keep pace with constantly changing technologies and donor preferences — even when the prospect of investing precious time and resources in new tools is enough to ruin your week.

At DNL OmniMedia, we help nonprofits make the most of their digital assets. Regardless of which part of your fundraising strategy could use an upgrade, there are always steps your organization can take to improve its ability to both raise money and engage donors. And sometimes the steps are simple.

Let's take a closer look at some of them.

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Advancing Child Welfare's New Imperative: Ensuring a Stable, Loving Home for Every Child

June 10, 2019

HLT01819During the early 2000s, the number of international adoptions reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, a number of high-profile celebrities adopted children born overseas, raising the visibility of a pathway that has provided loving, permanent homes to thousands of children since the 1950s.

In the years since, international adoption numbers have fallen
82 percent, with just 4,059 children joining families in the United States in 2018, according to a U.S. State Department report.

A host of complex factors have contributed to the decline. These range from the implementation of initiatives to help children remain with their birth families and increased domestic adoption in some countries, to changes in adoptive family eligibility in others. Some countries have closed their international adoption programs due to concerns about unethical practices — or for reasons of politics. In many cases, however, the process has simply become too difficult or costly for families seeking to adopt a child from overseas.

For children waiting for families, this is a devastating trend.

Across the globe, millions of children are growing up in overcrowded, underfunded orphanages. Many have never experienced the love and nurturing care of a devoted parent or caregiver. And many have special medical or developmental needs — needs that too often go unmet.

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5 Questions for...Tanya Coke, Director, Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice, Ford Foundation

June 05, 2019

Tanya Coke has been involved in issues of criminal justice, mass incarceration, and immigration for more than thirty years. First as a researcher at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, then as a trial attorney in the Legal Aid Society‘s Federal Defender Division, and now as director of Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice at the Ford Foundation, Coke has been actively engaged in public interest law and social justice issues and, at Ford, leads a team focused on harnessing the resources and commitment needed to combat inequality based on gender, race, class, disability, and ethnicity.

PND spoke with Coke about the foundation’s efforts to reduce the U.S. prison population, decouple the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems, and protect a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

Headshot_tanya_cokePhilanthropy News Digest: Your work with the Legal Aid Society, the Open Society Institute, and the U.S. Human Rights Fund has given you the kind of frontline exposure to the criminal justice system that few people ever get. You've said you hope to use your platform at the Ford Foundation to help reduce the U.S. prison population by 20 percent by 2022. What makes you believe that goal is achievable? And what kinds of things can the foundation do over the next few years to make that goal a reality?

Tanya Coke: When I began researching criminal justice issues in the late 1980s, politicians from both parties were falling over themselves to out-tough the other on crime. It is widely believed that Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election over a flubbed debate answer over whether he would consider the death penalty if his wife were raped. It would have been hard to imagine back then that presidential candidates in 2020 would be competing to see who has the most progressive criminal justice reform platform.

That gives me hope and makes me believe we can make significant progress in taming the beast that is mass incarceration in America. Bipartisan momentum for reform is happening because of a confluence of several factors: low crime rates, tight state budgets, and a much greater understanding of how mass incarceration has decimated families and communities and made us all less safe. It is not a window that will remain open forever, however, so while it is open we have to work harder and more effectively to change not just minds about what we're doing but also hearts. That requires narrative change. It requires smart policy advocacy. And it requires more organizing in communities that are most impacted by mass incarceration.

The other thing that makes me feel optimistic is that we have seen prison populations in states like California, New York, and New Jersey drop by more than 30 percent in recent years, and in the past two years we've seen incarceration rates drop by more than 10 percent in very conservative states like Louisiana and Oklahoma. That gives me confidence we can achieve significant reductions in the incarceration rate in other states as well.

But it's not enough to focus on state prison populations. We also have to look at what’s happening in local jails, where people typically serve sentences of less than a year. While state prison populations are coming down, jail populations in many places are rising. To address the situation, we've been focusing on bail reform. Bail needlessly leads to the incarceration of people who shouldn’t be in jail, particularly poor people who don't have the wherewithal to pay cash bail. We're seeing growing awareness of that fact and momentum building across the country to do something about it. Another example is our work to effect broader change in the usual narratives about crime and criminal justice. That work takes the form of support for journalism projects, partnerships with Hollywood, and efforts to leverage other kinds of storytelling platforms, with a focus on trying to re-humanize people who are in the system and imagining a different approach to public safety.

PND: Many people have come to see the criminal justice system in the U.S. as an institutional manifestation of white supremacy. Is that an accurate characterization? And where are we as a society in terms of identifying and dismantling structural barriers to real racial equity and justice?

TC: That is the real work. There is no question that mass incarceration is driven by structural racism. To some degree it was set off by rising crime rates in the 1980s, but more than anything it has been powered by racial fear and a deep-seated instinct toward racial control of surplus labor. In my opinion, mass incarceration would not have been possible during the era of slavery because black bodies were too valuable as property in the South to let them sit idle in jail. Mass incarceration also was not possible in the 1940s or 1950s, the heyday of American manufacturing, again because black labor was needed to keep the auto factories and steel mills humming. But mass incarceration does become possible in the 1980s, after many of those manufacturing jobs had been shipped overseas and, suddenly, lots of people in black communities were forced into the underground economy of drug selling, which in turn led to a heightened, racialized fear of crime. Mass incarceration was a response not only to the advances of the civil rights movement, but also to the hollowing out of industries that employed blacks, and the racial fears that both spawned. In general, police are not comfortable with idle black men on street corners, and that fact accelerated the instinct to warehouse them in prison.

You have only to look at the difference in per capita incarceration rates in heavily black states like Louisiana, where eight hundred people per hundred thousand are incarcerated, and a homogeneous, largely white state like Vermont, where the rate is three hundred people per hundred thousand. Vermont is a state heavily affected by the opioid abuse epidemic, and yet it has made the choice not to incarcerate drug users or sellers at anything like the rate that prevails in states with large black populations such as Louisiana or Mississippi. Vermont is more inclined to treat opiod abuse as a public health problem.

In general, I think our field has not thought enough about the relationship between criminal justice, the control of labor, and the many ways in which black people in the United States have, in effect, become surplus labor. This has implications for social control as well as the rise of corporate interests that are profiting from mass incarceration. It's an under-studied area, and one where we need more research and advocacy to ensure that vulnerable people are reintegrated in a meaningful way into the economy.

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Giving Voice to Your Supporters

June 03, 2019

Giving_voiceIn their desire to give voice to the vulnerable and underserved in society, most cause-driven organizations fail to include their supporters in the equation. By failing to do so, they are denying others a golden opportunity to see themselves in the same light.

A few years ago, an agency for pregnant women/healthy newborns came to us for help with a fundraising campaign. The agency's volunteers visit pregnant women in their homes to teach them about prenatal care and how to take care of a newborn. The agency's typical supporter is someone who wants to give babies a healthy, safe start in life.

At the same time, the agency was committed to a program focused on fathers-to-be. Nowhere in the program materials was there recognition or an acknowledgment of how invested the agency's volunteers were in giving babies a healthy, safe start in life or, indeed, any mention of the volunteers who were lending their time and experience to reassure and help pregnant women who often have no one they can turn to for help.

Not surprisingly, the overall campaign was not as successful as it could have been. Potential supporters who might have seen themselves as "people who think every baby deserves a chance at a healthy beginning" instead heard "we are an organization that wants to help men be good fathers." Both sentiments are laudable, but only one truly resonated with the agency’s most important constituency.

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