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9 posts from February 2021

Balancing long-term thinking, short-term metrics, and flexible project planning

February 24, 2021

Balance-scaledOver the past several decades, a number of different critiques of nonprofit work have emerged.  Inevitably, these critiques have a strong basis — they identify real and specific issues in how nonprofits work — but collectively they may present a problem by calling for approaches that aren’t easily reconciled. That's happening in the current moment with the tension between 1) the call of the evidence-based practice approach for rigorous evaluation and theory development; 2) the "new philanthropy" emphasis on trust-based management structures and long-term planning; and 3) the entrepreneurial approach to iterative work. Each of these perspectives brings something valuable to nonprofit work, but they don't sit easily with each other. In the work of our foundation, One Earth Future (OEF), we've developed one way of bridging these three approaches. This model may be useful for other nonprofits, if funders are willing to support it.

One dominant force in modern nonprofit work is the call for strong evidence. Despite its prevalence, the modern focus on "evidence-based practice" is only a little more than twenty years old, growing out of a mid-1990s emphasis on better structuring learning in government and social impact work. The movement has been incredibly impactful, undeniably improving some specific programs and arguably improving the ability of social impact work overall to deliver effective results. The 2019 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to development economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for their impact in driving the approach.

Alongside these successes, the heavy emphasis on strong theories of change and strict monitoring and evaluation (M&E) structures has been criticized for a funding model that treats nonprofit efforts as bounded and discrete projects that can be quickly started or stopped, rather than as an ongoing engagement that is informed and adapted accordingly by M&E within a complex system. Writing in 2019, Landesa co-founder Tim Handstad characterized this approach as "philanthropy as day trading," pointing out that systemic impact requires systemic engagement over a long period of time. Such impact also often requires both adaptive learning and agile organizations that change as the social contexts change — things that a rigid evidence approach is not always best at delivering.

Other critiques against rigidity and excessive M&E approaches have pointed out how these can reiterate colonial power dynamics and take up extensive staff time that could be better spent on delivering impact. This "new philanthropy" approach has wrestled with questions of how to address these issues and develop long-term thinking and locally-developed interventions based on trusting relationships with funding recipients involving longer-term funding and collaborative projects.

In parallel with these two discussions, an influx of entrepreneurs into funding roles has led to an injection of entrepreneurial models in nonprofit thinking since the 2000s. These models often emphasize a tight feedback loop between goals, evaluation, and strategy, as well as a "fail fast" assumption that initial models will not be accurate, requiring institutional learning to move forward. This model treats evaluation as a learning exercise rather than an issue of accountability, allowing more effective iteration but risking incompatibility with the more rigid terms of traditional funders.

In terms of OEF's work in peacebuilding, each of these perspectives has merit: the need for long-term, systemic intervention is very clear in peacebuilding, as is the need for adaptive approaches that fit changing environments. At the same time, we tend to agree with the criticism that without a feedback loop between plans, activities, and assessment, "most interventions don't work, most interventions aren't evaluated, and most evaluations are not used." In building an operating foundation focused on peacebuilding, we’ve worked to develop an approach that blends a long-term approach with strong measurement and adaptive learning.

We start with a commitment to the long term. OEF is organized as an operating foundation, with core funding that allows us to commit to — and invest in — long-term work irrespective of the demands of external funders. When OEF chooses to invest in solutions for a conflict context, we do so knowing that the work may take decades.

Secondly, we develop our initial projects based on an assessment of where we believe our work can make observable steps forward in addressing underlying issues driving conflict. Our initial program work is supported by an evidence-based theory of change and our impact is measured by multidimensional assessments of our work embedded from the outset. Once our impact has been proven to our satisfaction, we share with our funding partners our theory of change and the evidence of our impact. This means that our projects tend to naturally evolve from initial ideas through rapid iteration and deepening engagement with local stakeholders into more developed (but necessarily more rigid) programs that look more like traditional nonprofit interventions.

Our early work on economic development in Somalia, for instance, began with a relatively small-scale set of loan-based development projects in several of the more stable regions in that country, informed by consultations with local communities but still somewhat as an outsider with respect to local networks. The work contributed to the local economy but by itself wouldn’t lead to peace. However, it did give us an opportunity to learn more about how to work effectively in the region, and as we compiled lessons learned through the intensive evaluation of our work, we were able to grow our networks of local partners and adapt our approach to meet the specific challenges of the local context. Once we had solid evidence that demonstrated we were part of a local community and that our interventions worked, we approached traditional funders to expand our work.

One Earth Future's approach bridges the tensions between the different perspectives in the nonprofit sector. We accept, and weigh carefully, the need for long-term commitment to our engagement when we begin operations. We work with and for local communities. We acknowledge that work toward lasting social impact needs to be evidence-based in both theory and lessons-learned, and that we need to assess interventions systematically to identify how to improve impact. At the same time, we understand that these metrics must be a map and not a straightjacket: their purpose is to inform and improve our strategy, not to limit our work. We regularly "move the goalposts," changing the metrics we use to accommodate dynamically evolved strategic goals that arise from changing contexts and lessons learned.

We're able to operate this way because the funding that supports OEF is flexible enough in its design to allow it. We encourage other funders, even funders interested in more traditional approaches to monitoring and planning, to build more room into their plans for iterative work with local partners over the long-term.

Conor_Seyle_Marcel_Arsenault_PhilanTopicConor Seyle is a senior strategic advisor for the One Earth Future Foundation. His work there supports OEF’s mission to deliver effective evidence-based systems for eliminating root causes of armed conflict and, in particular, to develop better systems for governance and coordination across organizations in peacebuilding efforts globally.  

Marcel Arsenault is the founder and CEO of One Earth Future, the co-founder (with Cynda Collins Arsenault) and chair of  PAX sapiens, and the chair, CEO, and founder of Real Capital Solutions. His philanthropy is focused on engaging long-term global issues, with an emphasis on iterative and evidence-based approaches to improving social impact. 

Charter schools have contributed to education equality and saved lives

February 22, 2021

Kids_amber_chaarterFor African Americans, learning and knowledge has been — and continues to be — the drumline of survival and success.

Enslaved black families knew this. It's why they risked severe punishment by breaking laws that forbid them learning how to read and write. The opening of black colleges and universities after the Civil War signaled that those dark ages were over, but education equality was still little more than a dream.

But much progress has been made, albeit slowly and in stages. It has come thanks to a series of landmark U.S. court cases related to equality of opportunity in K-12 education as well as self-help movements like the citizenship schools of the 1950s, the freedom schools of the '60s, on through to charter schools today.

Surprised to see charter schools in that list? You shouldn't be. Though not exclusively African American, charter schools have been tremendously successful in helping minority students get a quality education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, these schools enroll higher percentages of minority and low-income students than traditional schools. And they've been doing that for nearly three decades.

In 1992, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, became the nation's first publicly funded, privately run charter school. Its founders set out to pioneer a new way of teaching students who encountered the harsh impact of drug abuse, jail, or even homelessness.

Out of desolation, the founders of City Academy created opportunities for their students. The small school's rigorous instruction and caring teachers have gone on to inspire education activists nationwide to follow its example. Today, there are 7,200 charter schools in 44 states and Washington, D.C.

These schools are not only giving kids an education. In many cases, they are literally saving lives. Education analyst Corey A. DeAngelis reports that winning a lottery to attend a charter school in New York City reduced the likelihood of incarceration for male students by 100 percent. The study also found that female charter school students were 59 percent less likely to experience teen pregnancy.

It's not that these schools are daily preaching "stay out of jail and avoid teen pregnancy." But those self-destructive behaviors don't seem to flourish in schools rooted in a vision of achieving excellence and writing a legacy of purpose.

Tyal Prince agrees. After leaving his district school disappointed and disillusioned, Prince attended Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. He went on to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh. Today, he is employed by DataBank and is responsible for multi-million dollar contracts in the areas of cloud computing and other technology services.

Prince has also become a community leader, working with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program and the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania. Most importantly, he celebrates life as a family man and a first-time dad.

Prince attributes his success to Lincoln Park. "Going to a charter school saved my life," he says. "That's why I'm trying to make sure that I can get my little brother into a charter school for high school as well."

But what Prince found at Lincoln Park is not available to millions of his African American brothers and sisters — especially those in our largest cities. Too often, they find themselves consigned to public schools mired in a defeatist vision of low-expectations, victimhood, and resignation.

Children, no matter where they live, should not be relegated to that kind of non-productive, non-learning environment. They deserve options — and charter schools have proven to be an attractive and productive option.

Just ask Lenny McAllister, a champion for education equality and civil rights, now serving as CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. The coalition encompasses well over a hundred brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools throughout the Keystone State. Of the 169,000 students enrolled in those schools this year, roughly 70 percent are students of color and approximately two-thirds are eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

McAllister sees charter schools as "school choice within public education," and notes that parents of children enrolled in a charter school, regardless of their economic circumstances, are afforded "self-determination in education, the same self-determination that we celebrate each Fourth of July in our Declaration of Independence."

I couldn't agree more.

Headshot_Angela_SailorAngela Sailor is a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

Climate philanthropy beyond the check: holding banks accountable

February 18, 2021

Pumpjack in Alberta Oilfield_GettyImagesClimate philanthropists are often called on to support grassroots activists fighting fossil fuel projects in their backyards — like the Black community in Louisiana's Cancer Alley that is protesting the siting of yet another petrochemical plant or the Standing Rock Sioux fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. A growing awareness of environmental justice means we look to fund folks who are directly impacted by the project in question, as they're usually the ones with the best solution. That's a positive development.

But philanthropists can do more to support climate action — and they can do it without having to give more dollars. How? By using the clout we have with our banks.

While individuals and foundations give generously in support of frontline climate activists, most of our wealth is parked in banks that use those funds in ways that exacerbate the problems we're trying to address. Big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, and Morgan Stanley are major funders of the fossil fuel industry and provide many of the players in that space with unrestricted lines of credit. That money, in turn, is used to fund the projects our grantees are fighting to stop.

Sound wacky? It is.

Enbridge's Line 3 project is a case in point. In northern Minnesota, Chippewa water protectors have been sitting in trees and in front of bulldozers, fighting to stop construction of what has been billed as a "replacement" tar sands pipeline across three hundred and thirty-seven miles of treaty-protected lands and waterways used by the Chippewa since time immemorial for hunting, fishing, and wild rice gathering. Pipelines leak; sooner or later, they do. The Line 3 pipeline would transport more than 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen (tar sands) over two hundred different water sources to Enbridge's refinery each and every day. The completion of Line 3 would also lock us into another half century — the lifetime of a pipeline — of tar sands pollution and the further destruction of Alberta's boreal forest. Tar sands are an environmental injustice of historic proportions perpetrated on Canadian First Nations and a climate tragedy for all of us.

Many philanthropists have provided support to the groups that are fighting Line 3 and getting arrested on these cold winter days; they include GINIW, MN350, and Honor the Earth. The work of these activists truly is heroic, and they deserve our support. But we have influence beyond our philanthropic dollars, because Enbridge needs a new loan if it is to complete the pipeline, and that loan likely will be coming from your banks.

Nearly three dozen big banks currently underwrite a $12 billion-plus "credit facility" for Enbridge. One loan is up for renewal at the end of March, another in July. The lead agents in the U.S. are Bank of America, TD Bank (a Canadian bank with a strong U.S. presence), and Wells Fargo. These banks will orchestrate the securitized funding with participation from Citigroup, Huntington Bancshares, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Truist Financial.

What's more, the loan to Enbridge is an unrestricted line of credit, meaning the company can build whatever it wants with the funds. Interestingly, many of the same banks that extend credit to Enbridge have made commitments to align their loan portfolios with the Paris Agreement, including achieving net-zero carbon emissions in those portfolios. JP Morgan has adapted a "Paris-aligned financing commitment" that says, in part,  "[we] will establish intermediate emission targets for 2030 for [our] financing portfolio," while Morgan Stanley has announced that it intends to reach net-zero financed emissions by 2050. Elsewhere, Bank of America has joined the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF), a Dutch organization that measures the financing of carbon emissions, with BofA vice chair Anne Finucane announcing that "we are helping to drive a consistent framework for institutions to measure financed emissions, as well as providing a useful tool in the management of these emissions...."

Despite such statements, participating in an unrestricted credit facility that enables Enbridge to complete Line 3 means these banks have no current plan to meaningfully address or measure financed emissions — let alone  "manage" them. Indeed, by going ahead with the loan, these same banks are increasing their financing for carbon emissions. 

High-net-worth clients of these banks can and should be questioning them about their hypocrisy. We should ask — no, demand — that they not just measure financed emissions but take action to reduce them. Banks listen; they care about their reputations. In response to a spate of negative publicity, demands from the G'wichin people, and much client pressure, all six big U.S. money-center banks and dozens of international ones recently announced they will not fund drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These are just a few of the examples of successful environmental pressure campaigns brought to bear on banks.

It may seem like a tough ask to suggest to your bank how it should conduct its business. It's not. First of all, it's your bank, and it needs your deposits. Second, you're only asking them to observe and strengthen their own commitments to climate action and environmental justice. And third, with "peak oil" upon us, banks will benefit from our prodding, in that the actions they take to address climate change almost certainly will improve their bottom lines. Don't believe me? Consider: the market capitalization of Exxon Mobil (XOM), which peaked above $500 billion in 2007, no longer is large enough for the company to be included in the Dow Jones, while the two best performing equity funds in 2020 were Invesco clean energy funds. The times they are a-changin'.

Foundations and high-net-worth donors can help advance the climate action movement by raising their voices. For some, that might be more difficult than writing a check, but it's really not that hard — and the upside is, well, exponential. Imagine if no one had to chain themselves to an Enbridge bulldozer; imagine if Enbridge couldn't secure the funds it needs to build Line 3. Imagine the impact your action would have on Native communities, ranchers, and farmers — not just tomorrow but for generations to come.

Fellow philanthropists, let's make our voices heard. Starting with Line 3, let's demand that our banks and bankers stop funding the climate crisis.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Jill Soffer_PhilanTopicJill Soffer is co-founder of Our Part, a foundation that funds climate and democracy work, with a focus on movement building initiatives.  She also serves on the boards of the Sierra Club Foundation, the Wilderness Workshop, and the NRDC Action Fund and recently founded Banking for Climate, a campaign aimed at engaging high-net-worth individuals, families, foundations, and businesses to ask their banks to stop funding fossil fuel expansion.

Business must do more to restore our democracy — and philanthropy must help

February 12, 2021

News_capitol_building_from_mallOn January 6, we witnessed an unprecedented attack on American democracy — the culmination of a sustained campaign to undermine the integrity of the November 2020 election and, ultimately, overturn the will of the people. While our democracy withstood the assault, the insurrection revealed its underlying vulnerability.

Now more than ever, we need to defend democracy. The business community bears some responsibility for our current predicament and has an especially important role to play in upholding democratic norms. Philanthropy can help by holding corporate America to account for its role in degrading those norms, and by encouraging reforms that ensure that corporate political activity works for, not against, the public interest.

In the days following the attack on the U.S. Capitol, many CEOs, companies, and trade associations responded by condemning the assault and calling for consequences for those responsible. A number of major corporations, including Marriott International, American Express, Dow Chemical, and AT&T, ended their political contributions to members of Congress who voted against the certification of the Electoral College votes. Dozens of other companies temporarily suspended all political contributions.

These statements and actions have been important. Amidst a broader, troubling trend of declining trust, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows business to be the most trusted of our major institutions — and the only one seen by a majority of Americans as both ethical and competent. The same survey revealed that 86 percent of Americans expect CEOs to speak out on social issues and highlighted the expectation among respondents that corporations should work with government to solve problems. Given Americans' generally favorable view of business, business leaders' unambiguous condemnation of the attack was a necessary affirmation of the election's legitimacy.

And yet it is deeply troubling that it took such a profound crisis for a critical mass of business leaders to express their concern about our broken politics and to condemn racist, anti-democratic actions. Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO and current chair of the B Team, said in the Harvard Business Review that CEOs "chose tax breaks and a booming stock market over ethical leadership," and concluded that "this silence — in the face of repeated assaults on common decency, respect and rule of law — helped to create an atmosphere that allowed the recent insurrection to occur."

This abdication of responsibility by business leaders is remarkable given the formidable political power corporations wield. And as large corporations in almost every industry have consolidated their market power, they have also assembled a formidable political advocacy infrastructure to protect and advance their commercial interests.

This power is overwhelmingly deployed to advance specific policies that advance individual companies' commercial interests, but often directly contradict companies' public commitments and stated aims on important social issues.

For example, with respect to racial justice, companies have contributed to state-level 527 organizations that are at the forefront of rolling back voting rights for people of color.

On climate change, many of the companies publicizing the steps they are taking to achieve net zero carbon emissions are contributing to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the strongest lobbies opposing major climate reform.

Even during the COVID pandemic, companies have been supporting organizations behind the scenes working to advance litigation designed to weaken unions, or have been engaged in outright union busting.

Such hypocrisy has to stop.

Investors increasingly are demanding greater transparency and accountability from corporations, as evidenced by demands from asset owners for companies to immediately stop funding treason, and by the growing number of shareholder resolutions concerning political spending and lobbying disclosure.

The American public is also demanding greater accountability from corporations with respect to their political activity. According to recent polling from JUST Capital, 78 percent of Americans favor requiring companies to publicly disclose all political donations, while a majority believe corporate political spending is harmful to democracy.

Collectively, these trends are changing the risk-reward calculus for corporations engaged in political activity. Indeed, this could be a moment when norms and standards of corporate political accountability actually shift. But for that to happen, philanthropy needs to be more strategically, deliberately, and forcefully involved in catalyzing the change we need.

First, foundations and family offices that have direct relationships with corporations should explore opportunities for direct engagement and dialogue with respect to corporate political accountability. Through their board members, endowment investments, and/or philanthropic partnerships, foundations can signal how important it is that the positive impact of corporate philanthropic engagement is not offset, undone, or undermined by corporate political activity working at cross-purposes to the public good.

Second, philanthropies can do more to support the advocacy organizations fighting for accountability in corporate political spending and lobbying. These organizations are often small and lightly funded but punch well above their weight and have been highly influential. Look at the impact that data from the Center for Responsive Politics has in the media, or the influence that Wharton and the Center for Political Accountability's Zicklin Index has had on incentivizing companies to voluntarily disclose their political spending.

Third, philanthropies can strengthen their focus on corporate political accountability in their programmatic work and across their influence strategies, from federal and state policy advocacy to grassroots power building. For example, the Action Center for Race in the Economy's works with organizations leading local campaigns for racial, economic, and environmental justice. They use their in-depth research capabilities to investigate sources of corporate political influence and dark money in key policy fights and help those campaigns connect the dots between their issues and corporate and Wall Street actors who often operate out of sight.

Finally, the philanthropic community collectively needs to build stronger coalitions to address corporate political influence — coalitions that span different issue areas and deliberately ignore funding silos. Funders approach corporate political influence through multiple frames, including democracy reform, getting money out of politics, climate change, and racial and economic justice, among others.

Now is the time for funders to come together to explore how we can complement and reinforce each other's work and leverage this moment to drive real change in the relationship between big business and democracy.

Chris_Jurgens_Omidyar_Network_PhilanTopic

Chris Jurgens is a director on Omidyar Network's Reimagining Capitalism team and leads a portfolio focused on how corporations and capital markets can contribute to a more inclusive capitalism.

[Review] 'It's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York'

February 11, 2021

Cover Its a Helluva TownIt's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York by Roberta Brandes Gratz tells the story of how one person and a small family foundation were able to create outsize impact in the nation's largest city and make it a more vibrant, equitable, and sustainable place to live and work. As cities across the country wrestle with unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gratz' "case study" on the power, and limits, of philanthropy could not be more timely.

Founded in 1945 by Jacob "Jack" Merrill Kaplan, the J.M. Kaplan Fund today distributes more than $6 million in grants annually and has approximately $140 million in assets, a legacy of the sale of the Welch Grape Juice Company, which Kaplan headed for many years, to a grape growers' cooperative in the 1950s. In 1977, Kaplan's oldest child, Joan Davidson, was named president of the foundation he had created. As Gratz details in the book, Davidson took the responsibility seriously and, with the relatively modest resources of the J.M. Kaplan Fund at her disposal, played an outsized role in transforming New York during the latter half of the twentieth century. 

For Gratz, Davidson and the Kaplan Fund embody an important philanthropic principle: solutions to some of our most urgent social problems do not necessarily have to come with a big price tag.  Indeed, because foundations and philanthropists tend to be risk-averse, moving early and decisively to address a problem can yield impressive results. By way of example, Gratz quotes Aryeh Neier, a co-founder of Human Rights Watch, who credits the Kaplan Fund as  "the first significant funder of Human Rights Watch at $200,000 a year before [the] Ford Foundation came in" and goes on to say "[the fund] was crucial in launching us." To put that in perspective, HRW today has a budget of $75 million, a staff of four hundred and fifty people, and is widely considered to be one of the most effective human rights organizations in the world.

In an entirely different arena and on a smaller scale, the fund awarded a $1,500 grant in 1992 to the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association in Far Rockaway, Queens, to plant thirty trees and other site-appropriate vegetation as protection against potentially devastating storm surges. Twenty years later, when Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rockaways, the area's bungalows and their residents were largely spared.

One of Davidson's most remarkable accomplishments as leader of the fund was her willingness to support institutions and social movements unafraid to question the paradigms and narratives that others took for granted. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, the fund supported the efforts to landmark and save the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters in Manhattan's Theater District from demolition. Legal action seemed to be the only way to save the theaters, and for help Davidson turned to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a young environmental organization and an unlikely ally. Davidson had been a board member of NRDC, however, and understood how it could be useful in this particular fight. Though getting NRDC to take up the cause was a "hard sell," it eventually agreed. Ultimately, the theaters fell to the wrecking ball, but the case was pivotal in defining the strategies employed by the organization as it grew to become a leading player in the environmental advocacy movement — and, as Gratz writes, expanded the boundaries of that work so that "[e]nvironmental issues would never again be limited to the natural; the built and the natural were seen as symbiotic and forever joined." Today, cities and the urban ecosystems that grow up around them are widely regarded as critical components of the "environment," and NRDC has gone on to build an important and impactful urban program focused on putting resilient, sustainable cities at the center of the climate change conversation.

The success of an initiative often is judged by the extent to which it prevents harm. By empowering grassroots activism, philanthropy can play a critical role in stopping projects that pose threats to the environment, communities, and/or the very fabric of society — an idea that has significantly shaped both the historic preservation and environmental movements. As Gratz writes, "Preservation is never about historic buildings alone; it is about urbanism — preserving the whole city — which is simply the sum of its diverse and very interconnected parts." In the 1970s, she adds, "intelligent people had good reason to think that New York was doomed, and that making it more accessible to suburbia (and cars) and easier and safer as a venue for nighttime entertainment (via Lincoln Center) was the way to save it."

One of the linchpins of that vision was Westway, a proposed twelve-lane highway to be built from 42nd Street to Battery Park on land partly reclaimed from the Hudson River. The project, if completed, would have ceded primacy to the automobile in Manhattan — at the expense of mass transit and the ecologically important Hudson River estuary. Thanks to successful litigation supported by Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, however, the project was defeated, and the federal funding that had been allocated to it was used instead to support the city's public transit infrastructure, a critical building block of New York City's comeback in the 1980s and '90s. The book details several such fights against pernicious projects and proposals, some of them more successful than others. But the common thread in all is the emerging power of grassroots activism, which Davidson and the fund were critical in nurturing and sustaining.

More recently, the economic model that propelled New York City to new heights in the opening decades of the twenty-first century has been overturned by COVID-19. Every day during this seemingly endless pandemic, New Yorkers have been challenged to re-conceptualize how they work and live. At the same time, the virus has highlighted the unequal, unjust, and often-racist systems that marginalize communities.  The lesson is clear: now is the time to develop new models and paradigms for cities that give all people who call them home a chance to flourish. It's A Helluva Town reminds us that this isn't the first time New York has found itself at such a crossroads. But, as in the 1970s, headlines like "Is New York City Over?" and "400,000 people flee from the city" obscure the fact that major urban centers like New York are hard to keep down as long as visionaries like Joan Davidson call them home. She, and the people who supported her at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, are proof, as Margaret Meade famously said, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Nick Opinsky is a senior development officer for institutional giving at American Jewish World Service.

Charitable gifts may not actually be gifts...yet

February 10, 2021

BillionaireDonorsMuch is made of large charitable gifts, and sometimes rightly so. But often philanthropists claim to be giving much more than they actually are. Due to a quirk in the tax laws, they can claim their charitable tax deduction long before the funds are distributed to any charity. In some cases, years — or even decades — can pass before a single dollar of a large charitable donation makes its way to a charity. That often gives philanthropists much more credit than they deserve.

To understand this, we need to understand private foundations and their sometimes smaller sister, donor-advised funds, which are like warehouses for funds that a donor is not yet ready to give directly to charities. When donors set up or make payments to these warehouses, they get an immediate tax deduction. And if they make a public announcement, the press release can claim credit for a charitable gift. But in actuality, the funds can stay in the warehouse for years, decades, and, sometimes, forever.

That disconnect between payments made to a warehouse vehicle and direct donations to charities is why Forbes changed its methodology for how it calculates charitable giving by the individuals it profiles. For example, here is Forbes's description of its methodology for its list of the 25 Most Philanthropic Billionaires, published in January.

Our estimates factor in the total lifetime giving of American billionaires, measured in dollars given out the door to charitable recipients — meaning we are not including money parked in a foundation that has yet to do any good. To that end, we also do not include gifts that have been pledged but not yet paid out, or money given to donor-advised funds — opaque tax advantaged accounts that have neither disclosure nor distribution — unless the giver shared details about the grants that were actually paid.

Contrast that with the methodology used by the Chronicle of Philanthropy to create its list, The Philanthropy 50.

A quick glance at the biggest "gifts" the Chronicle counts to establish the philanthropists' standing on this list shows how distorted that standing really is. Instead of counting money that reached charities on the ground in 2020, it counts pledges or money that the donors have stashed away in their own foundations and accounts. And in case after case these enormous pledges or deposits — not direct donations to charity — represent by far the largest contributions the donors made in 2020.

For example, #1 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy list is Jeff Bezos, who gets credit for $10.15 billion in 2020 giving, based on his pledge of $10 billion to establish the Bezos Earth Fund. Yet the Chronicle itself notes that of that $10 billion, the fund has granted out only around $790 million to date.

In a nod to full disclosure, the Chronicle is upfront about this quirk in describing its methodology, noting that its list is based on:

[g]ifts and pledges of cash, stock, land, and real estate to nonprofit organizations in 2020....Gifts made to donors' family foundations and donor-advised funds were counted; however, disbursements from those grant-making vehicles were not included in our rankings to avoid double-counting....

But double-counting is not the problem. Over-counting is the problem. Media consumers who don't understand the functions of family (or private) foundations and donor-advised funds will be misled by the Chronicle's methodology into thinking that a payment of $10 billion to a foundation was actually made to charity. The fact that only 8 percent actually went to charities will be lost on them.

Does it matter? When media consumers see headlines about millions or billions in "gifts" to charity, philanthropists may be rewarded with more praise than they really deserve. And in an economy characterized by extreme economic inequality, that's not good.

Worse, misleading reporting can cloud the way voters view efforts to reform laws to discourage the warehousing of charitable dollars in vehicles like private foundations and donor-advised funds. When voters are asked about changing these laws, they could well be operating from a false sense of just how charitable donors who use such vehicles actually are. In the end, voters may be less critical and less likely to understand that they, as taxpayers, have helped subsidize a tax deduction for philanthropists without the funds actually going to a charity.

Professional journalists can help by explaining these distinctions and by using a methodology like Forbes'. And headline writers can use words like "pledge" and "set aside" for payments made to warehousing vehicles, and reserve words such as "gift” and donation" for actual, direct payments to charities.

Headshot_Chuck_CollinsChuck Collins (chuck@ips-dc.org) is director of the Charity Reform Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that local organizations are our best bet in fighting hunger

February 04, 2021

Global foos insecurityFive years ago, less than 2 percent of funds for humanitarian causes went directly to local and national NGOs, despite the incredible efficiency of these organizations in delivering impactful work at times of great need. Progress has been made — indeed, in 2020, a little more than 21 percent of funds were given to these organizations. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that investing more in local NGOs is crucial to achieving success, especially in the effort to eradicate hunger.

Currently, two billion people do not have regular access to safe and nutritious food. My organization, The Global FoodBanking Network, supports and empowers national and local food banks in more than forty countries by equipping partners with solutions, capabilities, and funds that accelerate food assistance. In 2020 alone, we saw more than 27 million people in forty-four countries — most of which are in emerging or developing economies — rely on food banks within our network during the pandemic. This represents a 63 percent increase from the previous year.

The reliance makes sense: food banks are led by local civic leaders who are embedded in their communities and can uniquely respond to their community's needs.

Time and time again, I've seen food banks play an integral part in building resilient food systems and strengthening the communities where they are based. I have seen them nourish children through innovative school feeding programs, contribute to families' diverse diets by sourcing and offering nutritious food, and engage local farmers, businesses, and government in their work to alleviate hunger. These local organizations offer programming that not only provides their neighbors with meals but also with job training, childcare, education, and health interventions, extending their impact and helping build a sustainable future.

As we begin to look toward a future beyond COVID-19, a future that will still be rife with other problems, especially hunger, we must determine how we can better offer solutions. I believe we should start by investing in local organizations, which are often the first to respond at a time of crisis and the last to leave as the crisis subsides, continuing to provide much-needed aid to those who need it. Building local organizations means strengthening communities, building resilience, and increasing self-sufficiency.

With more support, local organizations can continue to ramp up their services while coping with the increase in demand for food and a drop in product donations due to disruptions in regional supply chains. If given the resources, they can grow their capacity to reach their neighbors in need more quickly over the long term.

On the frontline of disaster relief

Local hunger organizations are often the first to respond when disasters strike. They have unparalleled insight into the needs of the populations they serve and are able to  quickly mobilize resources to provide aid where it's needed most.

In January 2020, the bushfires in Australia left thousands of people homeless. Foodbank Australia was activated as the government’s official emergency food and water relief organization, deploying volunteers and personnel to serve eight hundred thousand displaced people immediately. Last fall, the Philippines was hit by four typhoons in just three weeks. Good Food Grocer, the local food bank, worked with its existing partners and distributed emergency relief boxes that provided more than twenty-seven hundred families in Tiwi, Albay with a supply of fresh fruit, non-perishable foods, and personal hygiene products. In each case, local organizations with expertise in food recovery and redistribution were a linchpin in the official government response.

Logistical expertise

The most vulnerable communities are often the hardest to reach; in almost every instance, local organizations are the best at finding ways to deliver aid to remote towns and villages.

In Brazil, food bankers at Mesa Brasil SESC navigate the Amazon River to bring food stocks via small boats to Indigenous peoples, whose trust they've gained over time. Meanwhile, in South Africa, FoodForward SA has set up a Mobile Rural Depot Program that sends trucks filled with shelf-stable food products and fresh fruits and vegetables and delivers to rural communities hundreds of kilometers from the nearest food bank. These types of creative solutions to challenging logistics exemplify the creativity and ingenuity of local food banks.

Community partner

Local organizations understand their communities' greatest needs and know how to work with stakeholders to achieve the best results. For example, Zomato-Feeding India recognized early on during the pandemic the devastating impact lockdowns would have on India's daily-wage laborers. On the very same day that the national lockdown was announced, the organization launched a campaign to provide ration kits to daily wagers and their families. The kits provided enough food and other essential items for a family of five to have three meals a day for seven days. The items were purchased and sourced from local suppliers and distributed to families through multiple stakeholders, including national and local NGOs, municipal corporations, state governments, and city police. Because of Zomato-Feeding India's multi-sector approach and ability to anticipate an impending hunger crisis, the organization distributed more than 78.6 million meals to Indians in ahundred and eighty-one cities.

The pandemic's full economic and humanitarian impact on countries remains to be seen. As a result of the public health crisis, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that an additional 83 million to 132 million people will be pushed into hunger this year, and the International Labour Organization estimates that hundreds of millions of people remain under- or unemployed. When COVID-19 brought economies and society to their knees, local organizations such as food banks rose to the challenge. As you reflect on your 2020 giving and think ahead to the world you want to shape in 2021, I encourage you to consider local organizations such as food banks. The philanthropic community can help these organizations build their capacity and scale their effectiveness to recover more food and reach the most vulnerable populations. Investing in hunger relief today means we will have stronger communities tomorrow.

Headshot_Lisa MoonLisa Moon is president and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network, an organization that serves the world's hungry through support for food banks in more than forty countries.

2020: A year to remember

February 03, 2021

Social-media-engagementI've spoken often about how people get involved in social causes. And despite the turmoil we experienced in 2020 and the competing demands on our attention, I believe more strongly than ever that social issue engagement begins and deepens in predictable ways.

The steps look something like this:

 

1. We hear about a social issue or cause that intrigues or moves us and get to work learning everything we can about the issue;

2. Energized by what we've learned, we take a small action to demonstrate our support for the issue or cause

3. Now fully committed to the issue or cause, we look to band with others — in the real world, virtually, or both — to pressure stakeholders, industry, and/or government officials to act.

Because they represent a natural progression from initial interest to full engagement, each step is both a destination and a link to the step that follows.

Let's take a closer look.

Social Issue Engagement

You become aware of an issue and what others are saying. The first step toward having a position on any issue is to educate oneself about the issue. Whom does it affect? What are the possible positions I could take? What are people in and outside my networks saying about the issue? Is everything people are saying accurate? Do I have enough information to form a sound opinion?

As we've seen in our Cause and Social Influence research over the years, the sources and veracity of the information young Americans use to educate themselves about an issue are changing. With the racial equity protests in 2020, for instance, Black Americans responded more to statements and calls to action from organizations they already followed online or to comments in online forums by their peers than from broadcast news or social media advertising. During the presidential election, on the other hand, young Americans reported being most influenced by social media — even though 87 percent of respondents to our survey agreed with the statement that social media platforms "often" or "very often" propagate false or misleading information and statements.

There are 3.8 billion social media users in the world, a number that's increasing more than 9 percent a year. Yet according to the Digital 2020 report from We Are Social, social media penetration (users per capita) is still only 49 percent. Which, fake news concerns notwithstanding, means social media as a go-to source for information is here to stay.

You take a small action because it's easy. I've said this many times: In almost any situation, our natural inclination is to do the easy thing. Even when our empathy is triggered and we feel we must do something to help, we're usually happy to settle for the small, passive action; it doesn't take much to feel good about and convince ourselves we are helping the cause.

Our research bears this out. The top three actions young Americans took in 2020 to help others were to shop locally more than they had In the past, post or share content on a social media platform, and sign a petition. By performing these small acts, many young Americans felt they'd made their voice heard.

Band with others to pressure stakeholders, industry, and/or government officials to act. Although this deeper level of engagement is not for everyone, it is an opportunity for movement leaders, community organizers, and others to bring people from different backgrounds together to actively work to advance action on an issue or cause. For folks on the front lines of an issue, this is where real change happens.

The biggest takeaway from the research we conducted last year (see Cause and Social Influence 2020 Year in Review) was this: Young Americans believe the best way to bring about social change is to vote.

We also found that a high percentage of young Americans were donating to the issues and causes they support. Indeed, the giving participation rate for this cohort, which had held steady at 9 percent from 2017-19, doubled in 2020, with especially strong support for:

  • Animals/Animal Rights                             34%
  • COVID-19                                                     26%
  • Civil Rights/Racial Discrimination         25%
  • Healthcare Reform                                     23%
  • Climate Change                                           17%

Companies are on a similar journey

Companies and brands continue to take their own steps on the road to more robust civic engagement. Our finding that young Americans increasingly expect corporations to support issues and causes they care about and to be genuine in their support is echoed by the recent Social Trends 2021 report: "Being a purpose-driven brand isn’t something you can fake.... 60% of millennials and Gen Z plan on spending more money with businesses that take care of employees during the pandemic."

In other words, companies concerned about authenticity and transparency should look first to their own internal practices. Companies that want to be credited with socially aware and environmentally responsible policies should be sure they're walking the walk before they start talking the talk on social media or in their advertising campaigns.

After so many significant moments in 2020, some marketers began 2021 with lowered expectations; others are being extra careful not to say the wrong thing or strike the wrong tone. Nothing illustrates their concerns better than the decision by many brands to pull their Super Bowl advertising. Others, including teams at Pepsi, Budweiser, Ford, Olay, Hyundai, Coca-Cola, and Little Caesars, are starting the year with more of a corporate social responsibility mindset and planning to allocate some of their advertising dollars to boosting awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures and vaccination campaigns.

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Last February, before COVID was on most Americans' radar, I wrote about the many individuals who wished we could "return to a time when people knew right from wrong and were committed to liberty and justice for all." Little did I know what the months ahead had in store for us! But even then, I noted that levels of engagement shift based on a range of factors: individual perceptions of what is (and isn't) important, our understanding of the root causes of problems, and new ways to engage with issues and each other.

A year later, having witnessed any number of shattering moments and a fair amount of intense social upheaval, we find ourselves, in many ways, in the same place. Certainly, the way people engage with issues and causes hasn't changed. And the basic question remains: What have we learned from the past and how can we apply it to the future?

Headshot_derrick_feldmannDerrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of the book The Corporate Social Mind. For more by Derrick, click here.

The Audacity of Joe Biden

February 01, 2021



Civic_cultureIn her victory speech on November 7, 2020, then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke of Joe Biden’s audacity in selecting a woman — a Black and Asian-American woman, no less — as his running mate.

The turn of phrase brought to mind the title of former president Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, forming a bridge to the administration in which Biden served so successfully.

Using the word “audacity” to describe a politician with a reputation for “reaching across the aisle” was, in itself, a little audacious.

And it was perfect.

For me personally, Kamala Harris’s words reminded me of a brief conversation I once had with then-Senator Joe Biden.

In 2002, I attended a social gathering in Washington, D.C., at which two senior senators were present: John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, and Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democrat. I spoke briefly and cordially with both. My conversation with Sen. McCain focused on service-disabled veterans and the steps we could take as a nation to honor their sacrifices by creating more opportunities for them. During my conversation with Sen. Biden, I asked, “Am I shaking the hand of the next president of the United States?” His response took me by surprise. He smiled and gestured affectionately toward McCain. “No, that’s him.”

Even as a complete outsider, I could sense the deep and abiding respect between these men from different ends of the political spectrum. They were rivals, yes, but also friends and fellow statesmen engaged in the effort of maintaining and strengthening democracy.

My interaction with Joe Biden engraved forever on my heart the importance of friendship and decency in politics. It also cemented for me the integral role of courage in democracy.

John McCain had served in Vietnam, enduring years of torture as a prisoner of war. He became the symbol of a certain kind of courage.

Together with McCain, Joe Biden has been emblematic of another kind of courage: the courage to consider other viewpoints, to stay open to compromise and conciliation, to trust in the good faith of one’s adversaries based on a common set of values and traditions. Indeed, in his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol, President Joe Biden spoke openly of the courage he expects of all Americans, of the need to “listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”

This kind of courage — civil courage — is truly what we need today. We need the courage to end systemic racism, to fight poverty, to address climate change, to ensure that every child has a loving home, to tackle unemployment, to unite our divided nation.

From the moment I arrived in the United States as a young man, I have cherished and admired the decency and generosity of “ordinary” Americans, from the Carolinas to the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, in small towns and big cities alike. Certainly, among these diverse multitudes you can find less charitable individuals and groups. But I’ve found that for every zealot espousing a close-minded ideology, there are tens of thousands of Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and independents — whose open minds and open hearts provide a critical mass of kindness and understanding each and every day.

After decades of residing in the U.S. and participating in American life, I have come to value the courage that underlies all that kindness and understanding.

It is not unique to America, certainly.

It is a quality I recognize from my travels across six continents and in my conversations with dairy farmers in Kenya, schoolchildren in Bolivia, youth in Morocco, entrepreneurs in India, a restauranteur in South Sudan, community leaders in Ghana, a registered nurse (and SOS Children’s Villages alumna) in Jamaica.

That same courage was evident in my meetings with other, more celebrated individuals, from astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn to Mother Teresa, from the Dalai Lama to President Bill Clinton.

After each of these interactions, I came away deeply impressed with the tremendous courage of individuals to make transformational change, regardless of the circumstances or the difficulty involved.

The United States is a country where this kind of courage is critical to our economic and social progress, our national security, and our global leadership.

In an open letter I wrote to President Biden and Vice President Harris, I urged them to focus on vulnerable children and youth in this country and ensure that they have the safety, care, and opportunities they need to thrive.

No other country has civic courage woven into its fiber the way America does. No other country needs it as much we do right now.

Headshot_Neil_GhoshNeil Ghosh (@neilghosh4 / ceo@sos-usa.org), chief executive officer of SOS Children's Villages USA and founder of the Global Youth Initiative, is an advocate of vulnerable children and youth; he focuses on advancing nimble and agile cross-sector collaboration systems to foster sustainable development.

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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