400 posts categorized "Impact/Effectiveness"

A Conversation With Ann Mei Chang, Author, 'Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good'

November 14, 2018

Poverty. Mass migration. Economic dislocation. Climate change.

The problems confronting societies around the globe are big and getting bigger. The resources available to address those problems, however, are shrinking, as governments burdened by huge debts and future obligations and corporations wary of controversy pull back from “feel-good” causes and collective action. And while countless foundations and civil society groups continue to fight the good fight, their resources seem Lilliputian compared to the magnitude of the challenges we face.

It’s a moment that demands big thinking, bold thinking but also creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The kind of thinking we’ve come to expect from Silicon Valley, the global epicenter of a certain kind of innovation and can-do spirit. The question, for many, is: What, if anything, can technologists teach nonprofits and social entrepreneurs about social change?

In her new book, Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, Ann Mei Chang, a respected social change-maker and technologist, tackles that question head-on. Based on interviews with more than two hundred social change organizations spanning almost every continent, the book distills the lessons learned by change-makers over the years into a set of "lean" principles for nonprofits looking to innovate their way to greater impact.

PND recently spoke with Chang about the genesis of the book, the sometimes testy relationship between tech and the nonprofit sector, and her advice for millennials and social entrepreneurs impatient with the slow pace of change.

AnnMeiChang-32Philanthropy News Digest: How did you get into social change work?

Ann Mei Chang: I studied computer science in college and then worked in Silicon Valley for over twenty years, at big companies like Google, Apple, and Intuit, as well as a number of start-ups. But I had known since my mid-twenties that I wanted to spend the first half of my career in tech, and the second half doing something more meaningful, something to make the world a better place. I hoped I would be able to make that change, and I was committed to it, although I didn't know exactly when or how. But as I got closer to that point in my career, in my early forties, I began to look around at all the things I cared about, and decided to focus on global poverty, as it seemed to be at the root of so many other problems I cared about.

I recognized there was a lot I needed to learn about a very different space. I ended up taking a leave of absence from Google and went to the State Department on a fellowship, where I worked in the Secretary's Office of Global Women’s Issues, with a focus on issues around women and technology. It didn't take long before I was hooked. I resigned from Google and signed on for another year. After the State Department, where a lot of the work takes place at the ten-thousand-foot level, I joined a nonprofit called Mercy Corps to learn how the real work was being done in the trenches.

Then I was offered my dream job — as the first executive director for the Global Development Lab at USAID, the agency's newest bureau with an inspiring two-part mission. The first part was to identify breakthrough innovations that could accelerate progress in the global development and humanitarian aid work that USAID does. And the second was to look at how we could transform the practice of global development itself by bringing new tools and approaches to table. The first was the "what," and the second the "how."

It fit exactly into the way I was beginning to think about what was really needed to make a difference. That's why it felt like a dream job — it was an opportunity to do this work at the largest aid agency in the world, in the belly of the beast, so to speak, but where I'd be responsible for thinking about how we could work differently and more effectively.

PND: It's an interesting career trajectory, in that it bridges the worlds of both technology and social change. In your experience, do technologists get social change? Or do they tend to see it as another problem that needs to be "engineered"?

AMC: That really depends on the technologist. As with everything, people in tech exist on a spectrum. I've known people in tech who think that technology can solve everything — we'll build a smart phone app and that will somehow end global poverty. There can be a naiveté and hubris, especially when you’re building products for people who live in contexts that you’re not that familiar with.

But there's also a thriving community of tech people in the global development sphere — we call it ICT4D, or information communication technologies for development — who are both technologists and development professionals looking at the intersection between the two. This community has developed something called the principles for digital development, which embody the best practices for the responsible use of technology in development.

One of the really exciting things that happened while I was in government was the creation of US Digital Services and 18F, where a lot of people from the tech sector came in to work for the govern­ment and saw that their skills could be put to use to help the government better serve people. It was catalyzed by the debacle with HealthCare.gov, which caused a lot of people to recognize that tech had something it could contribute that would really make a difference.

PND: Your book, Lean Impact, builds on a book called The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. If we grant that there are some things nonprofits and government can learn from business — and, more specifically, from Silicon Valley — would you also grant that there are things that nonprofits do at least as well as business?

AMC: I would answer that question a couple of ways. It's true that businesses, nonprofits, and governments function very differently and have different cultures, different processes, and so forth. That said, there are a number of factors that are causing that to change.

One is that in the world of social good, all these players need to work together if they hope to create sustainable change at scale. No one sector is capable of solving most of these problems on their own. And two is what I heard repeatedly in the course of my over two hundred interviews for the book — more and more of the most interesting work is happening at the intersection of sectors. It used to be that nonprofits did good and companies made money. Now you're seeing more nonprofits trying to build sustainable business models and more businesses trying to do good, because their employees, their customers, their stakeholders, and their investors are demanding it. You still have nonprofits and for-profits, but the gap between them is narrowing.

Eric's book has been incredibly popular and successful in the business world, but I've also talked to a lot of people who work in the social sector who have picked it up, were inspired by it, and said, "This makes so much sense, I want to do it." But they feel stuck. There are a lot of reasons for that, but basically it comes down to a number of struc­tural impediments that make it harder for nonprofits to innovate.

So, the idea behind Lean Impact is to build on these best practices for innovation and adapt them for the unique challenges of doing social good. None of this is rocket science. But it can be hard to do in the context in which we work.

PND: Innovation is a key theme of the book. How do you define it? And why does it need to be lean?

AMC: I think those questions go together. In the book I quote Edison, who famously said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." That's very much true of innovation. It's one percent inspiration, which is the big idea, the invention, if you will. That's the part that people tend to focus on when we talk about innovation, because it's sexy. Someone comes up with some whiz-bang gadget and everyone goes, "Wow."

But I think innovation and the book is about the ninety-nine percent — the blood, sweat, and tears that is involved with taking that initial germ of a good idea and testing, iterat­ing, improving it; creating a business model; and building the infrastructure and operations to bring it to real impact in the real world.

The book looks at how to do that. Remember, despite being considered among the most innovative companies on the planet, Google didn’t "invent" search and Facebook didn't "invent" social networking. They built on existing ideas and relentlessly focused on improving the algorithms, the user interface, and the feature set, until, over time, they were head-and-shoulders above their competitors.

In the social sector, there tends to be a focus on the big idea, the flashy thing no one has thought of before versus the blood, sweat, and tears needed to take an idea that is already out there and figuring out how to really make it work in a context in which it could have real impact.

PND: You're a believer in the importance of setting audacious goals. But I think many people engaged in social change work would argue that, given the constraints on resources, setting big audacious goals is a non-starter. Do they have a point?

AMC: The book is organized around three principles, and one of them is about the importance of thinking big. And yes, the nonprofit sector tends to plan based on constraints. They look at the money they have, the existing staff, or the size and scope of a particular grant and ask, What can we do with these resources? But that rarely makes an appreciable dent in the problem. The organizations that I have found to be the most impressive and most successful were the ones that think big and plan based on the real needs in the world. It forces them to make different decisions. Can I give you an example?

PND: Sure.

AMC: There's a social enterprise based here in New York called VisionSpring. They've identified an invention that has proven to improve productivity and learning. You know what I'm talking about. Eyeglasses. It's a technology that has been around for seven hundred years, and yet two and half billion people who could benefit still don't have a pair. So, VisionSpring set out to address this huge gap. They started out in two countries, India and El Salvador, and they hired "vision entrepreneurs" to go into rural areas to do eye exams and sell eyeglasses at a very low-cost. And these vision entrepreneurs came back with amazing stories about kids who were suddenly able and eager to learn and people who thought they'd never be able to see well again who could suddenly see and work and contribute to the community. These are results most nonprofits would have been very happy with: We had some resources, and we did some good, right?

But, for VisionSpring it wasn't enough. It was doing good and on to something that mattered. But it was also losing money on each person it served and was never going to raise enough money to reach all the people who could benefit from a pair of eyeglasses.

So it pivoted. It moved to a hub-and-spoke model by setting up vision centers in urban areas to serve a higher-end clientele. And with the profits, VisionSpring was able to cross-subsidize outreach to more rural areas. Under the new model, the organization soon became financially self-supporting, which is something most nonprofits would be happy about. But VisioinSpring still wasn't satisfied. Even though it was on financially solid ground, it would take decades for it to set up centers around the world to reach all the people who might benefit from a pair of eyeglasses.

So it pivoted again. This time it partnered with BRAC — one of the biggest global development organizations around — to leverage its existing network of community healthcare workers in every corner of Bangladesh. By working with BRAC, VisionSpring was able to train those community healthcare workers to provide eye exams and sell low-cost glasses across the country. It was a win-win, because it gave BRAC another benefit they could offer their constituents, while VisionSpring was able to get eyeglasses to a lot more people. Together, they've now helped over a million people. Which is pretty impressive. Today, VisionSpring has hundreds of partnerships through which they've been able to reach over four and a half million people. Again, most people would consider that a huge success.

But the organization still wasn't satisfied. The way VisionSpring saw it, they'd only reached a tiny fraction of the two and a half billion people who needed eyeglasses. So their most recent pivot was to spin out a new nonprofit called EYElliance, which brings together eyeglass manufacturers, governments, and nonprofits to look at the market and policy failures that are behind the supply-demand gap — things like the fact that eyeglass manufacturers aren't incentivized to invest in low-cost glasses or distribute them in rural areas and that governments tend not to include vision care in the services they provide. One of their first successes was an MOU they signed with the government of Liberia to integrate vision care into the national health and public school systems. One can imagine what that might mean for one of the poorest countries in the world. And as the coalition continues to focus on systems changes like that, you can see the potential for it to maybe, just maybe, get to that two and a half billion in need.

PND: You mentioned that the book is centered around three guiding principles. What are the other two?

AMC: The first is to think big. The idea is to have an audacious goal that moves the needle on the real need in the world.

The second is to start small. Too often, social entrepreneurs and nonprofits do the opposite: they think too small and start too big. Funders tend to ask nonprofits to set achievable goals and deliver reliably on them. That's not a recipe for innovation. The beauty of starting small is that it allows you to experiment when you don't yet have a solution to the problem and to validate your assumptions before making a bigger investment. It also makes it easier for nonprofits to try out more options and find the best one, to take more risk, to learn more quickly and cheaply, and to adapt and improve on their solution.

The third principle is to relentlessly seek impact. By that, I mean staying intently focused at every step of the way on your big audacious goal, and avoiding all the things that can throw you off track. In the book I encourage people to fall in love with the problem rather than their solution. Often, it's the opposite: we fall in love with a solution — because it's what we have been promoting, become attached to, feel pride of ownership for, or can't let go of. In the process, we can forget to ask ourselves whether it’s actually going to solve the problem. VisionSpring could have gotten very attached to its idea of vision entrepreneurs; they were doing some good and they had great stories to tell. But because it held on lightly to that particular path and kept returning to what its original audacious goal was, it realized it had to pivot — not once, not twice, but three times — and find even more effective ways to achieve its goal.

PND: What is the role of time in all of this? Should organizations looking to scale their impact ignore how long it might take or is taking? Or is time irrelevant to the equation?

AMC: Well, you've got to have both long- and short-term goals. Your big audacious goal should be your North Star that keeps you headed in the right direction. But by definition it's usually a long-term goal and is not granular enough to guide your short-term decisions. From a day-to-day standpoint, I recommend focusing on innovation metrics. In The Lean Startup Eric Ries coined the term "vanity metrics" for the kind of numbers that quantify activity and look good, but often are not a meaningful measure of progress. In the nonprofit space, this tends to be aggregate numbers like the number of people reached or touched. In contrast, innovation metrics capture the unit metrics that are the underlying drivers of real impact. In the book, I break those down into three buckets: value — is this something people demand, will come back for, and will tell their friends about; impact — does what you're delivering create the social benefit you intend; and growth — do you have an engine to drive scale to somewhere approximating the need that exists.

PND: Many of the case studies in the book feature NGOs and nonprofits working in a developing world context. Should we infer from that that it's easier to scale impact in a developing world as opposed to a developed world context?

AMC: No, not at all. I worked at USAID, Mercy Corps, and the State Department, which were all focused on global poverty, so I've had a lot more personal experience in this area. But at least a third of the examples in the book concern domestic organizations and efforts. Part of my research for the book was to learn more about the work that is happening domestically and about organizations that are innovating and pioneering new approaches to problems here in our backyard.

PND: Do you have an example you can share with us?

AMC: One example I like is an organization called Summit Public Schools, which operates a dozen charter schools in the Bay Area and Washington State. One reason I find them inspiring is that they have been rapidly innovating in the field of education, a field where impact can take years to fully realize. When Diane Tavenner started SPS, her big audacious goal was to have 100 percent of SPS' diverse student body graduate from college. She and her team started with a couple of schools, adopted the best educational practices they could find, and hit the ground running. Eight years later, when SPS' first cohort of students graduated from college, the graduation rate for those kids was much higher than average. Again, most people would say, "Hey, that's a huge success."

But Diane wasn't satisfied, because she had a big audacious goal, and 100 percent meant 100 percent. She also wasn’t willing to wait another eight years to see whether a new set of enhancements might succeed. Instead, she decided to focus on building innovation, iteration, and data into the culture of SPS so that teachers and administrators in SPS schools could speed up their pace of learning.

And that's what they did. In a space where, traditionally, it's very hard to innovate, SPS created a system where they could run week-long variations, trying a mix of elements such as lecture time, one-on-one mentoring, personalized learning with computers, group project time, and so on. They also introduced variety into the curriculum, changed the physical configuration of classrooms, and looked at a bunch of other dimensions of the school day. Each week they would gather data from individual student learning assessments, focus groups, and student and teacher feedback, to see what was working and what wasn't. Now, of course, the data collected wasn't going to tell you definitively whether this kid or that kid would, down the road, graduate from college. But it did tell them which elements of the curriculum and school day were more engaging and resulted in improved learning. With these iterations over the course of a year, they were able to fine-tune their approach and come up with a personalized learning model that was significantly better than the model they started with.

The students who were exposed to that approach haven't graduated college yet, but in the past year 99 percent of them were admitted to college. What's even more exciting is the SPS model is now being replicated at over three hundred different public schools in forty different states. Dianne and her team recognize that they would never be able to run enough schools themselves, but they have developed the capacity to be able to experiment and innovate much more quickly than most schools and school districts, and that should benefit everyone in the long run.

PND: The elimination of global poverty by 2030 is one of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. Do you think that's an achievable goal? And how might the principles outlined in your book help the global community achieve that goal as well as the other SDGs?

AMC: All indications are that we are not on track to achieve many of the SDGs by 2030, including ending extreme poverty. I often hear people focus on the $2 trillion to $3 trillion annual funding gap that is needed to get us all the way there. It's completely unrealistic, of course, to think that we're going to somehow magically come up with $2 trillion or $3 trillion — if anything, foreign-aid dollars are more likely going to decline over the next decade. The only other alternative I can see is to innovate our way into better, more cost effective, more scalable solutions to these problems. That is, we need to get dramatically greater bang for the buck for the dollars we do have. Of course, that means innovation. If we shift our attention and apply more of the kinds of approaches I try to elevate in the book, we have a far better chance of achieving many more of the SDGs.

PND: After thirty-plus years of globalization and technology-driven disruption, we're seeing a serious populist backlash to many of the consequences of those phenomena in countries like Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, and, yes, the U.S. What advice would you give to a young social entrepreneur with a great idea and a burning desire to change the world?

AMC: Well, the political landscape certainly has changed, and national­ism and populism are on the rise. But there are still a huge number of institutions out there that are continuing to drive and push for social change, whether its foundations or multilateral institutions like the World Bank and USAID or governments, including ours. At the same time, new problems are rearing their heads and demanding attention. I do think there's a ton of passion and interest among millennials to step up and take responsibil­ity for making the world a better place, and we're seeing that in the increased interest in things like impact investing and the drive to hold all com­panies, but especially giant multinationals, accountable. There's a real interest in the responsibility we all have to society and the planet.

The nonprofit space is changing as well. There's more emphasis on the need for rigor and on the need to scale, and that's part of what I think Lean Impact is trying to do — to take some of the techniques that have been honed by business and put them to work to solve some of the world's most important problems.

As for advice I might give, I think it really comes down to the principles outlined in the book. Don't get too attached to your big idea. Lots of people have great ideas, and most of them end up falling by the wayside. Be open to the possibility that your idea may need to be tweaked or even discarded and fall in love with the problem you want to solve instead.

Be audacious about your goals and what you’re trying to accomplish and remember: the foundation of innovation is an audacious goal. If your goals can be achieved with business as usual, there's no reason to take the risks needed to achieve something great. As I tell my teams, what would you do if you had to deliver ten times as much as what you're doing today? It forces you to think out of the box, to take some risks, and to try some things that are different.

Finally, get out there and start building, experimenting, and start learning. Be humble about what you know and don't know. And be relentless about trying and failing, trying and fail­ing, and finding the best path forward. Great things have never been achieved by those who were afraid to fail.

— Mitch Nauffts

Impact Investing and Donor-Advised Funds

September 11, 2018

Inv.env.650pixAs interest in (and assets dedicated to) impact investing grows, institutional investors, foundations, and philanthropists alike are looking for an entry point into the rapidly growing field. At the same time, growing numbers of social entrepreneurs are looking to savvy investors and high-net-worth individuals as a potential source of funding.

Both groups have identified a compelling intersection of interests in the form of donor-advised funds (DAFs) that specialize in impact investment management and distribution. Charitable assets in donor-advised funds totaled $85 billion in 2017, and awareness of DAFs has grown significantly over the last five or six years. In fact, today there are three times as many donor-advised funds in the U.S. as there are private foundations.

While still just a fraction of the total, a handful of impact-focused donor-advised funds are seeking to bridge what Ayesha Khanna of the Points of Light Foundation calls "the pioneer gap" — by which she means a lack of funding for early-stage impact ventures, supply and distribution constraints, growing demand for expertise and new talent, and the role of partnerships as a lever for scale.

Thanks to the still-nascent but growing philanthropic impact infrastructure built by organizations such as RSF Social Finance, Tides Foundation, ImpactAssets, and others, savvy donors are finding it easier than ever to make impact investments in social enterprises and early-stage social entrepreneurs. Here are six things they are learning along the way:

DAFs can multiply the impact of their philanthropic dollars: Grants are a critical tool for social change, but once grant dollars are deployed, they are gone. Capital that is deployed to an impact investment — either as a loan, equity, or debt — has the potential to be redeployed to meet changing needs.

Donors appreciate that as investment gains are returned to a donor-advised fund, those gains can be recycled into future investments or deployed as grants.

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Tips for Finding the ‘Perfect’ Board Member

April 25, 2018

Man-wearing-a-leather-jacket-holding-a-clapperboardOne of the questions we get a lot from our nonprofit clients is: How do we find passionate, engaged, committed board members? Putting together a high-functioning board isn't just about recruiting the "right" people. It's about having the proper mindset and a good plan. Here at Envision Consulting, we often describe the search for the perfect nonprofit board member as a bit like looking for romance, complete with angst-ridden courtships, elaborate proposals, occasional heartbreak, and, with a little luck, true love at the end of your search.

Still with me? Here are some tips to make your search a lot less Romeo and Juliet and a little more The Wedding Singer:

1. Have a "Wish List." You're more likely to find board members who add value to your organization if you understand (and can articulate) beforehand what it is you're looking for. Broaden your wish list beyond skills/expertise (yes, every board should have a CPA) and financial clout (believe it or not, wealthy board members don't always equate to well-resourced nonprofits). Think about the personal characteristics, perspectives, experiences, and networks a candidate is able to bring to your organization. When we have this conversation with our clients, they often tell us they want board members who are available to participate in board meetings and organizational events, have the ability to think strategically, and hold themselves (and others) accountable — the kind of intangible qualities that are difficult to quantify but can have a huge impact on the success and productivity of a board and the broader organization.

2. Fools Rush In. It takes two to tango, right? Too often, nonprofits are overly focused on finding the perfect new board member and neglect to properly "court" candidates by listening to their concerns and answering their questions — only to be shocked (shocked!) when the relationship doesn't pan out. Good board candidates will want to evaluate your organization as much as you want to evaluate them — and they're likely to be selective about which boards they agree to join. Beyond just making a good impression on the candidates you're interested in, you also may need to address how you plan to provide (in an authentic way, of course) the experience the candidate is hoping to gain by joining your board. We strongly encourage our clients to tell candidates in detail about the orientation process and other ways they support new board members.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts 2017

January 02, 2018

It's no surprise, perhaps, that the most popular item on the blog in 2017 was a post, by Michael Edwards, from 2012. Back then, the country was clawing its way back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the future, if not exactly bright, was looking better. Two thousand-seventeen, in contrast, was...well, let's just say it was a year many would like to forget. Edwards, a former program officer at the Ford Foundation and the editor of the Transformation blog on the openDemocracy site, had agreed to write a four-part series (check out parts one, two, and four) on the Bellagio Initiative, an effort funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to produce a new framework for philanthropic and international development, and his third post had much to say about how and when, in development work, we measure, how we use and interpret the results, and who decides these things — concerns as relevant today as they were in the final year of Barack Obama's first term in office.

Of course, smart thinking and useful advice never go out of fashion — as the posts gathered below amply demonstrate. Indeed, with an administration and majorities in both chambers of Congress seemingly determined to roll back many of the progressive gains achieved over the last half-century, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs working to protect the rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations, undo the vast harm caused by a systemically biased criminal justice system, combat the corrosive effects of money on our politics, and address the existential threat posed by climate change will need all the smart thinking and useful advice they can lay their hands on. So, sit back, buckle your seat belt, and get ready for 2018. It's going to be an...interesting year.

What have you read/watched/heard lately that got your attention, made you think, or charged you up? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

Interested in writing for PND or PhilanTopic? We'd love to hear from you. Send a few lines about your idea/article/post to mfn@foundationcenter.org.

[Review] 'Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector'

November 28, 2017

The nonprofit sector has never faced more difficult challenges — or had the potential to create greater impact — than it does today, argue William F. Meehan III, director emeritus of McKinsey & Company, and Kim Starkey Jonker, president and CEO of King Philanthropies, in their new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. But for nonprofits — by 2025 projected to need up to $300 billion more annually beyond currently expected revenues in order to meet demand — to benefit from the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in U.S. history (an estimated $59 trillion expected to change hands between 2007 and 2061), they will have to "earn the right to expand [their] role and maximize [their] impact" in what Meehan and Jonker refer to as the coming "Impact Era."

Book_engine_of_impact_3dDrawing on a number of surveys, including the 2016 Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector; a variety of Stanford Social Innovation Review articles, business and nonprofit management books, and Meehan's course on nonprofit leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Jonker's experience overseeing the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit LeadershipEngine of Impact outlines the challenges nonprofits currently face — lack of impact data, transparency, and sustainable operational support; donors' tendency to give impulsively to well-known organizations rather than high-impact ones; ineffective boards — and then explores a number of tools that nonprofits can use to address those challenges. They do not include venture philanthropy or impact investments, which Meehan and Jonker, somewhat "controversially," are skeptical of. Instead, they urge nonprofits to embrace the "essentials of strategic leadership" — mission, strategy, impact evaluation, insight and courage, funding, talent/organization, and board governance — which, when brought together thoughtfully and intentionally, create an engine of impact that drives organizational success.

Quoting liberally from business management expert Peter Drucker, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton (an early mentor of Meehan's), Good to Great author Jim Collins, and other luminaries, the authors illustrate each component of strategic leadership with concrete examples often drawn from the work of Kravis Prize winners such as the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), BRACLandesa, and Helen Keller International. And while they concede that some of them may be obvious, they are quick to note, based on survey results, that they are not all well understood or effectively implemented.

They emphasize, for example, the importance of a well-crafted mission statement, and caution organizations against mission creep, even if avoiding the latter means saying no to a new funding source. Indeed, saying "no" seems to be a critical part of strategic leadership, in that the urgent need to achieve maximum impact in a time of enormous challenges and limited resources is too important for nonprofit leaders to be distracted by non-mission-aligned activities — or by debates over semantics (e.g., "theory of change" vs. "logic model"): "if you ever find yourself caught in a debate about these terms' usage," Meehan and Jonkers write, "we suggest you leave the room immediately. We do."

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How to Keep Me Scrolling Through What You Are Sharing

November 02, 2017

Hello, my name is Tom and I am a Subscriber. And a Tweeter, a Follower, a Forwarder (FYI!), a Google Searcher, and a DropBox Hoarder. I subscribe to blogs, feeds, e-newsletters, and email updates. My professional title includes the word "knowledge," so I feel compelled to make sure I'm keeping track of the high volume of data, information, reports, and ideas flowing through the nonprofit and foundation worlds (yes, it is a bit of a compulsion…and I'm not even including my favorite travel, shopping, and coupon alerts).

It's a lot, and I confess I don't read all of it. It's a form of meditation, I guess, for me to scroll through emails and Twitter feeds while waiting in line at Aloha Salads. I skim, I save, I forward, I retweet, I copy and save for later reading (later when?). In fact, no one can be expected to keep up, so how does anyone make sense of it all, or even find what we need when we need it? Everyone being #OpenForGood and sharing everything is great, but who's reading it all? And how do we make what we're opening up for good actually good?

Making Knowledge Usable

At some point, we've all battled Drowning in Information-Starving for Knowledge syndrome (from John Naisbitt's Megatrends — though I prefer E.O. Wilson's "starving for wisdom" theory). The information may be out there, but it rarely exists in a form that is easily found, read, understood, and (most importantly) usedFoundation Center and IssueLab have made it easier for people in the sector to know what is being funded, where new ideas are being tested, and what evidence and lessons are available. But to really succeed, nonprofits and foundations will have to upload and share many more of their documents than they do now. And we need to make sure that the information we share is readable, usable, and easy to apply.

1-2-3-reporting-model

DataViz guru Stephanie Evergreen recently taught me a new hashtag: #TLDR – "Too Long, Didn't Read."

Evergreen proposes that every published report be available in three formats — a one-page handout with key messages, a three-page executive summary, and a 25-page report (plus appendices). That way,  "scanners," "skimmers," and "deep divers" can access the information in the form they prefer and in the time that's available to them. Such an approach also requires writing (and formatting) differently for each of these different audiences. (By the way, do you know which one you are?)

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Finally! A Global (Data) Language!

October 25, 2017

Trying to get global consensus on anything is nearly impossible. But in collaboration with a dynamic cohort of individuals and organizations, we've managed to develop a new manifesto with respect to the structure and sharing of data about global philanthropy that is valued across contexts. Meet the new Global Philanthropy Data Charter.

GDC_infographic
Philanthropy, and more broadly, civil society, play a large and increasingly visible role in solving complex societal issues around the globe. Over the last twenty years, as private wealth in countries around the world has exploded, we've seen a significant increase in giving by institutions and individuals. At the same time, technology adoption and economic populism have emerged from the shadows while foreign aid to the least developed countries has declined. Established in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals paved the way, in 2015, for the multi-stakeholder Sustainable Development Goals. Each step in this evolution was guided by data. Good data? Not always. But in our rapidly changing world, everyone must tell their own story — or risk having it told for them. The good news? Philanthropy has had to become more transparent, more accountable, and more effective. Rather than siloed efforts, maximizing impact based on smart giving and shared learning has become a collective world-wide aspiration.

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Deepening Audience Engagement With Long-Form Content

October 18, 2017

Communicating complicated ideas can be a significant challenge for social change organizations trying to reach diverse audiences in a short-attention-span world. But it's something long-form content is particularly well suited for. If your organization publishes research, reports, and other types of long-form content, what strategies can you use to ensure that your content resonates with and engages your target audiences?

Audience-Engagement-bubblesDigital communications and social media have had a tremendous impact on our ability to maintain focus and attention — not just online, but in the real world. Online and offline, we are awash in content that's fragmented and comes at us fast. Distractions are everywhere and, for social change organizations, creating awareness around complex issues can feel like an uphill battle.

But even as short-form platforms like Twitter increasingly shape how issues are framed by the media, recent studies show that when it comes to audience engagement, long-form content performs better than shorter content. So, while we may live in a world dominated by short bursts of commentary, opinion, and insights, long-form content remains a critical (and effective!) format.

While every organization with a message to communicate has to learn how to navigate this dynamic, social change organizations face a bigger challenge. Because when your mission revolves around a complicated issue, is connected to a problem in a far-away place or the distant future, or is just removed from the concerns of everyday life, maintaining audience engagement is inherently more difficult.

Still, it usually boils down to the same question: How can we elevate our issue or cause and engage our target audiences? The time-tested principles used by storytellers since, well, forever are an excellent place to start.

Leveraging Narrative Structure

Whether presented as narrative or as academic research, all long-form content can benefit from the three-act structure of exposition, confrontation, and resolution familiar to professional storytellers. In general, it works like this:

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Best Practices for Implementing New Software

October 16, 2017

Puzzle_cooperation_250If your foundation or charity is thinking about implementing new software, it's essential that it have a well-thought-out technology strategy in place before proceeding. Such a strategy should include a holistic view of the pros and cons of the software under consideration, buy-in from key stakeholders, and a focus on ROI as well as costs.

Of course, any software implementation should be a team effort that has been blessed by leadership and is conducted in real partnership with the software implementer. Settling on a software solution that solves one problem for a single department without thinking through the entire organization's technology needs and ecosystem can lead to more problems than it solves, including:

  • a fatal lack of buy-in from staff and management;
  • technology needs that go unaddressed;
  • duplication of effort; and
  • lack of systems integration.

Selecting a vendor based on a solution's cosmetic features while ignoring the implementer's competence and capacity can also cause problems. And because many foundations and nonprofits are laser-focused on initial costs and frequently ignore longer-term return-on-investment (ROI) calculations, especially when it comes to choosing a firm to implement a solution, organizations often end up with software that is inexpensive but does nothing to drive impact or improve their bottom lines.

Long story short? Software solutions that appear to be inexpensive at first glance can result in significant unaccounted-for costs during the implementation process. Which is why forward-thinking organizations look for solutions that can help them advance their mission and yield a better-than-average return on investment.

Here are five types of software that are useful for foundations and grantmaking charities:

  1. CRM: Provides a holistic view of the constituent experience across the entire organization.
  2. Fundraising: Gives a clear view of performance and yield (including data enrichment services), processes donations, and helps empower your organization's “evangelists” to raise money on your behalf.
  3. Financial: Provides in-depth record keeping and custom reports that allow you to drill down into your finances.
  4. Grants management and impact measurement: Identifies, tracks, and measures the impact of grants and gifts (both cash and in-kind) against concrete outcomes.
  5. Analytics: Is used to harness the power of data and connect with constituents, highlight areas of operational improvement, and generate insights into potential organizational investments.

So how can organizations set themselves up for long-term success once they've chosen one or more of the above solutions? Here are five best software implementation practices:

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (July 2017)

August 01, 2017

The most popular posts here on PhilanTopic in July include strong calls to action from sector veterans Gary Bass and Mark Rosenman, Cathy Cha, and Kate Kroeger; new posts by Blackbaud's Annie Rhodes and PEAK Grantmaking's Michelle Greanias; and a couple of "repeaters" (John Hewko's account of how Rotary International manages to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, Kyoko's Q&A with the Rockefeller Foundation's Claudia Juech). Check 'em out (if you haven't already)!

What have you read/watched/heard lately that got your attention, made you think, or charged you up? Feel free to share in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

5 Questions for...Laurie Tisch, Founder/President, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund

July 26, 2017

Laurie Tisch, whose Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund is gearing up for its tenth anniversary and will have given $100 million to support access and opportunity for New Yorkers by year's end, describes philanthropy as something that's in her DNA. Foundation Center's Jen Bokoff, a former employee of the foundation, spoke with Tisch about her recent donation to a new fund, her investment philosophy, and how philanthropy creates impact.

Headshot_laurie_tischJen Bokoff: Your family is known for funding major institutions, but your foundation was set up in part to help you make new, innovative gifts. What's a gift you're particularly proud of that defines your philanthropy?

Laurie Tisch: The New York City Green Cart Initiative, which was a $1.5 million public-private partnership. Initially, it was a city government initiative that created new permits for street vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts in New York, and we signed on to it soon after I started the foundation. It was a large amount of money for us, which some might call risky, but I prefer to think of it as following one's instincts. The data was clear: there are tremendous disparities in the rates of diabetes and heart disease among neighborhoods, with epidemic levels in certain low-income communities. Street vending was a way to increase access to healthy foods, and the program would also create hundreds of jobs for entrepreneurs. With our mission of increasing access and opportunity, the idea was just too interesting not to try; we pretty much went all in! For us, it was big on so many levels, from the number of organization involved to the number of vendors we hoped would be involved.

There were a lot of unknowns, though. No city had ever tried a program like this. How would we measure success? How would we let people know about it? I had a lot of questions, but the answers weren't always there. If we were too rigid, we might not have made the grant. But we're lucky to be a small foundation with the flexibility to see something like this through, which is a philosophy that has really defined our grantmaking. If an organization or initiative decides to change course, it's okay with us so long as the course correction is in dialogue with us.

JB: I read about your recent gift of $500,000 to a new fund established by Agnes Gund with the proceeds of the sale of a famous painting from her collection. Had you ever sold a painting with a philanthropic cause in mind? And why do so now?

LT: I've donated paintings to the Tang and to the Whitney, but I've never sold one with a cause in mind. I was invited to lunch at Aggie's about a month ago by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The purpose was to meet Ava DuVernay, who directed the film 13th about racial inequity in the prison system. Aggie got up to speak about how the film and over-incarceration made a strong impression on her, and then she announced she was going to make criminal justice her major focus.

When she revealed she had sold her Lichtenstein to establish a new fund focused on criminal justice, it was remarkable. She had a real personal connection to that painting, and seeing her commit so deeply to a cause really showed how serious she was. When Darren later called me to talk about the initiative, I remembered that I had sold a painting a month earlier, and I thought to myself, "This fits perfectly." Max Weber, who painted the painting I had sold, was known for his passion for social justice causes, so it just was bashert! I donated most of the proceeds to Aggie’' fund, because when she and Darren are backing something, trust is not an issue. And the more I think about it, the more I realize there are so many collectors and wealthy people who could do this. It will be interesting to see whether people look at Aggie as a model and start to sell some of the art they've acquired for social justice causes; it really could add up to something significant pretty quickly.

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Because What You Know Shouldn't Just Be About Who You Know

July 11, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center's work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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"Knowledge is obsolete." As a librarian, my ears perked up when someone shared the title of this TEDxFoggyBottom talk. It's plausible. Why memorize obscure, hard-to-remember facts when anything you could possibly want to know can be looked up, on the go, via a smartphone? As a mom, I imagine my kids sitting down to prepare for rich, thought-provoking classroom discussions instead of laboring over endless multiple-choice tests. What an exciting time to be alive — a time when all of humanity's knowledge is at our fingertips, leading experts are just a swipe away, the answer always literally close at hand, and we've been released from the drudgery of memorization and graduated to a life of active, informed debate! And how lucky are we to be working in philanthropy and able to leverage all this knowledge for good, right?

Open-for-good_featureforeground

Though the active debate part may sound familiar, sadly, for too many of us working in philanthropy, the knowledge utopia described above is more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk snapshot of present-day reality. As Foundation Center's Glasspockets team revealed in its "Foundation Transparency Challenge" infographic last November, only 10 percent of foundations today have a website, and not even our smartphones are  smart enough to connect you to the 90 percent of those that don't.

The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals other areas of potential improvement for institutional philanthropy, including a number of transparency practices not widely embraced by the majority of funders. Indeed, the data we've collected demonstrates that philanthropy is weakest when it comes to creating communities of shared learning, with fewer than half the foundations with a Glasspockets profile using their websites to share what they are learning, only 22 percent sharing how they assess their own performance, and only 12 percent revealing details about their strategic plan.

Foundation Center data also tells us that foundations annually make an average of $5.4 billion in grants for knowledge-production activities such as evaluations, white papers, and case studies. Yet only a small fraction of foundations actively share the knowledge assets that result from those grants — and far fewer share them under an open license or through an open repository. For a field that is focused on investing in ideas — and not shy about asking grantees to report on the progress of these ideas — there is much potential here to open up our knowledge to peers and practitioners who, like so many of us, are looking for new ideas and new approaches to urgent, persistent problems.

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Weekend Link Roundup (June 3-4, 2017)

June 04, 2017

Pittsburgh office media carousel skyline triangle  700x476Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor in the department of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, television personality, and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center, has some advice for the NAACP, which recently announced the departure of its president, Cornell William Brooks, and its intention to pursue an "organization-wide refresh."

Climate Change

Hours after Donald Trump claimed "to represent the voters of Pittsburgh in his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement," Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto announced his support for a goal of powering the city entirely with clean and renewable energy by 2035. Shane Levy reports for the Sierra Club. (And you can read Peduto's executive order to that effect here.)

Although there's no doubt that "President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement on global warming is a short-sighted mistake," writes Nature Conservancy president Mark Tercek, the jury is still out as to whether "the decision [will] unravel the entire agreement."

Fundraising

We missed this post by Vu Le outlining the principles of community-centric fundraising when it was first published in the lead up to the Memorial Day weekend. But it is definitely worth your time.

Hey, Mr./Ms. Nonprofit Fundraiser, job got you down and almost out? Beth Kanter shares four warning signs of burnout — and easy ways to make yourself feel better.

On the GuideStar blog, BidPal's Joshua Meyer looks at five unexpected benefits of text-to-give software.

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Weekend Link Roundup (May 13-14, 2017)

May 14, 2017

Youre-FiredOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Arts and Culture

Although President Trump has signed into law a $1.1 trillion appropriations bill, bringing to an end (for now) months of debate over his administration's controversial budget blueprint, the future of arts funding in America remains uncertain, write Benjamin Laude and Jarek Ervin in Jacobin. Critics who accuse the president of philistinism are missing the point, however. "For better or worse," they write, "the culture wars ended long ago. These days, with neoliberalism's acceleration, nearly every public institution is under assault — not just the NEA. If we want to stop the spread of the new, disturbing brand of culture — the outgrowth of an epoch in which everything is turned into one more plaything for the wealthy — we'll need a more expansive, more radical vision for art."

On the Mellon Foundation's Shared Experiences blog, the foundation's president, Earl Lewis, explains why the National Endowment for the Humanities is an irreplaceable institution in American life.

Data

In a post for the Packard Foundation's Organization Effectiveness portal, Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, reflects on the process that led to the center's Digital Impact Toolkit, a public initiative focused on data governance for nonprofits and foundations.

According to The Economist, the most valuable commodity in the world is no longer oil; it's data. What's more, the dominance of cyberspace by the five most valuable listed firms in the world — Alphabet (Google's parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — is changing the nature of competition while making the antitrust remedies of the past obsolete. "Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy," the magazine's writers argue. "But if governments don't want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon."

Food Insecurity

According to Feeding America's latest Map the Meal Gap report, 42 million Americans were "food insecure" in 2015, the latest year for which complete data are available. That represents 13 percent of U.S. households — a significant decline from the 17 percent peak following the Great Recession in 2009. The bad news is that those 42 million food-insecure Americans need more money to put food on the table than they did before. Joseph Erbentraut reports for HuffPo.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (April 2017)

May 03, 2017

For those in the Northeast, April was rainy, cool, and dreary. Here on the blog, though, things were hopping, with lots of new readers and contributors. The sun is back out, but before you head outside, check out the posts PhilanTopic readers especially liked over the last thirty days.

What have you read/watched/heard lately that got your attention, made you think, or charged you up? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

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  • "Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated...."

    — Kofi Annan (1938-2018)

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