189 posts categorized "Science/Technology"

[Review] 'Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future'

July 19, 2021

Book_cover_elizabethkolbert_under_a_white_skyIn her sobering yet captivating book, Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the ongoing human attempt to control nature, a vicious cycle that often results in the creation of more problems. A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1999, where her work has been focused mainly on environmentalism, Kolbert is the best-selling author of The Sixth Extinction, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015. In that book, she curated a powerfully moving collection of first-hand accounts detailing the disappearance of multiple species. She brings that methodology to her new book, again using personal experience to drive her narrative — the narrative that "a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural."

As in her previous work, Kolbert skillfully shows us how our actions are negatively affecting the planet, rather than just telling us that they are. She travels across continents to witness those human-made changes for herself and describes the devastation, sparing no details. Again and again, she shows humans attempting to create solutions to ecological problems created by solutions to earlier problems. We see this clearly in the first section of the book, "Down the River," which she opens by recounting her time visiting the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The problem began years ago, when the river was rerouted to better dispose of human waste — talk about living in the "Anthropocene" epoch. Then arose the problem of aquatic weeds in the river basin, so plant-eating Asian Carp were introduced, only to become a notorious invasive species capable of outpopulating the ecosystem's native organisms across the Great Lakes. The Asian Carp became such a threat only because the earlier alterations to the river and its sediment allowed for easy admission into these waters. And the solution has been to electrify the waterway, another example of our relentless need to "fix," at any cost and with no awareness of our surroundings.

Kolbert offers another example of a well-intentioned "solution" that has only made matters worse. In the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, which she describes as one of "the fastest-disappearing places on earth," the cause is once again human intervention, as our need to control the flooding of the Mississippi River has prevented coastal lands from being able to renew themselves. And, of course, the solution is more intervention — to the point where "the Louisiana delta is often referred to by hydrologists as a 'coupled human and natural system.'"

This theme — the merging of nature and the unnatural — is emphasized further in the next section of the book, "Into The Wild."Here, we see a range of attempts to save species and ecosystems from invasive human impacts. A group of scientists in Death Valley work around the clock to preserve the Devils Hole pupfish, possibly the rarest fish on the planet, by maintaining an exact, but entirely unnatural, replica of their habitat. Pupfish are now a "conservation-reliant" species, meaning we've sent them to the brink of extinction but are now trying to bring them back. Kolbert then brings us along on her travels to the east coast of Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached, to witness the creation of "super-corals," those that can — or scientists hope they can — withstand warmer temperatures and more acidic waters. This has been coined "assisted evolution," another term that accurately describes the era in which we are living. Kolbert's first-hand accounts show how we have forced our way into natural processes — those that were doing perfectly fine without us but are now reliant on our assistance.

The seeming absurdity of our solutions is apparent yet again in the concept of "geoengineering," the large-scale interventions in Earth's natural systems that we are pursuing to combat climate change. It is to this phenomenon that Kolbert dedicates the final section of her book, "Up in the Air." She acknowledges how frightening geoengineering is: It might not work, and it will most likely be implemented when it is so late that it is the only hope. However, such "negative emissions technologies" just might save us. We may soon be relying on companies that inject carbon dioxide underground so that it eventually turns to rock. Or we may be spraying light-reflective particles into the atmosphere to manage some of the incoming solar radiation, a process which would turn the sky from blue to white — and where Kolbert gets her title. But again, Kolbert admits her fear: this is all an unknown.

Kolbert also sheds light on how the environment is faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. She calls the immediate lockdown "a vast, unsupervised experiment," one where our energy usage changed almost instantaneously. It is assumed by many that this was a positive change; with everyone at home, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide should be down. However, "in May 2020, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere set a record of 417.1 parts per million." Even with declining emissions, it is clear that once CO2 has been emitted, it lingers in the atmosphere. This adds a frightening piece to the puzzle, because even if we were to completely halt all greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations will continue to rise — for who knows how long.

Through this series of experiences and forewarnings, Kolbert points out how deeply we have embedded ourselves in every natural process. Species are now dependent on us to survive, islands will soon be inundated, and we are not far from bleaching the sky white. Clearly, we are well beyond the point of being able to preserve a "natural" nature. However, what Kolbert also suggests is that while there is no scenario in which our involvement in nature completely stops, learning how to live in a way that doesn't drive species to extinction or reroute rivers would be a good starting point. Perhaps there is no world in which humankind's will to control nature to suit its needs changes, the book seems to suggest, but we must collectively become aware that all species have a contributive impact — impacts that we also rely on.

For now we are stuck at this midpoint, where problems are being generated by the second. Still, Kolbert points out, "people are ingenious. They come up with crazy, big ideas, and sometimes these actually work." While it is this "ingenuity" that got us here in the first place, maybe all it will take is one great idea to get us on the path to this peaceful coexistence. Of course, this reviewer is left with slivers of skepticism, as anyone pondering the vastness of these problems might be. I like to remain optimistic, however; I believe that the mindset with which we move forward is just as important as the capabilities we bring with us. If we truly believe that we can overcome the problems that we created, I am hopeful that we will succeed.

Izzy Nesci, an intern in the Insights department at Candid, is an environmental studies and sustainability major at Barnard College.

[Review] 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need'

July 12, 2021

Book_cover_how to avoid a climate disaster_philantopicWe are toast. Climate change is here, and things are not getting better. In the United States alone we are seeing unprecedented wildfires in California, mind-numbing heat in the Pacific Northwest, a mega-drought stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and the Colorado River running dry, just to mention a few recent headlines. And that list only hints at the immediate — to say nothing of the future — challenges to our ability to grow food, earn a living, and raise our families. We have known this for decades, and while we have made tentative steps toward solving some problems (clean air, clean water, CAFE standards), we have yet to engage climate change as the existential threat it truly is. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates wants to shake us out of our complacency. If we as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, don't get to work fast, we are, like I said, toast.

It's noteworthy that Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote this book in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where his decades of work in global health (think polio and malaria) and his avuncular be-sweatered persona helped him play a vital role as a reliable explainer in the face of the U.S. federal government's inaction. His clear and persuasive language suggested: Here is someone who understands what is going on and what needs to be done to get to the other side. So too in his book, Gates proffers a diagnosis and possible roadmap to slow global warming (it's too late to stop it) and mitigate the worst of what this change will mean for the estimated ten billion people who will share the planet come 2100.

To summarize the dilemma in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: Every year humans put fifty-one billion tons of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) into the earth's atmosphere and, as a result, the earth is heating up faster and faster and becoming less and less livable. If we don't get to zero emissions by 2050, the scientists tell us, it's game over, and the ecosystems we have benefited from and relied upon for millennia will irrevocably collapse. It is not a question of if, but of when; not a question of reduced crop yield, but of any yield at all; not a question of whether sea levels will rise, but of how soon and how high.

In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus (he of the Malthusian dilemma) feared that overpopulation would outstrip his native England's ability to feed its people, resulting in the collapse of order, economy, and civilization. Over the past two centuries, while hunger, starvation, and famine have forever been at the door, we have always set that pessimism aside. Through science and innovation, that is, people using science and leveraging great ideas in new ways — from chemical fertilizer to hardier, more productive grains, to removing toxins from industrial exhaust — we have, despite our worst fears, somehow figured out how to feed, sustain, and improve ourselves. For Gates the time is now or never to get to work in unprecedented fashion. Being the third richest person in the world with unlimited resources, comfort, and access may have something to do with it, but Gates is an unabashed optimist; the challenge of climate change is massive, but so too is his unbridled insistence that we have it in our power — to use Thomas Paine's phrase — "to begin the world again."

The good news, Gates tells us, is that we know what to do, and in many respects, we already have the science and innovation at the ready to march into that brave new world. The arguments made here echo basic economics: Consumers (people and nations) will move toward better choices if the cost of going green (what he refers to as the "Green Premium") is low enough. To entice ever-reluctant consumers to get off fossil fuels, we need lots and lots of clean, renewably sourced, no-carbon electricity, and we need it tomorrow. And even if we had all that clean energy today, we would still need to ramp up the capacity of our electric grid at more than three times the current rate and sustain that growth for the next thirty years. We need to accelerate the transition to all-electric transportation and revamp how we heat and cool our homes. We need to eat less meat and find ways for the meat we do eat to be produced while releasing less methane. We also need to find a way to capture greenhouse gases from the industrial and construction sectors. The list is long.

Many of these problems have solutions, while others, like how to capture carbon dioxide released from concrete — a staggering 8 percent of the global total of all greenhouse gases — are still waiting for a seismic technological fix. But Gates — late to the game on climate change — is buoyant about the prospects of his own efforts, as well as the collaborations he is encouraging on the global stage. For himself, Gates admits that this book exists awkwardly between his hopes for the future and his personal business interests. He is bullish on clean nuclear energy and plant-based burgers, two areas where he has investments. He's also bullish on the Breakthrough Energy coalition he helped foster around the 2015 Paris climate conference, as well as the multilateral Mission Innovation group, which is funding research on clean energy. All that is to the good.

The challenge is not that there are no green shoots of hopefulness, but that good vibes alone will not get us to zero by 2050. Gates praises the $6.4 billion in funding from Mission Innovation, but what is that investment relative to the size of what needs to be done? For Gates, the fact that the Paris Climate Agreement happened at all is a sign that collaboration on this issue is possible serving as a point of departure — especially now that the U.S. has rejoined the accords as the world heads toward a new round of climate talks in November. But the scale of the problem overshadows these efforts.

Our problem is a lack of will — political, economic, and cultural — to make the investments we need to avoid an actual cataclysm. It is good to learn that Gates divested from fossil fuel companies years ago — for moral reasons, if not because he thought doing so would make a difference. And kudos for using renewable fuels on his private jet, even though their Green Premium is more than double the cost of typical fuels. But relatively small specific gestures will not change the geometry of this very large puzzle: "We won't get to zero unless we get this right," Gates warns. To do that, we need a massive unprecedented investment of time, talent, and treasure on all fronts, the likes of which human society has never seen. This is not a moon shot; it is a moon shot every year for the next thirty years. And that makes the current fight over federal infrastructure funding look like a squabble over the Oxford comma.

Gates is notably unpolitical here — he repeatedly mentions the climate change movement being led by "young people" without saying the name Greta Thunberg; he leans in on the imperative of investments that do right by America and the world's poor without mentioning the Green New Deal. And perhaps that is because he knows that some among his audience, that is, those he actually needs to persuade, would sooner throw his book — and their own future — into the fire than align themselves with their cultural foes.  

It's a bit of puzzle as to why this call to arms against climate disaster is being published as an old-school hardcover book — that is, using trees. (This book was read for review as an ebook.) In 2021 a book is an equally curious choice of medium, considering the opportunities and media platforms available for sharing and exponentially leveraging the book's core message. Why no website, no teaching materials, no collaborations, no sustained online engagement? If the goal was to get the book into as many hands as possible — especially into the hands of those who disagree — why not just release it, for free, on the Gates Notes blog? But no matter the medium or the messenger, it is essential to repeat often and loudly its most-American of messages: We can do this — we must do this — because failure is not an option.

Daniel X Matz is foundation web development manager at Candid.

Intentional philanthropy to diversify science

May 17, 2021

News_scientists-in-labLast week, Michael Bloomberg announced a $150 million gift to my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide permanent funding for a hundred STEM PhD students from minority-serving institutions. The gift is noteworthy not for its amount but rather for its potential to increase PhD attainment for Black and Latinx students in STEM fields.

The initiative has the potential not only to signal change but to drive it. In the decade from 2010 to 2019, the share of Black Americans among all PhD recipients rose just over half a percentage point, from 4.9 percent to 5.5 percent. Assuming that representation at Hopkins is reflective of the national data, Bloomberg's gift could double the number of Black and Latinx students in Hopkins PhD programs. It's an important start, but not enough; long-term change will require a sea change in culture across all STEM fields.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funders have been working to address the problem for decades, but several recent studies suggest that targeted funding at the PhD level does not translate to higher retention of Black and Latinx scientists in academia. A 2017 study found that Black faculty members made up only 0.7 percent of tenure-track faculty in biology across forty top institutions in the U.S., highlighting the dramatic attrition of Black PhDs over the course of the typical academic career trajectory. While most PhD scientists go on to have successful careers outside academia, it is nevertheless important to monitor the data for those who stay — not least because academic researchers play a key role in training future scientists, interfacing with clinical trial participants, and directing scientific inquiry. If Black scientists are choosing to seek other careers, we must stop to ask why and address the issues so that efforts to increase representation among scientists translate to all settings where scientists are engaged.

Funding, equity, and community

A decade ago, a study found that Black scientists were significantly less likely to receive a research grant from NIH than similarly qualified white colleagues. In 2019, NIH published a follow-up report showing that one contributing factor to the disparity was that Black researchers applied for funding in areas that were of lower overall priority to the federal agency. A seemingly obvious solution to the problem would be to encourage Black researchers to apply for grants in higher-priority areas. However, the critical questions should be: "Exactly who is determining health research priorities?" and "Are these priorities addressing the needs and perspectives of the whole population?"

Shifting to nonprofits and philanthropies, it is well documented that advisory recommendation boards lack diverse perspectives and are therefore less able to navigate and guide health research in ways that are most impactful for a diverse population. Increasing the diversity of the bodies that set priorities will feed back into research settings where Black scientists struggle to access funding for the topics they see as most important.

Beyond the differences in fields of study that Black, Indigenous, and people of color scientists choose, NIH has noted that the standard process by which scientific proposals are evaluated may drive disparities in funding. Overall, Black scientists are half as likely to receive key research grants from NIH. The agency has noted that proposals from BIPOC scientists are less likely to be discussed and, when discussed, tend to score lower on average. Given that the applications all came from highly accomplished researchers, the finding not only suggests systemic racism, it underscores how it is perpetuated.

Finally, funders and institutions must pay attention to how Black and Latinx student-scientists are supported when there are so few faculty members available to them. Nearly 6 percent of biology PhD recipients but only 0.7 percent of biology PhD faculty are Black — an imbalance that places a disproportionate amount of mentoring and role-modeling responsibilities on a relatively small number of faculty. Increasing diversity among STEM scholars and scientists must not come at the expense of increasing the workloads of BIPOC faculty. Funders and institutions can help address these challenges by providing more support for Black faculty and/or acknowledging the existence of these disparities in the review process.

Last fall, many of us celebrated MacKenzie Scott's investment in the endowments of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Today, we cheer Mike Bloomberg's effort to connect these programs to top-tier STEM PhD programs. And we hope his investment will set the stage for other funders, philanthropic and public, to support scholars of color at every stage of their scientific careers. All funders must take a deep, critical look at their priorities, vetting processes, and advisory protocols. After all, what better way is there to further the change you want to see?

Altimus-Cara_PhilanTopicCara Altimus, PhD, is a senior director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.

Prioritize public education in our philanthropic COVID-19 response

January 12, 2021

Children_sky_square_GettyImagesWith the arrival of effective vaccines against COVID-19, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight. Yet the crisis in public education, one deeply exacerbated by the virus, will continue to wreak havoc beyond 2021.

If they have taught us anything, the last ten months have taught us who and what is essential. As people who work in philanthropy, who care about the future of the country, and as moms, we know that our kids and those who teach them are essential. And yet we as a country are not paying nearly enough attention to the public education crisis unfolding before our eyes — or responding to it as the emergency it is.

Here is what we know: More than fifty thousand students in the Los Angeles Unified School District never logged in to online learning during the spring, and there was a dramatic increase in middle and high school students failing classes in the fall. In Montgomery County, Maryland, almost 40 percent of low-income ninth-grade students failed English in the fall, and McKinsey estimates that Black and Latinx students will lose an average of eleven to twelve months of learning by June if the current state of affairs persists.

Here's what else we know: While learning remotely is not easy for any child, the learning losses from school closures and distance learning are not evenly distributed. As working mothers, we've seen first-hand the difficulties distance learning imposes on children and families, even those with significant privilege in the form of economic security, reliable broadband Internet access, quiet(ish) spaces to study, and parents who are working at home and can help their kids with schoolwork. Most children are not so lucky.

Nationally, nearly sixteen million school children lack adequate Internet service or don't have a device that connects to the Internet. In Los Angeles, where we live and work, at least one in four children in high-poverty schools lacks reliable high-quality Internet access, making it functionally impossible for them to participate in a meaningful way in school. Parents who risk their health every day in essential low-wage jobs have no realistic way to support their children through the daily challenges of distance learning. Meanwhile, students from wealthy and upper-middle class home have been able to resume in-person schooling even as high-poverty schools in the same city remain shuttered. The result is that students from poor and working-class families — kids who deserve and most need quality public education — are falling ever further behind their more fortunate peers.

While this is not a problem that philanthropy alone can solve, those of us with access to resources must find creative and strategic ways to show up for kids. All kids.

In the early days of the pandemic, we saw the difference philanthropic dollars could make. While federal stimulus funds and federal emergency funds allocated to the states took weeks and, in some cases, months to reach those most in need, public-private partnerships in many places were able to move quickly and efficiently to distribute funds. Here in Los Angeles, a group of more than thirty nonprofit organizations came together to form One Family LA after it became clear that low-income and immigrant families would be the most vulnerable to both the health impacts and economic devastation caused by the virus. In the weeks after the One Family was created, and before federal stimulus funds were fully disbursed, the organization was able to move quickly and distribute over $2 million in emergency relief funds to more than forty-five hundred families in need.

But the emergency is far from over. So what can philanthropy do to make a meaningful difference? How can it encourage and support educators and school district leaders to take the longer view that will be needed to recover from the pandemic even as they struggle to manage a seemingly endless list of day-to-day challenges?

First, philanthropy can use its greatest assets — nimbleness, creativity, and the freedom to take risks — to amplify the bright spots that already exist in public education. Chicago Public Schools recently partnered with philanthropists and community organizations to launch a $50 million program aimed at bringing free, high-quality Internet access to every student who lacks it. We know that things like intensive tutoring reliably help students from lower-income households make major academic gains. Philanthropy should partner with schools and school systems to get tutoring pilot programs off the ground, and efforts like these should be replicated by local leaders in communities across the country, with philanthropy providing seed funding and helping to disseminate best practices across city and state lines.

Second, in the months ahead, philanthropy must use its platforms to promote and fund advocacy work that keeps education at the forefront of the state and federal funding conversation. If we believe that creating a more equitable education system is critical, we need to make investments that articulate and put that priority in front of our elected officials. With so many health and economic challenges facing the country, this year's elections barely touched on the topic of education. Public schools across the country are doing the best they can, but they can't shoulder it all on their own. Ignoring months of learning loss and looming budget crises at the state and district levels is asking educators to do too much with too little.

In his book Our Kids, writer and political scientist Robert Putnam explored the many ways in which housing segregation and growing economic inequality have dissolved the social fabric that used to support poor and working-class children. And while most communities used to have a sense of collective responsibility for all children in the community — all kids were "our kids" — now when we speak about "our kids" we usually mean only the kids in our nuclear families.

We will never build the public-school systems we need or the society we want to live in unless we recapture that sense of collective responsibility for all children. While philanthropy is not an appropriate long-term substitute for robust city, state, and federal funding, it needs, at this moment, to prioritize public education in its COVID-19 response investments. At Fundamental and Great Public Schools Now, we are doing just that, because we know it's the best investment we can make for our families, for society, and for all our kids.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Ana Ponce_Rachel Levin_philantopicAna Ponce is executive director of Great Public Schools Now, and Rachel Levin is president of Fundamental.

Why don’t nonprofits have the tech they need?

October 08, 2020

Bootcamp+Jan19+1The world had big challenges — even before a global pandemic arrived. According to the Social Progress Index, we were on pace to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 no sooner than 2094, more than sixty years too late. And in the meantime, COVID-19 has set many efforts back.

Normally, when businesses imagine how they might do twice as much, or ten times as much, with the same money or the same number of people, they think about using technology as their engine of innovation. Why is it that the nonprofit sector behaves differently?

I've spent the last thirty years bringing technology to places and needs where Silicon Valley doesn't go because they aren't lucrative enough. In that time, I've recognized several recurring issues that have hampered the social sector from using technology to be more effective.

Lack of investment

A host of negative memes continue to circulate in the nonprofit sector among social sector leaders and the donors that fund them, leading to massive underinvestment in technology. Here are a few of them:

Money should be spent on helping people; tech is overhead. Most funders view tech as overhead, even when it has huge benefits for social mission outcomes. The message to NGO leaders is, Deliver more services. It's not unusual that a social sector leader dismisses spending even 10 percent of his/her budget on tech, even when such an investment would double the organization's impact.

Tech costs too much. Even though many makers of technology offer special nonprofit discount programs and most tech people working in nonprofits take big pay cuts, there is a widespread perception that technology and tech people are too expensive.

Tech doesn't work. The generally bad quality of advice given to nonprofits and foundations amplifies the idea that tech is expensive and doesn't work. I spend much of my time helping other nonprofits by doing "anti-consulting," which is talking them out of terrible ideas someone told them they should do. The average nonprofit does not need an app that no one will download or a magical blockchain solution.

Lack of strategic tech talent. Nonprofits generally lack the strategic tech talent they need to apply technology for maximum impact. Even in nonprofit organizations with a tech team, tech expertise is often seen as a support function, like accounting or facilities. Yes, IT services are important to a modern organization to keep the laptops operating and the email flowing. But segregating tech from core program activities results in huge missed opportunities to increase the social impact of a nonprofit.

An ambitious for-profit startup company wouldn't dream of launching without strategic tech talent on the senior management team, an individual (or individuals) who can help other members of the team understand what's working and what isn't and facilitate rapid learning.

While there are certainly some exciting nonprofits out there that, effectively, are software companies at their core, including Skoll Award-winning social enterprises like Benetech, Kiva, and Thorn, this is not an argument that every nonprofit needs its own team of software developers. However, every nonprofit that is ambitious about scaling needs its own strategic tech leader whose interests are fully aligned with the nonprofit's social mission. A strategic tech leader can advise where to apply technology to best effect and how to acquire it successfully.

Lack of infrastructure

When a modern for-profit company gets created, there is extensive technology infrastructure readily available. This includes common data standards that make it easy to connect different pieces of tech together. Just about every industry has dozens of cloud-based SaaS platforms that a new company can rent and that  compete on features, price, and ease of setup.

Outside of a few bright spots like public health, the nonprofit sector lacks this infrastructure. Underinvestment in tech means common SaaS platforms aren't built or available, which results in what I call the "cult of the custom." Too many nonprofits and agencies assume that their programmatic needs are unique and overpay to get custom or semi-custom tech solutions that generally end up being of poor quality. Can you imagine every dental office or golf course believing it needs to create its own unique software to operate?

If your nonprofit is the only customer for a unique piece of software built just for it, it's also the only entity paying for upgrades to that piece of software. As a result, your costs are generally higher because they are not spread over many customers.

With nonprofits already operating without enough funding, especially during the pandemic, all these dynamics lead to even more cycles of underinvestment in tech.

Advancing social change with tech

The time for technology in social change has come. The pandemic has underscored the need for tech capabilities. Fortunately, there is a new wave of nonprofits, donors, and coalitions who collectively realize that an integrated tech strategy is essential to achieving a social mission — just as it is essential for ambitious for-profit companies. Technology has immense untapped potential to help advance social innovation, benefiting humanity and the planet. It is time to tap that potential.

Jim-Fruchterman-squareJim Fruchterman is the CEO of Tech Matters, a nonprofit tech company in Silicon Valley that helps social change leaders understand what tech can and can't do and builds tech solutions that solve social problems. This post originally appeared on the Techonomy site and is republished here with permission.

Calling all science funders: biomedical research needs a lifeline

July 16, 2020

Women_medical_research_scientists_GettyImagesWhen research institutions and universities were forced to shut down in March, clinical trials, therapeutic development, and discovery science ground to a halt. While researchers are slowly returning to their labs and restarting their experiments, the scientific world is contending with a loss of productivity and funds that cannot be addressed by simply restarting the stopped clock.

Years of research designed to advance treatments and cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and depression have been compromised. Researchers at public institutions have reported that critical tools in the development of medical therapies have been lost. Clinical research for diseases other than COVID have seen dramatic setbacks because patients have been unwilling or otherwise unable to assume the risk associated with in-person evaluation for a clinical trial. Some funders are helping researchers address these problems by rearranging budgets and awarding no-cost grant extensions. But such approaches do not take into account the extent of the losses incurred by the shutdown.

Personnel needed to be paid throughout the closures. Re-establishing animal and cell models to replace those that had to be destroyed requires new funds, not just an extension of funds. To make an analogy with the private sector, if science were a business, the last three months would be seen as a series of grievous losses, with the threat of bankruptcy always in the background. But scientific experimentation is not the same as business. The closures weren't just setbacks: our loved ones live with diseases that science is trying to find cures or treatments for, and the COVID-related setbacks of the last three months have resulted in slower development of — and, in some cases, a complete abandonment of — treatments with the potential to save lives.

Layered on top of the very real losses in the lab are the impacts on people — the dedicated researchers who quietly drive scientific progress. Academic science is a notoriously difficult career path: pre-COVID numbers suggest that just 23 percent of biomedical PhDs pursue a career in academic science. But since March, many scientists have seen their job security and long-term prospects thrown into question. Early-career scientists about to move into new faculty positions have had job offers rescinded or delayed, or are competing for fewer available openings. New faculty report struggling to collect sufficient data to be competitive in the federal grants process. Those who are parents may not be able to return to work, given the impact the pandemic has had on child care. This translates into fewer women in the lab, when there are already too few.

At this critical moment, the biomedical research community urgently needs philanthropists to take three steps:

1. Increase budgets for currently funded projects. Science funders know how important flexible funding is. Increasing grant budgets now not only will help mitigate some of the research setbacks of the last three months, it also will underwrite the additional personnel time and equipment needed to get back to square one on experiments that were abandoned.

2. Modify policies and programs to support vulnerable scientists. Science needs scientists. In order to provide those who are brave enough to pursue a career in scientific research with a fair shot, it is important to recognize that certain groups of scientists are more at risk of losing their funding, abandoning the field, or both due to COVID-related pressures. Postdoctoral fellows and newly minted research faculty need stable funding in order to establish their ideas. Female scientists who are also parents are facing greater childcare responsibilities — a fact that is already showing up in fewer grant submissions by women scientists, falling publication rates, and reduced participation in COVID research. And Black and brown scientists who face persistent roadblocks to advancement in their careers need support now more than ever to help them overcome decades of discrimination in funding as well as fewer publication and job opportunities.

3. Strengthen the health research sector. Finally, philanthropy must do more to ensure that organizations working to advance and support biomedical research stay afloat. These organizations play a key role in driving patient-focused progress and accelerating therapeutics in specific areas. Support for organizational overhead — keep-the-lights-on funding— is hopelessly "unsexy" but massively important, in that it keeps experts on the job who are critical to vetting and shepherding good science in its journey from the lab to real-world applications.

In a recent discussion about the actions needed to overcome COVID-19, Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, "People keep asking me, 'What's the one thing we have to do?' The one thing we have to do is understand that there is not one thing."

This is just as true for science in the context of the pandemic. COVID-related impacts on biomedical logistics, funding, and human talent have put the entire biomedical research ecosystem at risk. Without immediate attention and support for that research and the scientists who work to advance it, there is little hope we will develop new and improved treatments for the thousands of diseases that annually impact millions of people around the globe.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Altimus-Cara_PhilanTopicCara Altimus, PhD, is a director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.

The Reinvention of the Nonprofit

May 14, 2020

Communications_treeLike many of you, I've learned new ways of doing things over the last month and half. For instance, I have:

  • participated in a virtual board meeting with a nonprofit that, pre-pandemic, would not allow board members to call in to board meetings — a significant obstacle to participation for me and many of my fellow board members;
  • attended a virtual event for a nonprofit I support;
  • toured a museum gallery (virtually, of course); and
  • designed a new movement strategy with a tech team for an organization seeking to move in-person engagements to a virtual model. 

Some of these innovations had been on the back burner for some time at the organizations in question. But they hadn't been operationalized because nothing at the organization or in its operating environment was forcing a change in the organizational mindset. Even when pitched by bright, forward-thinking staff, innovative ideas were often shelved in favor of more pressing  programmatic needs and strategies. 

Then COVID-19 happened, and, like that, everything changed. Ideas that sounded good but didn't seem necessary a year or two ago were suddenly thrust to the forefront. Almost overnight, the attitude of nonprofits shifted from "Let's not rock the boat" to "What can we do to keep ourselves afloat and/or make a difference, and how fast can we do it?"  

While there is never a bright side to a pandemic, it's true what many pundit-types have said: crises tend to accelerate trends that were already in place, and things that seem new and innovative today are likely to be widely embraced and taken for granted before you know it. 

That said, let me add a note of caution: nonprofits' embrace of innovation and technology should not merely be focused on substitution — Zoom events for in-person events, for instance — but should aim instead to develop entirely new experiences. They should expand the engagement we already have with our constituents and supporters, giving them more ways to be a part of our work and to keep that work relevant and impactful for even more people. 

I was reminded of that recently by three conversations I had with funders about a virtual conference I created ten years ago. MCON, the Millennial Impact Conference, was a day-long virtual event sponsored by the Case Foundation to bring together individuals in the nonprofit sector who were starting to focus their engagement efforts on the huge, rising millennial cohort. The convening was the signature event of a larger initiative, the Millennial Impact Project, a decade-long research effort designed to help nonprofits, causes, and companies engage what was then America's largest and youngest adult generation.

People signed on to that first event in 2010 not really knowing what to expect — and neither did we. As it turned out, some twenty-five hundred people attended (virtually), an astonishing number as far as we were concerned, having no benchmarks against which to measure. And when it was over, we heard from dozens, if not hundreds, of attendees who, while they might have had a hard time articulating why, simply loved it. "I don't know…you just had to experience it," was a common refrain. In the years that followed, attendance at MCON continued to build, peaking at twenty thousand for the 2018 event, at which point we sunsetted the initiative and the event.

What the three funders I spoke to wanted to know was how we managed to create a virtual conference before people really knew what a virtual conference was. And my answer was simple: when we created MCON, we didn't try to replicate something that already existed. We came up with a model for what we hoped to achieve, and then refined it. It was never intended to replace an in-person gathering; instead, we created a standalone experience through which guest speakers from across the country and many different industries and disciplines could share their research and knowledge and, crucially, interact with attendees in new and different ways. 

Virtual events shouldn't be about forcing grantees, constituents, or supporters to make a choice between engaging virtually or in-person. They should be about creating something new. In my experience, that means they should be shorter and move more quickly, be peppered with stimulating visuals, and feature plenty of opportunities to engage with both presenters and other attendees in short bursts. Don't expect see a lot of backroom networking, as you would at an offline event. And don't worry, that's okay! Use the opportunity to ask the most creative members on your staff to create something special that serves not as a replacement for the event that would've been but as a unique complement to your usual communications/fundraising/marketing efforts. 

Of course, every cause and nonprofit will have to decide for itself how to do that. That  said, here are some things for you to keep in mind as you look to innovate and start to plan to bring back your in-person events/programs:

  • A virtual event is just a new way to move constituents and supporters from point A to point B.
  • Your event should focus on new and different opportunities for constituents and supporters to engage with your organization or cause.
  • Adopt a digital perspective focused on delivering experiences and helping attendees learn things, in real time, that wouldn't be possible in an offline setting.
  • Think "small," and use the tools at your disposal to let your virtual attendees drive the bus. 
  • Create small breakout groups for each main content block to make it easier for attendees to compare notes, share ideas, and meet new people.

I urge causes and nonprofits to refrain from returning to business as usual after this crisis is over (and who knows when that might be). What you are learning and doing today to reach constituents and supporters absolutely must inform your future communications/fundraising/marketing efforts. As a wise person once said, never let a crisis go to waste. Good luck and stay safe!

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.

Digital Accessibility: The Path to Nonprofit Engagement Online

March 02, 2020

Accessibility_lamarWe live in one of the most remarkable eras ever, a time when a tidal wave of technologies and digital information is opening up limitless opportunities and empowering society like never before. But as innovation moves faster, we need to make sure that these advances empower everyone, equally. For nonprofits in particular, a strong commitment to digital accessibility is a perfect opportunity to engage audiences online and reinforce your organization's commitment to equity and inclusion.

Here's an example. While I was commuting by bus to the office one morning, an announcement came over the intercom notifying passengers that another bus was disabled on the road, causing delays into Manhattan. The majority of people on the bus groaned and proceeded to take out their phones and notify their employers of the delay. But that wasn't true for the man sitting next to me; in fact, he didn't react at all. After he noticed the look of concern on the faces of the people around him, he politely tapped me on the arm and said, "I'm deaf. What happened?"

Similar situations happen all the time online. And while digital experiences often do take into account the user experience, too many nonprofits don't pay as much attention as they should to the different capabilities of their of online users.

The good news? The Web is made up of websites, and the more that organizations commit to accessibility online, the more progress we'll make — as a sector and a society. But before we look at what we can do to ensure equity and inclusion online, we need to understand the history of Web accessibility standards (or the lack thereof).

Continue reading »

5 Questions for...Justin Steele, Director, Google.org Americas

February 24, 2020

Growing up, Justin Steele was "a sensitive, brainy kid" who spent a lot of time thinking about what he could do to improve people's lives. After earning an engineering degree from the University of Virginia, he received a master's in urban social policy and nonprofit management at Harvard and went to work in the nonprofit sector full-time. Since 2014, he has held senior positions with Google.org, where he's taken a lead role in the organization's work on inclusion, education, and economic opportunity.

PND recently spoke with Steele about Google.org, its efforts to develop AI tools for nonprofits, and what it is doing to address homelessness in the Bay Area.

JustinSteelePhilanthropy News Digest: What is Google.org, and how much does it award annually to nonprofits here in the United States and globally?

Justin Steele: Google.org is Google's philanthropic and charitable arm. We support nonprofits that are working to address challenging problems and try to apply scalable data-driven innovations in support of those efforts. What's unique about Google.org is that we were established when the company went public with a commitment of 1 percent of its equity and an ongoing commitment of 1 percent of its net profit for charity. Google.org is the biggest beneficiary of that 1 percent ongoing net-profit commitment, and we currently award more than $300 million in cash grants to nonprofits globally each year, roughly split 50/50 between the U.S. and internationally.

PND: Can any nonprofit apply for a grant?

JS: We are predominantly invite-only in our philanthropy, but we do have a model called the Impact Challenge where we invite nonprofits to participate by sending us their ideas. Sometimes the challenge is topic-based, sometimes it's based on geography.

In the U.S., we are currently running Impact Challenges in a number of geographies. We have a $10 million Impact Challenge open in the Bay Area and $1 million challenges open in Georgia, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio. A panel of local experts who have influence in the states where the challenge is occurring help us narrow down the candidates. The panel chooses the finalists who receive funding, but we also open it up to a public vote. The People's Choice winners get extra funding at the end.

The state-level Impact Challenges change from year to year, although this is the third time we've run a challenge in the Bay Area, which is where we’re headquartered. Last year, we ran challenges in Illinois, Nevada, and Colorado, and we expect to launch new challenges in other states in 2020.

We also opened up the AI Impact Challenge globally in 2018 and 2019 for organizations that are working on interesting applications of artificial intelligence for social good.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (February 15-16, 2020)

February 16, 2020

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

Fundraising

Everything in the world of fundraising is based on relationships, or should be, right? Well, sort of, writes Vu Le on his Nonprofit AF blog. "[O]ur reliance on relationships is...problematic, as it often creates and enhances inequity and thus undermines many of the problems we as a sector are trying to address" — for example, by further marginalizing people and communities that don't have the same access to relationships as better-resourced communities and nonprofits, or by reinforcing our natural bias toward people who look, think, and act like us. 

Giving

On the Alliance magazine blog, Alisha Miranda, chief executive of I.G. advisors, considers the pros and cons of curated approaches to giving.

Grantmaking

PEAK Grantmaking has released a set of resources designed to help grantmakers operationalize the second of its five Principles for Peak Grantmaking: Narrow the Power Gap. Within that frame, the organization has three very specific recommendations: build strong and trusting relationships with your grantees; rightsize the grantmaking process and implement flexible practices that reduce the burden on your grantees; and structure grant awards to be more responsive to grantee needs. Elly Davis, a program manager at the organization, shares more here.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (February 8-9, 2020)

February 09, 2020

1203880819.jpg.0Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Economy

The stock market is up and inflation is muted. It's the story of the last ten years. Or is it? In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey reports on the affordability crisis breaking the back of America's middle class.

Global Health

The novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, dominated headlines for much of the last week, leading to a spate of all-too-predictable scare stories and conspiracy theories. For a solid statistical breakdown of what is actually happening, in Wuhan and the twenty-seven other countries and territories in which the virus has been detected, check out this useful site created by the folks at World-o-Meter.

Grantwriting

On the Candid blog, Susan Schaefer, founding partner of Resource Partners LLC, looks at three of the core skills needed by a grant writing professional in 2020.

Health

More than fifty years after the civil rights movement changed the way Americans think about race, there is still much to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. On the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Culture of Health blog, Dwayne Proctor, a senior advisor to the foundation's president, reflects on the role of stories in the search for solutions.

Continue reading »

Bias and Language in Behavioral Sciences Research and Analysis

November 25, 2019

Funder_biasIn our previous post, we discussed the principles of ethical research and the importance of disclosing funding sources. Now let's explore how you can avoid funder bias and why you should use inclusive language in your research and analysis.

Guard Against Funder and Other Biases

Just as reporters should be committed to objective journalism, behavioral scientists have the professional and moral obligation to conduct fair, unbiased research and analysis.

In the health services industry, research findings can educate funders, practitioners, and potential patients of the effectiveness of a new treatment or prevention regime and/or used to develop more effective programs.

Unfortunately, sometimes companies and institutions fund research with the expectation that the scientists doing the research will "steer" the study toward results that put the funder in a positive light.

To avoid funder bias, researchers should only participate in research projects where there is no pressure on them to coerce participants, design tests to generate positive results, or alter their conclusions. They also need to eliminate their personal beliefs and values, perceptions, and emotions from the study, so as not to produce a biased outcome. As a researcher, you have a responsibility to be honest and objective and not give colleagues or the scientific community a reason to distrust your work.

Continue reading »

Weekend Link Roundup (November 23-24, 2019)

November 24, 2019

Cornucopia-166186079-592c3f2b3df78cbe7e6c4135And...(long pause)...we're back with our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Democracy

It’s been thirty years since the Berlin Wall fell, inspiring a democratic awakening across Central and Eastern Europe. What lessons does the end of the Cold War offer for the next generation of reformers? On the Open Society Foundation's Voices blog, Tim Judah reflects on his own experience and talks to activists in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic about where they were in 1989 and their hopes for the future

Diversity

What is "equity offset" and why should you care? Nonprofit AF's Vu Le explains.

Education

On the GrantCraft blog, Anne Campbell, an assistant professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, finds lots to like about Scholarships for Change, a new online resource created by our talented colleagues here at Candid.

Fundraising

If you're still fundraising on bended knee — well, stop it. Social Velocity's Nell Edgington explains why in the new year you need to think about "making your ask from a place of true worthiness, true value, and true equality."

Giving

Effective altruism site GiveWell is offering matching funds to any donor who hears about the organization's work via a podcast ad campaign it is running. Learn more here.

Grantmaking

As she prepares for the next stage of her career in philanthropy, Michelle Greanias, who recently ended her tenure as executive director of PEAK Grantmaking, reflects on what she has learned over the last eleven years.

On the Transparency Talk (Glasspockets) blog, Claire Peeps, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Durfee Foundation, explains why its important for a foundation, even a leanly staffed foundation like hers, to keep the door open to all kinds of nonprofits.

Health

Citing research and resources that demonstrate the critical connection between health and rural economic development, Katrina Badger, MPH, MSW, a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Katherine Ferguson, MPA, associate director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG), argue that we need to rethink how we invest in rural America and the way we approach health and equity across its diverse communities.

Nonprofits

Is your nonprofit measuring the things it should be measuring? Is it measuring anything at all? On the Candid blog, Steven Shattuck, chief engagement officer at Bloomerang and executive director of Launch Cause, walks readers through the five key performance indicators that every nonprofit should be measuring.

Over the last three weeks or so, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has been announcing the winners of its 2019 Impact Awards. Check out these links to learn more about the Emergent Fund, Unbound Philanthropy, the Libra Foundation, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation. And congrats to all!

Philanthropy

On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Dawn Franks, CEO of Your Philanthropy and the author of Giving Fingerprints, regrets the fact that too many donors seem not to understand the importance of the relationships they have (or don't) with the nonprofit organizations they support.

Science/Technology

On the Ford Foundation's Equal Change blog, technology fellow Michelle Shevin and Michael Brennan, a program officer in the foundation's Technology and Society program, explain why this is a critical moment for open-source digital infrastructure.

Social Good

Did you know that by 2025, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the American workforce? What are the implications of that for capital providers, asset managers, social enterprise founders, foundations, corporations, and impact funds looking to leverage their assets for social good? On the Alliance magazine blog, Christina Wu, community and impact measurement manager at European Venture Philanthropy Association, shares some thoughts.

That's it for now. Drop us a line at Mitch.Nauffts@Candid.org if you have something you'd like to share. And Happy Thanksgiving to all! We'll be next Sunday with another roundup.

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

June 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading »

'Future-Fit' Philanthropy: Why Philanthropic Organizations Will Need Foresight to Leave a Lasting Legacy of Change

April 10, 2019

Future_start_gettyimages_olm26250To be considered transformational, any philanthropic organization should aim for lasting impacts that go beyond their immediate beneficiaries. Yet, in the face of what the UK's Ministry of Defense recently characterized as "unprecedented acceleration in the speed of change, driving ever more complex interactions between [diverse] trends," the longer-term future of philanthropy, and the success of individual programs, are at risk as never before.

Philanthropy is already trying to deliver on a hugely ambitious vision of a better future. Taking the Sustainable Development Goals as one marker, this includes, within just over a decade, ending poverty, ending hunger, and delivering universal healthcare. Progress is struggling to match aspirations: the UN has found that globally, hunger is on the rise again and malaria rates are up due to antimicrobial resistance.

With the accelerating pace of change, new trends are set to bring huge opportunities — and threats — often both at once. Two examples: new technologies in the field of synthetic biology, and the fourth Industrial Revolution. Other trends — climate change, demographic shifts, democratic rollback — may be familiar, but their pace, trajectory, and impact remain radically uncertain.

The trends of the coming ten to twenty years have the potential to reverse hard-won progress, distort the outcomes of interventions, radically change the geography and distribution of need, and outpace the philanthropy business model altogether.

Continue reading »

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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