19 posts categorized "Sustainability"

Sustainable support for Haiti's local food system: A commentary by Frank Giustra

September 14, 2021

Headshot_Frank_Giustra_croppedWithout long-term investment, food aid for Haiti risks being a Band-Aid

The aftershocks of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on August 14 are not only being felt by those nearest the epicenter.

The latest disaster not only has left six hundred and fifty thousand people needing immediate assistance but also has exposed the country's more than one million farming families, who depend on a precarious rural economy. While aid agencies are scrambling to distribute the World Food Programme's pre-positioned food and import additional supplies, farmers are facing the possibility of their ready harvests of staple crops going to waste. The result is loss of market opportunity, incomes, and the chance to sustain their livelihoods long enough to support Haiti's economic recovery.

If the lingering effects of the last major earthquake, which displaced 1.5 million people in 2010, are any indication, the full impact could be devastating for the country's food producers, their families, and communities, who lose out twice: first to the damage from the earthquake and then to the subsequent short-term influx of cheap imported food.

Before this latest earthquake, almost half the country, or 4.4 million people, faced food insecurity, while an even greater proportion — including an estimated 90 percent of the rural population — were living below the poverty line. Given that 60 percent of rural families rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, it follows that any shocks that impact food markets will also have a lasting impact on their economic security and well-being.

Conversely, supporting this key sector now and in the long-term is a fast-track way to tackle poverty, hunger, health disparities, and inequality and build resilience to the secondary impacts of natural disasters....

Read the full commentary by Frank Giustra, founder of Lionsgate Entertainment, Giustra Foundation, Acceso, and Million Gardens Movement.

[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.

[Review] 'The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism'

October 27, 2017

I'm not sure what to think about The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism, Joel Solomon's memoir-cum-manifesto about the importance of taking "a mission-based" approach to finance and investment. I certainly appreciate Solomon's passion for the environment and his sincere belief that we need to move from an economic system built on exploitation to a more "regenerative" system. But I didn't much care for his omission of the poor and people of color in his call for "revolution," or his apparent blindness to his own white privilege; for the many bold claims backed up by engaging anecdotes but little data; or for his limited understanding of the world of private foundations. To be fair, Solomon, the chair of Renewal Funds, a mission-based venture capital firm, acknowledges that the book is written from the perspective "of an older, rich, white male heterosexual," and he "apologize[s] in advance for [the] narrow context and perspective." Still, the book has some glaring blind spots that undermine its impact and, ultimately, expose the superficiality of its premise.

Cover_The_Clean_Money_Revolution_BookLet's start with the positive. The Clean Money Revolution is full of interesting personal anecdotes, making it read more like a memoir than a self-help investment guide. Solomon has led a very interesting life and has played a part in growing many consumer brands that have become household names, including Stonyfield Farms and Ben & Jerry's. He grew up in Chattanooga and, after graduating from Columbia University, spent his early twenties bumming around the western United States. Following a diagnosis of PKD (polycystic kidney disease), he began to look into organic food and "healthy" living and eventually landed in an "intentional community" of "gypsy gardeners" on Cortes Island,  at the head of Georgia Strait between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island: "I was 25 with long hair and a bushy beard," he writes. "I rarely wore shoes. It was a good time." On the island, at something called Linnaea Farm, "an early model of money transformed by intentional 'cleaning'," Solomon developed an appreciation for the environment and a passion for organic food systems. It's also where he met Drummond Pike, "an early adopter social entrepreneur" who went on to found the Tides Foundation, as well as Robert and Penny Cabot, old-money philanthropists who would later influence his investment strategies.

Solomon eventually accepted a caretaking position at OrcaLab on the even more remote Hanson Island, where he spent months at a time alone, communing with nature and observing the "complexity, diversity, and interdependence" of the island's ecosystem; reading widely in philosophy, history, and anthropology; and developing what would become a lifelong passion for self-reflection and contemplation. Then he received a $50,000 payout from one of his father's real estate investments — which he invested in Hollyhock Farm, a property on Cortes Island that today is a not-for-profit leadership learning center, and Stonyfield, then a nonprofit organic farming school with seven cows.

Soon after, Solomon's father died and he received a $3 million inheritance. The rest of the book details his (usually) successful investments in small businesses focused on natural food systems and local communities. Many of the stories Solomon has to tell are inspiring, and his sincerity is apparent. But it is difficult, at times, not to question his assumption that readers will relate to his adventures in finance, or be interested in his investing advice. About a third of the way through the book, for instance, he observes: "If you have more than enough money, there is a vast opportunity to move capital from stock markets and massive corporations to dynamic small businesses that generat[e]  innovation, relationship, and community."  If is only a two-letter word, but it conveniently elides an assumption that undermines the tale Solomon has to tell: capitalism can be transformed from something inherently exploitative and immoral into something regenerative and moral — but only by those with the capital to do so.

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5 Questions for…Alison Taylor, Director, Business for Social Responsibility

December 13, 2016

The corporate social responsibility debate took an interesting turn in 2016, as critics of ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil and gas company, alleged that company executives "knew humans were altering the world's climate by burning fossil fuels even while [the company] was helping to fund and propel the movement denying the reality of climate change." ExxonMobil's campaign to discredit its critics coincided with a decision by the Rockefeller Family Fund — a philanthropy established by the grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, ExxonMobil's direct antecedent — to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies and, as fund president David Kaiser wrote in an issue of the New York Review of Books, to do so "gradually," even as it singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment because of its "morally reprehensible conduct."

The Texas-based multinational was not amused and moved quickly to rebut the allegations, arguing that it had become the target of "a well-funded and politically motivated conspiracy to harm its core business." But the controversy merely underscored the difficult act that global corporations, especially those in the energy and extractives sector, must pull off as they try to balance the expectations of shareholders against the demands of an increasingly "green" global public.

To learn more about the changing CSR environment, PND contributing editor Michael Wiener recently exchanged emails with Alison Taylor, a New York-based director at Business for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit organization that works with a network of more than two hundred and fifty member companies and other partners to build a just and sustainable world. In September, BSR, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, announced the launch of an initiative aimed at building more inclusive global supply chains.

Philanthropy News Digest: How do you define integrity in the context of business sustainability?

Headshot_alison_taylorAlison Taylor: Business sustainability is one approach and framework for considering organizational integrity. The other is ethics and compliance. Ethics and compliance teams tend to focus on oversight of internal rules and processes and on ensuring that organizations comply with regulations, though they are increasingly being held responsible for wider organizational ethics. Sustainability and CSR teams consider issues of current and emerging public concern such as climate change, human rights, and social impact, with regulatory considerations secondary. Although questions of ethics and integrity are important for sustainability and CSR teams, they sometimes are less explicitly drawn. And frankly, in many organizations there is a disconnect between the two frameworks and approaches; there may be policies and Codes of Conduct that address organizational values, but companies can contradict themselves  for example, by investing in community development but also using offshore investment structures to avoid taxes. By considering integrity in a more integrated and consistent way, and by building structures and cultures to support that integrity, companies can reduce risk and improve their reputations.

PND: How are companies using ethical frameworks to drive business sustainability?

AT: I think sustainability practitioners use ethical arguments to drive support for their programs, but there is also considerable focus on the business case for sustainability and on demonstrating that sustainable businesses are more profitable and successful in the long term. I actually think that where there is considerable support from corporate CEOs and boards, they are more often compelled to take these actions due to ethical considerations. But many companies remain skeptical of the sustainability agenda, and so the field remains focused on making commercial arguments to support that agenda. Those arguments are becoming stronger, however, as public trust in business plummets and voices for greater transparency grow louder. Companies know they can no longer reliably control or manage their public profiles, and so they are paying more attention to sustainability.

PND: What do you say to people who argue that the most important responsibility of any publicly owned company is to maximize shareholder value, not to address social, environmental, or human rights issues or problems?

AT: The emphasis on shareholder value and quarterly reporting remains the status quo and reality. It's also why companies sometimes welcome environmental and social regulation, as the need to comply with existing regulations and laws means they can resist pressure to undertake unsustainable activities in order to keep investors happy. To date, only a few really large companies, notably Unilever, have successfully managed to resist quarterly reporting pressure when it comes to corporate sustainability measures. However, the growing focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues among investors, coupled with widespread disruption and ongoing failures of leadership and governance in the private sector, means that there is more and more discussion of leadership and growth models that might work better.

There is overwhelming evidence, for example, that companies need to do more to consider community and society's needs and not just take a narrow, self-interested view. Even Milton Friedman argued that companies needed to do this in order to survive over the long term. But once you start to consider sustainability issues, it brings into play huge amounts of complexity in terms of priorities, decision making, and even a company's core activities. I think it's the reason why the shareholder-value concept has been so powerful for so long. It enables prioritization and clear decision making around priorities.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (June 2016)

July 03, 2016

Happy Fourth of July weekend! Hope you're spending it with family and friends. Before we head back out with more shrimp for the barbie, we thought we'd revisit some of the great content we shared here on PhilanTopic in June. Enjoy!

What did you read/watch/listen to in June that got your juices flowing? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

Paris and the Way Forward: A Conversation With the UN Foundation's Reid Detchon

April 22, 2016

It's been an unsettling couple of months for people who worry about the climate. As Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis write in the Washington Post, "The first three months of 2016 have been the hottest ever recorded, and by a large margin. Greenland's massive ice sheet melted more this spring than researchers have ever seen. Warming seas are turning once-majestic coral reefs into ghostly underwater graveyards. And scientists are warning that sea levels could rise far faster than anyone expected by the end of the century, with severe impacts for coastal communities around the globe." Throw in the monsoon-like rains that have swamped Houston and the record heat baking the Pacific Northwest, and you're probably starting to think maybe it's time our elected officials took action. (Or not.)

In December, representatives from a hundred and ninety-five countries convened in Paris for the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), an annual gathering under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where they negotiated the so-called Paris Agreement, a non-binding pact to slow and, ultimately, reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On April 22, Earth Day, the agreement will be opened for signing by countries that support it.

For most people, what that means — in terms of its impact, if any, on their lives and the future of the planet — is a mystery. To help shed light on these issues, PND spoke with Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate strategy at the United Nations Foundation, about the agreement, the significance of the signing ceremony, and whether the global community can slow and reverse emissions of greenhouse gases before it's too late.

From June 1999 through December 2001, Detchon served as director of special projects in Washington, D.C., for the Turner Foundation, managing a portfolio of grants aimed at increasing the effectiveness of environmental advocacy and encouraging federal action to avert global climate change. Before that, he spent six years at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public affairs firm in Washington, D.C., and from 1989 to 1993 he served as the principal deputy assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. Detchon also worked for five years in the U.S. Senate, advising Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) on energy and environmental issues and serving as his legislative director, and was the principal speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush.

Headshot_reid_detchonPhilanthropy News Digest: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York on April 22, where they will have the opportunity to sign an agreement that was reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December. Before we get into the details of the agreement, what does the UN hope to accomplish at the ceremony on the 22nd?

Reid Detchon: The significance of April 22 really goes back to the Paris Agree­ment itself. And what's so remarkable about that is that previous disagreements fell away, and the agreement was signed by virtually every country on the planet. For each country to agree to participate and make a nationally determined contribution to limit climate change over the coming years — that consensus is, I think, the larger significance of Paris, and bodes well for the process going for­ward.

So, on April 22, as you noted, there will be a signing ceremony at UN headquarters in New York. And it's expected that a larger number of countries will sign the agreement, in a single day, than has ever happened with any previous treaty or agreement. Again, it's an indication of the universality of the agreement and of the excitement and momentum that was created in Paris, and we need to carry that forward into the implementation phase. The signing ceremony is the first step in that process, and I expect it will be a great launch pad for future action.

PND: Will President Obama be in New York on the 22nd to sign the agreement? And which other world leaders of note will be there?

RD: The United States will be represented by Secretary of State Kerry. That's my understanding. And we've heard that Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of China will be present as well. As you probably know, the U.S. and China issued a statement ten days ago reaffirming their support for the climate agreement and their intention to move forward with implementation of the agreement.

Among heads of state, I believe the presidents of the current and upcoming COPs  — that is, French president François Hollande and Mohammed VI of Morocco — will be in New York for the ceremony, and I believe there will be at least forty other heads of state there, principally from developing countries and the small island states. But, of course, we'll have to see.

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The Empowered Leader…or 5 Reasons Why ‘Strategic Doing’ Beats Strategic Planning

April 07, 2016

Strategic-Plan-Poster Edited2One of these days I'm going to sit down and write a treatise on why I believe strategic thinking and strategic leadership are more valuable than strategic planning — particularly, but not only, in a not-for-profit context. I'm going to do it, I promise, but not today. I'm too busy doing stuff.

So apparently was Southwest Airline's legendary founder and CEO Herb Kelleher, who held that "strategy is overrated, simply doing stuff is underrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things." Or, as management guru Tom Peters puts it, "the thing that keeps a business ahead of the competition is excellence in execution."

How many of us were taught that "boards make policy and executives implement it"? Turns out that assertion is both over-simplistic and short-sighted, at least as far as well-functioning organizations are concerned. The empowered leader — whether nonprofit or for-profit — must own and lead both the strategy process and the strategy itself, which is one reason why strategic planning is overrated and often ineffective. Done conventionally, strategic planning empowers the consultant, not the executive. Executive coaching, on the other hand, invests in the development of leaders who then empower their organizations, boards, and staffs to think big and execute well.

I'm not saying that strategic planning isn't important. It certainly is — especially to the legions of pricey consultants happy to have you pay for their thick workbooks and the many billable hours needed to walk the strategic planning team through them. Strategic planning is, after all, a big business. (Don't believe me? Stop by one of McKinsey's hundred and nine offices around the globe and chat with one of the eleven thousand consultants and advisors the firm employs.)

So what's a better option? You guessed it: focused and well-executed executive coaching. One-on-one coaching can be a valuable and effective alternative (or, even, precursor) to a full-on strategic planning process, especially for the already overwhelmed and over-burdened executive who is worried about the cost, in terms of time and money, of the latter.

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5 Questions for...Katherine Lorenz, President, Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation

February 24, 2016

Not yet forty, Katherine Lorenz has been active in the social sector since her early twenties, notably as co-founder of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, a nonprofit organization working to advance food sovereignty in rural Mexico. For most of her career, Lorenz thought of herself as a grantseeker rather than as the person who would end up heading the family foundation established by her grandfather, George Mitchell, a Texas wildcatter who amassed a fortune in the natural gas industry and pioneered the cost-effective use of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to extract gas from shale. However, a stint as deputy director of the Institute for Philanthropy — which later merged with the Philanthropy Workshop, where she serves as chair — convinced her that her nonprofit experience could be valuable to the Texas-based foundation. Elected president of the foundation in 2011 and named "One to Watch" by Forbes in 2012, Lorenz has become a respected speaker on topics related to environmental sustainability, NextGen philanthropy, and nonprofit leadership and has helped guide the foundation's emergence on the national stage as it waits for a final, significant infusion of funds from her grandfather's estate.

Philanthropy News Digest spoke recently with Lorenz about the difference between "good" and "responsible" donors, the foundation's strategic planning process, and its efforts to support sustainable land-use practices in Texas and the Southwest.

Headshot_katherine_lorenzPhilanthropy News Digest: You've carved out an interesting career in the social sector. Are you at all surprised to find yourself leading your late grandfather's foundation?

Katherine Lorenz: Yes and no. I never really envisioned that I would work on the grantmaking side. Working in the field, in rural communities in Latin America, was my first pro­fessional love. I really enjoyed the work I did with a group called Amigos de las Americas and then in founding Puente a la Salud Comunitaria and leading that organization for six years in Oaxaca, Mexico. I really believed that was my passion and that I would always stay connected to the grantseeking, imple­mentation side. A few people asked if I saw myself going on to work in the foundation at some point; my answer was always no.

But several things happened: the primary one was that I went through the Philanthropy Workshop and had an "a-ha" moment, thinking about where can I have the most impact with my time and the work I do. It became clear while I was working on the grantseeking side how good donors who are well-informed can have a much bigger impact than people who are just writing checks. There's nothing wrong with providing funding, but I learned to recognize how great it was to work with good donors and how difficult it was to work with not-as-good donors, which helped me recognize the power of being a really smart, thoughtful, informed donor.

PND: How would you distinguish a good donor from a bad donor?

KL: I hate to use the term "bad donor" because I think all donors are really driven to have an impact, and for the most part they're not doing harm. There are some cases where, completely inadvertently, good intentions lead to significant problems. Something that might seem like a simple solution could have much larger — and negative — implications. For example, disaster relief that ends up destroying local markets. Then there are donors who are difficult to work with.

I think a lot of donors feel that, to be a "responsible" donor, they need to be strict with their grantees, making sure that only a certain amount goes to overhead. Or maybe they won't fund administrative costs or salaries and will only fund direct program costs, or require some additional type of reporting that's unique to them to make sure they're getting the impact they want to see. What I've found is that by trying to be a responsible donor, you can sometimes make it more difficult for the organization receiving the grant. I told one donor that we would rather not take their money than have to do what they were asking, because what they were asking would cost more than what they were willing to give us.

One of my pet peeves is the overhead conversation. When I was applying for and receiving grants, I felt it was very clear to me, as the organization's executive director, where we needed support and where we didn't. We did everything on a shoestring. We couldn't have a computer for all our employees, or our computers were so old they didn't work, or we couldn't pay to have the right software to run the accounting systems we needed. Even office space or an additional car — really basic things — all count as overhead. But none of it was wasteful, it was necessary. We couldn't do our work in the field without those things.

One area I felt was particularly important that no one wanted to fund was strategic planning. To achieve the most impact it can, an organization needs a strategic plan. But that's investing in the institu­tion and overhead, which many of our donors were not interested in funding. So, when a donor would come to me and ask, "What do you want to do that no one will fund?" — which wasn't often — that was incredibly helpful. Whereas, a different donor might say, "In addition to tracking that annually, we want you to track this other thing over here every six months, and money should only go to programs." Both would think they were doing a good job, but the difference in dealing with those types of donors, in terms of pursuing our mission, was night and day.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 12-13, 2015)

December 13, 2015

Palm-tree-decorated-with-christmas-lightsOur weekly round up of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Corporate Sustainability

How much social and environmental impact constitutes "sustainable" performance and how should corporations measure it? In the Harvard Business Review, Martin Thomas and Mark McElroy look at what Ben & Jerry's is doing to answer that question — for itself and others.

Education

Our Foundation Center colleague Mirielle Clifford reviews The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?, Dale Russakoff's account of how a $100 million pledge from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg aimed at turning around the public school system in Newark, New Jersey, "went very wrong, very quickly."

Giving

On the Huffington Post's Impact blog, Patricia Illingworth, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, pushes back against the congratulatory post-#GivingTuesday buzz and suggests that in the remaining days of 2015, "due diligence and effective altruism ought to guide [donors'] choices."

Over at the Markets for Good site, Andrew Means, founder of Data Analysts for Social Good and The Impact Lab, has a different take on the effective altruism movement, which, he writes, "does a very good job at saying how we should allocate donations across organizations" but isn't as clear about the fact that "ideal allocations are based upon [our] preferences, and therefore if you have different preferences you’ll end up with a different ideal allocation."

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (October 2015)

November 02, 2015

To quote the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro: "You are a New York Mets fan...and you know nothing is guaranteed." Congrats to the Kansas City Royals on a spectacular season and a truly memorable World Series victory, their first in thirty years. If you're a Mets fan...well, you don't have to wait that long to revisit some of the winning content we posted in October.

What did you read, watch, or listen to over the past month that had you cheering? Feel free to share in the comments section below, or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

5 Questions for…Judith Rodin, President, Rockefeller Foundation

October 12, 2015

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a poignant reminder of the power of nature and our often ineffective efforts to control and contain it. As we have come to understand more fully in the decade since, Katrina also exposed a number of troubling truths about America that many had chosen to ignore or deny. Growing inequality. The persistence of institutional racism and racist attitudes. The social and economic costs of de-industrialization. The interconnectedness of the built and natural environments.

The New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation was one of the first philanthropic organizations to respond to the devastation caused by Katrina, and within months the foundation had been enlisted by the Louisiana Recovery Authority to assume a leading role in the recovery planning process for New Orleans. Recently, PND caught up with a busy Judith Rodin, Rockefeller's president, to talk about the foundation's role in the recovery process and what it learned from its efforts about urban resilience in an age of climate change.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental, post-Katrina, in the formation of the Unified New Orleans Plan. What was the foundation looking to accomplish by supporting the UNOP effort?

Headshot_judith_rodinJudith Rodin: I stepped into the presidency at the Rockefeller Foundation in March 2005, and Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Like many others, we responded to the immediate need, in our case funding Enterprise Community Partners and Habitat for Humanity to work on rebuilding the city's devastated housing stock. But then, in early 2006, I got a call from Walter Isaacson, who at the time was co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and wanted to gauge our interest in restarting the recovery planning process, which, six months after the storm, had stalled. Walter knew that my then-colleague Darren Walker [now president of the Ford Foundation] and I both had experience with collaborative community development efforts involving stressed, often fractious, and impoverished communities. We also knew that without a plan, the bulk of the federally authorized recovery money could not flow to the city. People were desperate, and our board authorized us to jump in. It was the first big test of the approach that would come to define the Rockefeller Foundation as it turned one hundred.

The goal in New Orleans was to use a deeply consultative, inclusive process to create a single unified plan that would go beyond recovery and rebuilding to expand the capacity of local institutions such as the Greater New Orleans Foundation and promote interventions that would build greater resilience in the city and the region.

From day one, we focused on community empowerment. The storm had exposed longstanding issues of race and class that contributed to the city's inadequate response; we wanted to work with all stakeholders — community leaders and elected officials, NGOs and the private sector, and, most importantly, the people who had been displaced, whether they had returned to their neighborhoods or not. Creating a shared vision was crucial if the recovery was to proceed more effectively and New Orleans was to become more resilient and better able to handle whatever the next shock might be, which, as it turned out, was the BP oil spill a few years later.

The funding we provided to support the creation of the Unified New Orleans Plan helped the city recover and rebuild. As New Orleans looks forward, we have been proud to partner with the city on its just released resilience strategy, which includes the city's priorities for long-term resilience building. Supported by 100 Resilient Cities, the global organization we founded to celebrate our centennial in 2013, it is one of the first strategies of its kind and will serve as an example to other cities around the world that are currently developing their own resilience strategies.

PND: If you had known then what you know today, what might the foundation have done differently to respond to Katrina?

JR: While it is tempting to look back and speculate about what everyone could have done differently, I think it is more constructive to look forward. New Orleans has come a long way over the past ten years, but there is obviously still much to do over the next ten.

Moving forward, it will be important to ensure that investments in building resilience benefit everyone in the city. Not everyone has gained equally over the last ten years as things in the city began to improve. Crime and unemployment among black males are still far too high. Resilience planning is being more intentionally designed to respond to and integrate physical infrastructure solutions with economic and social ones. For example, as the city continues rebuilding its water management system, it has done so in a way that responds to the threat of flooding and clears sewage more effectively for conversion into usable water. The new system will better manage water through an improved canal-and-pond system as well as bio-swales and rain gardens, keeping water inside the levees where it belongs. Importantly, this water management project is designed to provide job training and new, good jobs for two hundred and fifty currently unemployed African American men, with many more to come. This type of resilience planning is designed to respond not just to the physical needs of the city but also its social and economic needs. By preparing the city for future shocks, and also creating opportunity today, the city is realizing what we call the "resilience dividend."

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Creativity: A New Pillar of Sustainability

October 01, 2015

Sustainability21.980x980Creativity. We hack it. We map it. We study it. We rate it. We take it places. We build industries around it. We invest in it. We recognize we need it, even when it hurts. We know our future depends on it.

This is the first in a series of blog posts which will explore the radical premise that creativity is a key driver of sustainability

We will look at the role creativity plays in strengthening communities and driving change. We will appreciate entrepreneurs using the arts, design, and making to tackle topics like healthy food, climate change, the criminal justice system, and immigration. We will remind ourselves how much research science, technology, and social entrepreneurship have in common.

We will imagine creativity as an investment theme and propose how it may be integrated into impact and mission-related investment portfolios. We will review creativity standards for companies and investment funds seeking to have a positive social and financial impact. We will start the conversation about how to measure creativity's contribution toward our sustainable future.

What Do We Mean By Creativity?

Creativity is the spark. When the spark catches, it catalyzes an expression, an experiment, a "creation." If the spark turns into an invention, an entrepreneur can build an enterprise around it. 

If the invention works and the company is profitable and grows, there can be a wide-spread change – that's innovation. Innovation makes markets.

Business uses the word creativity, too. In fact, the Conference Board reports that creativity ranks among the top five skills that U.S. employers believe to be of increasing importance.

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Financing Sustainable Development Around the World

April 11, 2014

(Tensie Whelan is president of the Rainforest Alliance, which works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices, and consumer behavior.)

Headshot_tensie_whelanMore than two billion people around the world are dependent for their livelihoods on five hundred million smallholder farms. Yet these smallholder farmers, who typically have less than five acres under cultivation, operate far below their potential because they lack access to the technical assistance and credit they need to implement better farm management practices.

Global smallholder demand for credit is estimated at nearly $500 billion. While "social finance lenders" typically lend to smallholders who don't qualify for traditional or commercial loans, they currently meet only a tiny fraction of that demand — roughly $350 million. That leaves millions of smallholders unable to make needed investments in raising their workers' pay and improving worker safety, building waste management systems, and installing new water-conserving technology — all of which contribute to increases in yields and income.

Traditional aid programs aren't likely to alleviate the problem anytime soon, but urging lenders to change their practices could help. A 2013 study conducted by the Rainforest Alliance in conjunction with the Citi Foundation suggests that better data can dramatically improve smallholders’ access to credit. The study, which compared a hundred and ten Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee and cocoa farmers in Colombia and Peru with a non-certified control group, found that 90 percent of the certified producers in the survey tracked both revenue and expense metrics for their farms, while only about 30 percent of the non-certified producers did so. The study also found that the average dollar value of loans to certified producers was $5,562, while it was only $3,311 for non-certified producers — a finding which suggests that many smallholders rarely keep the kind of records, including production cost, income, and delivery history, that would enable potential lenders to assess their creditworthiness.

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5 Questions for...Marissa Sackler, Founder and President, Beespace

January 16, 2014

Marissa Sackler established Beespace in New York City in 2013 to provide social entrepreneurs with experienced mentorship; in-house PR, tech, development, fundraising, and design assistance; and the support of an innovative entrepreneurial community. Beespace does not accept payment from its "Incubees" and requires that they secure at least four months of operational income before they head out on their own.

PND spoke with Sackler, founder and president of Beespace and a founding sponsor and activist for charity: water, in November about the incubator concept, how Beespace works for and with its Incubees, and her ambitions for the organization over the next few years.

Headshot_marissa_sacklerPhilanthropy News Digest: Although the concept of accelerators and incubators is fairly well established in the for-profit world, it's still relatively new in the nonprofit space. Why have nonprofits and funders been slow to embrace the concept?

Marissa Sackler: There are nonprofit incubators out there doing good work, but we think we've developed a more comprehensive model that's going to help organizations grow and achieve their potential. We use a three-pronged approach. The first prong is what we call our co-working space. It's important that we have a diversity of organizations learning and working side by side. The second prong is the internal agency we provide — our executive director, PR, tech, design, development, and fundraising experts — all of whom work to help the organizations grow and reach their potential. We also have people from social media, marketing, and accounting backgrounds visiting for weekly office hours with each organization. Finally, the third prong is the broader Beespace community within the nonprofit world. Beespace connects each Incubee with a nonprofit and for-profit mentor who then works with the organization to guide and support its growth.

PND: You’re currently working with three nonprofits -- the Malala Fund, the Adventure Project, and Practice Makes Perfect -- and you're planning to add three more. What do you look for in an Incubee?

MS: We look very closely at the leader, at the issue they're working to address, and at the nonprofit's overall organizational structure. We’re geography- and issue-neutral — we take organizations that are working both domestically and internationally. They can be working on any issue, but we want to identify groups with a strong organizational vision and an innovative strategy that have the ability to create real change and that are attempting to solve issues at scale. We look at scale in two ways: horizontally, in terms of expanding programs to effectively help solve an issue in multiple communities or even countries, but also vertically, making sure an organization is always maintaining the strongest quality and depth of programming while expanding.

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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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