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Strategic and Sustainable Nonprofit Growth: A Case Study

By Nell Edgington



AppleMark

I talk a lot about the many challenges of leading a nonprofit. But sometimes even success itself can be a challenge for a nonprofit. This was particularly true for one of my clients, Breakthrough Austin.

Breakthrough is a very successful nonprofit that identifies cohorts of 6th grade students who want to be the first in their families to graduate from college. The nonprofit then supports those students over the next 12 years so that they reach that goal. Over their 10+ year history, Breakthrough has achieved impressive student outcomes and the support of a deep donor base.

In fact, Breakthrough has been so successful that other schools and school districts have asked to add the Breakthrough program. But that’s not always a good thing, especially when a nonprofit doesn’t know where they can grow most sustainably and with the greatest results.

In the Spring of 2015, Breakthrough board and staff wanted to grow to reach more students, but they didn’t know how to determine when and where. They needed a strategic plan that could help them chart a growth trajectory to reach more students in a sustainable way. And baked into that strategic plan they needed strategic growth filters that helped them assess how to know if new locations were a good fit with their model and their long-term plans.

Breakthrough hired Social Velocity to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, Breakthrough created an advisory committee of board, staff and key external stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which Breakthrough operates, develop Breakthrough’s theory of change, refine their vision and mission statements, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization.

Together we created the various elements of their strategic plan:

  • A Marketplace Map, to understand how their core competencies fit with a set of community needs, apart from their competitors and collaborators
  • A Theory of Change, to articulate the value they hope to create
  • Strategic Growth Filters, to analyze where they should grow
  • Revised Vision and Mission Statements
  • 3-Year Strategic Plan and Budget
  • Year 1 Operational Plan, to execute on the strategic plan
  • System for Monitoring the Plan, to make sure it is coming to fruition

Over the course of the 6-month planning period, Breakthrough board and staff became increasingly excited about their new strategic plan and the clarity it gives them about how and when to grow. They are already putting the pieces in place for expansion and are beginning to build the additional capacity necessary to get there.

Creating a strategic plan helped Breakthrough become crystal clear about how to grow strategically and sustainably, as Michael Griffith, Breakthrough Executive Director put it:

“Nell helped us chart a course for the future that meets the needs of our current students and allows us to expand to serve even more. She was skilled at developing a framework that allowed us to grapple with the tough questions of strategy and sustainability. We are thrilled we made this investment and look forward to the coming years with a plan firmly in place!”

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, check out the Strategic Planning page, or if you want to read more client case studies, check out the Clients page.

Photo Credit: Breakthrough Austin


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5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2016

By Nell Edgington



Poster_of_Alexander_Crystal_SeerThis is my favorite time of year. Despite the darkness of the last few months, December is often about reflecting on the year that is drawing to a close and hopes for the new one coming.

And as is my tradition on this blog, I like to look ahead at the trends that may affect the nonprofit sector in the coming year. I have never claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I am an admitted optimist, so my predictions are less about telling the future and more about wishful thinking. This year, more than ever, I want to see opportunity amid the uncertainty and the challenges we face.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about for the nonprofit sector as we head into 2016.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

  1. New Opportunities for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead
    A growing recognition of the value of the nonprofit sector paired with a rising confidence among nonprofit leaders will create opportunities for nonprofits to step up and create opportunity out of the seemingly mounting pile of challenges (like terrorism, natural disasters, political gridlock). The nonprofit sector’s natural place — its core competency — is in righting imbalances and it often coalesces in times of trouble. We are already seeing really exciting collaborations and innovations aimed at increasing civic engagement and winning equal rights, to name a few. Call me an optimist, but I think the challenges we face are merely a precursor to the emergence of a stronger social sector ready to find new solutions.

  2. Increased Use of Protests 
    And as evidence of social movements emerging from challenges, we are seeing an uptick in social protests. This year we’ve seen some impressive organized demands for social change. From Black Lives Matter, to student protests on college campuses, to Chicago protests demanding the mayor’s resignation, people are rising up to demand change. While their methods somewhat mirror the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, their access to and use of technology is quite new. It will be interesting to see how these movements evolve and how much change they will be able to accomplish.

  3. Greater Emphasis on Networks 
    And these protests, like any social change effort, will be more successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can and then figure out who the influencers are in their space and how to connect their work with those others. Because the network approach requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding, I think (hope) we’ll see more nonprofit leaders move to an abundance mentality that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder, more networked path.

  4. More State-by-State Strategies 
    The stunning victory this year legalizing same-sex marriage demonstrated the tremendous success that a state-by-state (as opposed to a national) approach to social and political change can have. Indeed, because of political gridlock at the federal level, other social change efforts (like Represent.us and the legalization of marijuana) have found success at the state level where changing minds and changing policy is sometimes easier and more efficient. But this isn’t a new idea. In fact according to research compiled by Bloomberg Business, social and political change in America follows a pattern: “A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.” Though the idea isn’t a new one, I think it may gain traction as more social movements find a state-by-state approach increasingly attractive.

  5. Smarter Funding
    But to pursue more successful models, like the use of networks and state-by-state strategies, nonprofits must have the necessary funding runway to get there.  So I’m hopeful that funders will increasingly recognize that nonprofits need more flexible and effective funding (like unrestricted dollars and capacity capital). There are already encouraging signs. The Ford Foundation has moved to provide more unrestricted support (and encouraged other funders to build the capacity of nonprofits) and the federal government released new guidelines this year providing more indirect funding to nonprofits. So let’s hope we see more foundation, individual and government funders providing nonprofits more of the kind of money they really need to create solutions.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress


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Nonprofits, Lead Us Toward Hope

By Nell Edgington



HopeI have been down lately. As I mentioned earlier this week, November was really rough. The recent (and increasingly frequent) terrorist attacks coupled with a shocking American response to the Syrian refugee crisis has made it feel as though the world is a very dark place.

But we must fight that darkness. And the nonprofit sector must lead us there.

Life is a constant interplay between dark and light. As actor Patton Oswalt wrote after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013:

“You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out…Every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness. But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak…So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.'”

Or as Mr. Rogers said, when there are horrific acts, don’t focus on the fear and the violence, but instead “look for the helpers.” Focus on those who are working to make the world a better place.

And those working to make the world a better place are the nonprofits. Indeed, one way the good outnumbers the evil is through the leadership of the nonprofit sector — the social movements that champion right over wrong.

And they must. As Rick Cohen so eloquently wrote in his last piece, it is up to the nonprofit sector to rise up in the face of fear and injustice. Indeed, this is playing out right now in my state of Texas where the head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is threatening to sue the nonprofit International Rescue Committee headquartered in Dallas because they continue to work with Syrian refugees despite the state’s refusal to take Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. This nonprofit is fighting the fear and ignorance.

And isn’t that — at its essence — the critical role of the nonprofit sector, to, as Susan Ragusa put it, bring light to the darkness: “Every nonprofit, large and small, [has] a strategic role in bringing greater balance to a world that feels upended by horrific acts and the continued threat of more.”

One nonprofit, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (a client of mine) is doing exactly this. They work to improve public understanding and policies affecting American Muslims. They have been incredibly busy lately trying to convince Americans that ISIS does not represent Muslims. MPAC’s critical role is to be the voice of reason and understanding amid the terror and the backlash rhetoric. They are working tirelessly to show American policymakers how to turn away from the dark and embrace our better nature. As MPAC staff wrote recently:

“It is easy for us to pay lip service to America as the beacon of freedom. To be such an example to the rest of the world, yet not allow the world’s tired and poor to reach that freedom, makes our values mere slogans as opposed to truth. The home of the brave must not be scared to hold on to its principles, most especially during the times it is easiest to let them go.”

And that is the antidote — isn’t it — to the fear, the hopelessness, and the violence? We must pick ourselves up, gather our courage, and seek the light. We must strive, always strive, to find and embrace the better angels of our nature.

And nonprofits must lead us there.

Photo Credit: “S S Hope” by Herman Hiller, Library of Congress


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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November 2015

By Nell Edgington



Reading on the StairsLet’s be honest. November was a really tough month. The terrorist attacks in Paris (and other attacks in Mali, Beirut and elsewhere) put the world on edge. And the anti-refugee rhetoric that followed was incredibly disheartening. Finally, the loss of tenacious nonprofit investigative journalist Rick Cohen made for a difficult November, a month that is typically focused on gratitude and giving back.

But there is always hope. Some foundations are taking an innovative approach to failing cities and to supporting networks, students are rising up for equality, and the Overhead Myth was dealt another blow.

Below are my selections of the top 10 reads in the world of social change in November, but please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.

And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads here.

  1. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris created an ugly backlash in America against Syrian refugees. There were worries about the attacks causing a slowdown in fundraising for Syrian refugees and parallels drawn to the exclusion of Jewish refugees in World War II. But rising above all of this Rick Cohen urged nonprofits to take their rightful place as defenders of the downtrodden and speak up against anti-refugee policies. As he put it: “If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.” Amen!

  2. Adding insult to injury, that beautiful piece was Rick Cohen’s last published article because he died in November, creating an enormous loss for the sector. The Nonprofit Quarterly created a lovely tribute to their colleague by culling his best pieces, and they have big plans for carrying on Rick’s legacy.

  3. There is hope amid the fear and turmoil of our times. Susan Ragusa from Inside Philanthropy looks to the nonprofit sector to “lead with optimism and champion hope.” Yes.

  4. Perhaps heeding that call, some foundations have stepped up in innovative ways to help struggling American cities. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin described ways resilient cities can mitigate climate change.

  5. The whip smart David Henderson has created a new tool (currently in beta) for individual donors to track and analyze their favorite nonprofits.

  6. We are far from completely overcoming the Nonprofit Overhead Myth, but there was a big step forward in November when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to pay the full costs for nonprofit services. As Tim Delaney, president of the National Council of Nonprofits explained: “Los Angeles County has now raised the bar for collaboration between governments and nonprofits by stating its firm stance that its nonprofit partners must be paid the full cost to deliver services that the County contracts with them to provide. We urge states, counties, and localities across the country to follow its lead.” Amen!

  7. Student protests against racial inequality on college campuses across the country reached a fever pitch in November with some wins at the University of Missouri. It will be interesting to see how student demands and this movement evolve.

  8. Steve MacLaughlin from Blackbaud put together an interesting Slideshare on 50 Fascinating Nonprofit Stats that became so popular that Blackbaud created a whole website around it.

  9. Many nonprofits made preparations for today’s Giving Tuesday campaign (perhaps using the nifty interactive data dashboard that allows you to slice and dice online giving data, or some new Facebook giving tools). But some nonprofits, feeling that it’s just a gimmick, opted out of participating in Giving Tuesday at all.

  10. The Ford Foundation announced that a big part of their new direction will include further investing in networks and institutions. As Darren Walker described: “Networks are fulcrums for creativity and dissent, beacons of stability, scaffolding for aspiring change makers, and connectors for social innovators.” And to help create more effective social change networks, network entrepreneur theorists, David Ehrlichman, David Sawyer, and Jane Wei-Skillern  offered 5 Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network.

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen


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How an Assessment Propels a Nonprofit Forward

By Nell Edgington



nonprofitSometimes I work with nonprofits that are really stuck.

They have been spinning their wheels for months (maybe years) and can’t seem to get out of a vicious cycle that might include insufficient funding, a disengaged board of directors, struggling programs, or an inability to articulate their value to outsiders. They continue to have the same conversations month after month, wanting to do more and be more, but unable to figure out what’s holding them back.

When that is the case, a Financial Model Assessment can be really instrumental in moving the nonprofit forward.

Last week, I led the culminating meeting of a Financial Model Assessment for one of my clients. In this meeting I bring board and staff together to discuss my findings after a 3-4 month assessment of how every aspect of their nonprofit (strategy, vision and mission, board and staff structure, marketing, etc.) contributes to (or detracts from) their ability to bring sustainable money in the door.

This meeting is always my favorite part of the process because it starts to move a nonprofit forward in several ways:

Taboo Topics Are Uncovered and Discussed
Let me be clear, this is a challenging meeting. Through the course of the Assessment, I often uncover one or two things that are happening at a nonprofit that everyone knows about (and may even be discussing privately) but no one is willing or able to address as an organization. Perhaps the nonprofit is running a program that drags the organization down, or the board is not pulling their weight, or the staff is not structured effectively. In this meeting, nothing is sacred. Anything that holds the nonprofit back is fair game. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone finally put everything out in the open for the organization as a whole to discuss. Because if you don’t articulate and analyze the problems, you have no hope of overcoming them.

Board and Staff Are Energized
Once those problems are out in the open, there is often a palpable energy that begins sparking around the room as individual board and staff members begin to realize that there is a better way. It may not be easy, and it may push them and the organization in new, challenging ways, but it is exciting and hopeful and energizing. Every single time I have led one of these Assessment meetings a noticeable energy beings to build. It’s the acknowledgement among board and staff that they don’t have to be stuck anymore.

A Clear Path Emerges
And the reason they don’t have to be stuck anymore is because the Assessment lays out a path forward that frees the nonprofit from the spinning wheels. Suddenly board and staff have a set of steps and a strategy that they can discuss, analyze, and execute. They may not agree with or integrate every recommendation I make, but they at least have a future path around which they can mobilize.

Change Begins
This meeting, and the Financial Model Assessment that instigates it, can often be the first step in a new direction. It can be the inflection point at which board and staff finally recognize together, as a critical mass, that the status quo just won’t work anymore, and they must come together to chart a smarter, more strategic future course. It is the place where everyone acknowledges that change — true change — is necessary and possible.

If you want to learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I conduct for nonprofits, check out the Financial Model Assessment page here, or download the benefit sheet here.

Photo Credit: Till Krech

 


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Learning From Philanthropy’s Past: An Interview with the HistPhil Blog

By Nell Edgington



Maribel MorayStanley KatzBen SoskisIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m very excited to be talking with the co-founders and editors of the new History of Philanthropy blog: Benjamin Soskis, Stanley Katz, and Maribel Morey.

The HistPhil blog launched this past June and focuses on how history can shed light on current philanthropic issues and practice.

Because how can we hope to create social change without understanding the results of efforts that came before us?

Ben, Stanley, and Maribel are all academics with specialities related to history and philanthropy. Stanley is on faculty at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and has also taught at Harvard, Wisconsin and Chicago. Benjamin is a Fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University and a consultant for the history of philanthropy program of the Open Philanthropy Project. And Maribel is a professor of history at Clemson University and is currently writing a book, From Tuskegee to Myrdal, which describes how and why white Americans in big philanthropy transformed from proponents of segregated education to advocates of racial equality.

Nell: Stanley, you write, in your inaugural post for the HistPhil blog, about the tendency of philanthropy to get swept up in “new” approaches that actually aren’t all that new. Is there really anything new in philanthropy right now? Are there any structural or cultural developments or approaches in philanthropy that are significantly different than in the past?

Stanley: It is hard to separate rhetoric from reality in the current environment of philanthropic hype.  From my perspective, the current boasting that all is new in philanthropy (see the recent New York Times “Giving” section), is pretty uninformed (naïve?).

One of the most common claims, repeated frequently in the New York Times piece, is that philanthropists are no longer simply trying to alleviate the “symptoms” of distress, but in fact are aiming to remove the underlying causes of social and physical problems.  This attempts to distinguish what the large foundations are doing from what the traditional foundations did in the 20th century (and of course no one is making this claim more loudly than Judith Rodin of the “new” Rockefeller Foundation.)

But the emphasis on the elimination of problems by identifying their root causes was the innovative claim of the founders of the first American foundations, best articulated by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr.  So from this point of view there is not much new in the current aims of big philanthropy.

But what is actually new, and there is a lot that is new, is the determined focus on short-term, measurable, results — this is the mantra of the genuinely new “strategic” philanthropy.  The older foundations of course aimed to be effective, but they defined effectiveness much more loosely and measured it less precisely than current large foundations. This is an enormousdly important attribute of the current mega-foundations, and all the other foundations that have jumped on the “strategic philanthropy” bandwagon.

The current foundation rhetoric also makes use of a wide range of business metaphors, none more important than the notion that philanthropy is best thought of as “investment” in change, and frequently characterized, using the language of hedge funds, as “bets” on successfully producing change.  Much of the current language of philanthropy is drawn from venture capital activity, and the new philanthropy can also be thought of as “venture” philanthropy.  This is a new attitude.

The original philanthropists knew they were adapting the then modern techniques of business organization and management to their grantmaking, but they thought of philanthropy as different from business.  That distinction seems to have eluded much of the current generation of philanthropists.

But I need to say that I am a little uncomfortable with these large generalizations, since not all current philanthropists speak or act as I have just suggested — nor did the earliest generation of philanthropists.  But there is something new in the philanthropic air.  The question is whether that air is as salubrious as its current advocates claim.

Nell: Stanley, philanthropy got its modern day start in the missionary work of Europeans and Americans in third world countries. What, if any, parallels do you see in philanthropic work in developing parts of the world today?  

Stanley: Here the important fact is that the Rockefellers (John D. Sr. and Jr.) originally intended the Rockefeller Foundation to be a missionary foundation, operating mostly (possibly entirely) in China.  For a variety of reasons, in particular the influence of their advisor Frederick T. Gates (a minister who had turned in a secular direction), they abandoned the missionary focus in favor of a secular focus.  Their work in China, and especially the founding and support of the Peking Union Medical School, continued to have a missionary flavor, but their work in Africa and other tropical areas was more early medical philanthropy than missionary philanthropy.  They turned to the eradication of tropical diseases both because they were attractive to current medical research capacity, and because it was politically safe to engage in medical experimentation abroad — a lesson that Big Pharma learned from them later in the century.

But the emphasis of the large foundations, beginning in the 1960s, with grant-making in the underdeveloped world, was quite different, and unrelated to any neo-missionary instinct.  Many of the large American foundations at mid-century thought they could assist the process of decolonization and local self-determination by supporting a wide range of development activities in what was then called the Third World.  They later came to be attacked by neo-Marxists for allegedly supporting US and Western imperialism in the developing world, but that is a big subject all in itself.

Ironically, there is now a burgeoning effort by American evangelical business people to invest in private development projects, especially in East Africa, and this is a throw-back of sorts to much earlier notions of philanthropic support of development.  But it needs to be contrasted with the massive Gates Foundation public health efforts in Africa and elsewhere — an effort purely “strategic” in its inspiration.

Nell: Ben, historically, philanthropic giving has not grown above 2% of US GDP, why do you think that is and do you think there is any hope of changing that?

Ben: The answer to the 2% conundrum is the holy grail of the nonprofit sector, and I don’t pretend to have any certain answer about it myself. It’s worth noting, though, that 2% of GDP is still pretty good relative to other developed countries (in fact, by many measures, it’s one of the best rates). But it’s still confounding why it hasn’t budged for more than four decades. There’s obviously a tangle of causal factors at play, and I’ll just offer a few possibilities that have occurred to me in the course of my research, without making any claims that this is an exhaustive list.

Given the persistence of that rate, it makes sense to look for some equally persistent characteristic of the American nonprofit sector that has also remained unchanged over that long timespan. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy can give us a clue to a possible candidate. As part of their Philanthropy 400 ranking of the nation’s largest nonprofits, they note how little the list has changed from when it was first tallied in 1991 (especially when compared with the churning of the list of the largest for-profit companies). In part by dint of habit, and in part because of the power of the institution’s “brands,” Americans have tended to stick with a handful of large charities—through scandals, evolving social needs and changing fads.

As I pointed out to the Chronicle reporter (though my observations got a bit lost in translation; Josephine Shaw Lowell, a founder of the American charity organization movement, wouldn’t have suggested that bigger is better, only that a degree of centralization in charity administration was necessary), we can trace this development back to the turn of the last century, when charity reformers instituted a process of centralized, bureaucratized and professionalized giving. That is, from the late 19th century-scientific charity movement onward, individuals were warned that their disparate giving was too often haphazard, scattered, wasteful, and overlapping, and so were encouraged to hand over the administration of charitable resources to a centralized institution. The community chests and the United Way came out of this impulse; Catholic Charities succumbed to it as well.

It’s very possible that the development toward more centralization and professional administration has bolstered American giving by providing citizens with more confidence and by making decisions about where to give easier. But I think we also have to wonder whether it imposed a sort of cap as well, since it might have removed some of the immediacy, intimacy and individuality from the charitable exchange that could push individuals to give beyond an initial comfort point (which very well might be around 2%).

The Chronicle suggests that we might see more disruption in the list in the coming years, or at least that some of the big names, like the United Way, might be ceding ground. If that is the case, and if some of the space they occupied is filled with smaller upstarts, it’s possible we might see some movement beyond 2%.

Another possible factor worth considering for the persistence of the 2% rate is the declining role of religion in determining charitable allocations. I don’t only mean that the percentage of total giving going to religious institutions has been steadily declining over the last few decades. But also that giving itself has, for many Americans, become an increasingly secular activity.

Again, we can trace this back to the early 20th century, when charity reformers sought to “secularize” giving by stripping it of any sectarian taint and endowing it with a degree of rationality; the indiscriminate giver in their rhetoric was often an easily-duped priest. But it is also possible that the religious impulse to give is more easily able to push past the equilibrium of 2% and to ask individuals to make even deeper financial commitments.

Yet another factor preventing giving from crossing that 2% barrier might be media coverage of nonprofits. As I quipped in an article on the subject in the Chronicle last March, borrowing from Woody Allen, the coverage is generally pretty weak—and the portions are too small. That is, the media grants the sector relatively little attention, and when it does, it seems to suffer from what New York Times reporter David Clay Johnson has called a “Madonna-whore” complex: alternating between feel-good human interest stories and stories focused on nonprofit abuse. But stories that chronicle the difficult and important work many nonprofits are doing on a daily basis—they just don’t have the journalistic juice to make it into print. As the former nonprofit beat reporter for The New York Times, Stephanie Strom, told me, “A nonprofit just doing good isn’t news because everyone knows nonprofits are supposed to do good.” This might be changing, with a number of important online journalistic ventures out there, but I think there is a deep deficit in public knowledge about what nonprofits are doing—and this deficit could sap the public’s willingness to give more.

You also have to combine this media deficiency with the general conceptual muddle that has emerged with the blurring of private and public lines of funding social welfare provision in the last half century. Not only do American givers and tax-payers have to contend with a federated system (to say nothing of international structures of governance), in which various jurisdictions take up differing responsibilities for addressing social ills and needs. But we also inhabit what political scientist Jacob Hacker has termed a “divided welfare state,” in which public and private lines of responsibility for social welfare are increasingly blurred. Obviously, there’s opportunity in this blurring. But as scholars such as Lester Salamon have pointed out, it also can represent a sort of existential threat to the nonprofit sector’s distinctive identity and mission, which in turn might be restricting American’s willingness to dig in and give more.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out another powerful strain in the American charitable tradition—the devaluation of monetary gifts themselves in favor of the “helping hand.” At the turn of the last century, even while scientific charity reformers were attempting to rationalize giving, they were also trying to preserve traditions of neighborly assistance. The fact that such assistance could not be easily quantified and rationally appraised was regarded as a mark of its worth. And in many senses, it was considered a higher form of giving than monetary contributions. That idea is still with us today; and it’s possible that by focusing too much on the 2% rate, we miss other forms of voluntarism that have had more variability and elasticity over the years.

Nell: Maribel, during the Gilded Age great wealth concentrated among a few brought large philanthropy (Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.) but also contributed to a subsequent progressive period (as the pendulum swung back against that excessive wealth). Do you see parallels between the Gilded Age and today, and do you think we are heading for a more progressive period? And what role do you think philanthropy will or won’t play in that?

Maribel: Indeed, many late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Americans looked at Andrew Carnegie’s and John D. Rockefeller’s wealth (and even their philanthropy) with some suspicion.

Reflecting these Americans’ anxieties, for example, the United States Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations called John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his son in 1915 to defend the independence of the Rockefeller Foundation. As many scholars have noted, the Rockefellers had established a division of economic research in 1914 within the one-year-old foundation; and a few months later, the Ludlow massacre occurred at the Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel Iron Company where women and children died when the state militia assaulted the strikers’ tent camp.

In response, the organization decided to organize a study on industrial relations under this new division and selected a close working friend of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (William Lyon Mackenzie King) to direct it. From the perspective of the American public, it was hardly easy to trust that gilded age tycoons who had undermined the rights of workers in the process of accumulating their wealth would have the interests of the people in mind when they funded social scientific projects to study the American populace. From this perspective, the Rockefeller Foundation was the playpen of industrialists who had defined interests in society and their policy-oriented social scientific research would be—far from disinterested—an extension of those interests.

And far from ignorant of Americans’ suspicions about gilded age levels of wealth, Andrew Carnegie himself discussed it head-on in The Gospel of Wealth (1889). Aware that Americans might find socialism an attractive alternative to capitalism, for example, he pitched philanthropy as the better form of wealth redistribution.

Today as then, Americans are confronting and discussing the great influence of leading philanthropists in public policymaking and of wealth inequality more broadly. However, I am not convinced that we are necessarily heading for a more progressive period.

I say this because I don’t see contemporary Americans reflecting the same level of angst about elite philanthropy nor with the broader topic of wealth concentration. Congress isn’t questioning leading philanthropists as it did with the Rockefellers in the early twentieth century nor do leading philanthropists seem threatened by Americans’ potential voting patterns, as Carnegie had been.

One key explanation might be that these earlier Americans entertained a vastly different meaning of American democracy than their successors today. For them, American democracy promised economic opportunity (or rather, freedom from class divisions) and an equal voice over public concerns. Today, it seems that the general American public and their representatives in Congress aren’t as convinced of this definition of American democracy. With a narrower understanding of American democracy, it might simply be more difficult for contemporaries to see how wealth inequality and elite philanthropy in public policymaking are democratic threats.

Philanthropies committed to resurrecting a more progressive period might just need to focus on ways to revive this earlier (dare I say, more robust) definition of American democracy and help empower Americans to fight for it.

Photo Credit: HistPhil


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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: October 2015

By Nell Edgington



social changeOctober brought some great discussions in the blogosphere, including a forum on whether regulations around donor advised funds should change, concerns that we are working too hard, the need to better retain donors, and a debate about whether social media is (or can be) an effective fundraising tool. Round that out with examples of successful crowdfunding and volunteer skill crowdsourcing, and it was a good month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in October. But, as always, let me know what I missed. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

And if you want to see past 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. Donor advised funds (DAFs) have come under fire in recent years. There was an interesting discussion in October at the Boston College Law School Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good about whether regulations on donor advised funds should be changed. In advance of that forum, history professor Lila Corwin Berman provided an historic perspective (on the HistPhil blog) including the fact that “donor advised funds fundamentally changed the balance of public and private power in the United States starting in the 1970s.”

  2. John Hopkins University professor Lester M. Salamon released a new book in October, The Resilient Sector Revisited: The New Challenge to Nonprofit America in which he lays out a framework for understanding America’s nonprofit sector. An excerpt from the book in the Nonprofit Quarterly examines “The 4 Impulses of Nonprofits“, as he describes it: “The nonprofit sector has long been the hidden subcontinent on the social landscape of American life, regularly revered but rarely seriously scrutinized or understood.” His book is an attempt to do just that.

  3. The Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Urban Institute released their annual Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report with some startling data, like: nonprofits retained only 43% of their donors in 2014, and for every $100 a nonprofit brought in they lost $95 to lapsed and reduced gifts. So the challenge for nonprofits, says AFP president Andrew Watt, is to get better at retaining donors: “Donors do not simply choose a few charities to support and stick with them every year. Donors are remarkably inconsistent in their giving, whether it’s because they lost interest in a cause, were giving because a friend or family member asked them, or did not like how the charity was treating them. The charitable sector’s challenge is to figure out how to better inspire and retain donors from year to year.”

  4. And speaking of fundraising, Nonprofit Tech for Good donated $800 to 32 nonprofit organizations via the nonprofit websites and shared some important lessons for other nonprofits trying to fundraising effectively online. But Derrick Feldmann cautions that social media fundraising is not the panacea many board members might think. The new “Social Good Team” at Facebook might disagree because they have big plans for social media and the nonprofit sector.

  5. Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, re-incorporated as a public benefit corporation in order to put their social good mission above profit, and then partnered with the United Nations to raise money for Syrian refugees.

  6. While we’re on the power of the crowd, in his ongoing Fixes blog, David Bornstein profiles Movement.org, a crowdsourcing site that connects human right activists and skilled volunteers. As David Keyes, one of the leaders, describes the platform: “Amazon says that you don’t need to be a bookstore to sell a book and Uber says that you don’t need to be a taxi service to drive a taxi. I realized that you don’t need to be an N.G.O. to fight a dictator, or a political leader to help a human-rights activist. Millions of people around the globe have the skills to help, and they’re currently not being utilized. If we could build a bridge between these communities, more people could be helped than we ever thought possible.”

  7. And in more solutions news, South Los Angeles, once an urban food wasteland, is becoming a hub of food activism with a focus on startup, affordable eateries that are committed to building a strong, healthy community.

  8. Companies are already getting ready for the holiday season mix of commercialism and philanthropy and Amy Schiller worries that Bloomingdale’s “Icons w/ Impact” marketing campaign highlighting celebrities, fashion and philanthropy is a worrisome shift in philanthropy. But I’m hoping that the HistPhil blog will chime in with a reasoned, historical perspective.

  9. Poor strategy will get you in the end. The breast cancer nonprofit, the Susan G. Komen Foundation came under fire a few years ago for some poor strategic decisions (like aligning with Kentucky Fried Chicken and pulling funding from Planned Parenthood), and it looks like those decisions have dramatically affected their fundraising.

  10. Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy has a problem with our workaholic culture. He and his organization have learned from the Millennial generation’s more balanced (than Gen X’s or the Boomer’s) approach to work and life, and he suggests we do the same: “The millennials don’t care that this is what we might have done at that stage of our careers. In fact, they look at us and are quite clear they don’t want to be us — they don’t want to make the same mistakes!” Amen!

Photo Credit: Museum of History and Industry, Seattle


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Networks, Social Movements, and Civic Tech — Oh My!

By Nell Edgington



Last week I was in Miami for the Independent Sector conference, one of the largest gatherings of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in the country. I really enjoyed it, in particular a few sessions that really got me thinking. Rather than give you a play-by-play of the conference (which you can get by viewing the Twitter feed) I wanted to share some big ideas that came out of the conference for me.

network entrepreneursNetworks Are Critical to Social Change
I am obsessed lately with this idea of a network entrepreneur, so the session “Connecting with the Right Kind of Network” where a panel of 7 network entrepreneurs explained how they used networks to varying degrees to move their social change goals forward was fascinating. Anna Muoio from Monitor Institute kicked off the session with her research on how social change networks operate (her wheel of network types is on the right). Then network entrepreneurs like Julieta Garibay from United We Dream, Tina Gridiron from Lumina Foundation, Clayton Lord from Americans for the Arts, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld from The Building Movement Project, among others described their work to bring people and organizations together to work toward common change goals. These network entrepreneurs demonstrated how effective networks, as opposed to siloed organizations, can be in creating large-scale, systemic change. I’ll have more on this, because (as I said) I’m obsessed.

campaign financeOur Political System is Broken
Trevor Potter from the Campaign Legal Center gave a riveting plenary about our broken money in politics system. He took us through some scary facts (like the one to the left) about how challenged our democracy is right now, including the fact that presidential campaign fundraising more than doubled from 2004 to 2008, only 158 families account for more than half of the donations to the 2016 election so far, and 59% of Americans think our political system is broken. Depressing, but also an incredible opportunity to create change.

But Smart People Are Working To Fix Government
And there is hope! As I have mentioned before, “civic tech” (using technology to improve government and civic engagement) is a burgeoning field. The “Civic Tech Lab” session at the conference showcased 6 different civic tech solutions. They included TurboVote, which makes it easier for people to know where/when/how to vote; Textizen, which allows local governments to better communicate with and serve their citizens; and Open Referral which makes local social service data more accessible and usable. There are some really exciting innovations in this space.

freedom to marryState-by-State Change Is a Solution
And finally, most exciting, was the “What Winning Looks Like” session from Freedom To Marry, the nonprofit organization instrumental in the state-by-state strategy to legalize gay marriage. Their incredibly innovative digital approach helped to change public opinion and make gay marriage legal across the country. Especially in a time when the federal political system seems so broken, their approach to social change can serve as an example of how an alternative state-by-state strategy can work to change minds and laws. In fact, since Freedom to Marry is going out of business (because they have achieved their mission, how cool is that?) they will relaunch their website later this month with tools and resources for other social movements to use in their own efforts. I love it!

Lots of interesting things to chew on. You’ll hear more about these big ideas soon because I’ve convinced several of the amazing changemakers I met at the conference to participate in upcoming Social Velocity interviews. So stay tuned!

 


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