We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.
I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”
Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.
First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.
Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.
And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.
We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”
Photo Credit: Roy Miller
There was a bit of a dust up in the (social change) Twitterverse yesterday. Ryan Seashore from CodeNow wrote a post on TechCrunch arguing that the majority of nonprofits are “broken,” and should act more like for-profit startups in order to create impact. The post follows a similar line of other arguments over the years (most recently Carrie Rich’s argument that nonprofits should all become social enterprises) that the nonprofit form is so dysfunctional that it should be tossed out. But there is a real danger to this idea of abandoning the nonprofit sector.
Debates like these are crucial not because of the entertainment value (although I do love good drama), but because they force us to uncover and analyze our underlying assumptions. Yesterday’s debate, and others like it, which take the nonprofit sector to task for being inefficient, broken, unbusinesslike, lay bare some false and destructive assumptions about nonprofits and about social change in general.
Ryan sees nonprofits as aging dinosaurs with “too much overhead, too much bureaucracy, and a lack of focus on impact. Everything feels slow.” But for real change to happen you have to integrate the institutions that already exist with the networks, or “startups,” that want change, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two (institutions and networks) must work together. Ryan’s argument that nonprofits need to be more like startups is fundamentally flawed because if everything were a startup, change wouldn’t happen.
To quote David Brooks from a recent The New York Times piece, “Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked…social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] this is misguided…Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as ‘overhead,’ really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.”
To be sure, in his blog post Ryan outlines some areas where many nonprofits could improve (becoming more focused, continually innovating, diversifying revenue sources, thinking big), but these are best practices that any organization (startup or established institution, for-profit or nonprofit) should embrace. It is simplistic and misguided to think, as Ryan writes, that “the nonprofit world must embrace the nimble ways of successful startups to become more effective, and do better.” I know its not sexy, but real social change is much more complex than startup versus institution.
So let’s move on from this either/or mentality. Effective social change requires institutions AND networks, it requires Millennials AND Boomers, it requires startups AND established organizations, it requires public AND private money (and lots of it), and it requires for-profit and nonprofit solutions. We are wasting our time (and our keystrokes) by creating false dichotomies. Let’s work together toward strategic, sustainable social change.
There is an article in Forbes this month that bothered me. Carrie Rich, co-founder and CEO of The Global Good Fund, argues that more nonprofits should move from a “donor-driven organization” to a “revenue-producing social enterprise.” Instead of “relying on donor funding” more organizations should “create revenue-producing services.” In essence she is encouraging more nonprofits to figure out how to sell their services.
The problem with her argument, though, is that it encourages nonprofits to think one-dimensionally about funding sources instead of developing an overall financial strategy that may or may not include earned income.
Rich’s argument is that earned income, or what she calls “revenue-producing social enterprise” is a more sustainable and impactful way to create social change. She goes on to list all sorts of reasons (10 actually) that revenue generation (or earned income) is better than contributed income. These reasons include that revenue generation allows nonprofits to be “more responsive to change,” “attract employees who seek growth,” “accelerate growth and impact,” “become more financially sustainable and mature,” and the list goes on.
Rich is echoing a repeated dichotomy in the social change space between traditional, broken nonprofit approaches, and new, more sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship approaches. Her line of argument stems from a distaste for fundraising done badly.
Believe me, I get it. Fundraising is broken. But just because traditional fundraising is flawed doesn’t mean we should eschew all contributed income.Yes there is deep dysfunction within the nonprofit sector – I talk about it all the time. But the answer is not to simply dismiss the sector and all of its trappings (and revenue sources).
Let’s remember that a nonprofit organization is often created to provide a public good that is not offered by the market. In other words, nonprofits are selling what someone is unable to purchase.
Thus, nonprofits typically have two customers:
- Those who benefit from the services (“Clients”), and
- Those who buy the services (“Donors”)
When social change organizations are able to conflate the two – when the client becomes the buyer – a social enterprise is born. And while that is great, it is rarely the case. Therefore, market-based solutions will never provide all the social change we need.
Every social change organization must analyze their overall strategy and develop a financial model that best delivers on that strategy. That financial model may have earned income elements, contributed income (individual, corporate and foundation grants) elements, government funding or, most likely, some combination of all of these. And every nonprofit should at least analyze whether earned income is right for their financial model. But social enterprise will never be right for all nonprofits, or even a majority of them.
Instead of completely throwing out “traditional charity models,” let’s make them better. Rich argues that one of the many reasons earned income is better is that it allows organizations to “afford the best technologies to help them succeed.” If social change organizations need more capital investments for technology (which they definitely do) then let’s make capacity capital ubiquitous in the sector. But let’s not erroneously assume that more earned income equates to more capital investment.
Let’s move past these social enterprise vs. charity debates and instead focus on helping social change organizations develop smart, sustainable financial engines that include the right revenue (and capital) mix.
Photo Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham
It is obvious to most in this country that our political system is quite broken. A gridlocked Congress, a shilling mainstream media, a checked-out electorate, and the list goes on. But last week I saw some hope.
I participated in a really interesting gathering in Baltimore hosted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of their Madison Initiative (a $50 million project to “support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States”) Hewlett brought together 90 nonprofit and government leaders, consultants, journalists, heads of think tanks, and other foundation leaders to connect and analyze.
It was a fascinating few days. Through conversations and design-thinking sessions we were encouraged to stretch our thinking about solutions to the often depressing state of American government. I met some inspiring people who are creating solutions to our broken political system. (A few have agreed to be interviewed on the blog, so stay tuned.)
I am only tangential to this world of political reform, so for me it was interesting to see how conversations happening here can inform social change more broadly.
A few things occurred to me over the course of the three days about what effective social change requires:
Networks AND Institutions
Networks, loose connections of people and groups, exist outside of our 200+ year-old political institutions, but social change happens when networks organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt. This happened in the civil rights movement, recent global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.
Millennials AND Boomers
Echoing Robert Egger’s guest post this past summer on this blog, both Millennial and Boomer generations have a deep commitment to social change and the critical mass necessary to make it happen. But they would be even more effective at creating social change if they worked together, instead of against each other. Millennials need to recognize that Boomers fought for system change in their day (civil rights, women’s rights) and Boomers need to recognize that Millennials are creating similar kinds of system change, just with new tools and technologies. The two must find connections and collaborate more often. And I think Gen Xers (of which I am one) can play a critical role in translating between the two generations.
This is a huge country and sometimes that reality gets in the way of change. Red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Eastern time zone vs. Western time zone, coastal vs. flyover states, there are many ways to slice our country. It amazes me how often people focus on geographic differences instead of common values and goals. But true change comes when we break down those walls and have a conversation based on shared values rather than opposing frames of reference. The only way we move beyond impasse is for each side to listen with a completely open mind (free of assumptions and stereotypes) to the other side. And occasionally leave our comfort zone and meet others where they are.
At the end of the day, political reform is no different than any other social change we seek. To create positive change we must move beyond the dichotomies. We have to think much bigger. Perhaps the answer to our political woes is the same as the answer to our other social challenges, as E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
One of the things I love most about what I do is the opportunity to speak around the country to nonprofit and philanthropic leaders about new approaches. The nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it are changing dramatically, which can be unsettling, but can also be an incredible opportunity for nonprofit leaders to find a better way to reach their goals.
This Fall I’m particularly excited about some great speaking opportunities I have coming up. If you will be at any of these events, please let me know, I’d love to connect there.
And if you’d like to learn more about having me come speak at your event, or to your board, staff or donors, check out the Social Velocity Speaking page.
Here are my upcoming engagements:
August 1st, Portland, Oregon
I’m delighted to have such a groundbreaking nonprofit, Ecotrust (which inspires more resilient communities, economies, and ecosystems around the world) hosting me at a lunch event for Portland nonprofit leaders. I’ll be speaking to the group about new ways to finance their work. I’ll describe how clarifying the work their nonprofit does and connecting that to a robust financial model can transform their organizations’ financial sustainability and ability to create social change.
October 10th, Seattle
I’ll be kicking off the symposium with a talk on “Moving From Fundraising to Financing,” where I’ll show nonprofit leaders a new, more effective way to fund their work. As donors shift from a “charity” mindset to an impact and investment view, nonprofit leaders must articulate the social change they seek, develop a robust and sustainable financial model for their mission, and make their donors partners in the work. We’ll discuss how to uncover the most important building blocks of creating an integrated approach to engaging people in the mission.
November 5th-7th, Phoenix
At this year’s annual conference of grantmakers, I’ll be serving on a panel titled “The Power of Investing in Nonprofit Capacity.” Ellen Solowey, Program Officer at the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust; Darryl Tocker, Executive Director of the Tocker Foundation; and I will discuss foundations that make capacity investments in nonprofits. We will explore how funders can collectively address nonprofit capacity constraints such as financial instability, disengaged boards, lack of funding for professional development, and the need for long-term planning.
January 22, 2015, Hailey, Idaho
At this gathering of nonprofit leaders I’ll be leading a session titled “Messaging Impact.” More and more donors are interested in funding organizations that can demonstrate impact, or change to a social problem, as opposed to organizations that only talk about their needs. If a nonprofit leader can create a message of impact, she will be able to raise more money over a longer period of time. I’ll explain how to create a message of impact to encourage more donors to invest in the long-term work of a nonprofit.
It’s going to be a great Fall. I hope to see you at one of these events!
Photo Credit: Social Velocity
Note: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have several fantastic guest bloggers contributing to the blog this summer. First up is Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, as well as the nonprofit sector advocacy group, CForward. He is a tireless advocate for the nonprofit sector, encouraging nonprofits to take their rightful seat at the table. He is always pushing us to think bigger and smarter about social change.
Here is Robert’s post:
For you old school Trekkies out there, you may remember the 1969 episode titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” that featured the great Frank Gorshin as Commissioner Bele. The plot is built on a particularly brilliant metaphor of two alien beings – Bele and Loki – all but identical to the crew of the Enterprise, but who loathe each other because they represented a mirror image of the other.
This comes to mind because lately I’ve encountered quite a few fellow, older “leaders” who have a seemingly uniform concern about the Millenials, and their “we’re ready to run the show” attitude.
Similarly, I’ve also been speaking with lots of young “up-and-comers” who are all but ready to push the founder of their organization out the closest window, due to their inability to embrace new ideas or cede some of the decision making to those who sweat and toil on the front lines.
I totally get the friction, but I also know that our generations have lots of common ground to build upon. And for this blog, I’d like to suggest that we must avoid the inter-generational battle that many talking heads would stoke, so that we can take advantage of what will be, in my opinion, one of the greatest opportunities to change the world in centuries.
Yeah…I said centuries!
Think about it. Our generations represent two of the biggest, most educated, freest and richest generations in the history of the world. We’ll outlive our predecessors by decades, and remain healthy and productive much longer than any previous peoples. On top of that, at the push of a button, we can connect with tens of thousands of our peers; locally, nationally and internationally.
And as far-fetched as it might sound…from two divergent ends of the life spectrum, we actually are careening towards the same destination, and looking for many of the same things.
Together, we could be a social, political and economic juggernaut that could re-wire the world, explore new forms of capitalism, re-invigorate politics and reaffirm the incredible power of community.
Now…if you have already rolled your eyes, I can dig your skepticism. You have every right to laugh…but hang with me for a few more moments.
Every morning, 10,000 Baby Boomers wake up, walk into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and see a birthday boy or girl who just turned 67…and that will happen everyday for the next 20 years. You have to figure that a big ass hunk of them let out a looooong sigh, and wonder how they got so lost, tricked and hoodwinked into thinking money and stuff would buy them happiness. THEY are primed to join the ranks of those who would look for deeper meaning and purpose out of life. Heaven knows…they may even get humble, and seek to make amends by reaching to help younger men and women climb a different ladder.
Similarly, an even bigger number of Millenials do the same thing everyday, but they are turning 25…and they are looking in the mirror, and saying “I NEVER want to live my life the way they did.” Who knows…maybe some of them would like to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of possessions, and would value rich conversations with older leaders on how to re-examine the meaning of “rich”.
Do you get where I’m coming from? As weird as it sounds, more and more people everyday are waking up and wondering…is there a different way to live, be happy, judge success, value life, be a neighbor and make a difference?
Sure, one generation might be looking for redemption, while the other a different path, but we really are on the same road…we just haven’t realized it yet.
So…please…rather than buy into the whole “I hate you right back” shtick…realize that if our generations fight, we loose. If we unite, we can make things really right.
You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Controversy about whether Millennials will spend money differently than their parents to create change, arguments for greater philanthropic risk, examples of innovation in the arts, use of “Moneyball” in conservation and policymaking efforts, and the lure of online media to create social change. What more could you want from a month of social innovation reading?
You can also see all of the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Man, I love a good controversy. In April the Obama administration invited Millennial philanthropists to the White House to discuss next generation philanthropy. And The New York Times sent Millennial reporter (and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune) to cover it. Well, Jim Newell from The Baffler doesn’t buy the argument that Millennials are going to use money differently than their predecessors. But Jed Emerson and Lindsay Norcott think Millennials will actually take impact investing mainstream.
- And staying on the controversy train just a bit longer, William Easterly takes issue with celebrity famine relief efforts that ignore (and potentially make worse) the lack of democracy causing famine in the first place.
- Because achieving scale is incredibly difficult work, Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched an 8-week series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog exploring how we achieve it. 16 thought leaders will “weigh in with their insights, struggles, and questions regarding the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.”
- It seems that the arts, perhaps more than other issue areas, are on the front lines of innovation in order to stay relevant. And this month really brought those struggles home. First, the Houston Grand Opera has seen dramatic growth in audiences, bucking a declining trend elsewhere, by appealing to broader audiences. Perhaps the San Diego Opera could have learned something from Houston since their declining audiences (and poor governance decisions) have put them in danger of closing their doors. And ever at the ready with examples of how arts organizations are innovating and adapting, ArtsFwd released two case studies on how the Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theater Companies have embraced adaptive change.
- What’s with Moneyball (the movie and book about using data to drive major league baseball strategy) everywhere lately? Using data and smart strategy the Nature Conservancy is getting more effective at conserving bird habitats. And David Bornstein thinks the federal government is getting into the game as well with an increase in data-driven policy making.
- The Pew Research Center just released a book, and corresponding interactive site, about the changing demographic face of America and how it could affect everything, “Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”
- Should philanthropy embrace more risk? Philanthropist Laurie Michaels founder of Open Road Alliance, which provides funding to help nonprofits overcome unforeseen roadblocks or leverage unanticipated opportunities, thinks so. Michael Zakaras interviews her in Forbes. As she puts it, “Very few people in the finance industry predicted the economic collapse in 2008, and yet we ask NGOs to submit a plan that will be stable for several years, which is an impossibility in the best of circumstance.” Amen!
- On the NPEngage blog, Raheel Gauba answers the fascinating question: “If Google were a nonprofit, what would its website look like?”
- And speaking of nonprofits online, the PhilanTopic blog released an infographic summarizing the 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study about nonprofit online activity.
- Moving on to other forms of media, I love what’s happening with video games and the innovators who are adapting them to help solve social problems. Who knew that playing Minecraft could actually change the world?
Photo Credit: Mikel Agirregabiria
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Cindy Gibson. Cindy is a consultant to national foundations and nonprofits providing support to improve capacity and program effectiveness. She is a widely published author and blogger on issues affecting the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Cindy has been named one of the Nonprofit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Your writing tends to pull back the curtain on some of the “politeness” that goes on in the nonprofit sector and encourages more authentic conversations. Yet the tendency to seek consensus instead of conflict is fundamental to the sector and its long history, so how and where do we start having more productive, challenging conversations as a sector?
Cindy: This question nicely acknowledges the unique role the nonprofit sector can and does play in an increasingly polarized world, but that doesn’t mean the same sector necessarily values consensus over all else, including conflict. Historically, nonprofits have been at the forefront of passionate debates over some of the most difficult and divisive issues we’ve ever faced as a country—civil rights and abortion, for example.
Relatively speaking, though, nonprofits may be less predatory when it comes to how they work and the goals they want to achieve. That’s all good, but it doesn’t mean that nonprofits are or should be immune from criticism or legitimate questions about what they’re doing, how and for what purpose. Unfortunately, I think we’ve become so averse to that kind of open dialogue and critical analysis. As a result, the few people who are brave enough to raise questions are immediately labeled as “negative” or “a naysayer,” which slams the door shut on any hope of deeper discussion.
I think that’s because challenge sometimes is seen as being critical of the good intentions behind doing “God’s work.” But good intentions aren’t mutually exclusive from honesty and critical thinking. Honesty with the intent of finding out where there’s agreement, disagreement, what’s substantive and what’s smoke and mirrors can be transformational. After all, just because we might believe something is “effective,” doesn’t mean that it actually is. The danger in eschewing healthy skepticism is that organizations that aren’t particularly effective but receive a disproportionately high percentage of funding leaves organizations that are getting results with less support.
I can think of at least two examples of organizations – one national and one international – that have instant name recognition and are frequently held up as exemplars. Both have very charismatic leaders and are extremely savvy in marketing themselves and their brand. Both organizations, however, also have been the focus of studies by highly credible evaluators who found little or no data demonstrating their effectiveness. In fact, what data does exist shows that these groups are actually failing to achieve their stated missions. Nevertheless, they continue to receive millions of dollars from the same foundations that tout the virtues of evidence-based philanthropy, and their nonprofit colleagues continue to roll their eyes privately when these organizations are trumpeted as “models.”
Another place where critical thinking (and honesty) is desperately needed is when new organizations that may be replicating what others have been doing for years are hailed as “innovative.” And in fact, without more healthy skepticism, we’ll continue to lag behind other fields when it comes to innovation, which is built on critical thinking and disruption.
I think the first step toward breaking this cycle is to provide more platforms that are intentional about giving where people can express their opinions and ideas without fear of ad hominen attacks that tend to squelch the discussions we need to have. We can loosen up the tightly buttoned format of some of these events and allow for more humor, personality and insouciance. Fewer power points, more spontaneity.
We also need more venues in which to suss out what’s hype and what’s real so that people outside the inner circles of “the newest best thing” can understand what’s being promoted and what they think about it. Take social impact bonds, for example. A lot of what’s written about these is by people who are steeped in finance backgrounds, leaving those who aren’t confused and, in turn, disinterested in finding out more. As a result, there’s little serious debate about whether these are really all they’re cracked up to be, since there’s not much hard evidence, to date, as to whether they work. Yet, millions of dollars have been poured into their creation and rollout.
We also need more investigative journalism about nonprofits and philanthropy—not just in the mainstream but trade press as well. That’s difficult, given that most nonprofit information sources tend to be supported with grant dollars, making it difficult for them to be openly critical or truthful, especially when it comes to funders. But as foundations and nonprofits veer into territory previously relegated to either government or the private sector, there will be more attention focused on the issues that are natural byproducts of these changes: public accountability, mission creep, profit motivation and others. We’re already seeing it in stories about whether foundations have too much power in influencing public policy and whether citizens are being left out of important decisionmaking processes that involve only those with the financial resources to have access to that table. Something we can do right now though is encourage the same news outlets that don’t hesitate to cite “anonymous sources” in other fields to do likewise in reporting about philanthropy, which can be just as retributive against people who go on the record with critical comments.
Nell: One of the most difficult places for open, honest conversation is between nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them because of an inherent power imbalance. Can we ever hope to overcome that and if so, how?
Cindy: While there is clearly a power imbalance baked into most transactional dynamics—including funding—I think it’s important that we don’t frame the need for more honest conversation as one that’s only about the funder/grantseeker relationship, which can usually be summed up as “funder bad, grantseeker good.”
I’d suggest that nonprofits themselves are reluctant to engage in honest public discussions about their peers.That silence is understandable, but it can be self-defeating—for both nonprofits and grant makers. Nonprofits aren’t given the chance to have thoughtful and open conversations about what’s not working so they could use that information help them strengthen their own activities. And philanthropists don’t have the benefit of getting honest, first-hand perspectives from a broad array of organizations with expertise.
Happily, I think there are larger, cultural currents that may break this logjam. Some of these stem from technology, which is driving more interactivity and transparency and democratizing what were once closed institutions to allow more meaningful participation for “real people.” These changes are also upending traditional hierarchical management structures, which rests on the premise that rank is power, to more collaborative and fluid systems based on ecosystem thinking. Clearly, we’re already seeing these trends disrupting entire fields such as journalism, education, and politics.
Young people in particular, “get it.” Frustrated by traditional institutions, they’re doing an end run around those organizations and creating new models of social innovation and change. They’re becoming social entrepreneurs unencumbered by bureaucracy, launching web-based giving circles where everyone’s a partner, and using social media to generate engagement that goes beyond donations. And they’re demanding more transparency from traditional “closed-door” institutions, including big foundations, which tend to see transparency as putting grant guidelines and allocations on a website. To grantseekers, though, transparency is being as honest as possible about how funders make decisions and on what criteria those are based.
Institutional philanthropy is one of those domains that, admittedly, is still dragging its feet in moving into this new universe. Risk averse by nature, they have hierarchies of power that are hard to shake. That’s why some of the most innovative developments in philanthropy are occurring outside the walls of the big foundations and among smaller entities such as community foundations, a group of which are involving community residents as equal partners in their grantmaking efforts. That kind of “participatory philanthropy” is also reflected in the rise of giving circles and crowdfunding sites that allow everyone to be a philanthropist.
I’ve had the privilege of working with several foundations who’ve been willing to jump into the abyss and open their doors in ways that previously would be sacrosanct. One national funder, for example, convened all 80 of their grantees in face-to-face discussions with a facilitator (and no foundation staff in the room) to give their unvarnished feedback about the funder’s somewhat unhelpful application process and the way in which they communicated with nonprofits. What made this process distinctive is that, according to a recent study by the Grants Managers Network (Project Streamline), only 9% of foundations have these kind of in-person conversations. Only 50% of funders even want to solicit grantee/seeker feedback, and they usually do so through surveys. But this foundation went even further: It used the “data” from those gatherings to completely revamp not only its application process but the internal funding decisionmaking systems. And it’s checking in with grantees annually.
I also worked with the Case Foundation several years ago to develop one of the first national “open source” funding initiatives that went beyond asking the public to vote on the recipients to involving “real people” in every step of the process — including determining the grantmaking criteria, reviewing all proposal applications, and deciding on the winners. What made this truly transparent was that the experts/funders didn’t decide the final list of potential grantees and then ask the public to vote on them; that, instead, emerged from a bottom-up process that didn’t involve the foundation at all.
This kind of transparency is the bedrock on which new, more democratic forms of philanthropy are being built. And it’s going to require that funders of all kinds be open to exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships with “real people” on the ground. That will mean going beyond interviewing those people for input that funders then use to make the decisions themselves. Instead, it will require more meaningful involvement of people in communities in decisions about where funds are allocated, why, and how. Asking people to vote on grant-award dollars is one way; another might be recruiting people in communities to help advise foundations in developing their grant criteria, application process, and overall programs. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priority-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff members on a regular basis.
Admittedly, this kind of participatory philanthropy won’t be easy to embrace for institutions that have historically been shrouded in secrecy. But it could make philanthropy more responsive, authentic, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.
Nell: One of the topics you recently took on was Bill Shore’s (and others’) argument that nonprofits need to have bolder goals. You argued that “wicked problems” require a much more complex and messy approach. To take that point even further, given the ongoing increase in wealth inequality is there a point at which the system is so broken that no intervention by the social sector will really make a difference?
Cindy: I think there may be some assumptions in your question that need more clarification. First, there’s a link made here between burgeoning income inequality and the “system.” Which system, though? Government-subsidized social programs? The political process that determines who receives that support and how much? An economic system that, some argue, will always have built into it a level of income stratification? An educational system in which those with the social and financial capital to access the “best” schools are able to access better jobs? All of these factors contribute to income inequality, which, yes, results in an extremely complex and messy issue. In turn, any attempt to “solve” (you’ll note in our article, we say “resolve” instead) these problems will be fraught with nuanced minefields.
Another interesting thing in your question is the use of the word “intervention” as singular. Wicked problems by their very nature don’t usually respond to one “best practice” or even a set of discrete interventions. As one of my co-authors, Katya Fels Smyth, notes wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions, which means that all sectors and domains need to be involved.
That doesn’t mean the social sector should just give up. We always need to continue to strive toward ensuring equality, equity and opportunity—the cornerstones of our democracy. It’s become increasingly clear, however, that no one sector or set of players can do it alone. So, perhaps rather than ask what the social sector can do, why not ask whether it’s time to start seeing all sectors as equally important in addressing these kinds of thorny issues?
But I’d raise yet another, bigger question: Is there even a need to have such a bright line separating the social sector from others? What, exactly, is the social sector? If, like the government, it shut down tomorrow, what would close? Today, like it or not, what used to be a clear delineation among the various sectors has become more of a membrane, with a lot of overlap and interflow.
I think what’s increasingly needed is a balance between preserving the values and mission of nonprofits while moving toward different ways of working with a more diverse set of players to achieve the common good. That will mean recognizing that the social sector may no longer have a corner on the market of all that’s right and good in the world, nor is it the only domain that can carry out charitable, philanthropic and social change efforts. Now, it’s less about which sector is “doing good” and more about making sure that all sectors, all organizations, and all individuals have the opportunity to affect change in meaningful ways in whatever milieu it occurs.
But that doesn’t mean the social sector should just disappear or morph into some kind of fuzzy hybrid. It suggests that the sector needs to step up now and ensure that cross-collaborative, horizontal approaches to “doing good” include the lessons nonprofits have learned about the kinds of skills, strategies and leadership are required to do that effectively and successfully—no matter who’s doing it or in what sector.
That means the social sector needs to move from the kid’s table to one where organizations from all sectors meet as equal partners, all with something important to add to the mix.
And the social sector has a lot to offer. Because of their experience in tackling wicked problems like poverty, violence and discrimination, nonprofits understand that the most successful of these efforts requires cooperation, rather than competition; collaboration, rather than individual effort; and long-term commitment over fast results. Those are the traits that research has shown will be essential to the 21st century.
The key will be figuring out how to parse out the best of what the nonprofit sector epitomizes and balance that with an array of competing approaches to achieve a more balanced and fluid approach.
Photo Credit: Cindy Gibson
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