Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.
The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.
The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.
He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:
- “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
- Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
- Stay hopeful, and
- Accept that the work will be uncomfortable
It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.
The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.
She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.
And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.
The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.
In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”
The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.
Whew, are you as exhausted as I am? As I said last month, with the January inauguration of President Trump, it seems we moved into hyper drive. And February didn’t slow down a bit. From debates about the right political role for nonprofits, to advocacy in new areas like science, to efforts to reinvent journalism, to new grassroots organizing campaigns, to new ways to think about marketing in the nonprofit sector, there was a lot going on in the world of social change.
Here is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change in February. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And check out past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- A big contributor to the exhausting pace is the daily onslaught of new and shocking pronouncements from the Trump administration. One with a potentially huge impact on the nonprofit sector was Trump’s call for an end to the Johnson Amendment, which limits the election-related activity of nonprofits. Many argued that this would be a destructive development for the sector, from limiting the collaborative position of the sector, to moving philanthropy away from social change and toward politics, to contributing to an elimination of the charitable tax deduction, to increasing dark money contributions to political campaigns. But others disagreed arguing that repealing the Johnson Amendment would level the playing field with for-profits. As always, the HistPhil blog gives some much needed historical perspective on the issue.
- Another victim of Trump’s ire in February was the news media. Journalism has been struggling for years amid falling advertising revenues and a changing digital landscape. But it seems the Trump administration may just be the impetus the industry needs to reinvent itself. As Jeff Jarvis argued: “Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.” And Nieman Lab hosted a conversation among journalists and editors from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post about the future of journalism. And Democracy Fund launched a cool new project, the Local News Lab, aimed at making local news more sustainable.
- In these uncertain times where many nonprofits are feeling under attack, advocacy has become a more important tool than ever. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jim Shultz offers some guiding questions for developing your nonprofit’s advocacy strategy.
- And speaking of new levels of advocacy, while scientists once strived to remain separate from politics, some scientists are finding themselves in the political arena just by investigating areas at odds with the Trump administration, like climate change. And some scientists created a network of scientists who could offer temporary space to U.S. scientists stranded overseas by the immigration ban.
- The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies released a new online database that lets you slice and dice data on the U.S. nonprofit economy. Fascinating.
- Some nonprofits have enjoyed dramatic donation and follower increases as a result of the election. One of these, the ACLU has developed a pretty impressive social media strategy and plans for a much larger ground game. Similarly, Planned Parenthood is using their increased support to develop their grassroots organizing efforts.
- All of these efforts to resist the Trump Administration got David Brooks thinking about resistance movements throughout history and which might be most applicable now.
- Taz Hussein and Matt Plummer offered a wakeup call to social change leaders who think they don’t need to generate demand for their social change work: “It’s time [nonprofits] and their funders heed business findings on increasing noise in the marketplace and the need to make any new offering, even a life-saving one, stand out. In other words, they need to pay what it takes to actively drive demand.”
- And speaking of marketing in the nonprofit sector, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argued that nonprofits needs to stop “raising awareness” and instead create strategies for changing behavior: “Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.” Amen!
- Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Kyle Crawford argued that chatbots — computer programs that conduct a conversation via voice or text — have a real role to play in social change, and nonprofits should become early adopters of this new technology.
Photo Credit: Max Pixel
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders form their organizational strategy, their fundraising pitch, or their program model inside their nonprofit’s own walls. In order to be successful, you must understand the market in which you operate. And in order to understand it, you must go investigate it.
It is a simple fact that nonprofits must compete for funding, for clients, for volunteers, for staff, for board members, for mindshare, for policymaker will and commitment. So you must understand the market in which you work – what’s happening out there and how you fit in.
Ongoing market research can help you understand how your clients and potential clients think, what your funders want now and in the future, what your competitors and collaborators are doing and where they might be going, and how the very problems you exist to solve might be changing over time.
And there is another huge benefit to this data gathering — it forces you to expand and strengthen your network, because in the very act of finding out what’s happening outside your walls, you will forge new and deeper connections with others out there. So while market research should definitely be part of your long-term strategic planning process, it is also something you should continue to do on at least an annual basis.
Market research is where you test the assumptions baked into your work. You are seeking to find the answers to questions like:
- How are the efforts of other groups in our space changing over time?
- How are these other groups funded?
- What are their program delivery models?
- What are their plans for the future?
- Where are there opportunities for alliance?
- How do they define the social problems they are working on?
- What other social, technological, economic, demographic, political, regulatory shifts are happening outside our walls that might affect the problem(s) we are working on?
Of those people or groups you are trying to influence or benefit (like your clients) find out:
- What are the demographic (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.) characteristics of these groups?
- What are their psychographic (attitudes, interests, goals, etc.) characteristics?
- How can we best reach them and change their attitudes and/or behavior?
- What specific subsets of these populations can we have the greatest impact on?
- How might our various funding streams (government, earned income, private donations, etc.) change over time?
- What might our current or future funders want in the future?
- What appeals to them about our solution?
- What appeals to them about alternative solutions?
Before embarking on any market research, think through questions like these and figure out which are most applicable to your situation. This becomes your market research list.
Then determine how you will find the answers to those questions. Very few nonprofits can afford a comprehensive market study, so it will likely be up to your staff to do the digging. This can include activities like:
- Web research on your competitors, collaborators, funders.
- One-on-one interviews with current and potential funders, collaborators and competitors, experts in your field.
- Surveys of your current or potential clients, members, influencers, funders, volunteers.
- Review of existing research on the social issues on which you work.
And don’t assume that you will do this type of market research only once. Rather, you want to make it a regular part of operations (at least annually, if not more often), so it shouldn’t be overly burdensome. Make it easy and interesting for you and your staff to get beyond your walls and better understand the market in which you work.
Armed with new and ongoing knowledge about your market, you will be better able to design effective programs, attract additional support, articulate your nonprofit’s unique value, grow your network, and much more. So get out there!
Photo Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wartime Social Survey
Perhaps like many of you, I participated in the Women’s March on Saturday. In my hometown of Austin, Texas I stood with my husband and two teenage sons amid a sea of 50,000 other people, and I suddenly wondered whether we are witnessing the birth of a new era of civic engagement.
Saturday was to me an amazing and previously unseen (in my lifetime) display of citizen participation. Whatever your political views, when 2 million+ people take to the streets in a single day, you have to admit that something is going on.
As one of my East-coast based colleagues said in an email on Saturday morning:
“I’m on a bus to DC this morning with my wife and daughter. The excitement is palpable on the I-95 corridor as thousands of buses are lined up to enter the Capital. The buses are filled with patriots, patriots with a lovers quarrel with their country. It should be an exhilarating day for the promise of America.”
And as I looked around at the thousands and thousands of smiling faces around me on Saturday, I too felt my patriotism swell. It was perhaps the beginning of a more inclusive and engaging democracy — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social change).
It is too soon to tell where this will take us. It could be that the nonprofit sector will be called to lead this movement. Indeed, many of the speakers across the country on Saturday urged people to join and support nonprofit organizations. And many new organizations are cropping up amid this new energy, while, as I’ve mentioned before, many nonprofit organizations have seen donations soar since the election.
As Josh Marshall wrote last week, these times demand something much more from us — something more than any of us have ever been asked to give. And we must rise to the challenge:
“We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need. This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.”
So while I spent much of November and December full of dread about what the future may bring, I now have a burgeoning sense of hope. Perhaps our democracy isn’t crumbling. Maybe instead we are being asked, each one of us, to remake it stronger, more inclusive and more energetic than ever before.
These are certainly interesting times.
Photo Credit: National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon
Let’s be honest, December was about just trying to make it through the end of 2016.
But where there is darkness there is also light. And many of the discussions and posts in December actually uncovered a lot of bright spots in an otherwise very trying year. From the success of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to a surge in donations to nonprofit journalism, to potential progress on climate change, to the future of philanthropy, there was much promise. Perhaps I was just looking for it, but I saw lots of hope in December.
Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in December, but please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- In perhaps the best blog post title ever, “8 Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t a Total Garbage Fire” Marie Solis reminds us that there was actually some exciting progress in 2016.
- For example, the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline found success when the US Army Corps of Engineers decided not to approve an easement to allow construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe. And Tate Williams, writing on Inside Philanthropy, finds lessons for philanthropy in this social movement: “Supporting movements like Standing Rock likely means challenging grantmaking norms, loosening up requirements, taking chances, and moving much faster than foundations may be accustomed to.”
- December also saw a glut of donations to nonprofit journalism outlets, like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, to name a few. And indeed, in the wake of the Trump election, funders like the Omidyar Network are increasing support for civic technology, solutions aimed at getting people more civically engaged.
- It looks like despite the new administration’s anti-environmental leanings, clean energy will continue to grow. Backing this trend, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates, announced a $1 billion fund to finance zero-carbon clean-energy technologies. And David Roberts writing in Vox argues that cities, rather than the federal government, may actually need to lead the clean energy effort: “Now that the US federal government is getting out of the climate protection business, at least for four years, [cities] are more important than ever…Cities generate most of the world’s economic activity, innovation, and cultural ferment. They also generate a growing share of its carbon emissions…Urban areas are also first in line to feel the effects of climate change…If they hope to avoid worse to come, cities will need to almost entirely rid themselves of carbon over the next few decades.”
- Writers at The New York Times offer two ways to move on from 2016, start small and lift up those around you.
- The Hewlett Foundation celebrated their 50 year birthday with a symposium on the history of philanthropy. In addition to the interesting #Hewlett50 Twitter feed, the foundation commissioned this very interesting paper from Benjamin Soskis and Stanley Katz (of HistPhil blog fame) on the past 50 years of philanthropy.
- Aaron Dorfman, President of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a call to action for philanthropists in the Trump era.
- A new report from The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reveals that Generation X and Millennial donors are giving less than their Boomer and Silent Generation counterparts did at their age, but women’s influence on philanthropic decisions is growing.
- And a small, but very positive thing that came out of the presidential election is that it has brought philanthropic thought leader and curmudgeon Albert Ruesga out of his writing retirement. His latest post on the need for philanthropy to recognize class divides is particularly enlightening. As he puts it: “To introduce and champion class consciousness is to acknowledge that the ‘structures’ we seek to change—if we’re enlightened grantmakers—are often structures put in place to serve the purposes of an economically defined class…So while we might wish to remain class-neutral, the structures that keep people in poverty unfortunately will not. How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions that, in spite of our best intentions, perpetuate class privilege? How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? I don’t deny these challenges, but I’m convinced that ignoring the effects of class is acting in bad faith. It’s treading water while strong currents continue to carry us and our neighbors further downstream.”
- Finally, if you are looking for an actual book to read in the new year, Michiko Kakutani reviews reporter David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog which chronicles the rise in popularity of pen, paper, books, records and all things non-digital. Sign me up!
Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz
If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.
But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.
Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).
But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.
I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us. But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.
And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:
“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”
That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.
Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.
As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”
So check your attitude at the door.
The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.
Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann
As the year draws to a close, it’s time for all of us to take some time off to relax, be with friends and family, and most importantly rest up for the year ahead.
2016 was rough, folks. So now it is critical that you take some time off to reconnect with your core.
But before I head out myself for some time off, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular Social Velocity posts from this year, in case you missed any of them. And, if you are so inclined, you can also read the 10 most popular posts from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
I so appreciate you, dear readers. You are an amazing group of social change leaders who inspire me and give me hope for the future. Indeed, when it is darkest you help me see the light. We need you now more than ever, social change leaders, so please take good care of yourselves and come back to 2017 ready to get to work.
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2016 were:
- Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?
- 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make
- Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)
- Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix
- How is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?
- 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]
- Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader
- A Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy Is Not Enough
- 5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have
- The Network as Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio
Photo Credit: nicoleleec
I don’t have to tell you that November was rough.
A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots — a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.
- Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy. From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”
- And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.
- Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.
- But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”
- Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.
- And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.
- Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!
- Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.
- Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals. Fascinating.
Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano