We spend a lot of time in this country talking about innovation, particularly on the East and West coasts. But I was reminded recently that innovation can happen anywhere, even in the “fly over states” (which is such an obnoxious term, by the way).
I was in South Boston, Virginia last week to deliver a Financial Model Assessment to the Halifax Educational Foundation. They fund the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), which is a fascinating model of higher education innovation.
Almost 30 years ago community leaders in this tiny, rural town 75 miles from Raleigh, North Carolina realized that their primary industries of tobacco, textiles and furniture were fading fast. In order to revamp their local economy, they decided to create a hybrid higher education institution (part community college, part incubator, part workforce development site, part educational broker) that would prepare the next generation workforce.
The SVHEC renovated two 150-year old abandoned tobacco warehouses (one to LEED certification) into 100,000 square feet of high-tech classrooms and labs featuring advanced machining and simulation technology focused on nursing, advanced manufacturing, 3-D modeling, and the business of art and design. Their goal is “to re-tool southern Virginia’s rural workforce for jobs in the New Economy.”
They have created an example of what innovative higher education can look like. The video below describes the center, which although located in the middle of rural America, rivals most large city higher education institutions:
The SVHEC recognized early the threat that changing times posed to their community and created a solution that not only recycled beautiful old buildings, but more importantly breathed new life into a rural economy on the brink of extinction. Theirs is truly a model for innovative rural economic development.
And it is testament to the fact that social innovation can happen anywhere.
Because social change doesn’t require big names, huge ideas, or deep pocketbooks. It simply demands a confident vision and the leadership and tenacity necessary to execute on it.
Photo Credit: SVHEC, Steve Helber
Between my own time away from social media in August, the general end of summer quiet, and of course, the glut of posts about the Ice Bucket challenge (of which I have already said my piece), my list of great reads in August is admittedly slim.
But there was some interesting debate, most notably about “strategic philanthropy” and about ratings agency Philanthropedia. Also, calls for more nonprofit leadership development and for nonprofit leaders to get out of their own way by taking the Overhead Pledge. Throw in a little Mark Twain, some sharing economy, and a dash of Millennial analysis and you have a pretty good month in the world of social change.
So below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in August. For an expanded list you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Leadership development is a woefully underfunded need in the nonprofit sector. Indeed from 1992-2011 only $3.5 billion of the nearly $287 billion dollars granted by foundations went to support leadership. In order to get more foundations investing in leadership development, Rusty Stahl offers case studies of 9 foundations who already do.
- In the summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, the lead article “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” caused quite a stir in the philanthropy world with many arguing that there is not much new there. In August, Alliance Magazine ran a series of editorials by philanthropy leaders as counterpoints. Most interesting among them was Avila Kilmurray’s, former director of the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland, response, in which she said “Can we not just recognize that when any funder sets her/himself the task of addressing complex issues…there needs to be provision for continuous consultation, practice, reflection and change?”
- An interesting article in the New York Times paints the Millennial generation as a very communal-minded one, where “the highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.” From working, to eating, to shopping it seems Millennials bake social into everything they do. How will the world be different if that holds true as they age?
- Writing in Forbes, Tom Watson asks whether nonprofits should participate in GivingTuesday. As he puts it, “Is #GivingTuesday a well-meaning marketing promotion – or is it a real, organic movement for change?…[Does it] seek to increase U.S. giving from 2% of GDP (where it’s been stuck for two generations) to some higher point?” Amen to that!
- Rating nonprofit effectiveness is such a tricky challenge. Philanthropedia, one rating system that is driven by crowdsourced feedback from experts, comes under fire from the clean water space for being just “a popularity contest.” But others claim it’s an improvement over previous evaluations.
- Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy Nicole Wallace shows the value of sharing data by profiling Crisis Text Line, which gives other nonprofits, researchers and government agencies access to their data of 60,000 counseling sessions with teens in crisis to use in their own programs. It begs the question whether other social change data could be shared and how we make that easier to do.
- Sue Dorsey from Water for People was among a group of nonprofit leaders at the InsideNGO conference who took the Overhead Pledge in August, vowing to fully disclose the true costs of their nonprofits. And she encourages other nonprofit leaders to follow suit. This is exciting because it is not enough for funders to get over the overhead myth, nonprofit leaders must as well.
- I am always a sucker for connecting literature and/or history to social change, and even better both, so David Bonbright’s post about how Mark Twain would have viewed recent trends in business is fascinating. Bonbright argues that Twain wanted American business to fully integrate profit and community. And we are beginning to witness this trend again where companies are “embracing the full implications of what they are – what they mean for the environment, for communities, for the most marginalized people affected by their supply chains…[because] this is best way to remain competitive and successful over time.” Let’s hope!
- The new “sharing” economy is not all good, but not all bad either, as Daniel Ben-Horin argues that “there are enormous opportunities for the social sector to engage with the values-driven segment of the sharing economy.”
- Finally, some guidance on making your nonprofit email marketing more mobile friendly and your website better able to connect people to your cause. It’s all about responsive, engaging design.
Photo Credit: Seth Anderson
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
Does it seem like there is more open debate lately in the social sector? Or maybe I’m just attracted to discussions where the gloves come off and (let’s hope) transformative conversation happens. That was the case in May where philanthropic transparency, nonprofit leadership, and donor acceptance policies were all up for debate.
Add to that some really interesting developments in the new “sharing economy”, net neutrality, and use of big data, and it was another great month in the world of social innovation.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from the last month, but please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.
And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni criticizes some nonprofits for accepting donations from donors who actually undermine the cause. These nonprofits, in effect, end up whitewashing the philanthropists, “Some [philanthropy] is prophylactic or penitential: The polluter supports environmentalists, while the peddler of sugary soft drinks contributes to campaigns against obesity.”
- And philanthropists themselves were far from criticism this month. Writing in The Atlantic, Benjamin Soskis believes it is critical for a healthy democracy that philanthropists go under the microscope, in fact: “Given the power that private philanthropy can wield over public policy, a spirited, fully-informed public debate over the scope, scale, and nature of that influence is a democratic necessity.” Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy agrees. And to that end, May saw the launch of Philamplify, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s attempt at a Yelp-like review site of foundations.
- In a long (but well worth the time) piece, Albert Ruesga from the Greater New Orleans Foundation lays bare his antipathy toward his fellow philanthropists: “We grantmakers, myself included, act as arrogant elites, drawing arrows and triangles on the whiteboards of our well-appointed conference rooms with no one around to challenge our flawed thinking. We strut about like giant roosters puffing out our breast feathers and clucking incoherently about ‘disruption’ and ‘theories of change.’ We look foolish to everyone except ourselves and those even more foolish than we are.”
- But there are bright spots. Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation takes to the Hewlett blog to refreshingly demonstrate funder transparency and explain “What Went Wrong in Our Democracy Grantmaking.” And Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett and author of a scathing critique of philanthropy last year, has a fascinating debate/very civilized exchange with ethicist William MacAskill about how effective (or harmful) philanthropy can be.
- We are living in the era of big data, and this month there were some really interesting examples of how data can be used to make things better. First, UPS uses data to improve driver performance and profitability. The University of Texas at Austin is doing some fascinating things with data to help at-risk students graduate. And some nonprofits are using data to improve fundraising effectiveness.
- Last month saw the first-ever sharing economy conference. This new idea – that our economy is evolving to a point at which goods, services, ideas are all shared – has serious implications for the social sector. Lucy Bernholz and Beth Kanter break it down for us.
- And a key part of that sharing economy is an open Internet. But the FCC is considering changes to rules that would allow a “two-tiered” Internet where those with means can pay more for faster service. The Benton Foundation did a nice summary of developments around net neutrality. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation organized to let voices be heard by the FCC.
- Innovation is hard work. So when the work of creating social change drags you down, you only need look as far as Steven Pressfield for inspiration, “When we’re stuck, when we’re freaking out, when it all seems too much too soon too crazy, remember: that’s only how it seems to us, confined within our limited point of view. From the universe’s perspective, all is as it should be. Sooner or later, you and I will stop fighting and let the symphony/supernova/baby be born.”
- Using data from the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s most recent State of the Sector survey, work by state associations of nonprofits, and new Uniform Guidance for federal grants from the federal Office of Management and Budget, Beth Bowsky from the National Council of Nonprofits charts some positive developments in government funding the true costs of nonprofits’ work.
- Never one to sugar coat it, in an interview on the Idealist blog, Robert Egger describes his vision for the next generation of nonprofit leaders: “Our society needs an elevated nonprofit sector, but to get there, we need people who are prepared to challenge antiquated ideas about the role we play in the economic and political process.”
Photo Credit: Mo Riza
In addition to the Social Impact Exchange conference I mentioned earlier, I will be traveling a lot this summer connecting with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders. I’ll be blogging about what I learn in my travels and conversations. And, I’m really excited to announce, that I have an amazing group of guest bloggers who will be posting throughout the summer as well.
These guest bloggers are people who really make me think and will offer some really interesting perspectives. I’ve invited them each to take over one Social Velocity blog post sometime during the summer.
Below is the guest blogger lineup with some background on each of them. Their posts will begin in late June. And I will continue to post throughout the summer as well.
Social Velocity Summer Guest Bloggers
Robert is the founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, as well as the nonprofit sector advocacy group, CForward. Robert was included in the Non Profit Times list of the “50 Most Powerful and Influential” nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009, and speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement and social enterprise. 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. You can read my past interview with him here and my post about CForward here.
David is the founder of Idealistics, a former social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He has worked in the social sector for the last decade providing direct services to low-income and unhoused adults and families, operating a non-profit organization, and consulting with various social sector organizations and foundations. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which I highly recommend. He will make your head hurt, but in a really good way. You can read my interview with him here and watch the Google Hangout he and I did about Using Real Performance Data to Raise Money.
Jessamyn is Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, a family foundation based in Palo Alto, California. The Peery Foundation invests in and serves social entrepreneurs and leading organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Her experience as part of the founding Ashoka U team has given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. You can read my interview with her here.
Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In this role, he develops new strategies and programs to bring about change and impact within JCF’s mission. Adin focuses on defining metrics to document impact, maximizing measurable impact and increasing the visibility of the organization. Prior to JCF, Adin was a nonprofit consultant and had his own blog, Working in White Space, which was phenomenal. You can read my past interview with him here.
Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she tracks philanthropic trends and builds relationships with leaders advancing the common good across sectors. She also leads an impact investing initiative and regularly interacts with those interested in the changing landscape of social good. Previously as manager of public-philanthropic partnerships, she built the capacities of federal agencies interested in partnering with foundations. Before joining the Council, she worked at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and at the Central New York Community Foundation. Laura has been named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum. She is also a StartingBloc Fellow and writes for UnSectored, serving on advisory boards for both organizations. You can read my interview with her here.
So there you have it. A summer guest blogging lineup that I am thrilled about. I can’t wait to read what they all have to say. Stay tuned!
Photo Credit: Holger.Ellgaard
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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