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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: HistPhil

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Why I’m Excited About the Independent Sector Conference

independent sector conferenceLater this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.

First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.

Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector: 1) Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation, 2) Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership, 3)Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations, 4)Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions, 5)Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and environmental issues, 6)New models for social welfare and social change.

Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.

The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.

Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.

So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2015

social changeIn September there was some surprising good news about climate change. Yes, you read that right. We are perhaps, slowly, starting to address that problem (mind blowing, huh?). And in other news, there was a call for funders to help nonprofits become better fundraisers and some tools to help nonprofits use data in that pursuit.

Add to that concern about what digitial technology is doing to our humanness and critiques of Teach for America, proposed changes to philanthropy policy and an emerging “network” entrepreneur, and it was a very interesting month.

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

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

  1. If the world of social change is getting you down, if the challenges we face seem insurmountable, look no further than the New York Magazine where Jonathan Chait sees hope in the battle against climate change. As he puts it: “The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope.” Wow.

  2. Writing on the Blue Avocado blog, Aaron Dorfman from The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy takes foundations to task for wanting their grantees to be financially sustainable, but not helping them build that capacity, “Why don’t more foundations invest in helping their organizing grantees develop independent funding streams? Here – as with many issues grantees face – even a little targeted capacity-building support would go a long way.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

  3. One of the ways nonprofits can build fundraising capacity is by learning to use their data more effectively to raise money. To help in that effort, The Chronicle of Philanthropy put together a helpful toolkit of articles and case studies.

  4. And speaking of fundraising, the ALS Foundation continues to amaze me. In September, they released a nice infographic to the many donors of the 2014 Ice Bucket challenge reporting where their $115 million in donations went. Great donor stewardship and transparency!

  5. There seems to be a growing concern about what technology is doing to our humanness. Callie Oettinger writes “While social media has made sharing easier, allowing us to connect with the rest of the world, I often think about what would happen if people stopped trying to connect with the rest of the world and instead spent their time 1) creating value and 2) sharing value, rather than…creating crap and sharing crap.” And MIT professor Sherry Turkle released a new book, Reclaiming Conversation that argues we must “acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable [and] make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

  6. A new series launched at The Washington Post about the newest buzz phrase in the world of philanthropy, “effective altruism.” This is the idea that you should “optimize your donations to ensure that they are as “high-impact” as possible.” It is a fascinating and controversial idea.

  7. To counter the hype about “social entrepreneurs,” Jane Wei-Skillern (who wrote one of my favorite articles ever about networked nonprofits), David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer introduced a new concept they call “network entrepreneurs.” As they put it, “Where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal. And as a result of this work, we celebrate the change-generating network itself above any single person or institution.”

  8. I know I keep talking about how much I love the new History of Philanthropy blog, but this month was a perfect example of the tremendous value they bring the social change sector when Jeffrey Snyder explained how old and new philanthropy to support K-12 education differ. Fascinating. And it’s particularly interesting in light of Dale Russakoff’s new book that describes how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools in 2010 hasn’t accomplished a whole lot.

  9. And that wasn’t the only educational reform effort that came under fire in September. Samantha Allen of the Daily Beast chronicled a growing chorus of critiques of Teach for America.

  10. Philanthropic visionary Lucy Bernholz released a list of proposed changes to philanthropy policy that will keep up with changing times. As she put it: “It’s time to recognize that the tax code is no longer the fundamental policy frame shaping philanthropy and nonprofits…it should be obvious that tax privilege is only one factor that Americans consider when thinking about using their private resources for public benefit…The tax code was the 20th century policy infrastructure for philanthropy. Digital regulations will provide the scaffolding and shape for 21st century associations and expression — aka, civil society.”

Photo Credit: Evan Bench

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2015

social innovationJune was an amazing month in the world of social change.

Most notably, the long fight for marriage equality was won with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. It is moments like these where the long, arduous road towards social change makes sense. But that wasn’t all that was going on in the busy month of June. From “new” tech philanthropy, to the orthodoxies of philanthropy, to the oversight of philanthropy, it was all up for debate. Add to that some fascinating new ideas for museums, new data on how Millennials get their news, and a fabulous new blog about the history of philanthropy. It was a whirlwind.

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

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

  1. The biggest news by far in June was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal. In the ruling opinion Justice Kennedy writes: “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death…Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” While this is a huge win for equality, I think the two really interesting parts of the story are 1) how relatively quickly gay marriage went from banned to law and 2) the various actors that made that social change happen. Some argue that Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 landmark essay in New Republic started the intellectual case for gay marriage. This New York Times interactive map shows how gay marriage went from banned to legalized state by state over time. And Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, describes the decades long struggle of nonprofit reformers and their donors, including the Haas Fund in San Francisco, to make marriage equality happen.

  3. A new blog, the HistPhil blog, launched in June to much acclaim. There is an enormous need for a historical perspective as we work to make nonprofits and the philanthropy that funds them more effective. HistPhil has already begun to provide that in spades with excellent posts on the Supreme Court ruling, among many other topics you will see below.

  5. Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and founding president of Facebook, launched a new foundation and wrote a controversial piece in the Wall Street Journal about his “new” vision for philanthropy.  Some found his ideas full of hubris, while others found him to be “an articulate evangelist for tech philanthropy.

  7. And if that wasn’t enough philanthropic controversy for you, there were two other debates waging in June. First was the response to David Callahan’s New York Times piece, “Who Will Watch the Charities?” where he argued that we need greater oversight on nonprofits and their funders. Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy quickly shot back that while Callahan raised some important questions, he ignored the complexity of the sector and reform efforts already under way. And then the two got into an interesting back and forth. Finally, Callahan wrote a follow up piece for Inside Philanthropy. Good stuff!

  9. Along the same lines, the other point of debate in June centered around a Stanford Social Innovation Review article where Gabriel Kasper & Jess Ausinheiler attempted to challenge the underlying assumptions in philanthropy.  But now that we have a new expert on the history of philanthropy on the block, Benjamin Soskis from the HistPhil blog gave us a more accurate historical perspective about just what is and isn’t philanthropic orthodoxy.

  11. Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, wrote a great long form piece in the Democracy Journal arguing that museums could become much more relevant and financially sustainable if, among other things, they began selling their stored artwork. Crazy controversial, but fascinating, ideas.

  13. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Scharpnick cofounder of Elefint Designs, argued that recent ProPublica investigations of the American Red Cross uncovered our double standard for nonprofits. As he writes: “We are asking organizations to meet competing demands—many of which are at odds with how they are funded. We want nonprofits and NGOs to solve problems as effectively as private-sector organizations, and we want them to do it without any of the advantages and with far more constraints.”

  15. The Ford Foundation announced a sweeping overhaul in their grantmaking strategy. They will now focus solely on financial, gender, racial and other inequalities, and double their unrestricted giving. Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, described how he is closely watching this historic move. And Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, offered a view of how philanthropy has approached inequality.

  16. The Hewlett Foundation’s Kelly Born provided some interesting thoughts about what a new Pew Research Center report about how Millennials get their news means for civic engagement.

  18. And finally, on an inspirational note, Steven Pressfield articulated how “artists,” or really anyone hoping to bring something new into the world (a painting, a novel, a solution to a social challenge), should think:  “As artists, [we believe]…that the universe has a gift that it is holding specifically for us (and specifically for us to pass on to others) and that, if we can learn to make ourselves available to it, it will deliver this gift into our hands.” Yes.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2015

social changeWhat a great month March was. Just as the weather started to turn to Spring (I hope it did where you are too), there was a whole host of great reading to digest. From analysis of the new breed of philanthropists, to controversy about contest grantmaking, to mission investing progress, to tips and guides on nonprofit finance, leadership and financial advocacy, there was lots to read.

Below are my picks of the 10 most interesting reads in the world of social change in March, but as always, please add to the list in the comments.

And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.

You can also see the 10 Great Reads lists from previous months here.

  1. Call me biased, but I think the biggest social change news in March was the launch of the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performance nonprofit, by the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am one). Many reviewed the new tool, including Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy who wrote that nonprofit performance is a “moral imperative.” And if you want to learn more, there is a webinar drilling down on the PI later this month.

  2. Who says online debate never results in change? There was a big discussion on the Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s site this month over the Council on Foundation’s plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like contest for nonprofits. Many felt this contest would be a step backward, forcing nonprofits to perform for money, so the Council scrapped the contest and created instead a panel discussing the positives and negatives of contest-style grantmaking.

  3. F.B. Heron Foundation CEO, Clara Miller (formerly of the Nonprofit Finance Fund) is a true nonprofit finance visionary, and this month the Foundation passed the halfway mark on their goal of putting ALL of their capital toward mission. And writing in The Guardian, Tim Smedley would seem to agree with their goal when he makes the case for mission investing.

  4. Chris Gates (from the Sunlight Foundation) and Matt Leighninger (from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) wrote a fascinating letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy taking issue with Diana Aviv’s comments on recent Independent Sector research about technology and nonprofit institutions. Gates and Leighninger argue that there is great opportunity in technology if nonprofits embrace it effectively, as they put it, “It is true that the rise of the Internet is forcing institutions like governments, foundations, nonprofits, and professional associations to rethink how they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and goals of 21st-century citizens or perish. But ultimately, people want the same things they always have: to belong to a community, to have a voice, and to make an impact…if institutions can provide those things in this interconnected time, they will thrive.”

  5. American educators and education funders have focused in recent years on science and math to create a more effective and competitive American education. But Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, thinks that’s a big mistake, “As we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” Amen!

  6. The fourth installment of Tom Watson’s on-going series about the changing face of American philanthropy focuses on the class of new, entrepreneurial philanthropists, those young, tech wealthy donors who are pushing for data-based social change. And Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry takes it even further arguing that “effective altruism,” what he calls this data-centered approach to philanthropy, is only one potential method of investing in social change, not the only or best approach. As he puts it, “making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we’d have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one.” And as one of these new philanthropists, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in Newark public schools continues to come under fire.

  7. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a fantastic report on the need for more philanthropic investment in nonprofit leadership development. This should be required reading for every philanthropic and nonprofit leader in the country.

  8. The National Council of Nonprofits developed a guide for nonprofit leaders to advocate for their funding rights, particularly around indirect rates, with government funders.

  9. And there were lots of great tips and tools this month for becoming an effective financial leader. The Nonprofit Finance Fund released a list of tips to help “keep business and finance an integral part of decision-making.” And Kate Barr offered 6 Takeaways from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s annual Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference.

  10. Finally, Jocelyn Wyatt from argues that general funding for nonprofits is the “future of innovation”. Yes please!

Photo Credit: BibBornem

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: December 2014

social change readingDecember is often a fairly quiet month in the world of social change writing because of the holidays and time off, but there was still some great stuff to read. From Giving Tuesday, to Teach for America’s 25th anniversary, to philanthropy buzzwords, to social media trends to watch, to a critique of Charity Navigator’s naughty and nice list, there was a good bit to think about in the world of social change.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in December. But please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list of picks, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.

  1. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque provides a scathing critique of American politicians and pundits and the dirty little secrets they are harboring about our economy. As he puts it: “We don’t live the lives we were meant to by merrily shoving Artificially Fried Chicken Flavored Dorito Slurpees down our gullets while watching our societies crumble. We live them when we build things. Great things. Worthy things. Noble things. And the greatest, worthiest, and noblest of all things that mankind has ever built are not apps, drones, corporations, or profits. They are societies in which every life counts. In which every life is truly, fully lived.” Wow.

  2. And speaking of the disparities in our economy, there is growing concern that wealth inequality is making its way into philanthropy. The super rich are disproportionately making up American giving and are supporting their own self interests (i.e. their alma maters, donor advised funds that provide personal tax benefits but no social benefits) as opposed to a redistribution of wealth to the poor.

  3. Teach For America, the often heralded nonprofit that sends recent college graduates into challenged schools to teach for 2 years, marks its 25th anniversary this year. NPR reports on the challenges the organization faces, including a “self-described TFA resistance movement [with] former corps members [who] say their youthful idealism was cynically co-opted by a group that, in the big picture, acts to the detriment of public education.” Yikes.

  4. Amazing blogger David Henderson from Full Contact Philanthropy took a writing hiatus earlier this year, but he’s back with a vengeance, and I am loving every one of his posts, especially December’s critique of Charity Navigator’s “naughty and nice list”.

  5. As is her annual tradition, Lucy Bernholz offers her 2015 philanthropy buzzwords. My personal favorite are “artivists” and “citizen science.”

  6. I would love to see more nonprofits (and foundations) getting into the advocacy game. Rick Anderson, writing on the Markets for Good blog, provides a really interesting case study of how Washington Nonprofits, the state association for the 58,000+ charitable organizations in Washington State, has been using data to better coordinate with state agencies, elected officials, other nonprofits and foundations.

  7. December marked the third annual Giving Tuesday, and it was the most profitable yet, raising over $45 Million. Perhaps we have a movement?

  8. The Wild Apricot blog offers 5 Social Media Trends That Could Impact Nonprofits in 2015.

  9. Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund encourages nonprofit leaders to stop fearing money. As she puts it, “Let’s eliminate the fear of finance from the nonprofit sector. It doesn’t serve us personally or organizationally. Why? Because nonprofits with strong financial leadership are better equipped to deliver on their promises to the community, explore new territories and foster innovation.” Amen to that!

  10. The fundraising anomaly of last summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge left a lot of outstanding questions. Not least of which is whether ALS would be able to retain any of those new donors. Beth Kanter talks to ALS CEO Barb Newhouse about exactly that question.

Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2014

social innovationThere were some pretty exciting things happening in the world of social innovation last month. From a new fund to make philanthropy more effective, to a new blog series written by funders making the case for investing in nonprofit leadership, to some ideas for making performance measurement more accessible to small nonprofits and arts and culture organizations, to some interesting partnerships between philanthropy and city government.

It all made for a great month of reads. Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in social innovation in September. As always, add what I  missed to the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.

  1. The Fund for Shared Insight, a collaboration among seven major foundations, launched in September. The group plans to “pool financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy…to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.” They plan to be very transparent with this entire experiment. I can’t wait to see what develops.

  2. Another development in the realm of improving philanthropy was the launch of the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog series where foundation leaders discuss why and how they have invested in nonprofit leadership development. As I mentioned earlier, Ira Hirschfield from the Haas Foundation kicked off the series, and Surina Khan from the Women’s Foundation of California was next up. To have such an open dialogue about nonprofit capacity investments, particularly around leadership development, is amazing. Let’s hope it encourages similar conversations outside the blogosphere.

  3. And the third piece from the world of philanthropic enlightenment, Daniel Stid of the Hewlett Foundation wrote a great post about ending the nonprofit starvation cycle. As he put it, “Effective leaders need to be willing to take the risk of saying something that a funder might not want to hear when their organization’s long run effectiveness is at stake. If they are not, then shame on them. Funders, for our part, should fund the full cost of the work we are asking our grantees to undertake in a way that leaves their overall organization and its finances whole; if we don’t, then shame on us.” Amen!

  4. There is further evidence that philanthropy as we know it is changing – a new report by The Economist takes a hard look at how Generations X and Y (those born between 1966 and 1994) are transforming philanthropy, particularly around “a strong desire to have a measurable, enduring impact.” This is exciting because if donors increasingly invest based on results, we can shift more money to social change. As the authors of the report put it, “The young generation of givers is focused on data, measurement and demonstrable results. More than any other generation, they want to check facts, know all the information ahead of time and ensure that they are well-informed at every stage of the process.”

  5. And there was lots to say about measuring performance this month. The Foundation Center and WINGS, a global network of 90 support organizations serving philanthropy in 35 countries, announced the creation of The Global Philanthropy Data Charter to gather and share philanthropy data for public benefit.

  6. Measuring impact is complex and costly, but Carly Pippin from Measuring Success, offers 4 steps for how small nonprofits can assess impact affordably.

  7. Measurement is particularly challenging in the arts and culture arena because, as Natasha Bloor of The Old Vic Theatre explains, “There is an understandable reticence within the cultural and creative industries when it comes to proving the social value of art. For many, the arts have an intrinsic worth that cannot be mapped or measured, with the primary benefit found in creative self-expression itself, rather than the longer-term effects experienced afterwards.” But she offers a new approach that they have found very effective.

  8. And for a completely free way to assess the social value of building low-cost housing, child-care centers, and health clinics there is the Social Impact Calculator, developed by the Low Income Investment Fund. They developed the tool to measure the effect of their own work and then decided to share it.

  9. Stephanie Jacobs of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund offers some tips to turn your board into the financial leaders they need to be.

  10. And finally, there were some interesting examples of partnerships between local government and philanthropy aimed at strengthening cities. Rona Jackson from Living Cities described 5 ways philanthropy and local government can work together. And the Kalamazoo Promise, a partnership between local philanthropists and city schools that pays tuition at a Michigan college for any student who graduates from a Kalamazoo school, shows these ideas in action.

Photo Credit: Valerie Everett

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Big Cities Don’t Own Social Innovation

social innovationWe 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



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