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Making Philanthropy More Equitable: An Interview with Aaron Dorfman

Aaron DorfmanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Aaron Dorfman, President and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a research and advocacy organization that works to ensure America’s grantmakers are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He also serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: What is your take on recent concerns about donor advised funds locking too much philanthropic money away from directly reaching nonprofits? Is the recent growth of DAFs a good thing or a bad thing, or is it more complicated?

Aaron: It’s definitely complicated.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to how much easier DAFs have made things for donors. I do some of my own charitable giving through a small DAF, and I love the convenience of it. I have no doubt that other donors also find DAFs to be a very helpful development in philanthropy.

However, many of the concerns raised by critics are also valid.

There is little or no evidence that DAFs have contributed to an increase in overall charitable giving, for example, and there certainly isn’t any evidence that the funds have boosted giving to historically marginalized communities. So, if there has been no increase in overall giving, then what DAFs have done is to delay the giving.

Another concern is that DAFs provide donors with significant tax advantages over private foundations – but at the cost of transparency. Most DAFs don’t accept unsolicited proposals, and reporting by sponsoring institutions doesn’t identify grants with individual funds. Practically speaking, that means that most of these funds are inaccessible to most nonprofits. They’re traditionally housed at community foundations, but they’re not directly open to receiving proposals from community-based nonprofits, though proposals may be steered there by foundation staff acting as gatekeepers.

We found this to be true in a recent in-depth assessment we conducted of the Oregon Community Foundation. This was especially the experience of nonprofits serving and/or led by communities of color, who already have the hardest time accessing mainstream philanthropic support.

The lack of access by community nonprofits is even more troubling when you consider the fastest growing of the DAFs: the funds located at the giant financial industry warehouses like Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard. There, no one is putting nonprofit proposals in front of donors who might be interested.

The lack of adequate reporting reinforces this problem of access: since the IRS does not require DAF sponsors to report which funds made which grants, grant seekers cannot take advantage of reports to identify potentially like-minded donors. (DAF sponsors have begun making greater amounts of information available about their grants, but what they provide is of limited help to grantseeking nonprofits because they don’t identify which funds made which grants.) This is further compounded by the fact that at present the major foundation database (Foundation Center) doesn’t systematically track giving by the likes of Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, most of whose funding simply doesn’t appear in the database.

Nell: Some people have argued that since philanthropy itself is built upon an inequitable market economy it can serve to reinforce that inequality. Is there a disconnect, or can we expect philanthropy to appreciably contribute to greater equity? What do you make of the debates about philanthropy that redistributes wealth and philanthropy that simply reinforces power and economic imbalances?  

Aaron: There is no question that philanthropy can and has done both of these things.

When the Ford Foundation provides support for grassroots community organizing, or for litigation to protect and expand civil rights, that’s an example of philanthropy clearly contributing to greater equity.

When Atlantic Philanthropies, The California Endowment and other funders supported advocacy that contributed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), that, too, was a case of philanthropy appreciably contributing to a more equitable society.

These are just a couple of examples of funders who understand their goals and their vision for society to be disruptive to the status quo; funders who understand the role unjust economic systems have played in the issues they would like their dollars to help overcome. The “disconnect” between market economics and progressive philanthropy is not impossible to overcome, and many of the more than 200 grantmakers that have signed on to NCRP’s Philanthropy’s Promise initiative are leading the way in showing other funders how to do just that.

However, when certain foundations support elite universities, when they invest only in white-led cultural organizations that emphasize European-American culture, or when they invest in advocacy to privatize public education at the expense of low-income communities – then you have some clear examples of how philanthropy reinforces inequality.

There was a great series of articles published recently in The Nation that explores these ideas, and what the future of philanthropy might be for those of us who hope to see a greater philanthropic contribution to fairness, equity and justice.

Nell: You have written before about philanthropy’s historical role in funding social movements. What do you make of philanthropy in the Black Lives Matter movement? How involved has philanthropy been, and how involved do you think philanthropy should be?

Aaron: There is a paradox here. Philanthropy has always under-funded social movements. However, philanthropic funding has also been essential to the success of social movements. We documented this in a 2014 paper Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1965.

The Black Lives Matter movement has thus far received very little support from institutional philanthropy. A group of foundation staff members have formed Funders for Justice as a way to learn together and to accelerate the flow of funding to the movement. They’re making headway, but the movement is still receiving very little support. Some individual donors, mostly younger and working through the Solidaire Network, have been able to move money more quickly to the movement.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a small family foundation based in D.C., has been a real leader on this. They dipped into their corpus and have devoted new resources to creating the Making Black Lives Matter initiative and are attempting to organize their peers in philanthropy to invest in black-led organizing and in the Movement for Black Lives. The foundation is a past winner of the NCRP Impact Awards, which recognizes smart philanthropy that empowers underserved communities and achieves real results.

Also, Black professionals in philanthropy have been organizing through the Association of Black Foundation Executives and its Philanthropic Action for Racial Justice initiative.

I should add, too, that movement leaders have rejected some philanthropic support that was offered to them because it came with too many strings attached. In some respects, it’s been a good thing that the movement has not been dependent on philanthropy, since foundation support so often serves to rein in radical social movements.

Nell: The nonprofit sector has historically stayed away from advocacy work, but that seems to be changing. What role do you think nonprofits can and should play in advocacy, and will there be more of a push for that in the future?

Aaron: Advocacy and community organizing are among the best ways for foundations and nonprofits to leverage their limited dollars in pursuit of their missions. By changing public policies and/or the regulatory framework, we can transform society and build the kind of nation we all want to inhabit. Any nonprofit or foundation that is serious about achieving its mission must understand how advocacy fits into their overall strategy.

NCRP has challenged grantmakers to devote at least 25% of grant dollars to funding nonprofit advocacy and organizing, but fewer than 100 of the largest 1,000 foundations in the country meet that benchmark. The number of serious advocacy funders is increasing, but slowly.

Nonprofit advocates bring the voices of people and communities to policy makers. They are a greatly needed counter balance to the growing influence of corporate lobbyists, who often advocate only the narrowest self-interests of their industry. I think many, many people in our sector understand this and that we will see an expansion of nonprofit advocacy in the coming years, and that an increasing number for foundations and high net worth donors will provide ever-increasing resources for that advocacy work.

Photo Credit: NCRP

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The Future of the Nonprofit Sector [Slideshare]

I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.

In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:

  • Increasing competition in the space
  • A greater demand for results and social change
  • An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
  • A move to more “networked” approaches
  • Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
  • And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing

These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.

If you want to see other Social Velocity Slideshares go here. And if you want to learn more about inviting me to come speak to your group or event, check out my Speaking page.

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector from Nell Edgington

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What Unique Value Can a Foundation Create?

philanthropyI’ve started working in a new area of the social change space that I’m really excited about. Recently I’ve been helping some foundations figure out what market they are (and should be) in. Because if a foundation can be smarter and more strategic about figuring out where they should focus their efforts within a particular social problem, they will see a higher social return on their investment.

As I’ve said countless times, you cannot develop or execute on a strategy without really understanding the market in which you work. Although we might like to deny it, nonprofits (and foundations) exist in a market economy, which means that they (like everything else) must compete amid the other actors and entities in the space. So it is absolutely critical that leaders understand what unique value their work brings to the space. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

An organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a set of social problems apart from potential competitors or collaborators. This is not at all to say that you shouldn’t collaborate. But when you do, you must clearly understand what you bring to the table that is distinct from and additive to what your competitors bring to the table. In mapping their marketplace, an organization can much more clearly understand and articulate their value proposition and can direct their resources more effectively to the realization of that value proposition.

And the same is true for foundations. I am ever optimistic that just as nonprofit leaders are getting smarter and more strategic about the work they do, foundation leaders are as well. I would love to see more foundations taking a step back and really analyzing the social change marketplace in which they operate and determining how they can bring unique value to that marketplace.

Let’s say for example a funder is really passionate about addressing climate change. But there are many moving parts in the marketplace of that social problem. There are scientists and researchers and other experts who have views on the problem and the efficacy of potential solutions. There are many nonprofits in many different categories working on various aspects of the larger problem. There are policies and policymakers who are addressing the issue in various ways. There are other foundations and philanthropists who are investing in different solutions. It can be overwhelming for any particular funder to know where they specifically can have an impact on a very complex climate change marketplace.

So I help the foundation analyze these various elements, where and how effectively each is operating, where trends effecting the social problem are moving, and where the particular funder can add unique value.

While I spend a good deal of time on this blog giving voice to the challenges of the nonprofit sector, there is no doubt that the philanthropy that funds the sector has room to grow as well. And in my mind, part of that growth involves foundations getting more strategic about exactly where they can create the most value with their dollars. Because if both nonprofits and the philanthropists that fund them can be smarter about the marketplace of social problems, we just might get closer to solving them.

Photo Credit: ribosomis

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July & Aug 2016

social changeSince I was on vacation in late July and early August, I’m combining the last two months of great reads into one. The summer of 2016 certainly was a dark one. From continuing police violence against black men, to the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it seemed we were becoming a nation truly divided. And tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana that was largely ignored by the media was heartbreaking to watch.

But, there were also moments of hope. From new research showing that donors are increasingly interested in investing in what works; to philanthropic leaders calling for better partnerships among the public, private and nonprofit sectors; to a way to move the conversation away from “overhead,” the summer months made for some very interesting reads.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in July and August. But let me know in the comments what else I missed while I was out.

If you want a longer list of reads, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And you can read previous months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. More police violence against black men and the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge arguably broke the country’s heart in July. Ira David Socol traced Americans’ growing fear of “the other” over the past few decades and how it has contributed to where we are today. And Pew Research offered some data about how Americans see the Black Lives Matter movement. While Heinz Endowment President Grant Oliphant called for an end to the violence, in an incredibly moving series of blog posts where he wrote:  “We are called — by everything our diverse faiths teach us, by everything we believe about ourselves and our country — to come together as one people, whether we bravely wear the blue or have come to fear those who do. We are called by all that is good in our hearts to see ourselves in all the fallen, all the lives lost, all the families grieving, all the communities struggling to make sense of their brokenness. We are better than this violence. Deep down in our souls we know this. We are so, so much better than this.” And President Obama gave an incredibly moving speech at the funerals for the Dallas police officers, where he encouraged us all to, “With an open heart…worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.”

  2. But the Black Lives Matter Movement is not just aimed at addressing police violence, the Movement recently released a K-12 education platform designed to fix “a U.S. public-school system…so broken that college is never an option for many young people of color.”

  3. Amid these deepening divides and a growing wealth inequality, Andy Carroll from Exponent Philanthropy argues that philanthropy can no longer be expected to solve everything. Rather, we need partnerships among the public, business and nonprofit sectors to address our growing challenges.

  4. And then there was the tremendous flooding and devastation in Louisiana. Despite the fact that it was the largest natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the media and philanthropy largely ignored the disaster.

  5. Curtis Klotz from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund offers a phenomenal graphic to use in changing the conversation from “nonprofit overhead” to “core mission support” at your nonprofit.

  6. And speaking of how nonprofits use money, FASB (the Financial Accounting Standards Board) just released some significant updates to their standards for nonprofit accounting. The changes impact net asset classes, investment returns, expenses, liquidity and availability of resources, and presentation of operating cash flows. Every nonprofit leader should understand these important changes.

  7. Founder of Family Independence Initiative, Mauricio Lim Miller argues that just as businesses constantly use technology to understand consumer behavior, nonprofits should tap into technology to “let the people they serve dictate what works best.” And Melissa Chadburn might agree with Mauricio’s premise that fighting poverty requires a better understanding of the causes of that poverty given her scathing piece, “How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty.”

  8. Penelope Burk’s annual fundraising study revealed that more donors are interested in results than ever before. Five years ago, only 16% of donors surveyed gave based on a nonprofit’s results vs. a whopping 41% this year.  And research from MobileCause shows that Millennials and GenXers are now the vast majority of the U.S. workforce so if you want to reach them as donors you better be online and mobile.

  9. Ever the trailblazers in foundations interested in building nonprofit capacity, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation unveiled a fabulous new online Knowledge Center with tons of resources for improving nonprofit organizational effectiveness.

  10. Jim Schaffer questions how “philanthropic” the digital giants Amazon, Facebook and Google actually are. And Lucy Bernholz warns nonprofits of the dangers of trusting Facebook’s new fundraising offerings.

Photo Credit: radness.com.au

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Forcing Nonprofits and Their Funders to Talk About Real Costs

nonprofit real costsSomething really interesting could emerge out of new federal rules about overtime pay. My hope is these new rules force a better conversation between nonprofits and their funders about the real costs of creating social change.

This coming December new Department of Labor rules will go into effect doubling the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476 so that employees (in any sector) who make less than that threshold will be guaranteed overtime pay whenever they work over 40 hours a week.

This new rule has a potentially enormous impact on nonprofits, which (because of their resource-constrained nature) often underpay and overwork their employees. Many have pointed out what a burden this will place on an already strapped nonprofit sector, which often tries to squeeze ever more productivity out of staffs that are already working well over capacity.

As the National Council of Nonprofits argues, nonprofits receiving government contracts signed prior to this new ruling will be forced to deliver the same services at a higher cost:

“Nonprofits with government grants and contracts at any level of government (local, state, tribal, or federal) will now be put in the position of having to comply with new federal requirements that impose new costs not known when those grants and contracts were signed. Unlike businesses that can raise prices, or governments that can raise taxes or curtail public services, nonprofits with government grants and contracts may find themselves contractually bound to maintain services at increased costs that may not be expressly covered by existing written agreements.”

Certainly in the short-term this new overtime rule puts nonprofits in a really difficult position.

But I wonder if in the long-term this new rule could shine a light on the impossible situation in which many funders put nonprofits. With a new ceiling on just how many staff hours a nonprofit can get out of a dollar, I wonder if nonprofit leaders will be forced to stand up and say “Enough is enough!”

Writing in The Atlantic about the potential impact of the overtime rule change on nonprofits, Jonathan Timm seems to think the solution is for nonprofits to simply charge funders more for their services, as he put it:

“If nonprofits truly care about the well-being of their staffs, one easy place to start is simply to write higher salaries into budget proposals. Likewise, government and philanthropic funders could be a lot wiser in how they dole out money: Scarce public-service dollars can impose a state of financial stress on the people who put them to use.”

Ahhhh, if only it were that easy…

But at its core, that is the problem. Nonprofit leaders are wary of calculating and articulating the full costs (including all staff costs) of their programs, and government and philanthropic funders are unaware of and unwilling to pay those full costs. But with growing demands on a nonprofit sector already stretched to the brink, something has to give. Perhaps this new reality will force a conversation about what it really costs to address the social challenges we face, and how we must effectively and adequately support the nonprofit sector we have charged with addressing many of those challenges.

The problem has always been that nonprofit leaders are so committed to the work they do and so empathetic towards their clients that when budgets and staff are tight, those leaders simply work longer and harder and ask their employees to do the same. But with these new rules that can no longer be the case.

Program budgets will have to grow to reflect the real costs of those programs (including all of the countless staff hours previously hidden by free overtime). And funders who want more and more services at lower and lower costs will be forced to reckon with the actual costs of the programs in which they want to invest. These new overtime rules will force the “real costs” conversation that many in the nonprofit sector have been encouraging, where nonprofits calculate and report the full costs (including the actual cost of staff time to deliver the work) of the work that they do. 

So instead of being a negative change, perhaps these new overtime rules could actually serve to propel nonprofits and their funders toward calculating, articulating and investing in what it really takes to create social change. Call me an optimist.

Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale

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The Role of the Independent Sector: An Interview with Dan Cardinali

Dan CardinaliIn this month’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Dan Cardinali, the new president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national membership organization that brings together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good.

Prior to leading Independent Sector, Dan was the president of Communities In Schools, the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, with operations in 26 states and the District of Columbia. While there he led efforts to develop and advance an evidence-based model of integrated student service provision and launched a national growth strategy to increase the organization’s impact on improving public education. He is a 2007 Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellow, serves as a trustee for America’s Promise, and is on the board of Child Trends. In May 2011 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He is also a member of the Leap Ambassador Community of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have just become the new head of Independent Sector (IS). In a diverse and growing nonprofit sector that includes many ecosystem organizations like Independent Sector, what do you think the value proposition is for IS? What is the unique role that IS can and should be playing?

Dan: We were founded by John Gardner who was of the sector and believed deeply in the importance of the sector. It was distinct from government and the for-profit sector and uniquely positioned to support the American project. It played a unique and critical role to sustain American democracy and was also a source of profound community co-creation, rising up to provide really good solutions where there were problems and innovating to help communities evolve and grow, and supporting culture and defending the environment. At a time when civil society is shrinking around the world, the independent sector has an even more important role to play.

As for our capital I, capital S organization’s value proposition, we are unique in the country in spanning the sector. We hold the entirety of the grant seeking and grant making organizations and that purview we want to steward very carefully and thoughtfully. We want to be hyper disciplined in a world where there are a number of infrastructure organizations doing really good work, not to duplicate but align and leverage through collaboration. But there are still holes in our estimation in the landscape of what the sector needs. So we are going to remain disciplined in our role as an organization that is sector spanning and national in scope, grounded deeply in community, to determine what we do to add value to the original vision for a more robust social sector.

Nell: Independent Sector can potentially play a unique role because it stands at the intersection between nonprofits and those who fund nonprofits. Is there a bigger role for IS to play in bringing those two sides closer together, breaking down the power dynamic and helping more money to flow to effective organizations? If so what does that look like?

Dan: We are playing a role and part of it is modeling that these are two sides of the same coin – grant seekers can’t exist without grant makers and grant makers can’t get along without grant seekers. It would be naïve to pretend that those with financial resources don’t have an advantage, yet I equally think in the social sector that grant seekers at times abdicate the power that comes with knowing what they know to be effective and owning that. The opportunity exists to partner with grant makers, not just in the transactional sense, but in the co-creation of solutions to ensure that culture flourishes and that the environment is protected and flourishes, and that problems are solved.

In the Threads conversations IS convened with more than 80 partners across the U.S., concerns about the power dynamic were voiced at every stop. In response, IS and member organizations and experts are cooperating to model the best strategies for working together. We need to refocus the relationship on bringing the needed human, financial, and intellectual resources to bear, calling all people of good will to a higher purpose, rather than organizational sustainability.

Nell: Recently 22 nonprofit infrastructure organizations (like GuideStar, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, etc.) wrote a public letter urging foundations to invest more in infrastructure organizations. Independent Sector was not one of the 22 organizations, but what are your thoughts on their argument and how does, or should, Independent Sector fit in?

Dan: What was encouraging about that letter from very reputable organizations is that it opened up a conversation. The philanthropic community has a role, an obligation, to support effective infrastructure organizations, and we have a responsibility to be effective. But IS will not be in a position to request that support without a discussion of what needs doing, how well we all are doing it, and how can we better leverage each other’s work. I am passionate about this topic, and I appreciate that this letter advanced the conversation. I expect IS will partner closely in the future conversations.

Nell: You come to IS after many years at the helm of Communities In Schools, which moved during your tenure to a very evidence-based approach. Do you see IS moving itself and/or helping the sector as a whole to move toward a more evidenced-based approach?

Dan: What we did at CIS was to create a virtuous circle between our programs and practice and our data and research to continually generate insights, make course corrections as needed, and build on success. This is how we roll. IS has been applying this approach for a long time. In the Threads conversations, we engaged practitioners using a credible analytic process. We listened to them, without presupposing what they would say, and we applied social science to produce a document, the Threads report. We then co-created a strategic framework that engages members and develops our partnership, just as we do with the IS conference coming up in November.

So the evidence-based approach is alive and well. Going forward we can look for ways to accelerate its use across the organization, through a thoughtful integration of technology and 21st century methods of engagement.

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2016

social changeWhat is it about June and social change? Last June was the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage, a huge victory after decades of social change work. This June, while perhaps not as pivotal, offered some clear glimpses of impending social change.

The horrible tragedy in Orlando stirred Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate to stage protests calling for votes on gun legislation. And the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union sent shockwaves around the world. Add to that some fascinating data (about civil rights and education, charitable giving, and the refugee crisis), some strong words about tech philanthropists, and a distaste for the term “nonprofit,” and it made for an interesting month in the world of social change.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads, but if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

And if you want to see past months’ great reads lists go here.

  1. In the wake of the brutal killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the U.S. Congress temporarily ground to a halt with a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and then a Democratic sit-in in the House, all in the name of forcing Republicans to take a vote on gun control legislation. While neither effort was successful in passing gun legislation, change may be coming, due in part to a new and growing gun control group.

  2. June also saw the shocking vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), a move that many argue will have a huge impact on the global economy. Much was written about the implications of the vote, but most interesting (and most related to social change) were Spencer Wells’ fascinating look at the fundamental economic, demographic and political shifts behind the vote, and Jake Hayman’s view on what philanthropy can learn from it. As he put it: “The future of philanthropy and the future of politics have to lie in something beyond the economic. Indeed it will be the ones that invite those they wish to serve into the heart of decision-making and dedicate themselves to reforming systems – rather than propping them up – that will come to thrive.”

  3. One of the reasons some in the United Kingdom voted for Brexit may be fear about the refugee crisis. Ever relevant to the issues of the day, Pew Research offers some key facts about the world’s refugees.

  4. And speaking of votes, in the November U.S. presidential election Millennials (because of their sheer numbers) stand to have a real impact. Derrick Feldmann from Achieve discusses some new research about Millennials’ particular approaches to civic engagement and how they might play out in the presidential election.

  5. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Lewis B. Cullman and Ray Madoff express “grave concern” about a fundamental shift they see in the funding of the nonprofit sector due to the increasing popularity of donor advised funds (DAFs). Donors receive an immediate tax benefit when setting up a DAF, but the donation may not find its way to the nonprofit sector for years to come. As they put it, “Donor-advised funds have been a bad deal for American society. They have produced too many private benefits for the financial services industry, at too great a cost to the taxpaying public, and they have provided too few benefits for society at large. When we consider their overall effect, we see that rather than supporting working charities and the beneficiaries they serve, they have undermined them.”

  6. One of the smartest philanthropic thinkers, by far, is Clara Miller president of the F.B. Heron Foundation. She offers a two part treatise (part 1 and part 2) on what the foundation of the 21st century should look like. She writes that foundations must learn to adapt their approach and business model: “While permanence may be a key mission requirement for some…fossilized thinking cannot be. We simply can’t succeed in a vacuum, especially when the pace and nature of the gaps we are called upon to fill have become larger and more frequent, the problems more intertwined and the needs more urgent.” Amen!

  7. Never one to pull punches, blogger Vu Le has some strong words for a particular type of philanthropist, those coming from tech companies thinking they know how to fix nonprofits. As he tells them, “Don’t think for a moment that just because you’re great at one thing, it means you have the legitimacy to give advice in an area that you have little experience and training in. I don’t go around telling you how to design apps or wifi-enabled smart light switches. If you want to truly partner to solve entrenched issues our community members are facing, then great. But first, get rid of your assumptions and ego. Otherwise, let’s agree to swipe left.”

  8. Another favorite truth teller, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy clearly articulates why the term “nonprofit” is critical and necessary: “Sometimes, nonprofits need to be the voice of opposition to those whose motivation is profit.” Yep.

  9. Giving USA released their annual data on giving in the nonprofit sector. And if you are hungry for even more data about the nonprofit sector, thanks to a a federal court order the IRS is now providing machine-readable nonprofit Form 990s from 2011 to the present.

  10. And speaking of fascinating data, the Department of Education released their annual civil rights data, which has been gathered every year since 1968 in order to assess enforcement of civil rights laws. NPR highlights some jaw-dropping findings.

Photo Credit: Kyle Pearce

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How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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