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Innovators

Climbing Out Of The Rubble Of 2016

If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.

But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.

Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).

But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.

I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us.  But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.

And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:

“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”

That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.

Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

So check your attitude at the door.

The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.

Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann

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10 Most Popular Posts of 2016

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for all of us to take some time off to relax, be with friends and family, and most importantly rest up for the year ahead.

2016 was rough, folks. So now it is critical that you take some time off to reconnect with your core.

But before I head out myself for some time off, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular Social Velocity posts from this year, in case you missed any of them. And, if you are so inclined, you can also read the 10 most popular posts from 201120122013, 2014 and 2015.

I so appreciate you, dear readers. You are an amazing group of social change leaders who inspire me and give me hope for the future. Indeed, when it is darkest you help me see the light. We need you now more than ever, social change leaders, so please take good care of yourselves and come back to 2017 ready to get to work.

Happy Holidays!

The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2016 were:

  1. Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?
  2. 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make
  3. Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)
  4. Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix
  5. How is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?
  6. 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]
  7. Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader
  8. A Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy Is Not Enough
  9. 5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have
  10. The Network as Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio

Photo Credit: nicoleleec

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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017

It’s that time of year again, where we take a look back at the year drawing to a close, and forward to the year ahead. We all know that 2016 was rough (and if you want to wallow for a minute or two, check out John Oliver’s cathartic send off to 2016).

But I am ever the optimist, so I’m hopeful that 2017 will be better. In particular I think the upheaval of this year provides an opportunity for social change to mobilize. So 2017 could be an interesting year to watch.

Below are what I predict (hope) will happen in 2017. But I make no promises.

And if you want to see how I did in past years, you can check out my 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists from 2011, 2012, 201320142015, or 2016.

  1. An Expanding Definition of Equity 
    As philanthropy continues to agonize over the presidential election and what it means and what philanthropy missed, I think there may be a reckoning that philanthropy’s growing interest in equity and inclusion must expand to include those in the rural, working class who feel they’ve been left behind. Whether this means increased philanthropic investments in “red” America, it remains to be seen, but I believe philanthropy will seek to understand how they might help to heal a divided nation.

  2. Greater Use of Networks and Movements for Social Change
    There is no doubt that social change must cross organizational boundaries in order to become systemic, so nonprofits will (I hope) increasingly recognize that they must break down their walls and become more networked in order to achieve their goals. From social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the widespread networks working on LGBTQ rights, social change leaders will increasingly recognize that they cannot go it alone. There will be more organized efforts to marshal resources toward larger social change.

  3. Growing Recognition Among Millennials of the Role of Institutions in Social Change
    But networks and movements are not enough — institutions also play a critical role in social change. And Millennials in particular tend to be anti-institution — we saw their distaste for political institutions in their low voter turnout rates in November’s election. So those Millennials pushing for reforms will need to figure out how to connect their movements and networks to the requisite political and social institutions.

  4. More Nonprofit Advocacy
    Continuing to be squeezed by shrinking government dollars and a challenging political environment, nonprofits will increasingly recognize the need to embrace advocacy as a social change tool. Formerly worried about jeopardizing the legal status of their organization, nonprofit boards and staffs will become more willing to take the risk and work to help policymakers and their influencers understand the need for their social change work.

  5. More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires
    This one is truly optimistic, I know, but I really believe that the discussions about the Overhead Myth and funding a nonprofit’s real costs will give way to a larger conversation (and research) around what it takes to create financial resilience in the nonprofit sector. Funders and nonprofit leaders are slowly starting to recognize that they must invest in financial models in order to be successful. So I’m hopeful that there will be a growing body of research into what works and what doesn’t, more case studies about nonprofits that have found financial sustainability, and a growing push to wield the money sword in the nonprofit sector.

Photo Credit: James Vaughan

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Thursday, December 8th, 2016 Advocacy, Innovators 1 Comment

Investing in Stronger Nonprofits: An Interview with Linda Baker

linda-baker-524x643In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Linda Baker. Linda is the Director of Organizational Effectiveness at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

In this role, she leads the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team as they invest in grantees to build their core strengths and maximize their impact. Through these investments, the OE team aims to build healthier, better connected organizations and networks ready to bring about greater change in the areas the foundation cares most about. The OE team works in collaboration with the four program grantmaking areas of the foundation, and also engages with the broader field on capacity building and good philanthropic practice.

Linda has also served the foundation as program officer in the Local Grantmaking and Children, Families and Communities programs, and as an analyst and associate editor in the Center for the Future of Children.

If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: You recently took over leadership of the Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program. What are your plans for the future of this program? Where do you see opportunities for change or growth in the work Packard does to build stronger nonprofits?

Linda: It is an incredible honor to lead the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team. I’m proud to be a part of a foundation that actively embraces a commitment to effectiveness by helping our nonprofits partners strengthen their fundamentals so they can better achieve their missions.

The best capacity-building grantmaking happens in open and authentic conversation with nonprofits. At the Packard Foundation, this means that changes in OE funding are driven through continuous listening to our nonprofit colleagues about where they are strong and where they would like to grow – as leaders, organizations, and networks. While many of the funding requests remain similar to the past (like support for strategic planning and fund development planning), a few topics have recently become more prevalent. For example, as nonprofits and leaders focus on movement building and their ability to be flexible and strategic in an ever-changing environment, we are hearing more requests for funding on leadership development and diversity, equity and inclusion. We have also seen an increase in interest in projects that focus on nonprofits better understanding their financial situation and increasing their financial resilience.

I’m also excited about our participation in the Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative that supports nonprofits in seeking systematic and benchmarkable feedback from the people they seek to help. This collaborative believes that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference in the world if we are more open—if we share what we are learning and are open to what others want to share with us, including our nonprofit partners and the people we seek to help. It is early days, but the possibilities are promising.

Nell: The Packard Foundation is way ahead of the pack in terms of actively investing in stronger nonprofit organizations. What do you think holds other foundations back from providing capacity building support (like planning, leadership development, evaluation, etc.)? And what can be done to get more foundations funding in these areas?

Linda: This work is incredibly important. People are the engine of change, and they need appropriate training, tools and support to get their work done. The good news is that momentum seems to be building. Last year we talked with twenty foundations who reached out to us on this work—and we are always happy to provide insight to our peers in this way. I’m also encouraged by the standing-room-only crowds at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conferences, which often focus directly on the importance of capacity building.

An increasing number of our peers have embraced this approach to grantmaking. Both the Hewlett Foundation and the Meyer Foundation have OE programs similar to ours. The Ford Foundation’s BUILD program works to support institutional strengthening in a big way. Many others support the capacity of leaders – we particularly admire the work of the Haas Jr. Fund in this area.

JPMorgan Chase and the Aspen Institute recently issued a report discussing roles and opportunities for business in nonprofit capacity building. And the 2016 GEO publication on capacity building is full of examples of foundations providing capacity building support to nonprofit partners.

For any foundations on the fence, we will soon be releasing our 2016 Grantee Perception Report data that shows that our grantees who receive OE support rate the foundation as more responsive and a better partner. Data from our evaluation last year shows that one to two years after their OE support ended, nearly 80% of grantees reported significant increases in capacity and 90% reported continued investments in capacity building a year after grant completion. We are confident that these investments build lasting change.

Another bright spot is the feedback work of the Fund for Shared Insight that I mentioned earlier, which is investing in stronger nonprofit organizations through experimenting with investments in feedback loops. Shared Insight provides grants to nonprofit organizations 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.

Nell: You have been actively involved in the Real Costs effort to get funders and nonprofits to understand and articulate the full costs (program, operating, working capital, fixed assets, reserves, debt) of the work nonprofits do. How do you see that movement progressing? Are minds changing? Are we, or when will we, reach a critical mass of nonprofits and funders embracing full costs?

Linda: As you and your readers know, this question is fundamentally about the relationship between funders and nonprofits. Nonprofits that have trusting relationships with their funders and an understanding of what it takes to run their organization can talk with funders about what it truly costs to deliver outcomes over the long term. In response, funders with a nuanced understanding of a nonprofit’s financial requirements will be able to structure grants more effectively to achieve those outcomes.

The move for funders to understand the financial resources nonprofits require for impact is gaining steam. I’ve been encouraged by the level of interest and conversation in California alone, and I know conversations are happening nationally too. The Real Cost Project in California is gearing up for the next phase, and we are pleased to be supporting that work and to be thinking about these ideas at the Packard Foundation. I am hopeful that California funders will continue to embrace the conversation and consider how funders can strip away unnecessary processes and promote transparent dialogue about how to best support the work of nonprofits.

One part of the challenge is that we are going up against misguided notions that good nonprofits should not invest in their infrastructure or their people. These ideas are embedded in our culture, and it takes time to change perspectives. If we can get a critical mass of foundations to join the conversation and consider what they can do to improve, and ensure that nonprofits have the tools to understand the financial requirements needed to get to outcomes, that will be progress.

Nell: You and your team at Packard OE have created a great Organizational Effectiveness Knowledge Center website with a deep set of resources for building stronger nonprofit organizations. Foundations are sometimes hesitant to offer resources (beyond money) to nonprofits, but you have made a conscious choice to move in this direction. Why and what could other foundations learn from your experiences here?

Linda: Thank you! We created the Knowledge Center to share our perspective and resources about improving organizational and network effectiveness with the goal of helping nonprofits, our consulting partners, and other funders make their work even stronger. The Knowledge Center is a place for us to share our perspective on a number of topics from network development to leadership and coaching to evaluation, and discuss the latest in the field from conferences and publications.

In addition to providing grantmaking support, we believe that sharing this information will increase our impact on the nonprofit sector and advance the capacity building field. Change does not happen in silos, and we don’t want our nonprofit partners to spend time reinventing the wheel. So, we decided to create a space to exchange what we’re learning and the resources available to help support organizations in this work.

We hope that the Knowledge Center will be a place to exchange learning and reflections, and we encourage users to engage with us by commenting on your experience with these topics or submitting resources that you would like us to consider sharing. And, while you’re there, leave us a comment to let us know what you think of the Knowledge Center and how we can improve.

Photo Credit: David and Lucile Packard Foundation

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Nov 2016

reading in darkI don’t have to tell you that November was rough.

A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots —  a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.

  2. Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy.  From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”

  3. And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.

  4. Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.

  5. But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”

  6. Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.

  7. And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.

  8. Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!

  9. Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.

  10. Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals.  Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano

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Using Networks for Social Change in a New Era

social change networksAmid all of the uncertainty in the wake of the election, one thing is sure. In order to survive and thrive, nonprofit leaders cannot stick their heads in the sand. As others have already enumerated, there is much to be done to prepare for the road ahead — from ensuring your board is actively engaged, to bolstering your partnership with funders, to growing (or launching) your advocacy efforts.

As part of all of this, it is critical that nonprofit leaders not go it alone. They must understand and harness the power of networks in order to grow their ability to influence the future.

As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano put it, networked nonprofits

“see themselves as nodes within a constellation of equal, interconnected partners, rather than as hubs at the center of their nonprofit universes. Because of the unrestricted and frequent communication between their different nodes, networked nonprofits are better positioned to develop more holistic, coordinated, and realistic solutions to social issues than are traditional nonprofit hubs.”

And now — more than ever — we need a social change sector that is coordinated and offers real solutions to the many social challenges we face.

But what does that look like? How does a single nonprofit leader analyze and begin to grow her organization’s networks?

She must work with board and staff to analyze their current and potential networks and create a plan for growth, by asking these questions:

Who Else Is Working on Similar Social Issues?
What other entities are working on similar issue areas? Are you connected to them? In a significant way? If not, make a list and start getting your board and staff to forge alliances, where possible. And ask each of these entities where else you should be connected.

Who Are the Leaders in Other Sectors?
Beyond just the nonprofit space, are there key for-profit industries or local, state or federal government entities that impact your set of social issues? Are you connected to these networks in a significant way? If not, get busy.

Who Are the Policymakers Impacting Your Issue Area?
To the earlier point about moving into the advocacy space (which more and more social change experts are encouraging nonprofits to do), think about local, state or federal policies that might impact your work. Who are the policymakers you should be talking to in order to make sure they fully understand the issues and their impact? Do your networks include these policymakers? If not, get to work.

What Expertise Do We Lack?
A single organization has only a very limited list of core competencies, but you will need a lot of varied expertise to create the social change you seek. So where are you lacking? And who out there (people, organizations) have that expertise? Find them and figure out how you can partner in a significant way to move forward.

Who Are the Influencers?
What about people who are not represented above, but who have the ear of those who are? Who are the key influencers, and are you connected to them? If not, again make a list and start attacking it.

 

Once you know all of the people and groups to which you want your organization connected, start assigning parts out to your board and staff. Set up meetings to explore how you can start partnering towards bigger social change.

Because we need social change leaders who are not frightened by the looming future, but rather aligned and empowered to face it together.

If you want to learn more about building networks for social change, read my interviews with network experts Anna MuoioJane Wei-Skillern, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and check out the New Network Leader website.

Photo Credit: Martin Grandjean

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Stand Up Social Change Leaders

moonshadow

These are difficult days. This past week I have felt incredibly lost. I have been thinking a lot, trying to understand what is happening in our country, in our communities, to and with our people. And I have been grappling, as I know you all have been, with how we move forward from here.

I have struggled with how to write the blog, doubting whether I can shed any light on something that none of us really understands. But then a colleague said to me, “It’s even more important now that you write. You have followers, and thus you have a responsibility to lead them toward hope.” That is a heavy lift, and I doubt that I can really hope to fulfill it, but I will reluctantly stand up and play my role as a leader.

But I ask the same of each of you.

Because the only way forward for our country is if each one of you, as our country’s social change leaders, stands up as true leaders in your work, your communities, our country.

And in my mind here’s how we start to make that happen.

Build community inside and out.
This week I attended a conference of social sector leaders and one of the speakers described how a sense of community is the backbone of resilience. If we are going to get through this, we cannot isolate ourselves. We must find and forge community. And we must go beyond our own comfortable spheres. Our country is really struggling right now. We must find ways, big and small, to connect communities, tap into new ones, and stretch our networks. We cannot let the red/blue, rural/urban, middle/working class divides that this election highlighted define us as a country. We are better than that. So wherever you are, break down those walls and connect — really connect — with people inside and outside of your circles.

Discover empathy.
And in order to do that, you must embrace empathy. Another colleague said to me this week, “Do you know how we can move forward from this? Empathy.” And that is absolutely right. Start here. Yes this election brought out the worst in us, but perhaps it did so because of some pretty stark failings of our economic and political systems. So let’s stop blaming and instead work to understand the realities that people are living and figure out solutions.

Be a real leader.
Which brings me back to where I started. We are suffering a crisis of leadership in our country. I truly believe that the majority of people who voted for Trump were not casting a vote for hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia, but were instead casting a vote against a deeply flawed economic and political system. We need real leaders — big and small, and in every corner of this country — to stand up, speak up, and do the hard, right thing. We have to stop waiting for someone else to come forward. We are each responsible for whatever corner of influence we hold, and we must use that influence for good. So dig deep and figure out how you can help, not hurt, your communities and your country. Step away from the despair and the fear and instead move whomever you can, however you can, toward the light.

I am choosing to find the opportunity in this darkness. And yes, that is a choice I have made today, and a choice I will have to continue to make every single day after.

And the opportunity I see is that these times can force each one of us to take a hard look at ourselves and emerge as empathetic leaders willing to bridge divides, build communities and help our country, our democracy, ALL of our people, find a way forward together.

If you have felt (and continue to feel) like giving up — as I have many times over the past week — please hear me when I say that you simply cannot. Now more than ever our country needs you social change leaders to point the way toward the future. We must resist — at all costs — the urge to stick our heads in the sand, curse those who didn’t vote the way we wanted, or slink away in fear of the future.

Now more than ever we must all, every single one of us, step up as leaders for these new challenges we face. Whether that’s inspiring your staff, or marshaling your colleagues, or getting outside your own walls to find common ground. We all have at least one way in which we can be a true leader.

So find it, embrace it, and get to work.

Photo Credit:Wilson Lam

 

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Nonprofits Must Use Their Power For What Is Right: An Interview With Ruth McCambridge

Ruth Mccambridge

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ruth McCambridge.

Ruth is Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her background includes forty-five years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Ruth spent a decade at The Boston Foundation, developing and implementing capacity building programs and advocating for grantmaking attention to constituent involvement.

If you want to read interviews with other social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: The Nonprofit Quarterly sometimes serves as a watchdog for the nonprofit sector. For example, shortly before his death last year, Rick Cohen took the nonprofit sector to task for not standing up against anti-refugee legislation. But in some ways the sector’s hands are tied because of real or perceived rules against too much political activity. What is (or should be) the nonprofit sector’s role amid an increasingly polarized, gridlocked political system?

Ruth: The nonprofit sector’s hands are by no means tied and pretty much everyone knows that. We who work in 501(c) 3s do have to avoid partisan political activity and be a little careful when it comes to direct lobbying, but this leaves a whole world of political activity in which nonprofits can be and are involved, and there are plenty of powerful examples of political activism by nonprofits.

Look at the way that planned Planned Parenthood Action (a 501(c)4) has mobilized around this election season. Four years ago, in fact, the Sunlight Foundation found it had the highest ROI of any electorally focused PAC.

This response you speak of, of not being allowed to be political is, it seems to me, a convenient and patently obvious cop-out. It’s not that nonprofits do not know they can be involved in these kinds of issues, it is that they are employing a facile excuse for not doing what is right.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this dynamic – what most exposes the true nature of the excuse – is the tendency of some nonprofit infrastructure groups to mobilize nonprofits only on the most institutionally self-interested causes, resisting any limitations on fundraising, for instance. The fact that these campaigns are launched in favor of refugee rights to a safe harbor is not attractive to those who expect integrity from the sector.

Of course, there are issues that combine long term institutional self-interest with the interests of communities – for instance, recently a few statewide nonprofit networks have stood up for a living wage requirement and have accompanied that with work on rate adjustments, but in general, nonprofits, specifically those which are not expressly organized around advocacy, need to consider how to use their institutional power for what is right and stop playing coy in the face of current intense political scrums around issues of basic human and civil rights.

But let’s get back to the NPQ as watchdog idea. We have been hearing this increasingly over the past few years, but we have always tried to afflict the comfortable so maybe our voice has just become louder. We have many more readers than this time last year – I know that!

Nell: The mainstream media is sometimes criticized for holding the nonprofit sector to an unfair standard compared to the private sector. Do you agree with that criticism, or is the nonprofit sector not analyzed enough?

Ruth: That unfair standard coin has two sides. The nonprofit sector is more trusted by the public than government or business and that means that people expect more from us in terms of consistency of ethics. When we violate those higher expectations – yes – we may look like we are being held to a higher standard because the contrast between what they want and expect to see from us and what we give them is sometimes so starkly disappointing. This, by the way, causes some of the obsession with executive salaries that are seen as overly high. There is a sensitivity to wage justice in the context of mission and other compensation of staff that is easy to play on because people just expect us to act from the highest possible ethical position.

Nell: As a journalist, what is your take on the state of journalism and its role in democracy given the 30% decline in the number of journalists over the last decade. What will become of journalism and its role in democracy? And what do you make of the emerging breed of nonprofit newsrooms?

Ruth: Journalism is a changing form, and I would be talking far above my pay grade to suggest that I knew exactly what it was evolving toward, but it has always been clear to me that the role of journalism is central to democracy – to the ability of a populace to act in an informed manner and thus it is as important to democracy as the right to associate, which is at the basis of our nonprofit sector.

In a way, this commonality of purpose links the two, and so it is no surprise that there are now more nonprofit journalism outlets springing up – entities that are not placing profit above mission. That makes sense.

Just as interesting are the conversations around how people choose who can be trusted to inform them and on what basis, and who is going to pay for the long term investigative journalism that always has to be central to the mix, and what part open data plays in breaking stories. Other interesting trends are the evolution of citizen journalism, collaborative journalism and niche journalism. It is unendingly interesting.

Nell: In your interview last Spring with Douglas Rushkoff he had some very interesting things to say, one of which was that the nonprofit business model is superior because it more equitably distributes wealth than the for-profit model. Do you agree with his assessment, or what is your take?

If we do not want to encourage the pillaging of the earth and its peoples by the few – I guess I do agree.

Photo Credit: Nonprofit Quarterly

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