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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: January 2017

In January it seemed as though we moved into social change hyper drive.

With the inauguration of a new president, a litany of controversial executive orders, numerous efforts to block or minimize them, and advice for or frustration with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors’ responses, the world of social change moved at warp speed.

Add to that lots of predictions and advice for the nonprofit sector, and some small, but inspiring efforts to feed and comfort those in need and January was a very busy month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in January, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington, and if you want to see past months’ lists go here.

  1. Some still struggled to understand the 2016 election. Continuing his 4-year series on the smaller cities of America for The Atlantic, James Fallows argued that while Americans distrust national policy and institutions they still have faith in local government: “City by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”  And Eytan Oren offered some insight into how social media and major technology companies took civic engagement to a new level in the 2016 election.

  2. A few days before Trump was inaugurated, President Obama gave a farewell speech that focused on the need for greater civic engagement, and he and Michelle Obama launched a new foundation to help deliver on those ideas. And Pew Research crunched the numbers on how America changed over his 8-year term.

  3. Quite quickly after his inauguration, President Trump signed several executive orders, and a “resistance” movement that is rather unprecedented in U.S. history mobilized in response.   thing the resistance movement has going for it is their savvy use of social networks.

  4. In particular, Trump’s executive order banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority countries created some soul-searching in the philanthropic sector. Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan expressed frustration about a seeming silence among philanthropic leaders on Trump’s immigration ban, asking “What’s the point of being in charge of society’s risk capital if you don’t take risks at a moment like this?” But 50 philanthropic leaders signed a strong statement against the ban.

  5. Amid all of the uproar surrounding the immigration ban, there was light in small places. A group of people from New Jersey launched a supper club that creates community among and raises money for Syrian refugees.

  6. Because January started a new year, there were the usual posts predicting what the new year will bring for philanthropy and nonprofits.

  7. But this year was different because several writers argued that the nonprofit sector needs to move more strongly into advocacy. And there was lots of other advice about how nonprofits should approach the Trump era, from building resilience, to messaging more effectively in a “post-truth” world, to making America “good” again, to answering 12 “Ifs”.

  8. A rather more sweeping bit of advice for the social change sector came from Pablo Eisenberg who argued that the organization Independent Sector should no longer be an association of both nonprofits and foundations, but just nonprofits. The HistPhil blog asked him to elaborate on the history of that important institution.  

  9. BoardSource, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals partnered to release a new method for evaluating a nonprofit’s fundraising effectiveness. The method looks at three metrics in a nonprofit organization: the fundraising net revenue, the cost of fundraising, and the dependency quotient (the percent of the budget funded by the nonprofit’s top 5 donors). Because let’s remember, as Rick Moyers pointed out, Development Directors Are Not Miracle Workers.

  10. Finally, a tangent into something small and really cool. The idea of little free libraries that have been cropping up on people’s front lawns has gone in a new direction. Mini food pantries have started helping neighbors in need.

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Dec 2016

Let’s be honest, December was about just trying to make it through the end of 2016.

But where there is darkness there is also light. And many of the discussions and posts in December actually uncovered a lot of bright spots in an otherwise very trying year. From the success of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to a surge in donations to nonprofit journalism, to potential progress on climate change, to the future of philanthropy, there was much promise. Perhaps I was just looking for it,  but I saw lots of hope in December.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in December, but please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. In perhaps the best blog post title ever, “8 Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t a Total Garbage Fire” Marie Solis reminds us that there was actually some exciting progress in 2016.

  2. For example, the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline found success when the US Army Corps of Engineers decided not to approve an easement to allow construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe. And Tate Williams, writing on Inside Philanthropy, finds lessons for philanthropy in this social movement: “Supporting movements like Standing Rock likely means challenging grantmaking norms, loosening up requirements, taking chances, and moving much faster than foundations may be accustomed to.”

  3. December also saw a glut of donations to nonprofit journalism outlets, like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, to name a few.  And indeed, in the wake of the Trump election, funders like the Omidyar Network are increasing support for civic technology, solutions aimed at getting people more civically engaged.

  4. It looks like despite the new administration’s anti-environmental leanings, clean energy will continue to grow. Backing this trend, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates, announced a $1 billion fund to finance zero-carbon clean-energy technologies. And David Roberts writing in Vox argues that cities, rather than the federal government, may actually need to lead the clean energy effort: “Now that the US federal government is getting out of the climate protection business, at least for four years, [cities] are more important than ever…Cities generate most of the world’s economic activity, innovation, and cultural ferment. They also generate a growing share of its carbon emissions…Urban areas are also first in line to feel the effects of climate change…If they hope to avoid worse to come, cities will need to almost entirely rid themselves of carbon over the next few decades.”

  5. Writers at The New York Times offer two ways to move on from 2016, start small and lift up those around you.

  6. The Hewlett Foundation celebrated their 50 year birthday with a symposium on the history of philanthropy. In addition to the interesting #Hewlett50 Twitter feed, the foundation commissioned this very interesting paper from Benjamin Soskis and Stanley Katz  (of HistPhil blog fame) on the past 50 years of philanthropy.

  7. Aaron Dorfman, President of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a call to action for philanthropists in the Trump era.

  8. A new report from The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reveals that Generation X and Millennial donors are giving less than their Boomer and Silent Generation counterparts did at their age, but women’s influence on philanthropic decisions is growing.

  9. And a small, but very positive thing that came out of the presidential election is that it has brought philanthropic thought leader and curmudgeon Albert Ruesga out of his writing retirement. His latest post on the need for philanthropy to recognize class divides is particularly enlightening. As he puts it: “To introduce and champion class consciousness is to acknowledge that the ‘structures’ we seek to change—if we’re enlightened grantmakers—are often structures put in place to serve the purposes of an economically defined class…So while we might wish to remain class-neutral, the structures that keep people in poverty unfortunately will not. How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions that, in spite of our best intentions, perpetuate class privilege? How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? I don’t deny these challenges, but I’m convinced that ignoring the effects of class is acting in bad faith. It’s treading water while strong currents continue to carry us and our neighbors further downstream.”

  10. Finally, if you are looking for an actual book to read in the new year, Michiko Kakutani reviews reporter David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog which chronicles the rise in popularity of pen, paper, books, records and all things non-digital. Sign me up!

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

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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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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2016

social changeI’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.

But if you want a longer list of what caught my eye this month, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:

    “Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”


  2. And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.

  3. Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.

  4. While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”

  5. And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”

  6. So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.

  7. A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

  8. Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.

  9. Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.

  10. Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.

Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2016

spring readingMarch was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.

Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.

  1. SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

  2. Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.

  3. Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”

  4. On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.

  5. But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.

  6. So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

  7. And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.

  8. Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”

  9. Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.

  10. And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?

Photo Credit: David McSpadden

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Understanding Movements for Social Change: An Interview with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

SeanT-B_headshotIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project, which brings a social movement perspective to research on nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining the BMP staff, Sean spent a decade working in a variety of roles at the Center for Community Change, where he developed training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinated online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of issues. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at the National Council of La Raza, where he developed research and lobbied on issues related to employment and income security.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: What is the role of leadership in movement and network building? How do you balance the need for organic and distributed power with the need for someone (or multiple someones) to provide vision and marshal resources?

Sean: I think it’s important to start by teasing apart the concepts of movements and networks, or any other organizational structure/formation that might be the “cool new thing” in the nonprofit sector at any point in time.

I’m pretty traditional (admittedly even rigid) when it comes to what makes a movement. For me, movements are bigger than any organization, coalition, network or campaign could ever hope to direct or contain. That’s not to say that organizations – and networks of organizations – don’t have a role in supporting movements, but nowadays it seems like everyone’s talking about movements, but too often in a way that’s disconnected from the kind of fundamental social change that feminist, anti-war, civil rights movement leaders did a generation ago.

If an organization is trying to build a campaign or network to support its mission, generate a ton of subscribers and followers, and raise their profile as a “legitimate” advocate on an issue, that’s great. But that’s a campaign. Not a movement.

I spent a chunk of my career working on campaigns, and maybe it’s because I was trained by organizers, but we were clear about the difference between our measurable campaign deliverables (whether a policy was won or lost, how many people turned out for an action or march, etc.) and the more intangible aspiration that our organizing would spark some movement energy on the ground.

Part of the reason that my organization holds up leadership as a key focus area for our research is that we recognize that organizations, networks, movements need strong leaders and also need strong collective leadership. So when we think about the balancing act, it’s not that distributed power and vision / resources are at opposite ends of a scale. In fact, from a movement perspective, distributed leadership actually enhances the movement’s vision and brings more resources to bear on the fights the movement takes on. This is not to say that there aren’t struggles over leadership and between individual leaders/personalities… all of our organizations are made up of human beings interacting with each other, so conflict is going to be inevitable. The challenge is how to make those tensions and conflicts generative.

Nell: As you look at two current social movements — Black Lives Matter, and student protests on college campuses — what are your thoughts on their methods? How successful do you think they have been and will be in the future?

Sean: I think we’re in a very exciting movement moment. When we look back on the 1960s, that decade occupies a special place in our collective imagination because we have enough distance to see how specific moments and events and sparks connect to each other. I’d suggest that the rise of Black Lives Matter is connected to the increasing visibility of student protests on college campuses. And not just in the obvious examples where Black Lives Matter was a rallying cry. Young people play an important role in movements, and they always have.

I worked for several years supporting campaigns to reform our country’s broken and inhumane immigration policy. And young people – whether they were in high school or on college campuses or working to support their families – have been critical to the movement for immigration reform. When I had the privilege to be in the room with young folks to strategize about actions and protest and tactics, there was a ton of creativity and fun that I – as someone in my thirties – had forgotten or lost touch with. I think that the turn we saw towards civil disobedience as a strategic choice was informed by the impatience of young people with an insider political game that wasn’t working for communities.

Progressive activists have gotten back in touch with direct action and civil disobedience in the last few years, and I think that’s an important tool / method to have at our disposal. The reason we build movements is because the polite, official ways of making change haven’t worked. And the way to break through is to assert that Black Lives Matter, or to come out as undocumented and unafraid. The willingness of activists to put their bodies on the line to shut down traffic and disrupt the status quo isn’t just about getting media attention; it’s about demonstrating a commitment to change that inspires others to take their own steps in the ongoing struggle for justice.

To come back to the movement vs. network distinction for a moment … Patrisse Cullors – one of the three women who created #BlackLivesMatter – recently posted a super insightful piece titled “We Didn’t Start a Movement, We Started a Network.” And in that she writes about her concern when the media started referring to the “Black Lives Matter movement” because, as she put it “movements don’t belong to any one person, and we knew that this movement wasn’t started by us.” That commitment to recognizing and lifting up the many amazing organizations doing critical on-the-ground organizing is what makes this movement moment feel really different and important, and hopefully lasting. I think there is something to the fact that many of the most visible leaders today are women who are unapologetically black and feminist. I think the movement for Black lives is a game changer, and I’m really excited to see the movement continue to have more success in the future.

Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource-constrained and competition for dollars is so stiff, there is often a perceived risk to building networks. But how can (and why should) nonprofits overcome this and become more networked?

Sean: That’s an interesting observation, because it seems to me that the resource incentive is for organizations to join networks. Philanthropy doesn’t seem to want to invest in small, local organizations that are doing their own thing. The tendency seems to be for funders to give big grants to national networks and count on them to disperse the money to groups on the ground. Now, I’ve worked for national intermediaries my whole career, so I have seen the way that strategy works to support national campaigns that are disciplined and strategic. But I know that there’s lots of concern – especially on the part of people of color led grassroots organizations – that the “trickle down” strategy isn’t working.

Part of the piece about competition for resources is about leadership, and specifically who is leading the networks versus who is leading the small grassroots organizations that comprise networks. Last year, I worked with some colleagues on a report titled #BlackWorkersMatter, and one of the things that came out from the interviews I did with leaders around the country who are using community organizing as a strategy for addressing the jobs crisis in Black communities is that there are a lot of biases playing out in our sector that leave Black-led – and people of color led organizations in general – at a disadvantage for funding, visibility, all of the currencies that give an organization power and stability right now.

Already, we know from the Daring to Lead survey of nonprofit EDs, that the top-level leadership of the sector is overwhelmingly white. And I think we have to grapple with what it means if the leadership of our networks doesn’t match the demographics of the constituents who come to our organizations for support. BMP just launched a survey on Nonprofits, Leadership & Race, and I’m really curious about what the data will reveal in terms of people’s experiences and perceptions about how implicit biases might be playing out inside of organizations and the nonprofit sector.

Nell: What is or should be philanthropy’s role in building social movements and networks? And is philanthropy currently helping or hurting these efforts?

Sean: I think funders can and definitely do play a role in supporting both social movements and networks, but since investing in networks seems like a clear priority already, I’m going to focus on what funders should do to invest in social movements.

I think the first – and most important – thing a foundation should do if they’re interested in supporting social movements is invest in grassroots organizations that are doing authentic base building, popular education and leadership development. And give them general support dollars for multiple years to do that work. Foundations also should recognize that the slow work of organizing may not yield the kind of metrics and deliverables that have become so central to how we evaluate campaigns.

Beyond that commitment to organizing, foundations can use their unique vantage point to identify organizational leaders and strengthen connections between them. Obviously, money directly to the organizations is important, but sometimes the funding is needed to convene people to discuss, debate and disagree about the movement’s vision and strategy. Having philanthropy support relationship-building between leaders and organizations is really important for any movement ecosystem.

Photo Credit: Building Movement Project

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Feb 2016

social change readsFebruary focused (at least in my mind) on innovations in philanthropy. A new growth capital fund for nonprofits, radical philanthropists, trends in charitable giving, and philanthropy’s role in creating the future. Add to that a bold move by a nonprofit to wrest a lucrative city recycling contract from a for-profit company, research on Millennials’ hopes for the future, and a call for presidential candidates to take a lesson from history. It was a great month.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change for the month of February. And if you want a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also see past months’ lists of 10 Great reads here.

  1. There was a really exciting development in philanthropic support of nonprofit capacity in February. Ten donors led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation joined together to form Blue Meridian Partners, which will award $1 billion worth of unrestricted, performance-based grants, via 5 to 10-year investments of up to $200 million per nonprofit. According to Edna McConnell Clark Foundation president Nancy Roob, this venture is a new way to invest in high-performing nonprofits, because as she puts it: “Without large, long-term investments of growth capital for organizations with proven results, we’ll continue to salve but not solve our big social challenges.” Yep.

  2. And speaking of innovations in philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy provides a really interesting profile of philanthropist Farhad Ebrahimi and his Chorus Foundation, which although a relatively small foundation is taking an unusual approach to environmental giving by using a spend-down plan, providing long-term general support grants, and practicing mission investing.

  3. In analyzing Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report and comparing it to other available data both in the US and Canada, Amy Butcher of The Nonprofit Quarterly finds some interesting insights about how philanthropy is evolving.

  4. But perhaps it isn’t evolving quickly enough. Minnesota Council on Foundations President Trista Harris recently attended the Abundance 360 Summit about the technology of the future and was disappointed at the lack of a philanthropy presence. As she puts it, “Change in the world and our communities is happening at a breathtaking rate, driven by access to infinite information and exponential increases in computer processing speeds. This accelerating rate of change makes the challenging work of doing good even more difficult. Foundations are trying to make the world a better place, but we are often using yesterday’s information to do so. What if we could predict the future and prepare for the realities that will soon impact our communities? I believe it is our responsibility, as philanthropic leaders, to learn the skills necessary to understand and create the future.”

  5. Pew Research does an excellent job of unearthing data that relates to the issues of the day. In February I was especially interested in their report that while Millennials are less confident than Gen X or Baby Boomers about America’s future, so were their parents and grandparents when they were young.

  6. And while we are on the topic of history…Every once in awhile New York Times columnist David Brooks really strikes a chord. In February he used his column to pen a letter to several of the remaining presidential candidates encouraging them to use a “Roosevelt Approach,” as Brooks describes: “Many Americans feel like they are the victims of a slow-moving natural disaster…it’s a natural disaster caused by structural forces — globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism. A great nation doesn’t divide in times of natural disaster. It doesn’t choose leaders who angrily tear it apart. Instead, it chooses leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower…they were…able to set an emotional tone that brought people together and changed the nature of Americans’ relationships with one another. During their presidencies, the bonds of solidarity grew stronger and the country more formidable. They were able to cultivate a deep sense of unity, responsibility and sacrifice.”

  7. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Daniela Papi-Thornton, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, is quite critical of what she calls, “Heropreneurship,” when social entrepreneurs who have little experience or training are generously funded to solve complex social problems. According to her: “Unfortunately, all too often, the people who get the funding to try their hand at solving global challenges haven’t lived those problems themselves….We’re wasting limited resources on shallow solutions to complex problems, and telling our students it’s OK to go out and use someone else’s time and backyard as a learning ground, without first requiring that they earn the right to take leadership on solving a problem they don’t yet understand.”

  8. Nonprofit Tech for Good offers a nice list of 36 apps and online tools for nonprofits.

  9. In an interesting decision, the Minneapolis city council voted to award the city’s 5-year recycling contract to a nonprofit, instead of the for-profit that manages recycling for most of the country. Writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly, James Araci sees an exciting trend: “It’s a smart move for nonprofits to shift perceptions of America’s waste from a commodity to be sold to countries like China to an engine of local job creation and environmental benefits.”

  10. And finally, head of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, Kate Barr takes aim at the nonprofit overhead myth by encouraging nonprofit leaders to change their own language and thinking: “If we in the nonprofit sector want to bust the overhead myth and bring attention to the things that really matter, then it’s our responsibility to take the lead by communicating differently and better. In order to take that lead, don’t wait for the question to come in and then argue why the [overhead] ratio isn’t important or meaningful. We have to replace it.” Sing it, Kate!

Photo Credit: jwyg, cropped version of “Work with schools : after a book talk, showing boys gathered…” from New York Public Library

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5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2016

Poster_of_Alexander_Crystal_SeerThis is my favorite time of year. Despite the darkness of the last few months, December is often about reflecting on the year that is drawing to a close and hopes for the new one coming.

And as is my tradition on this blog, I like to look ahead at the trends that may affect the nonprofit sector in the coming year. I have never claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I am an admitted optimist, so my predictions are less about telling the future and more about wishful thinking. This year, more than ever, I want to see opportunity amid the uncertainty and the challenges we face.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about for the nonprofit sector as we head into 2016.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

  1. New Opportunities for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead
    A growing recognition of the value of the nonprofit sector paired with a rising confidence among nonprofit leaders will create opportunities for nonprofits to step up and create opportunity out of the seemingly mounting pile of challenges (like terrorism, natural disasters, political gridlock). The nonprofit sector’s natural place — its core competency — is in righting imbalances and it often coalesces in times of trouble. We are already seeing really exciting collaborations and innovations aimed at increasing civic engagement and winning equal rights, to name a few. Call me an optimist, but I think the challenges we face are merely a precursor to the emergence of a stronger social sector ready to find new solutions.

  2. Increased Use of Protests 
    And as evidence of social movements emerging from challenges, we are seeing an uptick in social protests. This year we’ve seen some impressive organized demands for social change. From Black Lives Matter, to student protests on college campuses, to Chicago protests demanding the mayor’s resignation, people are rising up to demand change. While their methods somewhat mirror the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, their access to and use of technology is quite new. It will be interesting to see how these movements evolve and how much change they will be able to accomplish.

  3. Greater Emphasis on Networks 
    And these protests, like any social change effort, will be more successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can and then figure out who the influencers are in their space and how to connect their work with those others. Because the network approach requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding, I think (hope) we’ll see more nonprofit leaders move to an abundance mentality that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder, more networked path.

  4. More State-by-State Strategies 
    The stunning victory this year legalizing same-sex marriage demonstrated the tremendous success that a state-by-state (as opposed to a national) approach to social and political change can have. Indeed, because of political gridlock at the federal level, other social change efforts (like Represent.us and the legalization of marijuana) have found success at the state level where changing minds and changing policy is sometimes easier and more efficient. But this isn’t a new idea. In fact according to research compiled by Bloomberg Business, social and political change in America follows a pattern: “A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.” Though the idea isn’t a new one, I think it may gain traction as more social movements find a state-by-state approach increasingly attractive.

  5. Smarter Funding
    But to pursue more successful models, like the use of networks and state-by-state strategies, nonprofits must have the necessary funding runway to get there.  So I’m hopeful that funders will increasingly recognize that nonprofits need more flexible and effective funding (like unrestricted dollars and capacity capital). There are already encouraging signs. The Ford Foundation has moved to provide more unrestricted support (and encouraged other funders to build the capacity of nonprofits) and the federal government released new guidelines this year providing more indirect funding to nonprofits. So let’s hope we see more foundation, individual and government funders providing nonprofits more of the kind of money they really need to create solutions.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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