A couple of fascinating debates – one about the role of philanthropy in democracy, and one about the value of nonprofit evaluation – were fascinating reads. And I always love a good controversy, so July gladly provided at least two. The much heralded “sharing economy” came under fire and the hype around social impact bonds was called out.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from last month. If you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- There was a really interesting debate on the Markets for Good blog (always a place for thoughtful conversation) between Andrew Means and Patrick Germain about the value of program evaluation and performance measurement in the nonprofit world. Andrew Means kicked it off here and here and Patrick responded here.
- I absolutely love it when someone makes you think about something that you took for granted in a whole new way. Conventional wisdom is that the sharing economy is a democratizing development. But Max Holleran, writing on the OpenDemocracy blog, argues that perhaps it is the complete opposite. As he says, “Our concept of what sharing means has gone from The Gift to the paid-for lift…How we assess public goods has also changed dramatically: urban commons have been ceded to private-public management initiatives.”
- The Hewlett foundation announced a new $50 million initiative to “strengthen representative democracy in the U.S.” And that announcement inspired a thought-provoking back and forth about the role of philanthropy in democracy among Daniel Stid and Larry Kramer (both from Hewlett) and Maribel Morey (assistant professor of history at Clemson University), via a Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post and the subsequent comments to the post. No matter your politics or your views on philanthropy, it is refreshing to see such an open discussion about a foundation’s efforts.
- On a somewhat related note, Amy Schiller argues that we cannot allow philanthropy to be a “workaround” to the “friction of democracy, ” which is necessary for truly solving social problems.
- To get more funders to invest in nonprofit organization building we need more data and case studies on the return on investment. Building the case for funder investment in nonprofit technology capacities, Berta Colón, Cynthia Gibson, Michele Lord, and Geraldine Mannion examine recent data on building nonprofits’ digital reach, and the Knight Foundation provides a case study on how National Public Radio (NPR) built their digital skills.
- I love New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman for his fabulous recipes and views on food, but recently he’s become somewhat of a food activist, and his article on the the true (social) costs of a burger is eye-opening.
- Is there hope for the famously dysfunctional nonprofit board? A new report from Urban Institute suggests we need to raise our expectations of nonprofit boards. Let’s hope!
- I know I’ve been including Steven Pressfield in my round ups lately, but this man really knows how to inspire people to fight the demons that face them in order to create whatever they were put on this earth to create. His recent blog series entitled “Why” does just that. I think social changemakers, more than anyone, need this kind of inspiration.
- Curt Klotz from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund argues that nonprofits must price their services according to value because “there is no virtue in self-imposed austerity that leads to mediocrity in our programs, and constant turmoil in our finances.” Amen to that!
- Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Laura Callanan pulls back the curtain on some of the hype around social impact bonds and social innovation in general. Instead of falling victim to shiny object syndrom she asks that “we all bring our critical minds – as well as our open hearts – to the job of social change. Let’s celebrate the potential in the new approaches but also integrate them with prior experience and test them with our constituents…Let’s remember that a tool is just a tool.”
What thought-provoking or controversy-inspiring read caught your eye last month?
Photo Credit: Josue Goge
I get a little tired of the social media noise sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media for finding new information and making connections. But sometimes it replaces thoughtful conversation with increasingly shortened sound bites (more on that later). And when I hear people claim that 140 characters are better than long-form articles and blog posts, I get depressed.
Call me old fashioned, but I love to spend the necessary time processing thought-provoking, controversy-encouraging written words. Social change is incredibly complex work, so we desperately need people and spaces where we can have difficult, thoughtful, and game-changing conversations. And I think great blogs are one of those spaces.
So I offer here my current list of favorite blogs. These are spaces where I think really valuable points of view are being expressed. That’s not to say that I don’t read or enjoy blogs beyond this list. These are just the top of the heap for me right now:
- White Courtesy Telephone
- Balancing the Mission Checkbook
- Nonprofit Finance Fund Social Currency
- Work in Progress: The Hewlett Foundation Blog
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog
- Steven Pressfield Online
- Full Contact Philanthropy
- Markets for Good
- Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog
- Beth’s Blog
- Philanthropy 2173
But I LOVE to find new writers and spaces, so what are the places you have found for a good, thought-provoking read?
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Amy Sample Ward, CEO of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), the membership organization of nonprofit professionals who put technology to use for their causes. Amy leads a team dedicated to connecting individuals, organizations and campaigns in order to transition the nonprofit technology sector into a movement-based force for positive change.
Previously serving as the Membership Director at NTEN, Amy is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events in the US, UK and around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: For many nonprofit leaders, social media is still viewed as a sideline, rather than an integral, aspect of the work. How do you convince nonprofit leaders that social media can actually be a means of furthering their social change missions?
Amy: Social media really encompasses so many different tools and platforms. The probability that your community isn’t using ANY kind of social technology is pretty low. Every organization doesn’t have to use every tool out there. Quite the opposite! I encourage every nonprofit not to think of social media as time suck and “one more thing to add to the list”, but, instead, as a way to connect directly with community members on a much more regular basis than your other outreach in email or events. Select which platform or platforms you use by asking your community and listening first – this helps ensure that any time you do invest in social media is spent in the platforms where your community is active and you have the highest chance of success.
Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource constrained, nonprofits have traditionally been somewhat insular and risk averse. How do nonprofits reconcile that approach to a growing need to be more open, collaborative, transparent and risk embracing?
Amy: If there’s fear about change, taking risks, or transparency, my suggestion is to take inspiration from and share responsibility with your community. As a nonprofit organization, you cannot fully achieve your mission on your own – you need your community to help you create lasting change in the world, so why not invite the community to help you create change in your work!
When you invite your community in, you start to embrace transparency. You also lessen the stigma of risks because you now have community members championing new ideas and helping you test and iterate to find the best approaches. You don’t have to fear changing when you are working closely with your community because doing so means working with people, and we all change every day.
Nell: On the flip side of that, is there a risk of becoming too consumed by social media and new technologies? Can nonprofits – and all of us really – become too enamored of every new shiny object at the expense of actually creating social change?
Amy: At the end of the day, we all have lots of work to do and don’t want to get distracted or bogged down by any one thing, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, email, or meetings! I think the real risk is in letting your tools guide your strategic decisions. Social media tools are launching every day, sometimes with a lot of press coverage. It’s understandable that you could read a post or see another organization trying a new platform and think you should do it, too. Or, to let the functionality of a certain platform dictate how you decide to create and run a campaign. It’s critical that all staff have the resources and training to think and plan strategically about their work, identifying the tools last that align with their goals, community and audience, and your mission.
Nell: Technology is often considered “overhead” in the nonprofit world. How can nonprofit leaders convince funders and board members that investing in technology can have a significant return on investment?
Amy: The best thing organizations can do to prove this is by actually proving it: track and evaluate your own return on investment, share information about your budgeting and planning, and include clear information and analysis of the necessary technologies to do your work in every grant proposal and report. You can’t expect funders to invest in something if you aren’t able to convince them from the beginning.
Photo Credit: nten.org
I have to admit, June was a busy month for me with lots of travel and events, so I was less tuned into social media. Thus, I am offering a far from definitive list of the best reads from the month. But here goes…
New data on charitable giving and social fundraising, and a new effort to create a system to classify philanthropic activity made for some exciting developments. And because it wouldn’t be a great month in the world of social innovation without lots of debate, there is also plenty of criticism of philanthropists, philanthropic consultants, and business theory. It all made for a great month in the world of social innovation.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from the last month. But this month, more than ever, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.
And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Good news for charitable giving, it looks like total US donations will go back to their 2007 peak of $350 billion sooner than originally thought. The post-recession rebound will happen sometime this year or early next, according to new data.
- And adding to the data about giving, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog shares some great statistics about fundraising, social media and mobile.
- The Foundation Center has embarked on a bold project to create a robust classification system for philanthropy. They have created a draft “Philanthropy Classification System,” which is a “structure for describing the work of philanthropy consisting of subjects, population groups, transaction types, and approaches (support strategies)” and opened it to public comment. Their goal is to “unleash the ability of foundations to work far more efficiently with each other and with other sectors to achieve the kind of scale that can drive real change in the world.” It’s fascinating. Take a look and give them your thoughts.
- The Packard Foundation is one of the great examples of foundations that understand and support nonprofit organization building. They have created a great wiki on “Organizational Effectiveness” with resources for other grantmakers interested in supporting nonprofit organization building. And my favorite resource on the list is the article from Linda Baker, a Packard Foundation program officer, urging foundations to “be the duct tape” for nonprofit grantees. Ah, if only more philanthropists thought this way!
- But not all philanthropy news is good news. A report on the Walton family shows that the second generation heirs to the Walmart fortune have given almost none of their personal fortune to philanthropy, despite being the richest family in America. The report and the Forbes article about it raise some interesting questions about wealth and the obligation of philanthropy.
- One of the newest and most talked about ways to channel money to social change is the social impact bond. But what are we learning as the pay for success movement gains steam? Gordon Berlin from MRDC shares some insights from the New York City social impact bond and demonstrates how incredibly complicated this new financing tool really is. As he says, “The future of the Pay for Success movement rests on building on the lessons learned from the first efforts to implement these new and potentially transformative financing structures.” So we need to get beyond the hype and understand if this new financial vehicle really can work.
- And speaking of questioning hype, Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, pens a scathing critique of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. She illuminates the danger of an omnipotent theory that allows no analysis or critique. She takes Christensen’s ubiquitous business theory of “disruptive innovation” to task, arguing, “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”
- Another writer peeling away the curtain on theory that holds no weight, Phil Buchanan admonishes consulting firm FSG and the Stanford Social Innovation Review for 1) not recognizing sooner that urging foundations to create individual institutional strategies around their unique positioning and activities is flawed, and 2) failing to acknowledge that many other thought leaders have been discussing that flawed strategy for years.
- As an introvert myself, I loved Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times urging politicians to take more time alone to reflect before barreling forward. As he puts it, “Some of the boldest strokes of lightning happen in isolation, where all the competing advice can be processed, where the meaningful strands come together and the debris falls away.” Amen!
- If you want a visual that will blow your mind, check out Ezra Klein and Susannah Locke’s 40 Maps that Explain Food in America. Access to food is a core social challenge, and these maps lay it all bare.
Photo Credit: Spirit-Fire
Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the new shiny object in the world of social change. From Giving Days, to new giving platforms, to lots of articles and studies (here and here to start), it seems that crowdfunding is everywhere lately.
I’m all for innovations in the funding of social change, but I’m not convinced that crowdfunding is really creating anything fundamentally new.
Under “crowdfunding” I include efforts like Kickstarter where a creative effort (a film, art exhibit, library) can garner small investments from a large number of people. And I’m also including Giving Days, at the city and national level, where nonprofits try to raise as much money as possible in a 24-hour online “event”. What these efforts all have in common is they raise money, from a large group of people, over a short period of time.
I earned my fundraising chops working public television pledge drives, one of the earliest “crowdfunding” efforts. The technology was different (TV screens and telephones, instead of CRM systems and social media), but I’m not sure much else is.
So I would like to see us separate what is potentially exciting about crowdfunding from what is just hype. To help in that effort, I offer some questions:
How much is truly new money?
It’s unclear to me how much new money crowdfunding brings to social change organizations. For example, nonprofits participating in Giving Days encourage their annual donors to give on that specific day so that Giving Day dollars are higher. But that’s not new money. True innovation in social change funding comes from efforts to grow the 2% pie - giving as a share of America’s Gross Domestic Product has stayed at 2% for the last 40+ years. I’m not convinced that crowdfunding uncovers money that would not have otherwise ended up somewhere in the nonprofit sector.
How many new donors are being retained?
The point of crowdfunding is that it’s a one time deal. There is a message of urgency that encourages donors to give NOW. So the numbers on a specific Giving Day or with a crowdfunding campaign may be good, but is the funding sustainable? Are nonprofits or social change organizations actually growing their donor base? Are they able to go back to these investors later and encourage them to give again? And if the funding isn’t sustainable, is it really worth the effort it took to get it?
Is crowdfunding reinforcing the “Overhead Myth”?
The destructive idea that donors shouldn’t support nonprofit “overhead“, or administrative costs, is slowly dying, but crowdfunding might just be bringing it back to life. Nonprofit crowdfunding darling charity:water has been taken to task for reinforcing the idea that 100% of the dollars they raise go “directly to the field”. And crowdfunding projects are often specific and “sexy,” which means that the money is not being raised for boring things like the staffing, technology, and infrastructure that most organizations desperately need. Are we perpetuating the overhead myth by encouraging donors to give to specific projects, instead of to overall issues, organizations or teams?
What’s the return on investment?
A lot of time and effort can go into crowdfunding campaigns. If the benefits are shortlived, donors aren’t retained, and the majority of the funding is not new dollars, while the costs (staff and board time, technology investments) are high, then what is the true return on investment? I’m not arguing that it can’t be positive, but I would like to see more critical analysis about it, both at the aggregate and the individual organization levels.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’d like us to dig a bit deeper to understand what the real effects of crowdfunding are so far and what it’s true promise is. If there is already research out there that can answer some of these questions, please let me know in the comments below.
Photo Credit: SeedingFactory.com
Controversy about whether Millennials will spend money differently than their parents to create change, arguments for greater philanthropic risk, examples of innovation in the arts, use of “Moneyball” in conservation and policymaking efforts, and the lure of online media to create social change. What more could you want from a month of social innovation reading?
You can also see all of the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Man, I love a good controversy. In April the Obama administration invited Millennial philanthropists to the White House to discuss next generation philanthropy. And The New York Times sent Millennial reporter (and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune) to cover it. Well, Jim Newell from The Baffler doesn’t buy the argument that Millennials are going to use money differently than their predecessors. But Jed Emerson and Lindsay Norcott think Millennials will actually take impact investing mainstream.
- And staying on the controversy train just a bit longer, William Easterly takes issue with celebrity famine relief efforts that ignore (and potentially make worse) the lack of democracy causing famine in the first place.
- Because achieving scale is incredibly difficult work, Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched an 8-week series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog exploring how we achieve it. 16 thought leaders will “weigh in with their insights, struggles, and questions regarding the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.”
- It seems that the arts, perhaps more than other issue areas, are on the front lines of innovation in order to stay relevant. And this month really brought those struggles home. First, the Houston Grand Opera has seen dramatic growth in audiences, bucking a declining trend elsewhere, by appealing to broader audiences. Perhaps the San Diego Opera could have learned something from Houston since their declining audiences (and poor governance decisions) have put them in danger of closing their doors. And ever at the ready with examples of how arts organizations are innovating and adapting, ArtsFwd released two case studies on how the Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theater Companies have embraced adaptive change.
- What’s with Moneyball (the movie and book about using data to drive major league baseball strategy) everywhere lately? Using data and smart strategy the Nature Conservancy is getting more effective at conserving bird habitats. And David Bornstein thinks the federal government is getting into the game as well with an increase in data-driven policy making.
- The Pew Research Center just released a book, and corresponding interactive site, about the changing demographic face of America and how it could affect everything, “Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”
- Should philanthropy embrace more risk? Philanthropist Laurie Michaels founder of Open Road Alliance, which provides funding to help nonprofits overcome unforeseen roadblocks or leverage unanticipated opportunities, thinks so. Michael Zakaras interviews her in Forbes. As she puts it, “Very few people in the finance industry predicted the economic collapse in 2008, and yet we ask NGOs to submit a plan that will be stable for several years, which is an impossibility in the best of circumstance.” Amen!
- On the NPEngage blog, Raheel Gauba answers the fascinating question: “If Google were a nonprofit, what would its website look like?”
- And speaking of nonprofits online, the PhilanTopic blog released an infographic summarizing the 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study about nonprofit online activity.
- Moving on to other forms of media, I love what’s happening with video games and the innovators who are adapting them to help solve social problems. Who knew that playing Minecraft could actually change the world?
Photo Credit: Mikel Agirregabiria
Heather Mansfield’s newest book, Mobile for Good, is a nice complement to her 2011 book, Social Media for Social Good. This time around, she adds mobile to the “new media” mix and gives a detailed approach for nonprofit leaders ready to embrace changing technology.
In Mobile for Good, Mansfield sounds a warning call to nonprofit leaders. The tide of new media is swift and those nonprofit leaders who don’t embrace it will be left behind:
“Your nonprofit would be wise to assume and act upon the fact that more than 50 percent of your website traffic will occur on screens varying in sizes from one to six inches by 2016.”
And, contrary to popular belief, this shift is not just among the youngest generations of potential donors. Every generation – from Silent, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, to Gen Z – is increasingly discovering and giving to nonprofits online.
But Mansfield is not suggesting that nonprofits chuck all fundraising vehicles in favor of a singular new media approach. Rather, she urges nonprofits to embrace a multi-channel fundraising strategy, “using print, web, and email communications, and mobile and social media in order to appeal to donors of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
And in fact, reports on the death of email are unwarranted. In fact, it’s enjoying a rebirth:
“Email is not dying. It’s growing. Furthermore, every email address that your nonprofit accrues translates into $13 in online donations over a one-year period. If you think this trend is isolated to Gen X and older, it’s worth noting that 65% of Millennials subscribe to nonprofit e-newsletters.”
The key, however, is making sure that everything (your website, your e-newsletters) is responsively designed, meaning that it automatically converts to fit whatever is being used to view it (laptop, phone, tablet).
Mansfield urges nonprofit leaders to invest in new media. The nonprofit sector’s desire for free or very cheap technology solutions isn’t realistic anymore:
“It’s imperative that you find the funds and the tech know-how to position your nonprofit for future survival…One of the downsides of the rise in social media is that it has inadvertently resulted in nonprofits becoming overly accustomed to and dependent upon “free” online tools. This mindset is becoming destructive to the sector istelf…The era of free is over.”
Mansfield devotes a chapter to each of the main social media networks and gives tips and best practices for each. The problem with writing a book about such a quickly evolving space, however, is that it becomes out of date before it even hits the shelf (for example Facebook’s recent organic search changes, and LinkedIn’s discontinued Products and Services tabs). So you must view Mansfield’s tips in a larger context, and for real-time updates you can check out her Nonprofit Tech for Good blog.
Overall I think the book holds a good deal of value for nonprofit leaders, however, I do have two criticisms.
First, for the nonprofit leader already overwhelmed by new media Mansfield doesn’t effectively prioritize where to focus. By including all major social media networks and all new fundraising tools (including untested ones like Crowdfunding) she leaves the impression that there is an endless and equally valuable list of innovations to embrace. Without a framework for prioritizing where to focus it is easy for the already overwhelmed nonprofit leader to give up. She could have discussed the merits of focusing on some of the bigger bang for your buck social media networks (like Facebook) while letting others (Pinterest) go if time doesn’t allow. Or thinking through a nonprofit’s target audience and their habits and preferences in order to prioritize staff time.
Second, I must take Mansfield to task for perpetuating the nonprofit overhead myth – the idea that nonprofits should separate their “program” and “overhead” costs. As I’ve mentioned before, this myth is incredibly destructive to nonprofits by forcing them to hide or ignore the true costs of their work. In Mansfield’s “Online Fundraising” chapter, she lists 10 best practices, of which #6 is to “Include Program Versus Operating Expense Graphics,” suggesting that nonprofits create “a pie chart graphic that shows your low fundraising and operating costs.” She goes on to mention the Overhead Myth Campaign in passing, with no irony about how she is perpetuating the myth itself. Ugh.
At the end of the day, Mansfield provides a nice overview of the rapidly changing new media landscape and some great steps for what nonprofits can do to keep up.
Photo Credit: nptechforgood.com
Could it be that the nonprofit sector is coming into its own? Increasing prominence in the economy coupled with a growing (we hope) recognition of the need for stronger organizations, the nonprofit sector may be hitting its stride. Add to that some interesting discussions about the effect of crowdfunding and a “revitalizing” Detroit and you have a pretty good month of reading in the world of social innovation.
You can also see my favorites from past months here.
- It appears that the nonprofit sector is beginning to take center stage in a new economy. The rise of the “sharing economy,” where products and services are shared by many rather than owned by one (think Netflix, Car2Go, HomeAway), apparently holds tremendous opportunity for the nonprofit sector. So says Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times, “We are…entering a world partly beyond markets, where we are learning how to live together in an increasingly interdependent, collaborative, global commons.” Erin Morgan Gore (writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) would agree.
- But at the same time, NPR describes a growing individualism in America and an emerging “Opt-Out Society.”
- And lest you forget why we do this social change work, Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, describes some “menacing mega-trends” facing America and our political system’s inability to keep up.
- We continue to be fascinated by the Millennial generation and this infographic very nicely puts to rest some myths about them.
- Writing in the Huffington Post, Ashley Woods questions whether the recent focus on revitalizing Detroit is helping or hurting long-time residents.
- Crowdfunding is increasingly gaining interest, but can it actually increase money flowing to social change? A new infographic by Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, describes some recent crowdfunding results for nonprofits. And Beth Kanter digs deeper into the data.
- The CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Robert Ross makes a compelling argument for why foundations need to move beyond funding new solutions and instead get into the advocacy and community organizing game: “Philanthropy has to recognize that community power, voice, and advocacy are, to use a football analogy, the blocking and tackling of winning social change.”
- Are funders beginning to understand the need to invest in nonprofit capacity building? Some recent research by The Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that, not surprisingly, nonprofit leaders think funders don’t understand their need for help with sustainability. But some new data from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations finds that funder appetite for capacity building might be growing. And Rodney Christopher from the F.B. Heron Foundation makes the case for support of capacity building, “Failing to pay attention to nonprofits as enterprises will undermine impact over time.”
- But Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund places a big part of the burden of overcoming the nonprofit overhead myth squarely on the shoulders of nonprofit leaders themselves.
- Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and contributor to the White Courtesy Telephone blog, very thoughtfully breaks down how to understand philanthropy’s relationship to social change. Well worth the read.
Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida
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