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Venture Philanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: HistPhil

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Social Innovation Fund Six Years On

social innovation fundThere is an interesting report out today on the effectiveness of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). Authored by the Social Innovation Research Center (SIRC), a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, the new report details what has worked and what hasn’t in the six year history of the SIF.

Launched by the Obama administration in 2009, the SIF — a program within the Corporation for National and Community Service — provides significant funding to foundations that follow a venture philanthropy model by regranting that growth capital, along with technical assistance, to evidence-based nonprofits in “youth development, economic opportunity, and healthy futures” areas. In 2014, SIF expanded its efforts to include a portfolio of Pay for Success (social impact bond) grantees.

Now, 6 years on it is interesting to take a look back to understand what, if any, effect SIF has had on the nonprofit sector. The effect of the SIF is also critical given that, as of right now, the House and Senate have both defunded SIF in their respective funding bills.

To date, the SIF portfolio is made up of $241 million of federal investments and $516 million in private matching funds, which was invested in 35 intermediary grantees and 189 subgrantee nonprofits working in 37 states and D.C.

The SIRC report focuses on the current progress of SIF grants made during the first three years of the program (2010-2012). The report finds two clear positive results for the SIF so far. The SIF has:

  1. Added to the nonprofit sector’s evidence base about which programs work, and
  2. Built the capacity of nonprofit subgrantees, especially in the areas of “performance management systems, evaluations, financial management, regulatory compliance systems, and experience with replicating evidence-based models.”

On the negative side, however, the report finds that the SIF put real burdens on funders and nonprofits with its fundraising match requirements and the federal regulatory requirements. The report also finds that the SIF has had little effect on the sector as a whole because the SIF has not very broadly communicated their learnings so far.

To me, of course, most interesting are the report’s finding about capacity building at nonprofit subgrantees. There is such a need for nonprofit capacity building in the sector, and this was a clear goal of the SIF.

The SIF is one of few funders that do more than pay lip service to performance management by actually investing in building the capacity of nonprofits to do it. However, the SIF has been criticized for mostly selecting nonprofits that already had strong capacity. And indeed, the SIRC report finds that the SIF was most successful among those nonprofits that already had high capacity (in performance management, fundraising function, etc.) prior to SIF funding. Indeed, the report found that “poorly-resourced intermediaries working with less well-resourced community based organizations have been at a disadvantage.”

One SIF grantee in particular, The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, really struggled to build the capacity of their subgrantees whose starting capacity was so low. As they put it:

During the course of participation, it became clear that…[SIF] was really better suited for replicating existing programs or, at a minimum, investing in well-established programs that had some level of sophistication around organization systems and evaluation.

This mirrors earlier criticism of the SIF that it was set up to grow only those nonprofits that were already doing well, while those nonprofits that struggled with basic capacity issues were left out. The SIF has struggled to determine whether it is funding innovation (new solutions with limited capacity), or proven solutions (with a long track record and the corresponding capacity). It seems the two are mutually exclusive.

What the SIF is trying to do is such tricky business. To identify, fund and and scale solutions that work is really the holy grail in the social change sector. Certainly there are hurdles and missteps, but I think it’s exciting when government gets in the social change game in a big way. Six years is really too soon to tell. So I hope that this brief SIF experiment is allowed to continue, and we can see what a social change public/private partnership of this scale can really do.

To read the full SIRC report go here.

Photo Credit: Obama signs the Serve America Act in 2009, Corporation for National and Community Service

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Why Social Entrepreneurship Shouldn’t Abandon the Nonprofit Sector

socent-bubble1Note: I was asked by UnSectored, a community platform for rethinking social change, to write a post as part of their month-long conversation leading up to the William James Foundation’s Annual Gathering about how we sustain social enterprise. Below is that post. It originally appeared on the UnSectored blog where you can see the other posts in the conversation.


There is an awful lot of hype around the social entrepreneurship movement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about the growing focus and energy around social change. But I think we need to take a step back and recognize that nonprofits have been working on social change for a really long time.

Often nonprofits get less airtime in the social innovation movement than their for-profit, social change counterparts. Perhaps that’s because the for-profit form of social change is new, so it seems more interesting, sexier, apt to create more change. And, of course, the idea that business can be reworked to address public goods is incredibly compelling.

But among the glorified world of social entrepreneurship, some are beginning to question the hype. Like Liam Black (“Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur”) and Daniel Ben-Horin (“Between the Quick Exit and the Long Sojurn”)

Real social change is hard, long, exhausting work. As Daniel Ben-Horin says “This ‘making a difference’ stuff can be a real grind, as it turns out.”

And amid the hype around social entrepreneurship there is a tendency to dismiss those who were working on the long haul of social change before it was cool: the nonprofit sector.

The current hype around for-profit social entrepreneurship sometimes reminds me of the bubble, or the sub-prime mortgage speculation. We have to be careful of the hubris that accompanies new trends.

The nonprofit sector is an enormous part of our economy and has a long history of working towards social change. If we were to cast it aside completely, we’d lose the tremendous resources (money, people, mind-share) that are being invested in that sector every day. Without its oldest component, the broader movement to solve social problems is doomed. So instead of tossing it aside, let’s remake it, re-envision, restructure and reinvent it.

What does that mean? It means that the best and the brightest in the social innovation field need to figure out how to innovate in the nonprofit as well as for-profit sector. It means that the emerging social capital market creating financial vehicles for budding social businesses should also support social entrepreneurs in the nonprofit space. It means philanthropists should share investor prospects with impact investors, and vice-versa.

What’s more, innovation requires that investors interested in a social return own portfolios that include not only social businesses, but also nonprofit deals. Many more foundations should explore mission-related investing so that their money can go to both nonprofit and for-profit social change efforts. Nonprofits interested in growth should have access to capital and management expertise to scale. And a nonprofit that’s solving social problems should get just as many resources, respect and mind-share as a social business that’s doing the same.

In essence, we need an “unsectored” approach to social change.

Which means a shift in attitudes, laws, accounting standards so that social entrepreneurs are not restricted by outdated structures and incentives.

There’s no magic bullet for social change. But by focusing all of our energy on only one piece of the social innovation puzzle, we run the risk of less change — or none at all.

Photo Credit:

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Who Should I Interview Next?

Robert EggersI’ve been doing the monthly Social Velocity Blog Interview for 2 1/2 years now and have talked with more than thirty inspiring leaders in the world of social innovation. But now I need your help.

Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed

And many, many more.

It’s been amazing to hear from these leaders about where we’re going in the world of social change and where they hope to take us. You can see all of the past interviews here.

But now I’d like your ideas for who I should interview next. What all of these interviewees have in common is that they are people who are pushing boundaries, asking hard questions, creating new realities, making real social change. Who’s next?

So help me add to the list. If you have a suggestion for who I should interview next, leave a comment below or email me at Thanks for your help!


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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: December 2012

reading winterAs the end of 2012 drew near, December brought the usual looking forward and looking back. It was a time to reflect on where we’d been and where we (might) be going. It was also a time to salve the pain of disaster and tragedy with hope and innovation.

Below are my top 10 reads in December in social innovation. But please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.

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

  1. First we took a look back. Lucy Bernholz, queen of social sector predictions, reviews the ten year predictions that she made in 2010 to see how she’s doing so far. PhilanTopic offers an infographic that demonstrates how effective online and social media fundraising was in 2012.

  2. Then we look ahead. Writing on the Nonprofit Quarterly blog, Rick Cohen provides a wrap up of various social sector leaders’ predictions for how the nonprofit sector will change in the coming year. And Twitter’s Manager For Social Innovation describes how social media is shaping the future of nonprofits. And on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog Mark Tobias offers nonprofits Ten Technology Trends to Watch in 2013.

  3. Amidst the season of giving, Caroline Fiennes and Phil Buchanan explain (on the Freakeconomics blog) why giving to fewer charities is actually better.

  4. In a very interesting thought piece Kenneth Rogoff, economics professor at Harvard, takes issue with those who argue that our current economic troubles stem from a long-term innovation crisis.

  5. Building on a growing movement to get the nonprofit sector to stand up for itself, Johns Hopkins University released the results of a nonprofit sector survey that found a widespread consensus that seven values lie at the core of the nonprofit sector. But they also found that nonprofit leaders believe the sector must better articulate these values to the media, government, and general public.

  6. In his usual fashion, Seth Godin likes to pronounce on the nonprofit sector, a sector which he doesn’t quite understand. His post Non-profits Have a Charter to be Innovators drew some fire, but raised some interesting questions. And echoing that interest in seeing more nonprofit innovation, Google shifts their philanthropic focus in an interesting way. 

  7. And not to be left behind, philanthropy is getting into the innovation game too with more foundations exploring design thinking.

  8. After the horror of the Newtown tragedy on December 14th, this collection of 26 photos from 2012 helped restore our faith in humanity and was a much needed salve.

  9. The Red Cross provided a great case study on how pull (instead of push) marketing can work in the nonprofit world.

  10. Something really interesting came out of hurricane Sandy: crowdfunding disaster relief. No longer is disaster response the sole responsibility of government and large nonprofits, individuals set up their own relief efforts via social media.

Photo Credit: Svenstorm

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Taking Philanthropic Risks: An Interview with Chris Earthman

Chris EarthmanIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Chris Earthman, Executive Director for the Aragona Family Foundation. For the last 8 years Chris has also worked for Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwestern US. Chris has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including helping to establish the Micron Technology Foundation (NYSE: MU), the corporate social responsibility vehicle for the largest private employer in Idaho.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: As head of a regional family foundation, how do you and your board view some of the innovations happening in the social sector like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, etc.?

Chris: I find it refreshing that innovation is happening in our sector, though I’m a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake among funders. The family foundation I currently run is a spend-down foundation, and that’s a decision our trustees made consciously in order to see the fruits of social investments now vs. spending significantly less in order to maintain a corpus indefinitely. There is ample discussion out there among funders, but (and I’m as guilty as anyone) very rarely much action to back it up. We’re trying to selectively dip our toe into the water in terms of funding social innovations, infrastructure, ecosystem improving organizations, selective M&A activity among our grantees and discussing the idea of mission-related investing.

Nell: Speaking of mission-related investing (where a foundation invests part of their corpus into for-profit social enterprises that give both a social and financial return to the foundation), it’s a pretty radical concept for most foundations. What do you think it would take for the idea of mission-related investing to take off for smaller foundations across the country?

Chris: Let me preface my comments with the fact that we are a spend-down foundation and therefore have not made a meaningful investment allocation to mission-related investing, so I’m by no means an expert here. However, I think there need to be more visible intermediaries and investment products targeting the social impact market. We’ve seen some great progress over the last few years with groups like Sonen Capital, but it’s still a very nascent industry. One of the biggest barriers we’ve come across is the difficulty in quantifying the social return in a format that is comprehensible to trustees. That is starting to change with ratings intermediaries like GIIRS, but recognition and uptake are essentially non-existent among most of the foundations that I interact with. I know that you and many others have opined on the progress here, but it’s still not something that is on many regional/ smaller Foundation’s radars. It may take a few forward thinking Foundation trustees to step up and take a chance to show others that it’s ok to think outside of the endowment model mindset.

Nell: Much of your non-Foundation time is spent working for a venture capital firm where the idea of Mergers and Acquisitions is second nature; however this is a fairly uncommon concept in the nonprofit world. Do we want to see more of it in the nonprofit sector and if so, how do we make that happen?

Chris: Given the fragmentation of the nonprofit ecosystem across the country and the large proportion of small organizations , I think there is certainly an opportunity for more instances of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), particularly in cases where organizations need to grow above the $500K/ yr threshold. However, my experience is that TRUE collaboration—the accretive kind where you can quantify cost savings and/or program growth and ultimately better outcomes/ social change—is very rare in the nonprofit world simply because there are few external catalysts to get the discussion started and ultimately finished.

We’ve funded a few different M&A efforts over the last couple of years and my takeaway is that the M’s work much better than the A’s. I hate to keep pointing the finger back at myself and fellow funders, but there is a certain level of risk aversion where we’d rather ensure a successful purchase of additional direct services vs. really giving organizations what they need to grow. I’ve seen too many truly innovative nonprofits unable to successfully scale past the $300-500K/yr revenue threshold because of the required organizational capital required to make that pivot.

But I’m by no means idealistic here. While M&As sound sexy, there are many times where poor execution, interpersonal dynamics, Board conflicts, bad timing, or any number of external factors out of your control result in an outcome that may actually harm the organizations seeking to gain efficiencies through scale and collaboration. There are integration costs, donor overlap, brand/ identity battles, etc. that always take much more time, effort, and money before you see any of the accretive results that initially drove the decision to bring the organizations together. The same goes for the appetite of funders to backstop Executive Director salaries and/or fund transaction costs related to a merger discussion. In my opinion, lack of funder appetite is probably one of the biggest barriers to more M&A in our sector.

Nell: As a rule foundations are less interested in making capital investments in nonprofit organizations (funding things like infrastructure, systems, technology, evaluation). Why do you think that is and what can help move philanthropists to understand the need for capacity capital?

Chris: I think there are two reasons:

  1. The idea of “expressive philanthropy” is fairly well ingrained and many folks start out their philanthropy work wanting to “put their stamp” on a particular cause or portfolio of organizations. The challenge is that many foundations knee jerk into a risk-averse grants process that may or may not fit with their place in the ecosystem. Part of this is based on the endowment model of funding, which more often than not results in a formal, tedious grant application process. This may not be the best way to identify and screen potential grantees!

    Let me acknowledge that I spent the first few years of my career as a grant writer, so I completely understand the time and effort that go into these proposals. This experience informs (or biases) my “anti-process” grantmaking strategy wherein we prefer to put the “search cost” onus on myself as a funder and try to respect the time and effort of the ever lean development dollars being spent by grant seeking organizations. It may sound like an arrogant “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach to grantmaking, but I’ve found that making the grant process donor-centric vs. grantee centric allows the system to operate more efficiently.

  2. While philanthropic dollars should be fungible, the ability to restrict funds creates a tiered system of revenue for grantees. It always strikes me as a little odd that funders get so hung up about funding direct services vs. infrastructure and overhead and restrict their funding to such a degree. Ask any VC how their portfolio companies use their investments and you’ll find more often than not it pays for the critical growth functions like Sales and Marketing. You can’t grow without infrastructure, and unfortunately our current giving culture is much less amenable to that. I’d even go so far as to say the framework/ process that most funders use to select their grantees are, by their very nature, skewed towards less risk and greater restriction. Therein lies one of the structural problems in our industry. Even something as simple as separating the motivation of our giving (“we really like your yy program initiative…”) from the structure of our giving (“…so here’s an unrestricted grant to spend where you feel it is most needed”) makes a huge difference for the lives of our grantees. It also shows the Executive Director that you value their ability as a manager to make decisions from the inside.

Nell: How do we get funders to get take more risk with their investments and be willing to fund things that have a higher risk, like growth capital, mergers, research & development, but could result in huge social payoff?

Chris: Similar to my earlier comments about impact investing and grant processes, I think funders need to see more celebrated instances of both success AND failure. Another solution is using less restrictive grant processes that are a better fit with the size and scope of your particular foundation. The fact that you can restrict grants does not automatically mean that you should. Until we embrace the idea that its ok to take a risk with our funding (and have a process that embraces this), even if it doesn’t turn out the way we planned, we’ll be much closer to creating an environment ripe for some of the larger social change that motivates our philanthropic giving in the first place.

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Creating UnSectored Social Innovation: An Interview with Jeff Raderstrong

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jeff Raderstrong, founder and editor of UnSectored, an online platform for people interested in developing collaborative efforts to create social change. In addition to the online platform, the UnSectored community uses offline events and activities to identify intersections, facilitate discussions, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and promote cross-sector change efforts. Jeff is also a community engagement consultant and has worked for Venture Philanthropy Partners, among other organizations on the front lines of social innovation.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You and some friends started the UnSectored blog a year ago to encourage the nonprofit, public and private sectors to break down their walls and work together on social change. How has it worked so far? What are you seeing?

Jeff: The blog was a first step in changing the conversation around social change to focus not on individual components—social enterprise, nonprofit, corporation social responsibility, government innovation, etc—but to consider the entire ecosystem. Social change is a complex task and, to us, it seemed silly to have all these conversations separately, with people not really paying attention to what those with similar (or identical) goals were doing.

In that way, the blog has been successful in providing that space. The response we received was way more positive than we were expecting, because our core message is a pretty simple one—that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that everyone should work together. But there had not been a place for discussion around that idea, so it resonated with people.

There’s still a lot more work to do, obviously, and UnSectored can’t do all of it. We are providing the platform for the community that believes in this idea—what’s next is up to the people who join that community.

Nell: Your fellow bloggers at UnSectored are all part of the Millennial generation. Do you think the notion of “unsectoredness” (is that a word?) is a particularly Millennial one?

Jeff: Answer to first question: Yes! You just put it on the internet, so it’s now a word!

Second question: I do not think there is anything inherent about the ideas behind UnSectored that make it explicitly a millennial endeavor. The work on UnSectored has been done primarily by millennials, but I think that’s just a function of the people I reached out to (my peers) rather than who the idea resonates with most. We have gotten response on this from people of all ages and backgrounds—I think it’s a universal idea.

That being said, I do think it’s a relatively new idea, born out of the more collaborative and connected nature of the brave new world we live in. The new tools available to people make it much more easier now than ever before to work together. For millennials, this isn’t “new,” this is the way we were raised. Because of that, we get it a little quicker than others, but I don’t think that makes it “ours” at all.

Nell: In addition to the blog you are also doing UnSectored Talks and Working Group Actions. What are these and what are you hoping they will accomplish?

Jeff: We have four components to UnSectored: Blog, Talks, Actions, Campaigns. The blog is relatively straightforward, as are the Talks: Both are ways to engage with open and intentional conversations around social change. The Talks are offline, the blog is online.

The other two components are trying to leverage the power of the UnSectored community to move from discussion to action. The Actions are the offline, coordinated version of this, and the Campaigns leverage the online platform of UnSectored. By giving people the option to engage in discussion and action, both online and offline, we hope to meet people where they are and get them to engage the best they can.

Nell: How geographic is your movement? Is it growing beyond the D.C. Metro area?

Jeff: It’s centered on DC, but we’ve been talking to people around the country. Because we aren’t funded and rely on volunteer time, it’s hard for us to have events in other places. But, we are looking for creative ways to partner with other organizations around the country. If you have some ideas, let us know!

Nell: Many of your fellow bloggers work for high-profile organizations within the social sector space (Venture Philanthropy Partners, Calvert Foundation, Council on Foundations, etc.). Do you find that your employers buy into the UnSectored idea and if so what are they doing to make it a reality?

Jeff: They definitely do. I think we all get inspiration for UnSectored from our other work. More and more, people at all types of organizations—high profile or not—are beginning to see how working together can produce better outcomes and create more transformative change. Personally, I’ve worked on the Social Innovation Fund initiative from the Obama administration, a great example of “unsectoredness” at work: The federal government partnering with funders and service providers to better leverage resources and encourage innovation. This initiative, which many of your readers are probably familiar with, is a great example of UnSectored’s core principle: That by working together, we can do much more than working alone.

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