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Philanthropy, Government, and Nonprofit Excellence: An Interview with Daniel Stid

Daniel StidIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Daniel Stid, Senior Fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Daniel serves as an advisor to Foundation president, Larry Kramer, leading the exploration of a potential Foundation initiative to support and improve the health of democracy in the US. Before joining the Foundation, Daniel was a longtime consultant and strategist to governments, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations, including as a partner in The Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office, where he co-led the organization’s performance measurement practice.

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

Nell: You moderated a panel at the recent After the Leap conference about government and performance management. Government has a long history in the outcomes space, but there was some controversy at the conference about whether government can really lead this new movement. What role should government play in this new push toward nonprofit performance management?

Daniel: Yes, my Twitter feed was blowing up during that session with people adamantly saying that government couldn’t lead this push, it had to be nonprofits! To my mind this controversy misses the point. It presumes a hierarchy – that leadership is lodged in one place, and that it is exercised in one direction. The fact is that if we are going to make this “leap” happen, we need distributed leadership in multiple places: in government agencies, in operating nonprofits, in foundations, among researchers and program developers.

A great example is the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program administered by the Office of Adolescent Health in the federal department of Health and Human Services, the implementation of which I recently wrote about with some former colleagues at The Bridgespan Group. The Office of Adolescent Health administrators demonstrated leadership in conceiving and developing a bold and thoughtful program; the researchers and purveyors involved demonstrated leadership in creating evidence-based solutions and effectively supporting their implementation; and front line agencies demonstrated leadership in implementing these interventions with fidelity. What makes this program so compelling is that it has been animated by multiple forms of leadership that are networked and reinforcing each other across sector lines. I believe this same pattern occurs in most other situations where social change is happening at a large scale.

Nell: Your charge as a senior fellow at the Hewlett Foundation is to help explore how the foundation can “support and improve the health of democracy in the United States.” There have been some criticisms lately that philanthropy has moved away from supporting democracy and instead sometimes enhances wealth inequality. What are your thoughts?

Daniel: Insofar as this occurs, I believe this an inadvertent effect from the standpoint of individual donors. Most people want to give to something they can point to and/or that they can have affiliation with – hence the contributions of many donors to hospitals and arts organizations and universities, or to the schools that their children attend. This is straightforward and understandable. You can readily see and appreciate and be associated with what you are getting for your contributions. And it is philanthropy. We shouldn’t presume that all philanthropy can or should be geared toward reducing inequality. That is not the point of philanthropy in a free society. (Now whether all philanthropy needs to be and should be subsidized by the tax code is another question; I am on the record as saying it is high time to revisit the charitable deduction.)

The kinds of interventions that stand a chance of alleviating inequality – e.g., support for high quality early education, or effective teen pregnancy prevention – entail large-scale systems change and diffuse and uncertain impact for people typically living in very different communities from the philanthropists who are in a financial position to support them. They are for that reason a riskier philanthropic proposition. But many individual donors and foundations are making these investments anyway, and I bet we will see more of them do so as the evidence-base supporting solutions to inequality continues to be solidified.

Nell: Moving nonprofits to a performance management system will be costly. Do you think government can and should foot that bill, or can philanthropy? How do we create and fund the infrastructure necessary for this movement to truly succeed?

Daniel: Really good question! I don’t think that we can count on government to do it – for all of government’s resources relative to those of philanthropy, it is extremely rare that a government program will have the political and policy degrees of freedom, let alone the budget, to invest in nonprofit capacity in any sustained way. And the age of austerity we are in will only worsen this shortfall. To me this is a critical role for philanthropy to play. Just a portion of the billions that philanthropy puts to work in the service of education, health and human services, youth development, etc. could help assess and put to much better use the hundreds of billions that federal, state and local governments do across these areas.

Typically foundations see their role as scaling up initiatives that government can then “take out” and fund directly, freeing up the foundations to move on and fund their next ventures. Foundations should stay engaged rather than moving on and, by investing in the infrastructure and measurement capacity that government cannot pay for, help society get the most out of the far greater levels of government spending. Rather than seeking to “leverage” other foundations, to use some jargon, foundations should in effect be seeking to “leverage” government funding by increasing its impact.

Nell: Should every nonprofit work towards articulating and measuring outcomes, or does it primarily apply only to social service and education nonprofits? Is there a way for arts and cultural organizations, for example, to move toward outcomes management?

Daniel: I think every enterprise – whether it be a profit-seeking business, a government agency, or a nonprofit, whether it is producing cars and trucks, health and human services, or  arts and culture — should seek to get better at what it does. I found Jim Collins very persuasive on this point in his “Good to Great in the Social Sector.”

The desire to improve, to get better at things, is woven into the human psyche, and when this desire is given full expression, by individuals and the organizations they work in, so is our humanity. Whether this quest involves “outcomes” and “measurement” as we conventionally define them depends on context. It may well involve tracking audience surveys and visitor numbers and assessments by informed critics. But it may also involve a troupe rehearsing until it feels it finally has its performance nailed, or a museum director continuing to refine interpretive material that she thinks visitors are struggling to understand. Those behaviors reflect a relentless quest for outcomes in their own right. At the end of the day, performance measures are merely proxies to help us assess our progress toward what we are working towards: an underlying excellence. The excellence itself is really the point.

Photo Credit: Hewlett Foundation

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November

November was another great month in the world of social innovation. Here is my pick of the top 10 posts, articles, graphics, and discussions. As always, please add your favorites from the month to the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. Some very interesting reports and predictions on how nonprofits and philanthropy are changing. First, the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation predicts a pretty exciting future for philanthropy. And Blackbaud released a report on what 35 experts think it will take to grow philanthropic giving in the US. And finally the 2011 Nonprofit Almanac is out. The annual report shows the nonprofit sector growing and that giving is back to 2000 levels

  2. DC Central Kitchen founder and nonprofit sector advocate Robert Egger launched a new group called CForward to help nonprofits fight for their rightful place at the political table.

  3. The Washington Post gets into the social innovation business by launching a new “On Giving” section to discuss philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, socially responsible business and much more.

  4. The Nonprofit Finance Fund offers a great worksheet to assess a nonprofit’s strengths and weaknesses in order to link their financial health to their impact. Love it!

  5. HubSpot offers a great infographic on pull vs. push marketing, but I’d argue it applies to fundraising as well.

  6. The Alliance for Global Good is launching a $10 million fund to promote innovation in philanthropy. The new fund will “draw attention to charities that have found new approaches to tough problems and provide money to help them expand their work.”

  7. On the Unsectored blog Jeff Raderstrong encourages us to start asking the right questions about the charitable deduction currently the focus of so much debate.

  8. Always one to tell it like it is, Mario Morino from Venture Philanthropy Partners offers 6 Wrenching Questions Every Board Member Must Answer.

  9. Jim Kucher argues on his blog that there is a bipolar disorder in social entrepreneurship, between the competing, and sometimes conflicting, social and business perspectives.

  10. Tom Tierney, chairman of Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy, has written a paper, “The Donor-Grantee Trap, about the dangers of the nonprofit starvation cycle. In a recent interview about it, he argues “Nonprofits should be clear about their definition of success, articulate their strategy for achieving success and be up front about what that costs. That includes understanding the organization’s true overhead costs and making a case for funding good overhead.” Amen to that!

Photo Credit: Sim Van Gyseghem

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