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Making Philanthropy More Equitable: An Interview with Aaron Dorfman

Aaron DorfmanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Aaron Dorfman, President and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a research and advocacy organization that works to ensure America’s grantmakers are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He also serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: What is your take on recent concerns about donor advised funds locking too much philanthropic money away from directly reaching nonprofits? Is the recent growth of DAFs a good thing or a bad thing, or is it more complicated?

Aaron: It’s definitely complicated.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to how much easier DAFs have made things for donors. I do some of my own charitable giving through a small DAF, and I love the convenience of it. I have no doubt that other donors also find DAFs to be a very helpful development in philanthropy.

However, many of the concerns raised by critics are also valid.

There is little or no evidence that DAFs have contributed to an increase in overall charitable giving, for example, and there certainly isn’t any evidence that the funds have boosted giving to historically marginalized communities. So, if there has been no increase in overall giving, then what DAFs have done is to delay the giving.

Another concern is that DAFs provide donors with significant tax advantages over private foundations – but at the cost of transparency. Most DAFs don’t accept unsolicited proposals, and reporting by sponsoring institutions doesn’t identify grants with individual funds. Practically speaking, that means that most of these funds are inaccessible to most nonprofits. They’re traditionally housed at community foundations, but they’re not directly open to receiving proposals from community-based nonprofits, though proposals may be steered there by foundation staff acting as gatekeepers.

We found this to be true in a recent in-depth assessment we conducted of the Oregon Community Foundation. This was especially the experience of nonprofits serving and/or led by communities of color, who already have the hardest time accessing mainstream philanthropic support.

The lack of access by community nonprofits is even more troubling when you consider the fastest growing of the DAFs: the funds located at the giant financial industry warehouses like Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard. There, no one is putting nonprofit proposals in front of donors who might be interested.

The lack of adequate reporting reinforces this problem of access: since the IRS does not require DAF sponsors to report which funds made which grants, grant seekers cannot take advantage of reports to identify potentially like-minded donors. (DAF sponsors have begun making greater amounts of information available about their grants, but what they provide is of limited help to grantseeking nonprofits because they don’t identify which funds made which grants.) This is further compounded by the fact that at present the major foundation database (Foundation Center) doesn’t systematically track giving by the likes of Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, most of whose funding simply doesn’t appear in the database.

Nell: Some people have argued that since philanthropy itself is built upon an inequitable market economy it can serve to reinforce that inequality. Is there a disconnect, or can we expect philanthropy to appreciably contribute to greater equity? What do you make of the debates about philanthropy that redistributes wealth and philanthropy that simply reinforces power and economic imbalances?  

Aaron: There is no question that philanthropy can and has done both of these things.

When the Ford Foundation provides support for grassroots community organizing, or for litigation to protect and expand civil rights, that’s an example of philanthropy clearly contributing to greater equity.

When Atlantic Philanthropies, The California Endowment and other funders supported advocacy that contributed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), that, too, was a case of philanthropy appreciably contributing to a more equitable society.

These are just a couple of examples of funders who understand their goals and their vision for society to be disruptive to the status quo; funders who understand the role unjust economic systems have played in the issues they would like their dollars to help overcome. The “disconnect” between market economics and progressive philanthropy is not impossible to overcome, and many of the more than 200 grantmakers that have signed on to NCRP’s Philanthropy’s Promise initiative are leading the way in showing other funders how to do just that.

However, when certain foundations support elite universities, when they invest only in white-led cultural organizations that emphasize European-American culture, or when they invest in advocacy to privatize public education at the expense of low-income communities – then you have some clear examples of how philanthropy reinforces inequality.

There was a great series of articles published recently in The Nation that explores these ideas, and what the future of philanthropy might be for those of us who hope to see a greater philanthropic contribution to fairness, equity and justice.

Nell: You have written before about philanthropy’s historical role in funding social movements. What do you make of philanthropy in the Black Lives Matter movement? How involved has philanthropy been, and how involved do you think philanthropy should be?

Aaron: There is a paradox here. Philanthropy has always under-funded social movements. However, philanthropic funding has also been essential to the success of social movements. We documented this in a 2014 paper Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1965.

The Black Lives Matter movement has thus far received very little support from institutional philanthropy. A group of foundation staff members have formed Funders for Justice as a way to learn together and to accelerate the flow of funding to the movement. They’re making headway, but the movement is still receiving very little support. Some individual donors, mostly younger and working through the Solidaire Network, have been able to move money more quickly to the movement.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a small family foundation based in D.C., has been a real leader on this. They dipped into their corpus and have devoted new resources to creating the Making Black Lives Matter initiative and are attempting to organize their peers in philanthropy to invest in black-led organizing and in the Movement for Black Lives. The foundation is a past winner of the NCRP Impact Awards, which recognizes smart philanthropy that empowers underserved communities and achieves real results.

Also, Black professionals in philanthropy have been organizing through the Association of Black Foundation Executives and its Philanthropic Action for Racial Justice initiative.

I should add, too, that movement leaders have rejected some philanthropic support that was offered to them because it came with too many strings attached. In some respects, it’s been a good thing that the movement has not been dependent on philanthropy, since foundation support so often serves to rein in radical social movements.

Nell: The nonprofit sector has historically stayed away from advocacy work, but that seems to be changing. What role do you think nonprofits can and should play in advocacy, and will there be more of a push for that in the future?

Aaron: Advocacy and community organizing are among the best ways for foundations and nonprofits to leverage their limited dollars in pursuit of their missions. By changing public policies and/or the regulatory framework, we can transform society and build the kind of nation we all want to inhabit. Any nonprofit or foundation that is serious about achieving its mission must understand how advocacy fits into their overall strategy.

NCRP has challenged grantmakers to devote at least 25% of grant dollars to funding nonprofit advocacy and organizing, but fewer than 100 of the largest 1,000 foundations in the country meet that benchmark. The number of serious advocacy funders is increasing, but slowly.

Nonprofit advocates bring the voices of people and communities to policy makers. They are a greatly needed counter balance to the growing influence of corporate lobbyists, who often advocate only the narrowest self-interests of their industry. I think many, many people in our sector understand this and that we will see an expansion of nonprofit advocacy in the coming years, and that an increasing number for foundations and high net worth donors will provide ever-increasing resources for that advocacy work.

Photo Credit: NCRP

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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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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Dec 2015

social changeDespite being the run up to the holiday season, December was a busy month in the world of social change. From arguing about new philanthropy, to looking back at 2015, to exploring America’s history of philanthropy, to analyzing the leadership of the Pope and the Red Cross’ Gail McGovern, to inspiration in grim times, there was lots to read.

Below are my picks 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 to see a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

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

  1. Arguably the biggest news in December was Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) and his wife Priscilla Chan creating a limited liability corporation (not a foundation or nonprofit) focused on social solutions. Many, many, many people had something to say about it. Some liked it, others despised it, others found serious implications for the future of philanthropy, others were terrified by it. Amid all the hubub, the Zuckerberg/Chan’s chief of staff further clarified their plans. Perhaps we should just wait a bit and see what the actual effect is.

  2. And beyond the Zuckerberg/Chan investment, there was debate about new forms of philanthropy in general. Michael Edwards thinks the idea of blending social and profit motives has jumped the shark. And Andrew Means of Data Analysts for Social Good thinks Effective Altruism, the idea that you can use data to determine where to most effectively invest in social change, is flawed because it doesn’t account for different philanthropists having different preferences.

  3. Since December is the last month of the year, there was the traditional glut of posts looking back at 2015. My favorite among them were: The National Council of Nonprofit’s “5 Firsts” for the Nonprofit Sector in 2015,” Inside Philanthropy’s “Hot Topics and Trends for Women and Philanthropy, 2015,” The Nonprofit Quarterly’s “9 Important Nonprofit Stories of 2015 (And What They Can Teach Us),”  Pew Research’s “15 Striking Findings From 2015,” Mashable’s “26 Incredible Innovations that Improved the World in 2015, and Lucy’ Bernholz’s “Philanthropy’s 2015 Buzzwords.” Whew!

  4. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History previewed an upcoming permanent exhibit on American philanthropic history. Fascinating.

  5. David Callahan provided some really interesting theories for why the percent of charitable giving in America has yet to climb beyond 2% of GDP. His proposed causes include: liberals, corporations, and even Ronald Reagan.

  6. Emmett Carson, head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, put forth an interesting idea for two of the most influential organizations advocating for the nonprofit sector: Independent Sector and The Council on Foundations. He thinks they should merge, as he explained: “The new entity could harness our entire sector to meet old and new social and economic challenges. Such a new organization could meet our sector’s higher collective purpose — to influence how this country meets its obligations to our most marginalized citizens, whether they are poor, sick, homeless, immigrants, disabled, or victims of systemic discrimination.”

  7. Writing in Forbes, Mike Perlis, argued that The Pope is an illustrative example of how leadership should operate in the 21st century.

  8. ProPublica’s ongoing series investigating the American Red Cross continued with an article about CEO Gail McGovern’s leadership and where she may have gone wrong. And Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly found the problems at the Red Cross to be reminiscent of other nonprofits that have fallen victim to troubled leadership, like the founder’s syndrome that plagued the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

  9. Nonprofit blogger Vu Le argued that if we want nonprofits to act more like businesses, nonprofits should enjoy more of the benefits that businesses do: “Society needs to provide nonprofits with the same level of funding, speed of investment, flexibility, autonomy, and acceptance of risk and failure, or else stop trying to get us nonprofits to be more like for-profits. You can’t have your nonprofit cake and yet withhold your for-profit icing.” Amen to that.

  10. And finally, to restore your faith in humanity, new Canadian president Justin Trudeau created a tremendous welcome for incoming Syrian refugees. And Barbara Bush and Jessica Mack from Global Health Corps would probably consider Trudeau just the kind of leader we need right now, for as they wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “At times like these, when the news is an endless litany of upsetting events, it is far too easy to let rage slide into violence, or allow fear to shut us down to the humanity of others. We have examples of that all around us. But leadership doesn’t entail taking the easy option. Instead, the most courageous stand we can take is against fear itself, by resisting the instinct to close up and push others away…It is within each of our abilities to decide how to parlay these grave moments into opportunities for resilience, inspiration, and hope.” Yes!

Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2014

social innovationI 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 TwitterFacebookLinkedIn or Google+.

And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. 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.

  2. And adding to the data about giving, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog shares some great statistics about fundraising, social media and mobile.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.”

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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

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