Chronicle of Philanthropy
In 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.
You can read other interviews with social change leaders here.
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
As I mentioned earlier this week, I participated in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Chat on Tuesday with Karina Mangu-Ward from ArtsFwd. We were talking about how to connect money and mission. The Live Chat was a lot of fun, and we got some great questions from the audience. Below is an excerpt from the Chat. If you want to see more you can read the entire transcript of the chat at the Chronicle site here.
Here’s an excerpt from the Chat:
TB Asks: How would you suggest starting to rein in an organization what has started to chase dollars vs. trying to fulfill it’s mission? In my organization’s case this includes having acquired multiple other programs and is looking to take over more. They are good programs, but the alignment to mission is marginal and that ability to be financially stable as an organization is threatened. The CEO is all in, the board is apathetic. As the development officer I’m not sure what I can do to get the train back on the tracks. Thoughts?
I would start by bringing everyone together with a theory of change…
A theory of change articulates how a nonprofit translates community resources into change to a social problem…
Without that you will just be chasing dollars and programs. A theory of change can also excite and inspire a disengaged board and staff…
It can serve as a rallying point for the organization to determine what they are trying to accomplish and what resources they need (financial model) to be able to accomplish those things.
TB – One of the things that I’ve seen organizations struggle with the most…
is having difficult conversations….
conversations that require staff and board to let go of the old way of doing things….
to challenge their assumptions about how much money they need and for what…
i completely agree with Nell that having a framework for change is essential…
change doesn’t happen quickly. It’s incredibly difficult work, and acknowledging that it’s a process that organizations must learn and get good at is essential.
You can read the transcript of the full chat here.
Photo Credit: Chronicle of Philanthropy
I’m excited to announce that I will be participating in a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Chat on Tuesday, March 26th at 12 noon Eastern. Karina Mangu-Ward, from EmcArts will be joining me to answer questions from the audience about connecting mission and money. You may remember Karina from a past interview I did with her. She’s really amazing and is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts, a social enterprise for innovation and adaptive change across the arts sector. She leads the strategy and development of ArtsFwd.org, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation.
Karina and I will be live chatting and answering questions from the audience, so I hope you can join us. It promises to be a fast-paced, interactive hour.
Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle of Philanthropy description:
In the mad dash for donor dollars, nonprofits often take money for projects that distract them from their missions. Some donors pitch new programs but provide too little money to pay for a big enough staff to run it, so the charity ends up skimping on efforts that its clients really need. Other nonprofits might think holding a fancy gala will raise tons of money but don’t consider how the time spent planning the event will affect the group’s critical services. Join us on Tuesday, March 26, at noon U.S. Eastern time for a live online discussion about how to take a more strategic approach to fundraising. You’ll learn how to focus your fundraising efforts on your organization’s mission—and why saying no to some opportunities might actually help your nonprofit raise more money.
If you’re interested in participating, it’s easy. Just go to the Chronicle Live Chat page here at 12 Eastern on Tuesday, March 26th. You don’t need to RSVP or login, just show up.
I hope to see you there!
Photo Credit: wikimedia
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Phil Buchanan. Phil is president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and was the first chief executive of the organization. Under his leadership, the organization has grown into the leading provider of comparative performance data to large foundations and other grantmaking institutions. Phil also serves on the board of Great Nonprofits and is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: At the Center for Effective Philanthropy you work to make philanthropists more effective at creating social change, but a large part of philanthropy is driven by emotion and passion as opposed to results and data. How do you reconcile a push towards more reasoned philanthropy with the emotional aspect that will always be present?
Phil: I understand that some people feel this tension, but to me, it’s hard to understand because I think emotion and passion and results and data can – and should – cohabitate very happily. The passionate, emotional desire to make change is what inspires the commitment to get results. If you believe deeply in helping people in need, but do it in a way that doesn’t help, what kind of emotional satisfaction do you get from that?
Fay Twersky of the Hewlett Foundation articulated this very well in an essay in Alliance Magazine. She says impact should be pursued with “a warm heart and a hard head.” I like this way of thinking about it.
Nell: One of the the things you promote at CEP is a move from evaluating nonprofits based on overhead spending to evaluating them based on achievement of results. But sadly most funders haven’t yet embraced this distinction. What will it take for funders and the general public to recognize that overhead percentages are meaningless and destructive to the nonprofit sector?
Phil: I think the adoption of better nonprofit performance assessment practices is part of the answer. The more data nonprofits can point to that can show what they achieved with their total budgets, the less relevant how that budget was divided will feel to donors.
Look, I think people tend to gravitate toward that which is available, quantifiable, and comparative. Overhead percentages are all of those things, so they become the default performance measure even those they don’t tell you anything about performance. Caroline Fiennes of the U.K. has a great new book called It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way You Give It, and one of the best parts is that she really slays the argument for looking at administrative costs, while also providing guidance on how to approach performance measurement.
The rub is that the only way we’ll get better overall nonprofit performance assessment practices is if funders support that work. In our research, we have seen that, contrary to the stereotypes, nonprofits care about assessment and are working on it. But they want and need much more support – financial and non-financial – from their funders. I hope that funders embrace this and support better assessment practices in service of better outcomes.
I think Mario Morino has been a powerful voice on this topic and I recommend his book, Leap of Reason, to everyone I can. I hope people are listening to Mario because measuring effectiveness isn’t some academic issue. People who work at nonprofits deeply want to be effective. Foundations want to be effective. The people we help desperately need us to be effective. So we should – and we must – figure it out and get beyond empty measures. And many have. There are some fantastic exemplars when it comes to nonprofit performance assessment. But there are not enough.
Nell: In addition to leading CEP, you also serve on the board of GreatNonprofits, which allows individuals (clients, donors, volunteers) to review nonprofits. How does the idea of individual consumer reviews of nonprofits fit into the larger movement to evaluate nonprofits based on outcomes when the average person doesn’t yet understand or embrace the idea of nonprofit performance measurement?
Phil: In some ways I think it’s very easy for anyone to grasp. You’re trying to help someone; shouldn’t you ask whether they feel they have been helped? GreatNonprofits can provide that read on whether individuals served by a nonprofit feel they’ve been helped. I think GreatNonprofits, which Perla Ni founded and leads, is really important and I also think we need other kinds of efforts to collect and analyze beneficiary perception data. We need both the kind of open, web-based opportunity GreatNonprofits offers as well as rigorous, survey-based efforts such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s YouthTruth initiative, which helps schools, districts, and funders hear from middle school and high school students. We’re debating school reform in this country yet many of those with power and resources don’t understand the students’ experiences. We know that those experiences correlate to outcomes, so this kind of perceptual data could be a vitally important “leading indicator” of progress.
Nell: Philanthropy tends to be fairly risk averse and focused on program funding, as opposed to the organization-building capital investments (money to build organizations rather than buy services) the nonprofit sector so desperately needs. What do you think it will take to get more philanthropists to make riskier, longer-term, organization-building investments?
Phil: I think there needs to be a greater recognition that we count on organizations to get the work done. Sounds obvious, I know, but I think funders sometimes forget.
It is stunning, and sobering, that despite the valiant advocacy of Paul Brest, Paul Shoemaker, GEO, NCRP, and others, there has been no increase in the provision of general operating support over recent years. But we also need to be careful not to pretend operating support alone is the answer. Our research demonstrates that what really matters to grantees is operating support that is multi-year and a decent chunk of change – six figures or up in annual support, ideally. So the problem isn’t just one of grant type, it’s also one of grant size.
This comes back to assessment, too, in my view. If, as a funder, you know what you’re going after, and there is an organization that is focused on the same goal and can show that it’s delivering results, why would you not provide significant, long-term, unrestricted support? And, if you can’t find organizations delivering results toward your shared goal, why wouldn’t you fund in a way that would allow them to build that capacity?
Nell: You recently wrote a fairly scathing critique of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case because you thought his approach to advocating for the nonprofit sector was misguided. Yet the nonprofit sector is largely underfunded, undervalued, and dismissed in the broader regulatory and political environment. What do you think it will take to change that reality?
Phil: Pallotta’s book doesn’t advocate for the nonprofit sector that I know – or for one that I would ever hope to see. He wants the sector to become something entirely different, something a lot more like business, something that ultimately might not be discernible at all as a distinct sector. His take on the sector is both ahistorical (he demonstrates almost no understanding of the sector’s past contributions) and ideological (he has written that “the free market is a self-correcting system” that supports our “natural desire to help each other” and “only stops working when it is interfered with”). He is infatuated with free market analogies, believes financial incentives are the key to motivating people despite research demonstrating that they are not, insists that public trust in charities is lower than in other sectors when all credible research shows the opposite, and does not seem to understand that many nonprofits work to address the problems that exist as a result of market failures. His book is a disservice to the nonprofit sector.
So, then, what do we need to do to increase the appreciation of public and government officials for the nonprofit sector?
We need to start by standing up and asserting our value as a sector separate and distinct from business and government. We need to stop buying into the fiction that being effective means being “like a business,” whatever that even means. We need to stop praising the “blurring of the boundaries” and start articulating why we need organizations that pursue mission alone rather than profit for their shareholders. We need to explain why the sector is good for our society, good for business, good for government, good for citizens: we all need the nonprofit sector to be its best for us to be our best. And we need to re-learn our history – Olivier Zunz’s recent book on U.S. philanthropy would be a good place to start.
Yes, of course there is much work to do to improve the sector, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear it down. I wrote a series of blog posts for Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society a few years ago and argued that just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible to believe both that the nonprofit sector is and has been a defining strength of this country and that it must dramatically improve its effectiveness. It is possible to both celebrate the diversity of the sector and its various organizations and push for greater clarity of organizational goals, strategies, and performance indicators. It is possible both to applaud initiatives fostering “social innovation” and the government’s embrace of this push and also recognize what has worked in the past.
We need not tear down the sector to improve it. We need not disparage all that has come before in order to chart a better future.
I’m excited to announce that I have a new post up at the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Mission:Innovation blog. It is reprinted below. The Chronicle’s Mission:Innovation blog is one of my favorites and was launched last year. Nicole Wallace, a senior writer at the Chronicle, manages the blog, which “reports on nonprofits that are taking bold, new approaches to the way they work, explores what charities can learn from other disciplines, and provides advice from experts on how organizations can better foster new ideas.”
I’m honored to contribute to the blog. Here is the article:
“Innovation” has become such a buzzword lately, particularly among people working on social change. But let’s take a step back and talk about what the word could really mean. Innovation is more than just new ideas. To me, it means taking a completely new approach to how we finance, structure, and prove social change.
The nonprofit world has never lacked new ideas to address problems. In fact, you could argue that nonprofits are innately entrepreneurial, being borne out of a recognized market failing and a new idea to remedy it.
The need, then, is not more new ideas. Rather, true innovation lies in reinventing a field built on social change.
Here are some ways that is starting to happen:
New support mechanisms. The avenues for sending money to social-change efforts are increasing significantly. What started 10 years ago with venture philanthropy has now expanded into nonprofit campaigns to raise growth capital, foundation loans and other investments in organizations, social-impact bonds, and investments that seek both financial and social returns. And that creates an opportunity for social-change efforts to be much more flexible and (we hope) successful, because access to enough and the right kind of money can often make or break a great idea.
A converging economy. We used to suffer from pretty strict delineations among the public (government), private (business), and nonprofit sectors, but that is changing. True innovation is happening where those lines blur—like businesses that make a profit solving social problems. Or governments developing new mechanisms to finance and evaluate nonprofit efforts, such as the Department of Justice’s Pay for Success program.
Proof of social change. Nonprofits used to be viewed as benevolent charities that received donations to support their good work. That’s not enough anymore. Nonprofit donors and social investors are increasingly demanding a social return on investment—proof that the organization is making a difference—in exchange for their money. And nonprofits are now competing not only with other nonprofits but also with for-profit social entrepreneurs. So nonprofits can no longer focus on how many children they’ve read to, meals they’ve served, or animals they’ve saved. They must track and prove how they have changed lives, changed systems, or changed communities.
Although these innovations are encouraging, there is room for so much more. What if:
- The best and the brightest of Generation Y worked to remake existing organizations from the inside out instead of just starting their own social-change groups?
- The social-capital market that’s emerging to provide financial vehicles for budding social businesses also included support for social entrepreneurs in the nonprofit world?
- Venture-philanthropy funds (growth capital for nonprofits) shared investor prospects with social-venture funds (growth capital for social businesses) and vice versa?
- All nonprofits interested in growth and with a proven model for success had access to enough capital and management expertise to expand?
- A nonprofit that solves social problems received as many resources and as much respect and attention as a business that solves a consumer need?
These things require sweeping, fundamental changes to the current structures of the nonprofit, government, and private sectors. To me, that’s real innovation.
Photo Credit: mademoiselle lavender
If this recession has any silver lining it could be that it’s forcing nonprofits to completely re-evaluate how they use money. There is a tendency in the sector to shy away from, ignore, fear or dismiss money. But when there is less of it, you are forced to learn how to use it more effectively.
And it is up to the board, who has a legally-defined fiduciary duty, to step up to the plate and provide a strategy for how money is used. But because boards are such a bizarre mingling of volunteer strangers it can be difficult for the group as a whole to take a leadership role, especially in the taboo area of money. The solution lies in encouraging a single individual board member to rise up.
Several recent articles have illustrated the need for nonprofit boards to become better financial managers. From Jan Masaoka’s (Blue Avocado) call for boards to use a budget more strategically, to Rick Moyer’s argument in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that boards need to find “crystal clarity about their financial situations,” to Bob Carlson’s warning that poor nonprofit financial management can end up with legal nightmares.
But what all of these articles fail to address is that boards are ineffective fiscal managers largely because of their group dynamics. Countless times have I seen a nonprofit board of directors suffer from group think, head off in tangents, or avoid difficult conversations.
The opportunity lies in getting a single board member to play a leadership role. A nonprofit’s executive director can be instrumental in encouraging this coup d’etat by finding an individual board member who:
- Is passionate about the cause and the organization
- Has the respect of the majority of the other board members
- Understands, or is willing to be educated about, the basics of financial management
- Is confident enough not to be easily dismissed or swayed
And what does it look like when an individual board member takes a stand to move the board towards better financial management?
- Interrupting the annual rubber-stamping budget approval meeting to ask how the budget fully finances the overall strategic plan of the organization
- Asking for, and ensuring creation of, monthly financial statements that are understandable
- Ensuring basic nonprofit financial management training for board and key staff so everyone speaks the same language and understands the key ratios they should be analyzing
- Standing up to board members and staff who dismiss or discourage deeper conversations about how the nonprofit budgets, uses financial vehicles, handles financial reporting
- Interjecting, cajoling, persuading, and inspiring fellow board members to USE money to strengthen the work of the organization
As David Bornstein said, social change is often driven by “one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution.” So, too, in the world of the sometimes intractable nonprofit board. It may require a single board member to stand up and demand that financial business as usual doesn’t work anymore. If it takes a recession to make money a true tool for social change, so be it.
Photo Credit: faungg
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Sean is a visionary leading the charge to transform philanthropy. He is CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, a philanthropy advisory firm. He is also the author of the very popular Tactical Philanthropy blog and writes a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Philanthropy & Social Investing and his insights on philanthropy have been referenced in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Financial Times.
Nell: At the first Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) in 2008 one of the keynoters said “we’re not here to talk about nonprofits.” We’ve come a long way from there to this year’s devoted track around philanthropic capital and the nonprofit space at SoCap. Where do you think the initial hesitance to connect philanthropic and impact investing came from? And how do we continue to integrate the two worlds?
Sean: I think that one of the segments of people who are attracted to impact investing are people who think philanthropy doesn’t work. While I view philanthropic and for-profit social capital to be part of a single continuum of capital, many people seem to feel that they are fundamentally different. Like most new ideas, early adopters often think it is a silver bullet that will “change everything”. Some early adopters of impact investing or other forms of for-profit social capital wrongly believe that impact investing will replace philanthropy. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Continuing to integrate the two worlds will require helping the various points on the capital spectrum better understand each other. At the end of the day, capital shouldn’t be viewed through an ideological lens, but should simply be deployed based on what sort of capital fits the situation.
Nell: The SoCap session on nonprofit rating systems like Charity Navigator and GiveWell demonstrated that there is still quite a divide between GIIRS (the impact investing rating system) and nonprofit rating systems. What is your sense of this? Do you think there is potential to somehow combine GIIRS (or something else) and nonprofit rating systems so that there is one comparable impact measurement system?
Sean: I would guess that any truly effective impact measurement system should be functional across both for-profit and nonprofit activity. A good impact assessment system wouldn’t care about the tax status of the entity producing results, it would just care about the results and the cost of obtaining them. That being said, I think evaluating a nonprofit organization is really quite different from evaluating a for-profit organization. So even if we have a unified impact assessment framework some day, I would guess that organizational assessment will utilize different systems and approaches for nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
Nell: How would you like to see the conversation about connecting philanthropy and impact investing evolve at SoCap11? What are your hopes for next year’s conference?
Sean: I’d like to work to profile more examples of ways that for-profit and philanthropic capital worked together to produce social impact. Our session on Evergreen Lodge at this year’s conference looked precisely at this question, but I’d like to see more examples. I’d also like to see examples of ways philanthropic entities have used for-profit investments or subsidiaries well or for-profits have effectively used philanthropic activities to drive profit and social results. However, one of the most important goals is simply getting the different players into the same room and getting them to come to understand each other better. While Kevin Jones and I had a good time talking about the Social Capital Markets as a meeting ground for the Barbarians and Byzantine, in reality none of us are barbarians.
Nell: Beyond SoCap where do you think the important conversations about unlocking philanthropic and government capital for social impact are happening?
Sean: This is an interesting question. SoCap is special because it is one of the only (the only?) conference that is specifically about capital for social impact without regard for sector. But versions of this conversation are happening around Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, The Social Innovation Fund, online and in a different sort of way at the PopTech conference.
Nell: At the last general session of SoCap Woody Tasch of the Slow Money movement said he doesn’t think mission-related investing will ever be adopted by the majority of foundations. What are your thoughts on that?
Sean: Social Responsible Investing, the practice of screening out stocks of tobacco companies, defense contractors and the like from investment portfolios, is not practiced by a majority of investors. Yet, SRI is very mainstream and has significantly altered the behavior of publicly traded companies. Today, SRI mutual funds are one of the fastest growing areas in money management. So I don’t think that the majority of funders have to adopt mission related investing for the concept to be deemed a success. It should be noted that SRI took a good 20 years or so to go mainstream. So it could be some time before mission related investing is considering mainstream.
Nell: And more broadly, what do you think it will take to change how philanthropists (both foundations and individual donors) use money to support social impact? How do we make more donors builders instead of just buyers?
Sean: Today, I think that very few people in the social sector really understand what “philanthropic equity” is and how capital differs from revenue. Nonprofit accounting does not acknowledge that capital even exists in the sector. Nonprofits can only book cash coming into their business as revenue or a loan. There’s no official way to account for equity-like capital. So I think that there needs to be a pretty major education effort to get the whole sector very clear on how fundamentally different it is for a funder/donor to “invest” philanthropic equity in a nonprofit vs paying a nonprofit revenue to execute programs. Personally, I don’t think much progress will be made until nonprofit accounting changes. Until that happens, it doesn’t matter much what we call “growth capital”, it is all just revenue to the nonprofit.
A new blog at the Chronicle of Philanthropy site launched this week that I’m pretty excited about. Written by Clara Miller and others at the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Money and Mission blog will help nonprofits “understand and skillfully wield money as a tool.” What a revolutionary idea.
As Clara writes in the inaugural post:
Great ideas, deep caring for those in need, creativity, resourcefulness, a service ethic, and an expansive vision for the future are abundant in the nonprofit world. But we lack the financial capacity to meet these ideals, and our financial habits undermine efforts to build it. We need to think of finance as more than a muddle of fund raising, budget monitoring, and compliance with overhead rules. The current, tough economic environment is spurring needed change. Now, understanding money concepts like risk, leverage, and accounting, seems to be a moral imperative.
Indeed, the nonprofit sector has for too long been burdened by a lack of financial literacy and thus an inability to use money effectively. Sure there isn’t enough money in the sector, but if nonprofit leaders better understood the financial tools available to them and how to use them to their advantage, the results could be revolutionary. This is the argument in our Financing not Fundraising series.
Capital campaigns provide a great example of this. Nonprofits have used capital campaigns for years to raise money for a new building or, less often, an endowment. Capital campaign money is raised and used in a very different way from how general operating money is raised and used. A capital campaigns USES money raised to buy a building. An annual fundraising campaign USES money raised to buy additional services that the nonprofit provides (food for a food bank, mentors for kids). An annual fundraising campaign often RAISES money by cobbling together various activities (events, grant writing, some direct mail appeals) hoping that the sum will equal the expenses needed for the year. A capital campaign, however, RAISES money by conducting a feasibility study to determine how much they can likely raise, then creates a plan, budget, and case for support. Then potential donors are cultivated and solicited in a systematic way. This is a deliberate, strategic way to bring capital campaign investors in the door.
However, capital campaigns are often misguided attempts to grow the impact of an organization. A nonprofit thinks that in order to be taken seriously in the community and attract larger donors they need to build a new building. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money are spent to create a building they don’t need, burn out their development staff, and eventually shoulder new building maintenance fees for years to come.
What if nonprofits could pour those same desires–to do more, to make a bigger impact, to attract more resources, to build deeper networks–and that same time, effort and resources into a campaign that will actually help them build a more effective, more sustainable organization that delivers more impact? What if the methods of a capital campaign were instead employed to raise growth or capacity capital that allows the organization to provide more, better services to the community? That would be huge. Enormous.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund turned capital campaigns on their head with their SEGUE (Sustainable Enhancement Grant) program. It is essentially a capital campaign, but instead of buying a building, the nonprofit raises growth capital to scale the organization for greater social impact. NFF takes a concept nonprofits understand and are comfortable with, a capital campaign, and transforms it into a way to raise organization building money, a completely new idea. I’d love to see more nonprofits using financial tools already available to them to accelerate their ability to create social impact.
Like it or not, money is an incredible tool. If nonprofit leaders could better understand it, stop fearing it, and learn how to wield it effectively, the results could be transformative.
Photo Credit: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.