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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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Philanthropy’s Role in Social Innovation: An Interview with Adin Miller

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Adin Miller. Adin is the Senior Director for Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In this role, he develops new strategies and programs to bring about change and impact within JCF’s mission. Adin focuses on defining metrics to document impact, maximizing measurable impact and increasing the visibility of the organization.

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

Nell: You have always been on the funding side of social change. How do you think philanthropy must evolve in order to add to, instead of detract from, the new energy around social innovation?

Adin: I actually believe the philanthropic sector is embracing social innovation, although at a slower rate than we expected. Our modern version of philanthropy, which traces its roots back to the formation of private foundations and federated systems over 100 years ago, has had many examples of supporting innovation and taking risk. However, I believe the growth and demand for metrics, data, and measures of success and impact may have unintentionally tamped down the sector’s willingness to take risk through innovation.

The Bay Area community is identified with entrepreneurship and innovation. That same ethos is also evident within the nonprofit sector (for example, see The Joshua Venture’s profile of it’s 2012 applicant pool (PDF)). The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund has embraced this ethos by providing funding to support social innovation in new and established organizations. I have also advocated for a broader embracing of innovations in how we fund in order to further support new approaches.

By embracing the energy around social innovation, I can engage new donors in our efforts while also providing the means to support an evolving ecosystem of organizations that make up our local Jewish community. In some sense, I believe philanthropy’s resistance to the new energy around social innovation seems misplaced. Harnessing that energy can be an effective tool in a comprehensive strategic philanthropic approach.

Nell: You are fairly passionate about connecting traditional philanthropy to the emerging world of impact investing. Why is it critical to bring the two worlds together?

Adin: I believe our current societal challenges and the continued shift by government away from social, safety net, and education services requires that philanthropy look beyond the confines of simply applying a 5% spend rate on a private foundation’s net investment assets. The general principle of impact investing encourages philanthropy to make better use of the other 95% of assets it manages. Whether structured through Mission-Related Investments, Program-Related Investments, or emerging fields such as social impact bonds, philanthropy has the opportunity to put more of its resources into action to support social change efforts and grow them in scale.

Community foundations and federated systems (such as my employer, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund), in my opinion, have the greater opportunity to embrace impact investing. They directly engage individuals through donor-advised vehicles, supporting foundations, or annual fundraising appeals, and have the unique opportunity to also encourage individual social impact investing that compliments and aligns with their individual charitable giving and philanthropic behavior. The market opportunity is big and when it’s finally realized, will have a much bigger disruptive impact on how philanthropy functions and supports social change.

Nell: In your current role at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund part of your charge is “to define and develop metrics to document impact.” Determining social impact is such a holy grail in the social change sector. How do you go about defining and measuring impact in your work?

Adin: As an institution, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund is looking to better understand and track its ability to affect social change. The need for and supply of data have been hallmarks of the current disruptive state of philanthropy. But, I’m also cognizant that we cannot overwhelm our grantees with outsized and overwhelming data requests. As such, we’re methodically working with our funded organizations and community donors to identify the key data points we should be collectively tracking to measure effectiveness and impact.

For our large-scale initiatives – such as our Reducing Barriers and Increasing Access to Participation in Jewish Life initiative – we have adopted a Collective Impact approach and the specific intention to work with partner organizations and community members to define shared goals and intended impact. We have also positioned our new grantees to set aside funding for smaller-scale efforts to assess and measure their effectiveness. I expect that my team and I will continue to work with grantees and partners to craft the right recipe to allow us to effectively measure impact while also emphasizing the impact may take years to become evident.

Nell: You have been involved with social change both as a staff member at funding institutions and as principal of your own consulting firm. What role do you think consultants play in the social change ecosystem?

Adin: Consultants have the opportunity to bring their wider field of vision, built through multiple and diverse interactions with clients, into play. In some respect, consultants serve as ambassadors of thought and action that can bridge institutions in the social change ecosystem. When I managed my own consulting firm I had the privilege of learning about crosscutting issues and approaches that I could then bring into my interactions with clients. There is a tremendous amount of quiet coaching and mentorship that happens as a consultant and that’s the entry point by which I could advise as well as gently push clients to consider additional paths to achieve their missions and goals.

Nell: Before moving from consulting to the JCFEF you were active with your Working In White Space blog, but you haven’t been as active on the blog recently. What role do you think social media plays in social change and how do you stay engaged with it from within an organization?

Adin: Oh, I very much miss my blog. Writing is undeniably a muscle that requires constant use and dedication, and my own ability to do so took a dramatic hit over the past 12 months. Nevertheless, I believe in the power of social media and blogging to share experiences, push ideas along, and test out theories. In my current work, I’ve encouraged my team to find their own voices and become engaged in social media and blogging. The opportunity to exchange ideas in public is a key element of how philanthropy professionals can further extend the effectiveness of their efforts while also raising the transparency quotient so needed in the sector.

On a personal level, I still try to maintain an active profile in social media (mostly Twitter – I’m @adincmiller – but Google+ , LinkedIn and Facebook as well) where I push along interesting content. I follow about 80 different philanthropy, social media, and impact investing RSS feeds that give me a great window into current debates and trending issues. And I continue to coach and push for greater communication through social media platforms.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2012

In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.

  1. First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot.  Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.

  2. This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”

  3. Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.

  4. And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.

  5. Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.

  6. Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”

  7. At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.

  8. And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”

  9. There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.

  10. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).

Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer

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My Wish List for SoCap 2011

Despite my frustration in an earlier post about this year’s Social Capital Markets Conference inability to fully integrate philanthropic and government capital into the discussion, I was reminded by a friend that we have actually come a long way in three short years. A keynoter at the first SoCap conference in 2008 noted that “we aren’t here to talk about nonprofits.” The fact is that just two years later not only were nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders present in large numbers at the conference, but they had their own track. It was a huge step forward to have a devoted track focusing on the philanthropic capital market with Sean Stannard-Stockton at its head this year. The track brought some great work to light and started some important conversations.

In the spirit of continuing and expanding that conversation, here are the conversations/sessions I’d like to see at SoCap 2011:

  • More case studies like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland and the Evergreen Lodge in Yosemite (not related) that demonstrate innovative collaborations of capital across the philanthropic, government and private sectors
  • A working session that looks to compare/combine the nonprofit rating systems and GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Rating System)
  • Case studies of nonprofits who have crafted a growth or capacity capital campaign to unlock philanthropic capital for scale and change
  • A discussion about venture philanthropy. New Profit, Venture Philanthropy Partners and others pioneered the nonprofit capital space. Where are they now, what have they learned, and what are they doing to revamp the venture philanthropy model?
  • An update on the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), what they’ve learned, what the government’s plans are to revamp and scale it.
  • Beyond SIF, examples of what local, state and federal governments are doing to partner with philanthropists to expand capital for social entrepreneurs. Council of Foundation’s Public/Philanthropic Partnership is a place to start.
  • Stacked deals involving philanthropic and private capital are very tricky to create, as Julie Sunderland and others have argued, but what can we do or develop to make this less difficult? What sorts of terms are people playing around with? What’s working and what isn’t and how can we evolve this?
  • Donor-Advised Funds hold tremendous opportunity to unlock philanthropic capital, but are underused currently. What can we do to unlock that potential?
  • Where do community foundations fit into all of this? Often the nexus of a city’s philanthropic activity, they have been slow to climb aboard the social capital market train.  How can we unlock this potential capital for social impact?
  • Discussions about how we educate philanthropists about the need for capacity and growth capital in the nonprofit world. How do we make more philanthropists builders instead of buyers?
  • How do we get more foundations to use Program Related Investments and Mission Related Investments?

SoCap10 did a great job of starting the conversation, now I’d like to see that conversation move to the tactical. Let’s create new structures, incentives, partnerships, tools to unlock philanthropic and government capital for social impact.

What do you want to see at SoCap11? Add to the list in the comments.

Photo Credit: paratiger

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