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What Unique Value Can a Foundation Create?

philanthropyI’ve started working in a new area of the social change space that I’m really excited about. Recently I’ve been helping some foundations figure out what market they are (and should be) in. Because if a foundation can be smarter and more strategic about figuring out where they should focus their efforts within a particular social problem, they will see a higher social return on their investment.

As I’ve said countless times, you cannot develop or execute on a strategy without really understanding the market in which you work. Although we might like to deny it, nonprofits (and foundations) exist in a market economy, which means that they (like everything else) must compete amid the other actors and entities in the space. So it is absolutely critical that leaders understand what unique value their work brings to the space. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

An organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a set of social problems apart from potential competitors or collaborators. This is not at all to say that you shouldn’t collaborate. But when you do, you must clearly understand what you bring to the table that is distinct from and additive to what your competitors bring to the table. In mapping their marketplace, an organization can much more clearly understand and articulate their value proposition and can direct their resources more effectively to the realization of that value proposition.

And the same is true for foundations. I am ever optimistic that just as nonprofit leaders are getting smarter and more strategic about the work they do, foundation leaders are as well. I would love to see more foundations taking a step back and really analyzing the social change marketplace in which they operate and determining how they can bring unique value to that marketplace.

Let’s say for example a funder is really passionate about addressing climate change. But there are many moving parts in the marketplace of that social problem. There are scientists and researchers and other experts who have views on the problem and the efficacy of potential solutions. There are many nonprofits in many different categories working on various aspects of the larger problem. There are policies and policymakers who are addressing the issue in various ways. There are other foundations and philanthropists who are investing in different solutions. It can be overwhelming for any particular funder to know where they specifically can have an impact on a very complex climate change marketplace.

So I help the foundation analyze these various elements, where and how effectively each is operating, where trends effecting the social problem are moving, and where the particular funder can add unique value.

While I spend a good deal of time on this blog giving voice to the challenges of the nonprofit sector, there is no doubt that the philanthropy that funds the sector has room to grow as well. And in my mind, part of that growth involves foundations getting more strategic about exactly where they can create the most value with their dollars. Because if both nonprofits and the philanthropists that fund them can be smarter about the marketplace of social problems, we just might get closer to solving them.

Photo Credit: ribosomis

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Improving Philanthropy: An Interview with Melinda Tuan

Melinda TuanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Melinda Tuan, project manager for Fund for Shared Insight (Shared Insight), a collaborative effort among funders to make grants that improve philanthropy. In that capacity, Melinda plays a key role in guiding and facilitating Shared Insight’s activities including operations, communication, grantmaking, and evaluation.

Melinda is an independent consultant who works with the senior leadership of philanthropic organizations to develop strategies for effective philanthropy. Prior to starting her consulting practice in 2003, Melinda was managing director of REDF (formerly The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) – a social venture capital fund she co-founded.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: One of the reasons the Fund for Shared Insight was established was to encourage more foundation transparency. Recent research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) demonstrated that there is still much work to do to make foundations more transparent, particularly about their strategies and impact. How do you think we get more foundations to be more open about these things?

Melinda: We would offer an amendment to the question, as we at the Fund for Shared Insight don’t use the word “transparency” in reference to our overall work. Rather, we prefer to talk about increasing foundation “openness.” Here’s why.

To us, transparency, while important, describes a one-way sharing out of information. As indicated in the CEP research, foundations need to be more open to sharing information – particularly about how they assess their own work, and what they’ve learned about what is and is not successful. However, in addition to sharing more information out, we believe foundations need to be more open to listening and taking in information from grantees and the people we all seek to help, and acting on what we learn to inform our own practices to be more effective.

This very question of how to encourage foundation openness and increase the two-way exchange of information is what we are trying to address throughout our work. The good news is, based on the CEP research which we had the privilege of funding in our first year, foundation CEOs believe being more transparent – sharing more information out – will help them be more effective. Additionally, both foundations and nonprofits agree on the definition of and importance of transparency. This is welcomed news because transparency is an important part of increasing openness.

Building on that, our next phase of work will focus on enabling and inspiring foundations to adopt a variety of approaches to be more open in service of effectiveness. We issued an open request for proposals in May for increasing foundation openness and are currently reviewing 31 proposals for various initiatives such as building networks, providing training, and creating technology platforms among others. We are excited to announce which projects we’ll be funding by the end of July.

Nell: One of the hurdles to more openness among both nonprofits and foundations is the power imbalance between nonprofits and their funders. How do you think we work to overcome that imbalance, or can we? And how do you deal with these power dynamics in the work of the Fund for Shared Insight?

Melinda: While there is no quick fix solution, we believe building trust between foundations and nonprofit partners is a key way to diffuse this power dynamic. There are so many ways we can build – and break – trust, and much of this comes down to how we relate to each other as people. We build trust when we follow-through with what we say we will do in a timely manner, offer support in times of challenge and crisis, listen before speaking, ask good questions, and are curious learners. We break trust when we do the opposite – when we don’t follow through on our commitments, dole out punishment when we hear bad news, talk first and too often, and don’t enter into this work with a spirit of inquiry and wanting to learn for improvement. If foundations are as open with nonprofits as they would like their grantees to be with them, we believe we can work together and make great progress towards building the trusting relationships that can lead to greater overall effectiveness.

At Shared Insight we try to be mindful of the power dynamics in our own interactions and communications with the nonprofits we fund in both formal and informal ways. On the formal side, we have commissioned the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) and are looking forward to sharing what we’ve learned from our nonprofit partners who provided feedback via the GPR in the fall of 2016. On the informal side, we find simply making time to check in with individuals at the beginning of every meeting or call helps to build our personal relationships and establish a baseline of genuine interest in each other’s lives in addition to the work we are doing together. We also try to uphold a high standard of responsiveness and clarity about how we make and communicate our funding decisions – we have to walk our own talk.

As a funder collaborative now 35 foundations strong, we are in the unique position of being both a grantor and a grantee. It’s been fascinating to on one hand have conversations with our nonprofit partners and try to minimize the power imbalance in our interactions, and on the other hand experience the supplicant perspective as we seek funds from our core funders, additional funders and Listen for Good co-funders. We think this dual role helps us be extra-aware of the power dynamic and informs our understanding of helpful practices as the giver and receiver of grant dollars. We’ve learned a lot of useful lessons about these dynamics and relationships since our launch. Chris Cardona from the Ford Foundation, one of our eight core funders, highlighted many of these important lessons in a blog post for Transparency Talk. We know that we’ll continue to learn and grow as we move forward and these relationships progress.

Nell: Your approach somewhat assumes a desire among philanthropists to move to a more evidence-based approach to giving. But some research, like the Money for Good reports, has found that donors as a whole are not that interested in results and impact. Do you believe that much of philanthropy can move toward an evidence-based approach? And if so, how do we get there?

Melinda: The Money for Good research you reference was focused on individual donor decision-making, and found that individual donors are less interested in results and impact. In contrast, our work at the Fund for Shared Insight focuses on staffed foundations in the U.S. Research, at least on the larger foundations, has shown that many foundations are interested in results and impact. For example, the number of foundations belonging to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) reporting that they conducted evaluations of their work went from around 20% in 2008 to more than 70% in 2011, and has only continued to grow.

One of our primary research questions regarding feedback loops is whether perceptual feedback from program participants today can serve as leading indicators of future outcomes for those same participants. In education, for example, students who answer in the affirmative to the question “I feel there is a teacher at school who cares about me” have been shown to achieve more positive educational outcomes. We are hoping our grant to Innovations for Poverty Action will help us analyze the relationship, if any, between perceptual feedback and outcomes in randomized controlled trials of programs in developing countries, and we hope to fund a similar project here in the U.S. If we are able to find these linkages between perceptual feedback and ultimate outcomes, this information will go a long way toward helping nonprofits and foundations improve programs in real-time without having to wait 2-3 years for the evidence of outcomes to be demonstrated.

We at Shared Insight are committed to measuring the results of our own work and sharing what we learn, and have devoted an entire section of our website to sharing how we are evaluating our progress toward improving philanthropy. All of our work is focused on learning for improvement, whether through evidence-based approaches to giving, feedback loops, or other ways to understanding the effectiveness of philanthropic investments.

Nell: Recently 22 philanthropic infrastructure organizations (like Guidestar, Nonprofit Finance Fund, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) signed a letter asking foundations to commit 1% of their grantmaking budgets to supporting the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector as a whole. The Fund for Shared Insight is arguably a piece of this infrastructure, so what do you make of their argument and can you see foundations agreeing to this goal?

Melinda: The Fund for Shared Insight emerged out of a desire among a number of funders to improve the philanthropic sector, especially by strengthening infrastructure and the process of collecting and sharing feedback.

One of the great things about the Fund for Shared Insight is that we are a collaborative. Each of the foundations involved with Shared Insight supports infrastructure in different ways. For instance, Fay Twersky and Lindsay Louie of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (a core funder) recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in support of this letter, noting:

“Funders who believe in learning to improve have some obligation to invest at least a small portion of their grantmaking to infrastructure support. Supporting infrastructure doesn’t take away from other giving; it amplifies it. It unites all of us as funders—whether you fund in your local community, focus on a particular issue or multiple issues, or take a policy or research approach. Givers of all stripes can use and benefit from the infrastructure that supports us all.”

Photo Credit: Fund for Shared Insight

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2016

social changeI’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.

But if you want a longer list of what caught my eye this month, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:

    “Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”

  2. And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.

  3. Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.

  4. While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”

  5. And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”

  6. So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.

  7. A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

  8. Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.

  9. Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.

  10. Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.

Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons

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What Will Be Philanthropy’s Next Chapter?

antique-typewriter-keysI am often asked by nonprofit leaders, “Where are the funders who understand what nonprofits really need?” Well, they were at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference (#2016GEO) last week in Minneapolis.

After attending the conference and curating a great group of bloggers who recapped each day (you can read Phil Buchanan’s Day 1 post here, Trista Harris’ Day 2 post here, and Mae Hong’s Day 3 post here), I have lots of my own thoughts percolating and wanted to share my takeaways from a great conference.

GEO is made up of 500+ member foundations that strive to be better philanthropists. They are a thoughtful bunch who seek to invest better in the nonprofits leading social change. As Linda Baker from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation said in her session on Real Costs for Real Outcomes, “We want to have authentic, trusting relationships with our grantees. We want them to have the impact they want to have in the world because that’s the only way we will have impact. It’s critical to our success.”

And that, in essence, is what GEO and its member foundations are all about. They view themselves and their money in service to those nonprofits creating social change. It is a different model than the traditional philanthropic model of nonprofits in supplication to those who hold the purse strings.

And because GEO is on the cutting edge of where philanthropy is and should be going, the conference this week encouraged philanthropists to push their work in some exciting new directions.

Here is what I saw emerging at the conference:


GEO panelPhilanthropy Must Embrace the National Call for Equity
From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to student protests on college campuses, there is a growing demand across the country for equity — a level playing field — for all. And philanthropy has to get better at responding to this in the moment. As Alicia Garza founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement said in her session, “Philanthropy is missing the opportunity to support the very change they are set up to resource.”

And the plenary panelists Peggy Flanagan, Michael McAfee, Doug Stamm and Starsky Wilson would perhaps agree and take it even further, encouraging philanthropist to re-examine the institutional racism inherent in the system. As Michael McAfee said, “I am deeply frustrated at our leadership. At the moment where consciousness about equity is elevated, we shift our priorities, our initiative, we do something to avoid the real work for this moment. We could do something if we could be more courageous.” In this moment where our country is grappling with issues of equity, philanthropy must step up and invest in the hard work of change.



Philanthropy Must Invest in Stronger Organizations

GEO members have always been on the forefront of understanding that it takes strong organizations to create real outcomes, but this conference took that to another level. From a session on unrestricted operating support, to one on supporting fundraising capacity, to one on funding nonprofits’ real costs, GEO was pushing its members, and philanthropy as a whole, to recognize that real change will only come when we support organizations, not just programs.

As one attendee put it, “The project funding paradigm ignores the health of the nonprofit organization in which the project lives.” Yes, absolutely. GEO members are recognizing–and perhaps leading the rest of philanthropy to begin recognizing–that you cannot have effective programs, strong outcomes, and ultimately social change without strong, effective organizations behind them.

And that means that philanthropy can and should lead the way in funding the full costs, including program AND operating costs, along with working capital, fixed assets, reserves, and debt. And at the same time, philanthropy must be a partner with nonprofits in figuring out how to overcome their capacity constraints, like lack of fundraising expertise, lack of management knowledge, and lack of adequate systems and infrastructure.


Vu Lee

Philanthropy Must Humble Itself 

There is no doubt that GEO members are a humble bunch; they view their role as supportive to the real work of social change, which is different than traditional philanthropy that viewed itself as all knowing. But, perhaps there is still work to be done.

Vu Lee, blogger from Nonprofit With Balls and Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, spoke eloquently of philanthropy’s “trickle down” approach to working with communities of color and encouraged philanthropists to take a better approach: “We have to start changing philanthropy’s perception of what communities of color are. Instead of infantalizing communities of color, recognize that communities have the solution, they are the solution, they are the light.”

And Deepak Bhargava from Center for Community Change spoke of the typical grantor/grantee relationship being similar to a feudal relationship, where the philanthropist is the Lord and the nonprofit is the serf. Instead, he encouraged the social sector to move to a place of “public friendship” between grantor/grantee where both sides are:

  • United by a vision of big change
  • Accountable to each other
  • Thinking of themselves as custodians of organizations leading to a better place
  • Engaging in creative, generative conflict

He spoke of this ideal as something that we must “persuade a new generation of philanthropists is possible.”

And perhaps this new philanthropy is possible. GEO certainly seems to think so. So let’s hope that this new vision for philanthropy is embraced by the growing GEO membership and that that membership in turn leads philanthropy as a whole to a more effective way of investing in social change.

As Alicia Garza put it, “Effective grantmaking is moving resources to change agents AS change is happening and getting out of the way.” Amen!

Photo Credits:, #2016GEO

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GEO Guest Post: What Philanthropy Wants To Be

mae hongNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. The third blogger is Mae Hong, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Her guest post is below. And for a full rundown on the conference check out #2016GEO.

I can’t get the Buffalo Springfield lyrics out of my head:

“There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.”
“Hey, What’s that sound?”

These were the sounds coming out of GEO’s 2016 National Conference in Minneapolis this week:

Philanthropy Embracing a New Lexicon
Values. Trust. Transparency. Reflection. Love. These are the words that were heard over and over in the plenaries, breakout sessions and hallways. I can remember a time when these words were considered squishy for our field. I would have been embarrassed to go to a workshop on these topics. But if this year’s conference brochure were a word cloud, these would leap out in 200+ point font. Noticeably scarce (though not entirely absent) were words like Measurement. Tools. Strategy. Systems. Performance. Our willingness to incorporate the former words is an acknowledgement that the latter are meaningless without them. Closing plenary speaker Heidi Brooks summed it up this way: “What you love is a big clue to how you can be most effective.”

Courageous Nonprofit Leaders Telling Us What They Really Think of Funders
GEO holds the voices and experiences of nonprofit practitioners in the highest regard, and nearly every session strived to incorporate a nonprofit perspective. Most nonprofit leaders, when invited to address a gathering of hundreds of funders, are predictably and understandably meek. I suspect it is a physiologically-based survival instinct not to provoke anyone with the power to harm. But speakers like Vu Le, Alicia Garza, Deepak Bhargava and Michael McAfee spoke in no uncertain terms about what we as a sector need to do differently: “Stop using communities of color.” “Rewrite the social contract between funders and grantees.” “Grantmakers need to get out of the way.” “Philanthropy doesn’t have room for my energy.” Their words demonstrated a conviction that they have a bigger stake in their work than whether any potential funders will be offended. Good for them. I wish every nonprofit leader were so confident, and that we as funders would help build that confidence in them.

Funders Sighing a Collective, “Finally . . . We’re Talking About Equity.”
GEO’s work for the last three years would inevitably lead here. Research, publications and conferences around stakeholder engagement, movements, and networks all pointed to one indisputable truth: philanthropy cannot be effective unless it confronts equity. No single topic at the conference had as much air time and real estate as this. Funders who had the prescience years ago to see that this would be the looming issue for our sector expressed relief and appreciation to have the space to unpack and understand equity, no matter how messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable these conversations would inevitably get. The morning before the conference began, GEO held a meeting to kick-off a newly formed Advisory Group to help it think through its role on this topic. Chaired by Rev. Starsky Wilson (GEO board member and the moderator for Tuesday’s stunning plenary on the topic), this group will guide GEO in how to best support the field to embrace equity as an essential precursor to effectiveness.

So do these sounds mean that “There’s something happening here?” Can we sustain our conference-induced resolve to translate these ideas into lasting behavior change as a field? Or will this become, as my fellow GEO board member Peter Long, President of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, likes to say, “philanthropy’s latest belly button?”

To keep my optimism high, I am reminded of a scene from the 1996 movie, Jerry Maguire. Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy Boyd, after a successful date with Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) is gushing to her sister the following morning: “I love him for the man he wants to be. I love him for the man he almost is.”

Well, Philanthropy – here’s to finding love in who we want to be . . . who we almost are.

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GEO Guest Post: Bringing Equity to the Forefront in Grantmaking

trista harrisNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. Next up is Trista Harris, President of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Her guest post is below. And don’t forget you can also follow the conference from afar on Twitter #2016GEO.

Day two of the 2016 GEO National Conference was all about bringing equity to the forefront in Grantmaking. Two of the morning short talks really stood out for me:

Here’s some of what they covered.

Isaiah Oliver told a heartbreaking story about how the Flint water crisis is impacting his family directly. He said “I trusted those that said the water in Flint was safe, so I gave it to my babies. My little girls should not have to analyze public water. What if this was your child?” The EPA has said that 15 parts per billion is a safe level of lead in the water; two weeks ago there were houses in Flint that had 11,040 parts per billion. Isaiah said that “if a house is on fire, you need to get the people out and then worry about blame later.” We have not yet gotten all of the people out of the fire.

Alicia Garza said “Hashtags don’t start or sustain movements, people do.” Philanthropy is not prepared to support fast moving movements. Our structures and processes have created a situation where celebrities have given more to #BlackLivesMatter than philanthropy has. She made two critical suggestions to address this issue:

  • Philanthropy should get money to change agents while change is happening. Fund movements to fail fast and learn quickly from those failures to innovate their strategies.
  • Structural racism exists in philanthropy, and grantmakers should develop strategies to get out of the way of social movements.

The lunch plenary started with the powerful video below from PolicyLink (you can also see the video here).

Then there was a panel on Equity as an Effectiveness Imperative.

Michael McAfee, of Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink, when given the chance for closing remarks at the Equity as an Effective Imperative plenary luncheon, said “I love all of you.” That may strike those not in attendance at the 2016 GEO conference as an odd thing for a speaker to declare to a room of 900 funders, grantmakers and organizational leaders, but in context it perfectly summed up the message of the collective speakers. For equity to truly be a part of the work in philanthropy there must be equal parts discomfort and love throughout all conversations and collaborations.

In addition to McAfee, the panel included: Minnesota State House Representative Peggy Flanagan, CEO of Meyer Memorial Trust Doug Stamm, and moderator Reverend Starsky Wilson of the Deaconess Foundation. Each of the four speakers brought a vulnerability to how they shared their personal and professional experiences with racial inequities in the philanthropic sector. And this created an open and connected space in the ballroom.

Wilson made it clear from his opening remarks that the plenary would focus on racial inequities and the uncomfortable work grantmakers face if meaningful change is to be made. Flanagan talked about her work as Executive Director at the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota and the impact there in creating people of color-centered and American Indian-centered spaces to talk about early childhood education. Stamm talked frankly about the heavy burden carried by the people of color at Meyer Memorial Trust as they’ve worked to make racial inequalities more than just a side conversation in their work but actually take action to make internal and external changes. And McAfee shared how sometimes talk about “equity” can be a way to avoid dealing with subtle or institutional racism.

There were powerful questions from attendees about the importance of what language is used and how it is used and how to decide when to educate a colleague about race and when to delegate that education to books or professional development. McAfee, Flanagan and Wilson shared stories of often feeling subtly or overtly ignored, othered or discounted while Stamm admitted his slow learning curve as a white person who hasn’t been forced to be aware of institutional racism.

Numerous attendees expressed on social media that this conversation resonated in ways few other conference sessions ever have. You can see the emotional and engaged responses to a moving and important conversation at #2016GEO.

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GEO Guest Post: Counter-Culture — Focusing Internally to Make More Impact Externally

phil buchananNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. First up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). His guest post is below. In full disclosure, some of the foundations he mentions below are clients or funders of CEP. Don’t forget you can also follow the conference from afar on Twitter #GEO2016 and #2016GEO

Culture was front and center on the first day of the 2016 GEO National Conference – the featured topic at the opening plenary. A conference for some 800 staff of grantmakers interested in maximizing their external impact started by looking inward, at what happens within the walls of staffed foundations.

As Kathleen Enright, GEO’s president & CEO, put it, “culture and effectiveness are inextricably linked” suggesting that companies have recognized this. She cited as an example her positive experience as a customer with the online shoe retailer Zappos, which has been held up as an exemplar in terms of its corporate culture and customer service. [Note: Zappos was acquired by Amazon in 2009 but has sought to maintain a distinct culture.]

Enright moderated the panel discussion, which included Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, Carrie Pickett-Erway of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and Sylvia Yee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

“Culture is all around us, it permeates everything we do, and yet we often don’t realize it,” said Canales.

It also emanates outward. Yee discussed program officers as the nexus where culture and values are “translated” from the inside to the outside. And her point is certainly supported by the data. The organization I lead, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), has surveyed staff at nearly 50 foundations over the past decade. We know from our analyses that what happens within a foundation’s walls doesn’t stay inside those walls – that staff perceptions and grantee perceptions of foundations are correlated on some key dimensions.

This data and the arguments of the panelists about the importance of culture also resonate with recent writing on the topic. Tom David and Enright’s essay, The Source Codes of Foundation Culture, argues that foundation culture is crucial but often under-appreciated. In a similar vein, Amy Celep, Sara Brenner, and Rachel Mosher-Williams of Community Wealth Partners suggest in a recent issue of Foundation Review that, “Foundations have a tremendous untapped opportunity to more intentionally build culture.”

But culture and results don’t always correlate perfectly, as Fay Twersky of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (and a member of the CEP Board) suggested during the Q&A in a friendly challenge to Enright on her Zappos example. Citing other companies without naming names, she observed – to knowing laughter from the crowd – that “sometimes unhealthy cultures seem to be associated with very fat profits.”

Enright allowed that this was certainly true, as it surely is. And, of course, Twersky wasn’t arguing that culture doesn’t matter. Indeed, in her excellent piece, Foundation Chief Executives as Artful Jugglers, she suggests that building a healthy culture is one of the essential responsibilities of effective foundation CEOs.

But the point is that culture alone is not the answer.

Related, and not mentioned during the session, is that, in the business world, there seems to be a bit of a backlash of late against the emphasis on corporate culture. This is manifested in rants against “forced fun” and other “culture-building” that, at their worst, can look like self-absorbed navel-gazing that is divorced from the imperatives of the work.

This skepticism is perhaps most prominently expressed on the April Harvard Business Review cover, which blares “You Can’t Fix Culture: Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.”

“When organizations get into big trouble, fixing the culture is usually the prescription,” write Harvard Business School Professor Jay Lorsch and his research assistant. “But the corporate leaders we have interviewed – current and former CEOs who have successfully led major transformations – say that culture isn’t something you ‘fix.’ Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges.”

Let’s set aside (if we can) the fact that, unbelievably, this conclusion appears to be drawn from a very (very) limited sample of four interviews with men (yes, all men) who run major corporations. Still, I think there is a healthy caution here: that the focus on culture should not be an end in itself. It’s about the work.

And, in fairness, Enright and the panelists certainly were making that argument, too. They discussed the relationship between culture, being transparent, continual learning and improvement, and getting and receiving feedback. Repeatedly, the discussion about culture became something much, much broader – a discussion about effectiveness.

“The closer we get to the community, to the people whose lives we are trying to improve, the more humble we will be,” said Pickett-Erway. “The more feedback that you can get the better.”

Yee, too, emphasized the link between “culture and organizational effectiveness.” She noted, for example, the importance to effectiveness of “hiring a diverse staff. We need people who can stand in somebody else’s shoes, who have experienced difference themselves.”

And Canales talked about moving from “transparency 1.0” to transparency that is about two-way exchanges.

We need, as the panelists did, to keep the focus on culture as a necessary element of effectiveness rather than promoting too much of an inward gaze among institutions that, in all honesty, are already often seen as isolated and insular. What I don’t want, and what I guess fear a little, is that some foundations will misread the encouragement to focus on culture as an invitation to spend endless hours on office space re-designs, staff personality tests, or trust-building exercises. These things all have their place (or at least the first two do) but in limited doses.

The culture conversation should be integrated with, not separate from, the conversation about goals, strategies, implementation, and performance indicators. My experience (for what it’s worth) suggests that what bonds a staff together best is a sense of shared purpose and alignment toward – and progress against – shared goals.

Put another way, culture is a crucial part of the effectiveness puzzle, but it isn’t a magic bullet.

Nothing is.

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Blogging the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Conference

GEO conferenceI’m really excited to announce that I will be doing something a little different on the blog next week. I am attending the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference in Minneapolis May 2nd – 4th, and GEO has asked me to curate a set of bloggers to report on the conference.

I have rounded up a rockstar group of bloggers who will be sharing their insights from the conference with you here on the blog. And the blog series will be reposted to the Minnesota Council on Foundations blog, which is a co-host of the conference.

GEO is made up of 500 member grantmakers who are working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and promote strategies and practices that contribute to grantee success.

The GEO conference is held every other year and brings together philanthropic leaders from across the country who all share a common vision for advancing smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and more effective.

Some of the sessions in this year’s conference that I am particularly excited about include: “Can Foundations Help Grantees Build Fundraising Capacity?,” “Real Costs, Real Outcomes. What Funders Need to Know,” and “Supporting Leadership Development in Social Justice Organizations.” In addition, there will be some really interesting plenary sessions about things like culture in philanthropy and philanthropy’s role in overcoming inequity.

It promises to be a fascinating conference.

So, starting next Tuesday, May 3rd you’ll be hearing from this great group of guest bloggers:


phil buchananPhil Buchanan, President of The Center for Effective Philanthropy 
Phil is a passionate advocate for the importance of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector and deeply committed to the cause of helping foundations to maximize their impact. Hired in 2001 as CEP’s first chief executive, Phil has led the growth of CEP into the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP has been widely credited with bringing the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and with contributing to an increased emphasis on clear goals, coherent strategies, disciplined implementation, and relevant performance indicators as the necessary ingredients to maximize foundation effectiveness and impact. Phil is no stranger to the Social Velocity blog — I interviewed him here, and he guest blogged last summer here.


trista harrisTrista Harris, President of The Minnesota Council on Foundations
In her role at MCF, Trista helps award more than $1 billion annually. Prior to joining MCF in August 2013, she was executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in Minneapolis, and she previously served as program officer at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. Trista earned her master’s of public policy degree from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and her bachelor of arts from Howard University, Washington, D.C. She is a passionate national advocate for the social sector using the tools of futurism to solve our communities’ most pressing challenges and is a member of the trends in family philanthropy task force for the National Committee for Family Philanthropy.


mae hongMae Hong, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
Mae is responsible for building RPA’s presence in serving individual donors, foundations and corporations throughout the Midwest. Bringing 18 years of nonprofit and philanthropy experience to RPA, she previously served as Program Director at the Field Foundation of Illinois. Mae actively participates in local and national philanthropic associations and networks, serving in leadership roles on committees, engaging in public speaking opportunities, and facilitating planning and execution of philanthropic initiatives. She currently serves on the boards of GEO, the Illinois Humanities Council and the Daystar Center. She is a past chair of the board of Chicago Foundation for Women.


And once the conference is over, I will plan to do a wrap-up blog post on my thoughts and insights from the conference.

If you plan to be at the conference, please let me know, I’d love to see you there! And if you can’t make the conference but want to follow the content from afar, follow the Twitter feed at #2016GEO.

Photo Credits: GEO, CEP, MCF, and RPA

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