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Foundations

Making the Case for Nonprofit Leaders: An Interview with Linda Wood

Linda WoodIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Linda Wood, Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative. Over the past decade, the Haas, Jr. Fund has invested over $20 million in strengthening the leadership of more than 75 grantees in its key priority areas– immigrant rights, education equity, and gay and lesbian rights—through the Flexible Leadership Awards program. In that time Linda has become a leading voice on the topic of leadership in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Prior to joining the Fund, she advised senior leaders on strategy, organizational performance and change management at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund has put a lot of investment behind the development of nonprofit leaders, but you are quite an anomaly in the philanthropic world. Support for leadership development is taken as a given in the for-profit world, but rarely recognized, let alone funded, in the nonprofit world. Why do you think there is that discrepancy in leadership development between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds?

Linda: It really is striking to see how differently the business sector and the nonprofit world view the issue of leadership. I went to business school myself, and spent eight years working as a management consultant in the private sector where it’s basic good practice to invest in the people you’re counting on to move the work forward. Strengthening leadership is seen as part and parcel of what it takes to fuel innovation and success.

On the other hand, in the social sector, a lot of foundations think of leadership development as a luxury–a nice-to-have that’s not linked to impact. That’s reflected in recent estimates that less than 1% of total foundation spending is going to strengthen leadership in the nonprofit sector.

Why? Well, I think we’ve got a lot of myths about leadership in our sector.

One myth is that leadership development is simply not a priority for nonprofit leaders because most don’t ask for it. And, when grantees don’t ask, many foundations assume that there’s no need. But we have not yet created a culture in the nonprofit sector that says it’s ok to invest in yourself and in other senior organizational leaders. We place a high value on self-sacrifice. Given the choice, nonprofit leaders will almost always direct general support to critical services and programs. That’s why actually I think it’s important for foundations to earmark funds for supporting leadership.

Another related myth is that leadership is part of overhead, and overhead should be minimized at all costs. From this perspective, investments in the organization’s leadership are cleaved off from the work and seen as wasteful overhead rather than intrinsic to achieving the organization’s goals.

Nell: You recently curated a blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review where funders who have supported nonprofit leadership development articulated its value. How helpful do you think that step was in getting the broader philanthropic community to understand the value of leadership investment? And do you have additional plans to help move leadership development forward among your peers?

Linda: Our goal in putting together the SSIR blog series was to help build momentum around the idea of investing in leadership being a core grantmaking strategy that can catalyze diverse programmatic goals and not just a boutique strategy that only some funders can afford. By featuring perspectives from top-level executives from a half dozen foundations of very different sizes and with very different funding priorities, ranging from the Omidyar Network to the Women’s Foundation of California, we hoped to offer examples that would inspire more foundations to see possibilities for their own work.

To be honest, it’s hard to know whether we are moving the needle. But it does seem like there has been mounting attention to philanthropic underinvestment in leadership lately. Just over the past couple of months GEO and then NCRP have both released major reports making the case for more attention to leadership and talent development. And the Talent Philanthropy Project held a meeting in New York in March that attracted over 60 people including nonprofit leaders, funders, consultants, and intermediaries.

I think the real question is whether increased interest will translate into significant increases in investment—the kinds of sustained, strategic investments in leadership that advance the capacity of organizations, networks and movements to achieve better outcomes. The danger is that we foundations will sprinkle a little leadership development funding here and there, perhaps send a handful of our grantee leaders to a training, and call it a day.

Nell: You recently announced a new initiative to seek solutions to the challenges, which you uncovered in your 2013 UnderDeveloped study with CompassPoint, facing nonprofit fundraising. What are your long-term plans with this initiative and what do you hope to find?

Linda: The UnderDeveloped report caused such a stir across the country. I have heard from so many people—funders, grantees, consultants, board members, etc.—that the report gave voice to concerns they’ve held for a long time. It clearly hit a pain point. And the big question it begs is what to do about it?

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we’ve decided our next step is to try and refine concrete strategies that will help our grantees, and hopefully others, achieve breakthroughs in their fundraising.

One of our goals is to help organizations be more strategic about their approach to fund development. There’s so much out there. The nonprofit fundraising industry is full of consultants, speakers, large trade associations and technology providers. They offer costly, sometimes contradictory advice, patented approaches, one-off success stories, and a dizzying array of technology tools and platforms for raising money. As a result, our work in fundraising may be less about innovating and more about separating the wheat from the chaff, helping grantees chart a coherent, fruitful course through the thicket of possibilities.

Right now, we’re in the R & D phase. Here are some of the questions we’re exploring:

  • What fundraising success stories can be replicated by our grantees? To answer this question, we will conduct “bright spots” research focused on small- to medium-sized organizations who have had sustained success with individual fundraising.
  • How can we address the fundraising talent gap? To answer this question, we are conducting a scan of fundraising training and exploring the feasibility of a “fundraising fellowship.”
  • One fund development approach that’s attracting attention is developing a “culture of philanthropy.” But what does that mean? And what difference does it make?
  • Are there ways to help an entire field of grantees? To identify potential investments that might help a field of grantees, we are testing whether and how donor research can help LGBT grantees with fundraising.

As we tackle these questions, we are sharing what we’re learning along the way through a series of blogs on our website. And we’d love to hear from other people. What questions are missing? What can a foundation’s role be in supporting fundraising capacity?

Ultimately, this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Our goal is to get better at supporting grantees around fund development, and to that end, we anticipate beginning to pilot some new strategies starting in 2016.

You asked what we hope to achieve with this work over the long term. I think if I could fast forward a couple of years, I would hope we will have made a dent in strengthening the talent pipeline for development directors, and that we are helping organizations bring more skill, focus and success to their fundraising, especially in tapping individual donors.

Nell: Philanthropy has traditionally been less interested in funding capacity building (like leadership development and fundraising). Do you think that’s changing? And/or do you think we will have more hope of changing that as generational shifts take hold in philanthropy?

Linda: Yes, I often feel like there’s a real divide between the folks in philanthropy who are focused on the what and those who are focused on the how.

Obviously, we’re all in this work for the what—to help create a more just and sustainable world. But often in philanthropy, conversations about things like capacity and leadership are disconnected from the conversations about the content of the work. We hold separate conferences; we belong to different affinity groups; we read different articles…

So, as someone who’s a member of the how club (as we sometimes jokingly refer to it among ourselves) I think we need to keep strengthening the connection between building leadership and capacity and delivering programmatic wins. No matter what a given foundation seeks to achieve programmatically–whether that’s community health, environmental justice or education equity–it’s important to ask how they will get from where they are today to where they want to be. What is our responsibility as funders to support the people and organizations who are advancing this work? What kind of staff, board and community leadership will be needed to get where we all want to go? And how can we transmit in words and in concrete actions that we are in this together and that we want to provide them with the resources to do their best work.

Photo Credit: Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2015

social changeApril was another busy month in the world of social change writing. From Google’s shift to mobile, to the Baltimore protests, to using sitcoms to change public opinion, to the pace of social change, to teens and social media, to a new way to measure a country’s performance, there was much to read and digest.

Below are my 10 picks of the best in the world of social change in April, but please add to the list in the comments. And to see what else I found beyond these 10, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn.

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

  1. There was much analysis about what went wrong in Baltimore, but I found the most insightful to be Dan Diamond’s Forbes piece about how it is fundamentally a “tale of two cities” and the persistent inequality between two very different Baltimores.

  2. As is Google’s way, they made a huge change to their search algorithm in late April that will affect us all. Google is now favoring websites that are mobile friendly. But fear not, Beth Kanter offers some advice for upgrading your nonprofit’s website.

  3. For those in the trenches, the pace of social change can seem glacial. But this great graphic from Bloomberg demonstrates that for many issues (prohibition, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage) there was a tipping point at which America very quickly changed its mind. Fascinating.

  4. Civic Tech, or using technology to make citizens more engaged and government more effective, is a huge investment opportunity, says Stacy Donohue from the Omidyar Network. With venture capitalists, the federal government and nonprofit and for-profit solutions all poised to make change, Donohue sees civic tech as a “very real, very now investment opportunity.” Let’s hope that new ideas and (most importantly) lots of new money can turn our struggling democracy around.

  5. Social change can happen in many different ways, including by altering popular culture. Former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi is attempting this kind of shift with his new web sitcom that takes a “Cosby Show” approach to portraying American Muslims in order to combat Islamophobia.

  6. Writing in Slate, Krista Langlois takes a hard look at her fellow environmental journalists and whether they have failed to adequately describe the environmental challenges facing our planet since American concern about climate change has actually declined in the last 20 years.

  7. One of the most common hurdles to nonprofits raising capacity dollars is the challenge of articulating to funders the potential impact of a capacity investment. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) have put together some tools to help funders understand the importance of and return on capacity investments. Share these with your funders.

  8. In April, MIT and the Social Progress Imperative launched the Social Progress Index, an effort to create a complement to the Gross Domestic Product that measures a nation’s social and environmental performance. The Social Progress Index looks at 52 indicators of a country’s social and environmental performance (like child mortality rate, adult literacy rate, greenhouse gas emissions). As Michael Porter, one of the chief architects behind it puts it, “Measuring social progress offers citizens and leaders a more complete picture of how their country is developing. And that will help societies make better choices, create stronger communities, and enable people to lead more fulfilling lives.”

  9. Writing on the Huffington Post Politics blog, Robert Reich describes a worrying trend where nonprofits are silencing themselves for fear of losing their big donors. As he writes, “Our democracy is directly threatened when the rich buy off politicians. But no less dangerous is the quieter and more insidious buy-off of institutions democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against what is occurring.”

  10. And finally, if you want to understand where social media is going, Pew Research Center released their most recent findings about teens use of social media and technology.

Photo Credit: Patrick Neil

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: February 2015

reading by fire ipadFebruary was a pretty cold month around the country, but on the positive side that made it a great month to stay inside and read. I really struggled to cull the list of great reads to 10 this month because there was so much thought-provoking stuff out there. But below is my valiant effort.

From Afghan women, to political engagement, to nonprofit burnout and capacity building, to economic development and net neutrality, there was lots to read and think about.

Here is my view of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in February. But as always, add to the list in the comments. And if you want my unedited list of picks, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You can see past 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. February saw the end of Andrew Sullivan’s long-time blog, The Dish. But before he left, he wrote this beautiful piece about how quickly the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage happened, and more broadly, how social change happens: “[The legalization of gay marriage] is a sign and a proof that the deepest darkness can be turned to light. And that reason and love and argument and the truth will win … in the end.”

  2. In a fascinating interview, NPR Morning Edition host Renee Montagne talks with Afghanistan’s First Lady, Rula Ghani about her role as the first politically active first lady and the plight of Afghan women.

  3. Writing in the Washingtonian, Andrew Beaujon describes how 2015 may be the “Year of Quality” in political reporting since Politico and Gawker, among others, are moving their measure of success from number of clicks to quality of reader engagement. Let’s hope this is part of a larger trend away from click-bait and toward thoughtful political journalism.

  4. And speaking of better informed politics, the Knight Foundation joins with other democracy funders to issue a $3 million challenge to identify ideas that can “better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during, and after elections.” Entries to the challenge will be accepted until March 19th.

  5. An anonymous former nonprofit staffer writing in The Guardian (which, by the way, launched an interesting new blog focused on the nonprofit sector called Nonprofit Chronicles in February) describes why she suffered burnout and why the nonprofit sector needs more support: “Burnout [doesn’t]  just occur in a vacuum. My experiences were intensified by the increasing frustration of carrying out support work in the context of austerity measures.” Amen!

  6. But perhaps help is on the way. Beth Kanter reviews two new reports (one from the Foundation Center and one from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) about funder efforts to build the capacity of the nonprofit sector. And Paul Shoemaker from Seattle Social Venture Partners makes the case for funders making 100% of their funding unrestricted.

  7. February saw a decisive victory in the effort to preserve an open Internet (“Net Neutrality”) when the FCC ruled that “America’s broadband networks must be fast, free, and open.” Lucy Bernholz breaks down what the ruling means for digital civil society.

  8. Aaron Hurst writes a compelling piece about how investing in businesses that create jobs is not true social change: “If we want to see more Americans gainfully employed—not in jobs, but with living-wage careers—we need to invest more in the nonprofit sector and in government programs. While these investments don’t create the short-term gains that business leaders have been trained to seek, they are what will matter at the end of the day. They will create the supply of talent needed for our economy and society to thrive.”

  9. Nonprofit With Balls blogger Vu Le argues that nonprofits should drop “accountability” as an organizational value and instead embrace values “Where people act not out of fear of punishment but out of a drive to build a strong and just community.”

  10. Finally, the Philantopic blog offers 5 Ways to Improve Your Digital Strategy for Older Donors.

Photo Credit: Lois Le Meur

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Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 Innovators No Comments

5 Myths The Nonprofit Sector Must Overcome

nonprofit mythsAlmost two years ago three nonprofit rating organizations launched the Overhead Myth campaign aimed at eradicating “the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.” Call me an optimist, but I think it might be working. I see more nonprofit leaders and funders discussing the radical idea that overhead might not be a bad thing. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps there is progress.

The bad news, however, is that the Overhead Myth is only one of many (way too many) destructive nonprofit myths. So in this new year, let’s look at those additional myths that hold the nonprofit sector back.

As we all know, a myth is a story that everyone believes, but is actually not true. Here are the 5 most egregious myths I see in the nonprofit sector:

  1. Good Nonprofits Don’t Make a Profit
    For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. The best a nonprofit should hope for is to break even, and if they do run a profit, they should not be fundraising. To the contrary, a nonprofit with operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct evaluations to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. For a donor it is far better to invest in an organization with the people and systems necessary to effectively tackle a social problem than an organization that is barely getting by. The best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.

  2. There Are Too Many Nonprofits
    I’m so tired of the refrain (mostly by funders) that there are “too many” nonprofits. Does anyone complain about how many tech startups there are? This myth comes from the fact that the sector is undercapitalized which causes organizations to compete for scarce resources. So let’s fix that problem instead. To be sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring two nonprofits that address similar needs together in order to save costs, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. The process of merging two organizations is itself incredibly time-intensive and costly, and, honestly, rarely do funders invest the amount of resources required to ensure a successful merger. Every nonprofit should regularly assess their Theory of Change and how they fit into the external market place of social problems and competitors working on similar problems. If a nonprofit finds that they are no longer adding unique value to that marketplace, then they should reorganize, merge, or disband, whichever makes most strategic sense.

  3. Nonprofits, Unlike Businesses, Are Inefficient
    This myth takes many forms: “nonprofits are too slow,” “nonprofits should sell more products or services”, “nonprofits should run more like a startup,” and the list goes on. The underlying assumption is that the for-profit world is inherently smarter, more strategic, more nimble and more effective. But the truth is that all three sectors (business, government, and nonprofit) have their stars (like Apple), their screwups (like Lehman Brothers) and the multitude in between. Inefficiency in the nonprofit sector is merely a symptom of a larger problem, which is the persistent lack of adequate capital to fund enough of the right staff, technology, systems, evaluation, marketing required to address the intractable problems nonprofits are trying to solve. Let’s talk about that instead.

  4. Nonprofits Are Outside the Economy
    This is the myth that nonprofits are “nice to have” and make everyone feel good, but are not a critical component of our lives or our economic system. But the fact is that the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the U.S. workforce and accounts for 5% of GDP. And the number of nonprofits grew 25% from 2001-2011, while the number of businesses only grew by 0.5%. As government continues to slough off services to nonprofits, those numbers will only continue to grow.  The nonprofit sector is not tangential to the economy, but rather an instrumental part of it.

  5. Nonprofits Have No Role In Politics
    501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change (Robert Egger has written extensively on this). But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.

Being mired in the demoralizing and debilitating cloak of these myths wears the nonprofit sector down. We must follow the Overhead Myth’s example and start uncovering the other myths that hold the sector back. Because the power of a myth is greatly diminished when we openly admit that the myth is only that — a myth.

Photo Credit: We Shall Overcome, Rowland Scherman, National Archives

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Is The Nonprofit Sector Really Broken?

There was a bit of a dust up in the (social change) Twitterverse yesterday. Ryan Seashore from CodeNow wrote a post on TechCrunch arguing that the majority of nonprofits are “broken,” and should act more like for-profit startups in order to create impact. The post follows a similar line of other arguments over the years (most recently Carrie Rich’s argument that nonprofits should all become social enterprises) that the nonprofit form is so dysfunctional that it should be tossed out. But there is a real danger to this idea of abandoning the nonprofit sector.

As he often does so well, Phil Buchanan, from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, shot back against Ryan’s post, Tweeting (among other things):

Twitter

Debates like these are crucial not because of the entertainment value (although I do love good drama), but because they force us to uncover and analyze our underlying assumptions. Yesterday’s debate, and others like it, which take the nonprofit sector to task for being inefficient, broken, unbusinesslike, lay bare some false and destructive assumptions about nonprofits and about social change in general.

Ryan sees nonprofits as aging dinosaurs with “too much overhead, too much bureaucracy, and a lack of focus on impact. Everything feels slow.” But for real change to happen you have to integrate the institutions that already exist with the networks, or “startups,” that want change, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two (institutions and networks) must work together. Ryan’s argument that nonprofits need to be more like startups is fundamentally flawed because if everything were a startup, change wouldn’t happen.

To quote David Brooks from a recent The New York Times piece, “Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked…social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] this is misguided…Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as ‘overhead,’ really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.”

To be sure, in his blog post Ryan outlines some areas where many nonprofits could improve (becoming more focused, continually innovating, diversifying revenue sources, thinking big), but these are best practices that any organization (startup or established institution, for-profit or nonprofit) should embrace. It is simplistic and misguided to think, as Ryan writes, that “the nonprofit world must embrace the nimble ways of successful startups to become more effective, and do better.” I know its not sexy, but real social change is much more complex than startup versus institution.

So let’s move on from this either/or mentality. Effective social change requires institutions AND networks, it requires Millennials AND Boomers, it requires startups AND established organizations, it requires public AND private money (and lots of it), and it requires for-profit and nonprofit solutions. We are wasting our time (and our keystrokes) by creating false dichotomies. Let’s work together toward strategic, sustainable social change.

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10 Most Popular Posts of 2014

typewriterThe year is winding down, and I will be taking some time off to enjoy friends and family (as I hope you are too). But before I go, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular posts on the blog this year, in case you missed any of them.

And if you want to see the 10 most popular posts from 2011, 2012, or 2013 you can do that as well.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with you amazing social change leaders. I am grateful for the amazing work you are doing to create a better world. And I appreciate you being part of the Social Velocity community.

I wish you all a happy, relaxing holiday season, and a wonderful new year. I’ll see you in 2015!

  1. Can We Move Beyond the Nonprofit Overhead Myth?

  2. 7 Rules For Brilliant Nonprofit Leaders

  3. How to Move Your Nonprofit Board From Fundraising to Financing

  4. Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful

  5. 5 Questions Every Nonprofit Leader Should Ask

  6. Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get In Their Own Way?

  7. 3 Questions to Get Your Nonprofit Board Engaged

  8. 5 Ways Great Strategy Can Transform a Nonprofit

  9. Does Your Nonprofit Know How To Attract Big Donors?

  10. It’s Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader

Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2015

5 Nonprofit Trends to WatchI love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.

And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch Lists for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

  1. Growth of the Sharing Economy
    The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.

  2. More Focus on Crowdfunding
    One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.

  3. Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
    The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.

  4. Growing Emphasis on High Performance
    Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.

  5. Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
    Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.

Photo Credit: slorenlaboy

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Beyond Philanthropy As Usual: An Interview With Albert Ruesga

Albert_RuesgaIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview I’m talking with Albert Ruesga. Albert is the President and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, known for its leadership in the region after Hurricane Katrina. He serves as chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and sits on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace steering committee. He earned his Ph.D. at MIT and taught philosophy at Gettysburg College before entering the world of philanthropy. An accomplished writer, his articles have appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, Social Theory and Practice, and other publications.

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

Nell: As President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation you were deeply involved with the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Katrina and the attempts to use Katrina as an opportunity to kickstart social innovation. Looking back, how successful do you think efforts were to use the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to create social change?

Albert: I came to New Orleans at the beginning of 2009, three years after New Orleanians had cleared their streets of rubble and buried and mourned their dead. It was also two years after the Greater New Orleans Foundation had launched its very successful Community Revitalization Fund that helped rehabilitate and construct affordable housing for 9,500 families. Certainly some good things have happened under my watch–at least I hope other people will judge this to be true–but it’s worth remembering the substantial good that came before, thanks to the sacrifices of so many.

The term “social change” is as slippery as a fresh Louisiana oyster. How do we measure it? One model that springs immediately to mind is the New Testament story of the sheep and the goats in which God says to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed … ; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  You may recall that God had some very choice words for those on his left.

There are many good people in New Orleans who understand and abide by these words. These people–and there are many–continue to be the hope of our city. As individuals or through their foundations, they give generously to help the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.

We need to remember also that what drew the attention of the world to New Orleans was not a powerful hurricane–powerful storms are by now a commonplace. What drew their attention was the fact that so many people needed to be rescued from their rooftops. What shocked the world were the appalling disparities between New Orleans’s poor, largely black, population and those who were better off. If you judge social change in these terms, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, metaphorically at least, many New Orleanians are still running for their attics. While there has been progress in some domains, we have not adequately addressed the cultural, structural, and spiritual causes of these disparities.

And before we start pointing fingers at New Orleans, let’s not forget that these same kinds of disparities exist in every metropolitan area in the United States.

Nell: On the White Courtesy Telephone blog you sometimes take philanthropy to task (for being too theoretical, for chasing shiny objects, etc.). Is there something fundamentally wrong with philanthropy? Does the power imbalance between funder and recipient create a dysfunctional relationship that stands in the way of social change?

Albert: There is nothing fundamentally wrong about philanthropy when understood as generosity, as the giving of time and treasure to help others, as giving for the sake of the common good. On the contrary, philanthropy is hands down our greatest achievement as a species.

As for “organized philanthropy,” “professionalized philanthropy,” the philanthropy practiced by foundations large and small — that’s another matter. The problems with organized philanthropy, in my view, go far beyond power imbalances.  Several years ago, I tried to summarize philanthropy’s shortcomings in “Twenty-Five Theses”. I still believe these are essentially accurate.

I’ve also tried through the White Courtesy Telephone and through other means to suggest ways we might address these shortcomings — for example, here, here, and here.

I’m constantly amazed at what our field marginalizes and what it deems important. There’s currently a good deal of discussion about the differences between strategic and emergent models of philanthropy. Highly compensated consultants will make fortunes helping befuddled foundation CEOs like me sort out the differences. But it’s not the model that will make or break our efforts at social change: it’s us; in most cases, we will be the reason our best models will not work. We simply cannot make good omelets out of bad eggs.

We philanthropoids chase the new model, the new technology, the new structure — the “shiny object,” as you call it — because we’re a deeply insecure tribe, lacking the self-awareness we need to admit to ourselves and others that affecting the dynamics of social change is beyond our powers, and that, as a consequence, we really don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Either that, or we do in fact understand how social change works — at least intuitively — and we fear that a frank discussion of the subject will cost us our jobs. Both of these possibilities constitute what I’ve called “philanthropy in bad faith.” I’m not immune to these criticisms; I too am guilty as charged. If my understanding of the field’s shortcomings is at all accurate, it’s because I embody so many of them. Every morning my next blog post stares at me from the bathroom mirror.

Nell: You have written about your hope that the next generation of philanthropists will make some significant changes to philanthropy. And studies have claimed that Millennial philanthropists will be different (although some disagree). How much do you think Millennial philanthropists will actually change philanthropy and in what ways?

Albert: My generation has left a terrible mess for the Millennials to clean up: a huge gap between the haves and have-nots; unthinkable gender and racial inequality; an insecure world; a despoiled environment; the illusion of democracy in our own country; and much more besides. My great hope is that the Millennials will realize that philanthropy-as-usual simply will not get the job done. We need to discourage them as much as possible from thinking and behaving like their predecessors.

If I could give the Millennials one piece of advice it would be this: pay close attention to the frame. While you’re focusing on the content (hunger, homelessness, global warming), the frame you’ve internalized — the frame we’ve all internalized — is keeping us from seeing and understanding the larger picture. What happens locally, pretty much everywhere in the world, is shaped by simple rules of human behavior that have over time led to a global economic order that needs to be made transparent. This awareness, I hope, will be the legacy of the Millennials and their successors.

Nell: One of the areas that the Greater New Orleans Foundation funds is capacity building. Is it possible to convince a critical mass of funders to start investing in nonprofit capacity building?

It’s certainly worth a try, isn’t it? Short of launching a capacity building program, as we did, grantmakers can start by providing general operating support whenever possible (although multi-year support is better), providing grants for capacity building, providing capital for operating reserves, and awarding larger grants. Foundations can teach their program officers to look and listen for cues that a nonprofit needs special assistance. There are so many ways in to the capacity building “space,” ways that cost so very little. The payoffs, in our experience, are substantial.

Photo Credit: Greater New Orleans Foundation

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