Despite being the run up to the holiday season, December was a busy month in the world of social change. From arguing about new philanthropy, to looking back at 2015, to exploring America’s history of philanthropy, to analyzing the leadership of the Pope and the Red Cross’ Gail McGovern, to inspiration in grim times, there was lots to read.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in December. But please add to the list in the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also see 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Arguably the biggest news in December was Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) and his wife Priscilla Chan creating a limited liability corporation (not a foundation or nonprofit) focused on social solutions. Many, many, many people had something to say about it. Some liked it, others despised it, others found serious implications for the future of philanthropy, others were terrified by it. Amid all the hubub, the Zuckerberg/Chan’s chief of staff further clarified their plans. Perhaps we should just wait a bit and see what the actual effect is.
- And beyond the Zuckerberg/Chan investment, there was debate about new forms of philanthropy in general. Michael Edwards thinks the idea of blending social and profit motives has jumped the shark. And Andrew Means of Data Analysts for Social Good thinks Effective Altruism, the idea that you can use data to determine where to most effectively invest in social change, is flawed because it doesn’t account for different philanthropists having different preferences.
- Since December is the last month of the year, there was the traditional glut of posts looking back at 2015. My favorite among them were: The National Council of Nonprofit’s “5 Firsts” for the Nonprofit Sector in 2015,” Inside Philanthropy’s “Hot Topics and Trends for Women and Philanthropy, 2015,” The Nonprofit Quarterly’s “9 Important Nonprofit Stories of 2015 (And What They Can Teach Us),” Pew Research’s “15 Striking Findings From 2015,” Mashable’s “26 Incredible Innovations that Improved the World in 2015, and Lucy’ Bernholz’s “Philanthropy’s 2015 Buzzwords.” Whew!
- The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History previewed an upcoming permanent exhibit on American philanthropic history. Fascinating.
- David Callahan provided some really interesting theories for why the percent of charitable giving in America has yet to climb beyond 2% of GDP. His proposed causes include: liberals, corporations, and even Ronald Reagan.
- Emmett Carson, head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, put forth an interesting idea for two of the most influential organizations advocating for the nonprofit sector: Independent Sector and The Council on Foundations. He thinks they should merge, as he explained: “The new entity could harness our entire sector to meet old and new social and economic challenges. Such a new organization could meet our sector’s higher collective purpose — to influence how this country meets its obligations to our most marginalized citizens, whether they are poor, sick, homeless, immigrants, disabled, or victims of systemic discrimination.”
- Writing in Forbes, Mike Perlis, argued that The Pope is an illustrative example of how leadership should operate in the 21st century.
- ProPublica’s ongoing series investigating the American Red Cross continued with an article about CEO Gail McGovern’s leadership and where she may have gone wrong. And Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly found the problems at the Red Cross to be reminiscent of other nonprofits that have fallen victim to troubled leadership, like the founder’s syndrome that plagued the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
- Nonprofit blogger Vu Le argued that if we want nonprofits to act more like businesses, nonprofits should enjoy more of the benefits that businesses do: “Society needs to provide nonprofits with the same level of funding, speed of investment, flexibility, autonomy, and acceptance of risk and failure, or else stop trying to get us nonprofits to be more like for-profits. You can’t have your nonprofit cake and yet withhold your for-profit icing.” Amen to that.
- And finally, to restore your faith in humanity, new Canadian president Justin Trudeau created a tremendous welcome for incoming Syrian refugees. And Barbara Bush and Jessica Mack from Global Health Corps would probably consider Trudeau just the kind of leader we need right now, for as they wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “At times like these, when the news is an endless litany of upsetting events, it is far too easy to let rage slide into violence, or allow fear to shut us down to the humanity of others. We have examples of that all around us. But leadership doesn’t entail taking the easy option. Instead, the most courageous stand we can take is against fear itself, by resisting the instinct to close up and push others away…It is within each of our abilities to decide how to parlay these grave moments into opportunities for resilience, inspiration, and hope.” Yes!
Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm
There is a new nonprofit that nicely demonstrates the challenge of identifying a social problem and then developing the right strategy for solving that problem. Code.org’s sole aim is to solve the impending shortage of computer programmers. Because we have grown increasingly dependent on technology in our everyday lives, while our schools have not adequately prepared our children to keep up, we are facing an enormous shortage of people who can create the technology we desperately need.
Projections estimate that by 2020 we will need 1.4 million computer programmers, but will only have 400,000 computer science graduates, creating a 1 million person gap. And 9 out of 10 schools aren’t currently teaching computer programming. This is a huge problem.
Enter code.org. The nonprofit was founded earlier this year with two stated goals:
- Spread the word that there is a worldwide shortage of computer programmers, and that it’s much easier to learn to program than you think.
- Build an authoritative database of all programming schools, whether they are online courses, brick+mortar schools or summer camps.
They have an impressive team and list of supporters, many of the darlings of the technology startup world. And they’ve already attracted the attention of the national media and have a very savvy media presentation including some pretty cool videos.
Code.org is fascinating to me, not just because I agree that connecting how we educate our children with the skills they will need in the future is a huge issue, but also because code.org demonstrates the strategic struggle facing every social change agent. The struggle lies in identifying a social problem and then creating the right solution to the problem you’ve identified.
There are many ways you could attack the problem of a shortage of future computer programmers. You could decide to:
- Advocate for changes to the public education system
- Create new training sites around the country
- Develop coding games for kids
- Create a marketing campaign that encourages more kids to try coding
- Develop a database of available training programs
So far code.org has decided to focus on the last two. But it begs the question, why those two?
In identifying a social problem and then choosing a possible way to attack it, social change leaders must ask the following questions:
- What is the most effective entry point for changing this problem? For code.org they think the entry point is kids themselves, getting them to demand coding training, as opposed to changing education policy or increasing the supply of coding locations.
- How do we use our unique assets to address that entry point? Code.org’s biggest asset is their long list of technology celebrity supporters, so they are tapping into those people (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) to show kids how cool coding is. If, instead, code.org had a unique ability to move education policy forward, or proprietary coding software that more quickly delivered results they could have decided to go those routes.
- How do we structure our organization to deliver the solution? Right now code.org is a website with a series of videos and a growing database of training locations. So they don’t need a lot of staff or structure. If, however, they had decided to set up new training sites around the country or advocate for public education changes in every state, they would have needed a much larger operation with more locations and staffing.
- How will we measure if our solution is working? Code.org has clearly delineated where they need to be. By 2020 they want to see 1 million more computer programmers. So they have to figure out how many more college students they need in computer sciences, how many more high school students they need who can code, how many more middle school students who are dabbling in code and so on. I’m hoping they have metrics all along the way and the ability to see if the numbers are actually growing.
Code.org has very clearly defined a critical social problem and they have marshaled an impressive army of supporters to work toward change. It remains to be seen, however, whether they have asked the right questions and selected the right path for making that change a reality.
There were lots of great discussions and developments in the world of social innovation in September. So much so, that I had a really hard time narrowing down to ten. But alas, here are my top 10 of the last month. As always, please add what I missed to the comments. If you’d like to see the expanded list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.
- Two really interesting divergent reports on the results of social change work. First, a $1 million, 6-year study of nonprofit After School Matters shows that the program doesn’t really change lives.
- And a year after Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to Newark public schools, some positive results are trickling in.
- After the August resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple due to health reasons, people came out in droves to criticize him for his poor philanthropic record. Dan Pallotta rose to his defense, arguing, in a thought-provoking way, that Jobs’ contributions to the world at large make him the World’s Greatest Philanthropist.
- In an exciting move to kick-start social impact bonds (a government bond that allows private investors to invest capital in nonprofits and then gain a return if the nonprofit achieves promised outcomes), the Rockefeller Foundation granted Social Finance $500K to develop the social impact bond market in the US.
- September was the month of the 4th annual Social Capital Markets Conference that brings social entrepreneurs and the funders of social entrepreneurs together. Over the course of the four SoCap conferences there has been a recurring tension between philanthropy and impact investing. Adin Miller reported from SoCap that the great convergence between philanthropy and impact investing has disappointingly not yet happened.
- The Washington Post shows us the devastating impact of the economic crisis in five charts.
- At long last, CharityNavigator, one of the best known nonprofit rating systems, unveils their Charity Navigator 2.0, an expanded rating system that includes financial health, accountability, and transparency measures. Every nonprofit should understand this important change and what it means for their organization.
- Lucy Bernholz discusses a fascinating distinction between problems and difficulties and the implications for social change efforts. “Problems have solutions; solve them and problems go away. Difficulties don’t have solutions; they require continual address.”
- On the Harvard Business Review blog Lucy Marcus argues In Troubled Times, Boards Must Step Up.
- In a similar vein, Mario Morino from Venture Philanthropy Partners argues that Board Members Cannot Check Their Courage at the Door.
Photo Credit: MMcQuade