In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m very excited to be talking with the co-founders and editors of the new History of Philanthropy blog: Benjamin Soskis, Stanley Katz, and Maribel Morey.
The HistPhil blog launched this past June and focuses on how history can shed light on current philanthropic issues and practice.
Because how can we hope to create social change without understanding the results of efforts that came before us?
Ben, Stanley, and Maribel are all academics with specialities related to history and philanthropy. Stanley is on faculty at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and has also taught at Harvard, Wisconsin and Chicago. Benjamin is a Fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University and a consultant for the history of philanthropy program of the Open Philanthropy Project. And Maribel is a professor of history at Clemson University and is currently writing a book, From Tuskegee to Myrdal, which describes how and why white Americans in big philanthropy transformed from proponents of segregated education to advocates of racial equality.
Nell: Stanley, you write, in your inaugural post for the HistPhil blog, about the tendency of philanthropy to get swept up in “new” approaches that actually aren’t all that new. Is there really anything new in philanthropy right now? Are there any structural or cultural developments or approaches in philanthropy that are significantly different than in the past?
Stanley: It is hard to separate rhetoric from reality in the current environment of philanthropic hype. From my perspective, the current boasting that all is new in philanthropy (see the recent New York Times “Giving” section), is pretty uninformed (naïve?).
One of the most common claims, repeated frequently in the New York Times piece, is that philanthropists are no longer simply trying to alleviate the “symptoms” of distress, but in fact are aiming to remove the underlying causes of social and physical problems. This attempts to distinguish what the large foundations are doing from what the traditional foundations did in the 20th century (and of course no one is making this claim more loudly than Judith Rodin of the “new” Rockefeller Foundation.)
But the emphasis on the elimination of problems by identifying their root causes was the innovative claim of the founders of the first American foundations, best articulated by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. So from this point of view there is not much new in the current aims of big philanthropy.
But what is actually new, and there is a lot that is new, is the determined focus on short-term, measurable, results — this is the mantra of the genuinely new “strategic” philanthropy. The older foundations of course aimed to be effective, but they defined effectiveness much more loosely and measured it less precisely than current large foundations. This is an enormousdly important attribute of the current mega-foundations, and all the other foundations that have jumped on the “strategic philanthropy” bandwagon.
The current foundation rhetoric also makes use of a wide range of business metaphors, none more important than the notion that philanthropy is best thought of as “investment” in change, and frequently characterized, using the language of hedge funds, as “bets” on successfully producing change. Much of the current language of philanthropy is drawn from venture capital activity, and the new philanthropy can also be thought of as “venture” philanthropy. This is a new attitude.
The original philanthropists knew they were adapting the then modern techniques of business organization and management to their grantmaking, but they thought of philanthropy as different from business. That distinction seems to have eluded much of the current generation of philanthropists.
But I need to say that I am a little uncomfortable with these large generalizations, since not all current philanthropists speak or act as I have just suggested — nor did the earliest generation of philanthropists. But there is something new in the philanthropic air. The question is whether that air is as salubrious as its current advocates claim.
Nell: Stanley, philanthropy got its modern day start in the missionary work of Europeans and Americans in third world countries. What, if any, parallels do you see in philanthropic work in developing parts of the world today?
Stanley: Here the important fact is that the Rockefellers (John D. Sr. and Jr.) originally intended the Rockefeller Foundation to be a missionary foundation, operating mostly (possibly entirely) in China. For a variety of reasons, in particular the influence of their advisor Frederick T. Gates (a minister who had turned in a secular direction), they abandoned the missionary focus in favor of a secular focus. Their work in China, and especially the founding and support of the Peking Union Medical School, continued to have a missionary flavor, but their work in Africa and other tropical areas was more early medical philanthropy than missionary philanthropy. They turned to the eradication of tropical diseases both because they were attractive to current medical research capacity, and because it was politically safe to engage in medical experimentation abroad — a lesson that Big Pharma learned from them later in the century.
But the emphasis of the large foundations, beginning in the 1960s, with grant-making in the underdeveloped world, was quite different, and unrelated to any neo-missionary instinct. Many of the large American foundations at mid-century thought they could assist the process of decolonization and local self-determination by supporting a wide range of development activities in what was then called the Third World. They later came to be attacked by neo-Marxists for allegedly supporting US and Western imperialism in the developing world, but that is a big subject all in itself.
Ironically, there is now a burgeoning effort by American evangelical business people to invest in private development projects, especially in East Africa, and this is a throw-back of sorts to much earlier notions of philanthropic support of development. But it needs to be contrasted with the massive Gates Foundation public health efforts in Africa and elsewhere — an effort purely “strategic” in its inspiration.
Nell: Ben, historically, philanthropic giving has not grown above 2% of US GDP, why do you think that is and do you think there is any hope of changing that?
Ben: The answer to the 2% conundrum is the holy grail of the nonprofit sector, and I don’t pretend to have any certain answer about it myself. It’s worth noting, though, that 2% of GDP is still pretty good relative to other developed countries (in fact, by many measures, it’s one of the best rates). But it’s still confounding why it hasn’t budged for more than four decades. There’s obviously a tangle of causal factors at play, and I’ll just offer a few possibilities that have occurred to me in the course of my research, without making any claims that this is an exhaustive list.
Given the persistence of that rate, it makes sense to look for some equally persistent characteristic of the American nonprofit sector that has also remained unchanged over that long timespan. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy can give us a clue to a possible candidate. As part of their Philanthropy 400 ranking of the nation’s largest nonprofits, they note how little the list has changed from when it was first tallied in 1991 (especially when compared with the churning of the list of the largest for-profit companies). In part by dint of habit, and in part because of the power of the institution’s “brands,” Americans have tended to stick with a handful of large charities—through scandals, evolving social needs and changing fads.
As I pointed out to the Chronicle reporter (though my observations got a bit lost in translation; Josephine Shaw Lowell, a founder of the American charity organization movement, wouldn’t have suggested that bigger is better, only that a degree of centralization in charity administration was necessary), we can trace this development back to the turn of the last century, when charity reformers instituted a process of centralized, bureaucratized and professionalized giving. That is, from the late 19th century-scientific charity movement onward, individuals were warned that their disparate giving was too often haphazard, scattered, wasteful, and overlapping, and so were encouraged to hand over the administration of charitable resources to a centralized institution. The community chests and the United Way came out of this impulse; Catholic Charities succumbed to it as well.
It’s very possible that the development toward more centralization and professional administration has bolstered American giving by providing citizens with more confidence and by making decisions about where to give easier. But I think we also have to wonder whether it imposed a sort of cap as well, since it might have removed some of the immediacy, intimacy and individuality from the charitable exchange that could push individuals to give beyond an initial comfort point (which very well might be around 2%).
The Chronicle suggests that we might see more disruption in the list in the coming years, or at least that some of the big names, like the United Way, might be ceding ground. If that is the case, and if some of the space they occupied is filled with smaller upstarts, it’s possible we might see some movement beyond 2%.
Another possible factor worth considering for the persistence of the 2% rate is the declining role of religion in determining charitable allocations. I don’t only mean that the percentage of total giving going to religious institutions has been steadily declining over the last few decades. But also that giving itself has, for many Americans, become an increasingly secular activity.
Again, we can trace this back to the early 20th century, when charity reformers sought to “secularize” giving by stripping it of any sectarian taint and endowing it with a degree of rationality; the indiscriminate giver in their rhetoric was often an easily-duped priest. But it is also possible that the religious impulse to give is more easily able to push past the equilibrium of 2% and to ask individuals to make even deeper financial commitments.
Yet another factor preventing giving from crossing that 2% barrier might be media coverage of nonprofits. As I quipped in an article on the subject in the Chronicle last March, borrowing from Woody Allen, the coverage is generally pretty weak—and the portions are too small. That is, the media grants the sector relatively little attention, and when it does, it seems to suffer from what New York Times reporter David Clay Johnson has called a “Madonna-whore” complex: alternating between feel-good human interest stories and stories focused on nonprofit abuse. But stories that chronicle the difficult and important work many nonprofits are doing on a daily basis—they just don’t have the journalistic juice to make it into print. As the former nonprofit beat reporter for The New York Times, Stephanie Strom, told me, “A nonprofit just doing good isn’t news because everyone knows nonprofits are supposed to do good.” This might be changing, with a number of important online journalistic ventures out there, but I think there is a deep deficit in public knowledge about what nonprofits are doing—and this deficit could sap the public’s willingness to give more.
You also have to combine this media deficiency with the general conceptual muddle that has emerged with the blurring of private and public lines of funding social welfare provision in the last half century. Not only do American givers and tax-payers have to contend with a federated system (to say nothing of international structures of governance), in which various jurisdictions take up differing responsibilities for addressing social ills and needs. But we also inhabit what political scientist Jacob Hacker has termed a “divided welfare state,” in which public and private lines of responsibility for social welfare are increasingly blurred. Obviously, there’s opportunity in this blurring. But as scholars such as Lester Salamon have pointed out, it also can represent a sort of existential threat to the nonprofit sector’s distinctive identity and mission, which in turn might be restricting American’s willingness to dig in and give more.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out another powerful strain in the American charitable tradition—the devaluation of monetary gifts themselves in favor of the “helping hand.” At the turn of the last century, even while scientific charity reformers were attempting to rationalize giving, they were also trying to preserve traditions of neighborly assistance. The fact that such assistance could not be easily quantified and rationally appraised was regarded as a mark of its worth. And in many senses, it was considered a higher form of giving than monetary contributions. That idea is still with us today; and it’s possible that by focusing too much on the 2% rate, we miss other forms of voluntarism that have had more variability and elasticity over the years.
Nell: Maribel, during the Gilded Age great wealth concentrated among a few brought large philanthropy (Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.) but also contributed to a subsequent progressive period (as the pendulum swung back against that excessive wealth). Do you see parallels between the Gilded Age and today, and do you think we are heading for a more progressive period? And what role do you think philanthropy will or won’t play in that?
Maribel: Indeed, many late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Americans looked at Andrew Carnegie’s and John D. Rockefeller’s wealth (and even their philanthropy) with some suspicion.
Reflecting these Americans’ anxieties, for example, the United States Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations called John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his son in 1915 to defend the independence of the Rockefeller Foundation. As many scholars have noted, the Rockefellers had established a division of economic research in 1914 within the one-year-old foundation; and a few months later, the Ludlow massacre occurred at the Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel Iron Company where women and children died when the state militia assaulted the strikers’ tent camp.
In response, the organization decided to organize a study on industrial relations under this new division and selected a close working friend of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (William Lyon Mackenzie King) to direct it. From the perspective of the American public, it was hardly easy to trust that gilded age tycoons who had undermined the rights of workers in the process of accumulating their wealth would have the interests of the people in mind when they funded social scientific projects to study the American populace. From this perspective, the Rockefeller Foundation was the playpen of industrialists who had defined interests in society and their policy-oriented social scientific research would be—far from disinterested—an extension of those interests.
And far from ignorant of Americans’ suspicions about gilded age levels of wealth, Andrew Carnegie himself discussed it head-on in The Gospel of Wealth (1889). Aware that Americans might find socialism an attractive alternative to capitalism, for example, he pitched philanthropy as the better form of wealth redistribution.
Today as then, Americans are confronting and discussing the great influence of leading philanthropists in public policymaking and of wealth inequality more broadly. However, I am not convinced that we are necessarily heading for a more progressive period.
I say this because I don’t see contemporary Americans reflecting the same level of angst about elite philanthropy nor with the broader topic of wealth concentration. Congress isn’t questioning leading philanthropists as it did with the Rockefellers in the early twentieth century nor do leading philanthropists seem threatened by Americans’ potential voting patterns, as Carnegie had been.
One key explanation might be that these earlier Americans entertained a vastly different meaning of American democracy than their successors today. For them, American democracy promised economic opportunity (or rather, freedom from class divisions) and an equal voice over public concerns. Today, it seems that the general American public and their representatives in Congress aren’t as convinced of this definition of American democracy. With a narrower understanding of American democracy, it might simply be more difficult for contemporaries to see how wealth inequality and elite philanthropy in public policymaking are democratic threats.
Philanthropies committed to resurrecting a more progressive period might just need to focus on ways to revive this earlier (dare I say, more robust) definition of American democracy and help empower Americans to fight for it.
Photo Credit: HistPhil
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Denise San Antonio Zeman. Denise has been President and CEO of Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio since 2000. A lifelong Clevelander, Denise’s career has spanned higher education, human services, healthcare and philanthropy. Now in its 17th year of grantmaking, Saint Luke’s provides leadership and support to improve and transform health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Saint Luke’s Foundation is different than most foundations in that you have made a conscious commitment to funding the capacity of nonprofit grantees in areas such as leadership development and outcomes measurement. Why did the foundation decide to put an emphasis on capacity funding and what have you learned from those investments?
Denise: Just over two years ago, our Foundation board and staff held a retreat. An important topic was our frustration over the reality that the recent economic downturn had produced tremendous need in our community and volatility in our grant budget. Specifically, this downturn highlighted for us that we were spending more when the economy was good and less when the community needed us most. These concerns were analyzed, and the culprit was determined to be our spending policy, for although we knew we could not control the world economy, we realized that we could control the way we responded to it.
We had employed a traditional 5% payout since our inception in 1997, and decided to investigate spending policies that might provide us a higher, more predictable level of spending going forward. With much trepidation, the board approved a bold new spending policy that provides for a “floor” with certain tolerance limits. We increased our spending by about $4 million and established a spending range between 5 and 7%. For the past two years our spending has been very close to 7%.
With this came a strong commitment to working with our grantees and philanthropic colleagues to move toward funding what works in order to advance a smaller set of priorities. The new priorities more narrowly define our previously broad definition of “health” to focus on three specific strategy areas: Healthy People, Strong Communities and Resilient Families.
The role of our senior program officers also shifted from a focus on managing a set of grants to a commitment to advancing a strategy. We agreed upon long and short-term outcomes that guide our grantmaking decisions, and the program team now manages their portfolios of grants in a more entrepreneurial way. In addition to making grants, their due diligence includes an in-depth analysis of the grantees’ capacity to be successful.
A thorough analysis of the literature, conversations with colleagues and focus groups with grantees revealed six strengths that the highest performing nonprofits have in common. These include strong financial management, investment in leadership, a commitment to outcomes and learning, a spirit of collaboration, excellent communications, and advocacy for good public policy.
We support and encourage our grantees to develop these capacities in a variety of ways. In our formal and informal interactions, we encourage them to think about their approach to building these capacities and we provide support to assist them in this process. We ask probing questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” in order to nurture lines of communication, demonstrate our concern for their growth and development, and most importantly, learn. And we work with our regional association, Philanthropy Ohio, to bring national content experts to our region for programs and seminars on relevant topics. We also host meetings ourselves during which we invite thought leaders such as Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), Dan Heath (Made to Stick and Switch), Fay Twersky (Beneficiary Voice), and Phil Buchanan (Center for Effective Philanthropy) to challenge the status quo and help us focus our efforts to build a stronger nonprofit and philanthropic sector.
In order to be able to deliver on their promise to the community, nonprofits must have a solid financial base. Our scrutiny of financial statements has increased, and with that has come a commitment to working with our grantees to improve their financial planning, monitoring, operations and governance. The Nonprofit Finance Fund and Financial Management Associates, LLC have provided local strategic financial management seminars to increase knowledge and inspire motivation to build financial capacities.
We also know that strong leaders produce great results. We therefore encourage and support comprehensive leadership development for our grantees, and we support efforts to implement leadership development practices that ensure good governance and empower professional staff to be leaders of change.
We are committed to tapping into the power of outcomes measurement as a way to support continuous learning and encourage performance improvement, and we work with our grantees to support their efforts to collect and use data to improve their outcomes for their clients. We have learned first-hand how challenging measuring impact in the social sector can be. But we have also learned that unless we measure and move toward specific, measurable outcomes, we run the risk of spinning our wheels at best, and actually doing harm at worst. The works of Mario Morino (Leap of Reason) and David Hunter (Working Hard and Working Well) provide nonprofit and philanthropic leaders with the rationale and roadmap for making a measurable, meaningful and lasting difference for the people they serve, and we strongly encourage our grantees and colleagues to join us in embracing their approaches.
We have also learned the importance of supporting the capacity of our grantees to work with others. We live in a nonprofit community that was built for a population of over one million people, and yet the last census revealed that our community has contracted by more than half. Our government and philanthropic resources have diminished, yet the need in our community has grown. We therefore work in partnership with our grantees and philanthropic partners to support collaboration in practice and in learning, and we have embraced the concepts of Collective Impact (Foundation Strategy Group) to inform our work.
Communication is also an area of focus for us. Borrowing from what we learned from Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, we support strategic communications that help our grantees leverage outcomes and tell effective stories to advance their missions. This is not storytelling for the sake of storytelling; rather, it is using the power of outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness and impact.
While philanthropic support for health and human services is important, it is miniscule compared to government spending. We therefore support efforts to educate policymakers on relevant issues and influence institutions, systems and community and/or individual behaviors within the funding guidelines for private foundations.
Quite simply, we believe that strong nonprofits produce the strongest results, and as funders of impact, we believe it is our role to support our grantees to be the strongest they can be.
Nell: Leadership development is a particular area of interest for the foundation. What do you think nonprofit leaders need most to become more effective and what role can philanthropists play in that?
Denise: We view strong, resilient leadership as one of the most effective tools for achieving superior results. In our work with grantees, we have learned that organizations that take an intentional, focused approach to leadership development achieve better outcomes for the people they serve. Nonprofit leaders need boards that are uncompromising on quality and results, and these boards must both challenge and support executive leadership to drive innovation and strategic performance.
As noted in Independent Sector’s Leadership Initiative, nonprofit leaders need “time, attention and resources to engage in high-quality leadership development programming that equips them to deliver significant results.” Leaders cannot be so “in the weeds” that they lose sight of their role as keepers of the promise. We encourage our grantees to use some of our general operating support to focus on leadership development, and to extend that focus to developing the “next generation” of leaders as well.
We also provide funds for nonprofit leaders to participate in high quality leadership development programs locally and nationally. Additionally, we support an individual professional development program for each member of our foundation staff to ensure that they continue to develop their own potential as leaders.
Nell: One of the arguments some philanthropists make against providing funding for building nonprofit organizations is that it is harder to demonstrate the return from a capacity building investment than a program investment. How do you respond to that argument?
Denise: I agree…it is hard, but we have never been an organization that avoids hard! In our work with the TCC Group last year, we learned more about what it takes to be a learning organization. We made a commitment to learning from everything we do, and we are committed to learning more about how to measure the impact of capacity building investments.
And while we are still learning, we have some specific examples that demonstrate the return on our investments in building capacity. We know, for example, that our support for outcomes and learning has helped some of our grantees build the capacity to reflect their success by implementing outcomes management software and producing results-oriented dashboards. Eight of the organizations we helped form strategic alliances have merged into four, and are serving more people with fewer resources. We also know that some of the communications-related grants we have made have enabled grantees to extend their reach in innovative ways such as electronic case management programs. And we know that policy-focused grants have allowed some of our safety net providers to come together to provide patient-centered medical homes for some of our most vulnerable citizens in advance of Medicaid expansion. While these results might be viewed as anecdotal, we believe they are building our own capacity to make a strong case for capacity building.
Nell: Funders are becoming increasingly interested in nonprofit outcomes measurement, yet few funders are willing to fund evaluations. How do we solve that chicken or the egg scenario?
Denise: I was recently invited to participate on a panel called “Do Funders Get It?” at a national conference called After the Leap. The panel responded to Nancy Roob’s stirring plenary session in which she described the phenomenal work of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in supporting youth development organizations across the country to be more effective.
We posed the question “Do funders understand the resources and support nonprofits require to scale impact?” to the audience, and not surprisingly, the response affirmed the reality that most of us do not. The truth that funders want results but are reluctant to fund evaluations has been confirmed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to name just a few.
So how do we solve this dichotomy? As with any attempt at true and lasting change, there is no single silver bullet that will suddenly convince funders to change their traditional ways of grantmaking. But I do believe there is a growing receptivity to the concept of funding for impact, and there is a role for philanthropic affinity groups and regional associations to educate their membership with concrete suggestions that funders can use with their boards, professional staffs and grantees.
Government funders are beginning to understand the importance of funding what works, and this will raise the stakes for nonprofits that rely heavily on public support. They will have to demonstrate impact or they will not receive support. This will raise the evaluation imperative to standard operating procedure, and funders that care at all about their grantees will be compelled to support building evidence that their approaches do, in fact, achieve sustainable results.
Nell: Although Saint Luke’s Foundation is a real trail blazer in the philanthropic world, philanthropy overall is rather slow to change, particularly when it comes to funding in new ways. What do you think it will take to get more funders to understand that stronger nonprofit leaders and organizations can equal more impact?
Denise: Thank you for your kind words. Our change in spending policy and approach was largely informed by Mario Morino’s admonition to “rethink, redesign and reinvent the why, what and how of our work in every arena.” He went on to suggest that we “need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving – all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.” When put that way, who could argue?
Foundations and nonprofits are about the business of improving lives. The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO. And unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail. We must be bold in challenging and supporting one another to disrupt the sector in unprecedented ways. We at Saint Luke’s Foundation have changed our approaches from spending to strategy to portfolio management, but we have stayed true to our original mission statement to improve and transform health and well-being in our community. I suppose it is fair to say that our very mission implies that we will fund what improves and transforms…and therefore we see it as being true to our mission to build highly effective provider organizations.
Photo Credit: Saint Luke’s Foundation
The nonprofit starvation cycle is one nonprofit leaders know only to well. Nonprofits rarely have the technology, staff, and systems to function effectively. So they scrape by trying to wring one more drop out of a completely dry rock.
But instead of waiting for funders to fix the situation, it is up to nonprofit leaders themselves to break free. And you break free by raising capacity capital. The Social Velocity webinar, “Raising Capacity Capital,” can help you do just that.
Capacity capital is a one-time investment of significant money that can help build or strengthen a nonprofit so that it can create more social change. Capacity capital funds things like technology, systems, a program evaluation, revenue-generating staff, start-up costs for an earned income business. It is money that strengthens the organization so that it can do more.
But often nonprofit leaders don’t recognize that everything they need to raise capacity capital and break free from the starvation cycle is in right in front of them.
The “Raising Capacity Capital” webinar will show you how to:
- Talk about the importance of capacity capital to your donors and board
- Create a budget for the capacity dollars you need
- Develop a campaign goal
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- Identify prospective donors
- Give your board a role in the campaign
- Gain the confidence to start asking for the money you really need
This webinar is one of our most popular webinars. Here’s what some past participants had to say:
“Thank you! this was helpful and wonderfully accessible. I am impressed.”
“Just a note to thank you for the informative webinar. I found it most constructive, as my organization is right at the stage of getting out of starvation mode. I look forward to participating in more sessions.”
On Demand Webinar
And keep in mind all Social Velocity Webinars are “on demand,” so you can watch the recorded webinar, receive the slides and get your questions answered anytime.
The registration fee will get you:
- A link to a recording of the webinar, which you can watch whenever you like
- The PowerPoint slides from the webinar
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If you are serious about moving your nonprofit out of the starvation cycle, capacity capital can help you get there.
Photo Credit: gfpeck
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Chris Earthman, Executive Director for the Aragona Family Foundation. For the last 8 years Chris has also worked for Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwestern US. Chris has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including helping to establish the Micron Technology Foundation (NYSE: MU), the corporate social responsibility vehicle for the largest private employer in Idaho.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: As head of a regional family foundation, how do you and your board view some of the innovations happening in the social sector like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, etc.?
Chris: I find it refreshing that innovation is happening in our sector, though I’m a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake among funders. The family foundation I currently run is a spend-down foundation, and that’s a decision our trustees made consciously in order to see the fruits of social investments now vs. spending significantly less in order to maintain a corpus indefinitely. There is ample discussion out there among funders, but (and I’m as guilty as anyone) very rarely much action to back it up. We’re trying to selectively dip our toe into the water in terms of funding social innovations, infrastructure, ecosystem improving organizations, selective M&A activity among our grantees and discussing the idea of mission-related investing.
Nell: Speaking of mission-related investing (where a foundation invests part of their corpus into for-profit social enterprises that give both a social and financial return to the foundation), it’s a pretty radical concept for most foundations. What do you think it would take for the idea of mission-related investing to take off for smaller foundations across the country?
Chris: Let me preface my comments with the fact that we are a spend-down foundation and therefore have not made a meaningful investment allocation to mission-related investing, so I’m by no means an expert here. However, I think there need to be more visible intermediaries and investment products targeting the social impact market. We’ve seen some great progress over the last few years with groups like Sonen Capital, but it’s still a very nascent industry. One of the biggest barriers we’ve come across is the difficulty in quantifying the social return in a format that is comprehensible to trustees. That is starting to change with ratings intermediaries like GIIRS, but recognition and uptake are essentially non-existent among most of the foundations that I interact with. I know that you and many others have opined on the progress here, but it’s still not something that is on many regional/ smaller Foundation’s radars. It may take a few forward thinking Foundation trustees to step up and take a chance to show others that it’s ok to think outside of the endowment model mindset.
Nell: Much of your non-Foundation time is spent working for a venture capital firm where the idea of Mergers and Acquisitions is second nature; however this is a fairly uncommon concept in the nonprofit world. Do we want to see more of it in the nonprofit sector and if so, how do we make that happen?
Chris: Given the fragmentation of the nonprofit ecosystem across the country and the large proportion of small organizations , I think there is certainly an opportunity for more instances of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), particularly in cases where organizations need to grow above the $500K/ yr threshold. However, my experience is that TRUE collaboration—the accretive kind where you can quantify cost savings and/or program growth and ultimately better outcomes/ social change—is very rare in the nonprofit world simply because there are few external catalysts to get the discussion started and ultimately finished.
We’ve funded a few different M&A efforts over the last couple of years and my takeaway is that the M’s work much better than the A’s. I hate to keep pointing the finger back at myself and fellow funders, but there is a certain level of risk aversion where we’d rather ensure a successful purchase of additional direct services vs. really giving organizations what they need to grow. I’ve seen too many truly innovative nonprofits unable to successfully scale past the $300-500K/yr revenue threshold because of the required organizational capital required to make that pivot.
But I’m by no means idealistic here. While M&As sound sexy, there are many times where poor execution, interpersonal dynamics, Board conflicts, bad timing, or any number of external factors out of your control result in an outcome that may actually harm the organizations seeking to gain efficiencies through scale and collaboration. There are integration costs, donor overlap, brand/ identity battles, etc. that always take much more time, effort, and money before you see any of the accretive results that initially drove the decision to bring the organizations together. The same goes for the appetite of funders to backstop Executive Director salaries and/or fund transaction costs related to a merger discussion. In my opinion, lack of funder appetite is probably one of the biggest barriers to more M&A in our sector.
Nell: As a rule foundations are less interested in making capital investments in nonprofit organizations (funding things like infrastructure, systems, technology, evaluation). Why do you think that is and what can help move philanthropists to understand the need for capacity capital?
Chris: I think there are two reasons:
- The idea of “expressive philanthropy” is fairly well ingrained and many folks start out their philanthropy work wanting to “put their stamp” on a particular cause or portfolio of organizations. The challenge is that many foundations knee jerk into a risk-averse grants process that may or may not fit with their place in the ecosystem. Part of this is based on the endowment model of funding, which more often than not results in a formal, tedious grant application process. This may not be the best way to identify and screen potential grantees!
Let me acknowledge that I spent the first few years of my career as a grant writer, so I completely understand the time and effort that go into these proposals. This experience informs (or biases) my “anti-process” grantmaking strategy wherein we prefer to put the “search cost” onus on myself as a funder and try to respect the time and effort of the ever lean development dollars being spent by grant seeking organizations. It may sound like an arrogant “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach to grantmaking, but I’ve found that making the grant process donor-centric vs. grantee centric allows the system to operate more efficiently.
- While philanthropic dollars should be fungible, the ability to restrict funds creates a tiered system of revenue for grantees. It always strikes me as a little odd that funders get so hung up about funding direct services vs. infrastructure and overhead and restrict their funding to such a degree. Ask any VC how their portfolio companies use their investments and you’ll find more often than not it pays for the critical growth functions like Sales and Marketing. You can’t grow without infrastructure, and unfortunately our current giving culture is much less amenable to that. I’d even go so far as to say the framework/ process that most funders use to select their grantees are, by their very nature, skewed towards less risk and greater restriction. Therein lies one of the structural problems in our industry. Even something as simple as separating the motivation of our giving (“we really like your yy program initiative…”) from the structure of our giving (“…so here’s an unrestricted grant to spend where you feel it is most needed”) makes a huge difference for the lives of our grantees. It also shows the Executive Director that you value their ability as a manager to make decisions from the inside.
Nell: How do we get funders to get take more risk with their investments and be willing to fund things that have a higher risk, like growth capital, mergers, research & development, but could result in huge social payoff?
Chris: Similar to my earlier comments about impact investing and grant processes, I think funders need to see more celebrated instances of both success AND failure. Another solution is using less restrictive grant processes that are a better fit with the size and scope of your particular foundation. The fact that you can restrict grants does not automatically mean that you should. Until we embrace the idea that its ok to take a risk with our funding (and have a process that embraces this), even if it doesn’t turn out the way we planned, we’ll be much closer to creating an environment ripe for some of the larger social change that motivates our philanthropic giving in the first place.
In the world of social innovation, May was most definitely about innovations in philanthropy and funding of social change. From social impact bond experiments, to hybrid foundations, to impact investing, to the Giving Pledge 2.0, there was much discussion and debate about how funders of social change should and are innovating. And that is very exciting because it is not enough for social entrepreneurs to push things forward, we desperately need new financial vehicles to fund those social change efforts.
Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in May, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. If you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest. And if you want to read 10 Great Reads lists from past months, go here.
- First up is social impact bonds (or pay for success bonds), a very exciting, new way to fund nonprofits that achieve improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. McKinsey released a new report on the potential for social impact bonds in the US. And Minnesota is one of the first states to experiment with these bonds with a $10 million pilot. Twin Cities Business magazine explores the idea and Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofit Assistance Fund gives an overview of the idea, resources and further conversation.
- This month’s second annual meeting of those wealthy individuals who signed Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge (a public promise to give at least half of their wealth to charity in their lifetime) showed some real interest in impact investing, or using their money to make money while creating social change at the same time. Laura Tomasko argues why their interest in impact investing (both mission-related investments and program-related investments) is such an exciting opportunity. And Lucy Bernholz takes their interest in impact investing in another direction arguing that “this century’s great philanthropists should aim not just to match history’s great givers in their largess, but also in the creation of mechanisms and institutions that serve the future as well as their predecessors served the past.”
- Finally, in a very exciting move, the Obama Administration has proposed an expansion to the rules about how foundations can use program-related investments (low or no interest loans to social change organizations) and some community foundations are already getting into the game.
- And from the nonprofit side of the financial equation comes the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s effort to debunk the myths around endowments as a road to nonprofit financial sustainability.
- Financial sustainability must always be on the mind of social change organizations, as this cautionary tale from the North Carolina YWCA that had to close its doors because of poor financial management and oversight demonstrates.
- Has the drum beat against judging a nonprofit based on overhead costs gone mainstream? An op-ed in the LA Times argues that administrative costs are “no way to judge a charity.”
- At the Social Earth blog Thien Nguyen-Trung cautions against an overemphasis on growth among social entrepreneurs and instead argues for “impact offtakers” or an exit strategy for social entrepreneurs to hand off their solution to government or another larger entity instead of trying to reach scale on their own.
- And Patrick Lester seems to agree in his argument that it’s not enough to fund social change solutions: “Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too–only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.”
- There were several articles about exciting, innovative approaches to solving food problems. From a $125 million loan fund for healthy food outlets in California, to urban farming in Detroit, to a very successful nonprofit grocery store in Portland, Oregon.
- In the Stanford Social Innovation Review Matthew Forti offers 6 things nonprofits should avoid in their theory of change (their argument for what they exist to accomplish).
Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer
Every once in awhile an article comes along that is so honest and observant that it opens the door for a fundamental shift in thinking. Curtis White’s “The Philanthropic Complex” in the Spring 2012 Jacobin is such an article. White writes about how the politics behind American philanthropy compromise its ability to create real social change. His focus is the philanthropy that funds environmental organizations, but ultimately he makes a larger point about the limitations inherent in American philanthropy overall. I’m not sure I agree with everything White writes, but his unapologetic description of the politics of philanthropy is so raw that it is refreshing.
White begins by laying out the fundamental power imbalance between nonprofits seeking funding and the foundations that offer that funding. That imbalance is so dysfunctional that nonprofits cannot get enough and the right type of money that they really need to effectively solve social problems:
One of the most maddening experiences for those who seek the support of private philanthropy is the…difficulty of knowing why the foundation makes the decisions it makes…The closest thing to an answer you’re likely to hear is something like this: “The staff met with some Board members last night to discuss your proposal, and we’re very interested in it. But we don’t think that you have the capacity [a useful bit of jargon that means essentially that the organization should give up on what it thought it was going to do] to achieve these goals. So what we’d suggest is that you define a smaller project that will allow you to test your abilities [read: allow you to do something that you have little interest in but that will suck up valuable staff time like a Hoover]. Meanwhile, we’d like to meet with your Board in six months and see where you are.” And on you go one year at a time. But cheer up, you’ve made your budget for the year!
Part of this dysfunction, White believes, stems from the lack of wide-spread mission-related investing among foundations. Foundations in America are required to distribute 5% of their funds each year to nonprofit organizations. And the remaining 95% is invested to make as much profit as possible. In recent years the idea of “mission-related investing,” where a foundation actually invests that 95% in companies that align with the mission of the foundation, has been gaining favor. But the vast majority of foundations still don’t align their 5% with the 95%, or their “mission” with their “investments.” This strategic disconnect results in situations like the one the Gates Foundation faced last year:
The Los Angeles Times concluded a long investigation into the investment practices of foundations by revealing that the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested…This is prima facie evidence of a deep moral conflict not just at Gates but in all of private philanthropy. The simple fact is that most boards actually don’t know if their investments and their missions align.
White ultimately argues that because the wealth of philanthropy is built on privilege it is impossible for that wealth to bring about social change because that change might undermine the underlying power structure that created the wealth in the first place, “The great paradox of environmental philanthropy is this: How do institutions founded on property, wealth, and privilege…seek to address the root source of environmental destruction if that source is essentially the unbridled use of property, wealth, and privilege?”
White’s is a shocking, provocative, and controversial piece. And he probably takes his argument too far. American philanthropy has contributed to much positive social change over the centuries.
But what if White’s article helped to start an honest conversation about the need for more money to make real change, unbridled by politics and self-preservation? What if it helped encourage things like:
- Foundations unleashing billions more dollars to social change efforts by broadly employing mission-related investing.
- More philanthropists making larger, longer and more organization-building grants that actually make their grantees more effective and self-sufficient, instead of encouraging year-by-year dependence.
- Foundations getting out of the way of the organizations working on the ground to solve social problems by fully funding requests for the amount, type and use of money.
- More foundations becoming spend down foundations, where they have a plan for spending down their assets and eventually closing when they have achieved their social change goals.
- Nonprofits getting braver, bolder and more honest with their foundation funders about exactly what they need from them.
That’s my hope.
Photo Credit: Robert Minor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1908)
Scott Goodson’s new book, Uprising: How to Build a Brand – And Change the World – by Sparking Cultural Movements, has an ambitious goal that eventually falls flat. Goodson provides an excellent analysis of the new movements sweeping the globe and how social change organizations can learn from them. However, when he tries to connect that reality to corporate brand building, the book becomes more about exploiting social movements for profit, rather than for social good.
The first half of Goodson’s book is eye-opening. He describes what he calls “our current movement mania.” The Egyptian uprising, Occupy Wall Street, Etsy, the Tea Party, the Pepsi Refresh Project are all examples of movements. He argues that we are seeing an explosion of movements because of a confluence of trends:
The Internet, and particular the rise of social media, has made it easy to find and connect with like-minded souls. And that same technology makes it possible for a group, once formed, to organize, plan and take action.
Goodson examines countless examples of movements sparked by individuals, nonprofits and companies.
The bulk of Goodson’s case studies are what I would call “social entrepreneurs.” Some of these are for-profit (like TOMS Shoes), many are nonprofit (like KaBoom!, FIRST, and DoSomething), and many are not really legal entities at all (like the Occupy movements). All of these examples are fascinating when understood through Goodson’s “movement” lens. He helps us understand how these movements form, how they build momentum and find direction and how they’ve resulted in some serious change. In particular his discussion of “the swarm effect” is fascinating. He explains how these social movements behave like a swarm of insects:
A swarm moves in one direction as a group, and although it has no leader, it is capable of changing directions quickly to avoid a threat or pursue an opportunity…the group is able to share information instantly, based on tiny individual interactions…that allow members to guide each other as to what to do next…This combination of being adept at picking up on cues all around and being able to share that information quickly enables the swarm to be highly productive and move with great purpose and momentum.
But I wish the book could have ended there.
In the second half of the book, Goodson equates these social entrepreneurial movements to corporate re-branding efforts. The movements launched by companies which he profiles feel contrived. He points to Frito Lay, Pepsi and Jim Bean whiskey as great examples of companies that built their brand by sparking a movement. Frito Lay launched the “True North” movement for their health-conscious snack food line targeting baby boomers. I don’t quite understand how this dressed up ad campaign is a social movement.
What if instead Frito Lay recognized the growing epidemic of obesity and revamped their business model to create and market ONLY healthy snacks? It would be far more interesting to encourage companies that are interested in tapping into social movement “mania” to start by authentically re-evaluating their business model and then working to bake social good into it. Instead Goodson seems to be suggesting that corporate brands try to hijack a growing interest in social good for their own profit. To connect exciting, game-changing social entrepreneurial movements to things like Microsoft dropping copies of Office Accounting software via parachute just doesn’t compute (interestingly Microsoft has since discontinued the Office Accounting product).
But what I take from this book is that we are living in a new reality. Social media, a growing restlessness with the world as we know it, a struggling economy, and a passion for social change that defines Generation Y, have combined to make movements a powerful new trend. It is no longer the purview of the nonprofit or government sectors to create social change. Anyone sitting in front of their computer can tap into a latent dissatisfaction, get people talking, and spark a game-changing movement. Nonprofits, government and business alike should take note.
Along with the burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement comes a bit of hubris that social entrepreneurs know better how to create social change than do the nonprofits that have been working toward social change for years. Some social entrepreneurs argue that nonprofits are too set in their ways to embrace a new way of creating solutions. I tend to disagree. We can’t, nor should we, discount and dismiss an entire sector of people and organizations that have been working on social problems for centuries. However, I do think that there are some things that nonprofits can learn from social entrepreneurs. One of those is how to lose the charity mindset.
Nonprofits are sometimes referred to as “charities,” and it is a real misnomer. But beyond semantics, the word, and more importantly the mindset, does a real disservice to organizations working toward change A charity mindset is when an organization, its board, its funders or others promoting its work have a narrow view that the organization is benevolent, but not critical, to the world at large. The charity mindset assumes that a nonprofit starts from the position of need, inadequacy, and burden, rather than a position of opportunity, strength, and effectiveness. The charity mindset differs from a social entrepreneur mindset in a number of ways:
- Symptoms vs. Solutions: A charity, by its very definition, exists to provide aid to the needy, not to solve the underlying cause of the need. This is not to say that every nonprofit can work toward solving an underlying problem; there will always be organizations that exist simply to provide basic needs (food, shelter, safety, etc.). But I wonder if too many nonprofit organizations view their work as residing in the “charity” camp, instead of working, as social entrepreneurs do, to understand the cause of the need and how how they may be able to attack and solve it.
- Fundraising: A fundraiser in the charity mindset apologizes for the burden of asking someone for money, but a social entrepreneur offers investment opportunities to prospects. Wendy Kopp from Teach for America went around evangelizing the Teach for America story and sought investors who wanted to get in on the ground level of an incredible opportunity to change the American public education system.
- Investment in Infrastructure: Charities spend every last penny on the program and leave little money for building the organization. Social entrepreneurs understand that it takes organizations, infrastructure, systems, and talent to effectively execute on a solution to a social problem.
- Respect: Charities may be beloved by their supporters, but they may not garner a lot of respect from them. Social entrepreneurs behave as equal partners with funders in creating solutions, and, as such, they command and receive real respect from investors, volunteers, partners and others.
- True Costs: Charities like to claim that as much money as possible goes to direct services, but social entrepreneurs recognize the true costs of their endeavors and are open and honest with funders about those costs. In fact they demand that funders understand and support those true costs.
I think the old adage is true, people will treat you the way you ask to be treated. If a nonprofit acts like a charity, people will treat it like one. Nonprofits need to stand up and demand to be treated as critical, equal partners in creating solutions.