In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Hilda Polanco. Hilda is the founder and CEO of FMA – Fiscal Strength for Nonprofits, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits and foundations develop the fiscal capacity they need to fulfill their missions, including stronger operations and fiscal management, improved foundation grant-making capacity, and increased staff financial knowledge.
In addition to leading FMA, Hilda serves on the NYC Human Services Coalition’s special commission to study the closure of high-profile human services organizations. She was a founding member of the selection committee of the New York Nonprofit Excellence Awards and has served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Department of Health Policy and Management, as well as on the faculty of the Donor’s Forum of Chicago.
Nell: Your career has been about strengthening the financial capacity of the nonprofit sector. Why do you think nonprofits struggle so much with financial sustainability?
Hilda: All businesses struggle with sustainability, as it turns out, but in the case of nonprofits, there are several additional challenges: I think of these challenges as follows:
- Missions that compete with the business model for attention, creating an unclear vision of what it costs to deliver services and what the revenue and expense drivers are to delivering these services.
- A lack of focus on the balance sheet, and instead a focus only on annual operating results
- An insufficient focus on longterm financial planning
- A lack of common understanding of the meaning of sustainability, among nonprofits and the funders that support them
Mission-driven leaders who are so important to the nonprofit sector are not often motivated by the “business” of delivering services. They care about the issues, the causes, the communities. As a result, they may not understand what a nonprofit’s business model is, or they may have absorbed a popular mistaken notion about nonprofits — that they should not strive to preserve surpluses. In order to be sustainable, an organization needs to understand its revenue and expense drivers and strive to strengthen its financial position over time.
An additional challenge is pricing. This is commonly subsumed under a discussion of “overhead,” but that term conceals some of the details of the problem. Organizations will face challenges to their sustainability if they are pursuing work or lines of business without fully understanding the cost when compared with what funds they are raising. Where there is a gap between what they raise and what it costs to perform the work, a “structural deficit” takes hold. A structural deficit is not one you can cure with a targeted fundraising appeal –as you could, say, to replace your roof or buy a new school bus. A structural deficit is one that persistently drains resources from the organization until the underlying problem is corrected. It’s a roof that, by design, will collapse every single year.
Having a focus on the balance sheet means having a focus on establishing healthy reserves. We drill our clients constantly on their Liquid Unrestricted Net Assets (or LUNA, for short). LUNA describes an organization’s available reserves for addressing strategic opportunities or unexpected expenses. They appear on the balance sheet. Too many organizations reckon their financial standing by simply comparing income and expenses for a given year. They need to look at a balance sheet. A strong balance sheet allows a leader to address the organization’s future needs. A weak balance sheet creates uncertainty. And this raises the issue of capital. There are several ‘kinds’ of capital—funding that is raised or preserved for different uses, for growth or innovation, for example.
It’s not just nonprofit leaders who need to understand this. Foundation program officers, major donors, and all buyers of nonprofit services need to share in this viewpoint, to arrive at a common understanding of what nonprofit sustainability looks like. The market for nonprofit services is sort of unusual in that we expect the funders, as much as the nonprofit leaders—to be self-reflective about their role in the transaction.
Funders should not expect their grantees to deliver quality services without understanding the full cost of the enterprise. And sometimes, they need to engage in a substantive discussion about business models so they can come to a shared understanding. Funders can have a different conversation with grantees, even if they are only funding a project. The conversation should not be just about what they are “buying”, but also about the organization’s overall capacity. Rather than focusing exclusively on this moment, the question should be “How can we be sure that you will have the capacity to achieve your target outcomes over time?”
What should they be doing to remedy the situation? This isn’t easy to solve. In many ways, it goes against how we think about our roles in a buying and selling relationship. Think about how strange this is: If you value the service your local coffee shop provides, it would be like prodding its owner to charge you more for your coffee so they could stay in business and serve the community who counts on that coffee each and every day!
Of course, the future is unknown. Sustainable nonprofits need to be planning for at least a two year horizon. Decisions made this year will have an impact on future years and preparing for those future years is much more effective with a longer horizon to strategize, rather than pretending that life happens in one year increments in isolation from the following year. For example, new hires, raises, multi-year grants that may come to an end in the coming year. These are all examples of business assumptions that should be taken in the context of their impact on future operations. More broadly, an organization must revisit its financial model over time, understanding what may have changed in the funding ecosystem or what competing organizations are doing.
Nell: There are two parts to financial sustainability: bringing money in the door and then using that money effectively. There have been some strides toward changing cultural norms around how nonprofits use money (with the Real Costs project and the Overhead Myth campaign), but what about on the bringing money in the door side? How do we get smarter about that?
Hilda: Efforts to raise funds for “services” have created a tendency to raise money for particular programmatic activities, rather than for the mission and outcomes of the organization as a whole. When an organization can articulate its target outcomes, and know what financial resources will be required to achieve these, the conversation can shift to an investment in the organization’s vision, rather than the purchase of specific activities. These are requests for investments of capital.
We see a growing trend in capital campaigns lead by a “funder prospectus” – a vision for the organization’s outcomes, with a request for investment in these outcomes; a way to focus the conversation differently. And with a funder prospectus, multiple funders can come to the table to support a common strategy – rather than create parallel strategies to suit the goals of the funder, rather than the goals of the organization. These campaigns can be for the sustainability of current operating levels, or the funding for growth.
Another issue to keep in mind is the concentration vs. diversification strategic conversation. There are a lot of consultants advising nonprofits to diversify their revenue sources, and not put “all their eggs in one basket.” This can be good advice under some circumstances, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Diversification sometimes means building a much more complex—and potentially fragile—business model. For many organizations, concentrating on one revenue source can help focus, strengthen, and build the business model. For example, the skills and capacity to successfully raise funds from foundations and corporations is different from special events, major donors, or government grants. Without sufficient activity in each, the business model may not be able to support the required levels of diverse skill sets. It is somewhat of a balance – a diverse revenue strategy means a diverse skill set and capacity to succeed; often not found in a common staff position or limited organizational infrastructure.
And lastly, there is the need to balance between raising funds for current operations, vs. raising funds for new and “innovative” programming. Here’s where the “shiny object syndrome” can undermine an organization’s sustainability. The Development Director is excited about new programs, but the organization isn’t raising the necessary funds to cover core programming. Years ago, an Executive Director I know lamented to me: “If I hear ‘innovation’ one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. What happened to tried and true?” This notion of balance need not be confined to the leadership of an organization. Indeed, in healthy and sustainable organizations, this sense of balance is shared across the organization. The development team and program leaders should, effectively, understand the organization’s financial model just as much as the finance team. It is particularly important for development leaders to be able to articulate a coherent and compelling financial story of the organization as a whole, not just respond to the new ideas a funder may be focused on.
Nell: What role does research to understand what works and what doesn’t play? There seems to be a dearth of research in the sector about effective financing models. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, how do we change that?
Hilda: I agree that there’s not much research, and there should be more.
And the first step toward research is sharing knowledge and lessons learned as these are happening rather than waiting for longer term research and evaluation. We need to build more of a shared understanding of the universe of possibilities. For example, what are Program Related Investments (PRI’s)? We hear about PRIs from time to time, but what are some early lessons learned? Who is making them effectively? More esoteric investments like Social Impact Bonds have made a splash, but there’s little understanding of the risks organizations take on by accepting this type of investment and the lessons learned in getting them off the ground.
Funders who are funding in a more holistic way can help the sector by educating other funders about it. Can a foundation make an investment in an organization’s operating reserves rather than operations? What does that look like?
Funders who are willing to experiment and share their experiences can play an important role here.
Photo Credit: FMA
Note: In April I will be moderating a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference about what funders can do to support nonprofit sustainability. To promote that panel and the conference, the Center for Effective Philanthropy asked me to write a post for their blog, which is reprinted below. You can see the original post at the CEP blog here.
Among the many myths that pervade the nonprofit sector, the Overhead Myth is perhaps the most destructive. It is the erroneous idea that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low, which leads to anemic organizations that are not as effective as they could be.
In fact, the disparity between the nonprofit and for-profit sector in investment in strong organizations is striking. As just one example, research from the Foundation Center found that in 2011, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million. Or, viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.
But the reality is that nonprofit organizations are no different than for-profit organizations in terms of overhead. Last summer a Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).
Some nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders are recognizing that we must move beyond the Overhead Myth and start building stronger nonprofit organizations. This is partly due to the Overhead Myth campaign, launched in 2014 by GuideStar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance with their famous “Letter to the Donors of America” and follow up “Letter to the Nonprofits of America,” which argue that nonprofit leaders and funders must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate — and instead focus on a nonprofit’s results. So the idea is that instead of evaluating the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization based on how it spends money, funders would move to evaluate the effectiveness of a nonprofit based on the results it achieves.
This campaign has gained some traction. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits, which means more money for things beyond direct program costs.
But unfortunately, we are far from overcoming the Overhead Myth. An article just this month in Philanthropy Daily extoled the virtues of the Salvation Army because “the most effective nonprofits are those with lean management. The Salvation Army is a constructive example of an effective charity with very low overhead.” And a recent article in Forbes profiled five nonprofit leaders advising other nonprofit leaders about how to keep overhead costs low.
There is still much work to be done in recognizing the need for and investing in strong, effective nonprofit organizations.
Which is where progressive funders, like those who will be attending the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston in April, come in. If a critical mass of funders could start supporting nonprofits to create strong and effective organizations, we could perhaps overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all.
But what does that look like? In my mind, funders can lead the effort to eradicate the Overhead Myth by:
- Working with their nonprofit grantees to uncover the full costs of their work. Instead of hiding or severely limiting non-program costs, nonprofit leaders must fully analyze, report on, and fund ALL of the expenses necessary to achieve results.
- Uncovering the capacity constraints that impact their grantees. Funders must actively work with their grantees to determine what is standing in the way of building stronger, more effective organizations — and then fund the solutions to those hurdles.
- Moving from program-specific funding to unrestricted, general operating support of the organization.
- Investing in the revenue-generating functions of their grantees. It takes money to create mission, so we need more investments in sustainable financial models, which includes (among other things) smart plan development, recruitment of effective revenue-generating staff, and training of board members on their role in the financial model.
The good news is that there are already funders who are doing these things. For example, there is the collaboration of California grantmakers who lead the Real Cost Project aimed at helping grantmakers understand “what it would take to fund the real costs of the organizations they support — that is all of the necessary investments for a nonprofit organization to deliver on mission and to be sustainable over the long term.”
So to help move this conversation and work further, I will be moderating a breakout session at the 2017 CEP Conference titled “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability,” where Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, Vu Le, nonprofit blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, and Pia Infante, co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, will be discussing how foundations can start advocating for and investing in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations.
If nonprofits and those who fund them could overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all, it could be a watershed moment for social change. It would be the point at which we move from a nonprofit sector that is just trying to get by to a nonprofit sector that is armed with the people, infrastructure, and systems necessary to deliver on lasting social change.
I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an exciting conversation.
Photo Credit: Mike Baird
In January it seemed as though we moved into social change hyper drive.
With the inauguration of a new president, a litany of controversial executive orders, numerous efforts to block or minimize them, and advice for or frustration with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors’ responses, the world of social change moved at warp speed.
Add to that lots of predictions and advice for the nonprofit sector, and some small, but inspiring efforts to feed and comfort those in need and January was a very busy month.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in January, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington, and if you want to see past months’ lists go here.
- Some still struggled to understand the 2016 election. Continuing his 4-year series on the smaller cities of America for The Atlantic, James Fallows argued that while Americans distrust national policy and institutions they still have faith in local government: “City by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” And Eytan Oren offered some insight into how social media and major technology companies took civic engagement to a new level in the 2016 election.
- A few days before Trump was inaugurated, President Obama gave a farewell speech that focused on the need for greater civic engagement, and he and Michelle Obama launched a new foundation to help deliver on those ideas. And Pew Research crunched the numbers on how America changed over his 8-year term.
- Quite quickly after his inauguration, President Trump signed several executive orders, and a “resistance” movement that is rather unprecedented in U.S. history mobilized in response. The first protest was the Women’s March the day after the inauguration. But it wasn’t just women’s issues that mobilized social action, lawyers and scientists also got into the game. Experienced social activists had a lot of advice for the new activists on how to translate protest into social change, although one thing the resistance movement has going for it is their savvy use of social networks.
- In particular, Trump’s executive order banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority countries created some soul-searching in the philanthropic sector. Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan expressed frustration about a seeming silence among philanthropic leaders on Trump’s immigration ban, asking “What’s the point of being in charge of society’s risk capital if you don’t take risks at a moment like this?” But 50 philanthropic leaders signed a strong statement against the ban.
- Amid all of the uproar surrounding the immigration ban, there was light in small places. A group of people from New Jersey launched a supper club that creates community among and raises money for Syrian refugees.
- Because January started a new year, there were the usual posts predicting what the new year will bring for philanthropy and nonprofits.
- But this year was different because several writers argued that the nonprofit sector needs to move more strongly into advocacy. And there was lots of other advice about how nonprofits should approach the Trump era, from building resilience, to messaging more effectively in a “post-truth” world, to making America “good” again, to answering 12 “Ifs”.
- A rather more sweeping bit of advice for the social change sector came from Pablo Eisenberg who argued that the organization Independent Sector should no longer be an association of both nonprofits and foundations, but just nonprofits. The HistPhil blog asked him to elaborate on the history of that important institution.
- BoardSource, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals partnered to release a new method for evaluating a nonprofit’s fundraising effectiveness. The method looks at three metrics in a nonprofit organization: the fundraising net revenue, the cost of fundraising, and the dependency quotient (the percent of the budget funded by the nonprofit’s top 5 donors). Because let’s remember, as Rick Moyers pointed out, Development Directors Are Not Miracle Workers.
- Finally, a tangent into something small and really cool. The idea of little free libraries that have been cropping up on people’s front lawns has gone in a new direction. Mini food pantries have started helping neighbors in need.
Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen
Perhaps like many of you, I participated in the Women’s March on Saturday. In my hometown of Austin, Texas I stood with my husband and two teenage sons amid a sea of 50,000 other people, and I suddenly wondered whether we are witnessing the birth of a new era of civic engagement.
Saturday was to me an amazing and previously unseen (in my lifetime) display of citizen participation. Whatever your political views, when 2 million+ people take to the streets in a single day, you have to admit that something is going on.
As one of my East-coast based colleagues said in an email on Saturday morning:
“I’m on a bus to DC this morning with my wife and daughter. The excitement is palpable on the I-95 corridor as thousands of buses are lined up to enter the Capital. The buses are filled with patriots, patriots with a lovers quarrel with their country. It should be an exhilarating day for the promise of America.”
And as I looked around at the thousands and thousands of smiling faces around me on Saturday, I too felt my patriotism swell. It was perhaps the beginning of a more inclusive and engaging democracy — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social change).
It is too soon to tell where this will take us. It could be that the nonprofit sector will be called to lead this movement. Indeed, many of the speakers across the country on Saturday urged people to join and support nonprofit organizations. And many new organizations are cropping up amid this new energy, while, as I’ve mentioned before, many nonprofit organizations have seen donations soar since the election.
As Josh Marshall wrote last week, these times demand something much more from us — something more than any of us have ever been asked to give. And we must rise to the challenge:
“We know the curse: may you live in interesting times. We are living in interesting times. Most of us would not have chosen it. But we have it. I think many of us look back at critical momentous moments in our history, the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and other comparable passages in the country’s history and think, what would I have done? Where would I have been? Well, now’s your moment to find out. We are living in interesting times. We should embrace it rather than feel afraid or powerless. We have a fabric of 240 years of republican government behind us. We have the tools we need. This isn’t naiveté. It’s not any willful looking away from anything that is before us. It’s being ready. It is embracing the challenge of the moment rather than cowering. It’s having some excitement and gratitude for living in a moment when a new and potent challenge to preserving who we are has fallen to us.”
So while I spent much of November and December full of dread about what the future may bring, I now have a burgeoning sense of hope. Perhaps our democracy isn’t crumbling. Maybe instead we are being asked, each one of us, to remake it stronger, more inclusive and more energetic than ever before.
These are certainly interesting times.
Photo Credit: National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon
One of my predicted “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017” is that we will see “More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires.” In other words, I think (hope) in this new year that nonprofit leaders and their funders will work to figure out how to make nonprofits more financial sustainable.
Financial sustainability means that both the way money comes in the door (revenue) and the way money goes out the door (expenses) happen in a smart, strategic way. When they do, you have a robust financial model.
In my mind, one of the first steps toward that sustainability is for nonprofit leaders to look inward. While there are many reasons for the financial instability that plagues the nonprofit sector — from the Overhead Myth, to restricted funding, to lack of financial training — nonprofit leaders sometimes perpetuate the dysfunction themselves with an unhealthy attitude toward money.
Nonprofit leaders must embrace money as a tool — rather than a scourge — that can help them better achieve their mission.
So in this new year, in order to get closer to financial sustainability in your own nonprofit, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions about money:
- Do I embrace money as a tool to achieve our mission?
As the ultimate cheerleader of your nonprofit’s board and staff, you must ask whether you yourself fully embrace money. Money has long been viewed as a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector. We don’t want too much of it (for fear of scaring off donors); we don’t want to ask people for it (for fear of rejection); we don’t want to make our board go out and get it (for fear they will bolt). But it is your role as leader of your nonprofit to eschew those outdated notions and instead recognize that a smart, well-executed money strategy can be instrumental to achieving your mission.
- Do we know our actual costs?
Not just the full costs to run each of your programs (which is important), but the overall costs of executing on your strategic plan. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leaders I meet who a) don’t have a strategic plan in place or b) if they do, they haven’t tied it to money. You simply will not accomplish anything if you don’t analyze and plan for what it will truly cost to accomplish your goals as an organization. So start by using this Bridgespan tool to figure out the full costs of your programs and then add to that the other organizational and infrastructure costs necessary to achieve your overall strategic goals.
- Do we have a financial model?
So that’s how money flows out of the organization, but to fully flesh out your financial model you need to plan for how money will flow into the organization. The funny thing about money is that if you are smarter and more strategic about it, you will attract more of it. So instead of hoping and praying that enough money will show up at your doorstep, create an overall financial strategy that includes your tactics for how you will attract each applicable revenue line (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) that flows into your financial model.
- Does our board understand and contribute to our financial model?
Once you’ve figured out your financial model, you must get your board fully involved in it. A nonprofit will never be financially sustainable if money is left solely to the staff to figure out. That means the board needs to understand revenue and expenses, over the long-term, and how they apply to the overall strategy of the organization. And it is not enough for them just to understand it, they must contribute (in many and various ways) to the successful implementation of that financial model.
- Do we ask funders to support the effective execution of our financial model?
You can’t just have a great financial strategy on paper, you also need to invest in the structure and systems necessary to execute on that strategy. That means you have to hire talented money-raising staff, acquire functional technology, develop capable donor systems, create compelling marketing and communications. Those elements make up your money-raising function, and in order to make it effective you have to invest in those elements. So figure out what that will cost and convince some funders to pay for it.
It’s time to get over your money issues. You will not achieve financial sustainability unless you fully embrace money as a critical conduit to the social change you seek.
Photo Credit: Daniel Borman
Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.
You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.
As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:
“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”
Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.
What does that look like?
Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.
Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.
Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.
Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.
As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.
Photo Credit: Andy Spearing
Let’s be honest, December was about just trying to make it through the end of 2016.
But where there is darkness there is also light. And many of the discussions and posts in December actually uncovered a lot of bright spots in an otherwise very trying year. From the success of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to a surge in donations to nonprofit journalism, to potential progress on climate change, to the future of philanthropy, there was much promise. Perhaps I was just looking for it, but I saw lots of hope in December.
Below is my pick 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 a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- In perhaps the best blog post title ever, “8 Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t a Total Garbage Fire” Marie Solis reminds us that there was actually some exciting progress in 2016.
- For example, the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline found success when the US Army Corps of Engineers decided not to approve an easement to allow construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe. And Tate Williams, writing on Inside Philanthropy, finds lessons for philanthropy in this social movement: “Supporting movements like Standing Rock likely means challenging grantmaking norms, loosening up requirements, taking chances, and moving much faster than foundations may be accustomed to.”
- December also saw a glut of donations to nonprofit journalism outlets, like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, to name a few. And indeed, in the wake of the Trump election, funders like the Omidyar Network are increasing support for civic technology, solutions aimed at getting people more civically engaged.
- It looks like despite the new administration’s anti-environmental leanings, clean energy will continue to grow. Backing this trend, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates, announced a $1 billion fund to finance zero-carbon clean-energy technologies. And David Roberts writing in Vox argues that cities, rather than the federal government, may actually need to lead the clean energy effort: “Now that the US federal government is getting out of the climate protection business, at least for four years, [cities] are more important than ever…Cities generate most of the world’s economic activity, innovation, and cultural ferment. They also generate a growing share of its carbon emissions…Urban areas are also first in line to feel the effects of climate change…If they hope to avoid worse to come, cities will need to almost entirely rid themselves of carbon over the next few decades.”
- Writers at The New York Times offer two ways to move on from 2016, start small and lift up those around you.
- The Hewlett Foundation celebrated their 50 year birthday with a symposium on the history of philanthropy. In addition to the interesting #Hewlett50 Twitter feed, the foundation commissioned this very interesting paper from Benjamin Soskis and Stanley Katz (of HistPhil blog fame) on the past 50 years of philanthropy.
- Aaron Dorfman, President of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, offers a call to action for philanthropists in the Trump era.
- A new report from The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reveals that Generation X and Millennial donors are giving less than their Boomer and Silent Generation counterparts did at their age, but women’s influence on philanthropic decisions is growing.
- And a small, but very positive thing that came out of the presidential election is that it has brought philanthropic thought leader and curmudgeon Albert Ruesga out of his writing retirement. His latest post on the need for philanthropy to recognize class divides is particularly enlightening. As he puts it: “To introduce and champion class consciousness is to acknowledge that the ‘structures’ we seek to change—if we’re enlightened grantmakers—are often structures put in place to serve the purposes of an economically defined class…So while we might wish to remain class-neutral, the structures that keep people in poverty unfortunately will not. How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions that, in spite of our best intentions, perpetuate class privilege? How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? I don’t deny these challenges, but I’m convinced that ignoring the effects of class is acting in bad faith. It’s treading water while strong currents continue to carry us and our neighbors further downstream.”
- Finally, if you are looking for an actual book to read in the new year, Michiko Kakutani reviews reporter David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog which chronicles the rise in popularity of pen, paper, books, records and all things non-digital. Sign me up!
Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz
If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.
But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.
Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).
But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.
I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us. But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.
And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:
“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”
That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.
Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.
As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”
So check your attitude at the door.
The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.
Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann