A couple of fascinating debates – one about the role of philanthropy in democracy, and one about the value of nonprofit evaluation – were fascinating reads. And I always love a good controversy, so July gladly provided at least two. The much heralded “sharing economy” came under fire and the hype around social impact bonds was called out.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from last month. If you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- There was a really interesting debate on the Markets for Good blog (always a place for thoughtful conversation) between Andrew Means and Patrick Germain about the value of program evaluation and performance measurement in the nonprofit world. Andrew Means kicked it off here and here and Patrick responded here.
- I absolutely love it when someone makes you think about something that you took for granted in a whole new way. Conventional wisdom is that the sharing economy is a democratizing development. But Max Holleran, writing on the OpenDemocracy blog, argues that perhaps it is the complete opposite. As he says, “Our concept of what sharing means has gone from The Gift to the paid-for lift…How we assess public goods has also changed dramatically: urban commons have been ceded to private-public management initiatives.”
- The Hewlett foundation announced a new $50 million initiative to “strengthen representative democracy in the U.S.” And that announcement inspired a thought-provoking back and forth about the role of philanthropy in democracy among Daniel Stid and Larry Kramer (both from Hewlett) and Maribel Morey (assistant professor of history at Clemson University), via a Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post and the subsequent comments to the post. No matter your politics or your views on philanthropy, it is refreshing to see such an open discussion about a foundation’s efforts.
- On a somewhat related note, Amy Schiller argues that we cannot allow philanthropy to be a “workaround” to the “friction of democracy, ” which is necessary for truly solving social problems.
- To get more funders to invest in nonprofit organization building we need more data and case studies on the return on investment. Building the case for funder investment in nonprofit technology capacities, Berta Colón, Cynthia Gibson, Michele Lord, and Geraldine Mannion examine recent data on building nonprofits’ digital reach, and the Knight Foundation provides a case study on how National Public Radio (NPR) built their digital skills.
- I love New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman for his fabulous recipes and views on food, but recently he’s become somewhat of a food activist, and his article on the the true (social) costs of a burger is eye-opening.
- Is there hope for the famously dysfunctional nonprofit board? A new report from Urban Institute suggests we need to raise our expectations of nonprofit boards. Let’s hope!
- I know I’ve been including Steven Pressfield in my round ups lately, but this man really knows how to inspire people to fight the demons that face them in order to create whatever they were put on this earth to create. His recent blog series entitled “Why” does just that. I think social changemakers, more than anyone, need this kind of inspiration.
- Curt Klotz from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund argues that nonprofits must price their services according to value because “there is no virtue in self-imposed austerity that leads to mediocrity in our programs, and constant turmoil in our finances.” Amen to that!
- Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Laura Callanan pulls back the curtain on some of the hype around social impact bonds and social innovation in general. Instead of falling victim to shiny object syndrom she asks that “we all bring our critical minds – as well as our open hearts – to the job of social change. Let’s celebrate the potential in the new approaches but also integrate them with prior experience and test them with our constituents…Let’s remember that a tool is just a tool.”
What thought-provoking or controversy-inspiring read caught your eye last month?
Photo Credit: Josue Goge
There were lots of great discussions and developments in the world of social innovation in September. So much so, that I had a really hard time narrowing down to ten. But alas, here are my top 10 of the last month. As always, please add what I missed to the comments. If you’d like to see the expanded list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.
- Two really interesting divergent reports on the results of social change work. First, a $1 million, 6-year study of nonprofit After School Matters shows that the program doesn’t really change lives.
- And a year after Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant to Newark public schools, some positive results are trickling in.
- After the August resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple due to health reasons, people came out in droves to criticize him for his poor philanthropic record. Dan Pallotta rose to his defense, arguing, in a thought-provoking way, that Jobs’ contributions to the world at large make him the World’s Greatest Philanthropist.
- In an exciting move to kick-start social impact bonds (a government bond that allows private investors to invest capital in nonprofits and then gain a return if the nonprofit achieves promised outcomes), the Rockefeller Foundation granted Social Finance $500K to develop the social impact bond market in the US.
- September was the month of the 4th annual Social Capital Markets Conference that brings social entrepreneurs and the funders of social entrepreneurs together. Over the course of the four SoCap conferences there has been a recurring tension between philanthropy and impact investing. Adin Miller reported from SoCap that the great convergence between philanthropy and impact investing has disappointingly not yet happened.
- The Washington Post shows us the devastating impact of the economic crisis in five charts.
- At long last, CharityNavigator, one of the best known nonprofit rating systems, unveils their Charity Navigator 2.0, an expanded rating system that includes financial health, accountability, and transparency measures. Every nonprofit should understand this important change and what it means for their organization.
- Lucy Bernholz discusses a fascinating distinction between problems and difficulties and the implications for social change efforts. “Problems have solutions; solve them and problems go away. Difficulties don’t have solutions; they require continual address.”
- On the Harvard Business Review blog Lucy Marcus argues In Troubled Times, Boards Must Step Up.
- In a similar vein, Mario Morino from Venture Philanthropy Partners argues that Board Members Cannot Check Their Courage at the Door.
Photo Credit: MMcQuade
I’ve been out exploring the Western states of the country (which I HIGHLY recommend) for the last few weeks, so my blog posts have been sparse, and my 10 Great Reads for July a bit delinquent, so please forgive me.
Below are the 10 things that got me thinking last month. You can also read past months’ 10 Great Reads here. As always, please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below.
- In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Paul Connolly argues that foundation support of fundraising capacity has limited returns. Although I completely agree that you cannot build fundraising capacity without building the capacity of other aspects of the organization, I think he takes this a bit too far. It is critical that more donors, not less, support the organizational capacity, as opposed to just the programs, of nonprofits.
- Talk about innovative, arts groups try the airline company pricing approach to ticket sales.
- From the Harvard Business Review blog comes a great idea: A Gap Year for Grown-ups. Far beyond the author’s argument about the benefits to the individual, something like this could dramatically increase the ranks of national service programs.
- An MBA myself, I love the fact that more MBA students are turning to social enterprise.
- The Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog gives us 11 examples of innovative nonprofit websites that are designed for the social web.
- Khan Academy, an education website, is being used to teach kids in new, interesting, and controversial ways.
- From one of my favorite blogs, Full Contact Philanthropy, comes an argument about how even simple evaluation can help create more effective programs.
- Extending Mario Marino’s argument in Leap of Reason, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy argues that foundations need to provide support to nonprofits working on performance measurement.
- And echoing Leap of Reason’s core argument, Paul Light argues in a Washington Post OpEd that “nonprofit leaders have to get better at measuring the value they produce.”
- Guest blogging on the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Tony Wang argues that philanthropy needs to be more critical of itself.
Photo Credit: Infrogmation
Mario Morino’s new book, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, is probably misnamed. It is not the boring, theoretical guide to evaluation, measurement and logic models that the title implies. It is much more a call to arms for the nonprofit sector.
Morino, co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, argues that every nonprofit MUST, if it wants to survive in this new environment of “brutal austerity,” create a culture of performance. Indeed, he argues that “we will need nothing short of a quantum, sector-wide change.” Status quo simply will not work in the nonprofit sector anymore. And to help the movement along, they are offering the book in multiple formats, including free download on the VPP site.
As I read this book, I kept wanting to shout out, “Amen!” Finally someone argues so clearly why understanding if a social solution is working is not a luxury or a “nice to have” but rather an absolute necessity for our new reality. As Mario so eloquently puts it:
The magnitude of the combined hit – greatly reduced funding and increased need – will require organizations to literally reinvent themselves. Incremental responses will be insufficient…We can respond with infighting, robbing Peter to pay Paul, or continuing our incremental efforts to be better. Or we can respond with greater discipline, unity, and focus on making a quantum change in the effectiveness and impact of our entire sector.
He doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a completely new day.
Mario argues that every nonprofit organization must find a way to demonstrate the results of the work they engage in. And he and the other essayists in the book give some very clear reasons, beyond increased funding, why nonprofits must manage towards outcomes:
- To improve the lives of their clients. If you are tracking and analyzing whether you are making a difference in people’s lives, you are more likely to actually make a difference in their lives.
- To contribute to the larger and future field. Future solutions will be stronger because they will be based on learnings from past solutions.
- To stay competitive and relevant. The field of impact investing (investors who provide money to social entrepreneurs who can provide a financial and a social return) has increased the pressure for any social impact organization (nonprofit or for-profit) to demonstrate a social return.
Ultimately Mario is encouraging nonprofits to answer the very simple, but fundamental question “To What End?” So many nonprofit organizations simply exist to “do good work.” But that is just not enough anymore. It’s not enough for those that fund the work, and it’s not enough for those who receive the services. Money is increasingly hard to find, while the problems that nonprofits exist to solve are growing increasingly complex. Nonprofits must determine what they exist to change and whether they are actually creating those changes.
Mario is ever-mindful, however, that large scale evaluation projects are simply unrealistic for the vast majority of nonprofits. They don’t have the money or time to devote to such projects. After laying out his “call to arms” in the first half of the book, he and other experts provide key initial steps and case studies to encourage nonprofits to develop their own ways to manage to outcomes.
At the core, Mario is arguing for a culture shift. He believes that if nonprofit leaders can start to move their organizations towards the mindset and discipline of answering “To What End,” the sector as a whole will be transformed and ultimately more effective at creating change.
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