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social change

10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2016

social changeI’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.

Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.

But if you want a longer list of what caught my eye this month, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:

    “Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”


  2. And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.

  3. Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.

  4. While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”

  5. And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”

  6. So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.

  7. A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

  8. Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.

  9. Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.

  10. Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.

Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons

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What Will Be Philanthropy’s Next Chapter?

antique-typewriter-keysI am often asked by nonprofit leaders, “Where are the funders who understand what nonprofits really need?” Well, they were at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference (#2016GEO) last week in Minneapolis.

After attending the conference and curating a great group of bloggers who recapped each day (you can read Phil Buchanan’s Day 1 post here, Trista Harris’ Day 2 post here, and Mae Hong’s Day 3 post here), I have lots of my own thoughts percolating and wanted to share my takeaways from a great conference.

GEO is made up of 500+ member foundations that strive to be better philanthropists. They are a thoughtful bunch who seek to invest better in the nonprofits leading social change. As Linda Baker from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation said in her session on Real Costs for Real Outcomes, “We want to have authentic, trusting relationships with our grantees. We want them to have the impact they want to have in the world because that’s the only way we will have impact. It’s critical to our success.”

And that, in essence, is what GEO and its member foundations are all about. They view themselves and their money in service to those nonprofits creating social change. It is a different model than the traditional philanthropic model of nonprofits in supplication to those who hold the purse strings.

And because GEO is on the cutting edge of where philanthropy is and should be going, the conference this week encouraged philanthropists to push their work in some exciting new directions.

Here is what I saw emerging at the conference:

 

GEO panelPhilanthropy Must Embrace the National Call for Equity
From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to student protests on college campuses, there is a growing demand across the country for equity — a level playing field — for all. And philanthropy has to get better at responding to this in the moment. As Alicia Garza founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement said in her session, “Philanthropy is missing the opportunity to support the very change they are set up to resource.”

And the plenary panelists Peggy Flanagan, Michael McAfee, Doug Stamm and Starsky Wilson would perhaps agree and take it even further, encouraging philanthropist to re-examine the institutional racism inherent in the system. As Michael McAfee said, “I am deeply frustrated at our leadership. At the moment where consciousness about equity is elevated, we shift our priorities, our initiative, we do something to avoid the real work for this moment. We could do something if we could be more courageous.” In this moment where our country is grappling with issues of equity, philanthropy must step up and invest in the hard work of change.

 

grantmaking

Philanthropy Must Invest in Stronger Organizations

GEO members have always been on the forefront of understanding that it takes strong organizations to create real outcomes, but this conference took that to another level. From a session on unrestricted operating support, to one on supporting fundraising capacity, to one on funding nonprofits’ real costs, GEO was pushing its members, and philanthropy as a whole, to recognize that real change will only come when we support organizations, not just programs.

As one attendee put it, “The project funding paradigm ignores the health of the nonprofit organization in which the project lives.” Yes, absolutely. GEO members are recognizing–and perhaps leading the rest of philanthropy to begin recognizing–that you cannot have effective programs, strong outcomes, and ultimately social change without strong, effective organizations behind them.

And that means that philanthropy can and should lead the way in funding the full costs, including program AND operating costs, along with working capital, fixed assets, reserves, and debt. And at the same time, philanthropy must be a partner with nonprofits in figuring out how to overcome their capacity constraints, like lack of fundraising expertise, lack of management knowledge, and lack of adequate systems and infrastructure.

 

Vu Lee

Philanthropy Must Humble Itself 

There is no doubt that GEO members are a humble bunch; they view their role as supportive to the real work of social change, which is different than traditional philanthropy that viewed itself as all knowing. But, perhaps there is still work to be done.

Vu Lee, blogger from Nonprofit With Balls and Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, spoke eloquently of philanthropy’s “trickle down” approach to working with communities of color and encouraged philanthropists to take a better approach: “We have to start changing philanthropy’s perception of what communities of color are. Instead of infantalizing communities of color, recognize that communities have the solution, they are the solution, they are the light.”

And Deepak Bhargava from Center for Community Change spoke of the typical grantor/grantee relationship being similar to a feudal relationship, where the philanthropist is the Lord and the nonprofit is the serf. Instead, he encouraged the social sector to move to a place of “public friendship” between grantor/grantee where both sides are:

  • United by a vision of big change
  • Accountable to each other
  • Thinking of themselves as custodians of organizations leading to a better place
  • Engaging in creative, generative conflict

He spoke of this ideal as something that we must “persuade a new generation of philanthropists is possible.”

And perhaps this new philanthropy is possible. GEO certainly seems to think so. So let’s hope that this new vision for philanthropy is embraced by the growing GEO membership and that that membership in turn leads philanthropy as a whole to a more effective way of investing in social change.

As Alicia Garza put it, “Effective grantmaking is moving resources to change agents AS change is happening and getting out of the way.” Amen!

Photo Credits: publicdomainpictures.net, #2016GEO

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GEO Guest Post: What Philanthropy Wants To Be

mae hongNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. The third blogger is Mae Hong, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Her guest post is below. And for a full rundown on the conference check out #2016GEO.

I can’t get the Buffalo Springfield lyrics out of my head:

“There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down.”
“Hey, What’s that sound?”

These were the sounds coming out of GEO’s 2016 National Conference in Minneapolis this week:

Philanthropy Embracing a New Lexicon
Values. Trust. Transparency. Reflection. Love. These are the words that were heard over and over in the plenaries, breakout sessions and hallways. I can remember a time when these words were considered squishy for our field. I would have been embarrassed to go to a workshop on these topics. But if this year’s conference brochure were a word cloud, these would leap out in 200+ point font. Noticeably scarce (though not entirely absent) were words like Measurement. Tools. Strategy. Systems. Performance. Our willingness to incorporate the former words is an acknowledgement that the latter are meaningless without them. Closing plenary speaker Heidi Brooks summed it up this way: “What you love is a big clue to how you can be most effective.”

Courageous Nonprofit Leaders Telling Us What They Really Think of Funders
GEO holds the voices and experiences of nonprofit practitioners in the highest regard, and nearly every session strived to incorporate a nonprofit perspective. Most nonprofit leaders, when invited to address a gathering of hundreds of funders, are predictably and understandably meek. I suspect it is a physiologically-based survival instinct not to provoke anyone with the power to harm. But speakers like Vu Le, Alicia Garza, Deepak Bhargava and Michael McAfee spoke in no uncertain terms about what we as a sector need to do differently: “Stop using communities of color.” “Rewrite the social contract between funders and grantees.” “Grantmakers need to get out of the way.” “Philanthropy doesn’t have room for my energy.” Their words demonstrated a conviction that they have a bigger stake in their work than whether any potential funders will be offended. Good for them. I wish every nonprofit leader were so confident, and that we as funders would help build that confidence in them.

Funders Sighing a Collective, “Finally . . . We’re Talking About Equity.”
GEO’s work for the last three years would inevitably lead here. Research, publications and conferences around stakeholder engagement, movements, and networks all pointed to one indisputable truth: philanthropy cannot be effective unless it confronts equity. No single topic at the conference had as much air time and real estate as this. Funders who had the prescience years ago to see that this would be the looming issue for our sector expressed relief and appreciation to have the space to unpack and understand equity, no matter how messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable these conversations would inevitably get. The morning before the conference began, GEO held a meeting to kick-off a newly formed Advisory Group to help it think through its role on this topic. Chaired by Rev. Starsky Wilson (GEO board member and the moderator for Tuesday’s stunning plenary on the topic), this group will guide GEO in how to best support the field to embrace equity as an essential precursor to effectiveness.

So do these sounds mean that “There’s something happening here?” Can we sustain our conference-induced resolve to translate these ideas into lasting behavior change as a field? Or will this become, as my fellow GEO board member Peter Long, President of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, likes to say, “philanthropy’s latest belly button?”

To keep my optimism high, I am reminded of a scene from the 1996 movie, Jerry Maguire. Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy Boyd, after a successful date with Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) is gushing to her sister the following morning: “I love him for the man he wants to be. I love him for the man he almost is.”

Well, Philanthropy – here’s to finding love in who we want to be . . . who we almost are.

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When Individual Donor Fundraising Goes Well

Fundraising Bright SpotsThis week the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund released the second in their series of reports about fundraising.  Their Fundraising Bright Spots report, by Kim Klein from Klein & Roth Consulting and Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, joins their Beyond Fundraising report, released last month.

These two reports are part of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s larger “Resetting Development” effort “to ‘learn out loud’ about how to…help put the sector on a surer path to sustainability and long-term success.” Given my concerns about their Beyond Fundraising report, the Haas, Jr. Fund very graciously asked me to review this latest report.

This new report analyzes 16 social change organizations that have been successful at individual fundraising to determine what the sector can learn from them.

I am always a huge fan of case studies. I think there is much to be gained by looking at others who have done things well, so I applaud the Haas, Jr. Fund for moving from theory into practice to see what is working in individual fundraising.

But first, we have to understand this report for what it is. This report only looks at nonprofits that have been successful with individual donor fundraising, which is just one of several ways that nonprofits bring money in the door. And the report only looks at “progressive organizations with limited budgets and small staffs.” So I would argue that this report and the case studies contained within it will only be applicable to similar types of nonprofits that have individual fundraising as part of their financial model.

Nevertheless, the report finds four themes present in these 16 social change organizations, which are that fundraising:

  1. Is core to the organization’s identity
  2. Is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers
  3. Succeeds because of authentic relationships with donors
  4. Is characterized by persistence, discipline, and intentionality

Many, if not all, of these themes make up the “culture of philanthropy” that the Beyond Fundraising report described.

There were several things I liked about the Bright Spots report.

First, I love the report’s focus on making fundraising part of the job of an entire organization’s board and staff. Two case studies in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, demonstrate how major donor fundraising should be shared among senior staff and board members. For example Jewish Voice for Peace “has 57 portfolio managers from across the staff, board, and volunteers who together manage 600 major donor relationships in addition to other roles they play within the organization.”

Indeed the report points out that in these 16 organizations the head fundraiser’s role is to marshal staff, board and other organization resources toward fundraising, which I love: “Time and again, we heard from the development directors at these organizations that their job is to coordinate, to teach, to coach, and to inspire. The individuals in this role are highly relational and they take deep satisfaction in enabling staff, board, volunteers, and members to be successful fundraisers.”

Second, I really appreciate the Breast Cancer Action case study, which emphasizes creating a give/get fundraising requirement for the entire board:

At Karuna [Jaggar]’s first in-person board meeting as the new executive director, she laid out her desire to establish a board give-and-get policy to her board members, each of whom had been told explicitly upon recruitment that they did not have to participate in fundraising…After an in-depth discussion, they set a give-and-get policy of $10,000 per board member. “Maybe we lost some potential board members who felt they couldn’t do it,” said [board chair] Tracy [Weitz], “but only in the first year. Now, our veteran board members can share their fundraising stories with prospective members and say, ‘I’ve been fine, and you’re going to be fine.’” It’s important to note that BCAction does not prioritize personal wealth now more than it did before this policy change, but rather invests the time to support board members’ success, regardless of personal financial capacity, in the fundraising program.”

Yes! That’s exactly the way to get every board member involved in fundraising, of which I am a huge proponent.

Third, the Bright Spots report points out the need to fully integrate marketing and fundraising in a nonprofit: “A critical aspect of building and refining an individual donor program is tending to the intersection of communications and fundraising…development and communications are inextricably linked and staff driving these efforts work extremely collaboratively.” Agreed, fundraising can not sit on the sidelines of anything an organization does, but must be fully integrated throughout the organization.

Now, let’s get to where I think the report falls short.

First, I would have liked to understand better how these 16 organizations were selected as “bright spots.” I think in holding up organizations as exemplars it is critical to understand in what ways they are exemplars. While the beginning of the report describes what these organizations have in common: “a deep commitment to and strong track record with raising money from individuals,” and “individual support is a consistent part of their overall revenue strategy,” and the report highlights some of their individual donor fundraising successes, it is unclear why these 16 organizations in particular are held out as bright spots.

In my mind, I would select case study organizations that achieved: individual giving growth year over year, and/or higher than average donor retention rates, and/or more profitable than average fundraising activities, and/or demonstrated long-term financial viability. While some of the 16 organizations had significant individual donor growth, not all of them did, so I’m not sure what selection metrics were used. I would like to understand how the Bright Spot organizations’ fundraising metrics compare to their most fundraising-successful peers.

It is particularly important to understand what makes these organizations bright spots when the report points out that some of the 16 social change organizations are struggling with scaling or making sustainable their individual fundraising efforts:

“We heard from the Bright Spot leaders who want to grow their organizations that they are grappling with how to scale this organizational highly relational approach to fundraising. And many of them acknowledge how dependent their success is on long-time leaders, despite their distributed approach to fundraising…Many of the Bright Spots will soon have to adapt to very long-time leaders moving on.”

Second, the report does not make a clear distinction between small donor fundraising (one-to-many cultivation and solicitation of donors) versus major donor fundraising (one-to-one cultivation and solicitation). I wonder if the four themes that the report uncovers differ, and if so how, between fundraising activities targeting many small donors versus fundraising activities targeting a few large donors.

Third, the report touches briefly on the 16 organizations’ fundraising systems and use of data and metrics, but not in a robust way. I would have loved to understand better the kinds of systems these bright spot organizations use and what metrics they are tracking and trends they are seeing. While I understand the report’s overall emphasis on some of the “soft” skills of fundraising (“authentic relationships with donors,” “culture of philanthropy”) I also think that understanding the “hard” skills (systems, metrics) is key to replicating fundraising success (and overall financial sustainability).

Fourth, just as the Beyond Fundraising report did, the Bright Spots report continues to leave the problems (and in this case, the successes) with fundraising largely in the hands of individual nonprofits and their leaders. I am still hungry for case studies and research about how nonprofits (and their funders) can overcome the more systemic financial flaws inherent in our social change sector.

In the end, I would say that the Bright Spots report gives us a glimpse into a piece of what works to bring money in the door. For social movement, individual donor fundraising at small nonprofits, the Bright Spots report provides some important and useful insights. But for more broadly understanding what contributes to overall financial sustainability in the nonprofit sector, this report falls short.

But as I have said before, I don’t fault the Haas, Jr. Fund for exploring these issues. Indeed, they are one of very few funders contributing to the knowledge base about what creates a more financially sustainable nonprofit sector. We just need more of them.

Photo Credit: Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2016

spring readingMarch was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.

Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.

  1. SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

  2. Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.

  3. Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”

  4. On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.

  5. But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.

  6. So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

  7. And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.

  8. Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”

  9. Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.

  10. And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?

Photo Credit: David McSpadden

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Don’t Cheat Us Of Your Contribution

DancesI’ve been thinking about creativity a lot lately. I don’t mean getting messy with paints and crayons, although that’s cool too.

Rather, I’ve been thinking about the idea (which was new to me until the last few years) that each one of us was put on earth to create something unique and important. Creativity is not just the assignment of famous writers, talented artists, even genius entrepreneurs and inventors.

Creativity is inherent in each one of us as human beings. And it is our obligation to tap into that creativity to do what we were put here to do. As (my hero) Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, wrote:

“If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet. You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God. Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Have you ever watched someone do something and felt that they were so incredibly suited to what they were doing that you were witnessing the work of an angel?

I know this sounds crazy, but I saw this with my son’s basketball coach recently. With two active boys I’ve seen lots of coaches in my time (some better than others). But I had never witnessed such complete grace and flow. Normally he’s just an average guy, but when this coach enters the basketball court you instantly can tell that he was put on this earth to inspire children to give the sport their all. His beautiful mix of tough love, endless support, helpful critiques, and raw passion for the sport turned a rag-tag team of kids who had never played before into a sight to behold.

And it makes you think, what if for some reason this coach had never become a coach? What if he, or some other force, got in his way? What would this world be like if he wasn’t allowed to be a coach? What would his life be like if he had to stifle his obvious gift?

But we do, all of us, sometimes (or perhaps a lot of times) get in our own way. We hinder ourselves from figuring out what our unique contribution is. When that happens we need inspiration to spur us to find our creative voice.

As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, explains, that when you are stuck:

“Find something to do — anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether — just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Once, when I was struggling with a book, I signed up for a drawing class, just to open up some other kind of creative channel within my mind. I can’t draw very well, but that didn’t matter…I was fiddling with my own dials, trying to reach inspiration in any way possible…Einstein called this tactic ‘combinatory play’ — the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.”

When I’m lost and can’t get back into my creative flow, I turn to another form of creativity to inspire me, sometimes art, sometimes writing, sometimes dance or music.

Something that has inspired my creativity lately is Walter Martin’s video for his song Down by the Singing Sea. His ethereal song paired with images of Russian ballroom dancers utterly in their own flow is completely captivating. It’s goofy and awkward and beautiful and thrilling all at the same time. For me, this is witnessing grace. So I listen and watch (and, yes, dance!) and their creativity spurs my creativity.

Maybe Walter will work for you as he does for me. Or maybe he won’t.

But you must find your creativity. Because when you are creating what you were put here to create, you are “nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.”

So don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Photo Credit: Barry Goyette  

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Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader

leadershipNote: Earlier this month I was asked by the Philanthropreneurship Forum to write a piece about nonprofit leadership, which follows. The piece originally appeared on the Forum here.

The new millennium has been a difficult one. A struggling global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap are just a few of the social problems we face. And as our social challenges mount, and the government increasingly offloads services, the burden shifts to the nonprofit sector.

Now more than ever nonprofit leaders must step up to the plate. In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to find and deliver on solutions. It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real, lasting social change.

In my mind, here is what the new nonprofit leader should look like:

Unlocks the Charity Shackles
“Charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. “Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world. While charity was an afterthought, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do. And nonprofit leaders must confidently and assertively articulate the critical importance of their work and why it requires real investment, because social change is about changing larger systems. So it takes real, significant investment of resources, not the pennies that charity requires.

Moves From Misplaced Gratitude to Impregnable Confidence
In the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work. If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment (with a delinquent board member or a meddlesome funder), she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships. Nonprofit leaders must rise from bended knee with confidence in themselves, their staff, and their social change work to articulate what they really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And they get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in the way.

Lives, Breathes and Leads Strategy
Real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy. To get there a nonprofit leader must ask board and staff to answer some key strategic questions like:

  • What change do we want to create?
  • Where do we fit in the external environment?
  • How do we measure if that change is happening?
  • What are the right activities to get to there?
  • What is the most sustainable financial model to get there?
  • What people and networks do we need with us?

These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. But that is true leadership.

And part of that strategy may involve a (formerly feared) move into advocacy. 501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change. But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and many already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.

Uses Money as a Tool
Without money, a compelling, inspiring, world-changing vision for social change is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, and without a smart plan for how a nonprofit will secure and use money there is no mission. So instead of dreaming up magic bullet fundraising schemes, a nonprofit leader must develop an overall financial model for her work that fully integrates with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And because money is so central to mission, you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions.

Embraces the Network
If instead of building an institution, a nonprofit leader built networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change. A true leader leaves her ego, and the ego of her organization aside in order to assemble all necessary resources (individuals, institutions, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of thinking just about her organization, her staff, her mission, her board, her donors, the nonprofit leader must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside her walls, the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can. A nonprofit leader understands that the network approach — particularly for nonprofits that are so resource-constrained — can create a much larger effect than a single entity can.

I believe that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is an ability to inspire others to greatness beyond what they thought possible. A true leader asks us to rise above our current circumstances – and in the nonprofit sector where more and more is being asked of organizations with less and less, those circumstances are often dire — to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. It is with that kind of real leadership that lasting social change can happen.

Photo Credit: Chuck Abbe

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Understanding Movements for Social Change: An Interview with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

SeanT-B_headshotIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project, which brings a social movement perspective to research on nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining the BMP staff, Sean spent a decade working in a variety of roles at the Center for Community Change, where he developed training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinated online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of issues. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at the National Council of La Raza, where he developed research and lobbied on issues related to employment and income security.

Nell: What is the role of leadership in movement and network building? How do you balance the need for organic and distributed power with the need for someone (or multiple someones) to provide vision and marshal resources?

Sean: I think it’s important to start by teasing apart the concepts of movements and networks, or any other organizational structure/formation that might be the “cool new thing” in the nonprofit sector at any point in time.

I’m pretty traditional (admittedly even rigid) when it comes to what makes a movement. For me, movements are bigger than any organization, coalition, network or campaign could ever hope to direct or contain. That’s not to say that organizations – and networks of organizations – don’t have a role in supporting movements, but nowadays it seems like everyone’s talking about movements, but too often in a way that’s disconnected from the kind of fundamental social change that feminist, anti-war, civil rights movement leaders did a generation ago.

If an organization is trying to build a campaign or network to support its mission, generate a ton of subscribers and followers, and raise their profile as a “legitimate” advocate on an issue, that’s great. But that’s a campaign. Not a movement.

I spent a chunk of my career working on campaigns, and maybe it’s because I was trained by organizers, but we were clear about the difference between our measurable campaign deliverables (whether a policy was won or lost, how many people turned out for an action or march, etc.) and the more intangible aspiration that our organizing would spark some movement energy on the ground.

Part of the reason that my organization holds up leadership as a key focus area for our research is that we recognize that organizations, networks, movements need strong leaders and also need strong collective leadership. So when we think about the balancing act, it’s not that distributed power and vision / resources are at opposite ends of a scale. In fact, from a movement perspective, distributed leadership actually enhances the movement’s vision and brings more resources to bear on the fights the movement takes on. This is not to say that there aren’t struggles over leadership and between individual leaders/personalities… all of our organizations are made up of human beings interacting with each other, so conflict is going to be inevitable. The challenge is how to make those tensions and conflicts generative.

Nell: As you look at two current social movements — Black Lives Matter, and student protests on college campuses — what are your thoughts on their methods? How successful do you think they have been and will be in the future?

Sean: I think we’re in a very exciting movement moment. When we look back on the 1960s, that decade occupies a special place in our collective imagination because we have enough distance to see how specific moments and events and sparks connect to each other. I’d suggest that the rise of Black Lives Matter is connected to the increasing visibility of student protests on college campuses. And not just in the obvious examples where Black Lives Matter was a rallying cry. Young people play an important role in movements, and they always have.

I worked for several years supporting campaigns to reform our country’s broken and inhumane immigration policy. And young people – whether they were in high school or on college campuses or working to support their families – have been critical to the movement for immigration reform. When I had the privilege to be in the room with young folks to strategize about actions and protest and tactics, there was a ton of creativity and fun that I – as someone in my thirties – had forgotten or lost touch with. I think that the turn we saw towards civil disobedience as a strategic choice was informed by the impatience of young people with an insider political game that wasn’t working for communities.

Progressive activists have gotten back in touch with direct action and civil disobedience in the last few years, and I think that’s an important tool / method to have at our disposal. The reason we build movements is because the polite, official ways of making change haven’t worked. And the way to break through is to assert that Black Lives Matter, or to come out as undocumented and unafraid. The willingness of activists to put their bodies on the line to shut down traffic and disrupt the status quo isn’t just about getting media attention; it’s about demonstrating a commitment to change that inspires others to take their own steps in the ongoing struggle for justice.

To come back to the movement vs. network distinction for a moment … Patrisse Cullors – one of the three women who created #BlackLivesMatter – recently posted a super insightful piece titled “We Didn’t Start a Movement, We Started a Network.” And in that she writes about her concern when the media started referring to the “Black Lives Matter movement” because, as she put it “movements don’t belong to any one person, and we knew that this movement wasn’t started by us.” That commitment to recognizing and lifting up the many amazing organizations doing critical on-the-ground organizing is what makes this movement moment feel really different and important, and hopefully lasting. I think there is something to the fact that many of the most visible leaders today are women who are unapologetically black and feminist. I think the movement for Black lives is a game changer, and I’m really excited to see the movement continue to have more success in the future.

Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource-constrained and competition for dollars is so stiff, there is often a perceived risk to building networks. But how can (and why should) nonprofits overcome this and become more networked?

Sean: That’s an interesting observation, because it seems to me that the resource incentive is for organizations to join networks. Philanthropy doesn’t seem to want to invest in small, local organizations that are doing their own thing. The tendency seems to be for funders to give big grants to national networks and count on them to disperse the money to groups on the ground. Now, I’ve worked for national intermediaries my whole career, so I have seen the way that strategy works to support national campaigns that are disciplined and strategic. But I know that there’s lots of concern – especially on the part of people of color led grassroots organizations – that the “trickle down” strategy isn’t working.

Part of the piece about competition for resources is about leadership, and specifically who is leading the networks versus who is leading the small grassroots organizations that comprise networks. Last year, I worked with some colleagues on a report titled #BlackWorkersMatter, and one of the things that came out from the interviews I did with leaders around the country who are using community organizing as a strategy for addressing the jobs crisis in Black communities is that there are a lot of biases playing out in our sector that leave Black-led – and people of color led organizations in general – at a disadvantage for funding, visibility, all of the currencies that give an organization power and stability right now.

Already, we know from the Daring to Lead survey of nonprofit EDs, that the top-level leadership of the sector is overwhelmingly white. And I think we have to grapple with what it means if the leadership of our networks doesn’t match the demographics of the constituents who come to our organizations for support. BMP just launched a survey on Nonprofits, Leadership & Race, and I’m really curious about what the data will reveal in terms of people’s experiences and perceptions about how implicit biases might be playing out inside of organizations and the nonprofit sector.

Nell: What is or should be philanthropy’s role in building social movements and networks? And is philanthropy currently helping or hurting these efforts?

Sean: I think funders can and definitely do play a role in supporting both social movements and networks, but since investing in networks seems like a clear priority already, I’m going to focus on what funders should do to invest in social movements.

I think the first – and most important – thing a foundation should do if they’re interested in supporting social movements is invest in grassroots organizations that are doing authentic base building, popular education and leadership development. And give them general support dollars for multiple years to do that work. Foundations also should recognize that the slow work of organizing may not yield the kind of metrics and deliverables that have become so central to how we evaluate campaigns.

Beyond that commitment to organizing, foundations can use their unique vantage point to identify organizational leaders and strengthen connections between them. Obviously, money directly to the organizations is important, but sometimes the funding is needed to convene people to discuss, debate and disagree about the movement’s vision and strategy. Having philanthropy support relationship-building between leaders and organizations is really important for any movement ecosystem.

Photo Credit: Building Movement Project

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