Give for Good

How many of us have fantasized about rewriting the rules on how money is given away?  A decade ago, I became so interested in changing how philanthropy happens that I sought out two informational interviews with local foundations to find out how I could flip sides and use my skills to give away money for a change.  It would have been a nice break from life on soft funding, looking for money around every turn.  In both interviews, these foundation leaders whose jobs I coveted wistfully advised me to stay on the non-profit side because it is where the social change action takes place.

I still yearn to try my hand at philanthropy, albeit from the perspective of someone still working on the front lines of organizations dedicated to social change.  In fact, there has never been a greater need for collaboration between recipients and providers of social change-related grants given the urgency of some of our world’s most pressing issues.  Foundations have started important discussions related to social change philanthropy; fewer NGOs have published their ideas about how philanthropy should evolve.

I have been thinking about philanthropy since this past summer when a friend asked me to comment on the subject.  It got me thinking, and I drafted some notes.  I realized that it was time to go beyond a few notes a week ago when another friend talked with me about her challenge with legacy planning, trying to craft a will that honors her lifelong commitment to a better world.  Legacy gifts are the ultimate expression of our values, and deciding which organizations best express these values push us not only to look at the work of organizations we care about today but their potential to deliver an impact well after we are around.

I was asked what philanthropists should consider in their giving for good:

1.       Invest in people.  One way to support social change that ends widespread poverty is to find people who have track records that demonstrate effectiveness and integrity, and then invest in their agenda for change.  Think of it as a small scale social change MacArthur Fellowship.  Indeed, MacArthur Fellowships reward individuals who demonstrate “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”  The Fellowship looks at an individual’s past and makes a judgment about their future potential.  I think about the individuals around the world who are my heroes, people who have done the right thing by their people time and time again.  These are the people in whom philanthropists should invest.

Investing in the people behind social change means investing in exchanges, professional development opportunities, and training that allows local leaders to do the work in partnership with others.  It means standing by them as they try new ideas, not pulling funding if one set of ideas doesn’t work.  It means supporting their local networks so that they are able to bring their community along with them.

2.       Balance long term social change with short term needs.  Much of the literature about social change philanthropy recites an overly simplistic mantra of addressing root causes, not symptoms.  As Aileen Shaw wrote in “Social Justice Philanthropy” in 2002, social change is different from traditional charity much like advocacy differs from service provision.  Social change philanthropy helps people to help themselves, not giving handouts that lead nowhere.  Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

This mantra, however, neglects the reality that social change leaders face.  While they  are addressing root causes of oppression, violence, and hunger in various ways, their community members also have to be safe, clothed, and fed.  Zealous focus on long term change can create blind spots to the short term needs of families often experiencing turbulence over time.  It is easy for us on the outside to demand disciplined focus on long term solutions; the reality is that our partners have to do both.  Effective philanthropists must balance the vision of long term benefit with the reality of short term needs.

It is also important to remember that teaching a man to fish doesn’t always happen in one trip to the lake.  Supporting an indigenous-led organization as they address a society where the odds are stacked against them is not something for those wanting to get in and out in a short window of time.  It can take a generation—sometimes several—to make social shifts stick.  Effective social change philanthropy means multi-year commitments.

3.       Provide a forum for you to realize your own learning goals.  What do you want to learn through your philanthropy?  Through the funding process, foundations and programmatic partners impose goals and objectives on social change projects all of the time.  Indigenous leaders are expected to get better at certain things during grant cycles, all of which is documented in grant proposals and reports.  An important way to even out the power divide between giver and receiver of funds is to approach grant-making from the perspective of shared learning where both sides have learning objectives to achieve.  I think of it in terms of inquiry-based social change where there are no prescribed outcomes determined by outsiders, but rather a shared process which uncovers new insights and deepens our collective understanding of the work before us.

Recently the executive director of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, Bill Somerville, presented six predictions for philanthropy that he claims will be noticeable by 2014.  It was reprinted in the Nonprofit Quarterly under the headline “Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming,” a testament to its rosy predictions about a return to people-based, trust-oriented philanthropy.  Perhaps I would stop fantasizing about changing philanthropy if this dream came true.


Small NGO Leadership Network is launched

Some of the world’s biggest NGOs were founded by a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.”

– Dr. Judy Mayotte, Desmond Tutu Foundation

On October 19, 2011, four executive directors, one country director, and five non-profit board members and volunteers, met for nearly two hours to discuss the challenges and opportunities in building a network of small NGO leaders. Discussion covered a range of topics, from the uniqueness of our work to areas where individuals felt that they would like professional development.  We concluded the conversation with unanimous agreement to meet again on a quarterly basis with a focus on both open sharing and specific professional development topics.  We also hope to schedule another set of gatherings open to larger participation with more specific professional development focus.

Framing the conversation

Special guest Dr. Judy Mayotte, long time human rights activist and board member of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, launched our conversation with an inspirational reflection on how some of the biggest NGOs got founded—a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.” She concluded with the two things needed to succeed in cross-cultural social change work: exquisite listening and partnerships.  She notes that a common thread that links small NGOs is that one story or place inspires the creation of an organization and its mission.  Our role with the partnerships that form is to help implement what they want.

Guiding principles

We shared the three principles that guide our international work that were laid out before the meeting:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the communities of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We discussed how it is important to have guiding principles—that a commitment to these is what brought people to the meeting.  Participants felt that no further discussion was needed about them.

Some terms used by people used to describe our work:

  • Mutual accountability
  • Partnership with communities
  • No agenda going in
  • Not just about the money
  • Living by the seat of my (our) pants
  • Not about what we want to impose
  • We bring awareness here as much as helping there
  • Bring different frames of reference
  • Our work tends to be founder, board, and partnership driven

We were fortunate to have GambiaHelp country director Essa Camara with us, visiting from The Gambia to support their upcoming fundraising event.  He shared examples of the deep role that culture plays in development.  Respecting the wisdom of the elders is critical in making important decisions, and outsiders remind people of colonialism.  It is critical to have a local person making decisions because only someone from within the culture can know the cultural rules that need to be honored.

Building our capacity

The Executive Directors present expressed their need to have a sounding board, others in similar positions to bounce ideas off of.  They need opportunities both for open sharing and professional development.

Specific topics of interest included:

  • Handling visitors, in some cases bearing gifts
  • Assessment: measuring social change
  • Managing social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.: which technologies really matter?
  • Dealing with failure: creating a safe space for people to share what can’t go into grant reports
  • Working towards obsolescence: supporting partners as they build their capacity and self advocate
  • Sharing great books/articles: building a public bibliography
  • Charity navigators: how important are they?

Small NGOs make a significant impact around the world.  By supporting them, we not only strengthen their ability to help their partners address poverty where they work, we also deepen our communities’ understanding of poverty and effective ways to partner with people as they address their most pressing needs.

A Square Peg in a Round Hole

As the Occupy movements become more formalized, some of them have created structure around their protest and have applied for tax-exempt status.  In Seattle, members of different committees wear different color armbands, and the fundraising committee solicits donations to pay for sleeping bags and food.  Different committees serve different functions, much like a well-established non-profit board of directors breaking down into strategic plan-guided subcommittees.

How non-profits create structure around a community wanting change is captivating to those of us who love both structure and community, but what stood out to me was the protester who stood in protest of this formalization, angry that their local Occupy group had gone mainstream.  The whole point was to fight the status quo, he suggested.  Filling out a lengthy government-issued tax document in the midst of a protest against government policies and unfair taxes seemed contradictory to him.

This tension between the fight for significant social change that allows for equality of opportunity and the reality that someone has to fund that fight is common within social change organizations.  (One of my favorite books discussing this tension is The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.)  Non-profit leaders balance the organic reality of working for transformational change while having to define their work with the rigid requirements imposed through IRS reporting forms and charity navigators.

Dan Pallotta in his new book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential makes a very compelling case for how both government requirements and philanthropic culture impede the efforts of non-profits to make real and lasting change.  He takes on the big questions that cut to the core of how non-profits function.  He believes that efficiency measures are ineffective and unfair, giving examples from his own work creating large AIDS awareness events and campaigns.  He argues that the concept of overhead is fictional, and that our focus on keeping it to 20-percent or less distracts us from the real issues that drive our work.  He concludes that only a shift in culture would allow non-profits to operate differently.  In reading his arguments, I could think of many more examples to make his points.

I read Pallotta’s important book with the protesters in mind.  There are many powerful reasons to create a structure around a community wanting to effect change.  Structure allows for better communication, professionalized staffing, holistic tracking of impact, and intentional learning across constituencies.  Those people with the colored armbands can specialize and build skills that allow them to better serve more people.

That structure in the United States, however, is one of an IRS-approved non-profit with all of the requirements that go with that.  By agreeing to take tax-exempt money, non-profits agree to report their overhead on their 990.  (How they do so remains a bit of a shell game.  Palotta cites a 2004 study that determined that nearly half of charities report zero fundraising expenses.)  Movements do give up something when they go mainstream.

As that protester noticed, fighting for a new way of doing business within the limitations of institutions created to reinforce the old way of doing business can pose challenges and contradictions.  It can feel a bit like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, or trying to force rigid requirements designed long ago or for another purpose onto a holistic community that is making a difference in unpredictable ways.


“Public bodies must tackle these inequalities in a concerted and sustained way. That is what this duty will require. They will need to think strategically about what more they can do to address socio-economic disadvantage individually and with their partner organisations when they decide their key priorities, set their targets and plan and commission their services. That goes directly to the heart of the matter….  We have made clear in the wording of the duty that we want to see real change with tangible, measurable outcomes.”

– Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, March 2010

What started three weeks ago as a group of protesters occupying Wall Street has spread to other cities and other forms of protest. People are registering their anger at growing economic inequalities, though not making any specific demands around which solutions could take shape.  (Smashing the Wall Street bull is probably not something around which most of us would rally.)

In the absence of clear demands from the protesters, the natural reaction is to jump in and suggest some.  (Nicholas Kristof did in his column; blogger Jason Karsch provides another list on his blog.)  However, while “protecting banks from themselves,” regulating Wall Street, and instituting a financial transactions tax is all enticing stuff for further thought, I wonder what would happen if protesters shifted their thinking from what they are against to what they stand for.  They are against corporate greed and growing inequality.  They are frustrated by stories of high CEO salaries and bailouts as so many Americans and others around the world suffer.  The remedies that I have heard, however, fall short.  We continue to think small and dance around the edges of any lasting shift in those elements of our society that lead to greater equality for all.

Let’s take the inverse all of the challenges facing us and our world and imagine what society might look like.  What does the opposite of unfair tax code, loopholes, unbalanced pay scales, and disempowerment look like?  In turn, what kind of legislation would affirm and expand those elements of our society that we value and aspire most to have?

One answer can be found across the Atlantic.  The Equality Trust in the U.K. has worked tirelessly for legislation that recognizes that we are all stronger when we all have equal opportunities to succeed.  The Equality Trust has conducted rigorous research and study into equality and has provided considerable evidence to show how all members of society are better off in societies where they is a higher level of equality.  A year ago this weekend, the Equality Act took affect to provide an Equality Strategy that sets out a vision for a “strong, modern and fair Britain.”

The Act is built on two principles of equality – equal treatment and equal opportunity.  In reality, only the first principle was enacted in 2010, forbidding discrimination on the basis of many of the same characteristics as disallowed in the U.S.  The socio-economic duty provision addressing income inequality was not approved.  However, through the work of the Equality Trust and others, 101 MPs in the British Parliament have now expressed support for the provision.  Equality Trust continues to push legislation that builds “a stronger, fairer and more cohesive society where equality is for everyone and is everyone’s responsibility.”

The Equality Strategy, when fully implemented, would force all decisions about legislation and government spending through a filter that asks one question: What impact would this have on equality?  It resembles a strategy screen used by civic leaders to create criteria to guide strategic decisions in advance of those decisions, allowing them to respond in real time to the dynamic nature of their work.  The beauty of a strategy screen is that it allows leaders to be forward thinking, not just responding to past legislation but setting up a values-based framework by which new legislation can be measured.

As Georgetown University professor of history said, “Rants based on discontents are the first stage of any movement.” It is natural for a movement to start in protest, and we can get for the most part universal agreement on what we don’t want in our world: poverty, lack of opportunity, and generational wealth consolidation.  However, keeping the fight as one against negative aspects of society forces us to create solutions in the margins, tweaking tax code or legislating CEO salaries.  It is a lot harder to get agreement on what we want— equality, shared responsibility so that all members of our society receive opportunity.  Only by fighting for the inverse of the bad can we achieve lasting good.

I applaud the protesters for taking a stand and registering their concern about the growing divide that plagues our nation, as well as world.  Now that they have our attention, it is up to us to enact a practical agenda that holds our elected officials accountable for rebuilding our communities with the most fundamental of American values: equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, class, or tax bracket.

Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.

Means Justifying the Ends

Development efforts are often portrayed as having one destination: ending poverty.  One need only to read the newspaper to see examples of the diversity of projects with poverty alleviation as their goal: flashlights to midwives in Africa, malaria nets distributed within global malarial zones, microloans in Central America, and education for poor girls in Brazil.  All projects are classified as development, all with aims to make the world a better place for a certain group of people.  New membership organizations work to provide one umbrella under which all of these organizations can stand together in support of more effective and efficient aid and development.  They are fostering greater discussion about the importance of keeping our commitments to the world’s poor.

Implicit in most of these conversations about development is the notion that the end justifies the means.  Feeding starving Haitians is more important than how one goes about procuring the food.  Getting indigenous Hondurans access to capital takes priority over the process of  building capacity that allows local communities to shift the balance of power within their country’s economy.  Implementing a program becomes more important than who implements it, making it good business to send in the ex-pat director rather than invest in local administrators.  For our part, we all want to make the world a better place, so the detail of how we go about doing it comes off as technical minutia in the face of good will.

But as President Obama declared exactly one year ago today, “Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term.”   Indeed, I have grown impatient with people as I share aspects of my work, to which they inevitably respond with an explanation how they are helping the poor too by giving money to projects that to my ear reaffirm exactly those notions of charity that save lives in the short term but do nothing to change societies over time.  How do we get broad-based discussion about the relevance of the methods and approaches by which we engage with poor communities around the world?

One way is to create more opportunities for these discussions to take place.  The Social Change Collaboratory is partnering with One Equal Heart Foundation to create a forum for grassroots organizations focused on the how of development.  Our goal is to provide the space in which we can come together and strengthen our network of like-minded NGOs whose work is defined by these characteristics:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the community of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We want to expand our own learning community and amplify examples of community-driven social change projects.  Over time, we want to use the partnerships that we have with amazing social change leaders around the world to create bridges that bring their voices into on-going conversations about development.  We believe that investing ourselves in understanding the means of social change will result in a world in which more communities have capacity from within to care for their most disadvantaged.

Our first meeting will take place in mid-October in Seattle.  While our focus is on building a community of leaders who are able to meet face-to-face, we welcome information about any organization committed to these characteristics.  I will use future posts to share the results of these gatherings.

Trust, A Word Which Here Means…

It is not everyday that one can quote Lemony Snicket and a Harvard Business School working paper in one piece of writing, and yet that is exactly what I am about to do in order to explore the issue of trust and ways to stay out of a soup pot.

“It is true, of course, that there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not you can trust someone, for the simple reason that circumstances change all of the time.  You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances could change and he could become very hungry, and before you knew it you could be boiling in a soup pot, because there is no way of knowing for sure.”

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (p. 73)

 At the heart of successful social change work is the relationship between us and them.  It is people from impoverished communities who need to drive the work since they will need to sustain whatever social change emerges.  They, in turn, need our support financially and otherwise to create the space for them to do this work.  How we form and sustain our collaboration will determine our effectiveness over the long term.

Trust is the ubiquitous term that many use to label that glue that holds these cross-cultural collaborations together.  Clearly both sides of the partnership must have confidence that the other is going to follow through on their commitments and give the other the benefit of the doubt in times of strain.

But as Lemony Snicket warns, there is no way of knowing for sure if someone can be trusted as circumstances change, which they do all of the time as small grassroots projects grow into mid-size organizations with expanded reach into broader communities, or as economies struggle and force difficult financial decisions.  How do you sustain trust over time?  In other words, how do we keep ourselves or do they keep themselves out of a pot of boiling soup?

Roy Y.J. Chua, Michael W. Morris, and Shira Mor give us some non-soup related food for thought in their working paper entitled, “Collaborating across Cultures: Cultural Metacognition & Affect-Based Trust in Creative Collaboration.”  They focus on the “collaborative dyad,” or two people working together across cultures to create innovations that draw on each partner’s unique skills, resources, and worldviews.  The concept well describes the collaborations of many small, community-driven social change projects where two communities in very different cultural and financial circumstances joins forces to enact some sort of social change.

“The creative potential in a collaborative dyad comes from the differences between the two people – surface demographic differences such as nationality or ethnic background correspond to deeper differences in people’s knowledge of the world, their capabilities, and connections.”  Chua, Morris, and Mor arrive at an important conclusion: that each partner’s self awareness of his or her own culture and cultural assumptions leads to the kind of trust that supports cross-cultural innovation.

Indeed, the kind of trust matters.  As they explain, “cognition-based trust” is confidence in another based on perceptions of their ability to deliver.  This is the kind of trust based on reading someone’s resume and seeing that they have the skills and past experience to do the job.  “Affect-based trust,” on the other hand, is confidence in another based on “concern for the other and comfort in opening up to them.”  These authors conclude after in-depth study that it is affect-based trust that allows for contextualized flexibility of thought, the kind of thinking that fosters innovation in dynamic, cross-cultural settings.

These findings have a direct bearing on our work as social change leaders:

  • As individuals, we must develop and sustain well-honed cross-cultural skills, making time for self-reflection that allows for change over time.  This might involve spending time in cultures outside of our region of focus or developing learning communities that keep our perceptions in check.
  • As communities, we must invest in face-to-face communication that fosters and sustains trust.  Tightening budgets result in calls for more efficient spending, and international travel is expensive and time-consuming.  Long term collaboration, however, depends on high quality relationships.  Each collaboration needs to find ways to foster these relationships within their budget realities.

Lemony Snicket has an endearing way of explaining complicated terms in his A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books.  When using a term that most kids won’t know, he follows his use of the word with an explanatory phrase like, “A word which here means….”

If Mr. Snicket were writing about trust across cultures, I imagine he could write any series of explanations.  He could write, “She trusted him, by which I mean to say that:

(a) she assumed that he would be predictable in his actions.”
(b) she knew that he had all of the qualifications needed for his job.”
(c) she understood the limits of her own understanding and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he must know what would serve the best interests of his community.”

How would you explain the sensation of trust that you have with your partners?