Category Archives: philanthropy


When you see a word over and over again, its meaning starts to dilute.  It becomes common and everyday, not exceptional or unique.  Such is it with the word innovation, which appears in rosters of grant opportunities with increasing frequency.  One day’s listing from the Funds for NGOs listserve included a call for applications from USAID’s “Innovation Ventures,” ITU Telecom World’s ” Innovation Competition,” and Rockefeller Foundation’s “Innovation Challenge.”  This past week, the grant form of a major local funder asked me to report “the number of innovative activities offered.”  That word again.  Are the remaining activities therefore stagnant?

Four innovation-related grants out of sevenI understand the desire that foundations have to inspire us to think about the problems of the world differently.  In the fight against poverty, too many people remain at the edge of survival, and too many interventions have failed to make enough of a difference.  I know that new technologies have fundamentally changed the well-being of many.  I have sat amazed at some of the inventions I have seen produced by experts at large institutions like PATH and the Gates Foundation.

So I get the attraction to the concept of innovation, but I wonder if the pendulum swing to innovate comes at a disadvantage to projects where innovation is not the solution to their most pressing problems.  The poverty alleviation project I work with doesn’t need  a new invention but rather old fashioned education and training, tried and true capacity building, and plain old respect for their basic rights to live lives of dignity.

But maybe I am missing something here, so I reach for the dictionary.  Innovate, as it turns out, has two definitions.  The first is “to introduce something new,” which is what I imagine most foundations have in mind. Rockefeller Foundation talks about “new ideas and new ways of building solutions,” and USAID calls for “compelling new development solutions.”

The second definition, “to make changes in something established,” is more interesting to think within our projects that defined in terms of social change.  Social change by definition changes something established, namely society.  This definition inspires us to think about an innovative outcome rather than an newly invented means to an end that may or may not change the world.

I hope foundations continue to support the inventions that ease life for some of world’s most disadvantaged.  I also hope that they keep in mind the effect of a slow drip of water on solid rock… the gradual impact that programs like work training, access to higher education, and community installed latrines have on what once seemed like impermeable challenges.   Our innovation might involve subtle changes in leadership, program design, or concepts of community, and yet these subtle shifts may spawn new ways in which societies address their own most pressing concerns.

The innovation may not be the solution.  The solution may be rethinking innovation.

Too many? I don’t think so.

Does the United States have too many non-profit organizations?  On April 3, 2012, the Urban Institute will take up this question in a public event being webcast for those of us outside of the Beltway.  According to the Urban Institute’s “Charity Challenge,” the total number of 501(c)3s jumped 19-percent over the time period of 1999 to 2009.  (The National Center for Charitable Statistics suggest even higher numbers.)  Whichever way you count them, the number of nonprofit organizations is on the rise.

This growth is a part of a disturbing trend, according to Therena Bailey of SISGI group, because it causes the resources dedicated to social change to be diluted by all of the organizations needing support.  She and others suggest remedies to this “problem” in order to maximize impact on a world needing change.

All of this outcry about whether there are too many nonprofits distracts us from a far more interesting question: Why are these new groups forming?  Perhaps we might yield more creative remedies to this challenge if we contemplated some of the  reasons why people who care about an issue might not look to some other organization to solve it but instead put some legal structure to their idea and call it a nonprofit.

Setting aside those individuals who create new organizations for non-altruistic reasons, I see three fundamental reasons why people start new nonprofits:

Values.  I believe that we don’t talk about values nearly enough in the public sector.  Values are the signposts that guide organizations forward, the unit of unity around which a group of individuals gather.  Our values guide our organizational culture, and that culture sets the tone for how we do our work.  We want to work for solutions that reflect our values.

Relationships.  Particularly in projects that cross borders— social change projects taking place in one country and resource raising in another—relationships matter.  The trust the builds between people does not necessarily transfer to another organization with similar interests.  The people who believe in me don’t necessarily transfer to believing in someone I tell them to trust.

Engagement.  We learn by doing, and within international partnerships, we learn by doing together across culture and language.  One of the most exciting trends in recent times is the growing level of engagement that people want to take in the projects that they support.  Increasingly, it is less about writing a check and more about joining a community.

I hope that someone on the panel on Tuesday acknowledges that the growing number of nonprofits might also indicate a higher level of activism among Americans that makes stronger our democracy and engagement with the rest of the world.  What kind of remedies could our nonprofit leaders devise if they recognized that people want to contribute within communities that share their values, build on relationships that inspire them, and roll up their sleeves alongside others?

I have some ideas on how foundations and others concerned about this issue can keep people focused on what they are good at:

1.   Increase funding for organizations with broad enough “umbrella missions” that they can serve as fiscal agents for smaller grassroots projects.  Many of these groups would gladly offload the legal and financial burden in order to focus on impact.  Several new nonprofits that I have worked with would have welcomed the chance to form their own identity without their own IRS filing.

2.  Fund open work spaces that eliminate the infrastructure costs that it takes to run a grassroots organization, thereby removing redundancies in the system.  In larger urban areas in particular, small organizations would welcome the chance to co-locate, share a copier, and exchange theories of social change over a shared office coffee pot.

3.  Create the “Common File”— including a common application, budget form, and financial and impact reporting tools used by most foundations under a certain size.  Too much time is spent recrafting the same materials to satisfy different funders, often by staff members who are paid as a part of overhead.  This may be the first step towards an excellent idea offered by Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners: consolidated funding.

As I see it, we want grassroots communities here and around the world addressing their most pressing needs.  In the case of international partnerships, we want strong partnerships that cross borders, fostering deeper understanding about how the world works.  We want to keep alive the diversity of solutions that come out of communities with different sets of operational values because only a diversity of solutions will solve our world’s complex problems.  The increasing number of nonprofits is a manifestation of exactly what we want to happen.

Of course growth comes with challenges.  These challenges will be solved when we look at the system as a whole— nonprofits, foundations, and our communities at large— and find new ways to connect social change organizations with the resources they need.

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.