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Narrowing the Excellence Gap Requires a Multifaceted Approach

May 22, 2015

Natalie_jansorn_for_PhilanTopicAs globalization continues at breakneck speed, the United States needs to increase the number of talented individuals — tomorrow's innovators and leaders — in the workforce in order to remain economically vibrant and competitive.

Changing demographics means we will be able to tap the most diverse workforce in the history of the world to fill many of these critical positions. However, we continue to overlook one of our most promising talent pools: high-achieving, low-income students.

In part, that's because many public education reformers over the past few decades have been fixated on the "achievement gap" and have advocated for significant resources to be dedicated to helping as many low-income students as possible reach minimum academic standards. While that effort has met with some success and is certainly worthwhile, we believe it has come at the expense of the highest achievers among the population of low-income students, resulting in an "excellence gap" — the disparity in the percentage of lower-income students who reach an advanced level of academic achievement compared with those from higher-income households.

The reasons for this gap are many. While there are gifted students from poor backgrounds who pave their own road to success, they tend to be the exception; for every low-income student who forges his or her own way forward, there are dozens with comparable abilities who don't get the attention they need. In fact, a recent study found that more than one million school-age children who qualify for free or reduced lunch rank in the 25th percentile academically; that's about eighty thousand very smart but poor students per grade nationwide.

Fewer than half of these students take at least one Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) course (compared with 71 percent of their wealthier peers), while only 22 percent apply to college, even though their academic abilities and achievements more than meet the admissions requirements at many schools, including highly selective ones.

What's more, this gap appears in elementary school and persists as students move through middle school, high school, college, and beyond. This makes closing the gap doubly challenging. There is no "silver bullet" solution to the problem; instead, it needs to be tackled from many different angles. With that in mind, our team at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation would like to share the following key strategies and recommendations:

1. Collect and report better data. States and the federal government collect minimal data on advanced learners, and practitioners and policy makers often do not distinguish barely proficient students from advanced performers in their reports. To close the excellence gap, states and the federal government should take steps to more closely track and report on the progress of advanced learners nationwide.

2. Support high-potential students. State and local education leaders, and their university partners, need additional funding to offer high-quality academics to low-income students both during the school day as well as through summer programs and extended-day activities. Places like the University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center are doing this well through the STEM Excellence and Literacy program, which serves more than three hundred students in rural middle schools. Elsewhere, the College of William & Mary has worked hard to maintain funding for its two-week summer residential program, Camp Launch, for advanced students in the Richmond and Norfolk areas, while Equal Opportunity Schools, a national nonprofit that works to identify "missing students" from advanced courses that will prepare them to achieve their college goals, is leading the charge to expand access to AP and IB courses for low-income students.

3. Identify the best and the brightest. Educators must employ diverse strategies to identify students' talents and abilities, especially with respect to children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Purdue University's Hope Scale is one example of a tool teachers can use to identify hidden talents and abilities in students from diverse backgrounds. Similarly, states should require more training for pre-service and in-service educators to ensure that teachers are equipped to recognize and support high-potential, low-income students.

4. Provide quality college counseling. High-achieving, low-income students need access to high-quality counseling that prepares them to be competitive applicants for selective colleges. But heavy caseloads and inadequate training can prohibit school counselors from providing effective guidance to these students. Programs such as the College Advising Corps can ease the burden on schools by providing near-peer college advisers — recent college graduates — who can share information with students about financial aid, scholarships, and the benefits of applying to more selective colleges.

5. Demand more accountability. States should be held accountable for advancing the education of high-ability learners. Federal, state, and local governments should work together to establish best practices for monitoring and supporting all students, including the most promising.

We know that many foundations are striving to expand educational opportunities for all students, yet not enough resources are being invested in closing the excellence gap. Kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserve to feel hopeful that their education will, in fact, help them reach their fullest potential. Our nation simply can't afford to waste another generation of untapped talent.

Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn is director of strategic initiatives at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides the largest scholarships in the nation to high-performing students with financial need.

Scanning the Skyline: Lessons From Thirty Years of Capital Grantmaking

May 20, 2015

Headshot_chuck_feeneyBuildings have a special allure for philanthropy — their mass, their unambiguous reality, their durability, their promise of sheltering great transformative enterprise — that few other achievements can match. They also conjure a cloud of distinctive risks: the possibility of inadequate maintenance, financial drain, premature obsolescence, the danger that the activities they house may not end up being all that transformative.

For a certain kind of donor — the philanthropist as creator, whose passion is to summon new things into being — the appeal of a building, if well planned and managed, more than compensates for the risks. It can transform the physical landscape, concentrate attention and resources on important lines of work, galvanize public will, raise standards of effort and performance, perhaps make a striking architectural statement. Yet even from this vantage point, the goal is rarely the thing in itself but the activity it makes possible: superior learning and discovery, more effective human services, accelerated scientific or technological innovation, improved medical care, or intensified creative energy, will, and collaboration.

In other words, if done properly, philanthropic support for a building is not the purchase of a product. It's an investment in enterprise, a long- term underwriting of whatever goes on inside. As Chuck Feeney summed it up in 2010, capital philanthropy creates "good buildings for good minds" that in time "can make the difference in the lives of a lot of people." Partly for that reason, it is especially popular among entrepreneurial givers, for whom building a business and building a cause are related undertakings.

Admittedly, for another kind of donor — let's say, the philanthropist as reformer, whose aim is to change policies and systems, to alter ideas and practices, to improve the way societies and economies function — buildings can trigger more aversion than fascination. Their scale and finality may seem, to some, too costly and irreversible, too inflexible a bet on one thing n one place.

Among institutional funders especially, this aversion to buildings is fairly common. Unlike individual donors, institutions may not derive much satisfaction from placing their names on a structure; many also fear a latent stream of future requests to keep funding maintenance and improvements long after a building is finished. For whatever reason, as South Africa's Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs puts it, "Anyone connected with philanthropy could have told us that we would be wasting our time trying to get funding for physical infrastructure. Money could go for equipment, salaries, transport and conferences, but never, ever for buildings." An exception to that rule, Justice Sachs discovered, was The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Perhaps the most significant and fascinating revelation from the hundreds of capital projects included in Laying Foundations for Change: Capital Investments of The Atlantic Philanthropies is that Chuck Feeney and Atlantic together have managed to be both kinds of philanthropist, creator and reformer, in one. Though Mr. Feeney's personal enthusiasm has tilted toward creation, and his foundation's institutional efforts have tilted more toward reform, each of these inclinations has been inspired and invigorated by the other. Far from being averse to buildings, Atlantic — even in its most reformist endeavors — has used buildings to educate, empower and equip the leaders of change. And it has built many of its most ambitious reform efforts partly on the credibility that comes from creating significant buildings.

For Atlantic, as for Mr. Feeney personally, great efforts to improve society, promote justice and advance human achievement entail major near-term investments in both the methods and the physical surroundings that make long-term progress possible. Seen this way, "Giving While Living" is not a short-term undertaking, though it occurs in the concentrated span of a single lifetime. Instead, philanthropy conducted intensively today lays a foundation — often literal, but also figurative — for generations of future achievement, invention. and aspiration.

"Yes," writes the Honorable Michael Bloomberg in his reflection on the projects in Laying Foundations for Change, "they are investments in bricks and mortar and infrastructure, but at base they are investments in people and in their economic and creative futures. This is the power of philanthropy."

From this point of departure, it's possible to draw several related lessons:

1. Capital grants are one critical point in a philanthropic process; they're not the whole story. Support for a new building or complex is usually a kind of midpoint between smart planning and smart management — all of which are part of a longer-running project. Before the first brick is laid, a building must be the fruit not only of good architecture and engineering, but also of the strategic, business, and human-resource planning for what will go on inside the new walls. And long after the ribbon is cut, the building's success will depend on steady, skilled management of the facility, its finances, and the quality of the activities inside. For the capital philanthropist, it isn't necessary to fund all these things. In fact, other donors are often more willing to support planning and management than construction. But making a capital grant wisely usually calls for reasonable confidence that all these other questions — those that precede the building and those that follow it — have good, dependable answers.

Consider, for example, the Hanoi School of Public Health or Mercer's Institute for Successful Ageing at St. James's Hospital. In neither case could Atlantic have hoped to fund the vast web of activity necessary to elevate public health across Viet Nam or services for older people across Ireland. But it could be, and it was, confident that the leadership of the recipient institutions and the public support for their work were sufficient — that the grantees were intellectually prepared for the challenges ahead, expert enough to carry them through, and securely enough funded to sustain their operations and exert nationwide influence.

As with all grantmaking, however, a lapse in vigilance can lead to long-term disappointment. For example, early in its grantmaking in Viet Nam, Atlantic supported a new $1.3 million facility for residential vocational training for adolescents with disabilities. The cause was impeccable, the need was evident, the building was well designed and soundly built. But the business plan for operating the training program was faulty, and Atlantic arguably missed opportunities to help improve it. In time the program failed. A decade later, the government rents the building out to unrelated nongovernmental organizations.

2. Capital grants are human capital grants. The success of any building is ultimately a function of the people who will govern, manage, and use it. For Chuck Feeney, the first calculation behind a major capital grant was almost never about architecture but about talent and leadership. He viewed buildings as ways of expanding and solidifying the ambitions of brilliant people. His largest, most sustained investments — in New York, Limerick, San Francisco, Belfast and Brisbane, among many other places — were inspired first by leaders in whom Mr. Feeney recognized intellectual dynamism and entrepreneurial zest. Investments in these exceptional leaders then in turn made it possible for them to equip and embolden other talented colleagues who would occupy the buildings.

Describing the Atlantic-supported Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, former director Suzanne Cory said that the facility "enabled me to bring in new teams in biomathematics, proteomics, and structural biology — enormous strengths for our research. Those people would not have joined up, and may even have gone overseas, had I not been able to develop out those labs further here."

Especially in undercapitalized areas of work and in underresourced communities, a superior building often helps to elevate the ambitions of the people who work there and gives employees greater credibility in advocating for improvement. Dr. Bui Duc Phu, director of Viet Nam's Hue Central Hospital, concluded that his new cardiovascular center, funded by Atlantic, "was a meaningful turning point in the development of the hospital, a move that motivated people to believe in the future and that we could do anything if we had the dreams and ambition."

3. Capital projects are interventions in systems that extend well beyond the perimeter of the project. This point may sound abstruse — a bit of abstract political theory at odds with the solid practicality of financing new structures — but it is actually both concrete and central to the philanthropy of buildings. Create a facility for research, teaching, medical care, human services, or artistic display or performance, and you are inevitably altering the productive environment of a much broader field of activity in which the building and its occupants will play a role. Whether that role merely augments the current field of activity or actually changes it in some significant way (preferably for the better) is a critical part of the grantmaking calculus.

The work going on in a new building may incubate new practices, set new standards, train new leaders, or significantly widen the sphere of influence of the field or profession doing its work in the new space. It is the flow of changes that ripple out from a new physical structure that make it an appealing philanthropic project. So, for example, Atlantic's support for small clinics in dozens of poor and rural Vietnamese communities is not significant solely for bringing better medical facilities to those communities (though that is, in fact, a huge benefit to the residents and to the staff who practice there).

The far greater significance of these buildings is in the way they’ve drawn attention to the superior primary health care being delivered inside, including better training for the staff and physicians, better communication between the clinics and the provincial health authorities, and a wider array of local services to help prevent illness and treat diseases early. Most important, they have demonstrated a way of integrating services for a more complete approach to family health. Independent evaluations, funded by Atlantic, made it clear that the benefits for the overall health system more than compensate for the capital cost of upgrading facilities. These demonstrations have been closely followed in Viet Nam's national Ministry of Health and have since been replicated across the nation’s health system — including in hundreds of places where Atlantic has made no contribution to construction.

4. A project's name is one of its value-generating assets. A funder who waives the right to name a project is, in effect, granting that right (potentially worth millions of dollars) to the organization putting up the structure. Forgoing the opportunity to put one’s own name on a building, thus making that opportunity available to some future donor, may well constitute a non- cash grant of immense financial value.

In his reflection on Chuck Feeney's approach to philanthropy, journalist Matthew Bishop observes that "Mr. Feeney’s purposeful efforts to avoid placing his name on buildings made it easier for the recipient institutions to seek complementary funding with the prospect of naming rights." It is surely one of the most extraordinary features of Atlantic's history that there is not one building in the world named for Atlantic or for Chuck Feeney. Instead, there are several where Mr. Feeney was the project's prime mover, but another major donor was enticed by the opportunity to name the structure.

5. An important, well-chosen building can establish alliances and credibility that make other achievements possible. Capital projects produce tangible, three-dimensional products that (if well chosen and planned) are highly valued by other parts of society, including government, philanthropy, and the voluntary sector. They also make it possible for other funders, public and private, to envision work that they might not have imagined, or thought possible, before. Working with these other actors, and producing something of lasting value to them, can forge relationships of trust and collaboration from which even more ambitious and far-reaching activity can be launched.

Brian O'Connell, former rector and vice chancellor of South Africa's University of the Western Cape, has written that Atlantic's support for a new life-sciences building there helped trigger a massive increase in government investment in the infrastructure of higher education in the ensuing years. At the same time, it fed a new sense of confidence and possibility across his university's campus. "Here was someone external to ourselves having faith in us," he wrote, referring to Mr. Feeney. "And the psychological impact was tremendous."

As Bishop concludes, "The right building in the right place can be used to leverage large additional sums of money from other sources, including fellow philanthropists and government."

Another example: Atlantic's historic collaboration with the governments of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had its roots in dozens of academic buildings that Mr. Feeney and the foundation helped to create, from Galway to Limerick, Dublin to Belfast. But once those relationships were cast in (literal) stone, they became the basis for much wider-ranging joint investments in higher education. These did not involve capital construction, but they generated new engines of research across the universe of third-level institutions in both parts of the island.

Chuck Feeney "raised the game of the universities collectively," Mary Robinson, former president of the Republic of Ireland, writes, "by enabling capacity dedicated to research in state- of-the-art facilities. But his perspective was not a narrowly academic one. It was about making university campuses better places." And as the places improved, the ability to think more expansively about what they could strive for and achieve grew ever wider.

6. Capital grants need not be only for bricks and mortar; equipment can also make a lasting difference in the infrastructure of human achievement. Many of Atlantic's contributions toward improved facilities for research, education, and health — including virtually all of Atlantic Charitable Trust's capital grants in Cuba — have been for new and upgraded equipment to transform what happens inside key buildings. Particularly for smaller donors, or those who feel unable or unready to plunge into the complexities of real estate finance, an investment in significant equipment and technology may offer a more appealing option, often with equally far-reaching consequences.

7. Capital funding is a specialized skill. It requires funders — or their staff, agents, or advisors — to understand the financial complexities that the project may create for the recipient institution and to incorporate solutions (or at least mitigation) into the planning of the grant. If done well, capital funding is often more technically demanding than other types of grantmaking. That is not solely because it requires a sound grasp of real estate development and finance — forms of expertise readily available to most foundations from outside specialists. The subtler technical challenges arise from lesson number one above: A new facility can place operational and management burdens on a grantee that are easy to underestimate and require careful analysis and preparation before the investment is made.

It can be tempting to view an impressive new headquarters or operations center as the solution to a struggling organization’s problems. Yet in some cases it could actually just become a new and greater source of struggle. Such risks can be minimized with good planning, management, and fundraising. But a funder needs to be sure, in advance, that these things are truly adequate to the challenges ahead — a kind of assurance that takes skill and experience to achieve.

Fortunately for Atlantic, Chuck Feeney made a significant part of his fortune by creating and managing successful buildings and spaces. Managers at Trinity College Dublin got the benefit of that expertise, for example, when he persuaded them to re-position the Old Library's gift shop adjoining the Book of Kells so that it would attract visitors both arriving and leaving. His own experience, and that of his advisors and associates, has been a potent resource for all the foundation's capital giving. Most donors, however, cannot expect to master all the complexities in-house. Instead, they can and should seek out expert support with a substantial history of experience amassed behind it.

The photographs and stories in Laying Foundations for Change are a testament in stone, steel, and glass to one person's particular philanthropic vision. Another foundation or donor might not have supported this precise combination of projects and aspirations. But funders in many fields confront the need, at some time or other, for a building or set of buildings that can anchor a critical endeavor, give it physical expression, and provide the space for it to progress, grow, and adapt. The aversion many funders feel about meeting that need with grants or low-interest loans is, at least in some fields, probably overblown. The projects in Laying Foundations, taken as a whole, surely demonstrate that capital philanthropy can produce impressive results whose significance reaches far beyond the buildings themselves.

But some degree of caution is surely called for. The best capital philanthropy is a complex calculation about both masonry and movements — about locations and structures and the wherewithal to maintain them, but also about the business to be done inside, including its soundness and management and the influence it will exert outside the newly constructed walls. The lessons of the book do not suggest that these calculations are any easier than those of other forms of grantmaking, or that success is more certain. Rather, if the message can be summed up in a phrase, it is that bricks and mortar are often an essential part of great human achievement — that, to borrow Chuck Feeney's words, good minds often need good buildings. And good philanthropy can provide the means and the vision to build both.

Headshot_Tony_ProscioTony Proscio is associate director for research at Center for Strategic Philanthropy & Civil Society Duke University. This article first appeared in Laying Foundations for Change: Capital Investments of The Atlantic Philanthropies, a photographic and narrative chronicle of the ways in which "philanthropic investments in buildings can establish and revitalize dynamic, pivotal institutions, invigorate communities, strengthen economies, and save lives," and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the foundation.

[Review] 'Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund'

May 15, 2015

Book_staying_the_courseWilliam S. Moody joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1968, and for the next four decades he helped shape the fund's grantmaking programs in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe. In Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Moody recounts with unflagging enthusiasm — and, at times, in great detail — his distinguished career, the credit for which he is more than happy to share with colleagues, collaborators, grantees, and members of the Rockefeller family and RBF board.

Staying the Course explores how RBF's grantmaking programs tried, "over time, to enlarge people's understanding of, and ability to address, sustainable development challenges; to protect human rights and promote international understanding; and to strengthen important dimensions of civil society and democratic practice in transforming societies." A tall order, to be sure, and one that, in Moody's view, the fund for the most part delivered on, thanks to what he describes as its "responsive and proactive, serendipitous and systematic" approach to "helping people help themselves."

Moody traces the evolution of that approach from the fund's establishment in 1940 by the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The operation was still very much a family affair, he writes, when he came on board in the late 1960s, but the Rockefeller family philosophy of being "in it for the long haul, articulating ambitious goals knowing full well that those goals could not be reached quickly," and being "willing to make long-term commitments to effective organizations and institutions — a decade or two or more, long enough 'to make a difference', as Andrew Carnegie said" — was already deeply embedded in the fund's grantmaking practice.

As a program officer at a relatively small foundation, Moody was focused on allocating the limited resources available to him to maximum effect. In the late 1960s, for example, RBF's annual budget for international programs was a modest $10 million to $15 million — although at a time when only 5 percent of total U.S. foundation grantmaking was directed overseas, the fund was considered an important player in the international arena. More importantly, its efforts in that arena, Moody argues, demonstrate that small investments can create significant impact. In fact, the approach to grantmaking he developed back then, he writes, is quite similar to what today we call "venture philanthropy," characterized as it was "by a high level of involvement with grant recipients; a willingness to experiment and try new approaches; and a focus on capacity building for sustainability" — while avoiding any expectation of a quick pay-off.

Early on, Moody's efforts were focused on two areas: the thoughtful use of natural and cultural resources, or what is now called "sustainable development," in the developing world, and strengthening civic engagement and the nonprofit/voluntary sector globally. From 1968 through the mid-1980s, for instance, RBF supported rural development in sub-Saharan Africa and anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, where the young program officer learned the importance of collaboration — as well as the need for flexibility, patience, and good partners. When making grants in six Central and South American countries, for example, he made it a point to invest in individuals, people like conservation expert Kenton Miller, a pioneer of sustainable resource management models and a key facilitator of RBF's productive partnership with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Moody learned other lessons after RBF launched a program in the Caribbean in the mid-1970s and he found himself interacting with local groups that had "good ideas and impressive work plans" but, under IRS rules, were not legally recognized as public charities. In such cases, it was up to Moody to exercise "expenditure responsibility" — to take responsibility for ensuring that any grant funds awarded to such groups would be used for charitable purposes. Those risks generally (though not always) paid off, he writes, in part because RBF combined its "willingness to offer early start-up assistance with a focus on organizational capacity building."

As successful as those efforts were, Moody regrets not being able to work more intensively in the Caribbean at the grassroots and policy levels simultaneously, something he was able to do a decade later in Central and Eastern Europe. After General Wojciech Jaruzelski instituted martial law in Poland in December 1981, Moody and his colleagues launched a "stranded scholars" program in the beleaguered country, which subsequently led to a more comprehensive engagement with civic groups in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In fact, the fund's CEE programming is where Moody's philosophy about grantmaking seems to have been fully realized: a willingness to be flexible and responsive, to seize unforeseen opportunities and take risks, and to think long-term about an issue or region. As a result, Moody writes, "the cumulative impact of our work added to the momentum for change" that eventually led to the end of Communist rule in the region. 

Indeed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region was the scene of one of Moody's proudest achievements, a collaboration in the early 1990s with the German Marshall Fund, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and other funders to create the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe, a locally managed program of small grants, technical assistance, and training for NGOs and municipal governments in the region. And the key to the success of the effort, Moody writes, was being able to work with funding partners and grantees who not only had the necessary knowledge, experience, passion, and management skills to be effective, but also had their egos "in place."

Unfortunately, by the late 1990s, unchecked corruption, rapid development, and rampant consumerism in CEE countries resulted in rising economic inequality and a weaker commitment to environmental protection, even as major U.S. funders of the region's nonprofit sector like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Mertz Gilmore Foundation were beginning to phase out their grantmaking. RBF stayed the course, however, embracing cross-cutting approaches that combined environmental, economic development, and civic engagement efforts, while working to build nonprofits' organizational capacity. Moreover, when USAID phased out its Democracy Network Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe in 1997, Moody coordinated the creation of a Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) with the German Marshall Fund and the Ford, Mott, and Open Society foundations.

Like any program officer, Moody had to deal with budget cuts, shifts in his organization's priorities, and sometimes disappointing outcomes. But through it all he learned that "staying the course" does not mean following a rigid agenda; the most effective grantmakers are those with the flexibility and agility to respond to changes as they pursue long-term goals. And that includes designing exit strategies that help grantees stay the course themselves. When, for example, RBF shifted its focus to the western Balkans at the end of the decade, it implemented what Moody calls an example of "best practice grantmaking," allocating substantial legacy or endowment grants over a multiyear phase-out period to its grantees (including the CEE Trust) to help boost their capacity and ease their transition to a changed funding landscape.

In the Balkans, Moody applied proven models from his CEE experience, collaborating on locally administered re-granting programs and supporting cross-sectoral community revitalization projects. At the same time, he made a point of allocating more direct support to efforts aimed at improving the capacity, policies, and programs of national governments in Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. But while RBF's work with those governments produced limited results, the fund's efforts (co-funded with Mott) to advance the final status of Kosovo — including hosting a high-level meeting of Kosovar and former UN and U.S. officials and creating a supplementary fund to support the government of the newly independent country during the transition period — was, he writes, "a case where a proactive foundation was able to make direct, constructive contributions in a complex international situation, the resolution of which would advance important grantmaking goals of the fund."

Throughout the book, Moody is willing to concede that the impact of environmental and civil society initiatives could be slow to emerge and difficult to measure. Yet, he notes that the fund's "long-haul" approach seems to have paid off, in that grants he thought had failed turned out, in many cases, to have seeded positive developments. They include "bets" made on start-up institutions that were leveraged to secure additional funding; the dozens of mentees of individuals RBF invested in decades ago who are now applying proven models and lessons learned by their mentors to problems around the globe; collaborations among groups with a history of mutual distrust that continue to work together; and alternative approaches to problem solving such as wild lands management, bottom-up community revitalization, and dialogue and visioning techniques.

As much as anything, Staying the Course is a book of personal reflections rather than a handbook for program officers. That said, Moody does provide a list of "top ten" principles and practices for promoting "positive and lasting social change" derived from four decades of grantmaking. Under his fourth principle, "choose appropriate people to work with and bet on," he lists personal qualities ranging from "fire in the belly," to a willingness to encourage and share recognition with colleagues, to confidence in one's own judgment. In other words, individuals like Moody himself. If nothing else, his book presents ample proof that such individuals can and do make a difference.

-- Kyoko Uchida

How Nonprofit Branding Strengthens Impact: Part 1

May 13, 2015

Brand-PowerIt used to be that nonprofits shied away from prioritizing their brands. After fifteen years of running MSDS, however, I've noticed that nonprofits are becoming more aware of the link between a brand's strategic value and organizational impact.

One reason for this shift, I suspect, is that competition — for funding, people's attention, human capital — has gotten stiffer. And nowhere is that more apparent than online. When a nonprofit's website is underwhelming, it is not only out there for the world to see, it also sends the wrong message and undercuts the organization's mission.

That said, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what brands and branding are. In this article and the one that follows, I'd like to provide some context regarding what a brand is and how it is experienced, then offer insights into how to think more strategically about the brand experiences your organization creates.

What Is a Brand?

Branding expert Marty Neumeier famously defines brand as "Who you are, what you do, and why you matter." For nonprofits, this translates to your brand being a combination of your mission, values, strategy, relationships, impact — and their value to the world. It's a gut feeling about the promises you make and your reputation for keeping (or breaking) them.

As Neumeier says: "It's not what you say you are, it's what they say you are."

If a brand is essentially what others think about your organization, then branding is the application of creative thinking, design, and technology in the service of your organization's brand strategy.

The Value of Nonprofit Brands

When it comes to driving engagement through branding, nonprofits typically face a tougher challenge than for-profits. Instead of delivering instant gratification or a useful product/service, nonprofits tend to appeal to our better angels — offering (usually) a vision of a better tomorrow for people and/or places removed from our daily routines. As a result, audiences can feel removed from the mission and may feel no urgency to act.

Because the strength of a brand is defined by the degree of trust and loyalty it elicits, this gap between action and impact places more of burden on a nonprofit's brand to generate the kind of sustained engagement necessary to tackle complex problems. Whether the audience is individual donors, volunteers, or strategic partners, a nonprofit's brand must convey the idea that the organization delivers on its promises — even if tangible results may be years down the road.

To do that, a nonprofit brand must be about more than the organization and its mission; it needs to address, at a deeper level, what is meaningful to an organization's audiences. Because when people strongly identify with a nonprofit's brand (rather than just its mission), their reasons for supporting the organization move beyond the rational to the emotional; the brand becomes part of who they are and what they value. It becomes a kind of shorthand for things about which they care deeply and reinforces their belief that they can become part of the solution through their active engagement with the organization.

Designing Effective Brand Experiences

Your brand is the sum total of all the experiences (direct and indirect) that others have with your organization. But while it lives in their hearts and minds, your organization can positively influence how your brand is perceived by combining brand strategy with creative design to deliver more meaningful and valuable experiences.

At MSDS we talk a lot about "bridging the gap between strategy and execution." As a design firm, it's our mission to design better brand experiences for clients that support their mission. To help our clients stand up, stand out, and stand for something, we work from the principle that there are three characteristics of the brand experience that must be present at all times:

  1. Strategically informed: Every choice must tie back to the organizational/brand strategy and the specific goals for whatever it is we are creating, be it a logo, a website, or collateral.
  2. Exceptionally crafted: We all know great work when we see it. It is the quality of craftsmanship in every word used and in every designed element that separates the exceptional from the merely okay.
  3. Consistently executed: People want to know what to expect from brands they support. Consistent branding signals commitment, builds trust, and delivers a host of other benefits.

6 Key Components of Nonprofit Brands

To build a strategic, exceptional, and consistent brand first requires understanding the many facets of an organization that contribute to the overall brand experience. In our view, there are six key components of a nonprofit organization that define its brand:

Brand Is Your Organizational Strategy: For mission-driven organizations, where you are aiming to go and how you plan to get there are the primary drivers of your brand (and, ideally, are well-defined through clear brand positioning).

Brand Is Your People. Brand ideas and values must be lived by your people and be fully integrated into your organization's culture. Strong nonprofit brands naturally attract people who will represent them well.

Brand Is Your Messages. What we say and the way we say it, both in writing and in person, say a lot about who we are. Every audience is interested in hearing different things — and depending on the audience, your brand likely has different things it would like to share.

Brand Is Your Interactions. Both in person (whether at the point of service or an event) andonline, interactions with your audiences should be crafted to deliver on your promises and reinforce the value of their relationship with you.

Brand Is Your Visual Design. People interpret much of the world through what they see. These days, especially, the quality of a nonprofit's visual design elements greatly determines how much attention the organization receives, people's willingness to engage with it, and, ultimately, the strength of the bonds it forges with supporters.

Brand Is Your Communications Tools: To a significant degree, brand experiences are delivered through communications tools and vehicles. Because brand consistency builds trust, a cohesive design system with clear brand guidelines helps ensure that you meet audience expectations on a consistent basis.

Headshot_matt_schwartzSo there you have it, the basic elements of nonprofit brands and branding, and why they matter. Check back next month for part two of this mini-series, in which I'll dive deeper into the process of developing an integrated brand strategy and delivering brand experiences that help strengthen audience engagement and increase impact.

Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at MSDS, a New York City-based design and brand strategy firm specializing in nonprofits and education. His new column for PND, Cause-Driven Design®, explores the nexus between design and mission-driven work and explains how nonprofits can use design to engage and speak more meaningfully to the needs, goals, and motivations of their audiences

What Is Donor-Centered Moves Management?

May 11, 2015

Yes-no_seesawWhat is donor-centered moves management? It's a donor cultivation approach that combines LOVE with a great MANAGEMENT SYSTEM to help you plan, make, and keep track of all the "moves" or "touches" per year targeting your major gift prospects.

Each "move" is thoughtfully designed to move your prospect along a relationship continuum — from investment — depending on where he or she currently is on that continuum.

When sufficient moves have been made and your prospect is feeling really good about your nonprofit — devoted to it, in fact — the final move is a request for a gift (or gift increase). One person, designated the Moves Manager, assures that all moves are coordinated and the solicitation occurs at the appropriate time.

You want (and need) to get your donor prospects to the point of active commitment. That's the point where they are able to answer "true" to the following questions:

  1. This is my favorite charity.
  2. I am loyal to this charity.
  3. I am a committed donor.

So, how do you get prospects to this point?

Major gift cultivation is a team sport

You want to have several people connecting with your donor prospects over the months (or years) leading up to the "ask." Why? For starters, no one individual is exactly suited to be matched with every prospect. Plus, it's a great way to involve board members and other stakeholders in the major gift process. You don't want a prospect's only interaction with your organization to be a hands-off institutional one. People who personify the passion and commitment behind your organization's mission should be the ones involved with your prospects.

Think about what's actually going on when a donor prospect says "yes" to a major gift solicitation.

They're actually saying "I LOVE you." They're making an active commitment to you, to your organization, and to your cause.

Who gets them to that point? YOU DO!

Your job is to create a climate for donor prospects in which it's easy for them to fall head-over-heels in love.

And you've got to be proactive to create such a climate. One of your team members (e.g., a board member) might invite them to coffee; another (a program director) might lead a site visit; and another (development staff) might invite them for a sit-down with your executive director.

In between, there should be a number of thoughtfully planned "touches" orchestrated by the development director or major gifts officer.

Everything is done according to a personal plan

Start by developing a list of possible "high-touch," "medium-touch," and "low-touch"cultivation moves you can incorporate into your major donor/investor prospect's individualized plan.

It goes without saying that a mass mailing in December doesn't count as a donor-centered move. A move only "counts" if it's executed according to a plan that's personalized for each and every prospect.

With each move, you should ask yourself:

  • How is this bringing us closer to asking for a gift?
  • What did I learn that will help us secure a gift?
  • Did I find out what motivates my prospect to give?
  • Did I find out what they love most about our organization?
  • What should I do next?

Cookie-cutter approaches won't do. You can't do this whenever the spirit moves you. And this is not something you do TO the prospect.

Donor-centered moves are a deliberate, focused set of actions you do WITH your major donor prospects — the thin slice of folks (10 percent to 20 percent of your prospect list) who account for 80 percent to 90 percent of your fundraising revenue. Each move builds on the next, strengthening the relationship between you and the prospect and eventually leading to a lovely major gift to your nonprofit — and a very happy donor.

Want to learn more about donor-centered moves management? Join us for 50 Ways to 'Move' Your Donor: Stewardship Solutions to Get to Yes with Finesse, May 19, from 2:00-3:30 pm ET, as Claire Axelrad, CFRE, describes how to build and execute an effective step-by-step cultivation plan. During the webinar, Claire will also share a novel, tried-and-true way to choreograph and measure your moves so you know exactly when you're ready to ask.

A sought-after coach and consultant, Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings thirty years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of Clairification.

Weekend Link Roundup (May 9-10, 2015)

May 10, 2015

TulipsOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Climate Change

According to a report from the Asian Development Bank, the battle against climate change is likely to be won or lost in Asia's expanding megacities, which are poised to contribute more than half the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions over the next twenty years.

In a Q&A with the Nature Conservancy's Mark Tercek, Jerry Taylor, of the Niskanen Center, makes the conservative case for a tax on carbon tax. 

Corporate Philanthropy

On the Tech Crunch site, Kim-Mai Cutler reports on Salesforce Foundation head Suzanne DiBianca's efforts to spread the San Francisco-based cloud-based computing company's "1-1-1" philanthropic model" -- in which 1 percent of the company’s equity is set aside for philanthropic donations, 1 percent of employee time is earmarked for volunteering, and 1 percent of its products and services are donated to nonprofits -- to the tech startup scene in New York City.

Data Visualization

On the Design site, Mark Wilson, founder of, reports  that the days of the truly creative infographic are over, killed -- like so much else -- by the smartphone, which now accounts for roughly 50 percent of the traffic on the World Wide Web.

Disaster Relief

Be sure to check out the report in The New Yorker by Prasant Jha, an associate editor at the Hindustan Times and a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, on the scale of the devastation in and around Kathmandu, the sprawling capital city of Nepal, which was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on April 25.  Elsewhere, the Asian Philanthropy Forum shares some helpful advice and a list of NGOs currently on the ground in Nepal, which will be dealing with the consequences of the disaster for weeks, months, and years to come.

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True Board Engagement: How Openness and Access to Board Conversations Has Changed 'Creating the Future'

May 06, 2015

Wilding_pollock_150x350It's a widely held maxim that sunlight, read as transparency and openness for the purpose of this post, is the best disinfectant. While true, we feel this view has an unfortunate undertone of emphasizing the negative: greater transparency is needed in order to prevent and/or catch wrongdoing. It focuses attention on what we hope to avoid rather than what we hope is possible.

At Creating the Future, rather than thinking of sunlight as that thing that disinfects, we embrace the photosynthetic view that letting the light in allows for growth and transformation. We recognize our role in supporting thriving communities and believe that the community should have a role in creating our success at all levels of the organization. Though Creating the Future is not a grantmaking foundation, we believe that all organizations, including foundations, gain by opening up to and actively engaging the communities we are passionate about and that we profess to serve.

In a conversation about boards and governance recently, someone remarked to one of us that "transparency can be transformational," and it's this sort of thinking that powers Creating the Future's approach to leadership, trusteeship, and governance. Beyond just being transparent – allowing people to see us and see that we are "open" – people can actually interact with us and influence our growth in real time. This approach to governance is open not just in the sense of visibility, but open to challenge, praise, and, since board members livestream from various places around the world, the occasional ribbing for the state of our living rooms and barking dogs. (How much more "real life" can it get than that?)

All well and good in theory. But what does this really look like in practice and what does it make possible for us as trustees and anyone else interested in the work of the organization we serve?

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Communicating the Lia Fund’s Sunset Plans to Grantees

May 04, 2015

Sunset_13Randy Lia Weil believed in beauty, fairness, the human heart, and the wisdom of nature in all things. She was a dancer, teacher, Feldenkrais practitioner, and artistic spirit. Gracious, graceful, and exceedingly generous, she was the catalyst for many people to create new possibilities for their lives and their dreams.

Prior to her passing in 2006, she created a trust and named a number of friends and colleagues from diverse disciplines with experience in nonprofit organizations to act as advisors to help identify potential grantees. This group created a small private foundation, The Lia Fund, to carry on her values and help realize them in the world.

The Lia Fund made its first set of grants in 2008, and for six years made grants to social change organizations in the areas of climate solutions, community arts, and holistic health and healing that promoted a holistic view of the world informed by the wisdom of nature. In recognition of the great need for resources to support grassroots organizations, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the foundation decided to spend down its assets, making its last grants in 2014.

The foundation was thoughtful in its decision to spend down, and used that decision to drive transparency in awarding grants and communicating clearly with grantees. Because of the early nature of its decision, the $5 million in grants awarded to a hundred and seven organizations were progressive, purposeful, and appropriately communicated so as to make an impact during the foundation's lifespan.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (April 2015)

May 02, 2015

PhilanTopic hosted lots of great content in April, including opinion pieces by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit; and Peter Sloane, chairman and CEO of the New York City-based Heckscher Foundation for Children; Q&As with Bill McKibben, co-founder of; Karen McNeil-Miller, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina; and Judith Shapiro, president of the New York City-based Teagle Foundation; a terrific book review from the formidable Joanne Barkan; thought-provoking posts from regular contributors Mark Rosenman and Derrick Feldmann; and a great Storify assembled by our own Lauren Brathwaite. But don't take our word for it...

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Creating a Culture of Mentorship Among Young Professionals — It Starts With Senior Management

May 01, 2015

Headshot_peter_sloaneWe know that young professional mentors who work in the for-profit world can play a crucial role in changing the life trajectories of underserved youth. Despite the trumpeting of mentorship programs by a large number of companies, however, too few know how to create a culture of mentorship. I'm not talking about encouraging employees to build camaraderie or esteem by spending a day cleaning up a roadside, or volunteering at a soup kitchen or pantry, or taking a poor kid to a ballgame (with company T-shirt and hat included). I'm not even talking about creating a culture of corporate "internship programs," which seldom lead to long-term employment for underserved youth but which often do feature prominent, well-intentioned CEOs on their boards (and on their billboards). If you think you don't need a more effective way to promote a culture of mentoring for less fortunate kids among your own workforce of young professionals, do it yourself and lead by example.

Before I began promoting that idea, I tried it with our own organization. I agreed to be a mentor to a young person attending a Catholic high school through Student Sponsor Partners. I wanted all to see that mentorship was rewarding for both the mentee and for me. Soon I was hearing stories from our staff and even my own kids about "their" mentees. 

So, when an invitation to speak to a firm's young employees at one of its regular professional development lunches came, I jumped at it — albeit with the ulterior motive to spread the word about the importance of senior management's commitment to mentorship. In anticipation of the presentation, I was furnished with an agenda, complete with time segments blocked out and a short period for Q&A. The agenda was fine, but predictable — tell them about your foundation's history and what you do kind of stuff, and then entertain questions for a few minutes at the end. The day before the lunch I even received a call assuring me that one of the partners would be happy to assist by prompting me with questions. I, in turn, assured the caller I was comfortable speaking to young professionals and did not need an agenda or prompting. I've done this often, I said, and with good results — that is, if you ignore my speech at my daughter's wedding, which I had decided to wing, only to find myself, when the time came, so overcome by emotion that the wedding planner had to prompt me to welcome the guests (the only part of the speech that rated more than a failing grade with my family).

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Shelter – Now. Then. And Later.

April 30, 2015

Family-tent-rural570-300x200The average American gets nine hours of sleep a night. Most of those Americans sleep in a home with a roof, and have a pillow, a mattress, and some sort of cover.

But what does sleep look like for residents of Kathmandu?

Over the weekend, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the capital city of Nepal. More than 5,000 deaths have been confirmed (a figure that is expected to rise dramatically), and upwards of 8 million Nepalese have been affected by the quake. Shelter is already presenting itself as a serious problem and, based on what we have learned from other disasters, particularly earthquakes, will continue to be a major problem.

Shelter Now

The government of Nepal reports that over 70,000 homes have been destroyed. Given that relief efforts have not yet reached more rural and remote villages, that figure is expected to rise. As of 2011, the average household size in Nepal was 4.7 – which means that upward of 329,000 individuals have been rendered homeless. Of the 8 million people affected by the quake, 2.8 million are described as displaced from their homes, with many of those individuals sleeping outdoors out of fear that continued aftershocks will destroy their weakened residences. What's more, the affected region has been hit with what has been described as "relentless rain," putting many people in a precariously vulnerable position.

The recently released UN Flash Appeal covering the time period from now until the end of July calls for $50 million to provide shelter and non-food items to those who have been displaced, as well as an additional $5 million for camp management.

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What Does It Really Mean to Be an Engaged Donor?

April 29, 2015

Headshot_derrick_feldmannI interview donors, young and old, all the time to learn why they support and give to the causes that are dear to them.

One question in particular generates interesting responses every time I ask it:

How involved are you with the organizations you support?

You might expect responses to that question to be pretty similar, and in fact I've found that they generally fall into one of three categories:

Response #1: I am fairly involved in the organizations I support and closely follow what they're up to on social media and through their newsletters.

Response #2: I am very involved with the organizations I support and try to help out as a volunteer at least once a month.

Response #3: I am heavily involved with the organizations I support and make a point of attending their annual galas and writing big checks.

What's the common thread here? The donors all believe they are actively engaged with the organizations they support. The sad reality, however, is that the organizations themselves probably see many of those donors as disengaged.

My conversation with donors and fundraising executives over the years merely confirms that view.

Why is that?

It's an interesting question, and I believe the answer has a lot to do with fundraisers' perception of their donors.

I recently had the chance to bring in and talk with fundraisers at five different organizations with which my firm works. Once they were settled, I asked each of them to answer the question: What does it mean to be an engaged donor? Here's what they said:

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Calling the Piper’s Tune

April 28, 2015

Headshot_mark_rosenmanNonprofit endorsements for sale? That might be the takeaway when more than thirty charities in the District of Columbia write to government regulators in support of a popularly opposed regulatory action sought by a local funder, with many even lending their logos to full-page newspaper ads.

Pepco, a regional electric utility that serves the District (and mid-Atlantic region) wants to sell itself ­to Exelon, a national energy company with a poor reputation among environmental groups and consumer advocates. The overwhelming majority of the charities endorsing the acquisition in letters to DC's Public Service Commission (DCPSC) have a couple of things in common: they have no environmental mission or apparent expertise on energy issues, and they have received or benefited from Pepco philanthropic funding, which Exelon promises to continue for ten years.

The offered premium of 24 percent over market valuation is enough to convince Pepco to seek approval to sell its electric distribution network to Exelon. The opportunity to become the largest utility company in the country and use Pepco’s significant ratepayer base to dilute its nuclear electric generation investments is motivation enough for Exelon. But what’s in it for local charities?

A big part of the answer was summed up nicely by Meta Williams, the regional development director in the United Negro College Fund's Washington, D.C. Area Office. In a letter to D.C Public Service commissioner Brinda Westbrook-Sedgwick, Ms. Williams noted that Pepco and Exelon are important donors to UNCF, provide a great deal of support to other charities, and are admirable corporate citizens, making their plan worthy of endorsement. Yet, she went on to say in conversation with me that she had not considered environmental, energy, or related issues in deciding to write to the Public Service Commission, that policy was not made in her office, and that she was speaking only for UNCF's fundraising arm and not for the organization itself – none of which is clear from her letter.

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 25-26, 2015)

April 26, 2015

Ss-150425-nepal-earthquake-09Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Disaster Relief

In the aftermath of a major natural disaster like the powerful earthquake that struck Nepal yesterday, early assistance -- in the form of money -- is the best and most effective kind of assistance. On her Nonprofit Charitable Orgs blog, Joanne Fritz shares other ways to help victims of a natural disaster.

Nearly $10 billion in relief and reconstruction aid was committed to Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake in that impoverished country. Where did it all go? VICE on HBO Correspondent Vikram Gandhi reports.


Has the education reform movement peaked? According to New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, "The zillionaires [who have funded the movement] are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity." Which is why, says Kristof, it might be time to "refocus some reformist passions on early childhood."


On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Johanna Morariu, director of the Innovation Network, shares five grantmaker and nonprofit practices "that undermine or limit the ability of nonprofit organizations to fully engage in evaluation."


What is social fundraising? Liz Ragland, senior content and marketing associate at Network for Good, explains.

Nonprofit With Balls blogger and Game of Thrones fan Vu Le has some issues with the donor-centric model of fundraising. "When [it's] done right," he writes, "it’s cool; when it’s done wrong, we sound like the used car salesmen of justice...."

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5 Questions for...Judith Shapiro, President, Teagle Foundation

April 24, 2015

Judith Shapiro has spent decades in and around higher education in the United States. The first female professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago, where she taught from 1970 to 1975, Shapiro joined the faculty at Bryn Mawr College in 1975 as a member of the department of anthropology and later served as acting dean (1985-86) and provost (1986-94) of the college. She went on to serve as president of Barnard College — the first person to come through the New York City school system to do so — from 1994 to 2008 and was named president of the New York City-based Teagle Foundation in 2013. Shapiro has researched and written widely about gender differences, social organization, cultural theory, and missionization, and throughout her career has spoken out on a broad range of topics.

Headshot_judith_shapiroPhilanthropy News Digest: You spent most of your career in academia, including fourteen years as president of Barnard College. Is being a foundation president a lot different than being a college president?

Judith Shapiro: I loved being president of Barnard. But the job was unremitting, whereas my job here doesn't feel as if it consumes my entire life. Being a college president is really strenuous, but having that in my background is espec­ially useful to this particular foundation. One interesting difference in my situation is that, for the most part, I spent my academic career in elite institutions: Brandeis, Columbia, University of Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Barnard. But since coming to Teagle, I've been exposed to a much wider variety of institutions and learned that there are truly interesting things going on in all kinds of institutions.

It's good that there's diversity in our educational sector, not only among institutions of higher education, but also among foundations, and among foundations that are involved in higher education. Lumina, for example, can focus on policy-related issues in higher education, Mellon can dig into the arts and digital humanities, and Sloan has a nice focus on undergraduate STEM, whereas Teagle doesn't specialize in any of those areas. So there's a nice division of labor among foundations, but also opportunities for them to coordinate and cooperate. You know that foundations often like their grantees to collaborate, and it's a good thing for foundations to work with each other as well.

PND: That type of collaboration often comes with challenges. As an anthropologist, how would you recommend that some of the cultural challenges be addressed?

JS: Some of the challenges are very real. The Center for Effective Philanthropy examined how foundations can and do work together and found that, in some cases, the cost of the collaboration in terms of coordinating activities was so great that the foundations collaborating really had to step back and decide whether the partnership made sense. In general, I think the pooling of funding is a good idea, but you have to find a way to combine the distinctive focus and identity of the various partners and avoid getting carried away by the kind of institutional narcissism that results in organizations competing with or not paying attention to each other.

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Empowering Women Through Homeownership and Volunteering

April 23, 2015

Habitat_for_Humanity_buildA home is more than just the bricks, mortar, and lumber used to build it. It’s an investment that many families make to lay the groundwork for a more prosperous future. Yet even as the housing market continues to improve, many low-income families, particularly those headed by single mothers, struggle to provide a stable, safe, and healthy home environment for their children.

“It all comes down to giving people in this country [a shot at success], and the single most important shot is a place to live securely,” said Vice President Joe Biden at a forum in April co-hosted by Habitat for Humanity International at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they have a base and a foundation and an opportunity. All they are asking for is a chance, a chance to raise their families and build their dreams.”

Millions of women across the country are hoping to become homeowners one day and lift their families out of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 18 million women were living in poverty in 2013, an all-time high. Single mothers and their children are particularly vulnerable, with nearly six in ten poor children living in families headed by women.

In Lynwood, California, single mother Nikki Payton and her three daughters currently live with family members, sharing a room in a small two-bedroom house. Because all three daughters have health issues and suffer from asthma, Payton applied to purchase a Habitat for Humanity home so her family could live in a healthier environment. In Detroit, Marketta Jackson, a single mother of six, lives with her family in housing in desperate need of repairs. It’s also difficult for her mother, who uses a wheelchair. Jackson looks forward to some day having a home where her mother can get around easily and her family feels safe and secure. 

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Classroom Saints and Fiends

April 21, 2015

Cover_teacher_warsThe Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 368 pp.

Reviewed by Joanne Barkan

The crusade — now more than a decade old — to remake K–12 public education in the image of a business enterprise moves on two fronts. One is private management of public resources: convert as many "regular" public schools as possible into privately run charter schools while also setting up voucher systems that allow individual students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The second front is transformation of the teaching profession into...what? Here the stated goals and actual policies of the market-model "ed reformers" are a tangle of contradictions.

Ed reformers, whose political identities run the full gamut, claim that putting a great teacher in every classroom will offset the disadvantages suffered by poor and minority children outside school and will close the academic achievement gap between these students and middle-class white students. Teaching, therefore, must become a highly respected, well paid profession that attracts the most talented graduates of the most prestigious colleges and universities.

Yet these same ed reformers have worked tirelessly and successfully to undermine the substance and reputation of the profession. They bear responsibility for focusing public school teaching on standardized test preparation and for using student test scores to determine how much teachers are paid (merit pay), who is fired, and which schools are shut down. They promote mini-length training programs to replace experienced teachers with lower-paid, non-union neophytes; they help to pass state laws that weaken collective bargaining and cut pensions and benefits; they advocate abolishing tenure (due process) so that teachers can be fired at will; and they've conducted a nonstop media operation to depict public school teachers as greedy, poorly trained, and ineffective to the point of endangering the nation's future.

The disrespect for teachers embedded in the ed reformers' policies is matched only by their overt hostility toward teacher unions. Not surprisingly, job satisfaction among public school teachers has plummeted in recent years.

The ed reformers' stance looks like a Madonna-whore complex: teachers are miracle-working saviors of poor and downtrodden children, or they are villains preventing these children from benefiting from a good education. According to Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, this kind of saint-fiend split has characterized Americans' view of teachers since universal public education first took hold in some states in the 1830s. Again and again since then, reformers of different stripes have tried to improve teaching with some of the same fixes — merit pay based on test scores, fast-track training programs, ranking teachers — with the same lack of success.

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Black Male Achievement: Seizing the Moment in Detroit

April 20, 2015

Headshot_tonya_allenAt a March meeting in Detroit, a number of stakeholders committed to improving outcomes for young men of color sat around a table, sharing the words that best captured how they are experiencing the beginning of citywide work on the My Brother's Keeper initiative.

They shared words such as powerful, encouraged, and committed. All good things to hear.

When it came time for the one youth participant, a senior from Detroit's East Village Preparatory High School, to share, he paused and said quietly, "I just feel loved."

That's one of the best things I've heard in a long time. I want all young men of color in Detroit and across the nation to know, without a doubt, that they are important to our future, worthy of our investment, and indeed loved.

As president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, chair of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and co-chair (with Bob Ross of the California Endowment) of the nationally focused Executive Alliance, I have the honor of being in a position to drive what's happening locally in my city of Detroit, as well as across the country.

And what I see – and work to encourage – is a growing momentum. In Detroit, stakeholders are meeting on an urgent schedule to create a citywide plan to improve outcomes for young men of color. That plan includes four platforms for action – education, health, workforce development, and safety. I'm encouraged to see who is at the table; they include not just longtime partners who have devoted decades to this work and know it well, but also new partners, including representatives from the city's business sector, bringing unique ideas, energy, and resources.

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 18-19, 2015)

April 19, 2015

Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


How can nonprofits use data to create a culture of continuous improvement. Beth Kanter explains.


In a post on her Giving Evidence site, Caroline Fiennes suggests that charities are being asked to do too much evaluation -- and presents some evidence to support her argument.

Writing on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Nancy Baughman Csuti, director of research, evaluation and strategic learning at the Colorado Trust, says that funders can and should

engage in deeper conversations with grantees to understand their needs regarding evaluation, continue to provide general operating support, and, with that, encourage time to review results, reflect, and adapt. We can encourage grantees to share what they have learned and provide resources and assistance for them to do so, and do the same ourselves. As funders, we should jump on the opportunities to encourage our grantees to embrace a culture of evaluation and learning that results in seeing problems and solutions differently. And always, we must do ourselves what we ask of grantees....

Human/Civil Rights

Civil society and human rights groups find themselves in a new world characterized by "multiplicity," public disillusionment, and growing non-institutional activism, writes Lucia Nader on the Transformation  blog. And if they want to remain relevant, she adds, they'll need to find a balance "between preserving what has already been achieved, and deconstructing, innovating, reinventing and transforming [themselves]."


Is the nonprofit news model sustainable? Based on his reading of Gaining Ground, How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability, a new report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Inside Philanthropy's Paul M.J. Sucheki has his doubts.


$23.07/hr. That's Independent Sector's latest estimate of the value of volunteer time. More here

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Key Milestones in Campaign for Black Male Achievement

April 18, 2015

5 Questions for…Bill McKibben, Co-Founder,

April 17, 2015

Forty-five years after the first Earth Day in 1970, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have stalled and the planet faces the potentially devastating effects of accelerating climate change. At the same time, calls for educational and philanthropic institutions to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies have gotten louder and a grassroots divestment movement has emerged from college campuses across the country.

PND asked noted environmental activist and author Bill McKibben about the impact of the fossil fuel divestment movement, the role of philanthropy in the fight against climate change, and the prospect that something meaningful will come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

Bill_mckibben_for_PhilanTopicPhilanthropy News Digest: The name of the organization you co-founded,, refers to the goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 400 parts per million to 350 ppm — a level, according to climatologist James Hansen and others, that is necessary to preserve conditions on Earth similar to those which prevailed as humans evolved and flourished. Where do things stand as of 2015? And do we have any chance of meeting the 350 ppm target?

Bill McKibben: Where we stand is the CO2 level in the atmosphere climbs 2 ppm annually — and the Arctic and the Antarctic are dealing with preposterous changes that even the most pessimistic scientists thought would take many decades to arrive, oceans are acidifying, and the cycle of floods and droughts is deepening. If we managed to get off fossil fuels with great haste — if we worked at the outer edge of the possible — then by 2100 forests and oceans would have sucked up enough carbon that we'd be moving back toward 350 ppm. Much damage would be done in the meantime, but perhaps not civilizational-scale damage. But that window is small, and closing.

PND:’s Fossil Free campaign aims to convince educational and religious institutions, governments, and other organizations that serve the public good to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel companies. One frequently heard criticism of the campaign is that it is trying to put out a fire with a garden hose. That is, getting a few dozen or hundred institutional investors to divest their portfolios of fossil fuels will have no measurable impact on the activities of large energy companies — or on other investors who may see an opportunity as those stocks are sold. What’s wrong with that argument?

BM: If it was all anyone was doing, it would not be enough, not even close. Of course, we're also fighting against new pipelines and coal mines, and for the rapid spread of renewable energy. But divestment is one of the things that knits it together — it's been the vehicle for spreading the news that these companies have four times the carbon in their reserves than any scientist thinks we can safely burn. That's why everyone, up to the president of the World Bank, has hailed divestment as a crucial part of the fight.

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5 Questions for...Claudia Natera, Coordinator, Alternativas y Capacidades

April 16, 2015

Organized philanthropy in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America, is still in its nascent stages, and getting a handle on who is doing what and where can be difficult. To address the dearth of good information about philanthropy in Mexico, in 2013 Foundation Center partnered with Alternativas y Capacidades, a civil society organization that works to promote transparency and accountability in the Mexican philanthropic sector, and two other organizations to create Fondos a la Vista, a clearinghouse for information on civil society organizations in Mexico.

Recently, the Foundation Center's Marie DeAeth spoke with Claudia Nateria, the coordinator of the Fondos a la Vista project, about the some of the challenges confronting the Mexican philanthropic sector and the work her organization is doing to address those challenges.

Marie DeAeth: What are some of the significant features of the philanthropic sector in Mexico?

Headshot_claudia_nateraClaudia Natera: One significant feature is its size. When compared to other Latin American countries, the Mexican philanthropic sector is considerably smaller. For instance, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina have a higher number of nonprofit organizations relative to their populations. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, or INEGI), there are around forty thousand civil society organizations (CSOs) in Mexico, although we do not have information on all of them. Only about seven thousand organizations are authorized as tax exempt by the Mexican Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria, or SAT); there are twenty-four thousand other nonprofits that receive government funding. Keeping in mind that some organizations could appear on both registries at the same time, we have information on around twenty-seven thousand organizations. That means that there are approximately thirteen thousand nonprofit organizations that are operational, but the fact that they are not registered with SAT or the National Institute of Social Development (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Social, or INDESOL) makes it difficult to gather information about them.

Another challenge for philanthropy in Mexico is a lack of confidence on the part of society. A 2013 national survey showed that Mexicans are willing to help each other, with nearly eight out of ten saying they had made a charitable donation in the last year. However, only one out of ten did so through a civil society organization. That means Mexicans prefer to give money to people on the street than to a CSO. According to the survey, one of the main reasons for that is the distrust the average Mexican feels toward civil society organizations specifically and toward institutions in general. This lack of confidence is a serious challenge for the philanthropic sector in Mexico and one that we have to try to overcome through better transparency practices.

MD: What are some of the other challenges you face?

CN: In addition to a lack of confidence in the sector, one major challenge is the small number of grantmaking entities in Mexico. In Fondos a la Vista we've identified only about two hundred grantmakers focused solely on giving funds to other organizations. And most of those grantmakers do not provide money for capacity-building programs or initiatives. As a result, many nonprofits in Mexico struggle to secure funding, which weakens their ability to perform their work. The challenge for us is to create awareness in the Mexican grantmaking community about the importance of funding capacity-building projects as part of their social investment strategies, which would help them achieve greater social impact.

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 11-12, 2015)

April 12, 2015

Lincoln_shotOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Corporate Philanthropy

Indiana Business Journal reporter J.K. Wall looks at how Eli Lilly & Co. is shifting its corporate philanthropy from an approach focused on social responsibility to one that emphasizes "shared value."


In a post for the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, writer and consultant Cynthia Gibson asks whether organizations that work to foster a "culture of philanthropy," a mindset in which "fundraising is seen less as a transactional tactic and more of a way of operating," are more likely "to boost their giving levels and donor retention; strengthen trust, cooperation and engagement among board and staff members; and align mission and program goals more seamlessly with revenue generation." What do you think? Click on over to the Haas Fund site to share your thoughts.


Long admired for its no-tuition policy, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan began in 2014 to assess incoming freshman a tuition fee of $20,000 — a decision that led to student protests and media scrutiny of the school's financial dealings. Earlier this week, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched an investigation of focused on the Cooper Union board's "management of the school's endowment; its handling of its major asset, the iconic Chrysler Building; its dealings with Tishman Speyer Properties, which manages the skyscraper; and how the school obtained a $175 million loan from MetLife using the building as collateral." New York Times writer James B. Stewart reports.

Human/Civil Rights

On the D5 Coalition blog, Ben Francisco Maulbeck, president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, shares some thoughts about what foundations can do to support LGBT communities in the wake of the "religious freedom" bill signed into law by Indiana governor Mike Pence.

International Affairs/Development

On the Global Dashboard blog, policy analyst and researcher David Steven looks at five ways co-facilitators have made the targets for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals worse.

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Want to Improve Health? Help People Use and Share Their Data

April 10, 2015

Withings scaleIn 1823, a young French physician, Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis, published a controversial article urging doctors to compile, share, and study statistics about their patients. He said that by recognizing larger trends across a community, physicians could more effectively treat individual patients. One of Louis' findings, based on thousands of case histories and autopsies he conducted, was that the common practice of bloodletting was probably not a good idea.

Many of his colleagues initially disagreed, but it was hard to argue with Louis' numbers, and bloodletting soon fell out of favor. Meanwhile Louis' "numerical method," as he called it, expanded beyond specific treatment to include background information on patients – their ages, their jobs, where and how they lived – and laid the foundation for modern epidemiology and today's clinical trials.

Today an exponentially greater revolution in health information sharing is under way. New technology is offering everyone, not just health professionals, vastly more health-related data than we could have imagined even a few years ago. This new era of data, both big (populations) and small (individuals), offers remarkable opportunities to improve health, by helping to stop the twenty-first century equivalents to bloodletting – those unhealthy behaviors and unnecessary medical procedures that are draining our physical, mental, emotional, and economic well-being.

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5 Questions for...Karen McNeil-Miller, President, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

April 07, 2015

They are communities which nurtured many of us and to which many of us return when we want to recharge and reconnect. The fact that they are rural and removed from the economic dynamism driving the revitalization of urban areas across the country also means they often lack the capital  financial and human – needed to improve the circumstances of people who call them home. That organized philanthropy, like much of corporate America, finds it relatively easy to overlook such communities further complicates the situation.

One foundation looking to change that dynamic is the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a philanthropy established in 1946 by Kate Gertrude Bitting Reynolds, the wife of William Neal Reynolds, chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, to improve the health and wellness of low-income residents of North Carolina. In March, PND spoke with Karen McNeil-Miller, the trust’s president, about Healthy Places North Carolina, a new place-based initiative focused on rural areas of the state.

Headshot_karen_mcneil-millerPhilanthropy News Digest:  The Reynolds Charitable Trust has always supported efforts to improve the health of North Carolinians. What's new about Healthy Places NC?

Karen McNeil-Miller: Well, for us, almost everything. For instance, we're not leading with money, which is a huge thing. We're not going into these communities saying, "Here's our agenda, apply for a grant." We're going into these communities and, essentially, are trying to help them organize themselves. In a way, we're leading from behind instead of leading from in front. The trust is deferring its goals to the goals of the community; we want the community to determine what it needs or what it would like to change, and then we'll bring our resources to bear to help them achieve those goals.

PND:  Beyond a lack of resources, what are some of the challenges unique to rural communities that you aim to address through the initiative?

KMM: Well, one of the things we want to address is the building of human capacity. These days, it's hard to get folks to move to rural communities, which means if you want to help these communities thrive, you have to build the leadership capacity of the people who are already there. 

We also want to help them, where we can, with access to care. In so many rural communities, you may have a primary care physician or two, but hospitals and specialty care are much less common. So, through the initiative, we've been helping community-based organi­zations invest in tele-health infrastructure, whether it's tele-psychology, or tele-therapy, or even tele-osteo­pathic medicine. 

Of course, one of the most plentiful assets in rural communities is land. So helping communities make the best use of their land assets, whether it's through building an amenity like a playground, or bike or walking trails, or any of the other things that make communities more livable and healthy, is something we're interested in.

What's harder to address is job creation. But if we can help local people see the connection between physical and mental health and economic health and help them build their capacity to partner with local government to create the kinds of amenities that help attract jobs and improve quality of life for everyone, that will be big. We want everybody to start thinking that health is their business, not just the purview of healthcare institutions. It's about broadening the conversation to people who don't normally see themselves in the health business, to people in law enforcement, to people in the educational system, to business and industry, and bringing them all together to talk about what they can do to make their community the healthiest community possible. 

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Weekend Link Roundup (April 4-5, 2015)

April 05, 2015

Baseball_grassOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...

Community Improvement/Development

"[T]he stories of individuals, communities and organizations who are working to help... transform [Detroit] street by street — in small and much larger ways — are often overlooked," writes Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project, on the Transformations blog. In contrast, Detroiters who are working at the neighborhood level "know that the real promise of urban transformation comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out — building a new city from the bottom up."


The debate in Congress over reauthorization of "No Child Left Behind," former President George W. Bush's signature education initiative, is a useful reminder, writes Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books, that "[p]overty is the major obstacle to equal education. To overcome that obstacle requires not only investing greater resources in the education of poor children, but creating economic opportunity and jobs for their parents."


In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Michael Anft reports on research which shows "the charity world lacks a basic understanding of how donors' brains work, how would-be donors behave in certain situations, and what incentives can successfully woo them."

NPR reports that the dramatic shift in fundraising engendered by social media -- think Movember, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and Giving Tuesday -- is putting pressure on large national nonprofits to rethink their walk-related events.

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Top Five Strategies to Raise More Money From Foundations

April 03, 2015

Fundraising-treeWe all know that grants are awarded in response to submitted proposals — not the draft sitting on your desk but the one you actually get out the door. Sounds simple, doesn't it? If you're spending too much time writing, editing and fine-tuning your proposals, you won't get them in front of the decision makers at foundations — or at least not enough of them to bring in the significant dollars you could be raising. That's why my "top tip" for bringing in more funding is to spend more time asking and less time writing.

But getting more proposals out the door isn't a strategy in and of itself. Effective fundraisers need to determine the correct amount to ask for from foundations that care about what they do, and then work to build connections with those funders over time.

To that end, here are my top five strategies for streamlining your fundraising program and ensuring that you spend your time as effectively and efficiently as possible:

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McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework, Updated for 2015-2017

April 02, 2015

StrategyWith 2015 in full swing, we are pleased to share with you the McKnight Foundation's new Strategic Framework, updated and refreshed for 2015-2017. This is the second iteration of this important document, the first of which was developed in 2011 and implemented for 2012-14. We got good mileage out of our inaugural framework during the first three years, and we are excited to put the new one — a slightly streamlined model which retains the parts that worked well and revises those that needed tuning up — to use during the next three.

McKnight's Strategic Framework is very much a living document, which — like our work — must evolve in response to a changing environment if it is going to remain useful and relevant. We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the updating process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight's mission at all levels. Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based on their unique contexts.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my earlier blog post inviting input as we updated the previous framework. It was gratifying to hear affirmations of McKnight's embrace of adaptive action in addressing complex challenges and changing external conditions. There were also comments specific to individual program areas and suggestions for new issues we should consider, all of which were shared with relevant staff. I also heard from several foundation and nonprofit colleagues that they had used the framework format for their own reflection and planning efforts. Thank you for contributing to our process; your input helped make the final product relevant and useful to us, our peers, and our partners.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (March 2015)

April 01, 2015

Soft breezes and the hint of warm earth. The season's first daffodils signaling all clear. A fond "see ya next year" to the winter coat that kept hypothermia at bay. April Fools! But don't despair. Our most popular reads of March will inform and delight as you wait for the real thing to arrive....

What have you read/watched/listened to lately that made you think? Share your finds in the comments section below, or drop us a line at

Weekend Link Roundup (March 28-29, 2015)

March 29, 2015

Umbrella_april-showersOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector...


On the Rockefeller Foundation blog, Zia Khan, the foundation's vice president for initiatives and strategy, shares four "counter-intuitive lessons" about cross-sector collaboration.


On the Markets for Good blog, Bill Anderson, technical lead for the Secretariat of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), examines the potential for a people-based data revolution across Africa.


50CAN, a network of local education advocates "learning from and supporting each other," has launched a new blog called The Catalyst to help local education leaders develop policy goals, craft their advocacy plans, and secure lasting change.

On the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog, Cari Schneider, director of research and policy for Getting Smart, suggests that one of the least appreciated barriers to effective education reform is definitional in nature.


Why do people give to charity? The Guardian explains.

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    — E.M. Cioran

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