Posts Tagged ‘fundraising’

How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

I met up with the brilliant, genuine, and always engaging Trista Harris on a trip to Minneapolis earlier this week. I love our conversations because she’s so smart about philanthropy and so savvy about how to make it more responsive to communities.

We talked about authentic engagement with stakeholders, the astonishing racial achievement gaps in the Twin Cities, “Minnesota nice,” how to leverage modest grantmaking budgets through targeted advocacy, and many other topics. I walked away inspired. One idea we cooked up is that foundations should be like app makers: put a lot of behind-the-scene effort into creating a “technology” (literal or metaphorical) that enables connections between actors and information, or actors and each other, that the actors can control themselves and that make their lives better. And then get the hell out of the way, and let the magic happen. Sometimes this is as simple as a convening in which groups that don’t talk to each other but should get a chance to connect.

Sometimes it can be more literal. We talked about disaster grantmaking, and how it shapes people’s perceptions of the nonprofit sector. She shared an experience working on response to the highway bridge collapse in the Twin Cities a few years back, and how people’s wonderful generosity in donating goods and toys was at a complete disconnect with people’s actual needs. And the thing is, it’s cash that people need most in a situation like that. But people often want to make it most personal.

So our idea for an app was, you’re a ninth grader in Iowa who reads about the bridge collapse (or Sandy, or Katrina, or what have you) and you want to help. The app lets you choose a good to donate – a teddy bear, some clothes, canned goods – that you can personalize as much as possible; that good gets donated to a local shelter; and the equivalent amount of cash gets donated to people directly in the disaster situation of your choosing. You get the feel-good; the local person gets the good; and the far-away person gets the cash they can use most.

All right, someone go make that happen! Mazel tov and God bless.

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Give a Little Bit

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for that person in your life who asks you for advice about giving during the holidays, since you work in the nonprofit or foundation sector? Want to give a thank-you note to your foundation program officer for helping you keep the lights on? Hoping to fend off that cranky uncle who scoffs that you work in philanthropy because it’s not a real business, and giving money away is easy?

I’ve got a book for you. Giving with Confidence: A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy, by Colburn Wilbur with Fred Setterberg. (You can find it cheaper on Amazon, but come on, make an expressive choice and buy it from Powell’s, or better yet, ask your local bookstore to order it. I was given a free copy to review, and am honored to have been asked.) Cole is the former executive director of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the grand wise men of philanthropy. (He’s been a senior fellow at the Council on Foundations and is quite active years after his putative retirement.) He was on the board of an organization I used to work for, Hispanics in Philanthropy, but I don’t believe we ever met other than in passing. But I remember hearing a story of how all the men on the HIP board wore Hawaiian shirts to a board meeting held in Hawaii when the Council on Foundations conference back in the day. The image of him – tall, thin, fair, soft-spoken – decked out in a bright shirt with everyone else warmed my heart.

And that unpretentiousness limns every page of this calmly voiced yet passionately argued book. There’s no grandstanding, no real name-dropping, just sage advice delivered in an even and friendly tone, even as he moves the reader gently, gradually, toward considering the advice of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which stakes out positions that make a lot of foundation folks uncomfortable (and good for them for doing so).

What’s great is that the book is pitched to a general audience, but it has nuggets of wisdom for those of us in the philanthropic sector, from someone who’s long labored in those air-conditioned trenches. Such common sense and plain talk.

To individual donors: “On a more mundane level, consult your checkbook and tax records to find out where your donations have actually gone in the past year or two. Fill a page with the amount of each gift and the name of the corresponding organization. Ask yourself: Given what I have, have I given enough? Do my donations jibe with my ambitions? Are there glaring holes in my giving patterns–or are there opportunities shining through?”

To individual donors: “Your contribution, however important, doesn’t make you a member of the starting team. You’re a fan and a booster. Your donation will require staff time to record and manage. Don’t add more than a couple of hours to the burden…. Instead of vocalizing about programs and policies, try asking the organization’s leaders what kind of assistance they need.”

To institutional donors: “Of course, ‘change’ is practically a sacred term in the parlance of grantmaking. (Who brags about their efforts to thwart it?) Yet, the inevitable handmaidens of change–controversy and opposition–are the last things most donors want to inspire.”

To all donors: “Sometimes addressing root causes is crucial. Other times, the symptoms prove so severe that they require immediate attention.”

Blessed common sense, and elegant, limpid prose. Wilbur and Setterberg have given us a gift, and one that’s especially useful this holiday season, when so many people (myself included) make an important number of our personal philanthropic choices. This year, I chose to allocate a significant portion of my giving budget to political giving (fully aware of the non-deductibility of those contributions). I tried to mix expressive and directional gifts. Time to take stock, write down that one page Wilbur and Setterberg recommend, and take stock. I hope you’ll do the same.

Warmest wishes for the holiday season. I’m grateful for another year of professional success and personal growth, and thankful to all who have followed along on this blog.

#Kony #Kony the remix

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Can’t stop thinking about #Kony2012, I’m surprised not to see more about it in the philanthropy blogosphere. Anyway, a few pieces have cleared things up for me. Somewhat.

Communicopia educated me about the work that Invisible Children has been doing over the past eight years to build their constituency that made the video go so viral. Though they appear to have come out of nowhere, IC have actually been slogging in the trenches for years. This article is pure gold, the insight-to-length ratio is off the charts. Go read it.

You’re back? Good. Now, this puts it all into perspective. Girls 13-24 are the ones sending around the video because they’re the ones that IC has been targeting and seeking to empower.

Ethan Zuckerman brought me up to speed on the most thoughtful critiques of IC’s strategy, and they are many and persuasive. Go read that one, too, but wait a minute, because it’ll take a while, and you should especially read the comments, which are bubbling with vitriol. Drama!

Which brings us to Dan Pallotta, who in typical pugnacious style, comes out swinging. A friend pointed out that Jason Russell of IC was going to be on Lawrence O’Donnell, so I DVR’d it. OMG – So. Smarmy. I had a viscerally negative stylistic reaction. I do it myself sometimes, but male upspeak is not a great look for anyone. Again, maybe he’s speaking the language, literally, of the people he works with, but it grated with me. But Pallotta takes it to another level, accusing – particularly in the comments on his post – critics of being jealous of IC’s success. “The criticism is largely based in envy at Invisible Children’s success.” Yeah, that’s gotta be there, but “largely based in envy”? Come on now.

And this gets to one of the things I found troubling in both sets of comments section (Ethan’s and Pallotta’s): the *extreme* thin-skinnedness of IC supporters. Any critique is to be not only repudiated but denounced as mean-spirited, unfair, or futile. “Go fix things in Uganda if you’re so smart” is the essence of one refrain in the comments. Really? The message is that delicate that it needs to be protected from any negativity? It’s one thing to pulsate with the energy of youth, it’s another to quaver with its fragility and, well, insecurity.

But then I watched the actual Kony2012 video. (Except the parts where he explains Kony to his 5-year-old. I find that nauseatingly manipulative, and skipped over those few minutes.) The first several minutes aren’t even about Uganda, or Kony. They’re about this moment in time, about what can be achieved by the many coming together on Facebook. He explicitly talks about this being an experiment, to see if something huge can be achieved. God love ’em, there’s even a visual depiction of a theory of change that’s as clear and simple as I’ve ever seen. (That’s the kind of thing I do all day at work, and I have to say, pace Dan Pallotta, that my emotion on watching it was excitement – there’s a way to do what I do better! Awesome! Let me learn how!)

I for one am really excited to see the first Kony2012 copycats that actually have success. Because that’ll be one of the true measures of impact, is if this does prove a successful experiment, and shows a different way of doing things.

A final note: I also learned from a website I hadn’t heard of before called Talk2Action that Invisible Children is funded by a number of evangelical Christian organizations. Knowing this, seeing the part of the Kony2012 video where the student activists are chanting IC slogans in unison made perfect sense, and also sent a little shiver up my spine. Perhaps it also explains the fervor of some IC defenders in the comments section? (Yes, that was upspeak.) I don’t really know how to parse the intersection of evangelical Christian missionary impulses, social-media wizardry, youthquake mobilization, and working on the front lines of international human rights work. Yet another reason this is fascinating and worth watching as it evolves.

#Kony #Kony

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

There’s so much going on with #StopKony I barely know where to start.

I spoke with a funder once whose range of investments included support for private security forces seeking out a war criminal. Philanthropy is institutional but it’s strangely chained to the raging id. You have the money, you have the autonomy – let’s see what you can do. Most wouldn’t do go that far, but some small number do. In some cases, no one knows, you like it that way, you keep it that way. In the case of Invisible Children, an NGO that raises money, you decide after years toiling in the shadows (well, relatively speaking, they’re actually fairly known on the international NGO scene) that it’s time to go viral. The theory of change is that you need political will to keep U.S. military advisers in country to keep the hunt for Kony on, so you tap your skills in video/media production and create a video designed to go viral.

And the cycle of backlash is just so fast. One of the people on my blogroll, Chris Blattman, has come out against the campaign, as have others. (Nice compilation here.) Invisible Children seems to have done an exhaustive job of responding to critiques, worth a read. Any opportunity to give a wider audience more nuance about how to think about NGO effectiveness is a positive in my book. For example, IC talks about how they get a two-star rating from Charity Navigator on transparency because they don’t have at least five independent board members. They have four, and say they’re interviewing for a fifth. It’s like buying a car, people, do your homework. But look beyond the rating systems, dig into the assumptions, learn some of the lingo. If you can spend 29 minutes watching the video….

Then again, as the caption says on a slide on my corkboard at work, “There is no such thing as boring information; there is only boring presentation.” Maybe someday someone’ll find a way to sex up the nuance of NGO accountability ratings. Until that day, put on your green accountants’ visor and start clicking. And if you have questions, I’m always here; this is what I do for a living….

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Of the vinyl I’m purchased since getting a turntable for my birthday last December (thanks dear!), the vast majority has been “vintage” – used records. In part that’s because I’ve long been in an older-music period (most of my records are either music from the 30s or albums recorded between the late 60s and early 80s), but in part it’s because I enjoy the idea of rescuing a physical artifact from the flotsam of history. I prefer to take an object already in circulation and gain value from it rather than call another object into being by purchasing something new. At least with records.

And I choose where to shop with care as well. There’s a cluster of record stores within a 10-block radius of Bleecker and 7th Avenue South (a quiet culinary mecca, with John’s Pizza, L’Arte del Gelato, Centro Vinoteca, Ottomanelli’s butcher shop, and a Five Guys all within sight of the same intersection). But my true vinyl source, the place that inspired me to ask for a turntable as a birthday present in the first place, is Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, where I went to college (and met my wife). We went up for our annual summer visit (Porches Inn, MassMoCA, W’town Theater Festival), and I had my fingers crossed that the same dude who ran the place when I got there (gulp) 20 years ago hadn’t decided to pack it in since last October. He hadn’t. (Whew.) I spent at least an hour in there and staggered out with a boxful of vinyl. (As I write this, side 2 of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook is spinning and crackling its way along.)

I’ve written about a nostalgic mode of philanthropy. What I’m describing is a nostalgic mode of commerce. I’ve yet to read the new book Retromania on how pop music is eating itself by being obsessed with the past, but as far as music appreciation, retromania is fine with me – and extends not just to the music and artists, but the physical medium of receiving them. I like the idea of an artifact that was originally purchased and enjoyed 30 years ago providing pleasure again today. It’s a flat black time machine.

Sometimes vinyl is cheaper (8 bucks for this 2-record, 30-song Ella/Gershwin set is a pretty good deal compared to iTunes), and sometimes, especially with new vinyl, it’s quite a bit more expensive. One of my rare new vinyl purchases was the latest Belle and Sebastian. It came with a code for a download of the full record plus two bonus tracks, and the gatefold sleeve was sumptuous, a modest art object of its own. Totally worth the markup ($17 at Kim’s Video & Music in the East Village).

Alongside my recent infatuation with vinyl, my wife and I have been doing the locavore shopping and cooking thing for a few years now. (While it’s 95% her, tonight I perfected the recipe for farmer’s market ají casero). And I’ve often wondered – if locavores can create a market for local agriculture, why can’t there be a market for local manufacture? Hello, job creation!

Now here’s what I’m getting at – and where philanthropy might have a role to play. Can we tap into the nostalgic mode of commerce – and other emotional-commercial narratives – to foster a locavorism for manufactured goods? (Locamechanism?) This is beyond my beloved records, which are made wherever. But can we tap into that kind of nostalgia to get people to buy local goods, even if they’re more expensive, so as to generate good local jobs, particularly blue-collar ones?

The L3C, a low-profit limited liability corporation, is an intriguing idea for helping to do this – and private foundations can have a role by making program-related investments. Bob Lang of Americans for Community Development, whom I met at a conference earlier this year, has been tirelessly working on this new vehicle for years. The intriguing case is using it to foster North Carolina’s flagging furniture industry by providing a way for charitably inclined investors like private foundations, who could be willing to forgo short-term financial returns in the interest of long-term community benefit, to jumpstart that industry by providing “patient capital” that helps them to recreate a market for locally manufactured goods. I haven’t been able to find articles online about how that effort in North Carolina is actually going since the law authorizing L3Cs was passed last year, but I’ll be intrigued to follow it.

‘Cause we need all the ideas we can get (HT to Marginal Revolution) about job creation these days, and if philanthropy can play a role, well even better.

Start Me Up

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I asked the other day whether there’s a nostalgic mode of philanthropy, and I’m beginning to think that there is (well, there are likely several). I participated in one recently when I gave to the Kickstarter campaign to revive the Parkway Theater in Oakland. The Parkway was a second-run theater near Lake Merritt that served pizza and beer. You could order a pizza at the counter, get a pitcher of beer, take it up to your seat (which was an old couch), and they’d bring you the pizza. Heaven. On. Earth. They showed playoff football games too, and one of my top 5 sports experiences is watching the thrilling, heartbreaking, down-to-the-last-play Titans-Rams Super Bowl in 2001 or whenever it was, on the big screen from one of the couches with pizza and beer. Such a classic neighborhood institution.

The thing is, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for seven years. It’s been three or four since I last went to the Parkway. But I want to live in a world where the Parkway exists, and others can enjoy the great times I did. (And so I can pop in on a future trip to the Bay Area.) So when I saw the Kickstarter link on someone’s Facebook wall, I clicked and gave my 50 bucks just under the wire.

I haven’t looked what other kinds of projects are on Kickstarter, so I don’t know how many are like “Bring Back the Parkway,” but I wonder if Kickstarter’s success and promise aren’t at least in part because it enables a nostalgic mode of philanthropy.

I’m reminded of campaigns to save TV shows like Jericho or Roswell. Fans get very creative, and once in a great while, they win, and the show gets another chance. Then a mechanism problem kicks in. How to attract enough fans to keep the show going? I wonder if Kickstarter doesn’t answer that question in an indirect way. Like a Groupon for attention – if enough people commit to doing X, the provider will see that it’s worth it. But what would a Groupon for attention look like, how could you commit credibly?

Better minds than mine are working on this in the halls of marketing-landia, I’m sure. But the upshot for funding, particularly of the arts, is that there’s now at least one way to make a nostalgic mode of philanthropy possible. As a hopeful future Parkway patron, I have to believe that’s a good thing.

Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!

Helping Japan, continued

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

As my Argentine friend Sebastian would say, “FahseeNAting.” Felix Salmon over at Reuters titles a post, “Don’t donate money to Japan,” and the comments absolutely explode at him (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy). Yet he’s making much the same point as the folks at GiveWell, whom I cited last time. What gives?

Part of it is that you’d expect an economist to have a better handle at the importance of signaling. Many of the comments take umbrage primarily at the title, finding it offensive in the extreme, poorly chosen, and poorly timed. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution observes that it’s important to signal solidarity with one of the U.S.’s closest allies.

Which gets me thinking about giving as an expression of personal values – as opposed to giving as an effort to solve a particular social problem. The beauty of “small” philanthropy is that it’s a way for all of us to signal our allegiance with certain causes, whether our not our $10 makes a difference “at the margin,” as economists say.

The difference happens when hundreds of thousands of people make that choice at the margin to give. And what generates that – the aggregate of those hundreds of thousands of decisions – I feel is poorly understood. And yet, a valuable natural resource – not infinitely renewable, but pretty reliable in disaster situations.

There is much to be understood about motivations for giving and how to channel them. People are capable of such generosity and yet also such indifference. The furor over Salmon’s piece puts these issues into sharp relief for me.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday, I laid out different ways you could invest $1,000 of discretionary funds:

  • Contribute to a political campaign
  • Invest in a big business (through the stock market)
  • Invest in a small business (through Kickstarter)
  • Give to a nonprofit organization
  • Pool your money to give with others

What determines what’s right for you?

  • How much control you want: do you want to be able to have a say in how the funds are used? To what extent – one time (ask a favor of a politician one day), over time (direct a gift to a specific program at a nonprofit)?
  • How much proximity you want: do you want to be able to see the results of your investment directly, or are you OK with endorsing an interesting idea that happens somewhere other than you live?
  • How much visibility you want: do you want your name on a donor roll or an annual report? Do you want to be seen by other people as having given, like in a giving circle, and hang out with people who’ve done the same thing?

I’m trying to think of different ways to say “impact” without saying “how much impact you want.” Because of research is showing, maybe donors to nonprofits don’t want that.

What else?

    I’ve Got a Theory

    Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

    Continuing from last time about the false dichotomy of service vs. advocacy. Call this one, “Notes for a theory of social investment.”

    You have $1,000 of discretionary money. Your bills are paid, your family’s bills are paid, there are no emergencies in your life. You want to make the world a better place. What can you do with that money?

    • You can contribute to a political campaign: I’ve written about fundraising and campaigning before, wondering what it is the political donor gets out of their donation. Part of it in some (many?) cases is a hope that a certain kind of world come into being, or be preserved.
    • You can invest in a big business: put it in the stock market. There are lots of ways to do that. What does that accomplish? It may make you some money, it may lose you some money. Presumably, you help, um, create jobs or something. Keep the economy strong. But it’s all very abstract.
    • You can invest in a small business: you may want to help your local community. You like the local record store, or church, or coffee house. There aren’t good ways to plunk small, private, one-time change into such endeavors. That’s part of the reason why Kickstarter is so interesting; it opens up that space. I put down $50 to reopen the Parkway Theater in Oakland, a Bay Area favorite where I had many a fun time noshing pizza, drinking beer, and watching a movie or an NFL playoff game. I want the Parkway to exist, even if I don’t live in the Bay Area anymore, because I want the kind of world where it exists. So I do my little part. Through Kickstarter, they send me update on how it’s going (no lease yet – come on, Chengs), and I feel satisfied with that investment.
    • You can give to a nonprofit organization: can make a direct difference in people’s lives. But good luck with getting a sense of the difference the organization makes with it (hint: outputs – meals served – aren’t the same as outcomes – kids kept off the street). Good luck getting communications that tell you about the impact. And so many choices, with not many aggregating sites. No mutual funds, like in investing in business – other than things like community foundations, which in this light may be a good option.
    • You can pool your money to give with others: I’m in a giving circle, and my $365 (or so) per year are leveraged into an annual $10,000 grant. Without my part, that doesn’t happen. And it’s very concrete. I see who benefits, and why that matters.

    What determines which is the best course for you? Part of it is familiarity, knowing that this menu of options is actually available to it. Part of it may be your comfort level with abstractness. If you want more direct impact, a giving circle, hands-on, may be good for you. If abstract is fine, a political campaign or investing in the stock market may work. But the point is, we don’t have a good sector-agnostic theory for what makes a useful social investment.