Posts Tagged ‘impact’

“Off the Menu”

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Thanks to the EPIP-NY chapter and TCC Group for co-hosting a workshop I facilitated yesterday, “Off the Menu: Choosing the Right Non-Grantmaking Roles.” The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation were fabulous hosts.

The focus of the workshop was to help foundation program staff identify non-grantmaking roles that are a good fit for them and their foundation. Such roles include research, advocacy, communications, convening, field building, and capacity building, among others. As the workshop description put it:

As a program staffer at a foundation, it can seem like there is an endless menu of conferences, convenings, site visits, affinity groups, blogs, and publications – not to mention all of the invitations from your grantees. It’s easy to say yes when you’re excited about learning and contributing to the field.  But you also have all the other work you’re expected to do, so how do you determine what’s really important—for your grantees, your program strategy, your foundation’s mission, and your own personal development?  And how do you navigate a supervisor or organizational culture that pushes you to get out there as much as possible—or one that would prefer you to stay chained to your desk?

While you have criteria for making grants, there are few rules when it comes to choosing non-grantmaking activities. How do you prioritize and make the case for those activities that are critical to your job, your foundation, and your personal development? How do you navigate generational differences within your organization to explain what kinds of non-grantmaking roles are worthwhile?

A few things struck me about the discussion at the workshop itself:

  • The range of actors involved in non-grantmaking roles is very broad. While the session was targeted to grantmakers, the diversity of the audience, which included nonprofit leaders and consultants made for lively discussion about what kinds of non-grantmaking activities are genuinely useful. If grantmakers get more into strategic communications, how aware are they of their audiences and what kind of language and terminology resonate with those audiences?
  • Non-grantmaking roles put funders on more of an equal footing with grantees. Without the grant relationship directly mediating the connection, nonprofits and funders have the potential to engage in a more open way. This is far from automatic, however! It requires some intentional discussions, and some recognition among funders that they’re learners in this space.
  • It’s important to balance your ambitions for non-grantmaking roles with the resources at your disposal. One area that several participants gravitated to was making the information funders receive from grantees and their own research more broadly available to the field. But what is the quality of that data? It may sound good to take a more data-driven approach to decision-making, but how reliable and accessible are the data with which you’re working? That doesn’t mean such efforts aren’t worth pursuing, but a measure of realism is needed.
  • There’s a desire for more of this discussion. The internal capacity of foundations is something for which we don’t have a lot of good frameworks or explicit ways of talking about, so it’s easy to make decisions in an ad hoc fashion. By naming the types of capacity that foundations, in particular their program staff, need to play their roles effectively, and how those capacities connect to mission achievement, we can shed light on this underappreciated area.

In upcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about the content of the workshop, in particular the idea that non-grantmaking roles can be understood in terms of how foundations Influence, Include, Inform, and Invest. For now, thanks again to those who participated!


Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.

Does Anybody Really Know what Time it Is?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Which is the title of a classic song from the band Chicago. I’m just back from there, having spent several days at the Council on Foundations conference. I tweeted up a storm, met some great people, and wrote a couple of posts for the conference blog:

Welcome to the (Global) Accountability Class
About self-motivated accountability in philanthropy

Learning: The “Third Heat” of Impact Investing—and All Grantmaking?
About the idea of a “learning return” in impact investing, and how it may apply to all of grantmaking

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

The always thoughtful Starita Boyce had an update on LinkedIn that got me thinking:

Not everyone can give a five-figure cash gift to the endowment fund. But, everyone can gift a life insurance policy.

I put this alongside the fact that Latino and African-American average household wealth is shockingly, shockingly, shockingly low compared to white and Asian average household wealth. Under $7,500 vs. ~$70,000 and up. I mean, what??

I think of Chris Rock’s line, “Shaq is rich. The guy who owns the Lakers is wealthy!”

I think of the story a couple of years ago of entrepreneurs offering a share of their future life income in exchange for an investment in their business.

And of course, there’s the fact that as a percentage of income, those lower on the income ladder give the most.

And it gets me thinking about what I’d call a “personal leverage factor.” What resources can you mobilize through your very existence, your very person?

What Starita is calling on people to recognize is that their personal leverage factor extends beyond income. A middle-class family saving to send two kids to college without much discretionary income for annual gifts to nonprofits (seems like a low personal leverage factor in terms of philanthropy) can have a decent-sized life insurance policy that can be part of a bequest (higher personal leverage factor). It’s a way of saying, how does society value your life? Depressing to think that one can be reduced to a number – or to that number among several others, but what Starita points us to is understanding the full extent of our personal leverage factor.

The great thing about philanthropy and volunteerism is that they extend, or even multiply, your personal leverage factor. (By the way, this is part of why social media are so appealing.) Perhaps this is another measure of wealth.

(This doesn’t even get into interpersonal leverage factor. And I’m sure personal leverage factor has something to do with the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, my two questions. Material for future posts….)

I Would Like a Place I Could Call My Own

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Not actually a song title, but a line from a New Order song called “Regret.” Which hopefully is not apposite.

When we got back home to the Upper West Side on Friday night, it was like nothing had happened. We went to dinner, and the bistro offered a “Limited Post-Sandy Wine List.” As in, they didn’t have quite the usual selection of French wines because of the hurricane, for some reason. (Distributor ran out of gas?) We walked around on Saturday, and it was like nothing had happened. After a week of anxiously watching the news and social media from California where we were delayed four days getting home, we got back, and it was like nothing had happened where we live.

What. The. Eff.

Sunday, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though subway service was only partly back and it took me two and a half hours on public transport to get there, I went to Red Hook to volunteer, because Jesus, how could I not.

I’ve done a lot of volunteer stuff, but it’s almost always been related to the industry in which I work, nonprofits and philanthropy. I did a summer at ConnPIRG in college, where I was the world’s worst canvasser. In a week of knocking on doors, I got one donation – of stamps. I tried hard and clearly cared, so they took pity on me and let me work in the office the rest of the summer. I mean, what else did I have to do.

So yesterday was really one of my first experiences going door-to-door in a looong time.

When I was in grad school, I was involved in a study of associational strategies in Latin America in the post-labor politics era, which eventually turned into this book. I was involved the first couple of years (out of 10) and helped out with getting the surveys done in Chile. The gist was that in most of the 20th century, working-class folks in Latin America had two main venues for getting problems taken care of: labor unions and leftist parties, which were closely allied. There was an associational structure that ran through labor-based parties that helped people in times of need. (Like after a disaster – you see where this is going.) With neoliberal economic reform (Reaganomics in Latin America, crudely) in the 80s, and for other reasons, that associational structure was swept away. People thought NGOs would fill the gap, would create a new “interest regime.” This project tried to figure out whether that actually happened.

The idea that sticks with me in the wake of Sandy is “self-provisioning.” In the field research, we were trying to understand how working-class people solved problems in contemporary Latin American cities (we looked at Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, and Caracas). If they didn’t have labor-based parties to help them get connections to networks and get things done, were they using NGOs, or were they organizing things themselves (“self-provisioning”)?

Occupy Wall Street is self-provisioning. Or rather, Occupy-organized Sandy relief is self-provisioning, built on a structure of particular kinds of NGOs. In the research project, we distinguished between grassroots, community-based groups and professional NGOs. There was a world of difference, at least in Chile. It pretty much applies in the US as well, which I see from working with professional NGOs in my day job. What Occupy Sandy has done, from what I understand and observed in Red Hook, is to layer an Occupy infrastructure, particularly an online platform for attracting young professionals and hipsters, with grassroots, community-based groups. I signed up through a site dedicated to Red Hook, which was labeled as having been put up in part by folks from Occupy Wall Street. Through that, I connected with Red Hook Recovery, which was operating out of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Later in the day, I went over to Red Hook Initiative. The two groups were coordinating and seemed to be dividing up labor between them pretty well.

There were so. goddamn many. white people lined up to volunteer. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was racial/ethnic diversity in the group, but I don’t know how much economic diversity there was. It was a ton of people from outside the neighborhood coming in to help, because like me, they couldn’t not. And I mean literally lined up to volunteer; by the time I switched over to Red Hook Initiative, there was a line around the block at Red Hook Recovery of people waiting for volunteer assignments.

Over at Red Hook Initiative, everything was well-organized, but in an accessible, friendly, kind of chill way. Getting it done, but without any airs. (Type A-minus?) They’re in what looked to me like a former firehouse or garage – I picture a big roll-up door that was now closed. It’s on a corner, and there are two entrances, one to receive meals and get your volunteer assignments, and another to drop off donations and for residents to pick them up. I learned about RHI during my canvassing rounds in the morning with Red Hook Recovery, where we went door to door and asked people what their needs were. (One building had no electricity or hot water, and no one had come by the whole time.) Our team walked by it and it was thronged with people picking up donations. This seemed to be where a different kind of action was.

I asked about volunteering there, and had been told to come back at 4pm, that we would begin delivering meals. I got there around 3:45, and a group of people started gathering. By around 4:20 we were on our way. They said they needed around 50 to 60 volunteers, and they made that easily. We were briefed about what we needed to do, we broke ourselves up into teams, and each got a canvassing sheet. We were delivering dinner to homebound seniors, most of them in public housing. The sheet listed their name, address, how many meals they needed, and had space for us to note the answers to some questions we were to ask, like whether they needed their next dinner delivered (some didn’t), whether they needed medical attention (thankfully no one did), and whether they needed supplies (several did). A charming Irish dude briefed us on the task and how to do it, and off we went.

I’d only ever been to Red Hook a number of years back when the Red Hook Ball Fields food-truck spot was in its early-ish incarnation. They used to just be able to set up in stands around a soccer field, but eventually the city made them set up in more formal trucks/carts for sanitation reasons. We haven’t been back.

This is Red Hook, in the southwestern part of Brooklyn, not far from schmancy Park Slope and basically schmancy Carroll Gardens. It’s an industrial, waterfront/port area, and incongruously, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal is there.


As you can see, it’s right on the water, so it got hit HARD by Sandy. On some blocks of single family houses, half a dozen of them had the waterlogged contents of their basements out on the sidewalk. Families and their friends were going through their possessions methodically, salvaging what could be salvaged and organizing the rest for disposal. We passed by one open basement door, and looking down, the water looked to still be at waist level.

Red Hook is home to the Red Hook Houses, what someone on site claimed are the largest public-housing projects in NYC. Looks like they may be the largest at least in Brooklyn – 30 buildings with around 8,000 residents, the majority of Red Hook’s population. More than half of the buildings were without power on Sunday evening. Thank heaven for the Flashlight app on the iPhone; I sure needed it as our team trooped up and down the stairs. Most deliveries were on low floors, but the first one was on the 12th floor. Good thing I took up jogging again recently! I won’t soon forget the trek up and down the darkened stairway – nor the man who held a door for us, or another heading downstairs who stepped out of the way as we were headed upstairs.

It actually reminded me of working on the survey in Santiago all those years ago. We did two surveys, one of individuals, for which we hired a local firm, and one of associations, for which we organized a team of undergrads to administer them. My colleague and I did the test surveys ourselves. We chose specific neighborhoods in the city, got to know them a little bit, and went out to grassroots organizations to do interviews. Some of them were in current or former “shantytowns”, places where people had self-provisioned and…wait for it…occupied land and just started living there. They pirated electricity and water at first, and some eventually got it installed officially. The feel of the streets around Red Hook Initiative and at the place itself reminded me a bit of the feel of some of the more well-established community groups in the more lower-middle-class (as opposed to working class, though notions of class are different in Latin America) neighborhoods in which we did the surveys. (Lest it be weird that I compare Brooklyn to a “third world” county, when I was in Chile again this spring, I heard on the news that next year Chile’s median income will officially reach that of a “developed country”. The news was reported as no big deal.)

So, we got our meals delivered (to those who were home) in a couple of hours, and went back to RHI to report in. We kept running across other teams on the way in. Lots of activity at RHI as folks who were ambulatory had come in for their evening meal. When we handed in our filled-out canvas sheet, we were sent to talk to a data person before leaving. (This warmed the evaluator cockles of my heart.) We deciphered the hieroglyphics for the nice lady at the computer, and were done. I walked back through Red Hook Houses, which by that point I had crisscrossed possibly a dozen times over the course of the day, and caught the bus to the subway station. A decent number of buildings had lights, and I heard the whirr of generators in a couple of places. One stretch of buildings a member of our team had noticed had white discoloration on the brick walls about a foot or so above ground level. We realized it was probably from salt water, where the level of the floodwater had gotten. And there was always one door where the water could get in to the basement. I thought about a woman we’d visited who had the place like a sauna, because she had been boiling water for a long time to heat the apartment, which smelled strongly of gas. She had said she was about to turn the gas off. I sure hope so. I zipped my coat up against the chill and hopped on the bus.

What I like about this form of self-provisioning is that it built on existing infrastructure. In the middle part of the day, I wandered around kind of aimlessly, looking for something to do between canvassing and food delivery shifts. I had come all that way, I was going to stick it out. In a park between the two organizations, there was a staging area for a FEMA delivery truck. Volunteers (I kept missing the chance to do this part) most likely drawn there through social media by Occupy-connected groups, coordinated by people from the Mayor’s office in orange caps, offloaded water and blankets and staffed tables to distribute them to residents, who lined up under the direction of NYPD and dudes in combat fatigues (National Guard? Army Reserve?) who went with the two camo humvees parked nearby. I also saw one guy in a Red Cross T-shirt. I did some research on disaster relief for a client a few years ago, and this sounds like what it should look like. Coordination, different groups knowing their roles and playing them and getting stuff out to people quickly. I kept missing the chance to help out because the trucks had been offloaded, the lines had moved through, and people had gotten their water and blankets.

Occupy was only a small part of the story at that park, from what I saw, but they clearly helped to get a lot of people out to Red Hook Recovery and Red Hook Initiative to help out. And those folks did stuff that FEMA wasn’t going to do, and that the Red Cross didn’t need to do (they focus on sheltering, generally, anyway).

So NGOs in Latin America may be a different sort of interest regime, emerged in the wake of labor-based parties. Occupy Sandy seems to be a different sort of…kindness regime? Do-gooding regime? Community engagement regime? Whatever the label, I saw it working – not on its own, but tapping a clear audience and turning it out in large numbers to an area that needed the help. I was honored to have done my part.

Now go vote. Electoral politics still matter, whatever the merits of self-provisioning.

#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.

Helping Japan

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

No song-title-for-blog-post-title today…

Remember what we learned from Haiti last year about giving in disasters:

  • Give cash, not goods. (Because where do you store the goods, who decides who gets what – it adds another layer of complication for first responders and recovery workers who are overwhelmed enough as it is.)
  • Support organizations that have existing relationships on the ground. It makes the process more efficient and means that more relief gets their sooner.
  • Give to the long-term recovery effort, not just immediate relief.
  • Be OK with the fact that because of what it costs to have an effective on-the-ground response, your dollar now may get into the field weeks or even months later, or on another disaster. Relief orgs need revolving sources of funding, and it’s not like you’re going to say, “no, don’t help those other people in the next disaster.” It’s like providing general operating support, give the organization that’s proven its ability to get help to those who need it the latitude to use the funds in the most effective way.

GiveWell has an interesting take (hat tip to the Foundation Center, whose post is also worth reading). They’re saying (as of last Friday) “hold off on giving for now” because it’s not clear what the needs are. They also suggest that local presence is not as important in this disaster, because most international groups don’t set up shop in wealthy countries.

And here we come to the crux of disaster response as a field. (I did some research in this area for a client.) One important definition of a disaster is a situation that overwhelms the ability of the local authorities to respond. In the U.S., a disaster can be “declared” by the President, which allows federal resources to go in. But they have to be invited in; the governor of the state has to request that relief.

The American Red Cross has only just been asked to help. They made their first donation, of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society, today. This is as it should be. It’s up to the local authorities to determine what help is needed and when.

And this brings us to another principle that may be emerging from the current situation:

  • Pay attention to what local authorities are asking for. Have they invited international organizations in? Are they asking for specific kinds of help? Who’s in a position to provide that help? (See the previous principles). Obvious caveat for non-democratic regimes; when Burma was hit by a cyclone, giving to NGOs with strong local presences made sense – local authorities weren’t necessarily trustworthy.

I know this doesn’t sound easy, but hey, how often is what’s right really easy?

Stay tuned, keep paying attention, look for the right opportunity to give. (But give!) You’ll be glad you did, and so will the people who benefit on the other end.

Another Brick in the Wall?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Taking a brief break from all-Egypt-all-the-time here on DPQ…

Great piece by my friend Ilyse Hogue in The Nation about what’s behind Wisconsin (and now Ohio, and sadly soon to be others). She makes a powerful point about the unfortunate dichotomy in nonprofits and philanthropy between “service” and “advocacy”:

The nexus of service and advocacy is a powerful place to stand: simultaneously addressing direct needs and advocating for systemic redress of those needs is a winning equation for progressive power….

As a young middle-class adult, my work at the local food bank or homeless shelter was commended. However, I was taught this was charity and completely separate from my political organizing. Each had a place in my life, and each had completely separate stories, peer groups and institutions associated with them.

Even the word “service” is a damaging vestige that artificially separates providers from those seeking assistance.

This is critically important: the dichotomy Ilyse puts her finger on is very real in the nonprofit world and among the foundations that support them. And yet, when Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant looked at 12 high-performing nonprofits (in what the Economist called “one of top 10 best business books of the year,” emphasis added), they found that the “service” organizations discovered that beyond a certain point, rather than expand (or “scale,” in the current parlance), what they needed to do was focus on changing the structural conditions that made their services necessary. Even within the most “mainstream” of texts, the link between service and advocacy – or the falseness of the dichotomy became evident?

What would it look like for service and advocacy to not be so separated? As I’ve asked previously, what can fundraisers learn from political campaigners? The tools for breaking down silos are more prevalent than ever; let’s get to work…..

Empire State of Mind: What’s the quintessential New York foundation?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Back to the song titles for post titles. Great issue of New York magazine this week, all about what’s the quintessential New York…fill in the blank: athlete, musical, building, TV show, etc. They got panels of celebrities and experts in each area to debate; half the fun was reading people debate what criteria to use – tenure, attitude, level of success, etc.

Which got me thinking, what would be the quintessential New York foundation? Of course there’s the New York Community Trust, but a community foundation is too easy. And New York is such a global city – is it Ford, or Rockefeller, players on the global stage? How about Open Society Institute, featuring a living donor who moves between spheres of influence – finance, politics – in a way that resonates with this town that’s the center of so many things? Is it Bloomberg’s anonymous-but-not-really largesse that until last year was funneled through the Carnegie Corporation? Or is it the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the scrappy upstart carving out a space in the shadow of a big kahuna?* Or the North Star Fund, raising money from the community to give to grassroots, social-justice causes, reminding us of the New York that most of its 8 million people inhabit?

There were two criteria that stood out for me from the New York magazine articles: that when you describe it in a single sentence, you have to use the word “New York” (by that light, Seinfeld is the quintessential New York TV show); and/or that it has to be the best at something (by which criterion Babe Ruth is the ultimate New York athlete). For a New York foundation, I’d say that you want something that captures the grandeur and ambition of the city, the sense of being at the center of it all and yet interested in everything. I’ll cop out for the moment and say that I don’t know that there’s one foundation that really captures that right now. If anything, Cory Booker’s efforts in Newark, funded by Zuckerberg’s $100 million announced on Oprah are more of that scope. Maybe Bloomberg when he rolls out his family foundation after leaving office will have that swagger. Once Jay-Z name-drops a foundation in a remix of “Empire State of Mind,” we’ll have our answer….

*Wow, that was a lot of incompatible images in one sentence.

(Disclosure: the giving circle of which I’m a part, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, has had its donor-advised fund housed at both the New York Community Trust and the North Star Fund, and I’ve worked with Ford, Rockefeller, and OSI funding at an intermediary and/or at my current job.)

The missing leg of the stool

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday: “varieties of capitalism” teaches us that there are different ways to organize a modern economy. The German model, what Hall and Soskice call a “coordinated market economy,” feature a relatively high level of coordination between firms, capital, and labor. They’re able to develop high-quality, labor-intensive goods because each takes a risk knowing that the other is taking a complementary risk.

In the U.S., the high-quality good of strong nonprofit evaluation/learning practices is not frequently produced, and one reason may be that that three-way coordination doesn’t happen. Nonprofits, foundations, and clients/the public aren’t coordinated in the same way. Foundations are rarely patient enough to support high-quality evaluation, nonprofits can’t count on stable financing to do it, and most crucially, nonprofit clients (and workers) don’t have clear incentives to participate in high-quality evaluation.

(I know that just earlier this week I distinguished between monitoring and evaluation. I’m using “evaluation” here to mean those practices of continual learning that allow a nonprofit to understand its environment, its product quality relative to that environment, and make adjustments to its resource allocations.)

There are some different ways to address this. One would be to make it easier for clients and nonprofit workers to gather and analyze evaluation data. This is improving the tools (SurveyMonkey has done this). That mitigates a disincentive, but doesn’t necessarily provide an incentive. Another way is to make evaluation data available to those from whom it’s gathered. This is improving the feedback loop (again, web-enabled tools, including SurveyMonkey, make this more easier). This provides somewhat of an incentive, because you see that your contributions actually result in something. But to have a really positive incentive, there has to be a connection to the person’s life and own interests. And that comes from a clear articulation of the nonprofit’s mission and a strong communication of its value added to its clients and workers. People need to be able to see why having a nonprofit that’s better able to learn is better able to serve them.

And that’s where I feel the real challenge is. It’s a missing piece in what could be a greater form of coordination among nonprofits, foundations, and the public to produce the kind of evaluation data that would make it easier for all involved to know that the work being done was having real impact.