Reading Roundup: Philanthropy – 6/29-7/5/11

Welcome back from the holiday weekend.  So many noteworthy philanthropy pieces this week…

1) “Scaling Up” in a Time of Scarcity: Some Experiences, Observations, and Caveats

in 3 parts (1,2, & 3)

Gara LaMarche at Intrepid Philanthropist

In brief: This superbly written speech is brimming with comments worth quoting at length…

Notes on scaling:

…it needs pointing out that scaling isn’t for everyone and every issue… when we speak of scaling up we are mainly speaking of initiatives that address big societal challenges, like education, health, and housing, where an approach can tested, improved and proven on a manageable basis and where having done so, given the huge scope of the challenge, it is appropriate or even imperative to extend the benefits much more widely.

Notes on innovation:

…what is often really the case is that the old ways were never really given a chance to work, or that the lessons learned in earlier times have been forgotten or even trampled over by ideological assaults.

Notes on scaling and government programs:

…impact and effectiveness are often no match for the pull of inertia and tradition, of patronage and politics, and evidence alone has never been enough to win the day. What, therefore, do we need to do to communicate more effectively about proven programs? To build the missing constituency for effectiveness?”

Especially check out LaMarche’s comments on playing both partner and adversary to the US government, during both the Bush and Obama administrations, in post #2.

Concluding notes:

I think some of us fear that if we use plain language or speak from the heart, we won’t be taken seriously… But we don’t need to abandon the high road to get the details right. We can do both. Rigor and moral clarity need not be in tension. They are mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent.  It’s fine for us wonks to talk about scaling and metrics, but let’s keep that in the family. To build the missing constituency for what works requires us to understand that evidence does not drive policy unless a compelling message is there…. The only way we can achieve impact at any scale is if we become a movement for change, combining proven metrics and effective programs with communications and advocacy efforts propelled by a shared vision and story of who we are, what we’re trying to achieve, and why the change we seek is vital to the lives of real people in every community.

2) Streamlining Charitable Advocacy and Lobbying Rules

Meredith Brodbeck at National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

In brief: Brodbeck points to Larry Ottinger’s recent “Bringing Nonprofit Advocacy Rules and Culture into the 21st Century” report (PDF).  Noting that 1970′s regulations to limit non-profit lobbying haven’t kept up with inflation Ottinger recommends indexing limitations to inflation going forward and eliminating the $1m cap for large organizations, replacing it with a 5% of expenditures.  Ottinger’s report also recommends Independent Sector’s remedy lifting some limitations on private foundations and their grantees.

“What is needed is a paradigm shift, one that makes participation by foundations, charities and their constituents in the democratic process an ‘ordinary, not extraordinary’ part of the sector’s identity and activities.”

My 2 cents: The current regulations create a chilling effect on most non-profits who either don’t take their 501(h) election to lobby for legislation or don’t take full advantage of it.  Any regulatory relief on this issue is welcome, but won’t address the other major constraint on non-profit legislative efforts: capacity limitations.  Even if foundations and non-profits were freed up to lobby more, how will the field provide them with the resources to do so?

3) More on Philanthropy’s Natural State of Underperformance

Sean Stannard-Stockton at Tactical Philanthropy

In brief: ” …unlike voters or customers, beneficiaries of philanthropic efforts have no mechanism by which to hold philanthropists accountable.”

My 2 cents: I’ve been thinking a lot about asymmetric information flows between grantor and grantee.  Stannard-Stockton is talking about a feedback loop missing in philanthropy that exists, to differing degrees, in markets, politics and evolutionary systems.  Non-profit grantees are understandably fearful of criticizing their benefactors, “biting the hand that feeds them.”

It’s really too bad.  As intermediaries between grantors and beneficiaries, they have deep knowledge of both sides of that equation.  I think it would be exciting to uncover incentives for foundations to get unfettered criticism from their grantees.

I’ve been looking at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report as one such mechanism.  I’ve asked Sean and his readers for their thoughts on this project.

Reading through the comments also pointed me to Brigid Slipka’s excellent post, Define Failure In Terms of Beneficiaries, Not Donors.

4) Fear of Failure: An Obstacle to Change

Dione Alexander at Money and Mission

In Brief: “Change capital is to the nonprofit world what venture capital is to the for-profit world. It is money that can be used for excellent growth opportunities and to incubate innovation… nonprofits are often rewarded for their ability to effectively produce more of the same even if there are potentially better opportunities on the horizon.”

5) The Glass Filing Cabinet: What the Packard Foundation is Learning about Learning in Public

Paul Connolly at Transparency Talk

In brief: “Rather than scrutinizing Packard’s data on our own behind closed office doors, we are facilitating a “learning in public” process through which we are sharing early research findings widely and encouraging input… How can philanthropies create better filters for seeking commentary when most people actually might not be that interested in poring through all of the information in those glass filing cabinets?”  Connolly’s group, TCC, is using a combo of wikis, social media and convened dialogues in their open evaluation.

My 2 cents: Commendable approach to radical transparency for philanthropy.  Some operational notes: Wikis aren’t great for dialogue.
It’s great to see that they’ve enhanced your wiki with more immediate communications fora, like discussion groups and social media channels. Wikis are great places to create flexible banks of  “canonical knowledge,” which is to say – find patterns of consensus truths among your participants through dialogue, and later fit them into your wiki taxonomy.  You can then target appeals to stewarding the wiki to your most active participants.  Caveat: wiki UI’s aren’t the most user-friendly, so staff time is invaluable in that stewardship – keeping the structure clean and navigable and participants trained and supported.

6) Building Relationships in Public Policy from the Ground Up

Matt Mendenhall at Re: Philanthropy

In brief:

As preparation to enter the public policy arena, community foundations first educate themselves regarding the true limitations as well as the misconceptions about limitations to public policy work. If the term “public policy” creates mental blocks (”we can’t lobby”), using other terms-such as “civic leadership”-may help to expand perspectives on what is both possible and appropriate.

7) Two-Thirds of Nonprofit Executives Plan to Leave Jobs Within Five Years, Study Finds

Philanthropy News Digest

In brief: Quick overview of the key numbers coming out of the recent CompassPoint/Meyer “Daring to Lead” (PDF) report, including the headline statistic.

8 ) Adaptive Philanthropy

Susan Wolf Ditkoff at Tactical Philanthropy

In brief:

I’m intrigued by the questions that adaptive philanthropists are asking. For example, an adaptive strategy requires clear but flexible definitions of what success looks like, for whom, and what is known or assumed about the problem – but not a rigid roadmap of how to solve it. An adaptive strategy articulates clear criteria and a screening process for what will and won’t get funded (guardrails if you will) that help philanthropists quickly assess and decide among emerging opportunities – without succumbing to random opportunism or mission drift.

My 2 cents: An excellent, succinct post, worth reading every word.


Leave a Reply