Monday, August 30, 2010

The Toolkit

I'm frequently annoyed with the blanket lionization of the nonprofit sector. When I stumbled upon this video on the industry, via Tactical Philanthropy, called "Know Your Sector,"  I was expecting inspirational music and wide-reaching facts about how the nonprofit sector employs one in ten people and generates $1.1 trillion every year. And that is exactly what I got:

The video (which was produced by Philanthropy Reports) presents a very broad picture of the nonprofit sector, which I felt was not as inspiring as the music that went along with it. Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy blogged about the video, saying it could help address the issue of the greater public's "ignorance of the nonprofit sector," but I do not see any real value in an education of the greater public on how many people are employed by one type of organizational structure. A similar movie could be made about the for-profit sector, or the governmental sector, which would most likely be very boring or very funny, depending on who made it.

Many times, I talk with people who clearly conflate the nonprofit sector with "doing good things" or "saving the world." As this video makes clear (although I doubt that was its intention), there are many nonprofits out there doing very bad things. It states that the sector is diverse, and covers organizations from the Sierra Club to the NRA. I personally think (but know there are those who disagree) that the NRA is one of the worst organizations in this country doing things that are fundamentally against social progress on many different levels. However, the head of the NRA and I are both included in the statistic that states "one in ten people work for the nonprofit sector." I do not like to be grouped-in with anyone who works for the NRA.

I will tell another story to illustrate my point: When I was job searching, I scoured job postings daily on like they were my ticket to salvation. (And judging the current state of the economy, they turned out to be just that.) I came across one posting for an editor position at a magazine dedicated to the promotion and well-being of cats.

Again, for emphasis: Cats.

My friends and I talk a lot about selling out, and when I saw that job posting online, I knew if I applied to it, I would officially be a sell out. But, that magazine was a nonprofit and it could post on Idealist. Working for that organization, I would have felt like more of a drain on society than at most corporations. Especially since I would probably have been able to make more in the corporate world and then donate more to charity.

My point is to not argue about which nonprofits are doing "good" or "bad" or "nothing at all," but to show that there is nothing special about the nonprofit sector. Do not limit yourself to thinking that only nonprofits can do good. At this place in time in our history, I feel like the nonprofit structure is the easiest organizational type to use if you want to create social change, but others are quickly adapting. (If you want to learn more about an interesting cross section of this transition, check out recent developments at Unitus and SKS. A good summary and analysis is here.) Even consumer goods manufacturers can be creating social change.

If you are looking to "change the world," nonprofits are only one option in your organization toolkit. Don't limit yourself to thinking they are the only thing in there. As I've said before, they are typically the most adaptable organizations working on the ground to solve problems and tend to be at the front of social issues, but there is nothing inherent in the tax structure that makes them better at working for social change than another type of incorporated organization. This is not a particularly profound conclusion to draw, but an important one to keep in mind.

Edit: Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy responded to this post. You can see our back and forth here.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Friday, August 20, 2010

Managing Fate

Throughout my life, I’ve been guided by the words of many. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Warren Buffett’s op-ed in Fortune, coming off of the heels of the Giving Pledge announcement. In the piece, titled “My Philanthropic Pledge” he discusses the main reason behind his vast wealth: Luck.

He writes:
My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I've worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate's distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.
If you haven’t read the op-ed yet, do. It’s probably the best rationale for philanthropy and giving back that I have read. As I continue on in the nonprofit sector towards the broader goal of social change, I think it’s important to take a step back and think about why I am doing what I am doing—why we are doing what we are doing.

To steal from Buffett’s imagery, I am motivated by fate’s capricious nature. I agree that our market system is generally the best way to serve the most, but it does produce distorted results. Market failures allow some to come out far ahead of others for no real substantial reasons. Philanthropy helps repair those failures and allows the system to run as smoothly as possible.

Some people (meaning, me) would say that philanthropy is the most important part of a true capitalist society. Funding social service organizations helps mitigate the inherent flaws in our system while still working within that system. It attempts to make capitalism function as perfectly as possible to leave no one behind.

Some people (meaning, not me) have argued against the Giving Pledge, saying that it is undemocratic or it will cost the government too much money in foregone taxes and ultimately stifle social services. I think these arguments are silly and do not recognize that nonprofits are probably some of the most adaptable and responsive organizations working to improve the lives of people in this country and others. But I also think these detractors from the Giving Pledge—and probably some cosigners on the pledge themselves—miss an important point about what they are talking about.

As I see it, the Pledge—and to extend it out a little further, all of philanthropy—is about social change, righting wrongs, dealing with market efficiencies, a redistribution of wealth, whatever jargon and talking points you want to use. But what is important to remember is that there is no set way to accomplish these end goals. There is no unification of approach or strategy on how to get where we need to go. There isn’t even an agreement on if philanthropy is the best way to accomplish sweeping social change, as the rise of corporate social responsibility and for-profit social enterprises have shown. If you spend a little time exploring the nonprofit conference circuit (which I just recently have started to do), you’ll see that there’s a lot going on and a lot of disagreement.

So, I’d like to use this blog’s space in the ether from now on to explore those disagreements and those changes as I explore them myself. I am young, if you did not know that already, and I have a lot of exploring to do. I would love to know more about your explorations and I would be honored if you listened to mine.

I hope that, through these documentations, the approaches and strategies to that end goal—managing fate—can become a little clearer.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Social Innovation Fund Round-up

Update 8/12/2010:
Adin Miller has been generous enough to compile a huge list of Social Innovation Fund commentary, going back to May of 2009. Check it out.
End update

I know this isn't the most exciting first post back, but I've been tracking and compiling commentary on the recent Social Innovation Fund announcement. As you can see from the posts at the bottom of the following list, things are getting a little interesting, so I thought I'd share this "round-up" with the general public. I'll come back to this and update as things develop, adding at the bottom. Post go in chronological order and the original SIF announcement can be found here. Please, if I've missed something, let me know.

I've got some more posts lined up so I promise I'll be back soon with something more exciting.

Background (not comprehensive):

The Economist:Let’s hear those ideas
           -Excellent overview of the SIF annoucement, puts it in broader context of the social innovation/social entrepreneurship movement. Compares British and US efforts.

Tactical Philanthropy:  “What exactly is the Social Innovation Fund?

Tactical Philanthropy: “Why the Social Innovation Fund Matters

Tactical Philanthropy: “My comments on the Social Innovation Fund

Adin Miller’s Blog: “Analysis of the Social Innovation Fund Update


Tactical Philanthropy: “Social Innovation Fund Announces Grantees
           -Initial coverage, positive of the overall choices “The Social Innovation Fund Grants Focus on What Works
           -Initial coverage, critical of choices, laments choice of intermediaries with established records, rather than riskier start-ups

JustMeans:  “First Social innovation Funds Grants Announced
           -Initial coverage, critical, agrees with analysis

Education Week: Social Innovation Fund Grantees Announced
           -Initial coverage, disappointed education award winners don’t focus more on younger youth

Tactical Philanthropy: “Builders, Buyers and the Social Innovation Fund
           -Response to post, defends choices, says government is working on building capacity, not “purchasing” social services

Adin Miller’s Blog: “Analysis of Social Innovation Fund results
           -Very in-depth analysis of SIF grants, including link to data sheet. Echoes issues raised in, concerned about funding “what works.” Also brings up issues of transparency.

SSIR: REDF Leverages First Social Innovation Fund Grant
           -Testimony from award winner. Defends funding of intermediaries, talks about adding value to funds and leveraging

Adin Miller’s Blog: Where’s the Capital Market for the Social Innovation Fund?
           -Reiterates transparency concerns about SIF

Non-profit Quarterly: Questions of Transparency Cloud the Social Innovation Fund.
           -Brings issues of transparency into the center of SIF debate. Strongly attacks Obama administration as being hypocritical

Adin Miller’s Blog: “Transparency Lessons the Social Innovation Fund Should Learn from the Investing in Innovation Fund
            -Discusses NPQ article and re-iterates SIF transparency concerns. Compares SIF process with i3 (Investing in Innovation Fund) process and states SIF should follow i3’s example.

The Corporation for National And Community Service: “Summary of FY 2010 Social Innovation Fund Selection Process
            -Responds to NPQ’s requests for more transparency. Outlines some of the processes behind the grantmaking decisions.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “National Service Grant Agency Explores More Open Grant Process
             -Covers the CNCS’ response to issues of transparency. Unnamed official states the CNCS is looking into a more open grant process for the FY2011 and states they will release all of the 11 winning organization’s applications in a few weeks

The Nonprofit Quarterly: “Social Innovation Fund Disclosures Good But Insufficient
              -Responds to Chronicle article and CNCS annoucement. Calls for more transparency and the release of all applications, including those not selected for grants.

Money and Mission--The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “The Social Innovation Fund's Challenge: Helping Nonprofits Survive Failure
             -Overview of the whole Fund, discusses the risky process of innovation and the need for constant evaluation and learning

PND Blog: “A Networked Approach to Social Innovation
           -Discusses the Fund as a networked and collaborative effort

Andrew Wolk’s Blog: “Social Innovation: The Next Chapter
           -Discusses the mainstream acceptance of innovation, but raises concerns that the strategy will turn into a buzz word with no real meaning

Washington Post: “Stonewalling at the Social Innovation Fund
           -Written by Paul Light, a reviewer of SIF grants. Highlights extreme concerns with transparency. Calls out one unnamed organization as being “rated as weak and nonresponsive in a first-phase review, but won a grant anyway.” In comments, Steve Goldberg defends the process and calls out the rhetoric used

Adin Miller’s Blog: “Why do we care about the Social Innovation Fund?”
           -Responds to the Post op-ed. Highlights concerns about loss of SIF credibility as well as potential Congressional oversight.
Tactical Philanthropy: “Transparency Controversy at the Social Innovation Fund"
         -Details the transparency debate and asks for reader’s opinions. States SIF is too important to screw up.

Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Social Innovation Fund Stirs Controversy
         -Contains response to transparency issues from SIF administrator the Corporation for National and Community Service. States that the reason they cannot release more information and unselected applications is because they did not tell applicants they would do so at the beginning of the process.

Steven Goldberg: “Open letter to Nonprofit Quarterly
         -Responds to NPQ’s “Social Innovation Fund Disclosures Good But Insufficient” article in incredible detail. Provides evidence as to why claims of wrongdoing and deception on SIF’s end are incorrect.

New York Times: “Nonprofit Fund Faces Questions About Conflicts and Selection Procedures

Tactical Philanthropy: “New Profit Releases Social Innovation Fund Application

Nonprofit Quarterly: “CNCS Says the Social Innovation Fund Will Release Ratings

Geri Stengel: “The Power of Social Media: The Social Innovation Fund Increases It’s Transparency

Adin Miller: “What Should the Social Innovation Fund Do Next?

Steve Golberg: “The Social Innovation Fund Kerfuffle

Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Sharing What Works

Seliger and Associates: "Social Innovation Fund Not Terribly Innovative"

The Examiner: "Questions Arise as Millions in Federal Grants Got to Former Employers of Obama Administration Officials"

Tactical Philanthropy: “Next Steps for Social Innovation Fund: A Call to Action

Dana Goldstein: “The Personal Connections and Small Government Ethos Behind Obama’s Social Innovation Fund.

Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Amid Concerns of Favoritism, Federal Officials Disclose New Details on Selection Process
       -Contains Paul Light’s response to the release of the applications and ratings

Social Velocity: “Beating Innovation to Death

Tactical Philanthropy: “Social Innovation Fund Repository

Transcript of SIF Twitter debate

Empax: “Leading by (Wrong) Example

Ventureneer: “SIF Debate Generates Transparency, Recommendations for Future

Tactical Philanthropy
: “How the Social InnovationFund Selected Grantees

REDF Blog: “Be the best of whatever you are

Philanthropy News Digest:Conversation with Matthew Bishop

Steve Goldberg: “SIF Intermediaries: More Drops in Fewer Buckets

Matt Klein: “The Next SIF ‘Controversy’

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners