Wednesday, October 5, 2011

End of Change Charity

After almost two years, this will be the final post on Change Charity. As of tomorrow morning, I am launching my next venture, UnSectored, a group blog of individuals in the National Capital Region working beyond sectors and between sectors for social change. I'll be the editor, as well as a contributor. Check it out, follow myself and the other bloggers there, and let us know what you think.

Thanks to all of you who have followed my writings here. I appreciate your feedback and your dialogue, and I hope that can continue over on UnSectored. There are many reasons I decided to start something new, but primarily I think my thoughts on social change grew out of a charity/nonprofit mindset, and I needed to open up my writings to encompass more possibilities. Social change is no longer owned by nonprofits, nor should it be. UnSectored will explore the ins and outs of these new ways of creating social change.

Again, thanks to all of you who have read these words over the almost two years, and I hope I will not disappoint over on UnSectored. Check it out and let me know if I do.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Change Charity Update

As of today, I am placing this blog on hiatus. I'm developing a new project and I'll be back with more information soon.

Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and commented on these posts over the past year and a half. It has really meant a lot to me, and I hope you have gotten as much out of reading these posts as I have from learning from all of you.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kill Charity, Solve the Budget Crisis?

So, if you haven't noticed, Washington DC is absolutely mad now a-days. (Warning! NYTimes link! Not sure it's worth one of 20!) I don't know if it's the heat making our lawmakers set on economically ruining our nation, or just the normal bipartisan vitriol, but the last few months of budget talk keeps me coming back to the one point in the tax code I know enough about to blog: The charitable deduction.

Since getting into the funding side of nonprofits, I've been seeking out information on the efficacy of the charitable deduction in driving funding to nonprofits and, generally, spurring social change. My interest in this was piqued last December when I read this op-ed from the New York Times (sorry non-digital subscribers!), "It's Time to Re-Think the Charitable Deduction." The author, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, framed the charitable deduction in a different way than I've internalized:
Consider this scenario: Having decided that charitable giving is a worthy cause, the government subsidizes charitable gifts from certain households, and for those chosen to be part of the plan, every dollar donated to a charity is increased by a specified percentage. To qualify, taxpayers must have a substantial home mortgage; the subsidy rate increases with taxable income. Low-income taxpayers receive no subsidy, but donations from qualified high-income taxpayers are subsidized by as much as 40 percent — or more.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’d even mention something so preposterous. After all, why should a family’s eligibility for a donation subsidy depend on whether it has a large mortgage? And why should the government subsidize donations by the rich more than donations by the poor? The idea seems a nonstarter. And it would be, if not for one important detail: it is (approximately) the current law.
I was taught to reject anything coming out of the University of Chicago economics department, but I have to agree with Professor Thaler. Tax deductions and tax subsidies are essentially the same thing, when looking at government revenue. When the government writes off a charitable deduction, they are forfeiting earned revenue. Because the tax code is progressive, the wealthiest people are able to write off the most taxes with their donations, which means the government is forfeiting the most revenue from those donations--essentially subsidizing those donations more than someone in a lower tax bracket. The New York Times (sorry!) Economix blog has some excellent charts depicting these differences.

Additionally, many people who donate never see those tax write-offs anyways. I try to donate about five percent of my income to nonprofits each year, but I have never seen any tax benefit from my donations. I've never written them off because the amount I give is always less than the standard deduction (since five percent of what I make isn't that much), and since I don't have a mortgage, I don't have any real reason to do line-item deductions. I'm assuming many people who give are in my position as well.

This as an issue of democratic fairness alone is enough to warrant reform, but since it costs the government revenue, reform is more pertinent. The government could feasibly re-work the code to collect more revenue without decreasing charitable giving by much, or at all. This could close some substantial holes in the long-term budget.

But, I don't think this analysis of revenue gets at the full picture of the usefulness of the deduction as it relates to social change. Kelly Kleiman concluded in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review post on this topic by saying: "[T]he question here is not, 'Is it good for the sector?' but 'Is it good for social welfare and social justice?' The answer is not clear...but let’s make sure we’re asking the right question."

The charitable deduction is justified by saying the money donated is going to solving social problems the government cannot tackle. This assumes that the government does not create social progress, which is an assumption I do not hold. I think the government can and does create social change and is an important player in the game. While there are issues with fairness regarding the charitable donation, and I think the deduction should be, at a minimum, fair, I think the more important issue is one of effectiveness.

There are clearly some things we need the nonprofit sector for, like advocacy, but there is no inherent reason to say that it cannot provide direct services, like health, to needy populations (see: Europe). If the government fully funded each nonprofit in the country (which it shouldn't), there would be no need for charitable donations in the first place. The Obama administration has created many innovative funding programs that have the potential to have significant lasting change at a broader scale than any foundation.

So, will re-working, or eliminating the charitable deduction solve the budget crisis and stop the madness in Washington? Definitely not. That is going to take way more changes than I know how to blog about. But, the charitable deduction needs to be re-thought and we all need to think a little bit harder about this foundation of the nonprofit sector. Does it make sense to write off donations? Should people give out of altruism and not financial benefit? Does diverting resources from the government hurt our cause more than it helps?

I have some thoughts on these, but I don't know. What do you think?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: July Edition

The July VPPNews issue is out today! Check it out and let me know what you think!


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

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Using Worst Practices

My Google Reader is out of control. It has way too many subscriptions. I also have this obsessive-compulsive thing where I can't let something unread go unread, so I end up consuming a lot of literature (if blogs can be considered literature) on nonprofits and social change.

One thing that bugs me about the resources out there is this obsession with "best practices." Advice-giving blog posts, case studies, and reports usually focus on what makes a good organization good, or what an organization has done to be more effective at something than others. Seemingly helpful for those seeking advice, this deluge of best practices and "overarching themes" makes my eyes glaze over.

Granted, not everyone reads blogs (slash wastes time with blogs) as much as I do. I'm also not running an organization or making major decisions at an organization, nor am I starting my own organization. So all this advice might be taken to heart elsewhere. I think, though, that most of the advice given is too generalized to do much good to "influence the field," as it were. People recommend things (usually through over-used metaphors) like "engage with stakeholders," "think for impact," and (my personal favorite) "have an A-plus team." Does anyone think having a C or B team is any good? Does anyone think that ignoring stakeholders is the way to go?

Social Edge recently hosted a discussion on "Access to Information" for social entrepreneurs, and one of the questions asked was:
Do social entrepreneurs even need resources? Is part of starting a social enterprise figuring it out from scratch? Or is there a way to share resources among entrepreneurs, who are do-it-yourselfers?
My first reaction to this was no, they don't. Social innovation is all about getting out there and mixing stuff up for yourself, going down the path least traveled, creating audacious goals, winning the future, etc etc. Using someone's previous path as a guide might cause some to miss out on important advancements.

But, I went on to think, without shared resources, a lot of people unknowingly will repeat the same mistakes. In the interest in efficiency, the knowledge of these mistakes should be spread far and wide as a deterrent for others. Sharing knowledge and common practices to reduce the repetition of mistakes is a good thing.

The best way to do this, I think, is to not focus on "best practices," but instead focus on "worst practices." Setting out a framework of things that have worked in the past is all well and good, but social change and social innovation needs to be adaptive. One size won't always fit all. Putting the failures out on the table makes it easier to see what went wrong and what to avoid when trying something similar. It is easy to hear a general best practice and think, "Oh yes, I do have an A-plus team," even if you don't. Saying "Oh no, I'd never make that mistake" is a lot harder.

One recent article that I think uses the idea of "worst practices" well is "Letting Go" (pdf), by Kristi Kimball & Malka Kopell of the Hewlett Foundation. The article is about the tendency for funders to be overly-controlling of social initiatives, and why loosening that grip will help grantees and foundations alike. They use several examples of when the Hewlett Foundation didn't do this, and the problems that ensued.

Another publication that I think employs "worst practices" well (to be a little self-promotional) is VPP's Leap of Reason, written by VPP Chairman Mario Morino. Morino uses several examples from his own career to show how not paying attention to an organization's impact can be pretty disastrous.

Generalizations of best practices usually are platitudes that can be easily brushed aside or incorporated into an organization on a surface level without much change. Worst practices are more specific and serve as a warning sign to others journeying down the road of social innovation. Sharing these amongst ourselves will make that trip a lot more efficient and better for all.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guest Bloggin'

Well, dear readers, I've been neglecting you in favor of others. That's right, I've been writing for other blogs. But don't worry, you can still read those posts, thanks to hyperlinks:
Let me know what you think of them!

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: June Edition

Hey everyone!

VPPNews' June issue is out! Check it out and let me know what you think.

  • A profile of Ebony Jones, an 18 year old woman that is working at KIPP DC to gain the experience she needs to open a daycare one day.
  • Mario Morino's column on the launch of Leap of Reason.
  • A video of Paul Carttar, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, talking about the government's relationship with philanthropy. Paul gives an inspiring speech on the potential to create some real change through government partnerships like the Social Innovation Fund and the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative.
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Monday, June 13, 2011

Managing to…What?

Regular readers of this blog (hi mom!) know that I’m not a big fan of jargon. I think it muddles thoughts and distracts from real issues, and encourages isolation within a field. Nonprofit and funding jargon is especially annoying to me because this sector needs all the clear thinking and new ideas it can get. (To read a great piece on this, read “In Other Words” by Tony Proscio. Free pdf here.)

So, when the first draft of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, written by VPP Chairman Mario Morino with essays by several people in the VPP community, came across my desk, I groaned inside and steeled myself in preparation for all the words and phrases that I was sure to encounter: “culture of effectiveness,” “mission measurement,” “human capital,” “performance management,” and of course, “watershed moment.” 

“Managing to outcomes?” I thought. “I’m supposed to help distribute this book (available in pdf for free online, on Amazon for a small handling fee and in Kindle form for $1. Tell your friends!!!) with a title that’s going to get me blank stares. Awesome.”

Reading through the book, though, made me realize I was quick to judge. (I’m a millennial, after all, and I went to a liberal arts school full of snotty liberals.) Yes, “managing to outcomes” is a fuzzy term (which Morino admits in the first few paragraphs of the book), but that’s because what the book is talking about is some fuzzy, heady stuff. Morino and the other contributors have tapped into some very elemental and pressing problems in the nonprofit sector. The book touches on funder accountability, the overhead ratio problem, the need to recruit talented employees, capital stream constraints, technology system implementation, changing an organizational culture, etc. etc. These problems are interconnected, but have no overarching name to describe them. (I guess except for “things that are complicated.”)

The name Morino and the other contributors have given to the solution of these problems is the phrase that caused me panic as someone tasked with distributing it to the outside world—“manage to outcomes.” The way I see it, this book’s underlying message of managing to outcomes is this:

You need to collect the data to figure out how you are doing, and then make changes to do it better. Even if you find you are doing some amount of good, you always need to keep tabs and keep improving.

This is seemingly simple, and if you read the book (which you can get here, here and here—Tell your friends!!) you’ll see that for some organizations, it can be relatively simple and cost-effective in the short- and long-run. In other cases, it will require a complete organizational culture shift, significant investments of time and money, and asking yourself some pretty difficult questions. However, all organizations can begin to “manage to outcomes” in some ways, which shows the potential for this to catch on, and the potential for some real benefits. 

The truth is is that many nonprofits (and funders) don’t know how they are doing, and they don’t know the changes needed to make their programs more efficient and effective. The reasons for this are numerous, but I think they stem from the general feelings about charity as something supplemental to society, and not integral and necessary. Morino is really calling for us all to get serious as a society about social change and get shit done

The words found in this book are the same words that swim through most writing of the nonprofit sector, and I’m realizing that that’s maybe because what we are dealing with is hard to talk about. We all want to get stuff done in the best way possible, we just don’t always know the best way to say it. I’ll always advocate for clearer writing and speaking (who wouldn’t?) but I honestly don’t have better vocabulary for these jargon-y words that keep popping up all around me. I hope as things in the sector become more standardized, jargon will be pinned down and forced into one definition or another. That way, we can move beyond figuring out what we are talking about and start figuring out how to use these words to do stuff better.

I’ll end with a quote from Morino’s post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review Opinion blog, adapted from the book:

We need to rethink, redesign, and reinvent the why, what, and how of our work in every arena from education to healthcare to public safety...We need to reassess where we have the greatest needs so we can apply our limited resources to have the most meaningful impact. We need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving—all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.

It’s not longer good enough to make the case that we’re addressing real needs. We need to prove that we’re making a real difference.

You can’t argue with those words.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: May Edition

VPPNews came out last week. This month, our theme of choice was "funder collaboration." Kind of nuanced and jargon-y, I know, but important. Why is it so important, you ask? Well, check out these highlights:
  • A summary of VPP's youthCONNECT briefing that brought together funders from across the region to discuss a new collaborative effort, which aims to help 20,000 youth over five years.
  • VPP President and CEO Carol Thompson Cole's most recent column, "Leaving Silos Behind," about why funders should collaborate and the different models for doing so. This is a very substantial piece with a lot of important insights. I think it can spark a lot of good conversations. It's what inspired my most recent post on system-wide collaboration.
As always, thoughts, questions and criticisms, constructive or not, are always appreciated. 
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Friday, May 13, 2011

More than Collaboration

Or: What This Really is All About

Something I've been giving a lot of thought to recently is the emerging buzzword (or possibly well-established buzzword), "collaboration." Collaboration seems to be everywhere in the nonprofit sector, and for good reason. I see collaboration and it's often-partnered friend "knowledge sharing" (yay for jargon!) as the real way forward to solve a lot of serious problems and help a lot of people who need it.

Collaboration can take many forms. At VPP, we are deep into collaboration through our youthCONNECT initiative, which has brought together six DC-area nonprofits to work together to try and help 20,000 youth over five years. Pretty big stuff, and clearly we'll need a lot of help to do it, not just from our nonprofit partners, but other funders and government officials. youthCONNECT is funded in part through the Social Innovation Fund, which is supporting a lot of similar collaborative networks across the country and helping the sector move towards a collaborative mindset.

Carol Thompson Cole, VPP's President and CEO, has written about the need for nonprofit collaboration and, most recently, the need for funder collaboration. She says that nonprofits often do not work together and society suffers because of it. Organizations--funders and nonprofits alike--can benefit from what others have learned and most problems the nonprofit sector deals with cannot be solved by one organization. Working together in a true and real way--talking with each other, sharing ideas about where organizations can fill in the gaps of others' work, developing theories of change with other organizations--can start to make a dent in these amorphous "big problems" we talk about.

I may have drunk a little too much of the Social Innovation Fund kool-aid (that's probably the nerdiest thing I've ever written), but I think this is great. Working together makes complete sense in the nonprofit sector, because the goal of the sector is to create social benefit, and that is done most effectively without competition getting in the way.

But, when I stop downing the kool-aid and take a step back, I realize that this trend toward collaboration might be bigger than I think it is. Collaboration might not be an end to itself, but merely a stop along the way of a longer journey. I think this is really about re-defining our economic priorities.

FSG Social Impact Consultant has put out a lot of research on collaboration. They have a lot of good stuff on what they call "Collective Impact," "Catalytic Philanthropy," and "Strategic Evaluation" (all of which expands upon the ideas in this post), but what excites me the most is their work on "Shared Value." Shared Value is the idea that corporations should integrate societal needs into their bottom-line business planning, and that by addressing social needs, corporations can actually benefit financially. It is a radical shift from the typical "Corporate Social Responsibility" work that is usually done by companies. This type of business strategy has companies like Nestlé working with farmers in Latin America to create better irrigation systems for their crops, ensuring a better product for Nestlé and a more stable community for the farmers. This collaborative approach creates value for all parties involved.

This puts a new spin on things for me. To bring business into the mix as a true collaboration partner, not just a writer of checks, really shows how powerful collaboration can be. To have nonprofits, governments and corporations working together under a common theory of change with universal goals and measurement indicators will shift the way our society works. Instead of having a three-way segmented economic landscape--with corporations making money at the expense of society, forcing nonprofits to clean up the mess using money made by the corporations, all while the government oversees everything to make sure no one gets too far out of line--it can be one integrated system with one goal: Make the world a better place.

I "attended" (listened? watched?) a recent webinar (pdf) on Shared Value that had several representatives of FSG's clients on it. In the question and answer session, Tony Kingsbury of Dow Chemicals said that government, nonprofits and business all had an important role to play in creating shared value. The government encourages and enables innovation; nonprofits identify social needs and target markets; and businesses create innovative products to address the needs. (I would argue that government and nonprofits can also play a role in addressing needs through innovation, but that's a discussion for another time.) Extrapolating from Kingsbury's points, you see that each sector has its own role to fill in a collaborative effort. One isn't inherently better than the other, nor is one more adept at creating change. Each is a tool to call on to help get things done. The same with financing: Philanthropic dollars, government dollars, shareholder investment, venture capital all have different places for different things and should be used in the most effective way possible.

Jonathan Greenblatt, in a recent Huffington Post piece on social impact bonds (another very cool tool), referred to this new type of economic collaboration as an "Impact Economy":
[In] an Impact forces are leveraged to enable private gain but also to drive public benefit. In an Impact Economy, cross-sector collaboration is not the exception but the rule, a new mode of serving the national interest.

This is where I think the sector is going, where society is going. I think this is what this is really all about. If we can get to a place where everyone is working together to try and create shared value to benefit society, the world will be a better place.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life on the Margins

The conference season has started, full-steam ahead. If I wanted to, I could probably spend each week this spring and summer in a different city learning about some aspect of the nonprofit sector, social entrepreneurship or international development. But, I don't. Mostly because I hate airports and I can't afford the travel, but also because I've always felt very uncomfortable at conferences.

Granted, I haven't been to that many. I only went to my first big-time conference this year--the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference. It was fantastic, and even two months later, I'm still thinking about the discussion topics and presentations. But, while I was there, I had this lingering feeling that all of these meetings and discussions and talks were kind of a waste of time.

I had a similar feeling my senior year of college. After four years of academia and analysis of social problems, I was ready to get out there and make something happen. I was sick of talking, and I wanted to do. Sitting in a nice conference room in Cambridge, I was loving what was being said, but afterwards, thoughts crept into my head: What's the point of all this? Why should we spend time and resources talking about these things when we should really be putting them towards doing these things.

Well, I quickly dismissed those thoughts, just as now, two years out of school, I realized the role of education and discussion in effective social change. Without sharing experiences, we are all blindly going forward and hoping for the best. Without gathering in one place, we can't learn from each other and find ways to work together. Without discussions, we can't tease out the nuances and intricacies of the problems we are tackling.

So, I'm all for sharing and learning and working together, but there comes a time when we have to go back to where we came from, take what we learned, put it into action, and see what happens. Discussions and talks and keynotes builds an air of certainty and stability around a community or an idea, but really, everyone who has made something work at one time had no idea what they were doing, and decided to try something no one had ever talked about before.

My main (and really, only) criticism of shared learning and discussion has manifested itself in my consciousness as a Groucho Marx joke: "I wouldn't want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member." Sitting in the same room with the same people every year (not saying anyone actually does this, merely using hyperbole to illustrate a point) will only produce the same ideas. If you want to think of new things, you need to push yourself beyond what you are familiar with and go out to uncharted areas of activism and social change. In is in these margins of society where we will find the transformative change needed for society's problems.

And once you live on those margins and find those transformations, you can come back and speak all about it at next year's conference circuit. I'll be there, anxiously waiting to hear and learn from you.
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: April Edition

Another month, another issue of VPPnews. Check it out!

  •  A profile of Veronica Nolan, the ED of Urban Alliance, which places DC high school students into internships. The organization does great work, and Veronica is an inspiring leader.
  • VPP Chairman Mario Morino's column on creating an organizational culture that encourages effectiveness.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Other Other City

I moved to DC about a year and a half ago with a bunch of friends from college. Mostly, we are white, and mostly, we live in the same sub-sections of the city (Wards 1 and 2), which contain a nice blend of low-rent, nightlife, and easy access to transportation. After moving here, I met others my age through the volunteer service I was a part of. Again, mostly white, mostly living in the same areas.

Coming to DC, I didn't realize I was a part of a major demographic shift for the city. The Washington Post reported recently that DC will soon no longer be a majority black city. Gentrification is quickly raising the rent in many of DC's neighborhoods (including the ones I live in) and condos, coffee shops, and high-end restaurants are popping up all over the place. My friends and I can walk safely around places that, ten years ago, we would never think to drive through.

This issue is usually framed as a "black vs. white" debate. (Especially during last election between then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and now-Mayor Vincent Gray.) But this assumption was recently picked apart by an article in the local City Paper called "Confessions of a Black D.C. Gentrifier," written by a college-educated reporter who did not grow up in DC, moved into the city for a good job and cheap rent, and happens to be black. I'm not going to try and outline all of the points of the article here because I won't do it justice, but I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the complexities of gentrification and demographic changes.

The author did offer up a new definition of gentrification, one based on class:
And because we live in a “nation of cowards” (as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it) where perhaps the only thing harder to talk about than race is class, it’s unsurprising that worries about gentrification boil down to white versus black, instead of educated and privileged versus uneducated and underserved.
I've always thought that privilege, rather than race, was the defining characteristic of a gentrifier. My friends and I are incredibly privileged, which gives us the opportunity to try to have it all: A good job, cheap rent, and a fun neighborhood. In this pursuit, we (not intentionally) push out others, less privileged, who have been here longer but do not have as many resources as we do.

But, this simplification does not capture the whole picture of what people my age moving into DC, usually for only a few years before we pick up and leave, are contributing to the area. Many, not all, but a majority, of my friends actually work in the community and are very engaged in trying to make this region a better place. We are all very privileged, but we also are trying to use this privilege to give back.

I have a very good sense of what is going on in the city because I have friends who work on a variety of different issues in local nonprofits.  Most of these people are either in volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, or doing Teach for America, or who have moved into other nonprofit work after completing these years of service. I also remain very connected to the local issues because of my job. The profile of the typical white gentrifier is one disconnected to his or her community, who works in the day and parties at night. This isn't a reality for most of the people I know.

DC is usually thought of as two cities: The Federal Government and the (mostly educated) people it attracts, including the multitude of political lobbyists and contractors, and the "Other City" of usually poor, usually black or Latino long-time residents of the city. (Mayor Gray ran on a platform of "One City" to unify these two sides.) While I do have friends who are a part of that "Federal City," I like to think I'm a part of the "Other Other City," a bridge between the two. I'm not here to work, drink, sleep, repeat, but I also have not grown up here and I'm certainly not a part of the underserved population. I'm not planning on staying here forever (nor are most of my friends), but I want to help make this city a better place while I am here.

My main question is, then, is this any better than the stereotypical gentrifier? I am still contributing to a demographic and economic shift (which is arguably not all bad), even if I am trying to "give back" in some way. Do the negative aspects of my socio-economic presence outweigh the positive benefits of the work I am doing? And if I am only planning on being here for a few years, can I really create any sort of lasting change?

These are questions I ask myself each day. I don't know the answers, and there probably aren't any. I hope this is a discussion we can have, though. It is probably the most important issue affecting this city, and most metropolitan areas. We need to do it right. What do you think?

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

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: March Edition

VPPNews came out last week! Here are some highlights:
  • Mostly, I'm interested in feedback on the redesign of the newsletter. I did this all myself, and my graphic design experience is limited to a semester as opinions editor and a semester in Digital Art. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.
  • An article about VPP's investment two amazing organizations; Urban Alliance and Metro TeenAIDS.
  • A summary of VPP's open discussion with DC Mayor Vincent Gray. He discussed his "One City" agenda and early childhood education. 
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Monday, March 14, 2011


    Sometimes, I forget why I am doing what I'm doing. I work in an office all day, and I rarely see much beyond my computer. I talk a lot of talk about things I think are important, but I don't see those things go into action. Sometimes, I feel like the work I do doesn't go beyond the computer screen I create it on. Sometimes, I think that everything I feel passionate about--social entrepreneurship, growing and strengthening nonprofits and their programs, finding sustainable funding to support social change--are  fads, ideas that only have value because people like me think they work.

    I can feel disconnected working in philanthropy, one or two steps removed from the people who need help. The effects of what I do every day are far removed from the office where I work. The change I help to create is system-wide, and long-term, so I won't see the results for many years. Because of this, I sometimes worry if my work is helping anyone, at all.

    But then, I hear a hear a story of a teenager who stopped doing drugs because of a program provided by one of the nonprofits that my organization supports. I walk down a street near my house and see some kids coming out of a school we help fund. While I'm waiting for the bus, I see an advertisement for a health fair sponsored by another one of our investment partners. Then, I begin to remember.

    Yes, this is corny. But these reminders do help ground me and remember why I'm doing what I'm doing. Talking about "scale" and "capacity building" and "performance management measurement systems" all day long can be tiring. It sometimes disassociates me from the big goal: helping people who need it. Scale really means doing more to help more people. Capacity building means helping organizations serve people who need help better than they were before. And performance management is just a fancy word for making sure things aren't going wrong.

    I don't work in direct service, I never really have, and I don't think I would be particularly good at it. I have great respect for those who do this type of work, but I don't think I have the skills (or the personal strength) to do that everyday. I think I am good at what I do, and I want to contribute as best I can. I wish I could always feel the connection through my work that direct service brings, but I can't. I've started to volunteer at a local service organization, I hope that will further strengthen my connection to my community. It is important to me to have this grounding for my work, and I think this is something everyone who works at a funding organization (local or national) should have. It teaches you about the reality we need to change for the better.

    Without these reminders, we forget easily and lose ourselves in the jargon. So take a step outside and look around. See what impact you are creating.

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

    Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 2

    There’s a lot to say about today’s events at the Harvard Social Enterprise conference, so I’m not going to be able to synthesize it all into one post. I’m hoping some of the other attendees can comment here to add to the discussion.

    The day started off with a keynote address from Willy Foote of Root Capital and his talk was probably the most entertaining of the day. He weaved interesting stories throughout the speech and even ended by pulling out a guitar and singing a Latin American revolutionary song. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.

    Beyond discussing at length the need to support small and medium enterprises around the world, which is what Root Capital does, I think he gave an interesting story of how he came to do what he does, which serves as a useful model for all social entrepreneurs. He said he started the organization out of a combination of intuition and impatience; a worry that if he didn’t start doing what he thought was necessary, it wouldn’t get done.

    The second keynote of the day, Robert Harrison of the Clinton Global Initiative, gave a different perspective on the journey into public service. He worked in the private sector much longer than most before switching to CGI, and he discussed the reasons for that. He told a story about how he worked on the Hill as a college student, and got the advice to go into the private sector, gain technical expertise, and then leave the private sector to “change the world.” He said in the current climate, young people don’t need to do that anymore, and should go right into social entrepreneurial and nonprofit careers. I thought that Harrison’s story was an interesting contract to Foote’s, and shows the many different ways people can get into (and excel in) creating social change.

    Two of the panels I went to, “Accessing Transformative Social Enterprise Capital” and “Emerging and Traditional Legal Structures for Social Enterprises” complemented each other very nicely. “Enterprise Capital” was a discussion of the landscape of the different financing options available to social enterprises, and “Legal Structures” was on the emerging legal statuses out there for organizations. Both seemed to come to the same conclusion: Mission is more important than anything else. First you should decide on your mission and your goals, and then figure out the best financing and structure to help you accomplish that goal. Financing and organization structure are important tools to help you accomplish what you want to do, but they are only tools.

    Related to this idea of prioritizing mission, the “Survival of the Fittest: Leadership and Scaling Up” panel had a great discussion on the role of scale for organizations. All of the panelists agreed that scale should not be a goal in and of itself. Scale should only serve the mission, and if done for the wrong reasons, can actually corrupt an organization’s progress. Caleb Shreve of the Global Fairness Initiative noted that there is nothing wrong with operating “at scale.” If something is working and doesn’t need to grow, don’t push it.

    A theme that ran through all the panels, but was really brought out most strongly by Foote, was the idea of over extending oneself. He noted that Root Capital isn’t doing anything that innovative, it is just taking traditional models of finance and applying them into new markets. He encouraged people not be innovative for innovation’s sake, and instead to do one or two things really well, and collaborate with others to do the rest. I thought that this advice, along with that from the panels I attended, was a very realistic (and humbling) way to look at social innovation and social enterprise.

    On a side note, I also attended a design workshop from the folks at IDEO. I’ve never been a part of design thinking before, and I have to say, I struggled to keep up. We tried to come up with dozens of solutions to health-related problems in India in under 60 minutes. People were thinking of ideas faster than I could process the words being said. I think I’ll stick to philanthropy, for now.

    Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the final keynote because I had to head back to DC. Hopefully someone else can comment on it who stuck around.

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

    Saturday, March 5, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 1

    If there was one theme that emerged from today's installment of the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, it was that the federal government should take on the role of scaling up social enterprises.

    Well, that was a theme that seemed to tie the keynote address on the Social Innovation Fund together with the panel on "Social and Policy Innovation in the Obama Administration." The keynote address featured a conversation with Paul Carttar, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, and VPP's President and CEO, Carol Thompson Cole, which was moderated by CNN analyst David Gergen. The "Social and Policy Innovation" panel featured several members of the Obama administration that work on various aspects of his innovation agenda.

    Something that clearly emerged from the keynote address was that the Social Innovation Fund does not aim to find or create social entrepreneurs,  but to scale up tested and proven programs. Paul said that if they focus on finding these effective solutions to social problems, the right entrepreneurs and leaders will follow. Similarly, the panelists representing the Obama administration discussed how they seek to find innovations where they are--be they policy innovations, technology innovations, or product innovations--and scale them up across the country, and with the case of international development, across the world. Mark Newberg of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Small Business Administration noted that without the federal government behind a particular innovation (he gave the example of LEED certification for buildings), it's hard to create any sort of systemic change. This reminded me a lot of the government-as-an-exit-strategy concept of philanthropy.

    Carol Thompson Cole, in the keynote, gave an interesting glimpse of how the SIF intermediary funders fit into the broader goals for the initiative. This is something I don't think most people have a good grasp on yet, (but, of course, I'm not sure if that's true since I work so closely with this stuff, as VPP is a SIF intermediary), so I think it was good to get that out there. She talked about how organizations like VPP are mediators between the social service subgrantees and the federal government, and how important it is that VPP has committed to five years of its SIF program, youthCONNECT, regardless of federal funding.

    Something that both Carol and Paul discussed, which I've never really grasped before, was the idea that SIF is not just about giving out money to high-performing organizations, but actually advancing a theory of change that isn't typical in the philanthropic or social entrepreneurship field. Paul discussed how he thought SIF would be a success if it can advance the notion of collaborative work towards a shared-outcome framework, either in other areas of the government or in the private world. Carol talked about VPP's commitment to a network for social change, and how this really represents the way forward for the organization.

    Completely separate from that, I went to another presentation with four panelist presenting academic research on the social enterprise sector. I was a little skeptical, to be honest, since it included the word "academic" in the title, but it was fantastic. There was a presentation on what organizations should measure for based on their theory of change and organizational services (which had a matrix involved), a presentation on the efficiency of social enterprises vs. corporate social responsibility vs. charity, a study on impact investing, and a presentation on conscious capitalism that included the question "Can you build a business on love?" (Which I think will be the new question I ponder while I meditate.) Unfortunately, these presentations got pretty close to blowing my mind, so I don't think I'm going to be able to summarize them here.

    All in all, a great, informative, innovative day. Also, the food at the networking reception was fantastic. Harvard knows how to do it.

    More tomorrow.

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

    Friday, March 4, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference

    I apologize for not posting for a while, but it seems that life has gotten in the way of many things for me over the last few months, one of them being this blog.

    But, fortunately, life has now brought me to something very exciting: I will be attending the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference this weekend. Carol Thompson Cole, President and CEO of VPP, will be giving the keynote address on Saturday, so I am going to support her, generally hang out and soak up as much knowledge as possible. I'll be blogging from here, and also tweeting from @jraders and @vppartners. Follow either account to get my minute-by-minute insights on all the amazing things going on at the conference.

    Can't wait to tell you all more!

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

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Shameless Self Promotion: February Edition

    I know it's been a while since I posted on here, but I promise I haven't abandoned the blog. It's been a busy month, which is going to be followed by another busy month, so look for some more stuff soon.

    In the meantime, check out this month's edition of VPPNews. This is an issue I'm particularly proud of and I think it has some very substantial content.

    • An article about the partnership between Year Up National Capital Region, a workforce development program, and Northern Virginia Community College. This partnership allows participants to receive college credit through the Year Up program, which doesn't seem very revolutionary, but is actually trying to reshape the way young people prepare for successful careers. I think this is the most interesting and substantive article I've written since I worked at the Seattle Times. I think this partnership--if it gets adopted as a model--has the potential to create some real lasting change around the country.
    •  VPP Chairman Mario Morino's column on the importance of "organizational culture"--a pretty lofty subject, but he does an excellent job of breaking it down to make it applicable to real-world situations.
    • A profile of VPP's two newest investors--Jeff and Cal Leonard.
    • An article about JPMorgan Chase's support of the performance management system at Friendship Public Charter School.
    • And finally, an announcement from Year Up about their recent partnership with the federal government. Year Up--which places low-income youth, most without a college education, into corporate internships in the region--will begin to place four interns into the US Department of Agriculture. Additionally, two of its alums were also selected to be White House interns, one of whom will be Michelle Obama's sole intern on the "Let's Move" initiative. This news is very exciting to me, and shows that Year Up is leading in the efforts to re-shape the American workforce.
    Hope you enjoy! Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

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

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    The Mountaintop

    I'm a person who thinks in the long-term. I'm not much for process or details, but I think about the bigger picture, the end-game. I like ideas and notions more than I like thinking about how to put those thoughts effectively into action. At one point in my life, I dismissed policy and practice as secondary to the concept they are trying to create, but now I'm beginning to realize how important those details are. If you can't make an idea work in the reality of a situation, it doesn't do anyone any good.

    But I still tend to think of things in the bigger picture. Especially when considering nonprofit and social change work, I always ask myself, where is this going? What are the eventual goals of this work? Will there really be a time where there is nothing more to solve and don't have to worry about all of the problems we face now?

    I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure if that's based in reality. Last week, I wrote a post about the role of philanthropy in the long-term, and Sean from Tactical Philanthropy commented:
    [W]hile I appreciate your goal of "putting yourself out of business", the underlying assumption is that if we work hard enough we can create a utopia where attempts to increase social welfare will not be needed.

    That ain't gonna happen.
    Sometimes, I agree with him. The intellectual side of me knows that there is no way we as a species can reach a point were we have no problems and there is no suffering. The law of unintended consequences shows that no matter how hard we try to solve all the world's problems, any intervention can spawn new problems where we least expect them.

    This intellectual and rational side of me is constantly at odds with the side of me that completely and wholeheartedly agrees with the vision set out by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. He saw a world that was free of struggle and full of love and peace. In his final public speech, "I Have Been to the Mountaintop," he said that he didn't worry anymore, because he knew that one day, somehow, we'd get to that promised land. I'm not one to disagree with a visionary like Dr. King, so I don't know how to reconcile these two opposing thoughts in my mind.

    I think the best that we, as those working to put Dr. King's vision into practice, can do is to create a world that can adapt and solve problems as quickly as they arise. As I said in my last post, that is not what the nonprofit sector does right now. There needs to be many changes to how resources are allocated before we can get to that point.

    This tension between the desire to build a perfect future and the reality that we can never foresee all the problems we will face is a constant struggle for me. But I cannot keep worrying about the future and what it will look like. I need to trust the words of Dr. King that he saw the future promised to us, and whatever it looks like, we will get there. I can only do my small part to build on the legacy left by him. He was not worried on that night before he was assassinated, and so I too don't worry.

    To celebrate the day honoring his memory, a clip from his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech:

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

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Shameless Self Promotion: January Edition

    Another month, another issue of VPPNews. Check it out and let me know what you think.

    • VPP President Carol Thompson Cole's column on redefining "scale." I find this a fascinating take on a concept that is thrown around a lot in the nonprofit sector. She expands the definition to consider not just the number of people an organization serves, but its overall impact on a community or a sector. 
    • A look at the innovative corporate philanthropy strategy of Capital One.
    • A review of the first year of VPP's investment partnership with the workforce development program, Year Up.
    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Turning the Dials on an Outdated System

    I think one of the hardest things for me to deal with in my professional life is that I am making a living off of the misfortune of others. Without the inequalities that exist in our society, the organization I work for would not have a purpose, and I would not have a job. I have a comparatively privileged lifestyle to those I am trying to help and I live comfortably while they do not. If their problems were solved, or didn't exist in the first place, I would not be able to do what I love, and get paid for it too.

    Last week, Lenore Hanisch of the Quixote Foundation wrote a guest blog post on Tactical Philanthropy on its recent decision to spend down all of its endowment by 2017, which resonated with my struggle to be comfortable with my work. Hanisch commented on how the decision to spend all of the foundation's reserves will put her into some personally difficult situations:
    Erik [her husband whose father started the foundation] and I have always been clear in our belief that the foundation and its assets exist for the purpose of progressive work—not to give us purpose. This field can be seductive: when you’re associated with a foundation you’re suddenly always funny and interesting, with people eager to hear your opinions. When the money is gone I’ll not only need a new job, I’ll also be left out of quite a few parties and someday, someone might even admit they don’t like me. In other words, spending everything puts us in a fairly normal situation as far as our jobs are concerned.
    For those that work in the social sector, our goal should always to put ourselves out of a job, otherwise, we are just making money off of poor people. As I learn more about the field, I'm realizing that nonprofit funding is very donor-driven and subject to the whims of major donors and foundations. This creates a capital stream that is fragmented and variable, which doesn't help encourage organizations to focus on long-term solutions to society's problems. Instead, we get caught in a cycle of charity that aims to fill the needs of the underserved, rather than creating large shifts in systems and values. I benefit from this constant cycle, as I will be constantly employed.

    I think the only way I can truly feel good about working the social sector (and, by extension, the whole social sector itself), is to create a shift away from donor-driven cycles of charity. These changes are happening all around with the rise of social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy, but I feel like it is not enough. It is important for foundations to spend down their endowments and for organizations to work on accomplishing goals so they are no longer needed, but this is only one piece of what is needed. To make a true shift away from charity to solutions-driven change, we need to reshape the rules of the nonprofit sector.

    Lucy Bernholz and Steve Goldberg recently had a fascinating exchange about the place of philanthropy in the long term. While discussing the different innovations going on in the nonprofit world (from those great social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropists), Lucy commented that:
    [P]hilanthropy as an industry is "designed" by policies. It is a regulated industry. It is shaped by the rules. And the rules, currently, favor "donor centric, fragmented, etc"... The game itself doesn't change because there are new players - it needs new rules.
    All of the changes to nonprofits that are currently going on, Lucy said, are mainly financial innovations, or business model innovations. Thinking about effective management or outcomes measurement for nonprofits is important and can create some lasting change, but those changes are just turning dials on an outdated system that can't respond effectively to the needs of the population. Instead, we should try to think about the assumptions that the nonprofit sector is built on and change those.

    Developments on this level are the most exciting to me. The creation of L3C's, the growing market for impact investing, and reforming the tax-deductible donation are areas which seem to have the most potential to create some pretty profound systems-wide change. I think that if we can find a way to blend business and philanthropic capital effectively, we could create a capitalist economy that is based on solving society's problems, rather than creating profit. I'm not sure how to do this, but I'm excited to try to figure it out.

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